By Haylley Johnson
Fighting with the speaker at the Taco Cabana drive-thru near my house never gets old for me. It is the same scenario every time I go to buy a breakfast taco – I drive up, I order, and then I try to ask for salsa. The poor guy on the other end asks if I mean hot sauce. “No,” I say, “I want salsa. You know the red stuff with chunks of tomato?” “Ah, pico?” he asks. I sigh . . . “No, I’ll just take some red hot sauce.”
I usually give up in the end and simply ask for the hot sauce (which I always think of as salsa foolishly or not). Recently, though, I’ve been noticing it more in my culinary travels around San Antonio. Hot sauce or salsa? The tomato, pepper, and tomatillo concoctions – freshly-made and chunky – used to be salsa in my mind, but so many San Antonians seem to call that creation hot sauce. To me, hot sauce is the thin, spicy, red or green liquid which contains plenty of vinegar: Tabasco essentially. I needed to get the story straight, and maybe spare the poor man at Taco C.
First stop – the professionals. Elizabeth Kossick, a CIA Chef-Instructor and Latin Cuisines Specialist, seemed confused by my query. In interior Mexico, “salsas can be either green or red. They can be spiced with chilis, or they can be mild,” she says. “You could say salsa picante, but there is no specific term for hot sauce. It is under the umbrella term of salsa, and salsa can be made with anything and everything.”
“You know, I have more background on Mexican food, but what I think hot sauce means in San Antonio is a sauce that contains a vinegar,” fellow instructor and Latin Cuisines Specialist Iliana de la Vega says. “Everyone relates [hot sauce] to bottled ones – Cholula or whatever brand like that.”
That’s what I thought, too – where were the wires crossing? Mary Lou’s Café’s manager, Elena Joch, had a similar answer: “A hot sauce is not salsa. Salsa is a mix with tomato, and hot sauce is more of a liquid.”
Maybe the owner of Chris Madrid’s Nachos and Burgers, Chris Madrid, would know. Madrid’s serves house-made salsa with his famous tostada burger. “Sometimes we just say hot sauce. Sometimes we call it our homemade salsa,” Madrid said. “Years ago, I think when we did tacos and enchiladas, we called it salsa. Now for our burgers, we just call it hot sauce.” But when he looked at his menu, he realized that Chris Madrid’s menu says salsa goes on the tostada burger.
“Salsa’s definition is a sauce, especially a hot sauce containing chilis. It means basically the same thing [as hot sauce],” he said. “All the taco places I go to, I always ask for hot sauce.”
Madrid admitted to me that he had never really realized that there was this discrepancy before I asked him. I racked my brains trying to think of someone who might have noticed it as well. Diana Barrios, the owner of Los Barrios, a long-time San Antonio Tex-Mex establishment, perhaps. “We call it hot sauce for some people and salsa for others. We call it hot sauce because we have a bunch of different salsas that we use for topping different dishes,” she says.
So the different nomenclatures could be a distinction between types of sauces in general – like the sauce that you dip chips in verses the sauce you put on your taco.
“I know exactly what customers want when they ask for either one,” Barrios says. “It is just how people were brought up and what region of the country you are from . . . Some people will ask for cheese sauce, and I’ll say ‘Oh! Queso!’ because here in San Antonio that is the only thing we call it.” Having spent some time living in New England, I know what she means about queso being “cheese sauce,” but different from, say, a European-style “cheese sauce.”
I had to go back to the root of my problem – Taco Cabana – to confirm culture was the cause. Julian Ortiz, a TC manager, thought he knew the reason. “I think that [some employees] consider hot sauce and salsa to be the same, not really knowing the difference, whereas there are people who know the difference between hot sauce and salsa,” he said. “Maybe they weren’t raised with the difference.”
Phew! While I know that many individuals will forever have to succumb and ask for hot sauce at the Taco Cabana drive-thru when what they really mean is salsa, at least it is because of cultural diversity.