It's a Central Washington phenomenon. At least I've never seen or heard of it anywhere else until I moved here and went to Los Camperos, a homestyle family Mexican restaurant in Leavenworth. Jim took me here on a date on one of my first visits, when I was still living in California, and as I first sat down, I thought the people seemed extra friendly but otherwise it seemed like any other family Mexican restaurant (in a small Bavarian Washington town). But then they brought out the free chips, a dish of salsa, and an oval dish with a huge pile of confetti-flecked cabbage, and I immediately understood. The cabbage was crunchy, slightly sweet, salty, spicy, heavily limed, and totally addictive. The enchiladas were great, too, but the cabbage (salad? salsa?) haunted my dreams. I’ve since had other versions from different Mexican restaurants nearby—the central Washington thing—and they’ve been delicious. But there's something about the Los Camperos version, how it's simultaneously wilted but crunchy, with just a little kick, that keeps us coming back, and has inspired my own personal, years’-long quest to replicate it in a way that would work for regular home consumption by the bucketful. This is my most current version. Like all good recipes, it withstands tweaks and substitutions. It can be made ahead of time or last-minute, but it just needs to be made.
Update: Of course as soon as I posted this, I went to a party a few days later and my friend had made cabbage salsa that blew my version out of the water. Her secret is to make the pico a day early (tomatoes, jalapeño, onion, cilantro) and let it sit, then mix it with the cabbage the following day. Another (also cabbage-obsessed) friend told me about the El Salvadoran version of this salsa, called curtido, which is fermented cabbage, and it looks insanely good. The cabbage at Los Camperos is definitely made some time ahead, also. So, it appears that time would be an excellent addition to this recipe! I am generally not much of a plan-ahead cook and I still think this tastes great made last minute, but this recipe can definitely be made up to a day ahead and allowed to rest in the fridge. My Leavenworth friend’s version also benefited from lots of black pepper and some garlic, so I’ve noted those below. I also reduced the salt amount because I realize that this might be way salty for normal people as written.
yield: 6-8 servings
—half a green cabbage, sliced in quarters lengthwise and then shredded crosswise as thin as possible
—1/2 tsp kosher salt (I use Diamond), plus more to taste
—2 T seasoned rice vinegar
—1/4 c cilantro leaves and stems, loosely chopped (fine-ish chop)
—1/8 large red onion, sliced into small, thin slices
—1/2 tsp lime zest
—squeeze of lime juice
—1 Roma tomato (or 6-8 cherry tomatoes)
—1-2 jalapeños (fresh or pickled), depending on your heat preferences, minced, plus a splash of the jalapeño pickling liquid if you use pickled (optional)
—freshly ground black pepper, to taste
—1-2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed (optional)
Mix all ingredients vigorously in a large bowl with two forks or salad tongs. Add more salt to taste, it can handle more than you might think. Serve immediately, or let rest for up to one hour at room temperature or several hours to overnight in the fridge. Just before serving, mix again, adjust seasonings, and serve with chips, tacos, burritos, or straight up and call it salad.
Notes: in a pinch, the tomatoes, lime juice and zest can be left out and you will still have excellent cabbage. If you use unseasoned rice vinegar you may want to add a tiny pinch of sugar to taste, but I often use unseasoned rice vinegar and never add any sugar and I never miss it. Also: the finer you shred it, the easier it is to scoop onto chips!