Friday, July 22, 2011

My Hot Sauce Adventure

Last Friday, when I wrote about trying 15 different fast food condiments, the first comment left was a question of whether my beloved Taco Lita hot sauce is better than any other condiment out there. Another comment or two, not to mention a couple of emails, convinced me that people would like to see a hot sauce tasting.

First I had to come up with the ground rules. As tempting as it was to buy 50 different kinds of hot sauce at the store - and sometimes it seems as if Baja Ranch Market carries at least 50 varieties of hot sauce - it just didn't seem plausible. Too many of the hot sauces I have tried over the years (and I've tried a lot) taste identical.

Then I came up with a more reasonable idea: I would only taste sauces that were either in my kitchen, my parents' kitchen (other than La Victoria, any hot sauce they have was most likely purchased by me) or, in the case of Trappey's, my car. Sure, this will leave out Tops' hot sauce, which I've always liked, Taco Treat's sauce, which I've fallen in love with in 2011, and even the McDonald's salsa whose name came up when discussing this idea. Also I was out of the bottle of Pico Pica that my friend Tim gave me earlier this year, which would have been a strong contender for the best sauce. But it still seemed the easiest way to decide what sauces to try.

As it turns out, I had fifteen hot sauces as well.

I grilled pollo asada, diced it up, and topped fifteen mini tortillas (I used a cutter to make them out of already-small corn tortillas) and topped them with cilantro and the pollo.

First up was the Taco Lita, the dark-red, thicker-than-normal taco sauce that I have been eating as long as I can remember. Surprisingly, it loses some of its appeal when it's not served with the crunchy tortilla; the sauce, while still delicious, overpowered the simple flavor of chicken and tortilla that I had created here. I still love the sauce, but from now on I will stick to homemade nachos and Taco Lita tacos when using it.

When Taco Bell released their two new flavors of sauce last fall, they immediately became my favorite thing about Taco Bell. The fire-roasted salsa actually tastes like it has fire-roasted peppers in it. Considering Taco Bell's cheese quesadilla doesn't even taste like it has cheese in it, I'd say that's quite an accomplishment. The salsa goes very well with tacos like this, but the flavor would most likely get lost in anything more complex.

The salsa verde, on the other hand, did not add anything to the taco. It is so mild that it paled in comparison to the tiny amount of cilantro. In a burrito with rice and chicken, a slathering of this sauce tastes good; such a small amount on this taco didn't offer any taste.

I was surprised that I had a packet of Taco Bell's "Hot" sauce. I have never been a big fan of their sauces. I imagine that while grabbing a giant handful of the previous two sauces out of the bin, one of these hot sauces made its way into my hand. I did not enjoy it with the taco; it was indistinguishable from many other generic foodservice hot sauce packets.

Ever since eating some nachos a couple of months ago and discovering got good they tasted under a deluge of Trappey's hot sauce, very few days have gone by without me adding Trappey's to something. I love the vinegary, slightly sweet bite to it. Unfortunately, after trying it with this taco, it became obvious that, to me, Trappey's goes much better with fried foods. So that's what I'll be using it for from now on.

D.L. Jardine's "Texas Champagne" is something I have used on eggs, flatbreads and nachos over the years, but never in a taco. And now I'm kicking myself: it was fantastic. It's salty, pleasantly hot (it reminded me of a pepperoncini, which I love) and full of pepper flavor. I actually poured a little in a spoon and took a taste just to see if it truly was this delicious. It was.

Almost everyone has had Tapatio before. I certainly have, many times, so I was surprised at how hot it was. It was one of the hottest sauces I tried. But that doesn't mean it wasn't delicious. Years ago I worked with a half-Mexican, half-Salvadoran guy, and he always made fun of me when I would add Tabasco to pizza - especially the chipotle Tabasco, which I was addicted to in those years. Finally one day I brought in some Tapatio and he agreed that was an acceptable sauce and he would no longer make fun of me. In the years since then, I have mostly forgotten about adding Tapatio, and this was a great reminder that I should not have, because it is a great sauce.

This giant bottle of Tabasco was in my parents' fridge. It's possible the bottle has been there for ten years or more. (Tabasco won't spoil.) I eat Tabasco's Buffalo sauce a lot these days, and their Sweet & Spicy sauce when I can get my hands on a bottle, but it's very rare that I consume the original sauce anymore. I was shocked at how spicy it was. I mean, I loved it, but I just didn't remember it having this much flavor. I'm not going to start keeping a bottle of it around - there are too many other sauces that I like more - but it's nice to know that if I ever need some I can come get this bottle from my parents, who will probably have it in another ten years.

I discovered the 7 Mares hot sauce at Tacos Ensenada in January. Although it certainly complemented my fish tacos nicely that day, I did not see that it necessarily made them better than any number of hot sauces would. The claim of being a "sea food hot sauce" confuses me. Still, it went nicely with this mini taco and, like Tabasco, provided much more heat than I was expecting.

Ah, La Victoria. This is the stuff I grew up eating. My parents always had - actually, they still do always have - at least two bottles of this in the fridge and anywhere between two and ten bottles in their cupboard. Even when I was younger I thought this stuff was too bland and would add a drop of Tabasco to it.

So now I find it much too bland. But it is actually flavorful. It has the texture of a tomato sauce - and about the same heat level - but the flavors of tomato and pepper are certainly noticeable. They sell this stuff in varying levels of heat, my parents just happen to have the wimpiest level, and I imagine there might be some value to the hotter versions. But this mild sauce does very little for me.

When I asked the aforementioned co-worker what his favorite hot sauce was, he told me Valentina. I'd never heard of it. That night at the store I looked for it and found a one-liter bottle on sale for an absurd price. (I want to say it was 89 cents, but that can't possibly be right.) I bought it and tried it the next morning with breakfast. It was awesome: very hot but not painfully so, vinegary and runny. As part of this taco adventure, it was perfect, the best of the hot sauces I tried. The spice complemented the citrus flavor of the chicken beautifully.

Del Taco's mild sauce was another one I was surprised to find in my kitchen drawer. It tastes identical to Taco Bell's "Hot" sauce, adding nothing to the taco. This was the only sauce I tried that I wished I hadn't bothered with; the chicken would have been better by itself.

The Del Scorcho sauce used to be Del Taco's hottest sauce, and I gladly poured it on their chicken soft tacos (long a guilty pleasure of mine) and mixed it with ketchup to dip their fries in. But I haven't had any in a long time. It was fine, probably the best of the non-Taco Lita hot sauces I tried, but it can't hold a candle to any of the bottled sauces.

I have a lot of respect for Del Taco for coming out with their Del Inferno sauce. Unlike anything Taco Bell has ever created, unlike even El Pollo Loco's jalapeno sauce, this Inferno sauce is spicy. It's so rare that a fast food chain ever advertises something as spicy and then comes through with it; this sauce is a welcome exception to the rule. Funny, though... trying it alongside the Valentina and Tabasco, it really didn't seem that spicy. It's still good for a fast food sauce, but it's not great.

When I saw my friend Zach last weekend, he had just gotten home from vacation in Belize and he had a present for me: a bottle of Marie Sharpe's "Comatose Heat Level" hot sauce. The word "BEWARE" takes up most of the space on the label, as you can see. I saved this for last on purpose. I shook a few drops onto the taco and took a bite. It was delicious. I have to say, if you don't love - not just like, love - heat, you're gonna hate this. And it might be really painful for you.

But I loved it. Up front was the unmistakable sweet taste of habanero, and then a good five seconds of nothing. I knew what was coming: an intense heat building on the side of my tongue, crawling over the middle, and then my brow breaking out in sweat. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Would I shake more of this stuff onto tacos? Probably not. But I do love the flavor and can see myself mixing it with many different things in years to come.

If I had to rank my three favorites, it would be like this: 1) Valentina, 2) Texas Champagne, 3) Tapatio.

Have a great weekend.


Jessica said...

I use Tapatio when I make grilled shrimp. I mix equal parts hot sauce & ketchup (2 Tbs), 5-6 cloves minced garlic, some lemon juice and some pepper. Let em' sit while the coals get ready, skewer them, cook them, enhale them. spicy garlicy goodness. Btw, if you like Trappey's you should try TJ's pepper sauce. Same flavor profile but with a bit more kick.

SuperLarge said...

Epic and beautiful. Bravo!

::golf clap::

Anonymous said...

nice, pp!

Matt said...

I'm very surprised that you find Valentina's the hot, especially the yellow label variety. I don't find it hot at all and generally eat it on fruit--it is almost more refreshing than biting.

On the other hand, it wouldn't at all surprise me that you picked up a liter of it for under a buck.

At any rate, cheers; nice list.

Nosh Gnostic said...

I think it's funny that La Victoria as the word "Red" in large letters on the bottle of obviously red sauce.
Help for the color-blind?

Zachary said...

Well, I'm glad I got you a bottle of the Belizian heat, too - the next level down from Comatose. Maybe you can use it on more stuff and maybe more of the flavor will come through. BTW, I was afraid the "BEWARE" was more of a sales gimmick. Apparently not.

Anonymous said...

You should have tried El Yucateco Habanero Hot Sauce.

Tony Jaguar said...

Cool post, I actually really dig La Victoria "hot" sauce on plain old corn strips, something about nostalgia of the snack bar in little league.

Julien said...

That was mighty scientific of you...

You know, it's surprising how much enjoyment one can get from some of the cheaper sauce options (Valentina, Tapatio, etc.). Of course, greater sauces exist, but the argument stands.

Anonymous said...

You should have reviewed Cholula! Its the best Mexican-style hot sauce out there.

Peggasus said...

Great review! Though I am a bit disappointed that you didn't have 15 in your own cupboard, I easily have 40 (it's a bit of an obsession).

I am happy to see Tapatio finishing in the top three, I buy it by the quart at the Mexican groceries, though my kids prefer Frank's.

As far as the La Vicitoria goes, if you ever see their Salsa Brava pick some up, it's quite a bit hotter, we like it on burritos and tacos when you want a bit of a thicker sauce.

Again, great job!

Anonymous said...

Great write-up. Just thought I'd clear up the seafood hot sauce though: it has tomato in it (other Mexican hot sauces don't), which is a flavor you'll find a lot in Mexican seafood, like ceviche, cocteles (Mexican shrimp cocktails), etc.

Anonymous said...

(Continuing from above) And also, if you liked Marie Sharp's hot sauce, you should try her regular habanero hot sauce. It has a distinct onion flavor (not too strong, but definitely noticeable), which isn't something you get from a typical hot sauce, and adds good flavor to whatever you put it on.

Hunter said...

I love hot sauce, and I probably go through about a bottle a week. I have tried about all of these but my favorite is Frank's Red Hot. I'm suprised it was not reviewed.

JustinM said...

Jessica: I will give the TJ's sauce a try.

Super Large: Aw, thanks.

Anon: Thanks

Matt: It could just be one of those random things, because in my memory it was not hot at all. But those few drops were.

Nosh: I dunno. Do they make any other colors?

Zach: The nice thing about it is that there was none of that artificial chemical-tasting heat. It was all jalapeno.

Anon: I have tried that, it's really good, but as I wrote, I only tried what I already had.

Tony: I know I've tried the hot version before, but I don't remember how hot it actually is.

Anon: Cholula is good, but as I wrote, I only tried what I already had.

Peggasus: Thanks for the compliments. Do you have that many just because you like having a ton, or do all 40 actually have different uses?

Anon: Thanks for the info, that makes a lot of sense. Zach actually gave me a bottle of that as well, but I haven't tried it yet.

Hunter: I like Frank's but I don't love it, and, as I wrote, I only tried what I already had.

ben wideman said...

Another brilliant post. Long life An Immovable Feast!!!

By the way, today I was in Subway and noticed they have a Pulled Pork Sub right now.

Seriously. It has to be a train wreck - but I wasn't brave enough to order one. I hope you are willing to take the dive into what can only be a terrible sub!

JustinM said...

I wasn't planning to because I don't see any way it can possibly be any good - not to mention it's almost 8 bucks, which is getting to be Quizno's prices.

But if you really would like to see me do it, I will.

ben wideman said...

I'm torn. It is an obvious waste of money, but I feel like someone has to try one just to see how it is! I guess the 6 inch would be cheaper.

JustinM said...

I drove to Subway today and thought about getting one... but I just couldn't do it. It looks so terrible. I know I try some things that look awful, but when I KNOW with 100% certainty that I am going to dislike a product - e.g. the KFC Doublicious sandwich - I can't bring myself to try it.

Unknown said...

I've been trying to upgrade my hot sauce cabinet and this list should prove useful. I just have to track em down now.

I kinda sorta understand "designation" of some hot sauces; I don't put sriracha on fried chicken, for instance.

Nice write-up. Your blog once again proves to be an invaluable resource.

Brian & Marilyn from HotSauceDaily said...

Awesome round-up of fast food hot sauces. Sadly, many are not available out here on the East Coast.

Really nice job tackling so many sauces at once. The pics really add to the "story".

Justin, we love the way you write, and if you'd ever like to do a Guest Post for HotSauceDaily about a hot sauce or BBQ sauce review, please let us know!

JustinM said...

Thanks for the compliments. I would be glad to write any guest post you would like; perhaps on one of these sauces that you can't get on the east coast?

algorithmagician said...

Sorry for exercising my necromantic powers, but I wonder now if you've tried the black label Valentina, or Taco Bell's diablo sauce.