One of the best things about about Phoenix is the salsa bar. This is not a drill or joke. The first time I walked into Tacos Chiwas fresh into town from the Northeast, I was mesmerized not by the barbacoa or the carne asada, but by the metallic device in the corner. Inside: a chilled rainbow of salsas.
People from Phoenix think good salsa is a given. Like oxygen or roads or water, it’s just there.
Growing up in the Northeast, good salsa was far from a given. It was a mastodon, an ichthyosaurus. Although you heard about it, it didn’t exist.
The word “salsa” doesn't denote a narrow category of chopped tomato sauces. The word “salsa,” rather, is more of an umbrella term that could potentially include sauces green and red and brown and yellow, sauces creamy or runny, chunky or smooth, made using fruit or nuts, and even lacking tomato. The word “salsa,” folks here in Phoenix know, means “sauce.” And a word that wide open leaves enough room for a big party.
When I walk into a Mexican restaurant and see a salsa bar, the child in me floats to the surface. The colors! The textures! The glorious spice levels! When you see a salsa bar, you know that even if the coming tacos, tortas, or burros are going to be average, you can jazz them up to pretty good.
As much as anything, salsas provide an opportunity for restaurants to showcase their technique, their style, their range. In that small refrigerated Tacos Chiwas salsa bar, you will find an opaque, lime-green salsa. It is nothing but blended peppers and oil. But man. The consistency is so smooth and silky, and the oil coaxes the heat out from the pepper just right, and the burn is borderline intoxicating.
Another great salsa bar is the one at Tortas El Guero. It is the kind of place where the tortas are generally so good that you don’t need an added condiment. But you will likely add several, testing salsas one by one. And you’ll do this after waging a scorched-earth mental war with yourself in the process of settling on which salsas you want from the long bar in the first place — maybe avocado, maybe chipotle.
But for those who dig a serious salsa bar, good luck finding one that embraces the ingenious concept's funky, wide-ranging potentials more fully than La Santisima.
This salsa bar on 16th Street has some of the classics. But then — oh, snap! — you see a strawberry salsa. You see, to your delight, a dense cashew salsa that calls to mind peanut sauces from southeast Asia. You see runny, tangy, amber salsas flecked with red that have, in a few drops, the brightness to chainsaw through steak.
The beauty of a great salsa bar like these three has many facets.
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One, a salsa bar is a kind of Rorschach test for a restaurant. The kinds of salsa a restaurant displays in its bar, taken in aggregate, hold up a mirror to the restaurant’s spirit. You see that restaurant’s character in tiny, varied, chilled form. Do the salsas rock? The food probably does. Did you know that La Santisima steeps melon and cashews in its lush horchata? No surprise, given the salsa bar.
Two, the fact that a restaurant is willing to give you all these extra salsa for nothing speaks to a warm spirit and high level of hospitality. A place that cares enough to mash the pedal down with a salsa bar is the kind of place you want to eat at.
Three, the ability to slap, drag, and rocket your meal in 20 different directions is pretty awesome.
Finally, good salsa is a great thing. Salsa at salsa bars is generally good. And having a choice of good salsas —tangy, smooth, cool, spicy, peppery, tomato-heavy, chunky, sweet, or some remix of these — lets you freshen and elevate your food. And if you eat well in Phoenix, this might be an immutable fact of life, like that the sky is blue or that people tend to stop at red lights. But it's a good fact. One we should snap out of numbness from time to time, exhale, and savor.