Shelf Life. Your Ultimate Food Court Is Now In Session. Your Ultimate Food Court Is Now In Session.

Salsa – Round 2

By amy • • Feb 1st, 2014 • Category: Columns, Condiments, Dressings, Oils, Vinegars, Fruits And Vegetables, Pantry Items, Prepared Foods, Seasonings, Spices

A lot of chopped tomatoes have flowed under the bridge since Shelf Life published our previous salsa taste test, and much has changed. Five years ago, there were far fewer products on the market; today, we had trouble confining our line-up to a reasonable number of candidates. Salsa has long since overtaken ketchup as the most popular condiment in North America. Currently, an increasing number of Mexican products are available in grocery stores, and Shelf Life couldn’t be happier – the musty junta of Old El Paso items is firmly over.

Missing in action from both tests is one key ingredient: lime. Judges were mystified as to why the citrus was absent from virtually all salsas we tested – perhaps lime is somehow compromised or otherwise made unworkable in the process of manufacturing shelf stable salsas. Every one of these products could be improved with a shot of pucker. Likewise, even though all contenders were labeled medium heat, panelists were looking forward to some action on the fabled Scoville scale of peppery hotness. As it turned out, however, some products played with fire and others played it safe.

Hoping for all the flash (but not the trash) of a Mexican wrestling match in a jar were this week’s expert judges: chef Howard Dubrovsky, partner in the new cantina Fonda Lola; Len Senater, commandante of the restaurant The Depanneur; and food stylist, cookbook author, and TV host Johanna Weinstein, all in Toronto. Space limitations prevent Shelf Life from evaluating every product in a given category; entries reflect the luck of the draw. Items are blind taste tested and awarded between zero and five stars. Medium heat salsas were featured in this competition.

Brand One

Pain Is Good
Smoked Jalapeno Batch #218 Salsa

440g, $6.29
available at gourmet and specialty food stores
for more information visit

Howard: Whaaat? This is a big wallop of smoke. Brand One has a super smoky bitter taste. It’s crazy. The only thing you could do with this salsa is dump it all in a cauldron, like if you had a cook’s emergency: ‘OMG, I have to prepare chili for the whole team in an hour, gimme that jar.’

Len: Yeah, Brand One pretty much tastes like charcoal salsa. Did someone ram a charcoal briquette in the recipe? Having said that, the rest of it is pretty good, at least it has some kind of profile. It might work if you needed a garnish for something cheesy or a creamy enchilada.

Jo: Wow! The texture is nice looking, with promising dark chunks. But it tastes like someone burned the house down. Maybe you could use it as an ingredient, but totally not as a dip. The smokiness doesn’t even feel genuine – Brand One has that liquid-smoke perfume.

Brand One Total FIVE AND A HALF STARS *****1/2

Brand Two

Williams Sonoma
Taqueria Salsa

340g, $11.99
available at Williams Sonoma stores
for more information visit

Howard: Brand Two looks like a Mexican style salsa, which is much thinner and looser than the American chunky style. It smells like tomato, but I think the base is tomatillo – look at those tiny seeds. I would make it a jillion times hotter – I like to cry a little when I eat salsa.

Len: This is like an authentic Mexican ranchero sauce or like a taco sauce; it’s not about hot peppers but other kinds of red pepper. So there isn’t much heat. I like it – I would use it as a chili sauce. But people who are looking to dip their chips in a mess of chunks may not be into it.

Jo: I’ve had better commercial tomatillo salsas. Brand Two may be more genuinely Mexican but for me it falls short. I’m looking for a product I can build around. You know when you discover an incredible condiment – an amazing mustard, for example – you run out and get everything else to go with it? Like that.

Brand Two Total TEN STARS **********

Brand Three

Neal Bros.
Medium Salsa

500ml, $3.99
widely available
for more information visit

Howard: There’s a lot of cumin in here, which isn’t necessarily to my liking. Brand Three tastes pretty generic; I’m thinking there’s starch thickener in the house.

Len: If Tostitos made a cumin flavoured salsa, this might be it. I think a Mexican person would say, ‘What cuisine is this?’ Brand Three isn’t awful but it isn’t great either.

Jo: Yes, it has that jelly-like appearance, with bits of green mixed in. Plenty of cumin and onion. I don’t hate it – in fact it has a bit of a tang – but Brand Three is so typical it doesn’t make much of an impression.

Brand Three Total SEVEN STARS *******

Brand Four

Roasted Corn and Bean Salsa

454g, $7.29
available at gourmet and specialty food stores
for more information visit

Howard: The thing about Brand Four is its heartiness; you can get your chip into this one. There’s not too much bite to it, but I think people will like the chunks.

Len: Brand Four has potential – you could add lime and cilantro and end up with something reasonable. As it stands it reminds me of roommate chili from university, which isn’t a bad thing.

Jo: Roasted dark appearance; not too watery; corn and beans right up front –  I’m dipping my chip in this one because it’s not fake. It smells like stew, with a mild taste. It might be a treat with sour cream.

Brand Four Total ELEVEN AND A HALF STARS ***********1/2

Results: Texas-born Salpica brand won the showdown, with Williams-Sonoma the runners-up. Canada’s own Neal brothers failed to ignite. As for the Pain Is Good japesters – who plainly thought they’d come up with a crafty, pre-emptive, ha-ha name for their product – we believe the expression is: ‘your ass has been handed to you’.

Off The Menu: Calorie-wise, Shelf Life will keep in mind the advantage salsa offers over its gringo counterpart. Unlike ketchup, salsa contains little, if any, added sugar. Get the scoop on Shelf Life’s flickr page for views of judges and their bowls of salsa roja.

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