By Caroline Dipping
Chunky or smooth. Roasted or raw. Mouthwatering or mouth-searing.
A bowl of salsa on a family table in Mexico is an essential part of the meal. It is spooned onto everything from breakfast eggs to dinner’s grilled steak, but as a dip for tortilla chips? Never.
Walk into just about any Mexican restaurant in the United States, and you can bet your burrito you’ll be offered a bowl of salsa with an overflowing basket of warm tortilla chips.
For such a ubiquitous condiment on both sides of the border, salsa is anything but ordinary. In the hands of some local restaurant chefs, it can be downright high end, as much a cornerstone to a meal as any other component.
In Spanish, the word “salsa” means “sauce.” In Mexico, it is a condiment made of fresh or dried chilies that is a staple at every meal. In the states, where it eclipsed ketchup as the No. 1 condiment in the early 1990s, salsas can contain all manner of fruits, veggies and spices, and be dipped, dunked and doused freely on everything from baked potatoes to fish to tortilla chips.
“There is really no right or wrong way to make and eat salsa,” said Cesar Gonzalez, owner of Mama Testa Taqueria in San Diego. “We want to show our customers there are no rules. If you like it, it’s a great salsa.”
To that end, Gonzalez plays with the ingredients. Sometimes he fries, stews or grills the vegetables and peppers. Occasionally, he will introduce a tropical fruit such as mango. Just as often, he chops everything up raw for a salsa cruda.
“It’s authentic in the sense that we created them,” Gonzalez said. “They can also be off the wall, but everything we do is based on flavor.
“Salsa is like wine. You need to know what to pair it with to bring out the optimum flavor.”
Norma Martinez, executive chef of El Vitral Restaurant and Tequila Lounge in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, grew up eating salsa every day in her Tijuana home. She’s not worried that salsa has become too Americanized and has lost its roots.
“Things need to adapt,” she said. “People can sometimes create things and make them better.
“I believe with salsas you can do infinite combinations. It’s something we all grew up with, and it’s a chance to change or adjust the flavor in a dish. It’s a wonderful complement for Mexican food.”
Martinez makes six salsas every day to accommodate different palates, from a refreshing pico de gallo to a fiery habanero “for people who like to cry while they’re eating,” she said. Her roasted tomatillo salsa strikes a middle ground, a nod to diners who want depth of flavor without the blowtorch.
Martinez, who was classically trained at the Instituto Culinario de Mexico in Puebla, Mexico, says color is often her guide when she creates a new salsa.
“I’m really visual, so I have found that by combining colors, the flavors kind of work themselves out as well,” she said.
For example, her adobo-marinated salmon tacos pair well with her salsa verde fresca. Her reddish smoky chipotle salsa is a perfect foil for asado tacos with beef that has been marinated for two days in beer until it takes on a dark hue.
“People know the traditional ones,” she said. “Now, salsas have the opportunity to have a big variety and range.”
Nobody knows about variety and range better than Cesar Gonzalez. At Mama Testa’s, his well-stocked salsa bar showcases at least eight formulas every day.
Gonzalez figures he makes about 3 gallons of each salsa every weekday, and at least 5 gallons of each on weekend days. Although he has the recipes written down and guards them jealously, he has to tweak the formulas occasionally to accommodate the natural ingredients.
“Jalapenos don’t have the same spice, depending on the weather and where they are grown,” he said. “Six ounces in a salsa one day might be super spicy, but tomorrow, not as much. You have to be true to the ingredients first.”
Among his offerings are La Escalera, made of smoky morita peppers and tomatillos, a nice accompaniment to red meats; mango and papaya salsa for seafood dishes; La Luna, a medium-heat sesame seed-speckled salsa that Gonzalez insists pairs well with rolled tacos; and a tomatillo and parmesan cheese salsa fresca that goes great with chips.
Last year, when Mama Testa celebrated its fifth anniversary, Gonzalez wanted to have an “American Idol”-style contest in which customers could vote to retire two salsas and choose two new ones to replace them.
“It never got off the ground,” Gonzalez said. “My hard-core customers said they would stop coming here if we retired any of the salsas. They wouldn’t even try the new ones.
“It would be like stopping going to McDonald’s because they changed the ketchup. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
As much as Gonzalez wants people to experience salsa the way it is eaten in Mexico, he does not cringe when people dunk salsa into chips. He welcomes it as a vehicle for people to try flavors new to them and the varying nuances of Mexican food beyond the heat.
“I want to taste the flavors,” he said. “Most Mexican salsas are going to be using peppers that hit you in the back of the mouth instead of the front.
“If the heat hits you in the front of the mouth, you lose the taste of the food,” he said. “You want to be able to take three to four bites before you start to sweat.
“That is what I like. I don’t want to burn my mouth on the first bite; then the whole meal is just grub.”
For Marcela Valladolid, local cookbook author and host of Food Network’s “Mexican Made Easy,” salsa was always on the family table growing up in Tijuana. Valladolid said her mother never served tortilla chips with salsa, but they were ubiquitous on the tables in Tijuana restaurants.
“You have to have something to do with all those stale tortillas,” she joked of the chips’ origin.
Fresh or cooked tomatillo- or tomato-based salsa at meals was “an absolute requirement for my dad and brother,” she said during the taping of the second season of her show. However, her mother cooked seasonally.
“If the weather was hotter, we had uncooked salsa. If we were having grilled fish or steaks, the veggies in the salsa would be roasted to make them deeper and sweeter,” she said. “Honestly, whatever was in season and looking awesome at the supermarket that day, that is what my mother would use to make salsa.”
Isabel Cruz, cookbook author and owner of six Latin-inspired comfort food restaurants including the new Barrio Star in Bankers Hill, is on a campaign of sorts to educate diners about Mexican cuisine’s diversity and quality. That includes salsa not being given as a freebie at restaurants.
“Mexican food isn’t just fried things with yellow cheese on it,” she said. “When you get into different regions of Mexico, there are so many diverse sauces and salsas.
“It would be like comparing the food you get in Southern California to something you get in Georgia.”
Cruz says no matter what flavor profile a salsa has, it is only as good as the fresh, premium ingredients that go into it.
“The future of salsa is the same as the future of most foods,” she said. “Everything is about people getting into where their food is coming from.
“Mexican food, like salsa, is made up of basic ingredients that can be so fresh and pure and honest. It’s going to go that whole farm-to-table way. It’s very conducive to that.”
Caroline Dipping writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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