After the rigors of returning from another European tour, there’s only one local staple that easily allows giving up the palates of continental cuisine and stomaching a 20 hour flight: salsa de sonora.
My first tortilla found me in 1970 back in Pennsylvania when my high school buddy Steve Pino’s mom plopped one in front of me. It was covered with melted butter—no sign of salsa yet.
When the floodwaters washed me to Tucson a couple of years later, my first discovery of the stuff was at Casa Molina. It instantly began mixing with my DNA.
It’s a clever and insidious program to offer up chips and salsa so far ahead of the meal, when hunger reigns rampant. That’s how it begins. Before your butt hits the chair, the salsa hits the table, and the chips begin to dip themselves.
Thus begets the long lineage of salsa investigations for years to come. It’s beguiling once realized that every restaurant offers unique family recipes. It will take decades to follow this trail.
Once I got my driver’s license, we discovered El Dorado on South Fourth Avenue, with $1.25 burros as big as adobe bricks. El Minuto was another great stop back before the remodeling, serving up its lava plunk. The trail then headed us for a long spell to The Crossroads in South Tucson when they offered curbside dining. Once we could order beers, we discovered how they never soothed the singe of the salsa spoink—not even the mysterious XXX cerveza found back then.
We migrated for awhile to the Hacienda II, south of the freeway on Sixth Avenue; that was with Rainer. Eventually we found a new joint called Rosa’s in the strip where Bentley’s is now on Speedway. Another pretty hot tongue teaser. We followed them when they first moved next to De Grazia’s little gallery on North Campbell, and eventually to where it is now on Fort Lowell Road. And then finally realized we were so far north and too far from home.
Along the trail, La Indita on North Fourth Avenue nailed us back when my 26-year-old daughter was still in the belly. And that salsa hooked us bad. Some say the secret is the cilantro, but I think it rests in the hands of Paco, the artisan dishwasher who’s been making it for forever and a day. When we were living a block over from El Charro downtown, we occasionally tolerated the tourists there, and wanted to believe they really did invent the chimichanga.
Maybe it’s because I’ve perfected the art of “lazy bastard,” but when a new source of salsa perfection was detected closer to home, it has held me to this day in its relentless grip. Conjured by the Davila sisters at the little Cafe Poca Cosa, that stuff has the power to tear me away from the best of what Europe has to offer.
And it’s not just me. I constantly tease my Euro visitors here in town with the stuff, knowing full well they will head home with severe salsa withdrawals. It has such mystical powers embedded that when Sandra asked me to invite Bob Dylan to dinner back in 2006—to which I retorted a vehement “impossible”—I soon found out that nope, it wasn’t. He came for the salsa.
It’s the stuff of legends, that salsa. It satisfies like nothing else. It tears up the eye returning home after every tour, and not because it gets in the eye, but how it delights the tongue.
Dripping little white shirt salsa stain…long may you run. ✜
A Tucson resident since the early 1970s, Howe Gelb has become an elder statesman of free-wheeling Americana. A genre-defying genius and bonafide local treasure, he lives with his family in Barrio Santa Rosa. Gelb has released some 40 albums. His newest, The Coincidentalist, was recorded in Tucson with contributions from Thøger Tetens Lund, Steve Shelley, M. Ward, the Silver Thread Trio, Bonnie Prince Billy, KT Tunstall, Jon Rauhouse, and Andrew Bird. Look for it Nov. 5.