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Colorful, casual El Chile’s roasted-jalapeño salsa is the best in town, dark as chocolate and just the right thickness to coat a chip; while not terribly hot, it’s not for wimps. A few months ago, Las Manitas created a terrific spicy salsa that blends chile de árbol, tomatillo, garlic, and onion; now everyone is requesting it at the lively cafe. At Evita’s Botanitas, connoisseurs settle in for half a dozen serious salsas—ranging from an oniony green tomatillo-serrano number to an almost bitter red roasted-jalapeño—in the little dining room with its crazy-quilt colors and countless tchotchkes. It’s doubtful that there is a better green salsa in town than the one at raucous, hip Güero’s, an alchemist’s brew of cilantro, tomatillo, lime, and jalapeño; the wallop-packing, puréed fresh-tomato-and-grilled-chile sauce is no slouch either. The star of the salsa bar at El Caribe, a neighborhood joint with dude-ranchy-looking booths from a previous occupant, is the mahogany-colored roasted-jalapeño-and-tomato, but its four or five fiery brethren aren’t far behind.
As seductive as Nuevo Leon’s sleek interior in fashionable Oak Lawn, its warm, nubby salsa achieves excellence by balancing tomato and cilantro flavors while providing just enough chile heat to make it intriguing. The thinner, blended version at hip Primo’s, in Uptown—with its mix of tomato, onion, garlic, lots of jalapeño, and a little cilantro—will please those who like it hot. Why settle for one when you can have a duo of salsas? Slick, edgy Taco Diner in trendy Uptown double-doses patrons with a deep-reddish-brown concoction that blends piquant guajillo and chipotle chiles as well as a cool, creamy sauce of minced cilantro, tomatillos, and mild, roasted green chiles. Blue Mesa, with its stucco, Santa Fe look, pleases the throngs crowding into its Belt Line Road location with another pair of winners: The darker salsa, with an intense smoked-tomato flavor, is punctuated with a hint of roasted chiles, small chunks of onion, and minced cilantro; the cooler, lighter one consists of fresh, coarsely chopped tomatoes and onions with lots of black pepper. The homey cottage that is La Calle Doce, an Oak Cliff reliable, woos with a warm tomatillo-green chile sauce and its contrastingly fiery companion, a thinnish, slightly chilled tomato salsa with plenty of minced onion, cilantro, and jalapeño.
At Tacos Santa Cecilia, which looks like a fifties burger joint, the three table salsas—pico de gallo; roasted tomato, onion, and chile de árbol; and roasted onion, garlic, and jalapeño—are impeccably fresh and range from hot to hotter.
Cowtown’s two best salsas can be found at Esperanza’s bustling bakery and cafe on the city’s historic north side. The more traditional one is a smooth, robust red tomato, onion, and cilantro with heat from jalapeños. You may have to request the other salsa (just ask for “la otra salsa”), a rustic, earthy blend of crushed tomatoes, lightly cooked onions, and plenty of mild chile powder. Very similar to the more traditional tomato version at Esperanza’s is the table salsa served around the corner at its landmark parent restaurant, sprawling, friendly Joe T. Garcia’s. With a superb balance of heat and lime, this bold tomato-onion-jalapeño blend is just the tiniest bit sweet. For those who like a bodacious burn in their salsa, it’s a short drive to quaint, unpretentious El Asadero, where the soulful purée packs a powerful jalapeño punch. Milder without being timid, the super-chunky lime-spiked salsa—coarsely ground onions, jalapeños, cilantro, and tomatoes—at no-frills neighborhood favorite La Familia disappears almost as soon as it’s poured into each diner’s individual bowl.
Of the myriad salsas vying for the best first impression in Houston, the one at relaxing, traditional Otilia’s is tops. It’s an aromatic garden of just-plucked jalapeños, onions, cilantro, and tangy ripe tomatoes, whirled to a thick purée, and it tastes just like Mexico. The salsa at fancy, inner-loop Rustika Café & Bakery is similarly sublime but devilishly spicy, a smooth mélange of uncooked tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, and cilantro that adds electricity to the cafe’s stellar Mexican breakfasts. Retro Spanish Village also starts right with tongue-stinging red salsa, a full-bodied tomato type starring jalapeños and their seeds. Sneak past the young-and-crazy bar crowd at upscale, Spanish Colonial El Tiempo and start your meal with its trademark green salsa, originally created by owner Roland Laurenzo’s mother, Ninfa Laurenzo. Roland’s version is a creamier, more luxurious potion of puréed avocados, sharp tomatillos, garlic, cilantro, and kicking-fresh jalapeños. The most-exotic award goes to the pineapple salsa flecked with jalapeño and cilantro at El Pueblito, an adorable restaurant with hand-painted booths and many Mexican crosses; the lush back patio, with its candles and tiki torches, is a happy-hour hot spot.
At El Mercado, a large family restaurant in north Laredo, the dark, smoothly blended salsa of roasted tomatoes and anchos is bitter and smoky and improves just about everything you put it on.
RIO GRANDE VALLEY
Stewed thick, like a gumbo, the obligatory quartet of tomato, jalapeño, onion, and garlic makes up one of two excellent table salsas at Poncho, a sprawling modern hacienda anchoring a vast parking lot in Pharr; the other is a savory tomatillo-cilantro mix with chunks of onion for bite.
If there is salsa in heaven, it will surely be La Fogata’s blend of tomatoes and roasted serranos (it’s so delicious you want to drink it); the restaurant’s palm-and-banana-tree-fringed terrace is a tropical retreat. In the past few years in Texas, the skinny red chile de árbol has gone from obscure to mainstream, making its mark in superior salsas across the state, such as the complex salsa (with tomatoes, tomatillos, and more) at shirt-sleeves-casual Guajillo’s. Glossy Acenar is a paragon of contemporary design, but its great, coarsely blended salsa of roasted tomatoes and jalapeños hews to tradition and, surprisingly, is mild enough to eat by the spoonful. You’ll find yourself asking for refills of the rustic breakfast-and-lunch salsa at inviting El Mirador, set in a thicket of banana trees; the brew is an attention-getting blend of seared fresh jalapeños with accents of tomato, garlic, and cilantro; the dinnertime roasted jalapeño, poblano, and chipotle salsa is great too. Chipper little counter-order spot Beto’s should bottle its irresistible “Caesar Chavez” salsa, roasted jalapeño brightened with raw onion and tomato.
See the Directorio for directions to any of these restaurants.