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Feb 9, 2008 05:04 PM

Taco Shop Hot Sauces

I moved to Texas about 8 months ago from San Diego and today I decided I wanted to make my own hot sauce. Now, I'm not looking for tabasco, or Tapatio or Cholula... I'm looking to make hot sauce that you get from the Mexican Taco shops strewn about San Diego.

Specifically, I greatly enjoy the orangy hot sauce of some of the corner shops... but I'll settle for anything.

Does anyone have any receipes they'd be willing to share? Recipes for shredded beef tacos are accepting applications as well.

Gosh I miss home...

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  1. Taco shop hot sauces vary in heat, as you know. How hot do you want it. Most of the taco shops in San Diego use chile de arbol or a combination of chile de arbol and guajillo dried chiles as the base. Using all chile de arbol will result in a pretty hot...okay very hot sauce, a little will go a long way. The heat can be tamed with the guajillos. Here are the basic instructions, you can play around with the quantities to get it refined to your tastes. If you don't want a really hot sauce use 2/3 guajillos and 1/3 chile de arbol.

    Toast chile de arbol and/or guajillo chiles until they are warm, pliable and are beginning to show a light brown color. You *can* toast them until they are brittle which will give the salsa a more smoky/toasty flavor but it makes the chiles harder to work with and they also tend to burn really quickly. Also most recipes will tell you to stem and seed the chiles before toasting. That's fine but you can also simply stem them, toss them into a very hot skillet or wok set over very high heat and stir fry until you get the degree of toasting you want. Make sure you've got your hood vent on high and all the windows in your kitchen open. They chiles will give off their volatile oils, which is quite volatile to the nose and throat.

    Put the toasted chiles in a very large bowl and cover with very hot (or boiling) water. Put a plate on top of the chiles so that you don't get any floaters and soak chiles for about 20 minutes. Drain. If you've toasted the chiles whole, this is the time when you can remove any seeds and veins. Take a chile, run your finger down the side by a vein and the chile should open easily. This only works with guajillos and other large dried chiles. With the chile de arbols you're going to use them as is, seeds and all.

    Toss the drained chiles in a blender with a little water and start blending. You may need to add more water as the chiles get blended so keep adding water until the blades turn easily. And blend the h*ll out of the chiles. Chile skins are really tough and with most home blenders you need to really let the mixture go for a couple of minutes to get everything broken down and blended up.

    Once you've got your chile puree begin adding salt. It will take w-a-y more salt than you think. Dried chiles LOVE salt and the flavor begins to "bloom" when you get it right. You will have to kind of taste as you go. At first it will be rather bitter and flat but as you add salt and blend you should begin to notice the difference. You may also need to add a little bit of sugar and vinegar to round out the edges of the sauce. Because all chiles are different - just like everyone's taste buds - it's really hard to give exact measurements on the seasonings. But salt, vinegar and a little sugar are what you need to use. Once you get the flavor the way you like it you can add more water to get to the consistency you like. If you add much water you may need to readjust the salt. Strain the final salsa through a mesh strainer to remove any bits of skin and seeds that didn't get pulverized in the process. The color of the taco sauce will be more of a brick red than orange, but this is pretty much the process that many taco shops in SD use. Several of the local chains, such as the 'Bertos, do have commissaries that make the taco sauce in large quantity and some of the shops purchase commerical products. Just be aware that not all taco shops in San Diego make their taco sauce from scratch.

    As a twist, char some cloves of garlic and slices of white onion when you toast the chiles. Throw the garlic and onion in the blender with the chiles and process. They add a nice dimension to the taco sauce. Don't worry about making a mistake, chiles are extremely forgiving. I've run into a lot of people who are intimidated by working with them, but they're really easy. Dried chiles are not expensive so if you don't like the first batch, and you can't fix it by adjusting the seasonings, throw it out and start again. Remember, toast, soak, blend and strain. Use lots of salt, a little sugar and a few generous splashes of vinegar to season and you should be able to reproduce SD taco shop sauce.

    3 Replies
    1. re: DiningDiva

      Thank you for being so detailed! Question though, am I using fresh chilies, or dried? Because a lot of the recipes I've seen call for dried. I see you mentioned dried later on, but I'm not sure if you can use either.

      1. re: keykey

        Chile de arbol and guajillo are both dried chiles. Dried chiles are what you want to use for the type of sauce you requested, and are what San Diego taco shops use. Both chiles should be pretty easy to find in Texas as they are 2 of the work horse chiles in Mexican cooking and it's variants.

        Many fresh chiles start out green and will ripen to various shades of red, orange, yellow as they mature. You absolutely can make taco sauce out of fresh chiles but you get a different type of sauce that is more herbaceous and grassy in flavor.

        There is an old Rick Bayless cookbook called "Salsas That Cook" that has 7 or 8 basic salsa recipes, or as he calls them essential sauces. What I like about the book is that when he gives the recipes for the basic sauces he gives them in different quantities and offers chile substitution suggestions. If you're at a bookstore or library you might take a look at these recipes. None of recipes are exactly what you're looking for, but it will give you an idea of the diversity of chiles and the latitude you can have with chile based sauce recipes. FWIW, the taco sauce you're seeking is really just a variation on the essential sauces in Rick's cookbook.

      2. re: DiningDiva

        awesome, can't wait to try this. i lived in SD for 20 years, then moved to seattle. how can one not miss this hot sauce?!!!

      3. As DiningDiva has noted, most of the red chile salsas they serve at taco stands in Southern California are some variation of a dried red chile, blended with garlic, salt, and other flavorings.

        When I am using dried chiles, I actually seed and stem them first, toast them on a griddle or cast iron pan, and then I tear them up and put them right in the blender. Cover with boiling water and let sit for 20 minutes. I blend them with the soaking water. Season with garlic (fresh or roasted), salt and maybe a little lime.

        Here's a recipe from Rick Bayless' Authentic Mexican that's really good:

        Red Chile Salsa with Roasted Tomato:

        4 med. dried chiles guajillos, stemmed, seeded and deveined
        2 cloves unpeeled garlic
        1 large, ripe tomato (roasted on a griddle until blackened, then peeled and seeded)
        1/2 of one chipotle chile (the canned kind, seeded) (optional)
        Salt to taste (about 1/2 tsp.)

        Tear chiles into flat pieces and roast them on a griddle -- be careful not to burn them.

        Toast garlic on the griddle until soft and browned in spots. After cool, peel and quarter.

        Break up the chiles and put in blender dry, cover and blend on high until pulverized. Add the garlic, roasted tomato, optional chipotle chile, and 1/4 c. water, and puree until very smooth.

        Strain the sauce through a medium sieve, then add salt to taste. If needed, add a little more water to get the consistency you desire. Let sit for 30 minutes before serving to let flavors blend.

        1. Somewhere on this board is a clone recipe for the hot sauce that Rubios (fish taco place in So Cal) uses. It was very simple using dried red pepper flakes. Maybe your search skills are better than mine. Give it a shot.

          1. I am also after the simple taco sauce like this I have tasted in several mexican restaurants in western Nebraska. These recipes seem close but most of these peppers ex. arbol & guajillo always seem to be so pungent, earthy, tasting. The sauce I am after has plenty of heat but is smoother and not quite as harsh tasting if that makes any sense. They also have a special way of making those more flaky type fried flower tacos with ground beef filling with spices I cannot duplicate. You can even see a few cooked green peas in the hamburger. Has anyone seen that before? If I could only dupicate those shells and sauce I would be in second heaven.

            4 Replies
            1. re: munch1650

              Search this board (and maybe Texas and California) for 'puffy taco' - this sounds like the flaky taco shell that you seek.
              I've never been able to quite duplicate a puffy taco - you may need a deep fryer or equivalent. Mine always come out like gordita pockets (good, but not what I wanted).
              Since I've been eating real meat tacos for so long I don't understand the fascination for the spiced ground beef variety. Nevertheless, I posted my recipe here: .
              The best commercial American style taco sauce I've had is the Hot version of Pico Pica. If you can't get it locally, you can order from here:
              The guajillo and ancho (sometimes labeled pasilla) chiles are my favorites for homemade red cooked salsa. Penseys has them if they aren't locally available. I can't add anything to the above excellent guidelines by DiningDiva.
              Another great red salsa recipe to try is here:

              1. re: DiveFan

                To make the "puffy tacos" you either buy the masa for tortillas from a tortilleria or you can make your own by using Maseca or whatever corn flour you use and follow the recipe for tortillas on the package. You take the masa (about golf ball size), roll it then flatten it between heavy plastic on a tortilla press or use the bottom of a pan. You want it about 1/8 " thick. Heat some oil in a fry pan using about 1 1/2" to hot. Put you flattened tortilla into the hot oil and when it puffs up, take a long handle spoon and a pair of tongs and fold the tort over the spoon making sure to keep the tort open with the spoon. Turn over and cook briefly on other side then remove from oil and put on layers of paper to drain. I've made these several times with success.
                For my easy go to salsa which we always have on hand, I take about 10 - 12 chile de arbols and toast them in a small fry pan just for a couple of minutes. I don't seed them but put them immediately into a blender. I add 4 cloves of fresh garlic, about a tsp 1/2 of oregano and enough water to get the blender going. When the mixture looks pretty ground up, I add some salt, about 1 tsp and a 14 oz can of tomatoes. I then pulse the tomatoes until they are ground up. This chile is hot like we like it but you only need to reduce the amount of chiles de arbol if you're not into hot. I make this all the time for friends on request.
                Another very simple but tasty slasa (not really a taco sauce per se) is put a can of chipotle chiles into a blender, add 4 cloves of fresh garlic and blend. Then add a 14oz can of tomatoes. Pulse of and on until mixed well. Often another requested item and is especially good with tortilla chips as a dip but it is spicy. You can reduce the amount of chipotles if you don't like it really hot.

              2. re: munch1650

                I too am looking for a Western Nebraska salsa (aka taco sauce / hot sauce) recipe. And I too would love a decent recipe for the fried flour tacos (like Taco Town's with the peas). I have a cheese enchilada recipe that's good. Any use to you?

                1. re: TanzaniteCat

                  Just now say your reply on Taco Town. Most people don't understand the taste we are after unless they have eaten there. did you ever find any other recipes that come close to Taco Town. I would love your enchilada recipe. Send to