RECIPES: Local chefs share recipes for pushing the boundaries of salsa

Metro Atlanta chefs offer diverse recipes for fresh, simple sauces rooted in Latin American traditions
Eddie Hernandez’s Salsa Criolla Colombia (center) is flavorful without tasting spicy-hot. Here, it is shown with rice, avocado and lime (left) and tilapia (right). (Styling by Eddie Hernandez / Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)



Eddie Hernandez’s Salsa Criolla Colombia (center) is flavorful without tasting spicy-hot. Here, it is shown with rice, avocado and lime (left) and tilapia (right). (Styling by Eddie Hernandez / Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In the 1940s, a Texas businessman named David Pace developed a recipe he called “picante sauce” based on traditional salsas of Mexico, paving the way for a product that would eventually overtake ketchup as the top-selling condiment in the U.S.

These days, chefs continue to broaden our understanding of salsas far beyond the familiar formula of tomatoes, jalapenos and onions we slather on enchiladas and devour with chips. And some are as much about authenticity as innovation.

We spoke with four metro Atlanta chefs who turned to their own roots and travels deep within Peru, Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico and beyond to create salsas that both spice up their menus and paint a more nuanced portrait of Latin American cooking.

Arnaldo Castillo, chef and co-owner of Tio Lucho's Peruvian Coastal restaurant. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)


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Arnaldo Castillo, Tio Lucho’s Peruvian Coastal

Meals at Tio Lucho’s Peruvian Coastal restaurant often begin with a platter of chilled Gulf Coast oysters crowned with Corn Chalaca. This bright, zesty relish consists of sweet yellow corn kernels, finely diced red onion and Fresno chile, chopped cilantro and a splash of house-made leche de tigre, meaning “tiger’s milk,” a spicy citrus-based marinade used for curing seafood for ceviche.

The dish, chef Arnaldo Castillo explains, is inspired by a cold mussel appetizer called choros a la Chalaca, popular in the port town of Callao, west of Lima. Having emigrated from Peru at the age of 6, he remembers his dad, a chef for whom his restaurant is named, making it at home in Georgia.

“I like to say Peru meets the South with a lot of our dishes,” he says. “I love oysters with mignonettes, and I was inspired to use Gulf oysters, particularly the (Murder Point) variety from Alabama, to showcase our dish.”

For the accompanying salsa, Castillo skips the traditional starchy Peruvian corn. “I prefer the sweetness and tenderness of yellow corn for our Chalaca. It adds another layer to the citrus-forward salsa.”

For an easy home version, Castillo replaces their leche de tigre — which includes a complex fish stock — with lime juice and a splash of bottled clam juice “for a little bit more umami.”

For slurping down with oysters, he recommends pairing it with a cold lager, such as Monday Night Brewing’s 404 Atlanta Lager.

Besides mollusks, he added, “This salsa would be good on grilled seafood like fish fillets or scallops because of the acidity from the limes. It could also be good on pork chops or duck, so the fattiness plays with the acids.”

Chef Arnaldo Castillo’s Corn Chalaca salsa, traditionally served over cold mussels in Peru, accompanies Gulf Coast oysters at Tio Lucho’s Peruvian Coastal. (Styling by Manny Sosa / Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)


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Corn Chalaca

1 large ear yellow corn on the cob, unshucked

1 red Fresno chile, deseeded and finely diced

1/2 red onion, diced small

1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (from 4 or 5 limes), plus more to taste

1/2 bunch of cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

1 teaspoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon bottled clam juice, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the unshucked corn, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the corn, allow corn to cool to the touch, then carefully remove and discard the husk. Use a clean wet dishcloth to wipe the corn silk off. Discard the corn silk.

In a large bowl, carefully shave the soft corn kernels off the cob with a sharp knife, making sure to not shave the cob. Discard the cob.

In a medium bowl, combine the corn kernels, chile, onion, lime juice, cilantro, oil, clam juice and salt. Taste and adjust with more lime juice, clam juice and salt as desired.

Let mixture rest for 5-10 minutes for flavors to develop. If garnishing oysters, add a spoonful over each shucked oyster, being careful to not spill the oyster juices, and slurp it down.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Per tablespoon: 10 calories (percent of calories from fat, 21), trace protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram total sugars, trace fiber, trace total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 51 milligrams sodium.

Eddie Hernandez, co-owner and executive chef at Taqueria del Sol. (Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)


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Eddie Hernandez, Taqueria del Sol

The tomato- and tomatillo-based salsas served with chips at Taqueria del Sol taste almost identical to the ones Eddie Hernandez grew up eating in Monterrey, Mexico. On frequent trips to visit loved ones in Medellin, Colombia, he’s become well acquainted with a dramatically different style of salsa.

Colombian-style salsa criolla, he said, is a rich and vibrant sauce made of tomatoes, onions and spices that’s simmered and served hot or at room temperature. It’s not spicy-hot, but mildly seasoned with cumin and achiote or other golden-tinged spice primarily added for color.

“In Colombia, it is the only sauce. They put it on everything!” he said. “They use it with beef tongue and chicken and fried fish and pork. It’s very versatile. You can make it brothy, you can make it chunky, depending on how long you cook it and how much water or broth you add. I’ve made it with pig’s feet and pork belly and served it over fish fillets.”

Although it’s not on the menu yet, Hernandez said a version for the restaurant is in the works. His recipe hews close to the traditional one, but he can’t resist kicking the spice level up a notch by tossing in a jalapeno or a chile de arbol. Keep the chile seeds for more heat, or remove them for less impact.

Eddie Hernandez's mild-tasting Salsa Criolla Colombia can be served hot or at room temperature with fish, pork, beef or chicken. (Styling by Eddie Hernandez / Chris Hunt for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)


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Salsa Criolla Colombia

4 tablespoons butter or margarine, or 1/4 cup neutral oil

1 cup chopped yellow or white onions

6 cloves garlic, chopped

1 jalapeno, stemmed and diced, seeds (optional)

1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes

1 cup chopped trimmed scallions, including dark green tops

4 cups small-diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dry oregano flakes

1 teaspoon Bijol seasoning or achiote powder

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1 cup water or stock, plus more as needed

1 bunch cilantro, chopped

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter or margarine over medium heat (or heat the oil). Add the onions, garlic, jalapeno, red chile flakes and scallions, and saute until the onions are soft, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, cook 2 minutes. Add the cumin, oregano, Bijol, salt and 1 cup water or stock. Continue to cook for 20 minutes, adding more liquid if a soupier texture is desired, or until the liquid evaporates for a chunkier texture. Stir in the cilantro. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Per tablespoon: 17 calories (percent of calories from fat, 62), trace protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 1 gram total sugars, trace fiber, 1 gram total fat (1 gram saturated), 3 milligrams cholesterol, 70 milligrams sodium.

Chef Julio Delgado of Fogon and Lions in Alpharetta. (Courtesy of Lauren Hubbard / Fogon and Lions)

Credit: Lauren Hubbard

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Credit: Lauren Hubbard

Julio Delgado, Fogon and Lions

Julio Delgado grew up in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where the Spanish influence on its diverse cuisine remains strong. His grandfather, who ran a butcher shop there, is the inspiration behind Fogon and Lions, the restaurant Delgado opened in Alpharetta in 2022. Its wood-fired menu honors that heritage with dishes that blend flavors of Spain, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Delgado shared a recipe that exemplifies that fusion. “At the restaurant, we use a salsa called ajilimojili, a hot, or hot and sweet, chile sauce from Jaen, (in) Andalusia, Spain, that we adopted in Puerto Rico,” he explains. “It’s traditionally served over grilled seafood, grilled vegetables, grilled meats and — my personal favorite — over grilled fish.”

Recipes for ajilimojili vary wildly beyond a few common denominators — olive oil, vinegar or citrus juice, garlic and peppers. The most distinctive component in the version Delgado uses is the aji dulce pepper, a tiny, brightly colored pod with a sweet, fruity flavor and mild heat popular in Caribbean and Latin cuisines. He blends the aji dulce peppers into a verdant puree with mild Cubanelle peppers, vinegar, olive oil and hefty amounts of garlic and cilantro, along with a few other spices, a spoonful of honey, and just enough habanero to add a bit of tingly heat.

Aji dulce peppers (also labeled aji cachucha, as they are called in Cuba) can be found at the Buford Highway Farmers Market and other international specialty markets. If necessary, substitute with a large green bell pepper, which commonly appears in other ajilimojili recipes.

No matter which pepper you choose, this Ajilimojili recipe is delicious slathered over just about anything.

Julio Delgado of Fogon and Lions serves his garlicky green Ajilimojili sauce over grilled fish and other wood-fired dishes. (Courtesy of Fogon and Lions)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Ajilimojili (Puerto Rican-Style Aji Dulce Sauce)

This recipe, adapted from one in “Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America” by Maricel Presilla (Norton, 2012), is used at Fogon and Lions for specials.

12 Caribbean sweet peppers, stemmed (aji dulces, also known as cachucha peppers)

1 Cubanelle pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped

1/2 to 1 Scotch bonnet or habanero chile (depending on desired heat), seeded

7 to 8 large garlic cloves, peeled

1 cup coarsely chopped yellow onion

1 large bunch cilantro, leaves and tender stems only

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup distilled white vinegar, plus more to taste

2 tablespoons honey

1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, plus more to taste

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin, plus more to taste

In a food processor fitted with an S-blade, combine the sweet peppers, Cubanelle, Scotch bonnet or habanero, garlic, onion and cilantro.

Pulse a few times until reduced in volume by about half, then add the olive oil, vinegar, honey, salt, oregano and cumin and pulse to make a coarse sauce. Taste and adjust vinegar and seasonings as desired. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for 2 to 3 days.

Makes about 2 1/4 cups.

Per tablespoon: 68 calories (percent of calories from fat, 78), trace protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram total sugars, 1 gram fiber, 6 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), no cholesterol, 84 milligrams sodium.

Reid and Sophia Trapani are co-owners of La Semilla, a plant-based, Latin-inspired restaurant in the Reynoldstown neighborhood. (Courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee / La Semilla)

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

Reid and Sophia Trapani, La Semilla

Reid and Sophia Trapani learned to make sikil pak, a rustic tomato and pumpkin seed salsa based on an ancient Mayan recipe, a few years ago in the home of a Yucatan woman. Now it’s a menu staple of La Semilla, the modern Latin-inspired vegan restaurant they opened in the Reynoldstown neighborhood last year.

The couple cut banana leaves from her backyard to make tamales with masa ground at the local molino (mill), and harvested sour oranges, tomatoes, habaneros and herbs to make soups and salsas. The sikil pak was what impressed them the most.

They devoured the salsa straight from the cook’s grandmother’s molcajete and were blown away by its flavor: “so deep, so complex and yet composed with such simple ingredients and techniques,” Reid Trapani said. “This salsa was room temperature, spicy, creamy but with slight texture and perfectly acidic from the tomatoes and lime. It was eye-opening.”

Sikil Pak is a rustic, spicy salsa based on an ancient Mayan recipe made of charred tomatoes and toasted pumpkin seeds that is served with chips at La Semilla restaurant in the Reynoldstown neighborhood. (Courtesy of Martha Williams / La Semilla)

Credit: Martha Williams

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Credit: Martha Williams

Sikil Pak

1 cup raw shelled pumpkin seeds

3 to 4 medium-sized Roma tomatoes

1 to 2 habanero peppers

Pinch salt, plus more to taste

Juice from 1/2 lime, plus more to taste

2 tablespoons cilantro, rough chopped, plus more to taste

Toast the pumpkin seeds on a comal, cast-iron skillet or saute pan over medium heat until golden brown. Remove the seeds to a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature.

Once cool, grind the pumpkin seeds in a molcajete, mortar and pestle, spice grinder or food processor until quite fine but not powder — some texture is acceptable. Set aside.

Char the tomatoes and habaneros over an open flame or cook them on a comal or cast-iron pan over high heat until all the sides are blackened in places and impart the flavor of fire.

In a molcajete, mortar and pestle, or food processor (with small pulses — you want the texture to be as rustic as possible), macerate the habanero until the skin breaks down and it forms a rough paste. (Be forewarned that the peppers are very hot and the salsa will be spicy even with half of a pepper with the seeds removed.) Add the charred tomatoes to the habanero and break them down as well.

Add salt and lime juice and mix with a spoon. Fold in the cilantro and mix again. Then stir in the ground pumpkin seeds a few tablespoons at a time, tasting as you go and adding more salt, lime juice and cilantro as needed until all the ground seeds are added.

Serve at room temperature with tortilla chips.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Per tablespoon: 30 calories (percent of calories from fat, 66), 2 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace total sugars, trace fiber, 2 grams total fat (trace saturated fat), no cholesterol, 51 milligrams sodium.

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