Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

AZ Culinary Tourism:Happy Salsa Trail to You

Last week I joined a travel writer on a jaunt on the Salsa Trail in Graham County and Greeley County in Arizona.

Most of the action is in and around Safford. What can I say about Safford?

Let’s see: Cotton and hay are grown there and the current plentiful Gila River is the reason the agricultural palette is bright green upon more green surrounded by panoramic mountain ranges of every color.

Aside from the Salsa Trail, there’s not a whole lot to do in Safford except for the hot springs. There are two — Kachina Hot Springs which is more institutional and Essence of Tranquility, which is quite charming. There are a lot of historical buildings and a walking tour but it was too hot to walk around. I wish Safford had more cool antique stores, gift shops, book stores, and a coffee house that was open longer than 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. You can forget about ever seeing a chic wine bar.

Getting back to the Salsa Trail. It appears that some town politico hierarchy wished the dining options weren’t all Mexican and some marketing whiz took what was conceived as a negative and gave it a positive spin — hence the Salsa Trail.

The Salsa Trail features 15 restaurants or salsa/tortilla experiences in Safford, Pima, Thatcher, Solomon, Duncan, Clifton, York, and Willcox. Most likely you wouldn’t get to experience them all in a weekend unless of course you were a travel writer and a friend of the travel writer.

Actually we didn’t try them all as two were closed for summer vacation and one fell through the cracks.

Tucson has some of the best Mexican restaurants in the United States (much better than Los Angeles) yet the Salsa Trail’s Mexican restaurants were more influenced by New Mexico style cooking serving red and green chiles but never red and green together (known as Christmas style).

In Tucson, green chile is hard to come by but on the Salsa Trail, everyone served delicious green chile sauce and stew with pork (and once with beef) while red chile sauce and stew was made with beef.

Menu items called the big daddy and the little momma were similar to a flattened tostada or Mexican pizza. A chaluca or chalaca proved to be a masa bowl that fit in the palm of your hand topped with grilled meat, bits of grilled onion, chopped tomato and topped with melted cheese.

Then of course there was the salsa, all handmade, with varying degrees of heat dependent on the chile crop, the kind of chiles used, how much jalapenos were added, and at what point in the preparation.

Here are some Salsa Trail highlights:

A must stop is the San Simon Chile Company but unfortunately it’s only open from August-October and sporadically the rest of the year. They grow, roast their only chiles, and make their own salsas, jellies (from chiles), and relishes. The chipotle salsa and jalapeno relish rocked. I brought some home and cannot wait to make a tuna salad sandwich using the jalapeno relish.

El Coronado was another favorite. We ate breakfast here while chatting with the owner (Mary) who was amazing hard working. Our chorizo and eggs was just perfect as were the potatoes and beans. Mary, like others on the Trail, buy beans locally and prepare them the old fashioned way of cooking over a low heat for long hours rather than reconstituting them like many Mexican restaurants who take hasty shortcuts. She also made a huevos Rancheros burrito  with enchilada sauce — sort of like three Mexican specialities wrapped up into one.

Mary wouldn’t let us leave town without stopping by the next day for pumpkin empanadas (I guessed the secret ingredient) and piquant salsa for the cooler will travel. 

In my humble opinion, El Charro had the best green chile stew and excellent salsa. The owner Dalton makes three different kinds of salsa and amazingly they were all spectacular but my tastebuds leaned to the chipotle variety known as Caribe.

On the way back to Tucson, the last leg included Salsa Fiesta in Willcox and even if I thought I could not ever eat another bite — the caramelo was absolutely worth every morsel. A caramelo is similar to a quesadilla but smaller, then lightly stuffed with carne asada, chopped tomatoes, and melted cheese. In this case the tomatoes are from Eurofresh, pesticide-free greenhouse grown tomatoes. We also sampled a chile relleno that was light and fluffy, not battered to death.

It’s good to be home and back to salad days.

However, I wish happy salsa trails to you.

  1. Sounds like a cool trip! Or should I say a hot one.
    So AZ should promote that kind of thing more and more. What with wine country growing more and more….

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