Don’t want to hear the backstory? Jump straight to the recipe.
I have lived in Virginia my whole life, but white salsa is not something that I came into contact with until probably the time when I was in college. This is usually served at local Tex-Mex chains alongside a regular tomato salsa and thin corn tortilla chips. It is a thick, creamy, sweet salsa that balances out a spicy salsa that is it usually served alongside. When this started showing up at my local restaurants, I assumed that this was a specialty salsa from a region of Mexico that the owners of that particular establishment brought with them. But then, it started to show up everywhere.
Now, if you go to Mexican restaurants all over Virginia you’ll get a small bowl of the sauce. I’ve heard it called white salsa, salsa blanca, cream salsa, and even Mexican ranch. Again, I thought it was a trend catching on all over country. But once I mentioned it to some friends from other parts of the country they looked at me like I was crazy.
It’s easy to understand why Virginians don’t think that this salsa is as bizarre as the rest of the world. If you travel the state, you’ll find the salsa in most of the major cities, except for Northern Virginia where I haven’t seen it yet. I even browsed Tex Mex restaurants on Yelp and looked at pictures from the top restaurants in Hampton, Roanoke, Norfolk, Richmond, Newport News, and Fredericksburg and the sauce showed up everywhere.
I started to look into the history of this sauce and it is fascinating! An in-depth story in the Virginia Pilot traced its history to El Toro, a former Mexican restaurant in Virginia Beach. The owner, Willie Jenkins, originally served the salsa as a salad dressing. I’m guessing that it caught on like wildfire and people couldn’t get enough of it and eventually started to dip chips in the sauce and calling it white salsa. In the 1970s, Tex Mex food was likely the most exotic and spicy food that you could find in the area. The typically spice-sensitive patron of the area probably used the sauce to cool their mouth off from the spicier tomato salsa.
Another follow up article in the Virginia Pilot traces the spread of the sauce from restaurant to restaurant. It’s a fascinating read. People started to ask for the salsa in other restaurants in the area who tried to copy the recipe, sometimes leading to outright theft and deception. The sauce eventually spread to Richmond where it caught on just as quickly and then spread to the rest of the state.
You can now find the sauce served all over the state and on the East Coast in Plaza Azteca restaurants who have created their own recipe based on Willie’s original. Some of them add onions, jalepenos, vinegar, and cheese but it seems like most of them still have a base of Miracle Whip.
I made a batch using the original recipe for “Willie’s White Sauce” and it turned out to be spot on from what I’ve had in restaurants. I will warn that they do suggest to let it refrigerate for 48 hours before serving and I definitely agree with that! When I first mixed the sauce it pretty much just tasted like Miracle Whip, but as the spices hydrated and flavors melded, it evolved into the delicious white salsa that I remembered. This makes a pretty big batch, so if you are considering making it as a test, consider halving the recipe.
- 2 cups Miracle Whip
- ½ cup milk
- 1½ teaspoons oregano
- 1½ teaspoons garlic powder
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- Mix together spices and add the milk
2. Whip the Miracle Whip into the spice/milk mixture
3. Cover and refrigerate for at least 48 hours before serving (very important)
Keep chilled until serving with chips and tomato salsa.