Cinco salsas

Tasters liked the chunky texture and bright flavors of the salsa from Zia Tacqueria on James Island.

Salsa, seriously. Come Saturday, Cinco de Mayo, salsa will be borne by chips, as surely as margaritas will pass revelers’ lips.

Though this tomatoey concoction is ubiquitous in Tex-Mex dining, salsa is never to be taken for granted. After all, salsa is a Mexican restaurant’s opening act, so to speak, the first impression of the food to be had.

But what makes a good salsa? What should salsa dippers be tuned in to?

We asked three of Charleston’s most respected palates to weigh in on the subject: chef Donald Barickman, an instructor at The Culinary Institute of Charleston; Holly Herrick, a Le Cordon Bleu graduate, food writer and author; and Deidre Schipani, the restaurant critic for The Post and Courier.

We also put “cinco” salsas to a blind taste test involving those three as well as several volunteers from the office (no arm-twisting necessary). The salsas were collected from these local restaurants: La Nortena (North Charleston), Santi’s (downtown and Summerville), Taco Boy (downtown and Folly Beach), Uno Mas (Mount Pleasant) and Zia Taqueria (James Island).

The idea was to see how much salsas really differ from one another — it turns out a lot — and to raise awareness about this sassy south-of-the-border fixture.

Salsa is the Spanish word for “sauce.” They can be cooked or fresh mixtures with “salsa cruda,” uncooked, being the most likely one brought to the table.

Schipani, for one, said she expects salsa to be more than an appetizer or first course — i.e, chips and dip — when eating out. “I look for salsa to be the condiment at the table,” she said, to be used with dishes throughout the meal.

She looks for a salsa’s “brightness” as a bellwether, “for the acidity to open up my taste buds.” She’s a fan of cilantro in salsa, too, not one who tastes “soap” in the herb, as some do.

Texture is Herrick’s first consideration, and she goes for chunky. “If you actually see the vegetables and cilantro, you know it’s in there.”

Barickman also eyes the liquid consistency up front. “If you can get the salsa on the chip without dripping on the menu, that’s a good sign.”

And the chef firmly believes that complimentary salsa and chips should be offered at every Mexican restaurant. “It’s like getting bread,” he said.

Schipani once judged salsas by how vibrantly red they were. She has come to understand that a “ruddy” color may indicate roasting or smoking of the vegetables. “Now I look at it with new eyes,” she said.

For the taste test, salsas were identified only by a number, 1 through 5. Tasters were asked to judge the salsas in six ways: appearance, texture, taste, freshness, heat and complexity; and grade them for each: below average, average, good or excellent.

It was the first choice of both Barickman and Herrick, and Schipani rated it second. Office staffers overwhelmingly rated it their favorite.

Why? “Discernable vegetables, mild lingering heat, good for everyone,” said Barickman. “Perfect chunk to liquid/sauce ratio. Most well rounded of all,” Herrick said.

Said Schipani, “Most ingredients are tasting of themselves (tomatoes, onion, peppers, cilantro) rather than blended.”

Other comments included “very fresh,” “so tasty, bright, nice acidity,” “plentiful cilantro.”

Santi’s salsa came in a close second, based on the highest total of good and excellent marks. Tasters liked the crunchy onion, hand-cut vegetables and “nice bright color.” One noted that “a little cucumber (taste) seems to come through ... I hate cucumber.” Another quipped, “I feel like I want to spend some time with this salsa and get to know it better.”

Herrick praised this salsa’s “nice fruity tomato freshness” and “fresh jalapeno.”

Barickman appreciated the texture: “lightly pureed, good consistency,” and detected a “bit of cinnamon flavor?” One taster noted a “clean (taste) with minor bite.” Another said, “There’s a sweetness and a bitterness. A complexity, but not a good one.”

Interestingly, this salsa got an equal number of “below average” grades as “good” and “excellent” combined. On the minus side, tasters criticized it as “thin and flat” and “too simple” in complexity. On the plus side, “lime flavor came through” and “citrus-y — nice touch.”

Here’s another salsa with a great divide in opinion. The professional critics liked it much more than the newspaper staffers. Many remarked about its rusty red color. It was Schipani’s top pick for its “smoky notes” and “most heat spread over mouth.” Barickman rated its complexity as excellent, with a caveat. “If tomatoes were smoked — yes. Liquid smoke? — Average.”

The amateur critics were brutal. “Strange flavor.” “It’s complex, but it doesn’t taste good.”

Reach Food Editor Teresa Taylor at 937-4886.