Sign up for a free Courant newsletter for a chance to win $100 P.C. Richard gift card

Arizona's Salsa Trail is about much more than heat

Chicago Tribune
Chasing flavors on Arizona's Salsa Trail.

sal•sa — A spicy sauce made with tomatoes, onions and hot peppers that is commonly served with Mexican food.

— Merriam-Webster Dictionary

With an abundance of locally grown tomatoes, onions and peppers in this area, it's easy to understand why the salsa served in the many Mexican restaurants in and around Safford, Ariz., is bound to be fresh and homemade.

Just don't try to replicate the recipes at home.

When it comes to making great salsa, a good recipe apparently is not enough. According to the experts, there's an intangible element, something special that can't be put on paper.

That may be discouraging to home cooks who want to go beyond a store-bought jar of salsa. But it's a caution repeated over and over amid the verdant valleys of Graham County, home to the Salsa Trail, a collection of restaurants that pride themselves on their unique sauces. Safford hosts an annual festival devoted to salsa, and there's a cookbook full of zesty recipes. One of them is a favorite of a former Supreme Court justice.

Here in southeastern Arizona, just a couple of hours' drive north of the border, bowls of salsa can be found on restaurant tables morning, noon and night. Who needs ketchup or hot sauce when fresh salsa awaits?

As the sun is still rising, locals gather at El Coronado restaurant along Main Street in downtown Safford. They often come for owner Mary Coronado's famous huevos rancheros, but she urges undecided customers to consider her son's specialty.

Marco Coronado's stuffed breakfast starts with a quesadilla filled with a bounty of eggs, potatoes, chorizo and sauteed onions. Diners joke that the dish is so large it could replace a manhole cover.

There is always an abundance of salsa on the tables. Mary Coronado's recipe, if you can call it that, was awarded best in show at SalsaFest in September 2011.

What makes her salsa special? "I think it's the spices," she says. "I use oregano, cumin, salt and garlic."

Mary Coronado's large batches come out delicious every time, even though she doesn't use specific measurements. She uses "a handful" of this and "a handful" of that. She proudly says that none of the vegetables comes from a can. They're all fresh from the field.

The salsa served at La Paloma in nearby Solomon is also a prize winner. Manager Nicholas Tellez has watched various owners put their personal touches on the special sauce.

The festival's winning recipe was first served about a dozen years ago.

"It started because the customers were looking for something milder with a lot more variety in it: chunky with tomatoes and more fresh flavors," Tellez recalled.

While some recipes call for as many as 30 ingredients, La Paloma uses fewer than 10. They include tomatoes, green chilies, jalapenos, cilantro and garlic.

But don't try to re-create the restaurant's formula. Tellez cautions that even if someone diligently follows the recipe, "they'd probably mess it up."

"Arizona's Salsa Trail," the cookbook available in area shops and restaurants, includes seven salsa recipes home cooks can experiment with. The book also includes dishes like chili relleno, red pepper bisque and steak pico.

One of the recipes, the Lazy B Ranch Tamale Pie, is for a dish that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor enjoyed while growing up on the ranch. Her brother, Alan Day, submitted the recipe, penned decades ago by their mother, Ada Mae Day.

"My mother used to cook this recipe all the time," Alan Day says in the book. "It's good when you have unexpected company because it only takes about a half-hour to whip up."

While Day recommends serving the dish with salad or coleslaw, it's no doubt tasty with salsa too.

If you go

Safford, Ariz., and the other towns along the Salsa Trail (salsatrail.com) are along U.S. Highway 70 about three hours east of Phoenix.

El Coronado (409 W. Main St., Safford; 928-428-7755) is open 7 a.m.- 8 p.m. (closed Tuesdays) and sells jars of Mary Coronado's award-winning salsa.

La Paloma (5183 E. Clifton St., Solomon; 928-428-2094) is open 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and until 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

In addition to the restaurants, Safford is home to Mi Casa Tortilla (621 S. Seventh Ave.; 928-428-7915), where visitors are invited to tour the small factory. The preservative-free tortillas come in flavors like apple-cinnamon, chorizo, and tomato and basil.

The Cottage Bed & Breakfast (1104 S. Central Ave., Safford; 928-428-5118; cottagebedandbreakfast.com) provides an alternative to the chain motels along the highway. Be sure to try the almond croissants and chocolate walnut coconut bars from the bakery next door. It's operated by the same family.

SalsaFest will be held Sept. 25-26.

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
29°