Sometimes you wander up to a glowing taco truck on a dark street, no expectations beyond the easy gratification of meat in a tortilla, and you find something better. Maybe it has a pile of fresh masa and someone to expertly shape it. Or maybe, as is the case at the Mi Ranchito truck in Sylmar, the chefs make a delicious and unusual salsa de aceite.
The oil-based salsa is not uncommon in Mexican households, but it is rare to find it at restaurants or taco trucks in Los Angeles. The base is simple: dried chiles and a few nuts and spices, fried in an immodest amount of oil, then blended together. The result is something like the chile sauce you find next to the vinegar at Chinese restaurants, a jar of crimson-tinted oil with an angry heap of blackened chiles at the bottom. There are, of course, regional variations and personal flourishes, but the best examples are earthy and intensely spicy with a complex underpinning of nuts, garlic and char.
The version at Mi Ranchito is exceptional, spicy enough that you never forget it’s just chiles in oil, but not so aggressive as to singe your taste buds beyond utility. The flavor is complicated like the new guy at school in a YA novel, deep and hot with a hint of something sweet. Fiery enough to catch your attention, with enough sugar to keep you coming back. It is a legitimately exhilarating thing, and it takes the truck’s already good tacos to dizzying heights. Mi Ranchito, 13908 Foothill Blvd., Sylmar, (818) 744-2510.
If you are unwilling to travel to the outermost reaches of the San Fernando Valley, there are a few other versions of salsa de aceite to be found. In the flower district downtown, there’s an open-air taqueria called Las Amigas that serves salsa de aceite with every dish. The menu is large but straightforward, with tacos, pupusas and bigger combo plates such as chiles rellenos with rice and beans. The handmade tortillas are excellent, but you are here for that salsa, which comes in a prefilled thumb-sized plastic container.
The miniature vessel befits a salsa that is closer to hot sauce than a dip — Las Amigas’ salsa de aceite brings the heat. Although it looks the same and burns as sharply as the version at Mi Ranchito, the flavor is its own. It is intensely garlicky, as pungent as it is spicy, like someone dumped a bag full of chiles into a batch of Zankou garlic sauce. This salsa is the best reason to visit, and it is well worth the hassle of parking in the area, regardless of whether you also are picking up some flowers. Las Amigas, 830 San Julian St., Los Angeles, (213) 627-1067.
Just a few blocks away, at Casa La Doña, the salsa de aceite is more chorus member than soloist. La Doña has a giant case with a dozen or more salsas at any given time, from mild pineapple to fiery habanero, and an interesting menu that includes pambazos, cazuelitas and the heaping pair of tostadas they call a volcan. The salsa de aceite is a little thinner than other versions, more oil and heat but less depth of flavor. It may not be quite so beguiling on its own, but drizzle a little on top of the sweet al pastor, and it will all make sense. Casa La Doña, 800 S. Main St., Los Angeles, (213) 627-7441.
It is entirely plausible that you would want to pour salsa de aceite on tacos at home, on baked potatoes or scrambled eggs. Lucky for you, Salsa Bandolera makes an outstanding jar of the stuff.
The Santa Ana-based salsa company has a stall at the Sunday Santa Ana Farmers Market and regular shelf space at Santa Ana’s Alta Baja market. The company’s salsa de aceite comes in a plastic tub that resembles takeout soup, and it’s so good you might consider eating it with a spoon. It is nice enough to drizzle on top of an entrée for company and bright enough to perk up your laziest combination of mismatched leftovers.