The Code of Slaw

By Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.
July 6, 2021 Updated: July 6, 2021

When I ask a chef for a recipe to print in this column, I know it’s no small request. It’s the core blueprint of their business. A storehouse of value and trade secret all in one.

Amazingly, most agree. But when I showed up at Tia’s Big Sky Artisanal Mexican Restaurant to pick up my take-out, I had already come to the conclusion that Tia would not be cooperating.

The counter girl looked up at me from my order: one tamale, one hibiscus agua fresca, and two large sides of coleslaw.

“Are you the guy who called earlier today?” she asked.

“Yup.”

“Kim says no.”

“I had a feeling,” I said. “That’s why I ordered all this coleslaw.”

Back when I was a restaurant critic for an Albuquerque newspaper, I used to dream about a restaurant like Tia’s that would serve Mexican food made with high-quality local ingredients. You can make a fine meal out of anything on the menu, even a side order of beans, flavored so enticingly with coriander and pork. Every dish at Tia’s bears the marks of many little tricks.

So when Kim, or “Tia,” as I call her, shot me down, I didn’t blame her. It’s her intellectual property, her choice. Plus, it makes for a more interesting story if she won’t talk.

“She once traded the recipe for $500 worth of art,” said the counter girl, Kari, who is a partner in the business, as I paid the tab.

I’d barely pulled out of my parking spot when Kari appeared in the parking lot and froze me in place with a whistle that would stop traffic in Albuquerque’s South Valley. I’d left without my agua fresca, and so I went inside to claim it.

“I thought you came out to tell me Tia had changed her mind,” I joked. That’s when Tia, stately and sweaty, appeared behind the counter.

“You’re the one who wants to know how to make the sauce?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Got 500 bucks?”

I shook my head, and thanked her for the slaw.

At home, I got to work on it with my wife, who is my secret weapon. She’s a better taster than me, with a particular talent for salad dressings.

We ate Tia’s coleslaw and batted some ideas around. What was it, beyond the obvious cumin and lime? There was sweetness, obviously, and chile spice. But was there garlic? Some kind of vinegar in addition to the lime? Was there mustard powder, a drop of fish sauce, a sprinkle of brewer’s yeast behind that subtle umami? Was it Thousand Island dressing, or a drop of ketchup?

A few days later, I showed up at Tia’s for an order of takeout. She was behind the counter.

“How’s it going?” she asked, sweetly.

“We kind of wonder if there’s a bit of tomato,” I tried.

She looked thoughtful. “Well, maybe a bird flew over the sauce with a tomato in its mouth,” she speculated.

At home, I asked my wife if Tia was omitting the part where the bird drops the tomato into the sauce. “No. I think she’s giving us a hint,” said my external salad-sleuthing sensor.

She kept munching on the slaw. “It’s just a little nutty,” she concluded.

Sesame oil? Peanut oil?

“Almond butter,” she announced. “No. Tahini. Of course it’s tahini. It’s in tons of salad dressings.”

We started with almond butter because we had it on hand. My salad detector chewed slowly, then sent me to the store for tahini.

We concluded they both work, because they do a similar thing: support the cumin upon a stage of nuttiness, which magnifies the cumin flavor without requiring obscene amounts.

Everything about this slaw is understated, like the creator of the original secret sauce. And that’s why it works. Did we decode the slaw? Only one or two people know for sure, but this peanut gallery is happy with where we ended up.

Tia-Wannabe Slaw

A light, almost mayo-free slaw. I use Vegenaise, an egg-free mayo, but whatever you use, the key is to just add the smallest amount possible. This is not a creamy coleslaw.

For the Sauce

  • 1/2 cup safflower or other neutral light oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon tahini
  • 1 teaspoon Vegenaise (or mayo of choice)
  • 2 teaspoons cumin powder (preferably toasted and home ground)
  • 1 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons chile pepper of your desired spice level
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce or Maggi (Mexican soy sauce)
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • Juice of a good lime, about 4 tablespoons
  • 1 teaspoon rice vinegar

For the Salad

  • 1 pound cabbage (I like a mix of 2/3 pound green cabbage, 1/3 pound red cabbage), grated on the largest setting into thin sheets, with the remaining heels chopped as best you can
  • 1 medium-sized carrot, grated in different coarseness
  • 2 leaves of curly kale, ribs removed, chopped or ripped into small pieces

First, make the sauce. Add the oil to a jar with a tight-fitting lid, followed by the tahini and Vegenaise. Stir and then shake vigorously to combine. Add the cumin, celery salt, chile, soy sauce, and honey. Stir in the honey until it dissolves and shake again. Add the lime juice and vinegar, shake again, and set aside.

Combine the salad ingredients, add the dressing, and toss. Adjust salt if necessary, toss again, and serve.

Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.

Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.