Introducing Sal, King Of Salsa

Sal Ochoa (right) with employee Kevin Daniels, daughter Alexis and wife Patti. Daniel Lane photos

“My husband Dan and I are big chili fans,” I say to Sal Ochoa, owner and master blender of Sal’s Salsa. It’s a cold and rainy Saturday, and we are sitting in the Hanalei Community Center just before the farmers market opens.

“Once, we made a 3-hour drive to buy a bushel of roasted chili peppers at the Chili Pepper Festival in Pueblo, Colorado,” I continue. “When we moved here, Dan bought your salsa at the Menehune Mart in Kapahi. He was thrilled to find an authentic-tasting salsa!”

A slow smile spreads across the burly man’s face, and a light twinkles in his eyes.

“I’m glad I could do him like that,” he says softly.

Ochoa’s mother and father are first generation Mexican-Americans who joined the vast ranks of Mexican farm laborers harvesting produce in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“My mom worked all day,” he recalls of the days when he and his siblings helped in the fields. “But she would get up at four in the morning and make homemade flour tortillas, and make stacks and stacks of burritos. When we were really young, we’d eat one of her big ‘ol fat burritos,and go take a nap in the car. It was so awesome.”

Sal talks salsa at a farmers market

Fully grown now, and craving homemade salsa, Sal borrowed some techniques from his mother, and created his own blend. As a seven-year volunteer firefighter in his hometown of Newman, California, he took his salsa to firefighters’potlucks.

One day, he showed up with chilaquiles instead. “I knew they turned out really good because my mom helped me make them,” he says of the traditional Mexican dish made with lightly fried corn tortillas. “Everyone complained, ‘Yeah, this is good, but where is your salsa?'”

At that point he knew he’d created a good blend, and in 1998, he entered a salsa competition at the Newman Fall Festival. There were two categories, “Traditional” and “Exotic”. Ochoa took first place in the traditional category, and won the overall competition. In 2000, he won the People’s Choice award at the same festival.

After coming to Kaua`i in 2001 for a six-week job, he decided to move his family. His salsa was just a habit, and became a frequent request from friends for get-togethers, birthday parties, and even a wedding.

Both hot and mild salsas are filled with flavor

A downturn in the economy inspired him to refine and sell his salsa. Sourcing local avocado, cilantro, green onions, lime juice and Hawaiian sea salt, he added Hawaiian chili peppers, and habaneros from Haena, to jalapenos, serranos, red onions, white onions, garlic and tomatoes.

“When my mom came to visit me, she watched me make my four-pepper blend and said, ‘Mi hijo! Estas loco!’ (My son! You’re crazy!) I said, ‘Mom, that’s why everybody likes my salsa!'”

Heat seekers crave the fiery fusion, and one bite spreads a slow, flavorful burn to the corners of your mouth. Instead of reaching for a drink to tame the heat, you’re compelled to take another bite.

That’s because spicy food releases endorphins in the brain. And heat-level corresponds with endorphin level. Endorphins are brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters, which transmit electrical signals to the nervous system. When you eat hot food, it’s like the Fourth of July in your brain. Opiate receptors act similar to morphine, and reduce feelings of pain, and your immune system is enhanced. You feel euphoric and maybe a little frisky because sex hormones are released.

The bright sign says it all

“I’d go to my friends’ house to watch Monday night football games, and I’d always bring my salsa,” says Ochoa, who is on the Kaua’i Search and Rescue team. “Four friends said, ‘Brah, it’s got a bite, but I can’t stop eating it!'”

Feedback from storeowners motivated Ochoa to create a mild version, which contains one-quarter of the four-pepper blend that’s in the hot salsa.

Each month, Ochoa hand-makes and sells 1,472 containers. If you want to try before you buy, you can find him at the Tuesday Waipa Market along with the Saturday Hanalei Market. From Princeville to Lawai, 16 stores carry his salsa. For a complete listing, check his website where you’ll also find a recipe for Breadfruit Tostones.

“I use my salsa on everything,” he says. “I top a breakfast of chorizo, eggs and potatoes with it. I add it to roasts. People have told me they make salad dressings with it.”

I added some to Greek yogurt for a low-fat taco topping.

The rain stops, and the sun starts to shine. Ochoa’s eyes have a wistful look to them. “Salsa is like my child,” he says. “It makes me proud, like every time I see my daughter dancing hula or playing the ukulele.

Sampling Sal’s salsa at the farmers market. Daniel Lane photos

“When I make a woman dance right in front of me and she says, ‘Ohhh!’ I get chicken skin because I know I’m making people happy.”