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  • Writer's pictureScott Rotella

My favorite salsa: A simple recipe packed with flavor

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

Salsa Rojas with Guacamole and Pico de Gallo
Salsa Rojas with Guacamole and Pico de Gallo

What is your favorite cuisine?  For me, it is a tied race between Italian and Mexican. However, my favorite meal out is definitely Mexican.  I have rarely had Mexican food that I don’t like. I have had many expensive meals at “high end” restaurants that leave me with the impression of large hotel conference meals where you can tell the food was cooked many hours ago. Just too disappointing!  But Mexican food never disappoints me. I always judge my first impression of a Mexican restaurant by their salsa, refried beans and margaritas.  

When I moved back to California, we discovered what is now our favorite Mexican restaurant. It passed all of my tests, but the chips and salsa was a new experience for me.  It was not the typical chunky tomato sauce and looked much more like the color of an enchilada sauce.  But the flavor?  Extremely different and extremely tasty!  I was in love.  

I tried many times to get the recipe. That failed! I even tried internet recipes that looked like a similar result, but those failed.  So then each time I visited the restaurant, I asked the server a specific question about the salsa. Sometimes they said they did not know and would ask the kitchen staff and sometimes they excitedly shared some of the details.  Similar to an enchilada sauce, this salsa gets its flavor and color from dried chilies.   Guajillo peppers to be specific. I also added Ancho and Arbol in my final salsa. I will expand on the peppers a bit later for those that may not be familiar.

In the end, I had clues–but not a recipe. So I started to experiment.  Not sure how many batches I made before I settled on this version.  Let me just say that we have had salsa on the ready in our refrigerator for the past 4-5 years.  My version is definitely different from the restaurant, but it is always a hit with everyone that tries it. I stopped tinkering with the recipe about 2 years ago. 

This recipe is fairly easy to make, but does require a few specialty ingredients.  

When entertaining with Mexican food, we always make pico de gallo, this salsa and some guacamole as our primary dips.  

Making the Salsa Roja


  • Guajillo Peppers: Guajillo is the dried form of a mirasol pepper.  They are deep red, slightly spicy and a bit earthy with fruit undertones.  It is less spicy than a Jalapeno, which is not very hot when you remove the seeds and ribs.

Guajillo Peppers
Guajillo Peppers

  • Ancho Peppers: The Ancho pepper is the dried version of a poblano. It is actually Poblanos that have been allowed to ripen further, which is why they are red and not green. Poblanos are also not very spicy and are what is used to make chili relleno. The ancho adds a nice smoky flavor and a touch of sweetness. 


Ancho Peppers
Ancho Peppers

  • Arbol Peppers: Chile de Arbol are small but have much more heat than the other peppers. They add an interesting complexity and heat.  I absolutely remove the seeds for making the salsa so that it adds some heat, but will not offend a sensitive palate.  

Arbol Peppers
Arbol Peppers

  • Coriander Seed: Coriander seeds come from the coriander plant also known as Cilantro in the United States.  The seeds have a different flavor profile than Cilantro, but share similarities. I like to use the seeds to add some additional complexity to the flavor. 

  • Cumin Seed: Cumin is one of my favorite spices to use when making Mexican fare. It adds a warm, nutty smokiness.  I like to use seeds here so that I can toast them to bring out more flavor.

  • Roma Tomatoes:  We always use roma tomatoes when making any type of salsa. They are firm and have more meat and less seeds and water than other varieties. 

  • White Distilled Vinegar: This addition of acid tempers the flavor and adds balance to the savoriness of the other ingredients. 

  • Garlic: What is salsa without a little garlic? I use dorot’s frozen garlic for its convenience and freshness. You might find it in your grocery store's frozen food section. I buy mine from Trader Joe’s. 

  • Agave Syrup:  This is really to taste. You already have some sweetness for roasted onion, chilies and spices.  Taste and add if you need a better balance of sweet, heat and acid. 

  • Cilantro:  I love cilantro.  I really feel bad for those that have the genetic disposition where it tastes like soap.  If you don’t like it, leave it out.  But please try it in the salsa.  It adds to the flavor but does not stand out.  


  • Roast the vegetables

    • Set you oven or or even toaster oven on broil

    • Core and quarter the tomatoes. 

    • Remove the skin and root from the onion and cut your half in half. 

    • Place onion and tomato on an appropriately sized sheet pan. I place it on foil for easier cleanup.

    • Sprinkle wil both olive oil and salt

    • Broil until you have a char on both the onions and tomatoes. 

  • Prep and hydrate the spices and chilies

    • Remove the stems from the chilies. If you have sensitive hands, please use gloves and do not touch your face

    • Slice open the chilies to remove the seeds and ribs.  If you fully remove all, the salsa will not be spicy. If you want a little heat, include a portion of the guajillo pepper seeds.  

    • Place the peppers along with the coriander and cumin seeds in a large frying pan.

    • Toast over medium heat for about 4 minutes.  The chiles will soften and turn a brighter red. 

    • Add about 1 ½ cups of water and continue to cook over medium heat. Allow the water to come to a boil and then turn down the heat to simmer for about 5 minutes. This will reconstitute the peppers. 

  • Final Assembly

    • Place the roasted vegetables along with the chilies and water to a blender. 

    • Add the garlic, vinegar and cilantro to the blender and blend on the highest speed.  

    • Taste for salt and agave and adjust as appropriate. 


  • If you do not have a super high speed blender, you can pull off the tomato skins after roasting. Otherwise, you may have some visible tomato skin.  I do not bother. 

  • Rehydrating the peppers will cause some fumes.  It makes me sneeze, so make sure you have your vent hood on high. 

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