I fell in love with Mexican food before I really fell in love with the outdoors. When I was 18 years old, because I was unable to legally work in Canada, I flew from Toronto to San Jose to spend two months working with my cousin at an office interiors warehouse.
My cousin, being a six-foot-five white guy, was nicknamed Grande. Since I was his primo, his cousin, I was quickly dubbed “Primo.” We were welcomed with open arms. We had a family meal every morning, after two hours of work, simply called “comer.” My new amigos fed me their communal leftovers almost every workday.
Every once in a while, one of my coworkers at the warehouse would bring in a little tupperware of salsa. It was always such a treat. It elevated our meals, and we treated it like liquid gold.
A decade later, I’ve rarely had arroz, frijoles, pollo or salsas like theirs. Sometimes I think I’ll never have food quite that good ever again. I certainly never expected to have it while backpacking.
Enter Salsa Queen, a line of freeze-dried, cold-soak salsas ranging from Mango Pineapple to Roasted Tomatillo.
Salsa Queen Taste
I’ve been living in New Zealand for some months which, culinarily speaking, is about as far from Mexico as you can get.
I held a Salsa Queen tasting on a trip to Stewart Island with some friends. A storm kept us indoors most of the time, but with the help of some playing cards, some chips, our own personal salsa bar, and just a little bit of tequila, we kept ourselves entertained.
I’ve been feral for some real Mexican flavor, and in short that’s what Salsa Queen gave me.
The Zesty Cantina salsa feels like the quintessential red salsas I’ve had throughout my life. When you sit down at a Mexican restaurant, this is the salsa they put in front of you with a basket of tortilla chips. When I was living in San Diego (long after my time in San Jose) and I would go to my taqueria down the street, this was the red salsa that I reached for first, that I had to have if I was sitting down for a meal.
The thing that sets Salsa Queen’s offering apart is a heavier dose of lime. A chef I worked with once told me “citrus lifts things,” and that’s exactly what I tasted in the Zesty Cantina. The flavors are carried across your palate by the lime.
For me, if you catch a mango at the right time, there is no better fruit. Looking ridiculous while eating it is just a toll you have to pay for such a sublime experience.
Salsa Queen’s Mango Pineapple flavor transmits that exact feeling. The sweetness tastes whole, amber, like honey. But there’s an undercurrent of your more familiar salsa flavors as well, so that the sweetness comes in later.
My partner, Hillary, said, “Your bite ends upbeat,” and I thought that description was perfect. Katy, my friend from Leeds, described it as “Sweetly moreish,” which was a British word I hadn’t heard before. It means what you might guess — delicious enough to want more, which I did.
Salsa Queen’s packaging mentions how well it would go with fish tacos, and I can envision that perfectly in my brain. I can’t wait to make that pairing myself.
When I brought out the previous salsa flavors, people had tasting notes, and they offered compliments and adjectives. When I brought out the Red Chili, people said nothing, they just reached for more salsa. I took this to be a good sign!
The Red Chili is smokey and bright, and for me, it has a really nice level of heat. Jayde, one of the Kiwis at the tasting, found it delicious but too spicy. For Rashana, another local, it was her favorite. It tasted robust, full-bodied, and was just a great experience.
At a certain point in my life in San Diego, I became a salsa verde person. I would often pick up a carnitas burrito on my way home from work, and the verde just went so perfectly. Maybe that’s why this one is my favorite.
The flavor was earthier than the previous offerings, but there was a subtle sweetness there too. It was a little tangier than the Red Chili. In the supreme triangle of sweet, spicy, and tangy, this salsa sat beautifully in the middle — perfectly balanced. There were layers of heat to it, which came on slowly.
My partner, not usually being a salsa verde person, was surprised by this one and how much she loved it. I thought I might be partial to the Roasted Tomatillo before I even dug in, but still, it exceeded my expectations.
Backpacking with Salsa Queen
Since I tested these salsas with a roof over my head, I had dishes in which to rehydrate them, but backpackers can easily rehydrate them within the packaging, by adding hot or cold water.
Generally, I think they make perfect backcountry treats. They’re vegan and gluten free, so they’re super friendly to anyone with dietary restrictions. I’m also impressed at how Salsa Queen sticks to natural ingredients, avoiding preservatives. Their ingredient lists are easy reading — just fresh, familiar ingredients, nothing chemical.
They have the “just add water” simplicity we all love, and any one of these flavors could bring a backcountry meal from just okay to absolutely mouth-watering.
The different salsas call for slightly different amounts of water to rehydrate, and while I felt comfortable eyeballing those differences without exact measurement, some folks who don’t cook quite as much may feel differently. If this describes you, a UL pot doubles as a handy measuring device, or one of these stickers for Smartwater bottles also does the trick.
On your next trip, surprise your hiking partners with chips and salsa at camp! Just add cold water to the Salsa Queen pouches right when you drop your packs for the day. By the time shelters are set up and everyone’s drooling and wide-eyed, the salsa will be rehydrated — easily making you the most popular hiker around!
Matthew Kok is an essayist, a poet, a traveler, and absolutely in love with the world outside. They are currently operating out of Manapouri, a little town in Aotearoa–South Island, New Zealand. You can find them curled up with Stormy the housecat or cooking up big, elaborate breakfasts late in the morning. You can also find them on Instagram at @matt.kok