Turn up the heat: Salsa mixes south of the border specialties

Getting in and out of the strip mall parking lot at the corner of Howell Mill and Collier roads is probably the most difficult thing to stomach on a visit to Salsa. Luckily, the restaurant has a relaxed, friendly vibe that serves as a balm for the parking lot battles. Brightly painted red-and-yellow walls are hung with underwater marine life artwork and reproduction French food posters. The decorations are a mix of cultures, and so is the menu. Dishes are Mexican to mostly Southwestern, with a little bit of everything else in between.

Tacos arrive in standard soft flour tortillas. Though a note on the menu touts "homemade" corn tortillas, they were unavailable during my visit. But that didn't affect the availability of tasty taco selections. An order ($5.95) gets you a mix-and-match of two tacos, plus a choice of sides (pass on the rice and beans, which could use a dose of herbs and spices). A fish taco of fried tilapia, paired with a Thai pepper tartar sauce, didn't deliver much of the promised spicy kick. The country barbecue pork, with its topping of cool jalapeno coleslaw, was crunchy, spicy and sweet. The other pork option included tender twice-cooked strips combined with a mojo salsa. A similar garlicky mojo was used on the marinated strips in the chicken taco -- messy but worth it.

For a restaurant named after a spicy accompaniment, Salsa's salsas are the biggest disappointment. A trio of salsas ($1.95), with chips or fresh tortillas, was an unfortunate start. The fresh tomato was thick and chunky, but it lacked any recognizable garlic or chilies and was unusually bland. The green tomatilla variety was also shockingly weak, and there's even less to be said for the brick red "aji" (usually a very hot salsa), which was flavorless and watery.

The restaurant's mish-mash of cultures and cuisines makes it hard to go by a particular region when organizing a menu. Hence the "Whatnot" category (all $5.95), which includes Oaxacan cheese in an enchilada and quesadilla, the Southwestern Santa Fe Flyer (turkey breast sandwich), a green salad, and more. The Cuban sandwich is the real keeper. One of the best I've had in the city, the sandwich is piled with roasted pork strips and slices of ham and salami, with Swiss, lettuce, tomato, pickles, mustard and mayo -- all of it piled between thick, crisp pressed bread. The side of lemon-and-garlic mojo (used like a French dip) puts it over the top.

If you want dessert, there's the tres leches flan ($2.95). But who needs that when you can order some great maduros, aka sweet plantains ($1.75)? Caramelized and nearly black, they're none too pretty on the plate. But they're rich, sweet taste is perfect.


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