“For me, salsa is hot-weather food,” says chef Nancy Beckham, who has created a naturally sweet, tropical interpretation of the traditional Mexican tomato-and-chile sauce for her restaurant, Brazos, in Dallas. “I remember my grandmother’s house in the summer—she never turned the oven on,” says Beckham. “Everything was raw or cooked as little as possible. Salsa is cooling because the flavors are so fresh. It has always been popular in Texas; we’re just seeing it used differently.” There are so many new variations of salsa on Southwestern menus, partly because today’s young chefs don’t confine their cooking to the boundaries of a map. They are exploring the lesser-known cuisines of Indonesia, the Caribbean, and Mexico and discovering vivid flavors that depend as much on freshness as on technique. Fiery, forthright salsa is one of the most versatile of their borrowings. No longer just served with chips as a prelude to a Tex-Mex meal, salsas are at center stage, bold accents for foods—grilled meat or fish—with flavors too intense for standard accompaniments.

The word “salsa” translates from Spanish as “sauce,” but that’s not quite accurate. Less than a sauce and more than a garnish, salsa falls in the middle. Recipes vary from region to region and from cook to cook. There are fresh salsas, cooked salsas, red ones and green ones. Some are a smooth purée, others a casual mixture of coarsely chopped vegetables. The classic Mexican table sauce, salsa cruda is a combination of fresh tomatoes, onions, chiles, cilantro, and water. The Sinaloa version calls for scallions and lime juice instead of onions and water, and in the Yucatán, orange juice is used instead of water.

Salsa experts, including the formidable Diana Kennedy, suspect that the possibilities are endless. Recipes vary, depending on what is available. If you add a little garlic to salsa cruda and cook it for a minute, it becomes salsa rachera. If you substitute tomatillos for tomatoes and decrease cilantro, it’s salsa verde. In fact, the familiar thin red-tomato-and-pepper blend is making way for a rainbow of variations in Texas restaurants. In Dallas, Crockett’s Lakeside at Lincoln Centre serves a black-bean salsa, while Blue Mesa offers yellow-mango and pale jicama versions. Green New Mexican-style salsas are almost as common as red ones.

Michael Bomberg, the executive chef at the Fairmount in San Antonio, tops grilled fish and meat dishes with salsas like his pineapple-green peppercorn bled. He points out another reason why salsa is such a chic menu item: “Grilled fish with a flavorful salsa is a lot healthier for you than a steak drowning in béarnaise sauce. Plus, you don’t have to compromise on taste. You don’t get the feeling that something’s missing, like you do with low-fat foods.

“The whole style of salsa is different, too,” he continues. “A classical sauce, such as a demiglace, goes through complicated processes—steeping, reduction, and straining—over and over. Salsa is more spontaneous. It’s barely cooked, and the texture is crisp and chunky.”

The popularity of the Fairmount’s food proves something else: Salsa is now at home in more-formal surroundings. Dallas chef Dean Fearing’s yellow-tomato salsa on a lobster taco, featured in The Mansion on Turtle Creek Cookbook, is a classic. Robert Del Grande’s roasted-tomato salsa is served with scallops and beef filet at Houston’s Cafe Annie, and smoked-tomatillo salsa tops grilled Gulf snapper at Stephan Pyles’s Routh Street Cafe in Dallas. Hilltop Herb Farms in Southeast Texas puts out a line of salsas that combine chile fire with the sweet spices of Southern chowchows and relishes.

Salsas are the centerpiece at Austin’s Seis Salsas restaurant, where customers serve themselves. There is a flavor for every taste, from the simplest pico de gallo of chopped serrano chiles, tomatoes, and onions to an exotic Veracruz-style sauce made with chipotle peppers. In between are two salsas verdes—a mild and tangy one made of tomatillos and chiles and a fierce dark-green version loaded with minced serranos. A tomato-based salsa and a brick-red salsa roja made with red peppers round out the collection.

With all the variations and influences, the question inevitably comes up, How do you define a good salsa? Bomberg’s answer: “The best salsa is a balance of contrasts—hot and sweet, creamy and crunchy, smoky and tart. It’s an attitude food, lending a whole dish a bright, exciting character.”

Nancy Beckham’s Salsa Creole Cruda, Recipe
Nancy Beckham’s Spicy Avocado Salsa, Recipe
Michael Bomberg’s Cucumber-Tahini Salsa, Recipe
Michael Bomberg’s Pineapple-Green Peppercorn Salsa, Recipe
Robert Del Grande’s Roasted-Tomato Salsa, Recipe
Seis Salsas’ Salsa Brava, Recipe