As tepid as the Minnesotan palate can be, we nevertheless have a robust local hot sauce scene. Many Twin Citians grow their own ingredients, painstakingly smoke chiles by the bushel, and strive to up the mealtime ante by adding a little heat and a lot of love.
A year has gone by since our first local hot sauce ranking. We checked in with our favorites from last year to see what they’ve been up to (a lot), and added a couple of new and overlooked hot sauce stars to the roster.
We ranked them, though just like last year, they’re all winners. Not a clunker in the bunch.
8. Sauce Science’s Fatal #4
Tasting notes: Smoky, full of spices, dark, rich
Heat factor: Not fatal, but lively
How to use it: “Literally on anything.”
A couple of self-described “science geeks,” Jon Engel and Brett Landrum put together their chemistry sets and came up with a mathematical equation for the perfect line of hot sauces: five heat levels, each exactly twice as hot as the last (they measured the parts per million capsaicin and Scoville units using science-y stuff). You’ll recognize the label as a riff on the universal hazard symbol, and they call their sauces “5 levels of danger.” They’ve also concocted a dehydrated heat powder, “Pow,” that’s great for traveling, for popcorn and chips, and we imagine, all sorts of innovative uses at frat parties.
Where to get it: Askov Finlayson, Bryn Mawr Market, etsy.com
7. Lucky’s Racha
Tasting notes: Garlicky, sweet, umami, rich
Heat factor: Moderate, but not to be dismissed
How to use it: “It’s the best on pizza, especially breakfast pizza.”
Mark Porisch started his hot sauce company, Lucky’s, after a friendly barroom challenge, and he is no more likely to shirk from a provocation this year. He made Racha, a Sriracha-like sauce, after he was beseeched by customers to do so. “But I make sauces the way I like them, and for me, Sriracha has too much garlic.” So he subbed out some of the garlic for green onion, resulting in a sauce that we dare say we like better than the original Rooster sauce.
Where to get it: Kowalski’s, Seward Co-op, Luckyspopcorndressing.com
6. Crybaby Craig’s Limited Edition Forager’s Fire
Tasting notes: Briny, sweet, sharp, herbaceous
Heat factor: Keep tissues handy. Don’t know if you’ll be crying, but it’s possible.
How to use it: “Goes especially well with seafood.”
Thanks to his roots as a chef, Craig Kaiser will probably always be associated with the flames of the stove before the fire of the chile. Either way, he’s the biggest name in hot sauce when it comes to restaurant tables around here. Visit just about any dining room in the Cities (and beyond), and you’ll spot a bottle of his habanero orange sauce waiting to be doused on everything from barbecue to Bloody Marys. The secret is in the chile pickling, an unmatched zing that many chefs really like as an accompaniment to their cooking. Every spring he’ll release a small batch of something honoring the produce of the season, and this year it was ramps, green garlic, and pear vinegar.
Where to get it: Forager’s Fire only available at Eat Street Social or NE Social while supplies last. Original Craybaby Craig’s available at Kowalski’s, Lunds & Byerly’s stores, most co-ops, crybabycraigs.com
5. Nuclear Nectar Green
Tasting notes: Herbaceous, sweet, grassy, fresh
Heat factor: Medium
How to use it: “On Latin American fare, Mediterranean fare, and even a great mezze plate.”
The guy behind Nuclear Nectar is so convinced that heat is a way of life he’s organized the Heat Up Your Life Festival for the past three years. This year, Rob Glacier says he needed a “yang” to the “yin” of his original red sauce. In addition to green chiles, this sauce gets a blast of chlorophyll, which Glacier says “makes that green really shine, and gives it a health kick, too.” He recommends using both the red and green varieties for a most excellent “yin and yang” holiday gift.
Where to get it: Minneapolis Farmers Market, Linden Hills Farmers Market, nuclearnectar.com
Pro tip: This year’s Heat Up Your Life Festival takes place on October 1 at Bent Brewstillery, noon to 5 p.m., and will feature all kinds of “capsaicin artisans” plus live music and beer.
Tasting notes: Rich, umami, with notes of dry spice, black pepper, and tomato
Heat factor: Slow, creeping burn
How to use it: Mix in a little chocolate sauce and pour over ice cream, or rub some into a pork tenderloin and then grill.
When bartenders have downtime, they eat burgers. Once they’ve done that, they tinker. Fifteen years ago when Dale McKenzie started tinkering with hot sauce, it was because he couldn’t find a decent sauce for his burgers. Bound behind the bar, he used what he had at hand: balsamic vinegar, tomato juice, garlic, molasses. What he came up with is something with tons of body, not too much vinegar, and not too much heat. “It’s ridiculous if you have to literally put a toothpick in the bottle and then put it on your burger,” he says. “This is flavor before heat.”
Where to get it: Prairie Dogs, Keys Cafe, JJ’s Clubhouse, New Hope Cinema Grill
3. Hellraising Hot Sauce’s Forbidden Fruit
Tasting notes: Sweet like cinnamon toast with apple pie spice
Heat factor: Mild to moderate but not in an anemic way
How to use it: “Put it on a pulled pork sandwich and you won’t regret it. Or mixed into cream cheese.”
David Taylor is another guy who wants to resist “the arms race” to the hottest sauce. “It’s silly to ruin somebody’s meal with all that heat. We do so much to try to accentuate the meal.” To that end, his newest creation uses the classic jalapeño pepper, and for sweetness, apple instead of citrus. “Everybody is running off and doing ghost and reaper [chiles] and I don’t think a year ago anyone even knew what a reaper was. We’re not quite ready to make those kinds of jumps. We like developing slowly.” While he admits that there are other makers using apple as a sweetener, Forbidden Fruit pushes things a bit further still with the addition of cinnamon, “but just a whiff.”
Where to get it: Kowalski’s, Hy-Vee stores, most local co-ops
2. Double Take’s Carolina Reaper
Tasting notes: Bright, fruity, aromatic, lightly sweet, citrusy, with a great balance between chile and heat
Heat factor: Suck air through your teeth hot.
How to use it: Tacos, and especially fish tacos. So balanced, even the kids will eat it.
Bernie Dahlin’s new Carolina Reaper sauce started with a tomato, not a pepper. “I wanted to use sun-dried tomatoes because I think they’re more flavorful than anything. Just a tiny taste makes your whole mouth pucker.” His motto is “flavor first, heat second,” so while Carolina Reaper is considered the hottest chile available anywhere right now, this sauce has incredible balance. “I want people to feel just ever so slightly uncomfortable with the heat.” We’re so comfortable with it, it’s become our go-to sauce for just about any reason.
Where to get it: Kowalski’s, Jerry’s Foods, most co-ops, doubletakesalsa.com
1. Isabel Street Heat’s Fatalii
Tasting notes: Super bright, fruity, lemony, addictive
Heat factor: Deceptively blazing. Fatalii has an addictive fruitiness similar to habanero, but is at least 25 percent hotter. Use with care.
How to use it: Chicken, fish, or any white meat protein, and especially white rice “because that moisture that comes off the rice really blows up the aromatics.”
The winner of last year’s list, Isabel Street Heat is our favorite because it’s the only local hot sauce we know of with fermented chiles, making for a distinctive effervescent back-end zing that we don’t find anywhere else. They’ve also got a line of probiotic sauces, resulting in a hot sauce that’s not just good, but ostensibly good for you, too. Not to rest on their laurels, the folks at Isabel began aging sauce in oak barrels, and made an oak barrel-aged Sriracha-like sauce that sold out almost instantly. Did you hear that? It’s sold out. They’ll have more ready by March of next year, but in the meantime try their new Fatalii sauce, enlivened with lemon and made with a beautiful yellow chile grown in none other than St. Paul.
Where to get it: Most co-ops, Kowalski’s, isabelstreetheat.com