February 29, 2016

Hot Stuff: Chef Experiments with Salsa Menu

By Linda Romine
– The Memphis Business Journal –

Deep-fried flour tortillas besotted with greasy meat fillings and buried beneath mounds of cheddar cheese, sour cream and guacamole may be many Americans’ idea of great Mexican food – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Chef/proprietor Cesar Parra continues to offer traditional favorites, such as chimichangas, taquitos and enchiladas, on the menu at his 4-year-old East Memphis restaurant, Salsa Cocina Mexicana. Lately, however, the former Southern Californian has also been experimenting with lighter versions of Mexican/Southwestern cuisine, particularly entrees built around fresh grilled fish and chicken served with subtle cream sauces and salsa-vegetable garnishes.

In a series of visits over the past few weeks, we tasted a wide variety of these dishes and came to the delicious conclusion that Salsa is still the best Mexican restaurant in Memphis.

Like most chefs who take their trade seriously, Parra prefers to experiment with his food, and he says he is always seeking customers who will allow him to cook off the cuff for them – in exchange for their honest opinions on his latest culinary creations. Ask him to prepare any of the following, which may soon be added to Salsa’s menu:

* Shrimp flautas, in which shrimp-filled flour tortillas are topped with a spicy Vera Cruz sauce.

* Black bean and goat cheese enchiladas topped with a roasted nacho chili pepper sauce.

* Grilled snapper served with mushrooms in a cilantro-butter sauce.

* Salmon a la verde, which features the fish grilled, sautéed in mojo de ajo ("west with garlic and butter"), served over a green sauce and topped sparingly with a cilantro-flavored cream.

* Grilled yellow fin tuna en mole, fish sautéed and served over a light version of mole, Mexican cooking’s rich, reddish-brown hot sauce.

* Grilled sea bass with pesto cilantro, which is exactly that.

* Rellenos Sonorese, which Parra describes as roasted poblano chili peppers stuffed with picadillo (a mixture of ground meat, garlic, tomatoes and onions) and lightly covered with salsa ranchera and white Monterey Jack cheese.

* Brochettes of beef and shrimp roasted with a spicy chipotle chili pepper sauce and served over rice.

Check out the Chicken

In addition to fajitas made with beef and/or chicken, the restaurant serves three different grilled chicken dishes. We’ve tried them all, and all three are scrumptious. The pollo al citron ($9.50) is a chicken breast sautéed with mushrooms in a mild ginger-cream and lime sauce and topped with julienne slices of blanched green poblano chili peppers, served with that flavorful Mexican rice and black beans.

This generous entree begins with a complex sauce that takes hours of preparation. Purified chicken stock is blended with white wine, fresh cream, orange juice and lemon and set aside to cook slowly with rosemary, ginger, thyme and marjoram. Small amounts of ginger are blended in with the sauce, along with a dash of cayenne pepper, according to Parra. A splash of roux is added to thicken the silky mixture, which is an unusual but sumptuous complement to the poultry.

The pollo al cilantro ($8.75) is a simpler entree in which a juicy chicken breast is sautéed with butter and white wine and then sprinkled with fresh cilantro, slicked mushrooms and diced tomato and onion.

Chipotle peppers are marinated in white wine vinegar for a month, then blended with tomato puree, orange, lime and lemon juice, and cooked with oregano, garlic, a little bit of sugar, and thyme.

After the mixture is slow-cooked for hours, clarified chicken stock is added, and the sauce is thickened with a touch of roux. A sprinkle of freshly chopped cilantro is folded in at the last minute, and the dish is allowed to heat through before being served over the entree and rice.

The pollo colorado con queso ($8.75) is a marinated chicken breast served over a specialty salsa and topped with avocado slices and a jack cheese gratinee.

The Shrimp Isn’t Bad, Either

After being disappointed on a recent visit to find we couldn’t order the fish specials at lunch, we returned a day later for dinner. It was worth the wait: The Camerones al Diablo ($11.50) that was brought to our table disappeared in a lengthy series of immensely satisfying mouthfuls.

Tangy lemon, butter, white wine and a bit of chipotle pepper are marinated together, cooked to a reduction and seasoned before Gulf shrimp, which have been butterflied and quickly sautéed as in a scampi. At the last moment, freshly sliced mushrooms are heated in with the mixture, which is served over fluffy Mexican rice with a side order of yummy, gooey black beans.

Red snapper Vera Cruz is a common dish in Mexican cooking, and one for which there are many variations. Parra’s version begins with a light fish stock to which is added white wine, brandy, capers, oregano and cumin. Bell peppers, sliced poblano chiles, julieened jalapenos, sliced black and green olives, bay leaves, crushed roasted chilies, and the juice of lemon and lime are also included.

Complimentary corn chips, fried fresh from tortillas, and tangy salsa are automatic at the restaurant. And the salsa from which the restaurant takes it name lives up to the honor. It is a fiery cold sauce, thick and chunky in texture, made of diced fresh (or canned, when out of season) tomatoes, onion, garlic, jalapeno and red chili peppers roasted daily on the premises. The addicting mixture is seasoned with salt, pepper, and plenty of chopped fresh cilantro.

The black beans served at Salsa are perhaps the best in town. They are prepared simply, being slow-cooked after two thorough washings and an overnight soaking with pork bones and just a touch of salt. Cumin, diced tomato and onion, crushed oregano and cilantro are the only other additions to the beans, which are served whole and creamy, usually as an accompaniment to Mexican rice, and topped with the customer’s preference of shredded Jack cheese or a dollop of sour cream.

Service is friendly and informal at Salsa, 6150 Poplar. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner and has a small, centralized bar. We have found that the staff really hustles on busy weekend evenings, while lunch periods are somewhat more laid back and less hurried than perhaps most working professionals can afford.

If this is the case, though, just kindly ask them to pick up the pace – and I don’t mean the jarred picante.