Young and Hungry

Saturday Night Tasting Club: Hot on the Trail for a Decent Salsa

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Click on charts to enlarge.

The Shitheads convened Saturday night for the first of what we hope will be numerous Tasting Clubs in which we compare and rate (mostly) local products in the same category. Since lead Shithead Jim conceived the club, he deemed that we'd launch our endeavor by passing judgment on salsas.

It was a good and easy choice, and I say that despite the fact that Jim, Shithead Carrie, and I have, in the past, served as guinea pigs judges at the annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival — and have suffered the gastrointestinal effects of the same. But there we were, six Shitheads stuffing our faces with chips slathered in hot sauce until our taste buds were reduced to ashes. We had a ball.

We also had a lot of pumpkin ice cream to cool our tongues.

I'm not sure how much we ultimately accomplished with our debut Tasting Club. Opinions were all over the place on our highly random collection of salsas, and Shithead Lou refrained from sampling any salsa with cilantro, since he has an aversion to the soapy-tasting herb. Plus, we were drinking beer, tequila, and pumpkin martinis, which couldn't have helped our concentration.

Jim brought salsas from Canales Deli at Eastern Market, H Street Country Club, Super Tacos, Rosa Mexicano, and Mixtec. Shithead Lou brought salsa from Cactus Cantina as well as commercial sauces from Pepper Dog and Pain Is Good (the Jamaican-style, which is listed on the chart above as "ringer.") I visited the 14th Street corridor and bought salsas from Taqueria Distrito Federal and La Molienda as well as a commercial Goya sauce from the Panam supermarket.

Notes Shithead Jim via e-mail, after the fact:

I included salsas that are not commercially available because I wanted to answer the question, Who in this city makes a decent salsa? Because I have found so many salsas here so disappointing, I generally just make my own. By disappointing, I mean either bland or heatless, but many heatless. (Flavor is the low bar; matching it with some heat — as they do in salsa capitals like New Mexico and Texas — is the thing.)

"Decent," by the way, was the operative word. None of the salsas received from me (or anyone else, I think) the top grade of 5. I feel bad that some important salsas were not included, most notably those from Cantina Mexicana, which I think makes a commendable (which is to say, both flavorful and, dammit, at least hot-ish) table salsa and Taqueria Nacional. But the point wasn't to include every salsa in town. Neither I nor anyone else can round up everything. Nor is that the point. There is nothing definitive per se about The Tasting Club. It is just a chance for like-minded friends to get together, have a good time, and begin — not end — the search for good locally made products.

With that said, the winner in the red sauce category was the one from Canales Deli, a fresh salsa with lots of chopped up tomatoes and onions. It earned top honors despite the fact that my first two bites tasted as if I had eaten rotten vegetables. To paraphrase the Witch Scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: It got better. But I still had to downgrade for those initial bites. (Incidentally, the blue bar on the charts represents the mathematical average, based on a 1 to 5 rating system, while the black line represents the variance between highest and lowest scores.)

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Distrito Federal's flavorful cooked-tomatillo sauce won the green category, which required me to call owner Luis Marroquin, who promised to share the recipe if he won. He didn't know that he was dealing with a food writer when he sold me the salsas, so when I phoned him today, Marroquin was slightly taken aback. But he still agreed to share the recipe, which is as follows (for approximately one cup of green salsa):

5 tomatillos

1/2 medium-sized onion, thickly sliced

4 jalapeños, chopped (and seeded if you want less heat)

3/4 bunch of cilantro, cut off about 2 and 1/2 inches of the stalks, then chop the rest

1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped

1 tsp salt

Place all the above ingredients in a sauce pan filled with 1 cup water. Cook the ingredients for about 15 minutes over medium heat or until the tomatillos turn a dull green. Remove from the heat and let cool for about 15 minutes.

Take all the solids from the sauce pan and put them in a blender. Then pour about 1/2 cup of the cooked liquid into the blender and puree. Add more liquid until you achieve the consistency you desire.

Garnish the finished sauce with fresh Mexican cheese and serve with tortilla chips, homemade if possible.

Thanks to Shithead Lou for compiling the Excel charts.

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