From Cinco de Mayo to the NBA playoffs to the series finale of "The Good Wife," there are countless occasions to get friends together and break out an easy snack of chips and salsa. Cheapism.com recently rustled up 13 inexpensive tortilla chips and 11 cheap jarred salsas for a blind taste test. An eight-person panel of volunteers considered taste, texture, and appearance in choosing their favorites. Here are the top picks among white, yellow, and blue corn chips, along with four preferred salsa pairings.
TRADER JOE'S ORGANIC BLUE CORN TORTILLA CHIPS
Blue corn chips have a distinctive cornmeal sweetness and consistency that isn't up everyone's alley. Often they are deemed too thick and grainy to hit the spot. Trader Joe's Organic Blue Corn Tortilla Chips ($3.29 for a 16-ounce bag) are a notable exception that managed to appeal to the tastes of blue-corn partisans without alienating testers seeking a "crispy" snack. Everyone on the panel enjoyed this "great-tasting" chip, which they called "flaky" and "light" with "just enough salt."
ON THE BORDER CAFÉ-STYLE YELLOW CORN TORTILLA CHIPS
Amid a selection of chips that were generally pretty similar, On the Border Café-Style Yellow Corn Tortilla Chips ($2.98 for an 18-ounce bag) managed to stand out with a thin but sturdy consistency and satisfyingly salty flavor. It was the "little air pockets" in these yellow corn chips that most attracted the attention of the panelists. They remarked on the "oily aftertaste" but noted that the chips weren't greasy, despite their toothsome fried flavor.
SANTITAS WHITE CORN TORTILLA CHIPS
The panelists designated Santitas White Corn Tortilla Chips ($2 for an 11-ounce bag) a good pick for their tasty corn flavor and satisfying, brittle bite. One taster detected a faint hint of lime in the mild flavor of these chips, while others homed in on the judicious amount of salt. All but one panelist liked the Santitas chips, although more than one groused that they crumble easily.
COSTCO KIRKLAND SIGNATURE TORTILLA STRIPS
The cheapest chips in the sample based on cost per ounce, Kirkland Signature Tortilla Strips ($3.59 for a 48-ounce bag) come in a bulk size perfect for parties. The downside is they are available only at Costco stores, which require a club membership (although there are ways around that). Although the Costco-brand chips were denser than some other top vote-getters, some panelists maintain that the elongated, rectangular shape isn't conducive to salsa transport. Opinions on taste ranged from "good" to "just okay," but most tasters gave them a nod.
SAFEWAY O ORGANICS BLUE CORN TORTILLA CHIPS WITH FLAX SEED
A few panelists were ambivalent about the "heavy," "cracker-like" weight and flaxseed texture of O Organics Blue Corn Tortilla Chips ($2.49 for a 10-ounce bag), but the others embraced their hardiness, suggesting they would be "good for chili." The chips had a light polenta flavor, which a few considered too subtle, and an underlying "malty" quality. They managed to be distinctive, and primarily in a positive way, making them worth a try for consumers seeking organic or nontraditional tortilla chips.
SAFEWAY SIGNATURE SELECT CHUNKY CLASSIC MEDIUM SALSA
Taste testers lauded the veggie-heavy chunkiness and the balance of sweet and spicy in Signature Select Chunky Classic Medium Salsa ($2.99 for 24 ounces). They picked out distinct notes of tomato, onion, garlic, and pepper and appreciated the lack of homogeneity. This Safeway-brand salsa has some vinegar acidity, and the heat level was too low for a couple of the panelists, but most praised the "smooth" flavors and a texture described as "thick and rich." All in all, this is a good middle-of-the-road salsa, pleasing to a wide range of palates.
TOSTITOS CHUNKY MEDIUM SALSA
Frito-Lay has seemingly come up with a recipe for success with its Tostitos Chunky Salsa ($3 for 15.5 ounces). It has a robust but not marinara-like consistency, with medium-diced portions of vegetables that look more hand-chopped than processed. The chip-dipping crew called it "sweet" and "thick," with flavors that were "fresh," though "muted." Like the Safeway salsa, this top pick was less attractive to tasters looking for fiery spice. For consumers who want milder intensity, this is a best buy.
WALMART GREAT VALUE RESTAURANT-STYLE MEDIUM SALSA
Great Value Restaurant-Style Medium Salsa ($2 for 24 ounces) from Walmart was the cheapest on the list, at nearly half the per-ounce price of any other dip. Even better, it doesn't skimp on flavor. On the whole, tasters appreciated the "basic," "strong tomato" taste of this "good, all-purpose salsa." They said it had "good spice," although the small dice made it a bit "mushy." Testers mused about how they would tweak the spices, but labeled this a pretty darned good product at a mouthwatering price.
TRADER JOE'S CHUNKY SALSA
Another runner-up, Trader Joe's Chunky Salsa ($1.99 for 16 ounces) has all the makings of a perfectly decent salsa. Sold under the label "Trader Jose's," it is rich in tomato flavor and resplendent with "interesting spices and layers," including the mild burn of chili powder. The texture is more pureed than chunky, though, and tasters were hard-pressed to tell one tiny vegetable bit from another. Panelists were happy enough to go back for seconds, however, even if this wasn't the very best of the bunch.