Meet the Doña behind Tacodeli’s famous doña sauce

12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 Food

Bertha Gonzales was making a searing bright green salsa of pureed jalapeños long before she started working at Tacodeli.

“I’ve always loved to cook,” Gonzales says in Spanish one day outside the original Tacodeli, which is tucked off MoPac Boulevard on Spyglass Drive in South Austin. Before moving to the U.S., Gonzales ran a taco truck in her native Veracruz, Mexico. “My friends and I, we’d exchange recipes, and this one was a favorite.”

She got a job as a cook at Tacodeli about a month after it opened 13 years ago, and to help foster camaraderie among his new staff and expand the restaurant’s salsa bar, co-owner Roberto Espinosa hosted a salsa contest.

Competing for a $30 prize, employees submitted salsas, and Espinosa remembers that many of them were “the standard issue sauces” made with tomatoes, chile de arbol or tomatillos.

But then Gonzales handed over a plastic sour cream container filled with a thick, creamy salsa that was unlike anything Espinosa had ever seen.

“It was glowing,” Espinosa says. “It won on eye appeal alone.” And then he tasted it. “I was just blown away.”

They’d already started calling Gonzales “Doña,” a Spanish honorific title, out of respect and admiration for the woman who had become the matriarch of the kitchen. Espinosa knew the newly named “doña sauce” was good, but “I had no idea that this was something we’d hang our hat on.”

Every day, each of the three Tacodeli stores roasts 60 pounds of jalapeños to make about 5 gallons of salsa. The recipe remains a closely guarded secret.

Co-owner Eric Wilkerson remembers a day when a customer in a cowboy hat walked in, and after he’s placed his order, he asked if they had any of that “killer salsa.” The person at the counter said they’d just ran out. “He said, ‘Cancel my order,” and he turned around and walked out.”