It’s time for Cinco de Mayo again, when people of every race and color don oversized Mexican hats, drink some Mexican beer and down tequila shots every time that Hispanic character on Jimmy Kimmel calls him “Jeemy.”
Here’s another suggestion for the holiday: Take a salsa tour of the city.
In places with a large Hispanic population, like my native San Antonio, restaurants don’t hesitate to put out their hottest chip accoutrements; patrons will find spicy blends of pepper whipped into a frenzy with garlic, pepper, onions, tomatoes and cilantro. The best ambassadors are always fresh and always original, from the red-brown pepper and chipotle-flecked variety to the bright green salsa verde.
Indianapolis Mexican restaurants don’t always put their best salsa forward. They put their safest. It tends to come from a bottle, or tastes like it does, and it usually doesn’t pack a lot of heat. Luckily, there’s usually better stuff in the back.
It’s many times stored, in limbo, until you order an enchilada with tomatillo sauce, or pescado. But these salsas are just as enjoyable with your chips. So ask for the good stuff — it’s there. Here are a few sauces around the city.
El Sol de Tala (2444 E. Washington St.) features a salsa with smoke. The fresh, onion-heavy mixture tastes like it relies on the chipotle pepper — dried, smoked jalapeño — for its smoke factor. It’s not terribly spicy, and if you like your salsa thick and chunky, this is more on the watery, macerated end. Tasty though.
The traditional tableside salsa at Chile Verde (7367 N. Shadeland Ave.) could just as easily go over pasta (a spicy arrabiata sauce, maybe?). But with a little insider knowledge, customers can dip their chips in an array of different, freshly prepared sauces. Their tomatillo sauce has the distinctly fruity, somewhat bitter taste of its small green tomato namesake. But it gets some heat from dried chile de arbol (a relative of the cayenne pepper). This one is distinct and delicious. For a milder alternative, try the bright green salsa verde, which has tomatillo, but garlic in place of the chile de arbol. The house spicy sauce is made with mild, tangy guajillo peppers and tomato for a sauce reminiscent of Cholula. It has a thinner texture as well.
Huachinango’s (7904 N. Michigan) regular salsa is a chunky, comino-heavy mix. But for a real treat, ask for the salsa of the house. The smooth sauce is still gritty from roasted, pureed chile de arbol; the hot pepper’s heat is tempered by the addition of lime and orange juices, besides tomatillo and garlic. It’s a dynamic sauce with an irresistible texture.
Near Huachinango’s, Pancho’s Taqueria (7023 N. Michigan) has a salsa bar as varied as the colors in its piñatas that hang from the ceiling. The cacahuete (peanut) salsa is a bitter, acquired taste; there’s a delicious Yucateca salsa, a hot one with habanero pepper and two versions with tomatillo.
El Puerto de San Blas (3564 Lafayette Road) packs in seafood lovers. It’s no wonder, then, that they serve a white fish-based ceviche with an array of chips, crackers and corn chalupa shells along with their extremely hot salsa verde.
Yes, there’s salsa at La Piedad and El Torito. But you’re less likely to have tried those off the beaten path. Add that to your list of things to consume this Cinco de Mayo.
Garlicky Cilantro Salsa
2 or 3 medium-sized fresh tomatoes
1/2 red onion
1 jalapeño chili pepper, trimmed, some seeds removed
1 Serrano chili pepper, trimmed, some seeds removed
1 clove garlic, chopped
Juice of one lime
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch comino to taste
Roughly chop ingredients and put in food processor until ingredients are blended to your desired texture. It’s best to withhold some Serrano and jalapeño seeds — the hottest parts — and add until the desired heat is reached. For extra smokiness, roast the peppers in the oven in advance: Preheat your broiler, coat peppers with oil, place in top rack of oven and turn over when dark splotches begin to appear.
Let the salsa sit for about an hour to let flavors combine.
Makes approximately 3 to 4 cups.