In our city’s Mexican restaurants, it can sometimes seem like there is an official decree: When you reach for the salsa, the options will be red or green. Roja and verde may be the default, but they represent only a portion of the vast salsa continuum.
In Mexico City and throughout the country, almost any vegetable, fruit, nut, or seed has at some point been whizzed into a salsa, reflecting a colorful battery of styles, heat levels, and applications. One thing is for sure: There is no meal without salsa.
In NYC, the high-end Mexican restaurants tend to be the ones that extend their salsa line-up. For the immigrant-owned and -operated joints, the two-color approach is standard, though not always a handicap—red and green are actually broad categories in and of themselves.
Here are five of the best salsas you’ll find in Mexico City, and where to track them down in NYC.
Salsa macha is fierce. It’s an oil-based salsa that recalls Chinese-style chile oils served at dumpling joints. Dried chiles like morita, mulato, chilipín, arbol, and pasilla are slowly fried in fat to deepen the flavor and leech their fire into the oil; the key is to stop the process just before the chiles become acrid. Nuts, seeds, and garlic are also toasted into the mix to add rich, nutty complexity. Throughout Mexico City, you can find the little pots of amber with ebony dregs waiting on taqueria tables. Give the salsa a good stir before drizzling the oil, blackened bits and all, onto your next bite.
Where to find it? Xilli, a salsa company from ex-Pulqueria chef Nacxitl Gaxiola, is making a victorious brand of salsa macha with chipotles and peanuts.
Salsa borracha, or “drunken salsa,” takes its name from the boozy addition of pulque, a maguey-sap beverage that adds a pop of fermented flavor and a bit of viscosity to the condiment. This salsa is relatively mild, and it’s commonly made with fresh citrus (orange or lime juice), raw onion, and dried pasilla chiles. Some taquerias stir in a bit of crumbled fresh queso before sending it out with hot tortillas.
Where to find it? True pulque is almost impossible to find in the United States. Chef Roberto Santibanez replicates the flavor at Fonda with beer-laced salsa borracha, which he pairs with slow-braised lamb tacos.
Salsa de Cacahuate
Cooked salsas pureed with nuts develop a wonderfully rich, silky texture. Almost tahini-like, salsa de cacahuate—typically made with peanuts, and sometimes sesame seeds—is emulsified to creaminess, creating a fine pairing for simple, grilled-meat tacos. At Tacos Manolo in Mexico City, a dribble of the pastel-orange salsa de cacahuate on beef tacos may be bland to the eye, but it sets off explosions in the mouth.
Where to find it? Empellón Taqueria and Cocina both offer a smoked-cashew salsa with a similar smooth texture and nutty, smoky flavor profile.
Salsa de Tamarindo
The dark, sticky flesh of the tamarind plant adds a certain luster to blended salsas, making it an apt partner for smoky chiles. Salsa de tamarindo is a powerfully delicious agrodolce-style salsa; the tart pulp of the fruit partners with piloncillo brown sugar and chipotle chiles. It’s especially great with a mixiote taco—chile-rubbed beef, goat, or sheep, swaddled in parchment and steam-roasted. The electric zip of tamarind and the low, burning heat creates multiple dimensions of flavor.
Where to find it? Cafe el Presidente in the Flatiron is serving a salsa that combines tamarind and chipotle with hibiscus flowers. It’s custom-made for the crispy fish tacos, but it’s on the table so you can squirt it on anything you like.
Most tightly wound fine-dining chefs would have a small aneurysm looking over the station of Don Cuco, a man who run a popular taco stall in a Saturday-only market that operates in the Cuahutemoc region of Mexico City. There are scraps of sausage and warped tortillas strewn about, the cutting board is hacked to bits, and clumps of meat cling to every surface. But it’s hard to quibble with his salsa cocida, a cooked salsa of tomato, onion, and habanero. The condiment starts out raw—a hash, really—then breaks down as it cooks. At first glance, it almost looks like a pile of watery pico de gallo that you’d flick off any self-respecting taco in the States, but eat it and taste the concentrated, cooked-down tomatoes and so much loaded heat that your mouth will be aching the entire bus ride home.
Where to find it? Most salsas rojas in NYC are technically salsas cocidas because they are cooked; however, this salsa of chopped raw vegetables, flash-cooked during service, does not exist in New York City. We’re still waiting on this one…