Chips and Salsa

Where to go for the crispiest chips, the spiciest salsa, the tangiest margaritas.

By: Brooke Lea Foster

alsa is my one true love. I knew that after I spent a week hiking through Arizona canyon country in 99-degree heat. As we emerged, completely parched, all I could think about was chips and salsa. I dragged my companion into the first Mexican restaurant we found. Thick yellow chips came out warm, and I dipped and dipped and dipped them into a wonderful salsa. I was in heaven.

I make salsa at home, and I eat it in restaurants. Fortunately, Washington is home to dozens of Salvadoran, Mexican, and Tex-Mex places that serve up the combination daily. My ambition is to eat at them all.

Salsa is Spanish for "sauce"--cooked or uncooked. Most of the salsas served with chips are either red, using a tomato base, or green, based on tomatillos. Mark Miller, author of The Great Salsa Book and owner of several restaurants serving Southwestern cuisine, says, "A good salsa is a sum of its parts. It's not muddy. You're trying to get a multidimensional flavor."

There are regional differences in salsa--and you can taste the variations here. Salsas from northern Mexico tend to use more cumin and jalapeños, Miller says. Salsa from farther south, in Oaxaca, are smokier. New Mexico relies on red chili peppers, as do Texans. In California, salsas are tomato-happy.

Miller says the best way to eat salsa is with a spoon. I have a tougher test--I eat them with a fork. I like salsas that are thick and hearty. I look for freshness. "Salsa should be made an hour before," says Miller, "not four or five hours before, or the onions and garlic will seep in and take over the flavor."

Chips don't have to be warm, but they should be fresh, crisp, and not greasy. Whether thick or thin, they should taste mostly of corn. Miller says the most authentic chips are "sprinkled with salt and lime."

And what would chips and salsa be without an icy margarita to wash them down? So I sampled those, too. Personal tastes differ, but I like margaritas on the rocks, not ruled by tequila, and made with fresh lime juice, not bar mix.

Here's a guide to my favorite chips, salsa, and margaritas in the area. And while I was at it, I tried the guacamole, too.

The VERY BEST

Andale

at most restaurants, chips and salsa are complimentary with drinks, but not at some of the fancier ones. For $5 at Andale you can order a trio of salsas--fresca, verde, and picante--served with warm, crisp chips. All three are delicious. The salsa fresca is salsa in its purest form, with chopped tomatoes, red onions, and seasonings. Salsa verde, mildly spicy, is based on puréed tomatillos. The salsa picante is loaded with smoky chipotle chiles, garlic, and jalapeños, which give it a kick. The margarita, served with lots of salt, used a fresh sour mix, a blend of lime, simple syrup, and a Mexican wildflower liqueur. The butter-smooth guacamole was delicious.

Andale, 401 Seventh St., NW; 202-783-3133. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.

Cactus Cantina

Cactus Cantina isn't stingy with its chips and salsa--waiters serve several bowls of the smoky salsa with each basket of chips. The chips are lightly salted and slightly oily, but they're fresh out of the fryer. They're a good match for the hearty salsa made from mesquite-grilled tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, cilantro, and sautéed chili peppers, all blended and served warm. The margarita was small but crisp with tequila, Triple Sec, and lots of lime flavor. The guacamole was creamy and had enough chunks to maintain a fresh avocado flavor.

Cactus Cantina, 3300 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-686-7222. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

El Mariachi

The simplest salsa--and one of the tastiest--is at El Mariachi. It's a thin tomato sauce with diced onions, tomatoes, and chopped fresh cilantro. Though the runny salsa was hard to keep on a chip, the flavors balanced one another nicely. The tequila in the margarita was light enough that we were able to appreciate the lime, which tasted fresh-squeezed. The guacamole was made with so much cilantro that it was hard to taste the avocado until you got a chunk.

El Mariachi, 765-D Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-738-7177. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

La Lomita

The flavorful salsa at this capitol Hill institution is based on chopped tomatoes with lots of cilantro and even more chopped onion. The rich corn taste of the chips helped offset the salsa's strong onion flavor. There wasn't much salt around the rim of the margarita's cactus-stem glass, and its sweetness made it taste a little like limeade, but it was a satisfying way to wash down the oniony salsa. The guacamole had a bitter aftertaste.

La Lomita, 1330 Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-546-3109. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Lauriol Plaza

Lauriol Plaza and Cactus Cantina have the same owner and the same delicious salsa recipe. But Lauriol also has a lively rooftop bar that's perfect for sampling chips and salsa. The dark, smoky salsa--served warm--tastes like freshly roasted tomatoes with a good dose of onions, chilies, and garlic. The chips are a mix of yellow and white corn, and they also tasted good dipped in the guacamole, chunky with avocado and tomato. The margarita, made with Bailey's lime juice, sour mix, Triple Sec, and tequila, complements the smoky flavors.

Lauriol Plaza, 1835 18th St., NW; 202-387-0035. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Red Sage

Red Sage creates an experience. an order of chips and salsa--a large yellow platter with three small salsa dishes at the center and a pail of blue and yellow corn chips--costs $4.50. The chips are nothing special, but the salsas make up for them. We started with the red salsa, which had a deep flavor created by roasted tomatoes and chipotles. The salsa verde--mashed-up tomatillos mixed with lime, garlic, and cilantro, then cooked--was slightly bitter and mildly acidic. The last "salsa" was a hearty bean dip. The cilantro-laden guacamole was so creamy it tasted whipped. The margarita, in a Catalina glass rimmed with crusty salt, was tart and tasted as good as it looked.

Red Sage, 605 14th St., NW; 202-638-4444. Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 AM to 11:30 PM, Sunday 4:30 to 11.

Taqueria Poblano

This modest and wonderful del ray restaurant offers four salsas, each with a good flavor and texture, and the chips--white corn, perfectly salted, with a lime garnish to squeeze over them--taste good with all of them. The house salsa is not for traditionalists. A purée the color of watermelon, it has a spicy, smoky aftertaste. All of its parts--dried ancho peppers, garlic, onions, poblano peppers, and tomatoes--are roast-ed, then blended and served chilled. I preferred this one to the cooked red-chili salsa--cinnamon, cloves, and burnt-tasting thick red chilies define its flavor--and the salsa verde, which fell flat despite its hearty ingredients of roasted tomatillos, tomatoes, and poblano peppers. The habañero salsa, served in a tiny blue bottle with a cork on top, is plenty spicy. A creamy guacamole came piled on shredded lettuce with diced tomatoes and jack cheese sprinkled on top and chips arranged in a spiral around it. The margarita achieved an almost perfect balance of tequila and lime.

Taqueria Poblano, 2400 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria, 703-548-8226; 2503-A N. Harrison St., Arlington, 703-237-8250. Open daily for lunch and dinner; Alexandria closed Tuesday.

Also GOOD

Guajillo

The earth-colored but not very spicy salsa here includes most of the standard ingredients--tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, white onions, fresh cilantro--and they are chopped fine, roasted, and served chilled. The white corn chips were too fragile for the salsa but tasted good dipped in the guacamole, which was a little heavy on the onions and tomatoes. I didn't love the margarita--too much sour mix and Triple Sec overwhelmed the tequila and lime juice.

Guajillo, 1727 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-807-0840. Open daily for lunch and dinner; Sunday for brunch.

Guapo's

The waiters at Guapo's refill your supply of complimentary chips and salsa the moment it starts to run low. Fresh-pressed tomatoes and cumin rule this saucy salsa, which had a surprise stash of diced tomatoes and white onions on the bottom. Cilantro and slivers of jalapeño peppers floated throughout. The chips were thin and made of white corn, not at all oily or salty, and you could still taste the corn, but they broke every time we tried to pick up a chip full of salsa. Guacamole was fresh, creamy, and with plenty of fresh avocado flavor. Tequila, tequila, and more tequila defined the margarita, which was frothy and cold but without a lot of lime or sour mix, which made for a quick buzz.

Guapo's, Northwest DC, 202-686-3588; Manassas, 703-393-9449; Shirlington, 703-671-1701; Bethesda, 301-656-0888; Gaithersburg, 301-977-5655. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Las Placitas

You don't have to dig for the good stuff in this cumin-flavored salsa with piles of diced tomatoes, white onions, and cilantro, plus a hint of jalapeño. It was so good we ate it with a fork after our food came. The yellow-corn chips were a bit greasy but plenty thick--perfect for a salsa as packed with ingredients as this one. If you like a margarita with lots more tequila than lime, this is the place for you. Even after I squeezed the lime garnish, all I could taste was tequila. It's all served in a restaurant made to look like an outdoor patio in Mexico. By the end of the margarita, I felt like I was there.

Las Placitas, 517 Eighth St., SE, 202-543-3700; 1828 Columbia Rd., NW, 202-745-3751; 723 Eighth St., SE, 202-546-9340. Open daily for lunch and dinner; Northwest serves dinner only.

Los Chorros

Tucked into a tortilla-sculpted box, the almost-too-creamy guacamole was flanked with a treat--warm, lightly fried flour tortillas instead of the traditional corn chips. A thick tomato-based salsa, with a stack of diced onions and tomatoes on the bottom, had lots of kick from invisible jalapeños. The yellow-corn chips were thick and flavorful. The margaritas were heavy on the tequila but also had the flavor of fresh lime. I loved the contrast of the salty salsa and the fruity margarita.

Los Chorros, 2420 Blueridge Ave., Wheaton; 301-933-1066. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Mixtec

The red salsa at this dependable Adams Morgan restaurant looked--and tasted--so fresh it must have been assembled seconds before it was served. Diced tomatoes, white onions, and large chunks of jalapeño peppers were steeped in a cilantro-flavored juice. I like the salsa verde--a salty mixture of tomatillos and cilantro served as part of a condiment trio--best. The chips were nothing special, and the guacamole tasted okay, but the avocado was overwhelmed by too much diced tomato. Served in a large wine glass, the margarita had the thickest rim of rock salt of any we tasted. It didn't taste strongly of tequila or lime, but it was ice-cold and had a layer of froth on top, making for a nice drink on a warm afternoon.

Mixtec, 1792 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-332-1011. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Picante! The Real Taco

Though the salsa here is mostly a blend of tomatoes, jalapeños, and onions, the main ingredient you taste is green pepper--lots of slivers of it are in the mixture. I loved the chips, thicker than usual, served warm, and not greasy. The margarita was very fruity--made with a mix of lime and pineapple juice--but it left a tingle of tequila on my tongue. The guacamole consisted mainly of mashed, perfectly ripe avocados, which tasted great on the hearty chips.

Picante! The Real Taco, 14511-B Lee Jackson Memorial Hwy., Chantilly; 703-222-2323. Open daily for lunch and dinner, Sunday for brunch.

Rio Grande Café

a fusion of flavors, this smoky salsa had the right mix of ingredients--puréed roasted tomatoes, chipotle chiles, green chilies, and just a hint of garlic. The chips--white corn, thin and not too greasy--were served at room temperature and while good, tasted a bit pasty. The guacamole was too salty. The margarita came rimmed with a thick centimeter of salt. Served with plenty of ice, it was a bit heavy on the sour mix and not heavy enough on fresh lime flavor.

Rio Grande Café, Bethesda, 301-656-2981; Gaithersburg, 240-632-2150; Arlington, 703-528-3131; Reston, 703-904-0703. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Tortilla Coast

located on the house side of capitol Hill, Tortilla Coast serves great chips and salsa. Chips are light and not greasy, but thick enough so you don't miss the white-corn flavor. They are a perfect match for the cilantro-, cumin-, and garlic-heavy tomato salsa, and they tasted great dipped in the guacamole, a creamy mixture of diced red onion and avocado whipped smooth. The margarita, served in a petite cocktail glass with plenty of salt crusted around the rim, tasted tropical, as if pineapple juice had been mixed with the lime juice and tequila.

Tortilla Coast, 400 First St., SE; 202-546-6768. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.