“I want my own business. I want my own business. I want my own business,” Paula Munoz recalls telling her boyfriend a while back, before the Santa Barbara native created her own line of salsas. “And then it just happened. I wanted to get into stores as soon as possible. I don’t play games.”
Today, Munoz says that her Sabor de Paulita creations are the most popular salsas at Tri-County Produce, just one of the five retail outlets where her five flavors are currently sold. That’s quite quick success for a business that only started a year ago out of the cards dealt by COVID-19.
Before the pandemic began, Munoz had been laid off from her job, the latest in a string of unsatisfying positions that she waded through after graduating from Santa Barbara High. So she went back to school at 26 years old, studying biomedical sciences at SBCC with plans to go into dental hygiene. But she really wasn’t interested in working for other people anymore, and school fired up a strong spirit to do her own thing.
“I saw my potential, and it gave me motivation to do my own thing,” she said of attending SBCC. “I started to believe in myself more and more.”
Then came the coronavirus, pushing school online and closing the senior care facility that took care of her grandfather Jose, a former Jordano’s employee who is originally from Aguascalientes, Mexico. Munoz offered to watch him during the week while taking chemistry and other classes virtually.
“I just got so bored,” said Munoz, who focused attention on her meals, among other daily chores. “I wanted to make something for my chicken.” She was comfortable in the kitchen, but she shied away from the range of chiles and process required to make salsa. “I never knew how to cook salsas,” said Munoz, who grew up eating a tomato-based one made by her mother. “I was always so intimidated.”
She dove in anyway, working on her first quemada recipe for months, roasting the tomatillos and other ingredients to gain that smoky kick, which is amplified by the inclusion of beef broth. “That’s how my quemada came about: getting out of my comfort zone and trying something new,” she said. Her father, who works in logistics for the County of Santa Barbara, shared the salsas with coworkers, who quickly approved.
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Munoz steadily expanded the flavors, using chicken broth in the verdes, figuring out how to retain the spicy heat of the ghost peppers, and sourcing in bulk, both dried chiles from Los Angeles markets and produce, namely tomatillos and onions, from Sunrise Organics in Solvang. Munoz printed the labels and packaged the salsas by hand, and she still does, though she’s now working out of a commercial kitchen on Aero Camino in Goleta with a large immersion blender rather than with a simple blender in her own home.
Her first sale was in July 2020, and Sabor de Paulita is now on the shelves of Tri-County and Chapala Market, both on Milpas Street; Gladden & Sons in Goleta; Santa Barbara Hives in Carpinteria; and Valley Fresh in Solvang, with occasional appearance at the pop-up Mujeres Market. Munoz is also working on a hot sauce, would one day like to try making her mother’s red tomato salsa, and is eyeing more retail stores every day — restaurant accounts don’t interest her — with dreams of one day selling the brand to a larger company.
Earlier this month, I met with Munoz at El Zarape on San Andres Street, which is owned by her uncle Raul Gil. Over a cold bottle of Coca-Cola and a bag of chips from Tri-County, I found her salsas addictively distinct. There was a compelling remnant of Indian spices in both the mild and medium verdes — which recalled that culture’s fresh, peppery, slightly herbal green chutney — and the medium quemada, which had a faint masala vibe. Though excellent just with chips, they’d be great as meat marinades or as toppings for eggs and even fish.
The ghost pepper flavor, meanwhile, was more about direct heat, ideal for tacos, pizza slices, soups, or anything needing a fiery boost. The spice wasn’t overpowering like that notorious chile variety implies, but I was tearing up, sweating from my brow, and wishing I had more Coke after mowing through a dozen or so chips dripping with the orange salsa.
Munoz’s grandpa is now back under professional care, giving her more time to focus on Sabor de Paulita. “It was a really hard year to see him go through those things,” she said. “But I’m kinda sad now that it’s over.”
She plans to continue her biomedical studies this fall at SBCC and credits her return to education for everything. “If it wasn’t for school,” she explained, “there was no way I’d start my own business.”