Carlos O Kelly’s Salsa

For years I have been on a quest: duplicate Carlos O’Kelly’s salsa.

For those who don’t know, Carlos O’ Kelly’s is Mexican chain that exists mostly in the Illinois, Iowa, Kansas area.  There are two in Virginia though, both near my parents.  (There used to be one in Fairfax, but that is a sore issue with me).  Their food is pretty good–it’s super Americanized Mexican, but it is delicious in all its glorious cheesiness.  One of my favorite menu items is the Enchiladas San Carlos.  I dream about that smoky, creamy poblano sauce…

I know it doesn't look the most gourmet, and it isn't, but it is good.

I know it doesn’t look the most gourmet, and it isn’t, but it is good.

But the thing that I have lusted after all these years is the salsa, and when the restaurant in Fairfax closed my attempts to replicate it reached a fevered pitch.  Their salsa seems simple.  A not-too-chunky red with bright cilantro and lime and something else I could never quite pinpoint.  There’s no chili powder in this and very little to no cumin from what I can tell.  It isn’t spicy (which I guess helps its mass appeal).  I have tried many times to get this salsa right–there have been versions with several different brands and flavors of canned tomatoes (I even spotted the brand they use–Casablanca–in their dumpster once, but have not been able to find it anywhere!), fresh tomatoes, roasted tomatoes (canned and fresh), tomatillo mixed in, red onion, white onion and the list goes on… There are many copycat recipes out there.  I’ve tried them.

But, ladies and gentlemen, I have FOUND IT!!

Turns out the secret lies in this odd little pepper:

Yellow Chili Pepper

Yellow Chili Pepper

You will find them in that area of the grocery store (usually by the herbs) with all the odd little things like tomatillos, yucca root and that little orange fruit wrapped in a white foam cage.

I tried this pepper and it is a bit like a delicate green pepper. I didn’t find it too hot–it did leave a little burn on my lips after a few seconds though.  However, if you’ve just been to the salon to have your eyebrows done DO NOT touch your eye area after cutting this pepper.  Holy cow… the pain!

So anyway, you roast this pepper with the white onion and then mix that with cilantro, garlic, jarred jalapeños and some other things to make a sort of mexican pesto

IMG_2065After that, you blend a few cans of diced tomatoes to desired consistency and then fold it all together.  Voila! Delicious salsa.  I also found the new Tostitos Cantina Thin and Crispy chips at the store.  Finally!  What took them so long to realize that people love those thin tortilla chips previously only found at mexican restaurants??

Here’s the recipe:

Carlos O’Kelly’s-esque Salsa

Note: This makes 7 cups!  It’s the smallest I can get the recipe without doing weird things like using 1.5 cans of tomato.


  • 3 cans (14.5 oz) of diced tomatoes with juice (I used hunts)
  • 3 yellow chills, seeded and roasted
  • 1 white onion, roasted
  • 1/3 bunch of cilantro
  • juice of one lime
  • 1/4 cup jarred jalapeños with brine
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • Menudo Mix (recipe for this at bottom.)
  • Some salt to taste


1. Roast the chili and onion.  Then put this in a blender (preferred because of volume it holds) or food processor with all ingredients except the tomatoes.  Puree until the texture is a little like pesto

2. Put this green mix in a bowl and dump the tomatoes and their juice into the blender.  Pulse this until it is the consistency you like.

3. Pour tomatoes over the pesto and fold together.  Taste for seasoning and add more salt or lime if desired.

4. Try to wait.  Tastes best the next day

Menudo Mix: 

This is a Mexican spice mix used in a lot of soups and sauces.  You can find it in Latino supermarkets, but I didn’t feel like driving there so I made my own simple mix and just added it to the blender.  If you have a well stocked spice cabinet, you probably already have all of these spices (used dried!).  I just went by feel: a few shakes of this, a few shakes of that.  It worked.

2 parts oregano, 2 parts onion flakes or powder, 1 part coriander seed, 1 part cumin and 1 part chili flake.

Enjoy!  But be careful: this stuff is pretty addictive!



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Categories: Appetizer, Recipes


A former English teacher living in Stuttgart, Germany who finds some sanity and peace through cooking.


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6 Comments on “Carlos O Kelly’s Salsa”

  1. Deborah
    June 2, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    This is amazing salsa-very fresh tasting love it!

  2. lindsy
    June 5, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    omg i may have to search for these things here we have all kinds of crazy peppers most of them hot as hell though

  3. lindsy
    June 6, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    going to the store today to see what i can find…. Carlos o’kellys your coming to the caribbean!

  4. Luci
    April 23, 2014 at 9:49 am #

    sadly our Carlos just closed and I have been on a quest to duplicate their salsa also. . On the menudo mix…am I reading it right you just sprinkled this in until you thought it was right or did you make a certain amount and put it all in(and how much was that??) thanks for the recipe.

    • April 23, 2014 at 10:24 am #

      Hi Luci!
      I am sorry to hear your Carlos O’Kelly’s closed; I feel your pain!
      To be honest I never measure the menudo mix but I can say that what I add isn’t a whole lot. If I had to guess I would say that i probably use about 1/2 teaspoon each of the oregano and onion powder and 1/4 each of the coriander and pepper flake. It’s the kinda thing where I add a few shakes of this and a few of that–it always turns out really good in the end. Let me know what you think when you make it.

      • Luci
        April 25, 2014 at 10:47 am #

        thanks for getting back so quickly. I am going to make it today

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