Salsa Roja de Chile de Arbol: Guadalajara’s secret sauce

It’s years back, my waistline was drastically smaller, and my husband, also skinnier, was still a boyfriend. We are at his mother’s house and I see 5 brown faces staring at my pasty, white one with a mix of anxiety and that smile we get when we are expecting to burst out laughing at any moment. A torta stuffed with beans and pork and completely drenched in this neon red sauce sit before me. Behold, the tortas ahogadas, a Guadalajarn treasure most anglos who call themselves Mexican Cuisine aficionados never even hear about. Only Alex’s mom, Maria, doesn’t look like she is going to laugh. She looks terrified because I told her not to hold back, but to drench the torta in the salsa roja as was the tradition. “I can handle it,” I promised.

Now was the moment to demonstrate my spice-eating chops. I cut off a big, heaping chunk of torta, the crowd draws a breath, and I chow down. I close my eyes as all sorts of awesome stuff starts happening in my mouth – heat and savory and, and … holy SHIT THAT’S HOT! I immediately grab my beer and suck down half of it in two gulps, getting an instant buzz. I look at the crowd with a big, dopey smile on my face and go back for more. ‘I can’t believe you can eat that!’ proclaims Alex’s younger brother, Jorge. ‘I just eat it with tomato sauce!’ I smile at him. “Well,” I say, “That settles it. I am more Mexican than you.”

It’s taken me years of experimentation and some coaching from Maria, but I am ready to share this amazing salsa with you. If you want to make it for dunking tortas, you will want a more watered down version of this, but otherwise it’s a great way to add heat and flavor to any dish that you want a salsa or hot sauce for. Buen provecho!

Salsa Roja de Chili de Arbol

Salsa Roja de Chili de Arbol


  • 30 dried chili de arbol peppers (located usually in the aisle with all the hanging bags of dried Mexican spices and specialty items)
  • 1 1/2 cups of water
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 8 oz can tomato sauce
  • 2 tsp vinegar
  • Salt and pepper


  • In a medium pot, add the water and dried chili peppers and bring the water to a boil.
  • Boil the peppers for 5 minutes. Turn off the flame and cover the pot with a well fitted lid.
  • Let the chilis soak for about 20 minutes.
  • Add the chilis and about 1 cup of the water to a blender. You can use a stick food processor in a large, plastic measuring cup too, if that’s handy.
  • Cut the garlic into quarters and toss in to the blender, along with the can of tomato sauce and vinegar.
  • Blend the ingredients together. Add 1/2 tsp of salt and pepper and blend a bit more.
  • Grab a tortilla chip and taste. From here, you will want to keep adding salt at 1/4 tsp at a time and blending until you are happy with the heat and flavor.

If you are really a spice fanatic you can eat with chips, but I think most will enjoy this as a garnish on tacos, quesadillas, chili, even a dollop in their soup if they want some kick.

A word of caution: This salsa does include the seeds from a very hot chili pepper. While you may have a fairly high tolerance to heat, make sure your mouth isn’t writing checks your ass can’t cash. Seriously, this stuff will tear you up, so either eat it judiciously, or indulge only if you and your partner are comfortable enough with each other that they won’t be horrified by the flames shooting out from under the bathroom door and the sound of the mirror shattering. 

~Nom, and probably poop, on!

4 thoughts on “Salsa Roja de Chile de Arbol: Guadalajara’s secret sauce

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