An early lunch rush packed Olé Mexican Grill on Monday. The dining room, its walls painted a bright gold with floral trim and bullfighter silhouettes, filled quickly with hungry business folks, area residents and employees from the nearby Northwest Medical Center.
Each table sported at least one clear plastic carafe, full of Olé’s blended red salsa, a mix of chiltepin and serrano chile peppers, yellow and green onions, oregano, cilantro, garlic and fresh tomatoes. Some tables had two carafes, which customers used to pour salsa generously onto plates for their tortilla chips and over their burros, tacos and enchiladas.
“(The carafes) make it more presentable,” said owner Ernest Aguirre, who spent much of Monday’s lunch rush bussing tables and checking in with guests.
With such a brisk business, it’s no wonder that Olé took the win in Caliente’s Salsa Madness, beating out Martín’s Comida Casera in the final round for the title of Tucson’s tastiest salsa.
Olé has been a northwest staple for the last 12 years. It is one of the oldest businesses in La Cholla Plaza at North La Cholla Boulevard and West Orange Grove Road.
It specializes in Sonoran cuisine. Aguirre was born in Mexico City, but was raised in Naco in Southeastern Arizona.
“I grew up eating Sonoran-style food,” he said.
A call for the best salsa back in May gathered nominations for 67 restaurants — all of them reader favorites. Caliente used the nomination numbers to seed a 32-restaurant Salsa Madness bracket. Each week, half the competition was eliminated based on reader votes.
Olé Mexican Grill’s take-down of the Tucson landmark, Café Poca Cosa, was perhaps the biggest upset of Round 1.
It surprised again in the second week by beating titan restaurateur Sam Fox and his upscale Blanco Tacos and Tequila at La Encantada.
It kept up the momentum in the ensuing weeks by dominating over BK Carne Asada & Hotdogs and Poco & Mom’s on Tucson’s east side.
The final round pitted Olé’s red salsa against Martín’s salsa de tomatillo, which contains more than 10 ingredients and is based on a recipe created by owner Martín Fontes’ mother.
In an interview prior to the final round of Salsa Madness, Fontes said living in Tucson is beneficial to making standout salsa.
“We are so close to the border,” he said. “It allows me to get things like good Mexican oregano and other fresh ingredients.”
Other reader favorites that took part in the Madness include El Charro, Casa Del Rio, El Sur, La Parrilla Suiza and Molina’s Midway.
As the competition unfolded, it was clear that many restaurants were pulling out all the stops.
Several of the businesses rallied their troops via Facebook.
As of Monday, Olé still had a Salsa Madness bracket taped to its front door and a reminder on a large white board for its customers to vote, near the entrance.
Aguirre said the enthusiasm was due in large part to his staff, which led the charge in getting the word out.
“They wanted to win,” Aguirre said. “They were pushing it hard and doing all the legwork.”