Written by Kon-Tiki Taco
Don’t assume that what goes on a fish taco is simply the salsa one puts on their tortillas. Taco caterers are helping diners develop more sophisticated tastes.
Taco salsa, taco sauce and taco crema/crèmes: is there a difference?
Not everyone operates on the level of sophistication of a fish taco catering company. And yet Mexican-style food is a subspecialty of just about every respectable amateur chef. So it’s useful to know the difference, particularly with gourmet fish tacos.
And if you’re host to a large event with a fiesta theme, it might make your planning conversation with your taco caterers go better to know the difference as well. Some guests might prefer a salsa over a sauce, or a sauce over a crema, or maybe a crema over both (note: the better vendors will offer a full selection).
Part of the confusion is just about everyone knows that the Spanish word for sauce is salsa. But in gastronomy, the two are not interchangeable. The best defining differences we can offer are the following:
Taco salsa: These tend to be the chunkier, tomato-based (or tomatillo, for a green salsa verde) made with fresh chiles and other seasonings. A salsa might have corn or even fruit as an ingredient. For the most part, a salsa is a mix of uncooked ingredients.
Taco sauce: The ingredients – chiles, onions, sometimes tomatoes – are roasted or cooked and blended. Cooking reduces the sauce (removes moisture) and blends the tastes, but because it’s more finely rendered by blending (or minced chopping) it generally is more liquid than a salsa. It just pairs better with seafood than does a salsa.
Taco crema/crèmes: By and large, the defining characteristic is the use of mayonnaise, yogurt or sour crème (or several of these), with many of the same chiles and tomatoes or tomatillos as in sauces and salsas. Recipes often urge the use of a crema on fish tacos; some say it’s reminiscent of tartar sauces used in more northern latitudes.
Now, just to confuse things many restaurants will interchangeably use these terms. There are also regional differences in how the terms are applied. A visit to chat boards on this topic shows wide disagreement between East and West Coast people on the topic.
The other questions on sauces, salsas and cremas are where are they best paired? Is one better with fish tacos than chicken? Is it wrong to use a cream sauce with shrimp? (Also, some may ask if a mobile fish taco catering operation can handle a crema, given the sensitive nature of dairy – the answer is yes, as each comes with refrigeration and should be staffed with certified food handlers who understand proper microbiological management techniques.)
The answers are simply that a good chef will know what works well together, and a savvy diner is always up for adventure. There are few “rights” and “wrongs” in dining – among the best characteristics of taco menus is the infinite variety that wrappers, fillings, toppings and salsas/sauces/cremas enable.