60 pounds: The amount of habanero chiles that go into one batch of Chichen Itza’s habanero “table” sauce.
The habanero sauce has been on the menu at Chichen Itza, the Yucatecan restaurant at Mercado La Paloma in downtown Los Angeles since Gilberto Cetina and his son Gilberto Cetina, Jr. opened it in 2001. The sauce, says the younger Cetina, predated the restaurant, tracing back to his grandmother in Mexico and to his childhood home in Costa Mesa.
“We had it in a Tupperware,” Cetina says. His parents would make it to go with the panuchos and tamales they’d sell out of their apartment. “There was always a food hustle component when I was growing up.”
Now Cetina, Jr. — his father retired to Mérida in 2016 — and his crew cook, bottle and label the habanero sauce by hand in Chichen Itza’s tiny kitchen. Every two weeks, those 60 pounds of chiles, 22 pounds of white onions and 11 gallons of water are cooked down in a giant pot (“You could fit a small person in there. We have.”), blended with salt and vinegar and poured into about 75 5-ounce bottles. A bottle goes onto every table, and the rest of it is sold to customers.
Cetina makes a 5-gallon batch of a second sauce called kut every 1 ½ weeks from 12 pounds of charred habanero chiles, as well as charred garlic, olive oil, white vinegar, tomato paste and water. The charring of the chiles is done at 4 a.m. “so it doesn’t kill anybody.”
From 2012 to 2016, Chichen Itza put on a habanero-eating contest. One year the winner, a woman from Mexico City, won by eating 62 habaneros in 20 minutes. No mean feat, considering that habaneros are rated between 100,000 and 350,000 on the Scoville scale. (The current hottest chile, the Carolina Reaper, registers at 2,200,000.) “She didn’t even break a sweat,” Cetina says, noting that she still comes in sometimes for dinner.