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A Definitive Ranking Of Grocery Store Salsas, By A Genuine Salsa Snob

I’m a straight-up salsa snob.

What makes one a snob of salsas? Well, for one, I make my own (and think you should too). I’m also Mexican, so I have a cultural connection and a high bar for authenticity. In fact, until very recently, I’ve never even felt the need to buy a bottle of store-bought jarred salsa. Why would I? Even if I couldn’t make my own, I live in Los Angeles. Great salsa is always just a taco joint away.

My fridge is almost always packed with single servings of salsa from various burrito spots and Mexican restaurants. Even in the pandemic.

But I do recognize that not everyone is so lucky. Many people get their salsa from grocery stores. And not even the fresh-ish stuff in the refrigerated aisle. I’m talking about the jars living in the shadows of an “ethnic foods” sign.

If that’s your situation, I feel for you. So I set out to find out which jars belong in your pantry, and which should remain on shelves forever to collect dust. In my search, I discovered a few things:

  1. There are some seriously delicious jarred salsas out there.
  2. Good as they are, jarred salsas beat fresh salsas on absolutely zero occasions, flavor-wise.
  3. In terms of convenience, jarred salsa trumps fresh stuff, handily. If that’s a priority to you, well, I’m here to help.

A quick note on the brands selected:

I came to these twelve jars by reaching out to fellow food writers, friends, and salsa lovers in online communities like Twitter and Reddit. I’ve vetted each jar and, from what I can tell, the selections I’ve come to are available nationally. While I couldn’t always try each brand’s full roster of offerings, I tried to keep this list packed with a variety of different blends and opted for what seemed to be the best jar for each brand. (I also didn’t allow repeats — because the whole range of flavors from the top five are all better than any flavors from the bottom five.)

Let’s go!

12. Pace Picante Sauce

Pace

Average Price: $2-$3

Whoever suggested — I know who, I’m being nice — this brand of salsa to me was trying to do me dirty. Seriously, this is probably the most disappointing salsa I’ve ever tasted and I think that calling it salsa at all is being too generous. I had the “mild” variety and the tomato-forward flavor was so strong that it practically pushes this into soup territory. Like a minestrone.

Visually, the sauce looks great, you can see chunks of green peppers, onions, and garlic, but that makes the lack of complexity all the more disorientating. Just a sad, sad sauce.

What To Eat It On

Spaghetti. We’re kidding, that would be gross too. Just don’t eat this. If you go to a party and they put out some Pace and chips, leave. You’re at the wrong joint.

11. Newman’s Own Mild Chunky

Newman

Average Price: $2.50

Can a salsa be racist?

I don’t have a problem with Speedy Gonzalez or the Taco Bell chihuahua, and I even think Trader Joe’s calling their Mexican themed products “Trader Jose” is/was funny, but for some reason Paul Newman wearing a sombrero with a bandit mustache talking about how his salsa is so good it “oughta be outlawed” just doesn’t sit right with me.

To be fair, that might come down to the fact that Newman’s Own salsa sucks.

I wasn’t expecting heat with this jar, but I also wasn’t expecting the overwhelming amount of sweetness I’d encounter. It’s off-putting and, like Pace, calling it salsa feels generous. Looking online, Newman’s seems to have ditched the label (I need to switch grocers, obviously). Regardless, it hasn’t improved the salsa.

What To Eat It On

Put it on a bed of lettuce like one of Newman’s Own salad dressings.

10. La Costeña Mexican Salsa

La Costena

Average Price: $1.75-$2

La Costeña may have at one time been the best grocery store jarred salsa you could find. Either that, or it was the only brand. Older millennials may recognize the bottle and, as a Mexican kid growing up in Southern California in the ‘90s, I have to say I’m pretty familiar with this one. Not because it was in my home, but because it’s the bottle found at every SoCal burger shack that also tries its hand at tacos or “bomb burritos.” (Which describes just about every mom and pop burger place below the Grapevine.)

While I definitely have nostalgic feelings towards La Costeña, my fondness for the brand only seems to exist in my memory. It’s not that La Costeña is explicitly bad, it’s just that it’s such a boring representation of salsa. The ingredients list is low, consisting of mostly tomatoes, jalapeños, and onions, giving the jar a fresh quality that easily places it above brands like Pace and Tostitos as more “authentic,” but it doesn’t feel essential to me.

What To Eat It On

La Costeña makes for a decent chip dip or any time you’re trying to liven up a non-Mexican dish like a cheeseburger or omelet.

9. On The Border Original Salsa Hot

On The Border

Average Price: $2.24

If in the future you find yourself at a house party — remember those? — and the host has put out a serving of chips with On The Border salsa, you’ll at least know they actually like salsa and didn’t just go to the market thinking “What goes with chips?”

This one is solid, if not a little boring. On the Border’s salsa is slightly sweet, thanks to the addition of yellow onions rather than the usual white, but not in that off-putting Newman’s Own way. The tomatoes here are livened up by the inclusion of tomato paste which gives a noticeable brightness to this blend, but the heat, even in its spiciest offering, leaves something to be desired.

What To Eat It On

As I mentioned, this is a great chip dip salsa. You’re not going to ever feel like your meal is incomplete without it, but it has enough flavor to liven up a frozen burrito or two.

8. Herdez Salsa Verde

Herdez

Average Price: $2.50

Every Mexican grandma living in LA has a jar of Herdez in her fridge and that’s probably because your local Mexican market has it on sale. That gives this brand a certain allure and authenticity, and flavor-wise it’s pretty authentic — though a little too watery to my liking.

When I say “watery” I’m not so much talking about the consistency as I am the flavor, you need a lot to taste this stuff and while the flavor is decent, I’m always left feeling like there is just something missing here. I have to overload a chip to really even notice it.

A decent choice, but I’d suggest chopping up some roasted Serrano chilis and mixing them in the jar to give it more of a kick. (All the salsas on this list would probably benefit from that.)

What To Eat It With

Put a healthy tablespoon or two in your omelet and instantly elevate your breakfast.

7. Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value Organic Roasted Chipotle

Whole Foods

Average Price: $3.30

I didn’t want this one to be good because “I got this salsa at Whole Foods” is a bad look for any salsa snob. But compared to Herdez, this is a clear step up. Now a caveat, I’ve only ever had the Roasted Chipotle blend, so I can’t speak to the other salsas made by Whole Foods’ 365 Everyday Value brand. All I know is this and it’s pretty solid.

While the heat level is tame, you get a robust roasted tomato flavor here that pairs fantastically with fried tortilla and packs enough heat to kick in that addictive quality that good salsa has to it.

What To Eat It On

As I said, this is a great choice for fried tortillas, whether you’re dipping chips or serving extra globs on your chilaquiles.

6. Frontera Especial Mango Habanero Salsa

Frontera

Average Price: $5.50

I feel like no salsa list would be complete without a Mango Habanero blend and my choice for that is Frontera. Mango Habanero is a popular flavor combination, but most blends don’t include passionfruit, pineapple, and habanero into that mix, Frontera does. That adds a nice tropical fruit-forward character to this one, making it feel unique.

Don’t let “habanero” scare you off, the heat is really tamed down by the fruit. In fact, we wish this one packed just a little more heat.

What To Eat It On

Fish tacos or anything that feels like it wants some tropical warmth.

5. Trader Joe’s Pepita Salsa

Trader Joes

Average Price: $2.99

Trader Joe’s has four different varieties of salsa, of which I’ve tried three: the Organic, Habanero Ghost Pepper, and my favorite, the Pepita salsa. All three are pretty good, with the organic being the most boring, and the Habanero easily the hottest, but the Pepita gets a spot on our list for being the most interesting.

The Pepita salsa is incredibly chunky, with a delicious mix of zesty tomatoes and bright red bell peppers that are tamed by roasted pumpkin seeds (where the sauce gets its name), which add a rich and complex earthiness to the recipe that keeps it grounded.

This one might be seasonal at some TJ locations, so heads up.

What To Eat It On

This salsa is all about the chunkiness, so it makes a great choice for dipping. Chips, French fries, anything that can be scooped is the best way to enjoy it.

4. Xochitl Habanero

Xochitl

Average Price: $10.99

Now we’re talking, baby. While many of the previous salsas could be described as “good,” Xochitl delivers something that is truly worthy of the space it’ll take up in your fridge. This is better than a lot of taqueria salsas and blows anything Taco Bell, Del Taco, and even El Pollo Loco could ever hope to come up with.

From what I can tell, the Habanero used here is roasted, which tames some of the brighter citrus characteristics of the pepper and brings out the deep complexity. Best of all, this stuff is legitimately hot. A simply tablespoon of this stuff mixed into your refried beans or splattered across a taco is going to pack enough heat to linger through your whole meal.

Tame some of that heat with a side of fresh-cut cucumbers if it’s too much to handle.

What To Eat It On

A simple serving over an asada, carnitas, or al pastor soft taco with fresh chopped onions and cilantro is all you need to instantly elevate your at-home Mexican food.

3. Green Mountain Gringo Hot Salsa

Green Mountain Gringo

Average Price: $4.19

Ahh, the famed Green Mountain Gringo. This brand tops many a “best salsa” list on the internet and was the brand that kept cropping up in suggestions from fellow salsa-heads. Overly high expectations might be affecting my opinion, but to my tastebuds, this one isn’t the best.

It is very good, though. I can definitely see the appeal.

Green Mountain just packs so much flavor, probably courtesy of the recipe’s use of ripe whole tomatoes, rather than a blend of whole tomatoes and tomato puree. That’s a difference you can taste, resulting in a fresher end product. The mix of Serrano, jalapeño, and tomato puts this in line with a traditional Mexican restaurant table salsa, but the added dose of Tomatillos adds a vegetal brightness that really pushes this one above the competition.

What To Eat It On

I like to take a scoop, throw it in a pan with some whole beans and bacon fat, and smash it all together into a thick soup of refried beans. Beans go in the burrito with chopped carne asada, a helping of cilantro, and Oaxaca cheese, another serving of Green Mountain Gringo on top, fold, roll, wrap in foil and I’m transported back to the corner taqueria, before the pandemic.

2. Mateo’s Gourmet Hatch Chili Salsa

Mateo

Average Price: $3.78

All of Mateo’s salsas, from the jar of mild to habanero hot, are delicious and worthy of your time. But if we had to choose just one, we’re going with the Hatch Chili blend. Hatch chilis, if you aren’t familiar, originate from New Mexico and are less spicy than then they are earthy and peppery, putting them more in the Anaheim chili camp than your hotter jalapeños.

For what the hatch chili lacks in heat, it more than makes up for in flavor — with a distinct smoky and savory characteristic, making it one of the best tasting peppers you’ll ever have the chance to eat. Mateo’s sensibly adds jalapeños to this blend, giving it more heat than you’d expect from a Hatch, delivering one of the best non-homemade salsas I’ve ever had, period.

What To Have It On

Any of your Tex-Mex favorites, but for me, this is a go-to for enchiladas.

1. Mrs. Renfro’s Jalapeño Green Salsa

Mrs Renfro

Average Price: $2.99

Texas-based Mrs. Renfro’s has 20 different varieties of salsa, some of which are pretty wild — peach salsa, tequila salsa, and pumpkin salsa among them. But my number one was always going to be a green salsa, and to these tastebuds, Mrs. Renfro’s makes the best on the market.

One of the things that jumps out at me after having a few jars of Renfro’s is that the heat level is wildly inconsistent from batch to batch. That sounds like a bad thing, but to me, it indicates the legitimacy of this salsa. There are tricks to figuring out which jalapeño pepper will be hotter than another, but sometimes you just don’t know how much heat a pepper will pack until you bite into it.

Anyway, Renfro’s inconsistency leads me to believe they are making their jars in smaller batches and using jalapeños as the main ingredient. Looking at the ingredients list confirms this, Renfro’s Green Salsa lists jalapeños as its first ingredient, followed by water, distilled vinegar, corn starch, salt, dried onion, spices, and dried garlic. The vinegar acts as a preservative, the corn starch as a thickener, but aside from that this has just about everything you’d want in a fresh, mildly hot green salsa.

If you’re looking for heat with this one, you’ll be wildly disappointed. Calling it “hot” as the jar does, shows little respect towards the spice level of the eater. What you will find, however, is a well-balanced salsa that seems to go with everything and adds a bit of brightness to meat-based dishes and a dark and savory complexity to meatless meals (with a nice, subtle heat that crops up as an aftertaste).

It smells great, with an earthy roasted pepper aroma that is rounded out nicely by the onion and garlic. The fact that I can’t find anything it tastes bad on makes it a great kitchen workhorse that you’re guaranteed to get a lot of mileage out of.

What To Eat It On

Nacho Fries — which are exactly what they sound like. Mrs. Renfro’s will pair perfectly with your meat of choice, bring out the vegetal qualities of your fresh chopped cilantro, and soak into the potatoes to really pull the whole dish together.

If making nacho fries sounds like a chore, this is a great choice for a mild breakfast burrito.

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