Few things get eaters more petulant, passionate, and — we can't help it — fired up than hot sauce. Life is hardly worth living and food hardly worth eating without the benefit of salt and vinegar and citrus and spice.
We've ranked some of the most excellent local hot sauce purveyors, and chosen one winner, because we're incendiary like that.
8. Steve's Pepper Sauce, Mild Tasting Notes: Black pepper, onion Heat: Mild How to use it: Beef, brats, dogs, grilled chicken, hashbrowns, bloody Marys Where to get it: Local D'Lish, stevespeppersauce.com
"My wife is always telling me I'm getting carried away," Steve Olds says of his hot sauce impulses. She has a point: Olds first got interested in the stuff after growing more than 150 pounds of chiles in their backyard garden. A hot sauce company seemed like the only thing to do. Today, he's got four different heat levels: mild, medium, hot, and XXX. The mild is nice for when you need that "something extra" without wanting to add a whole bunch of "holy shit!" Lots of local bars use his stuff for their signature bloodies, and we say it's the perfect thing for a steak hot off the grill.
7. Mean Green Tasting Notes: Herbaceous, grassy, jalapeño Heat: Medium to hot How to use it: Roast chicken, pizza, gyros, burgers Where to get it: Multiple locations, meangreenhotsauce.com
You know that little thimble of green sauce you get at the good Arab-owned corner gyro and pizza-by-the-slice joints? This is that. Saleh Hamshari used to own long-gone yet long-lamented Rotisseria in Calhoun Square, which sold those things but also really good rotisserie chicken. None of it was ever as good without the sauce. "You would give it to people and they would walk a few feet and walk back to say: 'I gotta have more of that.'" Though Rotisseria is gone, the sauce lives on.
6. Lucky's Ripe Jalapeno with Garlic Tasting Notes: Fruity, bright Heat: Reasonable (balanced) How to use it: Popcorn (it all started with putting hot sauce on popcorn at the bar), eggs, tuna salad, egg salad, egg sandwiches Where to get it: Whole Foods, Cub, The Wedge, luckyspopcorndressing.com
Booze gets us into all sorts of trouble, doesn't it? So when the volleyball team challenges you to make a hot sauce, and then starts "threatening" to pay you for it, what can you do? "After a couple beers I went home and got the cookbooks out, and the peppers from the garden," says Lucky's owner Mark Porisch. A few farmers markets later, and after a lot of repeat business, Porisch has great visibility on some serious big-name store shelves. He's a fan of traditional Louisiana hot sauce flavors (chile, vinegar, salt) and adds his own touch of onion and garlic. He makes about 15 flavors, based on what chiles are in season.
5. Nuclear Nectar Tasting Notes: Classic habanero chile flavor with nice balance of vinegar and not too much salt Heat: God damn (bright and powerful) How to use it: "More versatile than Sriracha"; put it on pizza, pho, and wherever else you might use that ubiquitous brand Where to get it: Multiple locations, nuclearnectar.com
Rob Glacier's mission is to spice up the world — via his record label, Nuclear Nectar, or his hot sauce of the same name — whatever he's gotta do. On the hot sauce side of things, he's focused on "capturing the fruit" rather than bombarding the peppers with salt and vinegar. It's got five times less salt than the leading brands, and he uses fresh Caribbean Reds chiles for their fruitastic flavor. This fall, Glacier will be hosting the second annual "Heat up Your Life" event, with hot sauce vendors, fiery cuisine, hot beats, and ghost pepper-infused beer. "It isn't just a condiment," he says. "It's a way of life."
4. Double Take Tasting Notes: Spot-on balance of salty and sweet, bewitching fruity chile flavor Heat: Oh, yeah (low and slow) How to use it: Pizza, scrambled eggs, tacos, rice and beans Where to get it: Linden Hills Farmers Market, facebook.com/DoubleTakeSalsa
It began with a honey-do list. Bernie Dahlin's wife sent him out for an heirloom tomato, and when it rang up at seven bucks for the one, the sticker shock catapulted him into action. "I said you know what? Screw that! I can buy a whole plant for that." So he got to growing tomatoes and peppers, and all of the exotic peppers that go into Double Take Hot Sauce and Salsas. He likes Trinidad Maruga Scorpions (one of the world's hottest) and Fatalii for their extreme heat, which he offsets with carrot for natural sweetness.
3. Hellraising Hot Sauce, Triple Inferno Tasting Notes: Clean, fruity, effervescent, bright dangerous heat Heat: Holy fuck (a hard hit with a "yeah, man" low and slow afterburn) How to use it: Pasta, seafood, stir fries, mac and cheese Where to get it: Multiple locations; hellraisinghotsauce.com
Though his was the hottest of all the sauces we sampled, David Taylor insists that it's not all about the heat. "I go to these trade shows and you put a tip of a toothpick of a drop in your mouth, and you're burning for a half an hour. It's a joke." Instead, he offsets his chile heat with citrus juices — lime, pineapple, lemon, orange. A couple of his flavors play nice enough that even his kids can eat it. "This is not an arms race to see how hot you can make it, or how vinegary. Ours is zesty and fresh, but still bold."
2. Cry Baby Craigs Tasting Notes: Tart, tangy, mouth-watering, acidic, addictive, and a wonderful all-purpose condiment Heat: Moderate How to use it: Tacos, breakfast, marinades, soups, seafood, vinaigrettes, popcorn butter Where to get it: Online at crybabycraigs.com
A chef's life is full of happy accidents. When the purveyor drops off that big box of habaneros instead of the jalapeños you ordered, and you haven't time to send them back because the dishwasher called in sick again and the lady at table 10 is complaining that the fish tastes fishy, well, what do you do? Pickle the habaneros. And then toss in few more ingredients, and what do you know? Magic. Craig Kaiser's is the only hot sauce product on the market that he knows of that uses a pickled chile instead of a cooked one, and you can taste the difference in the tang.
1. Isabel Street Heat, Chipotle Tasting Notes: Smoky, acidic, a must for big autumn crock pots of chili Heat: Medium How to use it: Grilled cheese sandwiches, guacamole, quinoa, red beans and rice, chili, everything Where to get it: Multiple locations, isabelstreetheat.com
Tony Stoy is most definitely not content with just a stockpot and a blender. His six varieties of sauces are each inspired by a separate varietal of chile: jalapeno, cilantro-lime-serrano, thai chile, habanero, ghost chile, and chipotle, and then this is the kicker: They're fermented for two or three months before anything else is added. And then, for instance, Stoy will cold-smoke chipotles for 10 hours to achieve a smoke that's like the aroma of campfire clothing the morning after — intoxicating. But perhaps more impressive are his probiotic sauces — fermented, and then not heated through so they retain their health-giving, good bacteria, digestive properties. Look for them in the refrigerated section of supermarkets near you soon.
Send your story tips to Hot Dish.