“I always feel terrible telling the story,” says Robert Espinosa, founder of the Texas taco shop Tacodeli.
A few months after the first Tacodeli opened in Austin, in early 2000, Espinosa challenged his employees to make their best salsa for a staff contest.
“I offered $30 to the winner. That was it,” he says. It’s all he had.
“We were budding entrepreneurs; we were making it up as we went.”
One staffer made a spicy, jalapeño-based salsa in a reused sour cream container. “I compare it to the moment in Pulp Fiction when the briefcase is open and there’s that glow,” Espinosa says when he first tasted it.
”It was that kind of moment.”
The sauce was made by Doña Bertha, a Tacodeli cook who once owned a taco cart in Veracruz, Mexico. She won (and was given $30 scraped from the founder’s car floorboard) and eventually “The Doña,” as they started calling her, became a legend at Tacodeli for her wildly spicy, mildly addicting green sauce.
It has culminated today into a “23-year love affair,” not only for staffers but for Tacodeli fans.
The Doña has since retired from Tacodeli. The company now sells Doña at grocery stores in 20 states, and Doña Bertha gets a percentage of gross sales, Espinosa says.
The sauce is light green in color, but looks are deceiving. It looks like a cool avocado crema, when in fact Doña is deliciously spicy, with a hint of sweetness that leaves you wanting more. It uses a lot of jalapeños. That’s a risk, Espinosa says: Jalapeños come in varying levels of spiciness, and cooks don’t know how hot a jalapeño will be until they cut into it. For that reason, the Doña at Tacodeli can range from wildly spicy to more of a medium level heat. It’s part of the fun.
Tacodeli’s 12 restaurants use a whopping 750 pounds of jalapeños per day, partially because of the Doña.
It is so popular among customers and staffers that Espinosa says it’s become the brand’s signature salsa. It’s my favorite condiment: I dab it on fajitas and set out a bowl of it when I make tacos. I’ll happily eat it straight, with chips.
Espinosa even puts it on top of vanilla ice cream — try that at your own risk.
Others have said they put Doña on hot dogs, salads, steaks and smoked salmon.
At a Tacodeli potluck for employees, one staffer brought spaghetti doused in Doña.
“And, it’s actually a really good marinade,” says Eric Wilkerson, Tacodeli co-owner.
Plenty of other taco shops make a similar green sauce inspired by Bertha’s hometown of Veracruz. I’m on the hunt to try them all.
In Dallas-Fort Worth, Doña is sold at Central Market, Whole Foods or at one of our four local Tacodeli restaurants. It’s also sold at grocery stores outside of Texas, including Fresh Thyme Market, Mom’s Organic Market, Kings and Balducci’s.
In Texas, “Doña is queen,” Wilkerson says, meaning that it outsells all other Tacodeli consumer packaged goods. But outside of Texas, Doña is mostly still a spicy secret. Queso tends to be Tacodeli’s top seller in the other 19 states.
Take it from me, if you love spicy food, you’ve got to buy this versatile salsa and take it for a spin in your kitchen.
The company operates four Tacodeli restaurants in North Texas: two in Dallas and two in Plano. The company co-owners say they’re actively looking for a lease in Fort Worth.