The closer you get to the border, the more passionate people become about Mexican food. In southeastern Arizona’s Graham County, where tomatoes and peppers grow in abundance, folks are downright competitive about their salsa. A dozen mom-and-pop restaurants in Graham County, about three hours east of Phoenix, have banded together to form the Salsa Trail. At each stop, you’ll hear cooks crow about what makes their sauces special. And each September, amateurs get in on the act, hoping their concoctions will wow the judges at the SalsaFest in Safford.
U.S. 70 is dotted with chain hotels, but a cozier — and tastier — alternative awaits at Cottage Bed & Breakfast (1104 S. Central Ave., Safford; (928) 428-5118, https://www.cottagebedandbreakfast.com). The one-bedroom cottage has a separate living room and kitchenette, run by Ruth Dannenbrink. It’s next door to the small Cottage Bakery, also run by Dannenbrink. At 3 each morning, she begins baking almond croissants, date bars and other goodies. Fresh pastries, of course, are the highlight of the breakfast-for-two that’s included in the $90 nightly rate.
Morning, noon or night, expect to find bowls of hot and mild salsa on the tables at the various restaurants along the trail. El Coronado (409 W. Main St., Safford;  428-7755; closed Tuesdays) is known for Marco Coronado’s stuffed breakfast ($6.29). Locals like to joke that the quesadilla — packed with chorizo, eggs, onions and potatoes — fills a plate big enough to replace a manhole cover. Jars of the award-winning salsa made by Coronado’s mom, Mary, are sold at the cash register.
Need some chips to dip into that salsa? Stop by Mi Casa Tortilla (621 S. 7th Ave., Safford;  428-7915), where the locals line up to buy freshly made tortillas while they’re still warm. Owner Jack Seballos invites visitors to tour the small factory that turns out chips and tortillas in a variety of tempting flavors, such as apple cinnamon, chorizo, and tomato and basil. He urges customers to use (or freeze) their purchases within a week, because his tortillas contain no preservatives.
The lesson learned
Salsas served along the trail should come with a “do not attempt this at home” warning. Manager Nicholas Tellez of La Paloma (5183 E. Clifton St., Solomon, Ariz.;  428-2094) said that, even if he gave customers the restaurant’s salsa recipe, “they’d probably mess it up.” That said, seven such recipes are included in the “Arizona’s Salsa Trail” cookbook ($19.95) available in area shops and restaurants.
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