Striving for Mexican cultural integrity and preserving regional authenticity are trends increasingly visible in the specialty food and restaurant industry. Not long ago, salsa and chips were the closest that non-ethnic consumers, retailers and restaurants came to Mexican cuisine. Those times are over...

Rick Bayless, renowned chef, author of Authentic Mexican and owner of Chicago-based Frontera Foods, believes that Mexican cooking is experiencing an awakening. Bayless likens it to what occurred with Italian food decades ago. He says, “We learned that it was not just spaghetti and meatballs; that there were strong differences between the north and south. That’s the stage where Mexican food is now. We are beginning to understand and appreciate the diversity. Park Kerr, founder of El Paso Chile Co., El Paso, Tex., adds, “The specialty industry is open to new flavors and trends. And the trend is that the market is looking for Mexican products that are authentic and original.

More and more shelves and menus showcase an assortment of Mexican-style sauces and salsas that represent preferences, heat levels and flavors from regions along the Pacific Coast, such as Sonora, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Oaxaca and Chiapas, to the Central areas of Chihuahua, Zacatecas and Puebla, and to the East—Monterrey, Veracruz, and the Yucatan that outline the Gulf Coast.

A Cornucopia of Climates and Landscapes
Diane Kennedy, recipient of the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest honor bestowed on foreigners by the Mexican government and author of many books on Mexican cuisine, describes the phenomenal influence of the country's landscape on its food. She writes, “To do justice to the foods of this extraordinarily complex country would take many lifetimes of research and travel…It stretches 7,000 kilometers from north to south in the form of a cornucopia, three-quarters of it just below the Tropic of Cancer. It is bordered for the most part by two cordilleras (mountain ranges) that slope down to the Gulf of Mexico to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, with a vast high central plateau, thus creating many geographical zones and microclimates. The accidents of history—highly developed ancient civilizations, foreign invasions, and influences, and diverse indigenous culture, many of which still survive today—have all played a part in this complexity.

As with many culinary trends, the move toward authentic Mexican is starting in restaurants and moving into retail. At his pioneering restaurant, Topolobampo, Bayless serves regional Mexican sauces that showcase special kinds of chiles. “We present foods and flavors from the best restaurants in the big cities in Mexico, says Bayless. “Some our traditional items include pasilla chile for our grilling sauces, and a wonderful salsa roja made with guajillo chiles, roasted tomatillo, roasted garlic, and pears. We also have a roasted tomato salsa, with jalapeños, capers and olives.

According to the Food Channel Trendwire, “The most dramatic progress will follow the usual pattern, starting among upscale independents and trickling down to fast-casual restaurants and other venues that boast high accessibility…Various news reports suggest that ambitious American chefs with Mexican roots are pursuing further education in regional Mexican cooking styles, either by traveling home to Mexico or accessing something more convenient.

Trendwire cites California-based El Torito, a chain of full-service, casual Mexican restaurants as an example, with its series of regional menus highlighting “The Real Flavors of Mexico. The program began with Sonora in January and progressed every other month through Veracruz, Yucatan, Mexico City, Guadalajara and Oaxaca. Trendwire reports, “While some of the items (such as fresh fish tacos) seem tame and familiar, others speak clearly of cultural integrity. The Yucatan menu, for instance, offered shrimp wrapped in a banana leaf with that region’s pibil sauce (based on fruit juices, garlic, cumin and achiote seasoning paste).

Regional Appeal at Retail
Authentic Mexican sauces and salsas appeal to a broad audience at retail. V. Richards, a specialty retailer in non-ethnic Brookfield, Wisc., caters to an above-40, Caucasian customer. And the store sells a lot of Mexican-style sauces. Beth Gramling, specialty foods buyer, says, “We have a large selection and carry a wide variety of heat levels." Brands include Inner Beauty, Café Tequila, Dragon Sauce and Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill hot sauce.

Wild Oats, store #56, in Denver serves a more ethnic community. John Parks, grocery buyer, says, “We carry adobo sauce, hot and mild enchilada sauce, plus three different brands of mole. Some of our customers look for a type of sauce and others seek brand recognition. Nowadays, adds Parks, customers are not just looking for Mexican sauces, they are requesting ingredients to give their culinary creations an authentic flare.

Fairway Supermarket in New York City offers a variety of brands and sauces. Jesus Echavarria, Mexican food buyer, says, “We carry a number of brands including sauces from El Paso, Enriquo's, Green Mountain, Goya and Cholula.

Manufacturers of specialty Mexican products are either old-line ethnic food producers, or specialty food innovators. Both styles of companies create products that appeal to buyers searching for Mexican authenticity.

Two of the more established companies are La Preferida and Juanita’s Foods. Chicago-based La Preferida manufactures more than 200 authentic Mexican food items including salsas, specialty sauces, taco sauce and mole. Some of its offerings include Salsa Chipotle, Salsa Verde, Green Jalapeño Salsa, Mexican Cooking Sauce—Chile Ancho (mild), Green Mole Paste and Pipian Paste.

At Juanita's Foods, Wilmington, Calif., mole is one of the best-selling items. Juanita's offers ready-to-serve Puebla-style mole, a variety of Mexican Hot/Taco sauces and others.

El Paso Chile has been selling Mexican-style products since it began in the 1980s. Kerr remarks, “Our ingredients, which include different Mexican dried and fresh chiles, such as green chile, chipotle, and tomatillos, offer authentic regional flavors from Mexico and the American southwest.

El Paso’s Salsa Primera has been on the market for more than 20 years. Kerr describes it as a northern regional table sauce that is ever-popular in Mexican cooking. It can be stirred into salsa as an ingredient or as a topping for baked fish. Salsa Loca, a newer product, is traditionally used as a pork marinade. “It's a great Mexican sauce that is fueled by chipotle and chile de arbol, typical of Central Mexico, Kerr says.

Bayless’ Frontera Foods offers a score of authentic Mexican products, and keeps expanding. The Salpica line is “fun and inventive, and infused with Latin inspiration, says Bayless. “We are also developing more items for the high-end, chef-creative Topolobampo line.

Santa Fe Seasons caters to both mainstream and specialty markets with a variety of authentically flavorful products that contain no preservatives, says Diana Ronquillo, director of sales and marketing. Mole Pronto, one of its best-sellers, contains tomatillos, onions, bananas, toasted sesame seeds, chocolate, and semi-sweet chocolate. Its jarred red chile or red chile enchilada sauce is ideal for carne asada (roasted meat).

A relative newcomer in the category is World Art Foods, which offers Mexican Fusion Cooking Sauces. With authentic Mexican foods exploding in popularity, expect to see more and more manufacturers, retailers and restaurateurs offering a cornucopia of Mexican foods.