(Feb. 20) If you ask diners what makes their favorite Latin-American food joint special, they’re likely to mention the restaurant’s signature guacamole or salsa. The versatile dips also can be used as condiments, and a small tweak can make them elegant additions to main dishes.

Choosing texture and flavor

Whether you decide on a smooth or chunky guacamole, it’s important to consider how it will balance with the rest of the plate. John Suley, chef de cuisine at Americana at the Ritz Carlton South Beach in Miami Beach, Fla., prefers a silky texture to a fibrous one. He purées avocados, extra virgin olive oil, lime juice and zest, cilantro and honey to better complement delicate entrées such as Alaskan crab.

To maintain flavor without using too much salt, he adds an Asian flair with seasoned rice vinegar, fish sauce and soy sauce. He avoids avocado availability and ripening issues by forecasting three to four days in advance and ripening the fruit in a brown bag.

Rick Bayless favors a chunky guacamole, especially for dips. The cookbook author and owner-chef of Frontera Grill and Topolobambo in Chicago says some chefs make the mistake of mashing the avocados to mush until they get a runny baby food consistency. He says hass avocados are the best choice because of their thick, pulpy texture and good oil content. Guacamole made from hass avocados also doesn’t brown as quickly, especially if it’s kept cold and covered with plastic wrap directly on the mixture.

Bayless uses his love of Mexican culture as inspiration for his guacamole. Mexican chefs prepare simple guacamole with only mashed avocados, garlic and salt or more complex creations with onions, cilantro and tomatoes, he says. He does the same, varying recipes depending on the amount of each flavor he wants and if it will be used as a condiment or a dip.

“In Mexico, they don’t use it as a dip,” Bayless says. “When they have guacamole, they’re spreading it on something. Like a fried tortilla or a sandwich.”

Priscila Satkoff, co-owner and chef of Chicago’s Salpicón restaurant, also draws from her Mexican roots. The co-host of the Food Network’s former “Melting Pot” program grew up in Mexico City. She serves her mother’s guacamole recipe with diced avocado, plum tomatoes, finely chopped white onion, lime juice, serrano or jalapeño peppers, tomatillo and cilantro. Satkoff agrees with Bayless, whom she previously worked under, that there is no standard recipe for guacamole. It varies from region to region in Mexico.

“After avocado you can put in any other thing and call it guacamole,” she says.

Guacamole chain gain

Chain restaurants face unique difficulties making sure guacamole has a consistent flavor and texture at each restaurant, while still offering something special and exciting to their customers.

Not many chain restaurants can boast its guacamole is made fresh each day as does Chipotle Inc. The Denver-based chain mashes hass avocados and blends in cilantro, jalapeño peppers, citrus juice and salt for what its Web site calls a “silky, sexy guacamole.” Both guacamole and salsa come as a choice condiment to the burritos and tacos that are assembled in front of the customer. Chris Arnold, spokesman for the 450-unit chain, says that it is the biggest restaurant buyer for avocados in the U.S., buying 2% of the avocados sold in the country.

The green stuff is the most popular starter at Cantina Laredo, and the upscale casual restaurant makes its preparation an event it invites guests to watch.

Chefs at the 12 locations of the Dallas-based chain make the “Top Shelf Guacamole” at the diners’ tables, taking three avocado halves and mashing them with diced tomatoes, onions, jalapeño peppers, cilantro and proprietary seasonings, says Bill Watson, vice president of marketing. Surrounding guests see the presentation and order it for their table.

Pressured for convenience

If you want guacamole on your menu but don’t have time to make it, you can buy prepared guacamole or avocado base to create your own signature recipe.

In 1997 Keller, Texas-based Avomex Inc. introduced its “fresherized” avocado and guacamole products. The company uses ultra high-pressure technology that eliminates the growth of pathogens, says Marcia Walker, vice president of food technology and microbiology for Fresherized Foods Inc., a division of Avomex, also in Keller. The process has the same purpose as heating or adding chemicals to avocados, but without changing the flavor, texture and nutritional value, Walker says.

The company also uses the technology for its pre-made salsas, AvoClassic-brand guacamoles and avocado halves. She notes that each of the past five years, the company has seen tremendous growth as consumers hear about the health benefits of avocados and restaurants are using them as dips and sandwich spreads.

Interfresh, Fullerton, Calif., also uses ultra high-pressure technology. The foodservice shipper and distributor sells more of its AvoFresh!-brand avocado pulp than its premade guacamole, says Chris Puentes, president.

The advantages of using avocado pulp is that it has a 30-day shelf life, you don’t have to worry about ripening and you eliminate the labor of peeling and scooping, as well as the waste of spoiled product, says Walker of Fresherized Foods. With the avocado halves, you can even choose to do a diced avocado guacamole.

Salsa selections

Offering more than one type of salsa with different degrees of hotness shows diners that you care about their palette preferences. Chipotle allows customers four salsa options: mild and tangy fresh tomato; sweet and mild to hot roasted chili corn; hot tomatillo red-chili; and, medium to hot tomatillo green-chili. Each is made with jalapeño peppers, red onions and cilantro, except for the tomatillo red-chili salsa, which is made with pureed chilies de arbol.

The restaurants make the salsa fresh daily, with the exception of the red and green tomatillo, which arrives already prepared, Arnold says. The freshness is important to the company, as well as not using any preservatives to avoid muddled and overripe flavors from sitting in storage, he says.

Frontera Grill’s menu lists several salsas that accompany seafood, including smoky chipotle-garlic salsa served with oysters; arbol chili and sesame salsa served with wood-grilled baby octopus; and tomato-habanero salsa served with corn masa turnovers. Bayless’ favorite recipe has a roasted tomatillo base with chipotle peppers and garlic. For tomato-based salsas, he recommends using tomatoes with a lot of juice.

Satkoff of Salpicón serves a variety of salsas; the most popular is the salsa de molcajete, a simple recipe with only roasted tomatoes, roasted serrano pepper and salt.

Heidi Allison, author of “The Chili Pepper Diet,” also emphasizes using the right ingredients. She uses different chilies for regional salsas, such as ají pepper for Peruvian salsa and the Korean red chili for the Korean version.

Although many Mexican salsa recipes call for plum tomatoes, Allison says she also likes to use heirlooms. To heighten flavor, vary cooking techniques by dry-roasting or oven-roasting.