A couple years ago Vitali Meschoulam, a Goldman Sachs analyst by day, was surveying the offerings at the Meat Hook butcher counter in Williamsburg when he noticed Toluca chorizo, a green sausage named after its town of origin 40 miles west of his own hometown, Mexico City.
Intrigued, he purchased a few links.
“I didn’t quite like it,” recalls Vitali, who had recently finished a six-month chef course at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center).
Vitali made some calls, and a few days later he handed Meat Hook co-owner Ben Turley a paper scrap listing a recipe long used by a Toluca friend’s mother, calling for (among other ingredients) spinach, ground toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and pulverized bay leaves.
“I was over the moon,” reports Turley.
But alongside the recipe, Vitali dropped off something that proved even more fateful: a jar of his own salsa.
“It was the best salsa I’d ever had,” Turley says of the green salsa fresca he and Meat Hook co-owner Brent Young quickly finished off. “I told Vitali, ‘You need to sell that here.’”
So Vitali, along with his wife and fellow Mexican expat, Lorena, went pro, creating a small salsa concern named La Fundidora. Today their salsas grace Brooklyn Kitchen’s shelves, a few feet from the Meat Hook counter—and is also for sale at Union Market, Gourmet Guild, Foragers, Zabar’s and beyond.
Lorena says Mexicans are surprised to learn that corn chips—which were first mass-produced and popularized by a Los Angeles factory in the 1940s and remain much more popular on this side of the border—are the main way salsa enters Americans’ mouths. She says that La Fundidora is devoted to “expanding Americans’ idea of what salsa is for.”
The seed for La Fundidora was planted in 2010 when Vitali, who was born in the Mexican capital but grew up in Southern California, traveled to Mexico City for a Morgan Stanley conference. Lorena, the conference organizer, thought, “Oh, he’s cute!” Skypeing and texting nourished a long-distance relationship; a year and half later, Lorena, an American citizen who grew up in Mexico City, transferred to Morgan Stanley’s New York offices, and the couple soon married.
Vitali’s culinary hobby matched Lorena’s career itchings. Though she was a whiz in applied mathematics, “I admit I was never really fascinated with finance,” Lorena says. “I’d always been more interested in making people smile. People don’t usually smile when listening to an analyst’s report.”
The couple decided to start La Fundidora (Spanish for the foundry), with Vitali remaining at his finance position and Lorena launching the salsa startup.
While she runs the logistics, Vitali has turned his analyst’s approach to the foods of his ancestors, studying relative pungencies of habanero, poblano, árbol, guajillo and other peppers, along with techniques and ingredients that modulate their flavors. On trips back to Mexico, the couple travels to different regions to sample the myriad salsa styles. In the state of Coahuila on the Texas border, they recently sampled salsa macha, a mix of dried chiles fried on a comal, or traditional griddle, until they blister, along with olive oil and garlic.
Today La Fundidora produces three distinct salsas, each intended for something other than corn chips. The Fresca, which couples serrano chiles with tomatillos’ acidic brightness, pairs well with egg concoctions as well as pork. The Fuego, which features tomatoes, tomatillos, dried-but-potent árbol chile and the sweeter guajillo variety, packs more of a punch. And the Humo, redolent with smoked morita chipotle and sweet pasilla chile, complements beef, legumes and bold-flavored cheeses.
“Wow—there’s a delayed kick there,” said Marcia Bianco, a professor and writer who sampled the Humo in Park Slope. “It’s almost like a mole, with a sense of chocolate—lots of depth.”
While sugar and vinegar come standard in virtually every bottle of salsa in America, La Fundidora uses neither. “I don’t like vinegar in salsa at all,” says Vitali.
But as the Meschoulams continue their efforts to teach Brooklynites to use salsas in a variety of dishes, some of their initial converts need remedial training. The Meat Hook’s Turley will use La Fundidora’s salsas on chilaquiles, often while “nursing a hangover,” but the fact remains that he usually gorges on their salsas with authentic American corn chips.
“I just don’t want to wait,” he says. “Chips are the quickest way to get their salsa in my mouth.”
Photos by Vicky Wasik.