Red taquería-style salsa


December 19, 2011Recipes33 Comments

For awhile now, I’ve liked green salsa more than red. Green was always brighter, more acidic. A drizzle on my taco set off sparks on my tongue. And when the salsa had avocado, as green taquería salsas often do here, I wanted to curl up and take a nap in its creaminess.

Red salsa never hit me that way. It wasn’t luxurious or intense. Red salsa just sat there. Blinking. (Little did I know red salsa doesn’t work like that. It plants a seed, and then hurries away to see what you do with it.)

In the past few months, whenever I’d visit taquerías, I’d find myself looking at the red more than the green. I already knew what the green contained: chile serrano or chile verde, maybe chile de árbol or an avocado. But the red remained an enigma. Did the taquero use tomatoes? They’re not essential. Which chiles did he use? Guajillo, cascabel, mora? There were no acidic tomatillos to mask everything. With red salsa, you tasted the chiles themselves. The result was subtler, more mysterious.

I’ve been wanting to experiment with red salsas at home, so I tiptoed into the game with a batch of guajillo-árbol salsa from Ricardo Muñoz’s excellent book Salsas Mexicanas. I’ve used it several times before, always with good results.

This salsa contained a few tomatoes, pureed with toasted chiles until they became a thick, deep-red soup. (In another time five thousand years ago, maybe I could’ve dyed my hair with this stuff.) One bite murmured of garlic and the piney herbs of the guajillo. Then came the searing heat — like, straddling the line of edible — from the 8 chiles de árbol I used. Heat is the main difference between a table salsa and one you’d cook meat and vegetables in, by the way. The former, if you like spicy food, should be tongue-swellingly hot.

Seven days later, I still have a glass jar of this salsa in my fridge. I’ve slowly been working my way through it, spooning it into quesadillas, on chips, over eggs. It’s fabulous on anything.

Recipe below. Oh, and tell me — where do you come down on the fence? Red or green, and why?

Red Taquería Style Salsa
Translated from Ricardo Muñoz Zurita’s “Salsas Mexicanas”

The original recipe calls for 10 chiles de árbol, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, for fear of creating something so hot no one would eat it. I used eight. It was perfect.


8 chiles de árbol, seeds removed and reserved (you’re going to add them to your salsa later)
2 guajillos, seeded and de-veined
3 ripe roma tomatoes (300g/11 oz.)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
1/3 cup water
salt to taste


Toast the chiles briefly on a comal over medium heat. You’ll only want to do this for a few seconds, until they get slightly softer and aromatic. Try not to blacken them — black spots add a bitter flavor. Remove the chiles to a bowl and cover them with hot water. Let them sit for about 20 minutes, until softened.

In the meantime, raise the heat slightly on the comal and toast the tomatoes on all sides, until soft and blackened in spots. (It’s okay to char the tomatoes, just not the chiles!)

Add the chiles, tomatoes, garlic and water to a blender, and pulse until smooth. Add salt — I used about a teaspoon — and pulse some more. Don’t forget that salt is really important in a salsa, so if it doesn’t taste right, chances are you need more of it.

Serve at room temperature.

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33 Responses to “Red taquería-style salsa”
  1. Ron Markle

    Not a comment more a plea for help.
    I have a severe allergy to tree nuts and pea nuts.
    On my first trip to Mexico 38 years ago I was poisoned fairly regularly. Never the less, I love the variety of food offerings always looking for new experiences.
    I employ some basic Spanish language skills but am pretty rusty.Even at that I occasionally experience life threatening culinary episodes.
    Can you suggest foods I should definitely avoid and also a polite way of communicating, in Spanish, my need to Not ingest nuts to restaurant staff and vendors?
    We ‘ll be in Merida, Yucatan and area in Feb.

    Thanks so much. Enjoy your blog.

    • Lesley

      Hi Ron: If you can’t eat any type of nuts, you should stay away from mole sauces — they generally contain peanuts, and often pumpkin seeds as well. (Although you may be able to eat pumpkin seeds.) I’d also ask the staff, if you’re putting salsa on your tacos, whether the salsa contains peanuts. Sometimes in Mexico City, they do. The phrase would be — “Tiene cacahuates?” You can also say, so they understand the gravity of the situation, “No puedo comer cacahuates, nueces o almendras. Tengo alergias.” (Translated to: “I can’t eat peanuts, pecans or almonds. I have allergies.”) Walnuts and hazelnuts, translated to “nuez de castilla” and “avellana,” aren’t used very much during the winter season. If you happen to find yourself in front of a chile en nogada (not too common in the Yucatán, but you never know), don’t eat that either. The sauce contains walnuts. If you can indeed eat pumpkin seeds, but nothing else, I’d tell the restaurant staff, “Sólo puedo comer pepitas, pero ningún otro tipo de nuez. Tengo alergias.” That’s really all you can do. Good luck!

  2. Monica @ Soirees & Such

    My favorite salsa is red actually. I love the intensity of the chiles and I feel it’s less acidic than the green.

  3. alice

    This was the first salsa I made from Zurita’s book. Used all 10 chiles — whew, it was spicy HOT! But, we liked the kick, and it went great with quesadillas.

  4. Platanos, Mangoes & Me!

    This salsa looks so tempting.

  5. EL CHAVO!

    I’m red and green, depending on the food to be consumed. I make my red salsa with about 5 chile morita and 25 chile arbol, plus some tomatillos, cebolla, ajo. It comes out quite spicy but perfect on my veggie tacos with a deep red color.

    Your recipe sounds good for eggs in the morning, I plan on trying it!

    • Lesley

      Oooh… 25 árbol. You’re hardcore. I like the toque of morita, though. Interesting.

  6. Maria

    It’s late at night and I’m hungry, now I’m drooling, just a hot tortilla with a spoonful of salsa…

  7. ted samsel

    I’ve seen a recipe for a similar sauce with 2 ounces of árboles. (Hijole!)

    I’ve never been brave enough to try it. This sounds manageable.

    • Lesley

      Two ounces?? Órale. I may have to try that someday. Just to see.

  8. Linda

    Are these dried chiles, or fresh? If I can’t find fresh, can I used the packaged dried chiles for this recipe? Thanks!

    • Lesley

      Hi Linda: Chile de árbol chiles are dried. They’re the long, skinny dried red chiles — I’m sorry I didn’t post a picture, but you should be able to find them in any Latino supermarket. Good luck!

  9. Linda

    Thanks, Leslie! One last question: can the guajillo chiles also be dried? I’m having a hard time finding fresh ones in Boston.

    • Lesley

      Yep, the guajillos are dried, not fresh. (We actually don’t eat fresh guajillos in Mexican cooking.) As a general rule, most of the red table salsas in Mexico contain dried chiles. The only fresh chiles we use in table salsas are serrano, jalapeño and habanero. And by table salsas I mean a bowl that sits on the table, meant to be drizzled on top of things — this is opposed to a salsa you’d stew with meat.

      If you’re ever perusing recipes and wondering whether the chile is fresh or dried, if it is a red chile in table salsa (and it’s not a jalapeño), chances are it’s dried. :-) Hope that helps!

      • Linda

        Great, got it! I’m so excited to make this recipe for a dinner party tomorrow!

        • Lesley

          Awesome. Let me know how it goes!

  10. Linda

    I ended up substituting one chile ancho for the two guajillos… was super delicious!

  11. Tanya

    In the recipe it says to save the seeds because you’re going to add them to the salsa later—do you add them in the blending phase, or stir them in after you’ve blended the other ingredients together?

    • Lesley

      You can add in the blending phase. Just throw everything into the blender jar.

      • Tanya

        Wow, thanks for the quick reply! I was literally soaking the chiles as I typed my question. :) The salsa is delicious!

        • Bethy

          It is a good recipe, I’ve made it 3 or 4 times now. I had the same question about the seeds every time.

          • Lesley Tellez

            Bethy, yes, sorry I forgot to include them in the original recipe. Just add them to the blender jar when you’re mixing. Glad it’s worked out for you!

          • Bethy

            Thanks! (It is a very good recipe!)

  12. Lesley

    Glad it worked for you!

  13. Maria

    THANK YOU! I’ve been looking for a guide to this salsa for a long, long time. We have a craving for chilaquiles this weekend, but I couldn’t make up my mind if I wanted red or green salsa, so I made both (green salsa is still simmering down). I used this recipe for the red and it is FANTASTIC. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Lesley

      You’re welcome! Glad it worked for you.

  14. lauren

    Thank you so much for this recipe. I have made it a few times now. It is just what I was looking for to make a salsa similar to what a local taqueria offer.

  15. Amber

    Should you peel the tomatoes after you char them?

    • Lesley Tellez

      Amber, I don’t peel them. I like the charred bits in the salsa.

  16. Cassandra

    I just made this salsa today. It’s absolutely delicious. Better than what you’d find in a taqueria. I used 10 chiles but I like my salsa spicy and that it is. Great recipe.

  17. José

    ¡Bendito sea Huitzilopochtli!

    This is a great, great, great salsa. I’ve been searching for a simple, tasty red salsa with dried chiles for a long time now. This is it. I limited the number of chiles de árbol because I was cooking it for my mom too who doesn’t like it too hot. I added one more garlic clove because I used smaller ones, and then added a tsp. of dried oregano because I love it in salsa. Also didn’t have any romas, but I had some nice ripe tomatoes on the vine so they seemed to work. I might try upping the chiles and taking out one of the tomatoes in the future when it’s just for me and my vieja and maybe add a little cilantro. But it’s perfect just like this.

    I can’t wait to look at the rest of your site.

    ¡Mil gracias!

    • Lesley Tellez

      You’re welcome José! Going to steal “bendito sea Huitzilopochtli.” Love that one. :-)

      • Jose

        Hah! I’m honored! :-)

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