WICKER PARK — When a job transfer brought Sofia Fernandez to Wicker Park in 2016, she began hosting weekly dinners for new friends, some of whom hailed from Colombia, Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Puerto Rico.
One of those invites went to Cristina Tarriba, who moved to Bucktown in 2017 from Culiacan, the capital of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, to study design at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
“Her sister, Maria, was one of my best friends in college,” said Fernandez, who grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, and spent hours in the kitchen cooking with her mother and grandmother. “She told me Cristina was moving to Chicago. We hit it off and have become good friends.”
A dinner invitation that turned into a friendship has now turned into a business partnership.
Fernandez and Tarriba started Salsa Compañera, a salsa company that’s already turning heads and selling out at the Logan Square Farmers Market.
Their speciality: salsa macha, a style that Fernandez would bring back to Chicago from visits to Monterrey and serve at her dinners.
“You can’t find salsa macha in Chicago,” said Fernandez, who studied food engineering at Tecnologico de Monterrey.
“We said, ‘Let make it ourselves,’” Tarriba said.
Tarriba brought back 10 pounds of dried chiles from a trip in June 2020. After a dozen test runs, they hit the spot.
The duo uses three dried Mexican chiles: morita, guajillo and arbol, Tarriba said. One provides smoke, another gives spice and the other sweetens to balance it out. They complete their mixture with olive oil, three types of seeds, peanut, garlic and powdered onion.
“Sofia has an incredible palate,” Tarriba said. “We learned about each pepper: what type of heat it had, the texture, the spice and flavor profile. Each time we tested it, Sofia would say, ‘We need to reduce the seeds from this pepper.’ She had a structure to the process. Our peppers are dried. Our salsa is oil-based with a spicy crunchiness.”
They prepare the salsa at The Hatchery, a Garfield Park food incubator where small business owners can pay a membership fee to rent space to run their business. Tarriba and Fernandez got a discount as a women-owned business and go there once a week to prepare a batch of salsa.
After nine months of paperwork, they brought Salsa Compañera to the Logan Square Farmers Market in late September. Offering samples, the public bought in. The duo quickly sold out of 60 jars.
“We didn’t know how the people would react and if they would like the level of spiciness,” Tarriba said. “But they liked it!”
This Sunday, the duo will bring 100 jars to the market. The salsa should be available online in a month.
One of their fans, Paulina Lopez, finished the jar in three days.
“I’ve never tried anything like this before,” said Lopez, a Logan Square resident from Guadalajara. “This has more flavor than any other salsas I’ve had. I don’t like peanuts, but you get the hint of peanuts and crunch from the sesame seeds. They really nailed the flavor.”
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