XOXO, Salsa Girl

The Dish on All Things Salsa

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Arizona Taco Festival

I tend to treat tacos as only a means of transportation for getting salsa into my mouth. However, the Arizona Taco Festival this weekend taught me that salsa can’t always be the star of the show.  When it comes to tacos, salsa is to act in a supporting role to whichever meat or seafood the chefs have chosen as their superstar.

I attended the festival with an open heart, an open mind, and an empty stomach. After my friend and I spent a solid 25 minutes observing the overwhelming options of taco stands, avoiding the “see-and-be-seen” tequila bars, and giggling at the sombrero-adorned drunks, we made our first taco stop.

Chelsea’s Kitchen had their mouthwatering carnitas tacos out on display. I’ve been to Chelsea’s Kitchen before, and I can honestly say it makes my Top 5 list of best restaurants. EVER.

Before I indulged, Executive Chef Jorge Gomez was kind enough to step away from his pop-up kitchen to teach me about his tacos and salsas.

Gomez had his green tomatillo and red charred salsas at the festival, and he poured me little shots of each one to taste. The tomatillo had that tangy, acidic taste that I love, and the red charred one was smoky and slightly sweet. Gomez said that the charred salsa is served with every taco on the Chelsea’s Kitchen menu, and he said the restaurant goes through about 10 gallons of the red and 5 gallons of the green each day.

Shots of salsa > Shots of tequila

As for the actual taco that he was serving, Gomez walked me through the line up of rotisserie-cooked and sliced pork that is simmered in ranchero sauce for four hours, and served on a corn tortilla with pico de gallo and guacamole. Hi, get in my belly.

SOL Cocina also put their best pork foot forward at the Taco Festival. They were serving up carnitas street tacos with slow-roasted and shredded pork, chicharron (fried pork skins), onions, avocado, and a tomatillo salsa on a gluten-free tortilla. SO TRENDY!

General Manager, Jessica Kortas, said that SOL Cocina has 17 different salsas that they make from scratch, and each salsa is specifically made and served to compliment a taco. After a bit of wavering, Kortas said that her favorite taco on the menu is the Grilled Fish Zarandeado that has a pineapple-cucumber salsa, because she said the fish and pineapple perfectly compliment one another.

I had a total of 5 tacos over the course of the evening. No shame.

The next three that I tried were inferior to the first two, but delicious nonetheless.

I tried a “Puerto Nuevo” shrimp taco from Tonto Bar & Grill , which is a unique Native Arizona inspired eatery. Their taco had shrimp, peppers and onions, an avocado crema sauce, and a delicious slaw with carrots that they call “Escabèche Slaw.” I am a fan of any avocado-cream-ish-sauce, so I really enjoyed this one.

I tried my best to avoid the chain restaurants, but…

Macayo’s was serving the most non-photogenic cochinita pibil (slow-roasted pork) taco in existence.  I could tell the Macayo’s tent crew was tired of serving tacos all day.

I ended my rounds with a fresh mahi-mahi taco with a mango habanero salsa from Rubio’s, and I walked out of the festival gates while simultaneously eating this taco.

I must have looked so dedicated to my tacos as I exited the grounds. People all around me must have be in awe of my passion and enthusiasm…


Salsa Girl


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Roosevelt Row Chile Pepper Festival

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are out and the Roosevelt Row Chile Pepper Festival is in.

Last night, I joined fellow chile pepper  lovers, salsa connoisseurs, beer drinkers, and some hipster downtown folks for the First Annual Roosevelt Row Chile Pepper Festival in Phoenix. Vendors of all varieties gathered on an open lot within the Roosevelt Arts District to honor chile peppers as they got roasted–while the attendants got toasted (on beer).

As I could not partake in the draft beer and margarita extravaganza, I opted to take shots instead.

LunchaLibre had their food truck crew serving shots of “agua de salsa.” This was by far the most innovative and unique shot I have ever taken. I mean…it is the only shot I have ever taken. But that is besides the point.

As someone who literally drinks hot sauce and salsa, I didn’t even hesitate to try the corn tortilla foam and strained salsa water concoction.  The experience of gulping back the emulsified tortilla chip while simultaneously tasting tomatillo salsa was comparable to what I imagine it would be like to taste Willy Wonka’s Flavor Changing Gum.
As for the actual salsa at the festival, Barrio Cafe had the best batch, hands down. They came equipped with a “salsa de habanero con nopales.” Nopales is the Spanish term for prickly pear cactus, and they are often used in traditional Mexican cuisine.

Yes: the salsa had cactus mixed right into it. Truth be told: THIS IS THE SALSA I VOTED FOR.

The base of the salsa is nothing more than tomatoes, garlic, habanero peppers and spices. Chef Julio Marta of the Barrio Cafe says that they add the nopales (prickly pear cactus, with the spiky nettles removed) to their tomato sauce just before serving. The salsa mixture is cooked, but the cactus is left fresh. Prickly pear is comparable to a green bean in both texture and size, and the taste is similar to a very bland green bell pepper.

They make it seem so simple, but my guess is that cleaning and preparing a cactus for consumption is no smooth task. Puns.

In addition to plentiful salsas from notable local restaurants like Gallo Blanco and Macayo’s,  some booths came equipped with other dishes and dips. I took a particular liking to the spicy Japanese and Serrano pepper hummus that  Gabriel Hernandez, general manager of Carly’s Bistro  brought to sample.

If there is any dip that give salsa a run for its money, it’s hummus. Hernandez and I spent about 10 minutes discussing the basics of hummus, the difference between toasted sesame oil and tahini, and the randomness at Carly’s Bistro. I have been a regular at Carly’s for quite some time, and it was great to learn that:

a) Carly indeed exists

b) The menu is entirely random for no good reason–except for that it can be.

For dinner, I enjoyed a delectable shredded beef torta (Mexican sandwich) with strawberry and jalapeno salsa and jamaica glaze  from the totally rad crepe shop, Jobot. Come to find out, flor de jamaica is the term used in Latin America for hibiscus flower. It was a beef sandwich with strawberries and flowers…Peace, Love, Jobot.

The festival itself was a great tribute to the world of “all things salsa.” Those who enjoy chile pepper festivals are my type of people. If you don’t believe there is a group following for everything, you need to attend a festival like this one.

Food brings people together. Salsa brings awesome people together.


Salsa Girl

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Fire Roasted Hatch Green Chiles

**Editor’s note: This post was edited Sept. 13, 2012 at 10:55a.m. to correct a spelling mistake. My apologies, as I should know how to properly type the word “grocery,” since I have been working at a grocery store for three years now. 

Over Labor Day weekend, New Mexico must have smelled like heaven.

On Sept. 1 and Sept. 2, the village of Hatch, New Mexico hosted its 41st Annual Hatch Chile Festival. This is a two-day event dedicated exclusively to chiles.  These people are serious. And so was I…

Just because I couldn’t make it over to New Mexico doesn’t mean I didn’t celebrate.

I set out with a goal of finding my own variation of the official festival. A quick online search landed me exactly where I would have ended regardless: at Sprouts.

Sprouts is my absolute favorite gorcery grocery store (even though I work at Fry’s **TRAITOR ALERT**), and it was just my luck that they host an annual Live Hatch Green Chile Roast right at their store.

And so it was: my very own Hatch Chile Festival.

The smell at my mini festival was incredible, so I can’t even imagine the olfactory heaven that loomed over the festival grounds at the real event in Hatch, New Mexico.

I awkwardly salivated as I stood behind caution tape and smelled that spicy, charred, smoky chile pepper scent coming at my nostrils.

The use of caution tape was most needed to warn people to never try these freshly roasted chiles. They are dangerously tasty.

As for the roasting process: there really isn’t one. The peppers are poured straight from the box into a large, cylindrical roaster where a scorching flame is lit. At that moment, the legend is born.

In a matter of ten minutes, the peppers transform from fresh, vibrant “chile-dren” into cracked, blackened and burnt old, saggy men. For once in life: wrinkles are good. Puns.

After the chiles are roasted, the work begins.

The key is to SWEAT.

I wanted to capitalize that word in order to emphasize how both the chiles and the chile-preparers will have to sweat in the process. Immediately after roasting, the chiles must be set into plastic bags or containers to sweat–so that peeling off the roasted skins becomes an easier task…or at least so it can be done eventually.

Removing the skins is easier said than done. For me, the little devils were resistant and it was a 45-minute process by the time I finished. However, I do admit that I was distracted watching my favorite show, Diners Drive-Ins and Dives while nit-picking at the reluctant peppers.

I realize this isn’t the cutest picture, but it gives an accurate picture of what must be done.  Also, check out the picture below to see how awesome my sink looked as I had the chiles sit and wait in ice-cold water for me to peel them… (please note: sarcasm)

Don’t get discouraged. The taste is worth it.

Once the hatch green chiles are cleaned and peeled, the options are limitless. With mine, I’m making a fire-roasted salsa. Expect an upcoming post to feature that recipe.

Embarassing author’s note: As i prepared to track down these chiles, I learned about the true origins of the name. Hatch, New Mexico= Hatch Green Chiles. Epiphany.

That’s the scoop for now.

XOXO, Salsa Girl