Tex-Mex

Classic Frito salad

Frito salad | Homesick Texan

When I was growing up, my mom served a dish she called bean salad. It was made up of pinto beans, along with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, avocado, and crushed tortilla chips. She dressed it in a tangy red wine vinaigrette.

As a child, I complained about bean salad night, but as an adult, I find myself turning to this combination often, as it’s tasty, healthy, and quick to prepare. In fact, when I asked my mom about her inspiration for the dish, she said it was based on the classic Frito salad, a beloved Texan standard not only common on the dinner table but also a favorite for backyard gatherings and potlucks.

While the beginnings of Frito salad are unclear, it had its first press citation in 1955 when the Waxahachie Daily Light said it was to be served at the local schools. Though if it was already a lunch-menu mainstay, then it had probably been served long before that. While I wasn’t able to source an earlier printed recipe or mention of the dish by that exact title, in a 1938 advertorial in the Los Angeles Times, the Fritos company did suggest adding its corn chips to salads would provide great crunch.

Frito salad | Homesick Texan

While subsequent press mentions after its Waxahachie media debut touted Frito salad as as a common addition to Texan suppers and parties, the first recipe didn’t appear until 1969 in the Plano Star Courier, which seems late in its timeline, as it’s obvious people were sharing it and serving it long before that. This rendition called for a head of lettuce, chopped tomatoes, Ranch Style beans, shredded Longhorn cheese, Fritos, and a bottled French dressing produced by Kraft with the brand Catalina French dressing.


Now, what’s unique about Catalina French dressing, which was introduced in 1957, is that it has nothing to do with either France or Catalina Island, which is off the coast of Southern California. (In fact, the Catalina Chamber of Commerce once received an email thanking it for its namesake dressing and they were confused as to why this had even occurred!) Instead, this dressing, made with vinegar, oil, spices, and ketchup, is an American invention that goes back to the turn of the century.

Until the early 19th Century, French dressing was always described in American cookbooks as a vinaigrette made from the classic ratio of three parts oil to one part vinegar. Spices and herbs were sometimes stirred in as well. Then in 1897, an American cookbook called Table Talk advised a dollop of mushroom catsup could be included for extra flavor. While no longer a common condiment, mushroom catsup has a similar flavor to Worcestershire sauce. And thus began the adding of catsup (or ketchup) to French dressing, though it would be five more years, in the 1902 book Mrs. Rorer’s Cookbook, where the more popular tomato ketchup was advised to be added instead.

When you look at recipes for this America-style French dressing made with ketchup and spices, it was often called “piquant French dressing.” Though in 1952, a food column in the Houston Chronicle called its French dressing comprised of oil, vinegar, ketchup, garlic, and chili powder “patio dressing,” a term I like very much, as it invokes a relaxing meal served outside.

There is no information on why Kraft chose to call this style of French dressing Catalina, though I suppose it was meant to convey a lifestyle and sense of place, much like ranch dressing or Thousand Island dressing. But even though it’s now the standard condiment to Frito salad, as its arrival came after the salad’s birth, I find that not only is it more flavorful to make my own dressing, but I’ve chosen to follow the Houston Chronicle’s festive lead for a zesty French dressing, seeing as how it’s a Texan salad, after all.

Indeed, Frito salad, with its crisp and cool combination of chopped iceberg, juicy tomatoes, rich cheese, creamy avocados, tart onions, earthy black olives, and crunchy chips, is a fine food to share on the patio with your loved ones on a summer day.

Frito salad | Homesick Texan

In my second book, I created a fancier version of this dish, but sometimes it’s welcome to take the original and finesse it only a bit. So, by using fresh ingredients, and making your own dressing (and perhaps your beans) from scratch, this humble dish becomes easily elevated. Yet it’s still familiar and beloved all the same.

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Frito salad | Homesick Texan
4.86 from 7 votes
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Classic Frito salad

Course Side Dish
Cuisine Tex-Mex, Texan
Cook Time 20 minutes
Servings 6
Author Lisa Fain

Ingredients

For the dressing:

  • 1 cup grapeseed or other neutral salad oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup tomato ketchup
  • 2 teaspoons prepared mustard
  • 1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

For the salad:

  • 1 head iceberg, chopped
  • 2 cups grape tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 jalapeños, seeded and diced
  • 1/4 cup sliced black olives
  • 1/4 cup red onion, cut into thin slivers
  • 2 cups Ranch Style Beans or other cooked pinto beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Colby Jack cheese
  • 1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and cubed
  • 2 cups Fritos or other thick corn tortilla chips

Instructions

  1. To make the dressing, add the oil, vinegar, ketchup, mustard, Worcestershire, chili powder, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, and pepper to a jar, put on the lid then shake until the dressing is well blended. Alternatively, you can simply whisk the ingredients together.
  2. To make the salad, toss the iceberg, tomatoes, jalapeños, olives, red onion, beans, cheese, avocado, and chips together until well combined.

  3. Serve the salad with the dressing on the side. If you're taking this to a potluck, add the avocados and Fritos just before serving so they remain fresh.

  1. Aleixisfromtexas

    I woke up this morning thinking about what my family called a taco salad (but of course it was made with Fritos) and here is your recipe! Crazy! Now I really have to make this for dinner tonight. Cannot wait!

    • Lisa Fain

      Alexis–What serendipity! Clearly it was meant to be. Enjoy!

  2. How funny, I was just thinking about this salad yesterday. Guess what’s for dinner tonight?

  3. Joan K.

    Back to the future! Perfect for a hot and humid early summer weekend! Thank you.

    • Lisa Fain

      Joan–Sometimes the classics remain classics for a reason! It may have been around a while, but it’s still delicious!

  4. Alexandra Smith

    Hi Lisa,
    This recipe is only good with Fritos, regular tortilla chips just get soggy (I’ve tried!)
    My mom had many Charitable League, Volunteer Group and similar cookbooks. They all seem to have a variation of this fabulous salad. I just looked at one of my mom’s from the Eisenhower Hospital Volunteers’ Cookbook (Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs, CA). It’s called South-of-the-Border Salad, basically the same as yours, yummy!
    Thanks, Alex

    • Lisa Fain

      Alexandra–You know, my mom usually made it with regular tortilla chips, and that just may be why I didn’t favor it as much as I do Fritos!

  5. Shannon

    I haven’t thought about “taco salad” in years! Yum!!!!

    • Lisa Fain

      Shannon–It’s very refreshing, especially this time of year!

  6. During the Depression, my father’s family had an electroplating business on the SE side of San Antonio. Mr. C.E. Doolin, the creator of Fritos, was a customer of my great-grandfather and in payment for services, he would come to their home and make Fritos for them! My father, who was born in 1929, remembers Mr. Doolin and his very tasty form of payment.

    • Lisa Fain

      Karen–What a fantastic story! I can only imagine how amazing the Fritos must have tasted freshly fried. Thank you so much for sharing this incredible piece of San Antonio history!

  7. 5 stars
    What ever happened to Colby Cheese? It must still be made or we wouldn’t have Colby jack. I can’t find plain Monterey Jack in the stores anymore, either. Colby made the best grilled cheese sandwiches! And I always used it for my Frito salad, too. While I like sharper cheddars, they don’t taste quite right for some of these older comfort dishes.

    • Lisa Fain

      Janet–That is an excellent question! It’s true, you seldom see plain Colby but I do still see Colby Jack and very rarely, I find Longhorn, which is Colby. It’s odd you don’t see Monterey Jack, though, as it’s at all the stores I shop at in Dallas.

  8. Rinshin

    5 stars
    This was very tasty Lisa. The dressing was neither too sweet or strong tasting and really went well with this. Your blog has always been one of my favorite. I like how you provide history, story and context to your recipe posts. You can easily take over the role of being the Texas culinary expert which used to belong to Rob Walsh but since he no longer lives in Texas or the US, you should be the one. Glad you returned to your home state.

    • Lisa Fain

      Rinshin–Thank you so much for the kind words! It’s indeed very good to be home. And I’m pleased you enjoyed the salad and dressing!

  9. Diane Cheatham

    5 stars
    Another good recipe from Lisa! Easy to make and so delicious. The salad dressing was a nice change from my typical vinaigrette. I particularly appreciate the research and history of the recipe and the tweaks to make it Texan.

    • Lisa Fain

      Diane–Thank you! I’m pleased that you enjoyed the dressing and the history!

  10. Recently, my mother, who at 91, lives in an assisted living facility, invited me to lunch — on the facility’s porch — since visitors aren’t allowed inside these days. She suggested that I bring a picnic lunch, and requested pimento cheese sandwiches and Fritos. I bought both at my friendly HEB and she loved it! But I had half a bag of Fritos left over and my own Frito-loving days are long gone! I thought I might be able to interest my husband in an old-fashioned Frito salad, but I wasn’t about to buy a bottle of Catalina dressing! The very next day your recipe showed up in my inbox! And the dressing you concocted was really good!!! Now I’m looking for an Enchilada Casserole recipe that doesn’t use Velveeta or Cream of Mushroom soup. Maybe you wrote that one up in the past?

  11. Frito salad is so tasty! I have eaten it twice in the restaurant so it’s high time to recreate it! I think I have got all ingredients to prepare it but I am wondering if I can change red cherry tomatoes to black ones? I am growing this variety since 3 years, these tomatoes are a bit different in taste so that is why I am asking you..What do you think? Thanks for sharing this recipe Lisa!

    • Lisa Fain

      Monica–I haven’t had the black tomatoes but I bet they would be good. Freshly grown is always best this time of year!

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