Grocery Store Red Salsas, Ranked From Worst To Best

Don't let the words "thick and chunky" persuade you. Not all salsas are worth buying.

Red salsa is the ultimate consensus builder, whether it's the squeeze bottle at your favorite taqueria that brightens the al pastor or the free vat served up at a Tex-Mex dive where you and your friends gossip and sip on oversized margaritas. Because of its culinary importance, I wanted to see which red salsa at the grocery store is the best one for gathering around.

In the diverse world of jarred salsas, I made some executive decisions. For this ranking, I tasted 13 red salsas, collecting all I could in my visit to three different stores—apologies in advance if your favorite brand didn't make the cut. Each salsa was tasted with the king of salsa-sampling vessels: the Tostitos Scoop. For consistency, I selected salsas labeled as "Medium" spicy whenever possible and avoided those that contained fruits or alternate flavorings.

The salsas were judged on the following factors:

  • Flavor (salt, spice, tang)
  • Texture (the chunky/smooth balance)
  • Freshness (can I taste the jar this has been sitting in?)
  • With that, I present to you a list of which salsas to buy, and which to avoid, at the grocery store.

13. 365 Organic Thick and Chunky Medium Salsa

Unfortunately, my top takeaway from multiple days of tastings is not to trust Whole Foods' 365 brand products. Coming in at the very bottom of this list, this salsa had me checking the label incredulously to confirm its "medium" heat ranking. To call it bland would be an insult to Wonder Bread and accountants everywhere. This wasn't just not spicy, it was flavorless, missing any note of tomato, onion, or anything at all. Please join me in a moment of silence for all the spices on the ingredient list, their potential utterly lost.


12. La Preferida Organic Salsa

This medium salsas avoids the fate of its 365 brethren because in this product, at least, you can taste tomato. La Preferida is apparently a family-owned company started by a man named Henry Steinbarth from Bavaria, and I can confirm that La Preferida salsa tastes like it was made by a man named Henry Steinbarth from Bavaria. It has a deep tomato flavor, almost like a tomato paste, and big chunks of cooked tomato that create a nice texture, but it misses on any other flavors characteristic of salsa.


11. Muir Glen Organic Salsa

Again, this salsa gets it half right. Muir Glen makes great tomato products, and its tomato salsa could be one of them if I intended to put it on, say, a heaping serving of spaghetti. However, a total lack of citrus or spice means that this product fails as a salsa, leaving much to be desired in terms of overall flavor.


10. Pace Chunky Salsa

As we head into the top 10, we find ourselves with some fine salsas. In the not-quite-dregs of this ranking sits Pace Chunky Salsa, the worst of the middle-of-the-road red salsas. It is nearly ketchup-like in its artificiality, with a thickness and sweetness approaching Heinz. The ubiquity of Pace suggests this is what many people are looking for in a salsa, but not me.


9. Trader Joe’s Salsa Autentica

This Trader Joe's salsa is what I might call our taco kit salsa: low freshness, but bright and artificially sweet. It finds a way to elevate itself with a rounded, bell pepper flavor. It's not the only red salsa sold under the Trader Joe's label (more on that later), so you don't have to settle for this one on your next TJ's run if you prefer a hefty, chunky salsa.


8. Tostitos Chunky Salsa

This salsa has the exact flavor of what you'd smear on an unwarmed flour tortilla on Taco Night at your white friend's house, or what you'd be served in a little plastic cup as the acidic counterpoint to the neon cheese on your ballpark nacho tray. The classic Tostitos selection improves upon the other mid-tier salsas with more acid, more heat, and a factory-perfected chunky texture.


7. Green Mountain Gringo Medium Salsa

Green Mountain's salsa could fairly be called an elevated version of the nostalgic taco kit salsas that precede it on this list, a slightly more complex take on the iconic jar of chunky red goop. It's less spicy and more tangy than the others, and there are distinct flavors of cumin and raw garlic that elevate it. The depth of flavor, however, is missing, with no savory tomato notes lingering in your mouth. With a $6+ price tag in this economy, it doesn't do enough to make it worth the extra change.


6. Trader Joe’s Thick and Chunky Salsa

This Trader Joe's salsa is a nod to the Tostitos style of chunky salsa, but is even a little chunkier, lending my Tostitos Scoops a pleasing weight when I filled them up with the stuff. It also has a slight note of garden grassiness that elevates it above seven of its contenders.


5. Tostitos Restaurant Style Salsa

Rounding out our lower-middle tier before we hit the top four salsas, the "Restaurant Style" seems to be Tostitos' own attempt to improve upon its more common jarred tomato salsa. While a bit thinner than its counterpart (not a problem with my beloved Scoops chips, but perhaps an issue with classic tortilla chips), it had less of the artificial sweet-and-sour factor of some lower-ranked salsas, containing instead the strong flavors of garlic and cilantro.


4. Chi-Chi’s Medium Cilantro Salsa

This salsa redeems the brand for its poor performance in the salsa verde arena. While it has a slight bit of that factory-made, distinctly "jar" flavor of the others, it is a balanced and salty salsa. Big chunks of onion and tomato give it a fair amount of heft. It is bright and limey and sweet, with an herbaceous note that balances those zesty flavors well. For cilantro haters, I can't relate to you, but I don't think you need to be scared away from this one; though the pleasant earthiness of an herb is detectable, I couldn't sense the specific flavor of cilantro here.


3. Herdez Salsa Casera

Once again, Herdez has made a simple salsa that tastes like the ingredients listed on the label. This is the mild salsa for salsa purists, the salsa to form the base for exploration and experimentation. You can taste every wonderful flavor a tomato has to offer: sweetness, acidity, even a little savory butteriness. Then the pungent onion enters to stake its claim. Elevated by some simple salt and citrus, there's nothing more to it. The texture here is perfect, smoothly blended with some chunks. There are no frills to this salsa, which made me like it less than the top two options, but if you're looking for pure tomato tastiness, look no further.


2. Frontera Cilantro Jalapeno Salsa

This Frontera salsa from Rick Bayless is a great one, though it could stand to be renamed. In small letters below the Cilantro and Jalapeno product label are the words "roasted tomato and garlic," and unlike the namesake ingredients, which seem to be nonexistent in the salsa, there is an overwhelming flavor of roasted tomato and garlic throughout. Frontera knows how to make smokiness work for the masses, with the charred base notes balancing out the high acidity (sugar arguably accomplishes this in many of the other salsas, but here there is no sweetness to be found). It's thick and garlicky and tastes like the tomatoes came right off the grill and were pounded in a molcajete right in front of you.


1. On The Border Salsa

Today is a good day for mass-market salsa brands spun off from restaurant franchises. On the Border, a salsa originating at the Tex-Mex chain of the same name, was a surprising but overwhelming winner for one reason and one reason only: cumin. As soon as you open the jar the smell of roasting cumin (one of my personal favorite olfactory experiences out there) hits you immediately. Without the cumin, this might be a fine salsa in the #5-10 range. There's some nice grassy jalapeno heat, good acid and saltiness, canned tomatoes that are a little toothsome for my preference—but then enter cumin to save the day. It's the Meryl Fucking Streep of salsa ingredients, saving even a mediocre vehicle and transforming it into a hit, lifting all the supporting players in the process. Thank god for cumin. Make this your go-to jarred salsa at the grocery store.


Now, after four straight days of tasting and re-tasting, excuse me while I avoid all Taco Tuesdays and Burrito Bashes in my near future.