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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Mike Moore | The Journal Gazette Don Chavas has a variety of salsas, including tomatillo (green), tomatillo spicy (brown) and ranchero (red).

  • Green salsa is a mild option at El Azteca, but a hotter red is also available.

  • Proximo’s green salsa is made with lime juice, honey, Cotija cheese, cilantro and Amarillo chilies.

  • La Margarita has been making the same salsa since it opened 50 years ago. 

Sunday, April 21, 2019 1:00 am

Secret recipes

Salsa is taking over condiment world, but chefs won't share how they make it

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

Forget the ketchup. Chances are if you're reaching for a condiment with your meal these days, it's salsa.

Nearly 37 million households have used salsa in the last seven days, according to 2018 figures from Statista, an online statistics and market research company.

And over the years, as the Hispanic population in the U.S. has integrated into the mainstream of American food culture, the Hispanic food market has continued to grow, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer market research company. The Hispanic food market is expected to grow to $21 billion in 2020.

Figures show that salsa and chips are outselling potato chips in some markets and that among Hispanic foods regularly eaten in the U.S., the taco is second only to salsa.

But who are we kidding, what's a taco without salsa?

A salsa recipe is a closely guarded secret in some restaurants and how it's made and its taste has attracted many loyal diners who will settle for nothing else.

The word salsa basically means “sauce” in Spanish. So with Cinco de Mayo just a few weeks away, we decided to check in with some local restaurants to find out what makes their salsa so special.

Smooth salsa

La Margarita at 2713 S. Calhoun St. has been making the same smooth salsa since it opened 50 years ago.

It was one of the first Mexican restaurants in Fort Wayne and the salsa is made fresh by hand every day, says Mychelle Ochoa, daughter of owner Freddie Ochoa.

The recipe is a well-kept family secret and is kept locked in a safe. Only five people know how to make it, including Simon Ochoa, Freddie's brother who has been making it 30 years.

“People offer to jar and sell it in the stores,” Mychelle Ochoa says, but her father won't do it, not wanting to give up his popular recipe.

Ochoa says many people just come in for the salsa and chips, which are also hand cut and cooked fresh daily.

The restaurant makes about 5 gallons a day of its mild salsa, but have been known to run out on a busy day, which sends Simon back to the kitchen to make more. The most popular version, however, is their medium-hot. About 10 gallons is made of that.

And if the salsa gets too hot, you can always cool down your mouth with one of the restaurant's famous Blue Margaritas.

Spicy sauce

Most of the menu items at Proximo, the Latin-cuisine restaurant at 898 S. Harrison St., is middle of the road as far as spice, except for its Peruvian salsa, says chef Michael Rubino. Peruvian is spicy, he says.

The green salsa is used like a condiment, Rubino says, and garnishes the restaurant's chicken dish. It is made with lime juice, honey, Cotija cheese, cilantro and Amarillo chilies, which are Peruvian yellow chili peppers. Rubino says it is difficult to get the peppers, which are somewhat spicy, and are only available frozen or in a paste. The restaurant uses a paste. However, the sauce gets its green color from the cilantro.

“That makes the dish,” Rubino says of the salsa. “The sauce is what makes the dish.”

Rubino was part of the team that created the recipes for the restaurant, which includes dishes from South America, Central America and Mexico. He says the Peruvian salsa is one of his favorite sauces and he would eat something similar at a Hollywood restaurant, where they would serve it with everything.

Rubino asked for the recipe, but the owners would not give it to him. So Rubino would ask if it had certain ingredients and then pieced together a version of the restaurant's salsa. “So I don't think I will ever have the exact recipe, but it's pretty close,” he says.

Shared salsa

Diners will get the same salsa whether they dine at Don Chavas at 1234 N. Wells St., or its sister restaurants Cebolla's Mexican Grill.

The restaurant has served the same salsa since it opened its first Cebolla's on Fernhill Avenue, says Karina Castrejon with the restaurant group. Castrejon says she has worked for the restaurant group, starting out at Don Chavas, 16 years and still loves the salsa. The salsa is made fresh every day, she says, along with its tortilla chips, which are made on site.

During the week, the restaurant makes about 10 to 15 gallons of its salsa and about 30 gallons on the weekend.

Green salsa

Juanita Ray's late husband, Mike, developed El Azteca's salsa recipe, which has been served at the restaurant at 3326 E. State Blvd. 46 years. And although there's not much added to the recipe – tomatillos, onions, jalapeņos and salt – says assistant manager Cass Savio, it's the color that usually catches people off guard.

“We are one the few places that have green (salsa) like that,” Savio says.

It's the green tomatillos that give the mild salsa its color. If you want hot, ask for the red.

What also makes the salsa special is its flavor and the fact it's made fresh daily, says Ray, who runs the restaurant with her daughter.

“We take pride in the ingredients that we put into our items,” Ray says. “We just don't cheapen any item.”

Ray says she didn't really eat salsa when she was young. But that changed when she got married, especially when her late husband began testing recipes. “I was the taste-maker for him,” she laughs. 

trich@jg.net