The subversive little hot sauce that took on a life of its own
When life gave chef Spencer Bezaire lemons and a shutdown, he made citrusy hot sauce. He also made a batch filled with local kumquats, a fermented-peach variety with Kentucky bourbon and one tinged with blood oranges — and they helped keep his restaurant afloat.
Eszett, a neighborhood wine bar and restaurant in Silver Lake, had the misfortune of opening shortly before the pandemic. Like thousands of other restaurateurs across Los Angeles, Bezaire and his wife, Sabrina, suddenly lost their income and what felt like their future. Weeks later, still unable to reopen the restaurant, Bezaire launched his next project.
Made in the same coal-and-wood oven that turns out roughly 70% of Eszett’s menu, Sbez Hot Sauce delivers deep flavor thanks to charred peppers, blistered garlic and cheffy infusions of seasonal fresh fruit — some from local farmers markets, some dropped off by neighbors who’ve become fans of the fiery product line. What started as a passing interest years ago became something of a lifeline for the Bezaires during the pandemic: a way to keep the lights on in their fledgling restaurant.
It wasn’t long before Sbez took on a life of its own.
“Right when we got shut down, we launched one to help make rent,” Bezaire said. “It was like a rent party but in hot sauce form. That was kind of like the tester of it: Test the waters, see if it took off, see if people were into it.”
They were, thanks in part to throat-punching levels of heat, but that wasn’t the only draw: Consistency is key for Sbez, which helps the line stand out in a sea of sauce. Bezaire conceived of his first batch while cooking at L&E Oyster Bar, dreaming of a hot sauce with enough body that it would stick to an oyster, as opposed to sliding off the meat and into the brine.
To achieve this, sometimes more than 100 pounds of produce are used in each batch — half the peppers are usually roasted first and the other half go straight into the boiling pot — with ingredients such as habaneros, pink peppercorn, bird’s eye chiles, roasted pineapple, charred green onion and ghost peppers. It simmers together for two to three hours, further breaking down the peppers’ pectin and coaxing out flavor.
From there, Bezaire emulsifies the sauce in two rounds: first by hand with an immersion blender, then in tedious small batches in a small Vitamix to ensure a smooth consistency.
Filling the kind of disposable silver squeeze bags one might find in a cyclist’s pannier or a trip to space, Sbez Hot Sauce: The Make Rent Edition was portable enough to ship across the country and light enough for Bezaire to deliver the pouches by bike, along with bottles of Eszett’s back stock of wine, in the early days of the pandemic.
Now those $20 silver pouches are found in a range of flavors and across specialty shops, including Now Serving in Chinatown, Butcher & Booze in Glendale and Wine & Eggs in Atwater, as well as Wine & Rock Shop in Yucca Valley.
You can find a jar of chili oil on the tables at countless restaurants and noodle shops in the San Gabriel Valley, but in the last two years, Los Angeles has experienced a chile sauce revolution.
Each Sbez sauce gets a spice-level rating, but it’s impossible to control how hot they get due to seasonality and the spice variance that’s inherent in peppers’ nature — much to the dismay of thrill-seekers who ask Spencer for his hottest variety.
“For people who are into hot sauce, the pain threshold is always higher than I think it is — their pain threshold is higher than I think it should be,” Bezaire said. “I like spicy food but I don’t like to overdo it, and I’m not necessarily a hot sauce fanatic, either. I’m looking at this like a fun hobby, like a fun juxtaposition of what we do at Eszett: I can have fun with it, it’s a little bit more shoot-from-the-hip, and we can do kind of subversive stuff.”
That subversion usually takes the form of a cartoonish sketch on the label, drawn by Bezaire himself, often depicting something like, say, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s head (2020 Vision); Justice Amy Coney Barrett with a forked tongue (Speaking in Tongues); or — the most popular Sbez variety — a woman sporting a can-I-speak-to-the-manager haircut, with a face that looks to be dissolving (the Karen Melter).
Sbez, from the proprietors of Eszett restaurant, wasn’t the only hot sauce to surface during the pandemic.
Some of the releases helped to raise funds for human-rights organizations or raise awareness for a cause. A portion of proceeds from the 2020 Vision was donated to groups such as Fair Fight, which rallies against voter suppression, while the Blood Orange (emblazoned with a likeness of Donald Trump) donated 100% of its proceeds to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The Blood Orange recently found new life in its rebranded form: the Free Britney-themed “It’s Hot Sauce, Bitch.”
One of Sbez’s top sellers, the kumquat-laced Too Small to Bail, drew attention to a dearth of government aid for small businesses during the pandemic. (“Hot enough that it will make you scream ‘HELP!’ loud enough that Washington might actually hear you,” the description reads.)
“We used it as a platform during the election period and the Black Lives Matter movement to raise money but also give people a good product in their hand. It was a twofold benefit,” Bezaire said. “It definitely helped us, but it also helped us feel good about contributing to something we might not otherwise have had the money to contribute to because of the pandemic.”
Now that COVID-19 cases are decreasing in L.A., Eszett is reopening on-site dining and the Bezaires are juggling how much they can grow the Sbez line. Eventually, Bezaire says, he’d like to hire help just for the hot sauce, freeing up his days off — which he often spends boiling pots of peppers.
“I think it would be helpful to grow it and to gain the tools necessary to grow it to a point where we’re in supermarkets and we’re on a larger scale, but as of right now, it’s just a dream we’re trying to achieve.”
Eszett, 3510 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 522-6323. sbezhotsauce.com
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