It’s vine-ripened tomatoes, eye-popping chili peppers, tart tomatillos, luscious fruits, and fresh herbs in an electrifying palette of tastes and colors. Preferences in salsa are peculiarly personal—almost competitive, in some social circles.
Originally a frugal yet tasty use for overly abundant and inexpensive summer crops, humble salsa has reached gourmet levels of creativity and passion. Simple is sometimes best; but, in line with the quest for mastering the “best margarita,” salsa aficionados have kicked the concept up a notch.
The Wood River Valley now boasts sources for inspiring salsa in every town, on nearly every corner—a fortunate twist of fate in a northern clime. For many of us, one intoxicating bite can summon up rhythms of Latin music, the perfect simplicity of a cold beer at sunset, terracotta rooflines against a brilliant blue sky . . . memories of vacations anywhere southern, sunny, and sandy.
For Jim Funk, the mere memory of fiery, earthy Mexican food was just not enough. The proprietor of Desperado’s came to the Wood River Valley from California in 1974 with a repertoire of recipes and, while working in the traditional steak and seafood restaurants of that era, enjoyed re-creating the Mexican food of his native southern California for his Ketchum friends. The ingredients needed to prepare the spicy dishes were so rare at that time in Idaho that Jim had supplies shipped up from California. Then, in 1984, he turned his passion into a career by opening Desperado’s in downtown Ketchum.
Despo’s, as it is affectionately known, features border-style Mexican food with an emphasis on fresh seafood. Jim’s recipes and the jovial camaraderie of his staff have become the stuff of legend in Ketchum. “We’re a team,” he emphasizes. “I couldn’t do this by myself.”
Despo’s offers an array of salsas, from mild to oh-so-hot, in Jim’s restaurant and in local grocery markets. He suggests adjusting his recipe to your personal degree of heat.
Restaurateurs Rob and Kris Cronin, with partners Brendan and Ramie Dennehy, are the proud new owners of Viva Taqueria in Hailey. Rob and Brendan, who first came to the Wood River Valley to work with Bruce Willis in the landmark reopening of The Mint, have spent ten years plying their skills along Main Street. The partners are locally revered for their previous work at the popular Red Elephant, and their launch of Zou 75.
Located in a charming historic house on Main Street, Viva Taqueria offers the ambience of a tree-lined patio for quiet, street-side alfresco dining during the summer months. It is known for traditional Mexican dishes with a cosmopolitan flair, and the new owners are quick to point out that, although the restaurant has changed hands, the wonderful recipes introduced by previous owner and chef Eric Hansen remain the same. These recipes, handed down for generations in Eric’s wife’s family, were tweaked by Eric to appeal to contemporary Valley tastes.
In a historic corner building on Main Street in Bellevue—at one time home to a bank, and later to a grocery—is the family-owned restaurant named after its inspiration, Mama Inez. Mark and Danette Fisher, longtime owners of the Ketchum restaurant of the same name, recently renovated the building and reopened their restaurant in the new location.
Danette grew up in the restaurant business. Her father learned to cook at the knee of his mother, Inez, before opening the first Mama Inez restaurant in Pocatello. Later, on one of many family trips to this area, he purchased a Ketchum building and, in 1987, offered Danette and her husband the opportunity to open the Mama Inez restaurant now so familiar to local lovers of spicy cuisine.
The Fishers’ recent decision to follow the population migration to the south seemed a natural choice. Danette explains, “We are excited about the business opportunities at the south end of the Valley. Already, the support has been great from our new neighbors!”
One new feature for the restaurant is a showcase of custom meat cuts, as well as the addition of steaks and hamburgers to the menu. Before Mama Inez opened in the building, it was home to an old-fashioned, family-owned grocery called Glenn’s that was famous throughout the area for its excellent meat. The man primarily responsible for that reputation
for thirteen years was Rodolfo Hernandez, who has agreed to stay on with the Fishers.
In the tradition of Mama Inez, the Fishers are proponents of simple favorites. Wrap this adaptation of a family recipe with your favorite carne or pescado in a warm corn tortilla.
1 pound fresh tomatillos, husked
2 or 3 chipotle chiles (packed in
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup cold water
1/2 medium onion, diced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, diced
Salt and pepper
Boil the tomatillos in 6 cups of water for 8 minutes. Remove tomatillos and discard water. In a food processor or blender, combine tomatillos, chipotles, garlic, and cold water. Pulse quickly, being very careful not to over-process. Stir in onion and cilantro. Salt and pepper to taste.
3 fresh mangos, diced
2 large, fresh tomatoes, diced
1 bunch fresh cilantro, coarsely
1 or 2 jalapeños (or more, if you’re
brave), finely diced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl. Eric admits to adding three dashes of “secret family spice” to his mango salsa, but refrains from sharing those details. At a recent taste test, participants were emphatic in their educated guesses, swearing that the special ingredient must be lime juice, tequila, or chili powder. But, according to Eric, this is the part that will make the recipe uniquely your own—so be creative. Maybe your mango salsa will become famous, too.
16-ounce can of diced, stewed
16 ounces of tomato juice
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 jalapeño peppers, chopped
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. This adaptation of a family recipe will feed a crowd.
Writer and self-professed foodie, Dana Yelda, found her latent wanderlust awakened while researching this story. Temporarily, she settles for wearing flip-flops in her yard.