NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Sit down at a family-style Mexican restaurant in southeastern Virginia, and chances are you will be served a mysterious white sauce unknown in Mexico.
The dipping sauce has no name except “white sauce,” or “salsa blanca,” and it was, by all accounts, invented in Hampton Roads.
It comes free with your basket of tortilla chips, alongside standard tomato salsa, and it is so popular that old-school Mexican American restaurants can live or die by the quality of their version.
“If we walk into a Mexican restaurant and they don’t serve white sauce, we turn around and leave,” says Lee Tolliver, a reporter at The Pilot and a Hampton Roads native.
The sauce is a little like ranch dressing, except fuming with garlic and spice. And it is delicious — in the way that onion dip is delicious.
But if you travel much more than 100 miles from Norfolk, it becomes rare. Aside from a few pockets of the Midwest and mid-Atlantic, it’s served almost nowhere else in North America except Virginia and northern North Carolina.
“I used to travel a lot for work,” recalls Theresa Magyar, a Norfolk fan of the sauce. “I’d ask for white sauce in other parts of the country and they’d look at me like I had two heads! I finally figured out that it was a local — wonderful — delicacy.”
Manuel Vasquez serves the white sauce at his restaurant, Costa del Sol, in Windsor. He also served it when he ran a location of local Mexican chain Plaza Azteca in Suffolk. But he’d never encountered it before moving here from New York 15 years ago.
“We can say this is originally from Virginia. Other states don’t have it,” Vasquez says. “Where it came from? Who started making it? A lot of people, including Mexican people, have that question, too. But we make it. We have to have it, because the people come in and ask for white sauce. They need it.”
The sauce, as it turns out, is entirely homegrown.
In the 1970s in Norfolk, when you went out for Mexican food, you went to El Toro. The restaurant was open in the ’60s and became a phenomenon in the ’70s, when it was taken over by Willie Jenkins, a large-framed man with dyed red hair and a personality described by former employees as both gruff and generous.
“He didn’t really take any guff. He had a harsh attitude,” says Sharon Mason Barish, who “pretty much grew up at El Toro” when her mother worked there in the 1970s.
At the time, the restaurant at 3574 N. Military Highway was the only Mexican restaurant in Hampton Roads, says Dana Smith-Clifton, whose mother was a waitress there for 25 years. Smith-Clifton also took a job there.
“On Fridays and Saturdays people would be lined up all around the building,” Smith-Clifton remembers.
“When he opened El Toro, he struck a gold mine. They were always busy, I don’t care what day of the week,” Barish says.
Early on, says Smith-Clifton, no one working at the restaurant actually came from Mexico, but it was the only Mexican food many here knew. The restaurant became famous for its enchilada and red sauces, and its simple take on nachos — just white cheese and jalapenos melted over halved taco shells.
But, especially, El Toro became famous for its white sauce.
That signature item began not as a chip dip, but as a salad dressing.
“We served it in the same cups as the salsa,” Smith-Clifton says. And over the course of a decade, the sauce slowly migrated from the lettuce to the tortilla chips. Eventually, she says, they just started serving it as a free salsa alongside the traditional red salsa.
Smith-Clifton believes the sauce predates Jenkins’ time there, to the bar’s original owners. But Barish said Jenkins called it an old family recipe, and kept it like a state secret.
“My mother worked there seven days a week,” Barish says. “They never divulged the recipe to her.”
Barish eventually got the recipe from a family member who worked there. The secret ingredient turned out to be plain-old Miracle Whip salad dressing, mixed with milk, cumin, oregano and crushed red peppers.
“The Miracle Whip came in big jugs,” Smith-Clifton says. “We made up spices in bags like newspapers used to come in when it was raining. We made the spices up, then layered in the spices — that whole bag went into them jugs — then we just stirred and stirred. Then the white sauce had to sit for at least 48 hours. You could eat it right off, but then it wasn’t as spicy as it needed to be.”
When Jenkins sold El Toro’s original location in 1990, the sauce passed on to Paul “Pappy” Gibson, a former state magistrate who called the place Pappy’s Hacienda. El Toro had by then opened two more locations in Virginia Beach, and both have closed. But the white sauce lived on in other restaurants in Hampton Roads.
The white sauce might have become just a fond memory if it weren’t for a group of Mexican American restaurateurs who moved to Virginia Beach in 1995.
When Miguel Lopez, Jesus Torres, and Ruben and Raul Leon opened the first location of local Mexican restaurant chain Plaza Azteca on Holland Road in February 1996, the region still had only a few Mexican restaurants. The partners were experienced restaurateurs, with numerous Mexican restaurants throughout the American south.
When they opened here, they found a Virginia Beach dining populace primed to ask for white sauce with their tortilla chips.
Plaza Azteca general manager Ronald Martinez says the Azteca white sauce is not based on El Toro’s, though Miguel Lopez “may have tried some other people’s sauces.” Lopez brought a distinctly Mexican sensibility and set of ingredients to his sauce, stemming from his roots in the western Mexican state of Jalisco. For Plaza Azteca, white sauce was a way to stand apart from other Mexican restaurants, and also a lower-cost alternative to offering queso dip.
“We experimented with salad dressing,” Martinez says. “We mixed in jalapenos, milk, crushed peppers, fresh onions. Miguel took two months to get the right balance.” Eventually, he says, “nobody asked for the red salsa. Everybody asked for the white salsa.”
The sauce’s base is a mixture of milk and a “plain salad dressing.” Unlike El Toro, Plaza Azteca serves their white sauce immediately after it’s made, with both fresh and canned jalapenos and a secret weapon to punch up the sauce’s heat and brightness: a little spicy brine from the La Costena jalapeno cans. Azteca also uses fresh garlic, as opposed to the garlic powder used at El Toro.
“We sometimes make it two times a day,” Martinez says.
Today, the Plaza Azteca group is a juggernaut, with more than 60 restaurants, most of them in Virginia and others in North Carolina and the mid-Atlantic. And wherever Plaza Azteca went, the sauce followed, leading to small white-sauce pockets in cities outside of Virginia.
Even if the sauce didn’t start in Mexico, it’s now served there, Martinez says. “Families of the owners, they visited from Jalisco, and they took the sauce back. They don’t sell it, but they serve it to their families. They make it for festivals.”
Part of the reason that white sauce has taken hold in Hampton Roads is that so many of the region’s Mexican American restaurateurs got their start working for Plaza Azteca.
“Nobody has the original recipe. So everyone makes their own versions,” says Casa del Sol’s Vasquez, who says nostalgic former customers have asked him to mail his white sauce away to Texas, where it doesn’t exist.
Some people use onions in their sauce, he says, some don’t. Some use milk and water in different mixtures. Some add coriander. Even different Plaza Azteca locations, he says, seem to have developed their own evolutions of the sauce.
Smith-Clifton says the white sauce served at El Azteca at 1522 E. Little Creek Road in Norfolk is the closest she’s found to El Toro’s.
Ernesto Alonso, who now owns Plaza del Sol in Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood, encountered the sauce for the first time when he moved from Chicago to Virginia to partner with the Plaza Azteca group of restaurants. He is proud of the recipe he now serves.
“Even if we just give it away for free, it has our name on it. We take pride in our white sauce,” he says. “It’s like ranch dressing, but it’s our ranch. It’s like a Mexican version of ranch dressing.”