Mexican Restaurant Salsa:

Mexican Restaurant Salsa Reverse-Engineered in Your Home Kitchen

Affordable, easy ingredients make for classic salsa identical to what you get at local Mexican Restaurants

Updated November 23, 2009
Updated June 9, 2009
Updated May 31, 2009

by Josh Day

I'm a perfectionist when it comes to recipes.

This is especially true for foods and dishes I love: simple white rice, Sicilian Sunday gravy with meatballs and pasta (spaghetti), and New Orleans style red beans and rice, a recipe I've been tinkering with for more than 4 years which I've finally perfected.

I've never been able to duplicate the classic taste of salsa that's readily available at local, non-franchise Mexican restaurants. I've mastered pico de gallo, a fresh, chunky salsa where the only liquid is lime juice and only fresh vegetables are used. But the soupier restaurant style salsas have always eluded me.

I've noticed in Mexican restaurants that the salsa's kept in a large refrigerated bin and ladled into bowls. They go through so much of this stuff I figured very few ingredients are involved and what is used is cheap and easy to come by. After all, the salsa is complementary, along with the tortilla chips.

I discovered a recipe for something that claims to be the authentic Mexican restaurant salsa on a copycat restaurant recipe site.

Fortunately, it's closer than anything I've ever tried to date.

Unfortunately, it's not quite perfect.

The recipe below is a modified version of what I found. The original recipe was way too mild and missing a key flavor; that turned out to be fresh cilantro.

Here's my first attempt:

Mexican Salsa -- Restaurant Style attempt #1

Some babies dip.1 28 oz. can tomatoes (puree, crushed, peeled, or diced -- I used crushed)
4 Tbs bottled HOT jalapenos, finely minced
1 Tbs pickle juice from jalapeno jar
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp sea salt, finely ground
2 Tbs fresh cilantro, finely minced
1/4 cup yellow onion, finely minced

Finely mince jalapenos, cilantro, and onion. If using diced or peeled tomatoes, put all ingredients into a blender and blend to desired consistency. If using crushed or pureed tomatoes, mix everything well in a bowl. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving.

Okay, here's how it turned out...

First impression, way too tomatoey. You really need the cilantro to cut down on the overpowering tomato flavor. Feel free to double the amount if you like cilantro as much as I do. The onion also helps to balance the tomato.

I think I used almost 1/3 of the bottled jalapenos, and the end result was only a mild/light medium salsa. The juice certainly helped deliver the restaurant flavor so go ahead and add liberally. Also, I used a generic bottle of jalapenos. Next time I'm going to try the Mexican brand that's a little more expensive.

I found the salt to be just right, but I certainly could have used more garlic powder, perhaps up to a teaspoon.

My nitpicking aside, I have to say this recipe is very, very close to the real deal.

Some ideas for the next attempt...

I'm going to use Cento brand peeled tomatoes and blend to a semi-thick, chunky puree. I'm also going to use:

  • Juice of half a lime
  • 1 fresh jalapeno with half the seeds (going to be an extra hot batch!)
  • Red onion instead of yellow
  • More garlic powder
  • More jalapeno pickle juice
  • 1/2 tsp ground black pepper

I'll be mixing it up and honing this recipe until I've perfected it. In the future I'll be using...

  • Tomatillos for a green "verde" style salsa
  • Fresh Roma tomatoes
  • Mango or peaches for a hot 'n sweet version
  • Various dried chili peppers
  • Poblano pepper
  • California pepper
  • Habenero pepper (for burn-out-the-roof-of-your-mouth, napalm-quality salsa)
  • Chili powder
  • Cumin

So come back regularly and stay with me for my next attempt!

May 31, 2009: Round II

I'm happy to say the second try is stellar. Far superior to the original in every way...

Mexican Salsa -- Restaurant Style attempt #2

1 28 oz. can diced fancy tomatoes, petite (open can and empty out as much water/juice as possible)
4 Tbs bottled HOT jalapenos, finely minced
1 Tbs pickle juice from jalapeno jar
1 tsp garlic powder
1/2 tsp Kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper

2 Tbs fresh cilantro, finely minced
1/4 cup red onion, finely minced
2-3 dried chili peppers, finely minced

Finely mince jalapenos, cilantro, and onion. Soak dried peppers in warm water on the counter for an hour then prepare. Chop peppers as finely as possible -- a food chopper is ideal.

Note: Remember, the seeds are what really add the heat, so use as many or as little as you'd like. I used all the seeds from 3 peppers but only used the skin of 1 whole pepper.

Put all ingredients into a blender and fold in and then blend to desired consistency. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours before serving.

I almost hate to say it because I really enjoy the trial and error process when cooking, but this batch was perfect. In fact, it was so good that it actually eclipsed the Mexican restaurant salsas I was attempting to duplicate.

However, I like my salsa hot to extra hot. I only found this to be medium to medium-hot. The heat was not evenly distributed enough for my liking; one bit would be mild to medium, then the next would be hot when you get a couple seeds and a bit of the chili pepper.

My next round will use all three or even four of the hot chili peppers -- as well as all their seeds. I only soaked the peppers for 5 to 10 minutes and that was nowhere near long enough. I'll absolutely soak for the full hour or longer next time.

Remember when working with hot peppers to use rubber gloves or to avoid touching the seeds and inner rind. The oils can and will most certainly burn you if you touch your face or other parts of your body.

You may also want to keep a bowl of milk around in case in case of accidental facial exposure. Simply dip a paper towel or cloth into the milk and rub on the affected area. The milk will neutralize the hot pepper oil.

Oh, and here's a note from a reader about the pepper seeds:

I can't wait to try out the salsa recipe on your website. However, there is one ingredient I'd like to take issue with. Pepper seeds can be hard for some individuals to digest, can cause real problems for people prone to conditions such as Crohn's and diverticulitis, and are generally unpleasant for anyone to try to chew. Fortunately, the white membrane that contains the seeds actually has most of the heat - so you can leave the seeds out entirely. Include that instead of cutting it away (puree it up so it gets distributed) and you should have all the heat you need. (If you don't, go ahead and throw those seeds in for a little boost!)

Ryan in Tucson

June 9, 2009: Round III -- Some Like it HOT

Made a new batch today with canned tomatoes and habenero peppers.

Mexican Salsa -- Restaurant Style attempt #3

1 10 oz. can Rotel diced tomatoes w/ habenero, hot (open can and empty out as much water/juice as possible)
1 Tbs pickle juice from jalapeno jar
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp Kosher salt

2 Tbs fresh cilantro, finely minced
1/4 cup red onion, finely minced

Finely mince cilantro and onion. Drain juice from Rotel can. Combine all ingredients in a blender and make to desired consistency.

We're only using ten ounces of tomatoes and chilis so note the smaller portions of salt and garlic powder.

Note the color of this salsa. It's brown opposed to red like our past endeavors. This is nice because it gives this one a distinct look apart from milder salsas/sauces.

As I said before, this salsa is hot, so be careful and be sure it's clearly labled so people with milder palettes won't be calling for your head.

What's nice about this recipe is that it makes about 1/3 of the usual batch. This is ideal for a salsa party as most likely only a few of your guests will be brave enough to dip in this.

You know, as hot as this one turned out... I could still take it hotter. This is clearly a hot salsa, but if you're a real salsa afficianado like I am, you'll know when you taste it that it's not what we lovingly call "extra hot."

Per that extra hot batch... that will have to wait for another day.

November 23, 2009: Round IV -- It's GREEN!

This cool, refreshing salsa is a great contrast to the very hot type listed above. Please note: mint can overpower a sauce so begin by using a tiny amount, less then a teaspoon, and maybe even only 6 leaves. There are many varieties of mint and flavors can even differ drastically depending on the age of the plant.

Mexican Salsa Verde -- Restaurant Style

1 28 oz. can tomatillos
3-4 fresh tomataillos
1 Tbs pickle juice from jalapeno jar
2 tbs jarred jalapenos
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp Kosher salt

1/3 tsp ground black pepper
1 banana pepper, with seeds
1/2 zucchini, peeled
4 Tbs fresh cilantro, finely minced
2 sprigs of fresh mint, or 1 tsp mint leaves
1/4 cup red onion, finely minced
Juice of 1/2 lime

Drain juice from tomatillo can. Crush tomatillos in hand and drop in blender or food processor (if using food processor process in batches). Slice fresh tomatillos into manageable pieces and then add to crushed tomatillos. Add juice of lime and pickle juice from jalapeno jar. Blend or process until smooth.

Peel zuchini and cut from stem to end (so you have a long cut with a long, flat surface down the middle). Cut 1/2 of zucchini roughly and add to mixture. Cut banana pepper roughly and drop in. Add jalapenos, onion, cilantro, mint, and seasonings.

Process or blend to desired thickness.

Optional: Reserve some of the canned or fresh tomatillos, along with onion, cilantro, mint, and pepper, and finely mince to make the sauce chunky.

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