We took 10 bottles of hot sauce to Pok Pok. Thank you, Hillary Clinton
Like Beyoncé, we now know, Hillary Clinton has hot sauce in her bag. She said so on New York’s Power 105.1, so it must be true.
Still, Donald Trump doesn’t believe her, nor do Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham nor many of Fox News’ talking heads. Even Power 105.1 host Charlamagne Tha God kind of accused her of pandering.
Is she pandering? I think she just likes hot sauce — and not just because she’s on record as a chilehead in interviews going back at least to 2008.
Her hot sauce of choice, an aide revealed to Time, is Ninja Squirrel, a cheery Sriracha knockoff. When your hot sauce of choice is a non-GMO Whole Foods exclusive named after a YouTube meme, you are probably not pandering. Ninja Squirrel is the hot sauce equivalent of a Town & Country mini-van.
But I couldn’t help thinking: Could Ninja Squirrel really be as blandly inoffensive as it sounds? Would a former secretary of State, a woman who presumably has easy access to the best hot sauces in the world, actually prefer a sauce with a cute animal label to the finest Srirachas of Eastern Thailand or, for that matter, Irwindale, Calif.?
So a few hours before the polls closed in New York this week, Jonathan Gold and I sat down at Pok Pok LA, Andy Ricker’s Thai restaurant in Chinatown, with 10 bottles of Sriracha. The occasion not only was the latest primary, the most important contest before the June 7 California vote, but this latest batch of political flash points.
Earlier that morning, I’d stopped by my local 99 Ranch market to pick up the control — Irwindale’s own Huy Fong Sriracha — and then went to LAX-C, the massive Thai food warehouse just north of Chinatown. Gold stopped by Bangkok and Bangluck markets in Thai Town, although I think he volunteered for the mission mostly so he could have an excuse to stop by Lacha Somtum for a plate of papaya salad with black fermented crab, a dish far spicier than anything in the bottles he’d picked up.
At Pok Pok, there were bowls of fresh noodles in coconut curry, a platter of grilled Chiang Mai sausage with steamed cabbage and pork rinds and a lovely heap of hoi thawt, broken crepes with mussels, which came with its own small bowl of imported Double Chicken brand Sriracha — coincidentally, one of the sauces that crowded our table. If we were going to taste our way through the universe of Sriracha, we were going to do so with the foods that purees of chiles, garlic, vinegar and sugar had evolved to accompany in the first place.
Most of the sauces from Thailand — Shark, Por Kwan, Sriraja Panich, Grand Mountain and Double Chicken — came in containers as big as whiskey bottles. Our five domestic bottles were smaller: Lee Kum Kee, the Huy Fong, the Trader Joe’s house brand, a squat jar of barrel-aged Sosu from Oakland and a Ninja Squirrel sourced from a neat shelf at my local Whole Foods. Clearly the Clinton controversy had not inspired a run on the stuff, at least not in Pasadena.
At Pok Pok, the sausages and mussel crepes were severely delicious, but we developed a happy routine of tasting the Srirachas with pork rinds and leaves of steamed cabbage, dipping them into tiny saucers, cleansing our palates between sauces with turmeric-flavored drinking vinegar and icy swigs of beer. There was not, it must be said, a huge amount of variation among the sauces, particularly the ones from Thailand. We needed to concentrate.
The Double Chicken was mellow and garlic-heavy, chile-forward but not super hot. The Shark had a deeper flavor, as if it were spiked brown sugar — Gold thought it tasted a little like a lean, mean Carolina barbecue sauce, pourably thin with a hint of smokiness. The Panich tasted muddier — oddly sweet — while Por Kwan seemed distinctly spicier than the others, with a honeyed finish and a strange consistency that reminded me, not pleasantly, of crème Anglaise. And the Grand Mountain? Kind of great: thick, with a bright, fresh chile taste and a lovely lingering finish.
We kept sneaking back to the Grand Mountain throughout the tasting; it was what we thought the beloved local Huy Fong Sriracha should have tasted like.
On to the non-Thai sauces: The Lee Kum Kee, made by a Hong Kong-based company, tasted overwhelmingly, strangely, like pineapple juice, a strange effect given that it was the only one of the sauces that included anchovy in its list of ingredients. Sosu, aged in an oak whiskey barrel, was thick, jam-like and smoky — a completely different animal than the other sauces on the table. The famous Huy Fong product seemed almost exaggerated in flavor, spicier, sweeter and more garlicky than its competitors, brassy and all-American. And the sauce in the Trader Joe’s bottle — a dragon etched in white against the bright orangey red of the bottle, in place of Huy Fong’s famous rooster — well, let’s just say it was emergency Sriracha.
“If your knowledge of Sriracha came from Sriracha potato chips,” Gold said, “it would probably be this.”
And finally to Ninja Squirrel. Why is there a squirrel in a ninja mask on a bottle of Thai hot sauce? A good question. Jonathan dipped a pork rind into the bowl: “It’s ketchup.”
This Whole Foods sauce is also the kind of hot sauce that makes sense for the former first lady: made in the USA, available across America and basically unchallenging.
Would we like her better if she’d kept a fifth of Shark sauce in her bag? If she’d decided that Double Chicken was her jam? I kind of respect her for knowing what she likes.
Plates and bowls and tasting notes cleared, bottles of sauce packed up and softly clanking in my shoulder bag, we walked south through Chinatown toward the newsroom, where the early results of the primary were coming in.
I always had a bottle of hot sauce in my bag, I told Gold, so I sympathized with Clinton on this one. But I grew up in Iowa, where the food of my childhood seemed to require it. It was mostly a default setting tied more to memories of potlucks than it was a cultural statement or otherwise.
“Do you carry hot sauce around?” I asked Gold.
He shook his head. He grew up in Los Angeles.
“But if I had to spent a lot of time in Iowa,” he said, “a bottle of Shark sauce might end up being my best friend.”
Times staff writer Jonathan Gold contributed to this story.
Pok Pok LA, 978 N. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 613-1831, pokpokla.com.
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