The changing flavor and nature of salsa

Photo by: Arturo Robles taken at Carniceria La Noria
Salsa at Carniceria La Noria. Photo by Arturo Robles / Arizona Sonora News

Take a tomato. A tangy slice of lime. Cilantro. A bit of pungent onion. A touch of chili. A pinch of salt. It’s salsa.

Today, salsa includes an array of fruits and oddities such as mangoes, cactus and hot peppers.

Salsa is not what your grandmother used to make.

The industry is growing – almost $1 billion in 2015 – and with it comes experiences and evolving flavors.

According to a specialty foods magazine, The Nibble, the chili and tomato were first combined in the Central and South American regions to make a single condiment. The name “salsa” comes from Spanish roots, which translates, to sauce.

Salsa has become an identifying marker of  Hispanic culture.

Salsa migrated from Mexico and grew in popularity, with concoctions from different cultures joining the melting pot.

“My family is from Sonora and the salsa we would make had a mixture of diced tomatoes, onions, green, yellow or jalapeño chiles, salt, cilantro, and garlic,” said Sylvia Amaya, a home cook and longtime salsa maker. “Salsa always tastes best with fresh organic fruits.”

Being a resident of Tucson for many years, Amaya made it a point to say, “Salsa has changed a lot since coming to the U.S.”

Amaya grew up cooking and making salsa with her grandmother. “Being in the kitchen with her were some of my favorite memories,” Amaya said.

Her grandmother taught her traditional salsa-making, and Amaya said she expanded her knowledge of mixtures from friends and people she met along her life.

“There are so many different versions of salsa nowadays, and the popularity has grown tremendously,” Amaya said.

El Charro Café, one of the nation’s oldest Mexican restaurants in downtown Tucson, makes tamales and salsa from its factory, Carlotta’s Kitchen, and ships them to five locations around town and related businesses.

Photo by Arturo Robles taken at Carlotta's Kitchen
Carlotta’s Kitchen. Photo by Arturo Robles / Arizona Sonora News

“We currently have multiple deals with other businesses involving our salsa and tamales,” said Garret Boos, a manager at El Charro, 311 N. Court Ave. “They are sent to businesses ranging from Lucky Wishbone, Sir Veza’s, Rillito Park Race Track, and even local grocery stores like Bashas’.”

Boose believes a large part of the success comes from changes in El Charro’s recipe.

“We would use lard or trans fats. Over time, as we learned that those ingredients were not good for our consumers, we have tried to go for a more natural and organic recipe,” he said. “We make the flavors have our own taste. Reflect our style.”

Crushed tomatoes. Onions. Salt. Garlic. White vinegar. Canola oil. Chiltipin peppers and oregano are some of the ingredients in El Charro’s signature salsa.

As change comes over time, can grandma’s traditional salsa still be alive and thriving today? How far will salsa makers take the wide variety of changing flavors?

Teresa’s Mosaic Café has shown that altering flavors might not always be the answer. Since opening more than 30 years ago near West Grant and North Silverbell roads, the Tucson family business has stayed true to its original recipe.

Photo by: Arturo Robles. Green Peppers at Carniceria La Noria
Green Peppers at Carniceria La Noria. Photo by Arturo Robles / Arizona Sonora News

Simplicity is key for this restaurant. Diced onions. Tomatoes. Salt. Pepper. Garlic and hot jalapeño peppers are the ingredients to their success.

Jackie Rhode, an employee of Teresa’s, said salsa is the most popular condiment at the restaurant, 2456 N. Silver Mosaic Drive.

“Our salsa is sought after by many customers. Sometimes customers bring gallon (containers) in, just so we can fill them up with our salsa,” Rhode said.“That’s why I think so many of our customers come back to us. It’s our authenticity and freshness that customers love the most. The traditional Oaxaca, México taste.”

What is next for salsa? Traditional? Or will salsa change to be a mixture of new flavors?

With ketchup now second to salsa in most condiments sold, Antonio McGowan of Tucson’s Mouth of South Salsa Co., 2513 E. 6th St., said salsa “will definitely keep on growing.”

“My prediction, and it’s something I’ve been doing for a while, is mixing salsa with alcohol,” McGowan said. “Salsa and alcohol is my secret twist; it gives it so much flavor.”

Could grandma’s master plan for salsa get us drunk?

Arturo Robles a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service for the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact me at

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