Like any self-respecting Mexican, Chela Sanchez considers her mother's cooking the best.

Like any self-respecting Mexican, Chela Sanchez considers her mother's cooking the best.

When pressed to recommend a local Mexican restaurant, Sanchez puts one food on a pedestal.

"You judge the quality of a Mexican restaurant by the beans," she says, explaining that if a cook can't get the traditional side dish right, there isn't much hope for the main course.

Enter "Battle of the Beans," the third annual fundraising feast for Chamber Latino Network's scholarship program. Guests who pay to dine Saturday in Ashland will judge the area's best Mexican food and help send local Latino students to college. More than $250,000 have been awarded to 77 students under the program since 2003.

"If it wasn't for them, some of these kids would not be in school," says 24-year-old Filiberto Bencomo, one of the first scholarship recipients and now coordinator of Latino programs at Rogue Community College.

Mexican eateries have donated their cuisine, wagering its appeal, for the event since 2007. Although the favorite business will take home the title of "top frijole," the meal goes beyond beans. Participating restaurants have pledged pollo and carne asada tacos, enchiladas Jalisco, adobada and chicken tostadas, papas rellenas with plantain chips and more.

A perennial favorite is La Tapatia's taco bar, Sanchez says. A Phoenix fixture since 1992, the Mexican grocer installed a restaurant 12 years ago that promotes itself solely by word of mouth, says general manager Jose Bugarin. Customers see their food cooked to order at the valley's lowest prices, Bugarin says. Yet it's quality that really sets La Tapatia apart, he adds.

"It's an explosion of authenticity, and that's a really diluted word these days."

Meats are marinated for up to two days, each bathed in its own combination of spices, many of which are imported from Mexico, Bugarin says. The same proteins are available for purchase at the store's meat counter. Housemade corn tortillas form foundations for tacos and also can be taken home in bulk.

La Tapatia operates with a family-based staff, including Bugarin's parents and his uncle and aunt, who co-own the business. Lacking education themselves, his parents, Bugarin says, are committed to the cause for younger generations. He obtained a master's degree from University of Oregon while his brother graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University on full scholarships.

Students of Oregon schools are eligible for Chamber scholarships. They make periodic progress reports and are required to perform community service. Chamber Latino Network is an action team of The Chamber of Medford/Jackson County. For more information, call Sanchez at 541-301-1944.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.