EIGHTEEN YEARS in Texas will do something to a girl. Apart from making you terrified of SUVs, tolerant of gravity-defying hairstyles, and irrationally fond of air conditioning, the state engenders a love for spicy food that no other state this side of the border—the other border—can claim. Of all the things I think of as characteristic of my home state—heat, rednecks, the death penalty—it’s spicy food (and margaritas) that I’m willing to claim as my own.
Seattle has a reputation—and, if I may say it, rightly so—of being something of a wasteland when it comes to Mexican food. Too many restaurants cater to the stereotype of the bland Northwest palate, ladling up pale pinkish tomato juice with bell pepper bits by the vatful and having the gall to call it salsa. (You know which ubiquitous Mexican chain I’m talking about.) But I knew that among all the lousy muy aut鮴ico Cal-Mex dives, there must be a few gems that serve the real thing—freshly made chips that get their flavor from good ingredients, not gobs of grease and salt, and salsa that tastes like the ingredients weren’t squeezed from a tube two weeks ago. With this conviction in mind, I sampled salsas at about 15 local restaurants—chosen based on the recommendations of friends, fellow Southwestern expats, and food writers who had trod this path before—and came up with a list of some of the best, most unusual, and most authentic salsas around.
But first, a brief tutorial on what makes a good salsa good. Salsa is about the flavor, not the pain. Don’t get me wrong—heat matters, it’s just not as important as technique. Too many salsas rely far too heavily on massive amounts of pepper to the detriment of every other ingredient. (Think of grocery- chain staples with names like “Pain Is Good” and “Screaming Sphincter,” and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about.) I’ll take a good bottle of mild tomatillo salsa from Frontera in Chicago over a container of the fieriest “daredevil” hot sauce any day of the week.
The bottom line is, spicy peppers can’t costume a lousy recipe. And the best salsas—mild, medium, and hot—are built on three very basic formulas. First, there’s pico de gallo, a raw concoction of fresh tomatoes, onions, cilantro, peppers, lime juice, and salt. The pico at El Camino in Fremont, served with a passable guacamole and delicately fried plantains, is a fine example. Then there’s salsa verde, or green salsa, which usually includes raw or cooked tomatillos (green-husked fruits also known as husk tomatoes), onion, cilantro, peppers, and salt. Red salsas, the most common kind, come in many varieties—cooked salsas pur饤 to a soupy consistency, chunky sauces made with charred or roasted tomatoes, raw salsas blended or gently mixed—but all have a few key ingredients in common: ripe tomatoes, fresh hot peppers, onions, garlic, lime juice or vinegar, and, as always, cilantro and salt. Dried chiles, corn, and even, in some cases, carrots are also acceptable. Nowhere in any book I’ve ever seen does a recipe call for bell peppers to be used (although Emerald Valley salsa, made in Oregon, does so mostly inoffensively). The main thing is to bring the salty, tangy, spicy, and fruity flavors of salsa into harmony.
So now that we’ve dispensed with the cooking lesson, here is an utterly noncomprehensive list of a few places you can find some of the finest salsas (and chips, and often food) Seattle has to offer:
Chile Pepper (1427 N. 45th, 545-1790) This Wallingford restaurant, cleverly disguised as a down-at-the-heels bungalow in need of a good scrubbing and a paint job, has some of the most authentic, yet unique, red salsa around. Smoky, fiery, and mysterious, it begs for thick, crunchy homemade tortilla chips, which are, thankfully, in good supply. They won’t sell it by the bottle, so order double.
La Viagra Marina (8607 14th S., 762-9308) It might take you all night to find this South Park joint, but you’ll be glad you worked up an appetite. La Viagra’s green salsa is chunky and bracing, with smoky, charred tomatillos standing up to the spicy green peppers that give the sauce its bite.
Burrito Loco (9211 Holman Rd. N.W., 783-0719, and 4508 University Village Pl. N.E., 729-2240) Burrito Loco—a neon-encased strip mall out- post in Crown Hill with another location in University Village—is one of the last places you might expect to find an authentic, straightforward red salsa. But there it is, replete with chunks of white onions, red chiles, and roughly chopped cilantro. My only complaint: The quality seesawed wildly on two trips to the Holman Road location, with one batch transcendental and the second just barely above average.
A couple other places that serve salsa worth stopping by for: El Puerco Lloron (on the Pike Place Hillclimb at 1501 Western, 624-0541) for the fresh, no-nonsense pico de gallo; and Rosita’s (in Greenwood at 9747 Fourth N.W., 784-4132, and in Green Lake at 7210 Woodlawn N.E., 523-3031) for their unusual, weirdly addictive take on green sauce, which tastes strongly of both avocados and lime juice but isn’t quite guacamole. I’m also told that Juan Colorado (8709 14th S., 764-9379) and Maya’s (9447 Rainier S., 725-5510) are solid bets. If it’s salsa you’re looking for, stay away from Malena’s on Queen Anne (whose salsa has its acolytes, although I couldn’t see why), Cactus in Madison Park, and (as much as it pains me to say it) El Ni�owntown, which—for all their better qualities, including some truly lovely food—serve salsa that tastes like stewed tomatoes, bottled hot sauce, or runny tomato soup. For that matter, stay away from yuppie joints in general. A good salsa rule of thumb: If the restaurant you’re in has neon Corona signs and Mayan masks and prominently displayed pi�s and Mexican tchotchkes, run—fast—to one of Seattle’s many purveyors of good, authentic Mexican cuisine.