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What’s the Difference Between Pico de Gallo and Salsa? (Asking for a Friend)

Be careful — Chipotle workers will get spicy if you mix them up

I may be experiencing an episode of the Mandela Effect, but I could have sworn that Chipotle used to call one of their salsa options “pico de gallo.” According to every image of a menu I could find online, however, what I believed was pico de gallo is labeled “fresh tomato salsa,” and I’ve been saying “pico de gallo” while ordering a burrito bowl like an idiot this entire time. 

Making matters worse, it turns out that customers referring to the restaurant’s salsa options as anything but what’s listed on the menu is something of a pet peeve among Chipotle employees

But calling their fresh tomato salsa “pico de gallo” can’t be as bad as referring to sour cream as “white sauce,” right? And if pico de gallo and salsa aren’t the same thing, then what’s the difference? Someone please tell me I’m not Berenstein Bears-ing my life away.

According to nutritionist Amy Lippert, the main difference between pico de gallo and salsa is texture. “Salsa is usually puréed until it’s smooth and has a higher liquid content, so it’s more like a sauce,” she begins. “Traditionally speaking, salsas are typically smoother and less chunky, and pico’s are more chunky.” For instance, she adds, “I never really encountered an authentic ‘chunky’ salsa while living in San Antonio; they were always puréed.” 

That said, some authentic salsas can be chunky, but they’ll never be as chunky as pico. 

Pico de gallo, in other words, is pure chunk. “Pico is usually more like a relish with chopped up tomatoes, onions, jalapeño and cilantro with some fresh lime juice,” Lippert explains. Thus, where salsa works best as a sauce, pico is more of a topping. “If you want to add freshness and texture to your tacos or nachos, go with pico,” she advises, adding that ingredients don’t make a difference. “You could have a black bean and corn ‘salsa’ that could easily be called a ‘corn pico de gallo’ if you wanted, as long as it’s chunky and not pureed.” 

Was I wrong then for referring to Chipotle’s fresh tomato salsa as pico de gallo? Not at all. “Technically, that’s a pico,” Lippert tells me. “Come to think of it, whenever I’ve been to Chipotle, they call it a tomato salsa, too — now I’m starting to question everything!”

But because they call it salsa on the menu, I was wrong, and to all the Chipotle employees out there, I beg you to forgive me. From now on, I will ask for fresh tomato salsa because that’s what it says on the menu. In my heart of hearts, though, I know that the chunky ingredients of the “fresh tomato salsa” actually make it pico de gallo. Every single Chipotle salsa recreation recipe blog agrees with me, too. 

And so, I will not rest until Chipotle changes it (back?) to its rightful designation. We must demand salsa accountability.