Saturday, December 04, 2004

Salsa Taste-off

I was passing the Mexican food section at Cub Foods yesterday on my way to pick up some other items, when I noticed that Emeril (last name Lagasse, but he doesn’t really need a last name anymore) has a new salsa. I picked up a jar out of curiosity, and rounded the corner to find a display of On the Border salsa. The jars boasted a 1st place award from a “Zesty food challenge” in 2003, hosted by Chili Pepper Magazine. Sounded worth a try. And as I went to return the jar of Emeril’s salsa to the shelf, I realized an opportunity: a salsa taste-off!

So I picked up both jars. I also added a jar of Salsa Lisa (a local favorite sold in the refrigerated section), and Desert Pepper Trading Company’s Salsa Diablo from the organic aisle.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive tasting of the best salsa in America or anything. Just a little slice of the salsa world. In each case I selected the salsa variety (they all had more than one) that seemed closest to their “basic” or “original” version, and also the standard “hot,” rather than “mild” or “medium” or “very hot.”

Without further adieu, let me introduce the contestants.

We start with Emeril’s Kicked Up Chunky Hot Salsa. The label has a blurb:

“When I say Kicked Up Chunky, that's what I mean, just look at those hearty pieces of ripe tomatoes and peppers - 3 kinds. Add some hot pepper sauce, garlic, onions, and a whole lot of BAM! - you've got my Kicked Up Chunky Salsa. It'll kick up your burgers, chicken, fish, shellfish, omelets, and even wraps.”

The ingredients list is pretty straightforward: Tomato puree, diced tomatoes, green bell peppers, jalapeno peppers, chili peppers, hot pepper sauce, onions, salt, vinegar, sugar, garlic powder, natural flavor, and spice.

The next competitor is On the Border Hot Salsa, from the restaurant chain On the Border (which hasn’t come to Minnesota yet, so I don't know much about it. Rumor has it they have exotic dishes called “burritos” and “fajitas” or something).

The label boasts “Authentic South Texas Salsa.” Perhaps Army of Mom can clue us in on the difference between North Texas and South Texas Salsa.

The ingredient list is also pretty simple here: Tomatoes, jalapenos, water, onions, sugar, salt, spices, garlic, and cilantro.

Salsa Lisa is made right here in Minneapolis. I’ve liked it for years. It used to be kind of hard to find, but once something makes it to Cub Foods in these parts, it can no longer be described that way.

The label blurb used to be an embarrassing little purple-prose from Garrison Kellior. Nice to see they’ve removed it. The new one is much more to my liking:

“This is good salsa. In fact, it’s the best salsa we can make and perhaps the best you’ll find; with a flavor so fresh, so natural and so bright – it will surprise you. Thank you, and enjoy!”

Ingredients list: Fresh tomatoes, tomato puree, diced onions, water, peppers, lemon juice, parsley, vinegar, garlic, salt, sugar, garlic salt, and spices, less than 1/10 of 1% sodium benzoate to protect quality.

There’s also a note to “Keep refrigerated at all times.” We’ll take the risk of removing the jar from the refrigerator to have a taste, despite the warning.

Finally we have Desert Pepper Trading Company’s Salsa Diablo. I picked it mostly because it was in the organic section, so we’ll throw a little of that action into the mix. I’ve had it before and liked it, but I can’t say it really sticks out in my mind as a favorite. Perhaps tonight it will win me over. The blurb on the jar certainly promises no less:

“Born of the scorching sun and the smouldering sand, Salsa Diablo leads you into temptation with a wickedly sensual flavor and feverish pulse-quickening effects. Dare to experience its heat, and you’ll soon find yourself under its spell. No doubt, some would say it’s as hot as sin. But try it once and all is forgiven.”

Gonna take quite a salsa to back that up, hombre. I’m willing to do my best to be objective here, but you are seriously asking for a Homer Simpson chili review with that pomposity ("A bland, timid entry, suitable, perhaps, for patients recovering from surgery"”)

Ingredient list: Tomato puree, tomatoes, New Mexico hot red chile puree, green chile peppers, jalapeno peppers, fresh onions, vinegar, salt, lemon juice, garlic, spices and cilantro.

The mechanics of the tasting are as follows: Each salsa will be tasted on Old Dutch Restaurante Style bite size tortilla chips. If you’re not familiar with the brand, don’t worry. Think standard white corn tortilla chips.

I reserve the right to drink beer to my heart’s content while tasting, because a salsa that can’t stand up to beer is an unholy disgrace. I will make sure it’s the same beer – Anchor Steam, incidentally – and not mess things up by switching to something else between different varieties.

And now for the fun.

We’ll let Emeril lead the way, because he has a television show, and we Americans reflexively bow down before television celebrities. Let’s see what he’s whipped up.

The boasted “chunkiness” is nothing special. There are a few nice big chunks of tomato, onion, and bell pepper. But most of the jar is pureed almost to soupiness.

The flavor I would describe as well-balanced, if perhaps a bit strong on the canned-tomato quality. The peppers come through nicely, with the green bell peppers providing a surprising amount of flavor. The heat is pretty standard for a supermarket “hot.” My heat-tolerance is pretty high (for a white mid-westerner anyway), and this one is nothing intimidating. But it satisfies my “heat” desire adequately.

Next we’ll move to the On The Border brand.

This one is much thicker than the previous brand. No big chunks, but a lot less water.

The flavor is quite garlicky. Very strong cilantro flavor too. Almost more than I like. No great pepper flavor to speak of.

I find the heat disappointing. A definite drop-off from the Emeril’s. I suppose it’s too hot to qualify for a “medium.” But not by much, judging by my standards.

Now the Salsa Lisa.

In texture this is darn near exactly between the thin Emeril’s and the On The Border. I can make out nearly every ingredient listed on the ingredient label as I dig around with a chip.

There is definitely an advantage to selling it in the refrigerated section. The others had a much more canned tomato flavor. This is fresh tomato flavor – a big difference. Other than the fresh quality, cilantro, parsley, and garlic are all very pronounced here.

It doesn’t start off terribly hot, but the heat builds quickly as you continue. Quite characteristic of jalapeno. It’s in between the heat of the previous two.

And finally, the Salsa Diablo.

It looks a lot like the Emeril’s, but with way more chunkiness.

A little taste tells me – woah! I hadn’t remembered this being this good. Lots of flavor bursts right out at once, with those New Mexico and green chilis coming across strongly. The tomato flavor also seems a little fresher than the Emeril’s or On The Border (though obviously not as much as the refrigerated Salsa Lisa).

The heat feels just right to me. Nice and hot, but not enough to overwhelm the flavor. Gets the nostrils running, but not the eyes watering.

The verdict? Well if it was up to me, I’d pick the Salsa Diablo first, then Salsa Lisa, then Emeril’s, with On The Border bringing up the rear. Big drop off from the first three to that last one in my opinion.

For the record, my wife liked On The Border quite a bit more than me, though she doesn’t care for “hot.” She found Emeril’s far too hot for her liking and passed on the others.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure of the difference between south Texas salsa and north Texas salsa...of course we also have pico de gallo. Hmmm, hot foods, that reminds me that it has been a few weeks since I made some chili...

Army of Dad

8:41 AM  

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