Supermarket Salsa: Super Bowl-Worthy?

It's a big game, but somebody's gotta ignore it. That's my job this Sunday night, when two packs of big burly guys from up North throw a ball and pummel each other in the ground one last time to determine who's the baddest bunch of footballers of 2007.

My husband often asserts that I'm highly un-American, (never been to Vegas or watched "Star Wars") and my refusal to watch the Super Bowl ("Come on, the commercials are great") is a highly unpatriotic act that worries him.

Oh well.

Although I don't actively participate and join the party around the telly, I do recognize that I have an important behind-the-scenes role to play -- as arbiter of snacks.


The salsa contestants. (Kim O'Donnel)

Four hours of grunting in front of a mega-HD, turbo surround-sound flat-screen television is hard work. I'm getting exhausted just thinking about it. Physical labor of this intensity requires sustenance to help maintain endurance and mental acuity. This isn't just a marathon, folks; it's a snack-a-thon.

To that end, I suggest a full-on fatty feast, no utensils (or napkins) so that you feel a spiritual kinship with your cave-inhabiting brethren. This day is why chips and dips were invented, after all, so embrace the tradition and use those jeans to wipe your fingers!

Since this year's contest is held in Glendale, Ariz., a southwestern theme is highly appropriate. For dips, you might try a hold-the-velveeta queso or an guacamole from today's Food section's Guac-Off Challenge (complete with recipes and tips). But let's not forget the go-to dip of choice -- salsa.

Because the quality of your Super Bowl snack stash is of my utmost primary concern, I've taken on the task of facilitating a blind taste test of supermarket salsas. Last month, I enlisted the smarts and palates of eight crackerjack tasters, split evenly between the sexes, to taste six brands of jarred salsas available at either a Washington area Harris Teeter or Whole Foods store.

To help establish a standard unit of measure, all of the salsas in the tasting are of "medium" heat (according to their labels) and all were sampled with the same brand of tortilla chips (Nana's Cocina from Manassas, Va.-based Abuelita Foods)

In addition to examining balance of flavor (salty-sweet-acid-heat), the group analyzed several critical characteristics including chip clingability and heat accuracy (i.e. is it a true "medium"?) to help determine which -- or if any -- of the contestants were ultimately worth purchasing. In the scheme of things, salsa is a relatively inexpensive proposition -- all contestants are under $4 - but if a salsa doesn't sing, the culinary impact on your snack-a-thon can be, well, devastating.

The results, listed after the jump, indicate no clear winner, but instead three big losers, neck and neck for the booby prize. All eight tasters unanimously gave the boot to Amy's Salsa, which had only a narrow edge on Newman's Own (7 to 1) and Frontera (6 to 2).

After you've perused the panel's assessments, take the salsa poll at the bottom of this page or weigh in on your favorite supermarket salsa in the comments area. Salsas are listed in alphabetical order, not in rank of preference.

Now, let's play ball!

Amy's Salsa "made with organic tomatoes" (17.5 ounces, $3.79)
Tasting notes: "Nasty flavor, metallic taste," "Too tangy, tastes very jar-like,"
"Can't place why but it is very wet and not in a good way." On chip clingability:
"Everyone who eats this will have red spots on their shirts - it's too runny."
Super Bowl-Worthy? The vote was unanimous: No way, Jose.

Frontera "Thick & Chunky" with roasted tomato, jalapeno and cilantro (16 ounces, $3.99)
Tasting notes: "Mystery flavor is too dominant. Interesting at first but becomes overpowering," "Kinda runny but there are probably less preservatives," "Best looking of the bunch, most natural," "Overwhelmingly smoky taste, but something's not right - tastes fake," "A non-chunky salsa can be good but in this case, it doesn't make that leap to restaurant quality." (ironic, given that it's labeled as "thick & chunky" and is the handiwork of celebrity chef Rick Bayless.)
Super Bowl-Worthy? Six voted no; two said "maybe." Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the half-time show.

Green Mountain Gringo Salsa (16 ounces, $3.99)
Tasting notes: "Way too sweet," "It looks very dark and tomato paste-y," "Too watery for me and the tomatoes don't taste as sharp/fresh as I'd like," "Both fruity and spicy - a nice combination that would satisfy most every guest," "A taco-friendly mix: you can taste the chili powder, I think." (no chili powder in the list of ingredients, but tomatillos, pasillas and jalapenos.) Super Bowl-Worthy? Four tasters gave the thumbs up; three considered this not quite touchdown material.

Newman's Own 'All- Natural Bandito" Salsa (11 ounces, $2.49)
Tasting notes: "Tastes like it's missing salt," "wimpy-watery," "very bland, very forgettable. A step up from tomato paste." (the third-listed ingredient)
Consensus: Runny, lacking flavor, and not a true "medium."
Super Bowl-Worthy? Seven out of 8 said not a ball's chance...

Pace "Chunky" (15 ounces, $3.19)
Tasting notes: "This was the best," "Nice fresh taste" "Tastes like the jar," "Too tomato-y," "The smell - I didn't want to put this in my mouth," This is the winner of best fit with a cold beer."
Super Bowl-Worthy? This one needs the help of a referee: the vote was split down the middle on both sides.

Tostitos "All Natural Chunky" (15.5 ounces, $3.19)
Tasting notes: "A slight pickle taste," "Tangy - like it," this is a drunken frat party salsa," "kinda bright in color. That's not a good sign. Looks artificial."
Super Bowl-Worthy? It was a mixed vote. Four sang its praises, three gave it the boot and one lonely soul was on the fence.

Many thanks to my intrepid salsa troopers: Rocci, Christian, Rhome, Dan, Holly, Amy, Sarah and Tanya.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 30, 2008; 7:20 AM ET Taste Tests
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Comments

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Jeez Kim, you've already changed my life with the grilled cheese sandwich feature. Call me open minded, but I like to offer my chips the option of dipping into salsa or guac. And was there any suspense about the outcome of jarred salsa? The preservatives offer their own unique flavor which I try to avoid. What's the problem with a cutting board, a good sharp knive, a few tomatoes, cilantro, jalepena, some garlic and onion?

Posted by: Dave | January 30, 2008 7:44 AM

There are some very good commercial salsas out there, but you didn't try them: Trader Joe's Peach Salsa is loverly, as is their Corn and Black Bean salsa. And of all things, Safeway makes excellent salsa in their Organic line. I'm having a hard time finding it recently, but the Chipotle and the Roasty Tomato were both some of the best I've had.

OR you could just stop by your local Taqueria Poblano and buy some of their garlicky good freshly made salsa. That stuff is fabulous!

Posted by: louie | January 30, 2008 8:14 AM

Eh, I can give you a pass on the SuperBowl and Vegas but you should do yourself a favor: whip up your favorite home-made snacks, invite some pals over, and enjoy "Star Wars" on a cold and blustery day. It's not high-cinema, but if you can still tap in to your inner 7 or 8-year old you'll love the movie.

You know, maybe a "cheese"-themed set of snacks would be a great partner for the movie-watching. Definitely a plan for some fun!

Posted by: eeghead | January 30, 2008 8:28 AM

Have never seen Star Wars??? Scandalous!!

Posted by: mmh | January 30, 2008 8:54 AM

Forget the commercial salsas - if you're going pre-made get the "fresh" salsa that is usually in the deli section of the grocery store. Even better, forget chips and salsa - chop up some onions and tomatoes, shred some good cheese, buy a pint of Texas or Terlingua Red chili from Hard Times Cafe, and make nachos.

Posted by: Rosslyn | January 30, 2008 9:28 AM

My absolute favorite jarred salsa is Mrs. Renfro's Raspberry Chipotle. It's a bit sweet and a bit smokey. Their plain old medium salsa is good too.

Posted by: mollyjade | January 30, 2008 9:30 AM

Safeway Select's salsa is definitely near the top in quality and you can get it in bigger quantities than non-store brands. Giant is actually catching up by copying Safeway too though.

Posted by: M | January 30, 2008 10:10 AM

First of all, I had no idea that Abuelita's was based in Vienna. Great! And I didn't think others would agree that Safeway brand salsas are actually really good. The corn and black bean are perfect.

And Dave, ur right!! chop of some onion, maybe even some garlic, black beans, tomato, corn, fresh lemons, cilantro, salt to taste and you're good!

FlaNboyant Eats

Posted by: FlaNBoyant Eats | January 30, 2008 10:26 AM

The only good jarred salsa I have ever eaten comes in the refrigerator case and is from Salsa Lisa in Minneapolis. It is available in about half the states in the US and for a while I was finding it at Shoppers Food Warehouse in College Park, but I haven't seen it in a few years. Normally, I don't care at all for salsa, but I can eat this stuff by the gallon. www.salsalisa.com - she will ship if you're nice.

My husband likes Pace, but only the hot stuff.

Posted by: kgirl2 | January 30, 2008 10:31 AM

The BF loves Trader Joe's Hot Salsa -- in the fresh case (not in a jar).

I have to admit that I adore the salsa at Garduno's (a restaurant in New Mexico, in AZ now too I think). When I go home to visit the folks, it is our guaranteed meal out. I think the food is great even if the decor is a bit over the top.

There's a question: which restaurants have the best chips and salsa for pre-meal? There seem to be two camps -- more thick and corn crisp as opposed to super thin and crispy fried.

Posted by: KitchenCat | January 30, 2008 11:05 AM

Definitely Pace chunky Cilantro! It's by far the the best of processed salsas.

Posted by: Barbara | January 30, 2008 11:11 AM

Where's the cheese? I prefer to dip the Giant brand unsalted white corn tortillas into a spicy cheesy dip.

Posted by: LisaLuvs2Cook | January 30, 2008 11:13 AM

I lived in the Southwest most of my life, so I will vouch for the Garduno's salsa that KitchenCat mentioned. But, supermarket salsa overall is awful, and there are but two that are allowed residence in my home. Even the fresh stuff from the deli case is trash here. If you like green salsa, Mrs. Renfro's is quite good. Bliss on eggs. Surprisingly, Giant's store brand of salsa is quite good (hot only). Fruity salsa does not count, ever. But if you want some truly amazing salsa, you need to order it. El Charro Cafe in Tucson has the best salsa possibly anywhere, and you can order it online. Worth the effort.

Posted by: Salsa snob | January 30, 2008 11:38 AM

I usually get ChiChi's or Old El Paso from the supermarket. Too lazy to make my own. It's also good poured over chicken parts and baked until done, served with rice to soak up the spicy juices.

Posted by: Southern Maryland | January 30, 2008 11:47 AM

In my opinion, O'Charley's has the BEST salsa for a chain restaurant. They make it fresh daily. It's very chunky and has TONS of flavor. Some of the ingredients include tomatoes, onions, jalapenos, cilantro, etc. It's thick and the tortilla chips they use aren't the skinny fried ones.

Chili's salsa is thin and runny and the chips are thin, fried, and heavily salted.

My husband and I ALWAYS order chips and salsa from O'Charley's because it is so delicious!

Posted by: to kitchen cat | January 30, 2008 12:18 PM

You should have added Old El Paso chunky salsa to the mix. My fav, by far! Way better than Pace...

Posted by: aimee in leesburg | January 30, 2008 1:09 PM

Being from Minneapolis originally, I second the Salsa Lisa brand. Perhaps it's a good thing you can't get it around here, because when I lived in Mpls,I used to go through a jar of this a week. I still make sure to bring back a big jar of this stuff everytime I go home.

Posted by: DC | January 30, 2008 1:23 PM

Salsa preferences can be all over the place. Some people like fruit in their salsa. Me, I hate it with a passion. Don't put peaches, mangos, or pineapples in my salsa. Also, don't add sugar. Many jarred salsas are high in added sugar (check out the ingredients list).

One of my favorite jarred salsas is Herdez Salsa Casera, hot.

Posted by: M Street | January 30, 2008 1:25 PM

I love guac and cheese dips, but love the option of salsa too!

My two favorites are found in the fresh section. La Salsa Chilena (I usually get it at Ralph's, but I think Whole Foods sells it) has a very good cilantro taste. And Trader Joe's Salsa Especial (medium...though I think it gets pretty hot after a few bites!)always it a favorite for me and the boyfriend.

But if I had to choose a jarred salsa, my family used to always buy On the Border's jarred salsa at the supermarket.

Posted by: Rachel in San Diego | January 30, 2008 2:03 PM

Green Mountain Gringo Salsa (Medium).
The best!!.

Posted by: Steubenville | January 30, 2008 2:08 PM

I'm surprised about the Frontera vote. You should try the Tangy Two Chile variety from the "classic salsa" line (not "thick & chunky"). That is my absolute favorite salsa. It's spicy and smokey - yum!

Posted by: MBinDC | January 30, 2008 2:12 PM

I have to post my complaint about "smokey" salsa? Who ever thought that adding fake "smoked flavor" to salsa is a good idea. There are very few foods that make me gag, but it is on the top of my list. The Green Mountain Gringo is the best store bought canned variety. I do not always dig the "fresh" salsa that you can buy at stores either. I am not always looking for freshly cut tomatoes and chilies. So I tend to make my own salsa and can it in jars to save it away until I need it.

Posted by: That Guy | January 30, 2008 3:39 PM

And nothing beats Salsa made by hand in bowls of volcanic rock from Southern Mexico/Belize/Guatamala,

Posted by: That Guy | January 30, 2008 3:42 PM

Make it a third (fourth?) vote for Giant's refrigerated store-brand salsa. My SoCal spouse loves it.

Posted by: bc | January 30, 2008 3:49 PM

Arriba's Fire Roasted Salsas are pretty good for a jar. For fruit 'salsa', I like the pineapple one from TJs.

Posted by: Arizona Native | January 30, 2008 3:52 PM

Green Mountain Gringo (Hot) is by far the best mass-produced salsa I've ever tasted! FYI: Whole Foods stocks many different salsas.

Posted by: Mike | January 30, 2008 3:55 PM

I second the motion for Mrs. Renfro's green chile salsa -- I discovered it when I lived in TX, and now I live in NM, but I still think it stacks up well to our local products. We're up to our huevos in salsa here, and everyone has their favorites (Garduno's? OK but not outstanding, IMHO). I'd rather make my own, which isn't difficult, and it's nice to be able to adjust the heat to my liking. But if I'm pressed for time, Trader Joe's has some interesting varieties (get the kind in the refrigerated case, not bottled).

Posted by: Tina | January 30, 2008 4:04 PM

Ok, when in a pinch, open a can of El Pato tomato sauce. Seriously the best stuff to come out of a can/jar. Its not a salsa per-se, but rather a tomato sauce with onions and spices. Great with chips, quesadillas, etc.

When I want something more than a jar, but am still in a hurry, I buy a package of the salsa-fresca fromt he grocery store and blend in the blender for a few seconds. This improves dippability (texture), while maintaining 'real' salsa taste.

And finally, roast some tomatos/tomatillos and peppers in very hot oven for 20-30 min. (turning constantly). Blend. add lemon juice/vinegar and salt/pepper until it tastes the way you want. Easy, and not too much mess.

Posted by: Salsalita | January 30, 2008 4:15 PM

I really think it's pretty funny that some of the best recommendations didn't come from boutique supermarkets and they were the store brands of the old standby chains.....

Posted by: CW | January 30, 2008 4:27 PM

Well funny nuf, if I don't make my own, we happen to like the Safeway Select "Chipolte Salsa." It has a nice flavor and bite, It's great for tacos, and nachos. I don't recommend it as just a dip for chips; for that only fresh salsa is best

Posted by: Sticks | January 30, 2008 4:59 PM

I love ChiChi's mild salsa - I could drink from the jar. Okay...I have.

Posted by: Paul | January 30, 2008 5:32 PM

Co-signing the others extolling the virtues of Safeway's Corn and Black Bean Salsa... I like the hot one though...

Posted by: Tracey | January 30, 2008 5:55 PM

I love to make my own. In fact, I bought the ingredients today to make some because the whole family is sick and my fresh salsa has fresh onions (vitamin c), fresh garlic (boosts immunity), and tomatoes (vitamin c again). Plus, the salt in the salsa and the chips encourages you to drink more water, juice, or milk (for the under 10 set), which helps banish sickness also. I used to make it by the quart for sick friends.

I'm not a fine of hot salsa (and definitely my children aren't), so I don't use green peppers or tomatillos or anything, but I do put in a few dried red pepper flakes. This time of year I use canned petite diced tomatoes instead of what passes for fresh tomatoes at the market. That's my main beef about salsa from the deli. I like my tomatoes red and soft, not hard and pink.

Posted by: salsa fan | January 30, 2008 8:35 PM

We always make fresh salsa following the recipe from Guapo's restaurants here in the DC area.

Posted by: JM | January 30, 2008 9:04 PM

ChiChi's is the best bottled, Trader Joe's is the best fresh.

Posted by: Anthony | January 31, 2008 11:02 AM

My husband - pretty much a salsa snob - really likes the Trader Joe's Salsas (especially the Chipotle) and likes the Whole Foods 365 brand even better. His chip of choice is the Trader Joe's Organic Yellow Corn chip.

While I will actually be watching the game, I'm also into the food. Because we'll actually make our game food our dinner, I'm making chocolate-chipotle vegetarian chili, soft pretzels, and some kind of dessert, possibly a vegan cheesecake from bakingbites.com. It's a motley lineup, but my husband is excited about each one so I figured why not!

Posted by: Lisa | January 31, 2008 2:05 PM

Salsa Lisa - hands down the best- almost as good as fresh...buy in the refrigerator case in the minneapolis area. we love it!

Posted by: gail | January 31, 2008 5:57 PM

Put my vote in for Safeway's fresh salsa (brand name "The Deli Counter"). I just discovered it and have already purchased a new container to share at a super bowl party. I make my own salsa in the summer with farmer's market goodies, but this stuff is good. At 5 cal/2 TBS, it's very good!

Posted by: mmg | January 31, 2008 10:24 PM

Okay I apologize in advance for a shameless plug, but I'll share a really really good Cuban guac (think Paris snobs) recipe tomorrow on my food blog... if you make your way there tomorrow after 4 pm, you'll see it, love it, and just might make it this weekend!!

I won't leave the URL here but you can google my *name*

Go Safeway brands! :) We have Publix and Kroger's down here in ATL... and no Chi-Chi's :( :(

Posted by: FlaNBoyant Eats | January 31, 2008 11:13 PM

I will second the vote for Herdez salsa. It is watery right out of the jar, but the flavor is so fresh and authentic. I usually drain off some of the liquid if I will be using it as a dip.

Posted by: Sweetie | February 1, 2008 10:39 AM

Safeway brands...no way. Herdez is good. Just drain off the water. Home-made is great. And, El Charro in Tucson is good, too. The best are made in Tucson---Food City rocks.

Posted by: Zonie.. | February 1, 2008 2:04 PM

I would love the recipe for the salsa at Casa Molina. It blows mosts salsas out of the water, including that at El Charro

Posted by: WDC by Way of Tucson | February 1, 2008 4:00 PM

Trader Joe's has the best salsa around -- fresh or jarred. My seven-year old loves the Salsa Authentica (medium-hot but not intense). It's the perfect salsa to dollop on chips with some cheese and jalapeno for nachos. Hubby and I also like Habernero-Lime and the Peach. The peach is really good with "healthy" chips like the ones from Trader Joe's that have soy and flax seed. Normally though we love On the Border's chips from Sam's Club.

Posted by: vaw3 | February 1, 2008 5:29 PM

El Charro's is great, and so is Casa Molina, but don't discount Martin's on 4th (for liquid-y salsa), Rosa's, or Guadalajara Grill (chunky)! I live in mexican food heaven, and I dread moving away! If I get storebought salsa, it's TJ's all the way, usually their salsa verde.

Salsa Fan - tomatillos aren't hot. They're mostly kind of acidic, like green tomatoes.

Posted by: Another Tucsonan | February 1, 2008 7:02 PM

My personal favorite is Mrs Renfros Green Salsa. It does tend to be too hot for most tastes but I prefer it to any of the mass produced jar salsas.

Posted by: likesithot | February 1, 2008 11:11 PM

My current fave is Wegman's Garlic and Lime Salsa, lots of flavor and tang. Not particularly hot, but that's OK, anyone who wants the burn can add it from their favorite bottle.

Posted by: Fluxgirl | February 2, 2008 10:35 AM

LOL, a bunch of dang Yankees go on about salsa, too funny. Just go buy a jar of Pace and be done with it. Peach salsa??? Good grief!

Harty

Posted by: Harty | February 2, 2008 6:13 PM

I have to go with Mrs. Renfro's peach salsa to cook with - pour a jar over chicken in a crockpot and dinner will be ready when you arrive home. Add rice and a can of black beans. Who needs take out?

Posted by: Linda | February 2, 2008 6:57 PM

Okay WP bloggers... so sorry for the super tardy post on Guac...I ran into some problems on Friday with deadlines and didn't have time to make it... It's in the process RIGHT NOW.... and will be up in just a bit---in time for tomorrow if you like.. i'll even post it here too! :)

B-

Posted by: Flanboyant Eats | February 2, 2008 7:29 PM

My grocery store salsa of choice these days tends to be Desert Pepper Trading Company's roasted tomato chipotle corn salsa. Good flavor, good texture and some heat.

(And a shout-out to those who name-checked all those great Tucson establishments. Now you've got me craving El Charro...)

Posted by: DC Zonie | February 3, 2008 5:08 PM

The 505 salsa from Costco is the best salsa I have had in a jar, but we do not get a lot of choices here.

Posted by: MP | February 4, 2008 12:10 AM

I'm with you on the Star Wars and Vegas thing!!!

Posted by: Woodbridge, VA | February 6, 2008 1:57 PM

I'm a Texan who loves a good blended salsa and really thin crispy chips (ahhh, Pappasitos...).

For my money, the Chevy's chain has the best chips and salsa in the DC area. I was shocked but thrilled.

In a jar, I really like Trader Joe's Double Roasted Salsa. Delicious flavor.

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