We have a nationwide preoccupation with heat. We’ve gotten far, far away from the actual origins of spiciness in food — to prevent and mask spoilage, impart flavor and even keep rats away. Now, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a hot-chicken place, or a YouTuber posting a video of themselves eating Carolina Reapers and other esophagus-destroying peppers. Spice has become sport.
But the children. What about the children? Well, the millennials and Gen Z-ers are at the forefront of this red-hot orgy, frankly, and it is in that spirit that I hereby present to you the authoritative, definitive and completely undisputed L.A. Times Spicy Snack Power Rankings. Like strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, their infiltration of our country cannot be stopped, so there’s little point in fighting it.
I have compiled every spicy snack known to mankind, save for the ones that I could not find, deem unworthy of inclusion, or both. What’s that you say? All these Flamin’ Hot and spicy snacks taste the same? UNTRUE. There are subtle differences, which I will happily illustrate below. I have ranked the snacks based on 1) flavor and 2) heat, the amount of saliva-coaxing capsaicin I detected in each one.
1) Doritos Flamin’ Hot Nacho
There’s an understated genius at work here, as with this parody of the “Garden State” headphones scene, except Natalie Portman makes Zach Braff listen to an entire three-hour episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience.” These are delightful and, just as important, they’re highly snackable. That puts them in a slightly different category from some other varieties, which are tasty but you may not necessarily want to finish the entire bag for fear of eating through your stomach lining.
Think regular Doritos, but with a kick as strong as a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto — they capture the perfect mix of cheesy and spicy.
2) Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Puffs
These little guys, shaped like a cartoon elephant’s trunk, are just like regular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, right? Not so! The tiny dimples in the fried puffed corn hold the spice powder better, leading to a more intense heat and flavor. With spicy standard-issue Cheetos and Doritos, you get odd ones with barely any spice at all, and a handful of “good ones” with a lot of powder caked on them.
The puffs are consistently, heavily seasoned. That’s the plus. The minor downside is that the airy, fried texture, while initially novel, can become a little nauseating as the pieces become consistently compacted in your back teeth.
3) Pop Fuego Popcorn
I bring you the incomparable Pop Fuego, basically Takis popcorn. I say “incomparable” because I literally don’t know what to compare it to — I vacillated between whether this was very good or very, very bad, and I ended up deciding that I like it. The MSG is cranked up to a 12, and the innocent, lightly pink color of the kernels belies a highly intense flavor roller coaster.
Maybe roller coaster isn’t the right word. It’s more like popping blackheads on your friend’s back after gym class: It’s gross, but you kind of love it, and you hate yourself for loving it. Pop Fuego kernels are not particularly heat-heavy but they’re almost hyperbolically tangy and acidic. Our resident social media guru, Lauren Lee, is convinced they ate a hole in one of her molars.
And yet, even as your teeth are melting, it’s hard to stop eating these. The mouth-puckering tang gives way to a pleasant crunch and modest heat, making it easy to unconsciously plow your way through a bag. True heat aficionados won’t be satisfied but your cousin from Connecticut who calls La Croix “spicy water” should be able to handle them.
4) Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
These are the standard bearer. The snack to which all others must be compared. The spicy breadwinner. Your workhorse of heat. That which steadily performs, day in and day out. Like the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, these are so reliably good, it’s easy to take their 2.42 lifetime ERA for granted.
But that would be a mistake, because these have it all: heat, texture, crunch and flavor. As well as an inspiring origin story. Ricardo Montañez, who was working at Frito-Lay as a janitor, approached the CEO with an idea — what if you made spicy Cheetos? Basing it on the elote model of corn, cheese, chili and lime, Montañez began testing the product in stores in East L.A and soon realized he had a hit on his hands. Years and many millions in sales later, Flamin’ Hot products are everywhere and Montañez is a vice president at the company. That’s pretty cool, right?
5) (tie) Takis Fuego
Takis (or “taquis”) are the benchmark of that super sharp, wince-inducing lime flavor that covers many of these spicy snacks. They’ve got a good heat component with an equally sharp tang to complement it. Takis are moderately thick tortilla chips rolled into small cylinders. Is it my absolute favorite way to convey flavor? Not really, but penne isn’t my favorite pasta shape, either. I do, however, appreciate the way Takis could help solve our plastic problem by doubling as a single-use straw while making everything taste like a michelada as an added benefit.
5) (tie) Doritos Dinamita
With its Dinamitas, Doritos creates its own cylindrical Takis-like snack. The flavor has a nice balance of lime and potent heat. They’re really neck-and-neck with Takis, but what’s nice about these is that they’re not quite as punishingly salty, which gives the zing of the lime and the sting of the chili better chances to showcase themselves.
7) Turbos Flamas
The Turbos Flamas are like spiral-shaped Takis, with more of a corn flavor and slightly less of the spice-lime coating. The spiral is a more pleasurable munching experience texturally, and the flavor of corn in these is more prominent. There’s a pretty substantial heat in these that sneaks up behind you, like your jury service date or Tax Day. Once it arrives, your complacency melts away and you’re left dealing with the consequences.
8) Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Puffcorn
We typically associate cartoon characters influencing kids to consume unhealthy things with breakfast cereals — the Cocoa Puffs cuckoo bird, the Trix rabbit, etc. But Chester Cheetah is one of the few recognizable cartoon characters that represent salty snacks, so he’s got a lot riding on his shoulders. He wears sunglasses no matter the time of day, has an aging-jazz-man vibe and says things like, “Slick, Daddy-o!”
His predicament is simple yet familiar: He wants delicious, cheesy Cheeto-branded snacks but is consistently denied them by a Cheetah-hating public. He’d buy them himself, but when was the last time you saw a cheetah carrying money? You’d think the fastest land mammal could find a way to snatch a bag or two from an unsuspecting public but no, he’s constantly foiled.
With the Flamin’ Hot Puffcorn, it’s easy to see where the obsession comes from. Puffcorn, which, save for its uneven, round-ish shape, is not at all like popcorn, texturewise falls somewhere between a Cheeto puff and a marshmallow. It’s oddly addicting. The corn puffs melt in your mouth practically without chewing. They’re not very fiery, but the eating experience is akin to something like eating spicy cereal. The dark horse of the Flamin’ Hot world.
9) Xxtra Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Fun fact: There’s a market, apparently, for Cheetos that are shaped like things. Take this one, which is shaped like Super Mario, claims the buyer. Or this one, which someone thinks resembles the late gorilla Harambe. The point is, there are some dumb people out there.
These Xxtra Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (the extra “x” stands for Xxtra spicy!) are, as advertised, very spicy. But regular Flamin’ Hot are, frankly, better. There’s a certain balance between flavor and heat that’s desirable, and this one just tastes a bit too much like chili powder. The heat isn’t unmanageable, it’s just not worth what you’re giving up in the exchange. Once spiciness becomes a goal in and of itself, we’ve lost our way as a country.
10) Zapp’s Spicy Cajun Crawtators
The inclusion of Zapp’s on this list is a little incongruous, maybe, but as they’ve been selling spicy chips since 1985, it didn’t feel right to leave them out. The quality of the Crawtators is very good — thick, crunchy and with a modest heat. The slightly fishy crawdad flavor isn’t too strong and complements the Cajun spices nicely. They’re not what I’ll reach for when I want to break a sweat, but this is a quality chip.
11) Doritos Tapatío
The main thing I want to say here is this: Tapatío is better than Cholula. Neither packs much of a punch heatwise, but I find Tapatío to be garlickier, saltier and tangier than its cousin. Created in the 1970s in the tiny city of Maywood, (just southwest of downtown Los Angeles) by a Mexican immigrant, Jose-Luis Saavedra Sr., its motto is, “Es una salsa … muy salsa.” It’s a sauce that is very saucy. Tough to argue with the Confucian simplicity of those words.
As for the chips — they taste, expectedly and pleasingly, like Tapatío. Not too much, not too little, and they’re not particularly spicy. They’re good eating, but if you’re looking for a bag full of pain, these don’t deliver.
12) Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Limón
The lime taste of these Flamin’ Hot Cheetos is relatively tame compared with Takis — that could be good or bad, depending on what you’re looking for. Takis are more pure chili and lime — the Cheetos obviously have a cheese component, which goes fine with the citric acid tang. Final ruling: The Takis family of products are superior if you’re really looking for something sour to suck on. Otherwise, these will do.
13) Zapp’s Hotter ‘N Hot Jalapeño
The spiciest of the Zapp’s offerings (another I tried, Voodoo Heat, was nice but not spicy) taste convincingly of jalapeño pepper with a consistent, spreading burning worthy of a round of penicillin. Zapp’s chips have great texture and convincing flavor — they’re a top-notch snacking chip, if you can find them in your area — but these will not satisfy the hard-core spiceheads out there.
14) Sí Señor Charritos Sticks Extreme
The flavoring adheres to the sticks — which are a little like rough-textured shoestring potatoes made from a Frito-like corn product — and provides a good balance of chili and spice. Necessary snacking? No. Worth a spin? Sí, señor.
15) Flamin’ Hot Ruffles
These taste a bit like a spicy version of the cheddar and sour cream Ruffles, — but didn’t get much “flaming” or “hot.” There’s a mild kick, but nothing to mukbang about. All the same, they taste good, and I certainly deem them purchase-worthy. Remember the cousin from Connecticut I mentioned above? Buy these for her mom.
16) Takis Nitro
Whoa. These supposedly taste like habanero and lime but — SURPRISE — they’re sweet, approaching something like a lime Jolly Rancher in flavor. The aftertaste includes a slight medicinal pungency, like a freshly scoured hospital room. They definitely grab your attention, but I’m not sure I could eat more than a handful.
17) Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Fries
If these are your thing, then OK, but I’m not sold on them. Tastewise these “fries,” which resemble actual fries about as closely as this dog in a spider costume resembles an actual spider, have a displeasing aftertaste of potato flakes. These taste pretty heavily of cheese, and there’s a modest heat component.
18) Flamin’ Hot Munchies Snack Mix
If one thing is good, multiple good things together is even better, right? Sometimes you mix peanut butter and chocolate and get a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. But sometimes you combine Guns N’ Roses’ Slash and Duff McKagan with Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland and get the ultra-crapola band Velvet Revolver.
This Munchies mix, I think, leans slightly toward the latter. The components — Doritos, Cheetos, Sun Chips and Rold Gold pretzels — are all fine in their own right. Together, dredged with hot seasoning, they’re less good than they would be individually. The spice doesn’t really have any legs, and much of the heat is absorbed by the starchy pretzels. Pass.
19) Doritos Flamas
These are Takis in Dorito form, essentially, and while they’re passable, they’re nothing exceptional. The chili and lime flavor is solid, but you’ll find punchier versions elsewhere. If you’re looking for something like a less-good Taki, though, I suppose I could fathom buying these.
20) Flamin’ Hot Fritos
These don’t taste bad, especially if you like the assertively corn-forward taste of a regular Frito, but I’m not really sure what to make of them. They are light on heat, leading to what ultimately seems like a weakened barbecue chip — they’re less “Flamin’ Hot” than “oddly underseasoned.” Like the final “Game of Thrones” season, Flamin’ Hot Fritos are coasting on reputation, and seem a little meandering and pointless.
21) Flamin’ Hot Lays
Flamin’ Hot Lays are basically a gussied-up barbecue potato chip. They taste of ketchup and liquid smoke, lacking most of the fire of your typical Flamin’ Hot selections. It’s a perfectly decent chip. But it’s tough to get excited about, like the Toronto Raptors’ championship once you realize how happy it made Drake.
22) Paqui Haunted Ghost Pepper Chips
The bad: The actual flavor of these is not very good. The good: Holy Toledo, these things are spicy. And I mean they are very spicy, i.e., do not give these to your tuna-noodle-casserole-eating Midwestern parents unless you want a lot of tears and apologies later.
The spice hits hard, and if you’re not careful while eating these, you might inhale some of the powdered spice, which produces a low-key “I just got pepper-sprayed” feeling. But again, aside from an unimpressive, slightly peppery flavor, these don’t taste like much.
23) Takis Crunchy Fajita
What happens to a sizzling platter of fajitas when it goes into the flavor factory and comes out as a chip? Apparently nothing good: These taste primarily of salt and dried beef — what I imagine sucking on a beef bouillon cube would be like. It’s all fine and good if you’re, say, a deer in search of a salt lick, but as a human, I did not enjoy.
24) Hot & Spicy Cheez-Its
There’s a series of Cheez-Its commercials in which an “immature” wheel of cheese cracks lame jokes at the doctor’s office. That wheel of cheese, we’re told, is not fit to be used, as Cheez-Its uses only “mature” cheese. Later in the commercial, a more mature cheese wheel is seen complimenting the doctor and noting what a lovely day it is.
The mature cheese is pretty lame, in other words, and maybe that’s why these sort of suck. A little more wackiness is needed. While they taste slightly of pepper, there’s no spice to speak of. They taste like regular Cheez-Its dipped in a hot sauce for children.
25) El Sabroso Blazin’ Hot Cheese Crunchies
Well, if you can’t have the trademark to “Flamin’ Hot®,” you may as well take “Blazin’ Hot®.” If these feel like a weak, disappointing version of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, it’s because they are. Not that there’s anything wrong with being derivative — sometimes it can actually be better than what preceded it. Look at NSYNC; look at Aristotle; look at “The Godfather Part II.”
So imitation can frequently be more than flattery. But that’s not the case here. The flavor is weak, a palimpsest of the fiery, cheesy goodness it’s mimicking. The heat and cheese in these just don’t really sing: Someone at the factory needs to crank up the MSG or something.
26) Flamin’ Hot Funyuns
This was the big disappointment of the group. As a child, I loved the occasional gross, onion-ring-shaped Funyun, a portmanteau of “fun” and “onion,” two words that are rarely seen together in the same sentence. But the onion-powder flavor of a Funyun just doesn’t jibe well with the hot flavoring for whatever reason, leading to a snack that’s neither here nor there. It’s not very spicy nor is it very oniony. Less fun than a regular Funyun.
27) Andy Capp’s Hot Fries
Ah, Andy Capp. Horrible, drunk, violent Andy Capp. Always at the pub and skipping out on his tab, getting home late and perennially unemployed, and with the ever-present cigarette sticking out of his mouth. It was one of the comics I would actually actively avoid when I was reading the newspaper as a kid (along with Brenda Starr and Beetle Bailey), and I never understood why this unfunny creation would ever have his own line of snacks.
But he does. And they aren’t very good. There’s a mild heat to these, and a spice mixture that tastes unpleasantly of powdered tomatoes. Maybe they like these in northeast England? But we’ve got better options stateside.
28) Trader Joe’s Ghost Pepper Potato Chips
I do not like Trader Joe’s. Despite widespread adoration and support for the German-owned chain, I am not charmed. Nor am I charmed by these chips. They are weak. These are made from ghost peppers? More like Casper the Friendly Ghost peppers, because these are some of the mildest chips I’ve ever eaten! (*extends hand for high five*) These are oddly sweet and possess virtually no heat whatsoever. Thumbs down.
29) Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
With the Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, there’s a bit of a negotiation going on. As with Snackwells and TCBY frozen yogurt, you’re trying to get something for nothing. Can I have delicious cake and cookies and ice cream without ingesting fat and sugar? Sure, brands tell us, you absolutely can. Except, you really can’t.
The “Snackwell Effect” documents that consumers with environmentally friendly washers and dryers wash more clothes than they ordinarily would, fully negating the energy-saving effects. The point is, the mere fact that a snack is low-fat is not ipso facto a good thing: The snack must be judged on its own merits, as you’re probably going to end up eating much more of the snack than you would its non-diet version.
And Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are bad. They taste bad. They taste like crumpled up paper that was put in the oven and mixed with a tall glass of crunchy air. All of the fried deliciousness of the original snack is utterly lost. There’s one advantage, and one only, as far as I can see: The lack of flavor in the Cheeto itself allows the Flamin’ Hot spice to pop more, giving the illusion of greater heat. If you must purchase these, I recommend sucking the flavor off, then discarding the actual Cheetos — a proven way to spare yourself the extra calories.
30) Trader Joe’s Spicy Cheese Crunchies
OK, Trader Joe’s, you want some more of me? Again, unless you’re an urban-dwelling 20-something who lives off cheap wine and frozen food (and I realize that may be a lot of you), I just don’t see why people love Trader Joe’s. I don’t like the bad produce. I don’t like the fact that if I want to buy something normal, such as Heinz ketchup or Cheerios, I have to settle for their crappy knockoffs. And, despite the fact that David on “Schitt’s Creek” does the exact same thing at Rose Apothecary and he can literally do no wrong, I don’t like the fact that all of their stuff is TRADER JOE’S BRAND everything, as if there’s some giant factory in Monrovia that simultaneously churns out fat-free yogurt, flatbread pizza, peanut-butter-filled pretzels and spaghetti sauce. And I super don’t like the racist-ass Trader Ming’s and Trader Joe-San’s labels they put on their Chinese and Japanese food.
But I digress. Back to the snacks. In flavored salty snacks, you want a seamless blending of THING and POWDER THAT FLAVORS THE THING. In properly done snacks, you don’t notice this marriage of flavors. It’s like watching actors in a movie — if you’re thinking about the acting, they’re not good actors.
And this is not a good snack. The whole time eating these, I think, “It tastes like someone took some flavorless baked corn puffs and rolled them in some vaguely sweet paprika that expired in 2012.” Do better, Trader Joe’s. Or rather, do better, whatever mystery company actually makes these!