You might remember the classic TV commercial from the '80s, in which a group of rugged cowboys — let's call them primitive locavores — are agitated to discover that their preferred bottle of Pace Picante Sauce ("made in San Antonio…by people who know what picante sauce is supposed to taste like") has been replaced by some generic "Mexican Sauce" manufactured in New York City.
All together now: "New York City?!"
That tagline, repeated in several televised variations, would go on to earn a special place in American pop culture, appearing as a trivia question on the popular game show Jeopardy. It's what made Pace a household name, one commonly sold at major retailers like CVS. Years later, the manufacturer, Paris, TX-based Pace Foods — now a division of the Campbell Soup Company — still crows about customers' "strong recall" of the old bit.
In 2013, the company tried to revive its hallowed tradition of poking fun at city slickers with some updated spins on the old big-city dig. The most recent TV spots depicted people who get their salsa from New York City as absurdist "cowboys" who live in narrow multistory tents and blow-dry their horses' hair.
Well, now it's time to put the outdated NYC salsa stereotype to rest. Maybe the joke wasn't that funny to begin with, but this seems especially true in 2015. There are some pretty respectable jars of salsa coming out of New York City these days. Most labels proudly play up their city roots, and many taste far superior to that mass-market Pace slop.
Here are five labels whose own fiery red sauces outshine the ubiquitous Texas brand:
1. Rosa Mexicano Tomato Chipotle
True, no one goes to this clubby, Midtown-based modish Mexican chain to drink the salsa. But its standard take-home sauce, launched as part of a larger kitchen line in 2005, is still reliably better than Pace. If this were simply a beauty contest, the restaurant's runny red sauce would never stack up to the trademarked "Thick and Chunky" standard bearer. But in a flavor fight, the results are reversed. It's about the peppers. Most store-brand tomato-based salsas rely on regular jalapeños. This one takes the extra step of adding the smoke-dried variety, too, putting it over the top.
2. La Esquina Salsa Roja
Derek Sanders, proprietor of scene-y downtown Mexican street-food spot La Esquina, wanted to create a healthier, more fresh-tasting alternative to the typical jar of supermarket salsa. So he turned to Ahktar Nawab, then his head chef, to tweak the restaurant's original salsa recipe for mass production. Unlike most big-name red sauces, the roja starts with a tomatillo base (tomato is secondary) for a lighter, brighter flavor. And the ingredients (jalapeño, ancho chile) are cooked over mesquite wood, lending a heavy kiss of smoke. "It's almost like an infusion, as opposed to just charring," says Sanders. Launched in 2011 at only a handful of local retailers, the New York City label is now available throughout the immediate tri-state area. You'll even find it in select stores in Texas. How's that for flipping the stereotype?
3. Brooklyn Salsa Company, The Hot
Of course the city's most heavily branded borough would have its own brand of salsa. Roommates Rob Behnke and Matt Burns turned their homemade dips into a full-time business back in 2010. Some of the fancier varieties (The Curry, The Tropical) won't do much to dispel froufrou big-city stereotypes. Even the heirloom-tomato-based flavor includes a touch of mango in the mix, making it aggressively fruit-forward. Traditionalists will undoubtedly scoff at the inclusion of tropical fruit, but that's what makes it special.
4. Tenayo Original
Mexican prep cook Arturo Cruz regularly whips up a batch of his mother's traditional salsa recipe every Friday for patrons at Walker's Tavern in Tribeca. About a year ago, investors approached him about bottling the stuff for wider distribution. Following his appearance on CBS Sunday Morning, demand for Cruz's handmade dip surged, and production is barely keeping up. If you can find it on store shelves, CEO Andrew Bourke says it's generally less than a week old. The secret to Cruz's hefty original formula, which steadfastly clings to your chip, is oven-roasting the ingredients. This caramelizes the vegetables for sweetness and eliminates excess liquid. "You get salsa," Bourke says. "You don't get water."
5. La Fundidora Fuego
Mexican ex-pats Vitali and Lorena Meschoulam got into the commercial-salsa game in 2013. Their Williamsburg-based operation puts out a product packaged with all the right buzzwords ("small batch," "artisanal") to appease their über-hip neighbors, and the right chilies to stand out in a field of largely jalapeño-centric canned salsas. The luscious, flame-colored Fuego variety, for instance, incorporates the very spicy árbol pepper, balanced by the less piquant guajillo. Because these specific chilies aren't easy to come by in New York, Lorena Meschoulam says, the couple recently outsourced production to a facility on the outskirts of Mexico City, "and there we work with small local farmers." Mexico City?! "Our test kitchen is still in Brooklyn," she says.
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