Go South of the Border on Potomac Street
Salsa Mama Mexican restaurant is spicing things up with fresh flavors.
By Jessica Swan and photos by Turner Photography Studio
You don’t need to be well versed in Spanish to know what Salsa Mama general manager Vishal Mehta considers the most important ingredients to the new downtown Hagerstown restaurant’s Mexican cuisine: “Fresh” and “authentic” are emphasized multiple times throughout his description of each menu item.
Mehta formerly owned Jerry’s Sports Bar, which was situated in the same prominent Public Square location as Salsa Mama, but decided to embrace a different fare concept for his next establishment. Calling the downtown location a “most opportune locality,” Mehta points to the outdoor seating patio and vibrant indoor color scheme as keys to creating two distinct types of dining environments.
“The inside is a happy area where diners enjoy the ambience of the music and colorful mood, whereas the patio can be enjoyed by families and groups of friends who want to sit outside, relax, and enjoy the weather,” Mehta says. Indeed, a sign on the main wall informs guests that “We do not have WiFi—talk to each other and pretend it’s 1995.”
On any given day, Salsa Mama’s cheerful atmosphere prompts patrons to “break out dancing” and former strangers become friends over a common question: “What did you order?”
The answer to that question could range from ceviche, an authentic dish popular in Mexico that combines raw calamari, octopus, and shrimp, all marinated for 13 hours in lime and lemon juice, to oversized taco salads whose shell makes the dish look more like a monstrously stuffed tortilla than any semblance of a health food. Also popular is the homemade queso dip, Mexican-style wings (habanero sauce, pico, and spices) and—if you still have room after all of that—warm, cinnamon churros for dessert. Be on the lookout for items notated on the menu as “Mama’s” as those are heaping portions of house specialties.
Whatever the choice, it is guaranteed to be a unique creation of Executive Chef Freddy Fernandez, whose dedication to the art of “fresh prep” ensures that each dish includes ingredients sourced from Mexican locations and top-shelf meats for optimum authentic flavor. The meats are marinated and the dishes are cooked only when the order is placed. Salsas, with flavors including mango and watermelon, are made fresh every morning.
For those craving something more north of the border, Salsa Mama offers burgers made with ground Angus meat and always offers one soup that is not of the Spanish variety. There are also the vegetarian options of mushroom tacos with meaty portobellos, and veggie tacos with a wide variety of fillings. Fernandez also caters to kids’ often picky palates with the classic chicken taco and fries.
“All of the items on the menu are like children to me,” Fernandez says. “You created them and you love them all, but you must treat each different from the others.”
While fresh prep may take “an extra minute,” those additional 60 seconds don’t seem to discourage the clientele, according to Mehta. He is very encouraged by the community’s response and positive feedback and wants to continue to maintain the “shock and awe” needed to keep the restaurant popular and relevant. An ever-changing menu allows for the upcoming addition of fajitas, chimichangas, and other items. While these dishes would be a common staple on other Mexican restaurant menus, they are a later inclusion to the Salsa Mama because it was imperative to Mehta and Fernandez to start off “small and slow” to perfect the recipes and flavors of the initial offerings.
As for the “cantina” in “Salsa Mama Cantina,” that’s where bar manager Lindsey Renner comes in, and her enthusiasm for the restaurant’s culture and the craft of serving up quality drinks is immediately evident.
“It’s all about the right balance, using the freshest ingredients at peak times, and keeping ahead of the game,” Renner says. As with the food, every drink ingredient is meticulously chosen and prepared fresh. Half an hour is spent every morning hand squeezing the lime juice, and only homemade simple syrup is used.
In addition to “Hagerstown’s largest tequila collection” with close to 45 varieties, Renner and staff are happy to serve up Spanish specialties such as the Lime Coco-rita, a smooth blend of 1800 Coconut, fresh lime juice, agave, and coconut cream or, for the more daring, a jalapeno margarita mixed with juice from real jalapenos. The ever-popular and refreshing mojito is available, and Renner is expanding Salsa Mama’s collection of the sweet Mexican spirit mezcal to add to the culture. An impressive selection of beer is also on hand, and Renner is proud to incorporate local breweries such as Antietam Brewery and Flying Dog into that mix.
Local pride is a focal point for Salsa Mama and staff. Renner is excited to be in talks to bring Latin dance lessons and Mariachi bands to the restaurant as week-end entertainment. The community re- sponse has been phenomenal, according to Mehta, who notes that he has experienced nothing but positive interactions at the downtown location. Hagerstown City Council members, judges, and police officers all frequent Salsa Mama and there is no competition from other downtown food businesses, only friendly cooperation and a cohesive goal to change the perception of the downtown area for the better, Mehta says.
“Now that the food has come together, we are ready to take it to the next level” with fun events and seasonal menu expansions, Mehta adds.
On this day, patron Lynn Frock walks in and begins talking to Renner like she’s family.
“This is a great place, with enthusiastic bartenders and great food. I’ve been here since day one,” he says, naming the steak tacos and burgers as his go-to meal.
A delighted and repeated customer—exactly what Mehta envisions for Salsa Mama’s bright and cheerful corner of Hagerstown.