Should a town be measured by the integrity of its salsa? If so, Tucson succeeds to the highest order.
There are recipes that have been passed down for more than five generations in this city that has only officially been part of the United States for a little more than a hundred years.
Salsa is part of Baja Arizona’s collective identity. Baja Arizona has an eclectic heritage and its evolution from Native American, to Spanish, to Mexican, to U.S. occupancy has influenced the cuisine of this region in many ways. Salsa remains a staple.
The Spaniards (who had never seen a tomato before arriving in the Americas) first encountered a sauce made with chiles and tomatoes when the Cortez expedition conquered the Aztecs in the early 1500s. The rest of the world leaned about salsa (the Spanish word for sauce) from the writings of a Franciscan friar named Bernardino de Sahagún who lived with the Aztecs for more than 60 years, documenting their food and culture.
Europeans brought the cilantro, along with other herbs and spices not native to the New World, and time, necessity, and creativity contributed to salsas common today.
So, what makes it salsa? Chiles for sure. Tomatoes mostly, but not always. Onions and garlic usually. And tomatillos or other fruit, on occasion. Maybe some citrus or vinegar. It’s not a lot of ingredients, so the devil is in the details. The chiles can be raw, or roasted, or grilled. Tomatoes, fresh or canned. Green, white, or red onions … or scallions.
When I first moved to Tucson from Ohio in 1993, one of the first adventures I went on with my husband-to-be was a quest for salsa. We scoured the isles of the new-to-us Southwest Supermarket searching for brands we’d never seen before. When we asked a Spanish-speaking woman standing next to us what brand she preferred, she said, “I like Pace.”
Pace is perfectly fine, but we wanted something a little more … local. And we eventually found it. In the deli section, actually. They had the best fire-roasted pico de gallo salsa I’d ever had. Southwest Supermarkets are gone now, but amazing salsa remains a constant in Baja Arizona restaurants and taquerias, markets and homes.
I’ve collected a selection of salsa recipes from local chefs and salsa artisans. There are classic salsas from two of Tucson’s oldest Mexican restaurants, El Charro and Lerua’s; a farm-fresh salsa using locally harvested cholla buds and saguaro seeds from Bean Tree Farm; a roasted pico de gallo from Adela Durazo’s Poco Loco Specialty Salsas, a favorite local farmers’ market vendor; a classic red blended salsa from Penca Restaurante; and a blackberry salsa from the new wave salsa queen, Maria Mazón of Boca Tacos.
I found the tortilla chips pictured with this article at Tortilleria Arevalo, a farmers’ market stand conveniently located right next to Durazo’s.
The Flores family has been serving salsa since El Charro opened downtown in 1922. This version comes from their newest endeavor, Charro Steak. As you might expect, based on the source, this salsa pairs exceptionally well with grilled meats.
Penca’s salsa is so addictive that people claim to drink it like some kind of chunky veggie smoothie. It’s a classic blended red salsa with a medium kick of heat.
Every year around this time chile roasters show up outside grocery store entrances and in the parking lot of farmers’ markets. If they aren’t available preroasted, chilies are now available in the frozen foods section of most grocery stores as well.
At Boca Tacos, Chef Maria Mazón serves up a selection of up to six unique and ever-changing salsas each day. I watched her invent this spicy-sweet blackberry salsa in mere minutes.
Hearty cholla buds add a bit of heft to this salsa, and native seeds add some crunch. Aloysia (oreganillo, or little oregano) is a tasty aromatic desert herb that thrives at Bean Tree Farm. A great plant for your desert garden, it’s available at Desert Survivors nursery, a source for many other desert edible plants.
Dried cholla buds are sometimes available at the San Xavier Co-op Farm and Native Seeds/SEARCH. If you want to use fresh cholla buds and barrel cactus seeds, you’ll need to learn how to harvest them yourself, which you can do through Desert Harvesters.
Lerua’s chef and co-owner Mike Hultquist Jr. says, “This recipe was started by my grandmother Carmen Hultquist when she purchased Lerua’s. She wanted to use tomatoes year-round, but they would can tomatoes to have when they weren’t available. So this recipe was made using what she had on hand. The most important part of the salsa is using the natural juices that come from the tomatoes as well as the juice that is created. Using canned tomatoes means you have more juice, which makes this salsa much more delicious than a salsa bandera or a pico de gallo. (Which is why, in those cases, people usually add tomato juice).”
Jackie Alpers is an award-winning professional food photographer and cookbook author based in Tucson. She is a contributor to publications including the FoodNetwork.com, NPR, National Geographic, and Glamour.com