Like many of you, we in the Food section read David Pierson's report on the San Gabriel Valley's beloved Sriracha sauce with pleasure a couple of weeks ago. When you write for newspapers, you become used to gently worded letters from lawyers for Xerox and Styrofoam asking that you stop using the names of their clients as generic nouns — who knew that Huy Fong's founder David Tran was indifferent to what many people might think of as trademark infringement?
But when we began to assemble a tasting of Sriracha-related products we ran into a snag: Few of the products were available in local markets at the moment.
So Food editor Amy Scattergood decided to conduct a more general hot sauce taste-off, recruited Roy Choi and Egg Slut's Alvin Cailan as judges, and persuaded Cailin to let us conduct the event at his new Ramen Champ on the second level of the Far East Plaza in Chinatown, almost directly above Choi's rice-bowl counter Chego. We all wanted to check out the Sriracha-flavored vodka, catsup and lip balm, but the tasting would have to do.
Both Choi and Cailan serve a lot of Sriracha in their restaurants. I often wear an enamel Sriracha-bottle pin on the lapel of my suit jackets. The victor of the taste-off was never in doubt.
So two chefs and a restaurant critic walk into a ramen-ya, whose counter was already cluttered with bottles: Tabasco, Sriracha, Cholula, Tapatio, Sambal Olek, Matouk's Calypso Sauce from Trinidad and Tobago. There was a jar of artisanal gochujang somebody had hand-carried from Gwangju, a bottle of the habanero salsa made by the local Yucatecan restaurant Chichen Itza, the house-fermented hot sauce from the Venice restaurant Gjusta, and Lao Gan Mai Spicy Chili Crisp sauce. (We also had plastic containers of Choi's own version of Sriracha, both red and green iterations, but they were more for show. And possibly lunch later.)
Jenn Harris carefully labeled the bottles and the pill cups into which they were poured — this would be a blind tasting. A giant bag of gelato spoons was procured from Scoops downstairs. Choi remarked that the process reminded him of the product ID sessions he had endured as a cooking school student.
Before the tasting, Choi named the Vernon-made Tapatio as his favorite because the musky, mellow sauce, L.A.'s answer to Jalisco-made sauces like Valentina, reminded him of growing up in Los Angeles. Cailan chose Cholula because it reminded him of his childhood; his mom used to pick it up in multipacks at Costco.
If there were a hot sauce in my formative years, it probably would have been La Victoria mild green sauce, a product I have definitively outgrown. I chose Sambal Olek, a fresh-tasting Indonesian-style sauce from Huy Fong in Irwindale, the same company that manufactures Sriracha. When I cook, I tend to put Sambal Olek in everything but dessert, and I have contemplated the possibilities of Sambal Olek cashew brittle.
"Hot sauce is like olive oil," Choi says. "The local culture determines the flavor."
"It's all about the acid profile," says Cailan.
"It's an algorithm," says Choi.
"It's about how it tastes on eggs," Cailan says.
We begin to taste, pausing our salmon-pink spoons over one sauce and then another, doubling back, remarking how similar the fruity heat of the habanero sauces were to one another, how the funky gochujang was delicious but didn't really belong in the tasting, and how the thin, vinegary taste of the straight hot sauces tended to run into one another. (I'm pretty sure each of us could identify each of the sauces even without the label.)
We each come back to the Spicy Chile Crisp, which is that oily half-empty jar you've been ignoring on the table at dumpling joints. It has texture. It has sweetness, heat, fermented complexity and a deep toasted-onion flavor. It is like a three-course meal in a spoon. The Sriracha had been forgotten for the moment. The dark horse of the tasting had won.
"I've been eating this wrong my entire life," Choi says. "It's too good to stir up with vinegar and soy."
When he thinks nobody is looking, Choi escapes with the nearly full jar. He can't hide his grin.