A Salsa 13 Years in the Making

• 9 min read

Team Taco™! We're officially a month in. What a time to be alive. We're taking our first vacation in 15 months this week. Right this moment. Staycation forever. Will this week of vacation differ any from our daily lives? Yes. We won't be staring at our computers for work every day! Just... for fun. Recreational computer time only.

This week's report is free and open to the world wide web. Please forward it to your entire contact list like it's a Myspace chainmail letter. If you've been forwarded this report, give me $2 by signing up for Team Taco™ and your crush will put you in their Top Eight. No lie. Scout's honor.


Salsa Forever

This week's report includes the first partnership that I've been working on since I came up with this idea last September. Surprising no one, I love salsa. One of my mom's favorite stories about me is me discovering my love for salsa when I was two. We were at a Mexican restaurant, and the salsa was way too spicy for the adults. But I stood on my chair at the table, shoveling chips and salsa into my face, weeping.

"You don't have to eat it, Daniel. Stop. You're hurting yourself."

"No. Good." I said with tears streaming down my face from the heat, taking another hit of salsa. "Good."

Over the years, I've worked in Mexican restaurants and kitchens. All the while, I've been developing my own set of salsa recipes. I'm partnering with my favorite food photographer in the world, Tom Smith, to bring those recipes from my brain to your kitchen. One salsa a month. Most will be Team Taco™ exclusives, but to kick things off, I'm releasing this month's salsa publicly. Maybe we'll get wild at the end of the year and make a little salsa book. A Little Book of Salsas.

This first salsa? It's my favorite salsa. It's taken me 13 years of beating my head against the wall to nail the recipe.

To Walla Walla, Washington

People always look at me sideways when I tell them my favorite taqueria in America is in Walla Walla, Washington. The Hotel California of tiny eastern Washington towns, Walla Walla is known for its wines, its many colleges (I guess?), and being the site of the Whitman Massacre. No, not that Whitman.

My favorite taqueria? Taqueria Yungapeti.

(First — to settle something. Some misled folks from Walla Walla will tell you, "No, The Worm Ranch is better." Those people are perverts and have the palate of a goddamn potato. No. Taqueria Yungapeti is the best burrito and taco place in town. The Worm Ranch is where boring Adventist women pretend to enjoy a first date along the way to getting married.)

Taqueria Yungapeti is the first taqueria I lived near enough to become a regular at. When it opened in 2007, my friends and I were there the first week. I was immediately hooked. I was there once or twice a day, five or six times a week. It was cheaper than eating on campus — better than eating on campus. $5 for a burrito the size of my face? Yes please. But really, I was just going back for their melt-your-face-off red salsa.

They had a little salsa bar with three salsas – all of them great. A traditional green salsa, a spicy green salsa, and a "holy shit, my mouth will never be the same" red salsa. I couldn't get enough of it. It was so bright and crisp in it's flavor. Barely any notes of tomato; just bold heat, cilantro, and thinly shaved onion. If you've ever been to Taqueria Yungapeti in the last decade, asked for extra chips, and thought to yourself, "Why do these chips cost an extra quarter?" Well, that's my bad. I figured out you could ask for two little buckets of chips, put them into one, and fill the other with salsa. I'd fill it up once for eating with my chips and again for my steak burrito. Now that I'm writing this, I'm realizing I'm talking about a pint's worth of salsa. Per visit.

Two years and hundreds of visits later, I dropped out of all the universities in Walla Walla and moved to Texas. An upgrade for Mexican food, right? I visited multiple taquerias around DFW and Austin and sure, they were all incredible. But I couldn't get that salsa out of my head.

The first time I tried to recreate it was in 2010. Since I was a kid, I've always hated Pace salsa. It just tasted like ketchup with a sprinkle of garlic powder to me. And the texture of the poorly preserved vegetables in the salsa? No, thank you. When I was 11, I blended up a fresh bottle of Pace, adding fresh onion, jalapeño, and cilantro. It's one of my first cooking memories. The rest of my family was irritated that I had ruined their spicy ketchup, but I was stoked to have something edible.

I'm ashamed to say that the first time I tried to recreate Taqueria Yungapeti's red salsa, I returned to blending up Pace. It was foolish. Shortly after, I tried with fresh tomatoes. Still no dice.

I kept trying over the next few years. Crushed red pepper. Jalapeños soaking in the tomatoes for a few days before blending. Habaneros. Cayenne pepper. Nothing I did could replicate the sharp, bright level of spice that was in Taqueria Yungapeti's red salsa. It hurts after the first or second chip, but you can't stop yourself. You just keep going back.

I called the restaurant, asking for the recipe. They said no. I messaged them on Facebook, saying it was of dire importance for my depressed partner who missed home. They left me on read. When I attempted to convince them to donate the recipe as a silent auction item for charity, they remained silent. No matter which way I tried to contact them or what story I told them, they wouldn't crack and I couldn't crack the recipe myself. I eventually gave up. For a bit. But it wasn't long before I'd return a few months or years later, desperate to nail it.

A decade rolls by. I'm still failing. Before we moved to Amsterdam, my brother came to visit us from Walla Walla for Christmas. I had him stop at Taqueria Yungapeti before heading our way to buy their largest drink cup full of salsa. 32 ounces to get it right. This was my chance.

I got it wrong. We move. I'm now 10,000 miles away from Taqueria Yungapeti. We're in Europe. The tacos are mediocre — the salsa, weak. This is my life now.

COVID hits. A month into shelter in place, I have a dream. A faceless person in the dream at a taco dinner party says, "Have you tried chilis de arbol yet?" (Yes, I regularly dream about salsa. Do you not?)

"Holy shit, I haven't tried chilis de arbol yet." It's 3AM, and I'm wide awake. I watch a few YouTube recipes — the color looks right. I'm still in the Netherlands, and getting chilis here is next to impossible. After many failed Google searches, I found a kilogram of chilis de arbol at a Mexican import store in the UK. They arrived a few days later. It's my Christmas morning.

I make a batch of salsa, guessing at everything. It's not right but goddamnit, it's so close. I'm over the moon. Within a few attempts, I'm there. I understand what it means to live forever. The consistency, the blow your palate heat, the wonderful flavor underneath. I've been working on this salsa for 13 years. No more. I've got it.

Over the remaining months of 2020, I used 700 grams of the chilis making the salsa over and over again. When we moved to Mexico, I left the chilis and recipe with a friend.

This Sunday is my birthday, and all I've been able to think about is this recipe. I've been working on this salsa for nearly half of my life. It's a small thing, a silly thing. But it's a thing I'm excited to give to you. Now it's ours.

Ingredients

  • 50-75 grams of chilis de arbol
  • 150 grams of fresh tomatoes
  • 75 grams of finely minced white onion
  • 25 grams of finely minced cilantro
  • ~7 grams of salt
  • ~5 grams of sugar
  • Two cloves of garlic
  • Juice of one or two limes
  • Water, as needed

Chili De Arbol Salsa Recipe

First thing's first — if you don't like spicy food, do not make this salsa. Please. Just don't do it to yourself. The salsa recipes I'm releasing the next few months will be more accessible, heat-wise. Promise.

You can go ahead and take all of the measurements of the ingredients as suggestions. Do you need exactly 5 grams of sugar? I don't know — that's right around where I land every time. But if you want a little less spice, a little more sugar can round it out, so you may want 7 grams. That's just you cooking.

For the chilis de arbol, you should measure them with the seeds in. Fewer chilis, less heat. Once you've measured the chilis, take off all their stems and deseed them. This should net you around 25-40 grams of chilis by weight. If you're buying the chilis in a major grocery store in the US, chances are the large bag you bought is 75 grams. Hot damn, that's one or two batches of salsa.

I use cherry tomatoes because they’re the most consistent in flavor throughout the year. Usually works out to half a container, give or take. For the onion, pick one the size of a tennis ball, and use half of it.

Boil water in a kettle. Take your seeded chilis and peeled garlic cloves and place them in a heatproof bowl. Pour the boiling water over the chilis and garlic, enough to cover them. Cover the bowl with a plate or a piece of plastic. Leave them to soak for 15-30 minutes – until the chilis are rehydrated and the garlic has softened.

Strain and discard the leftover chili water. Trust me, I tried using it. It's bitter and gross. Learn from my mistakes and failures.

Place chilis and garlic in a blender with the cherry tomatoes. Add 250 grams of cold water. You know. A cup or two. Start on the low end. Blend for a few minutes until completely smooth, adding more water as needed. You're looking for a relatively thin salsa. When you dip a chip into it, it should mostly run off.

You can add the remaining ingredients to the blender and pulse a few times until your desired consistentcy. That's how most people would do it. If you're like me and feeling a little extra, cut the remaining ingredients thinly by hand. They just feel better, you know? I hate that the word mouthfeel is what we're talking about here (I don't like the mouthfeel of the word 'mouthfeel' either), but, you know, mouthfeel.

It's great right away, better after it's sat in the fridge overnight. Enjoy on chips, tacos, and burritos. It'll make your lips numb and the back of your mouth tingle after a dozen or so chips. But if you're like me, you'll keep going back.

Whatever you do, don't eat this while you're stoned.


TACO TOTAL — 160/2021

This Week's Taco Total — 45
January Taco Total — 160

Nine tacos away from reaching the required monthly pace of 169. I'll likely knock those nine out later today. Given my pace, I'll end up eating my 200th sometime this week. 10% by the end of the first month feels pretty good, right?

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