Salsa Roja

Alex Stupak

Empellón Cocina, Empellón Taqueria, and Empellón Al Pastor, NYC

Salsa roja and salsa verde are the ebony and ivory of the salsa universe: Whereas verde supplies brightness and clean, sharp heat, roja offers gentle spice and dried herb warmth. It makes sense that the two keep such close company—you’ll encounter versions of both at nearly every taqueria in Mexico. For Alex Stupak's salsa roja (a key component for his tacos al pastor), he looked to guajillo chile, one of the workhorses of the Mexican pantry. Cheap and ubiquitous, these dried peppers impart the mild heat, distinctive berry-like aroma, and deep, rusty hue that define a good roja.

Recipe reprinted from Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman. Copyright ©2015 by Empellon Holdings LLC. Photos by Evan Sung. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC


  • 2 plum tomatoes
  • 10 guajillo chiles
  • 1 chipotle morita chile
  • 1⁄2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano
  • 1⁄8 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 5 garlic cloves, skins on
  • 1 1⁄2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar


Preheat the broiler. Roast the tomatoes on a baking sheet under the broiler until they are blackened in spots, about 7 minutes. Turn them over and continue to blacken, about another 7 minutes. Remove the tomatoes from the broiler and set them aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the tomatoes and discard the skins.

Remove the stems from the guajillo and chipotle chiles and tear them open. Shake out and discard the seeds. Remove and discard the veins.

Set a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the oregano and cumin seeds and toast briefly, shaking the pan, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove the spices from the heat, transfer them to a spice grinder, and grind to a fine powder.

Reheat the skillet over medium heat. Toast the guajillo and chipotle chiles, turning them from time to time until you see the first wisp of smoke, about 45 seconds.

Remove the pan from the heat, and transfer the chiles to a bowl. Cover them with hot tap water and place a heavy plate over the chiles to keep them submerged. Set the chiles aside to soak for 30 minutes.
Add the garlic cloves to the skillet and roast them, turning them from time to time until they have softened slightly and are blackened in spots, about 6 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the garlic from the skillet, and set it aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the garlic cloves and discard the skins.

Drain the soaked chiles and discard the liquid. Place them in a blender along with the ground spices and the roasted garlic, salt, sugar, cider vinegar, and 1/4 cup water. Purée on high speed until completely smooth, working in batches if necessary. Set up a medium-mesh sieve over a bowl and pass the purée through the strainer. Transfer the strained purée to a container or refrigerate until ready to use. The salsa will keep for up to 3 days.


about 2 cups