LA's Got Hot Sauce In Its Bag
There's the quiet moment, as the dollop of hot sauce lands on your tongue, when it feels like you've stepped out of a plane at 10,000 feet. You take a sharp inhale and the eye-opening euphoria hits. For a flash, you can see everything. The sky, the ground, the curvature of the earth, the chiles grown, roasted and blended. Then, you remember — it's a long way down. You oscillate between panic and exhilaration, flavor and flame, pleasure and pain, as you plummet to Earth.
If you're this kind of masochist, you're in luck. Los Angeles's hot sauce scene is on fire, with new companies and restaurants joining staples like Huy Fong's sriracha and celeb offerings like Dexter Holland's Gringo Bandito.
Some are built to complement food, to subtly kick up a dish's intensity. Others are more assertive, meant to turn your workaday lunch into a vintage GoGurt commercial. Here, arranged alphabetically, is a selection of some of our favorite local hot sauces.
House Tigre Sauce by All Day Baby
It's a trope, sure, but a secret recipe is undeniably cool, and the hot sauce from ultra-vibey cafe All Day Baby is nothing if not hip. Chef Johnathan Whitener uses an Italian chile he won't name and a proprietary blend of spices to amp up the ruddy orange Tigre Sauce, which is named for ADB's famously fierce co-owner, Lien Ta. The sauce is particularly acidic, bright and tart, making it a killer foil for Whitener's buttery biscuit sandwiches and his burritos, which are the diameter of a cypress trunk. It also works well in sauces and stocks. Whitener likes to use it as the base for a spicy vinaigrette.
Chile Kut by Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza isn't new, but no hot sauce conversation is complete without the orange sheen of their Yucatecan masterpieces. The classic habanero is lovely but we're partial to the Chile Kut, which introduces literal fire to the equation — the habaneros and garlic in it are charred. The ingredient list is tight, just habanero, garlic, salt, olive oil and vinegar, allowing the delicate, floral peppers, set off by smoky flakes of burnt chile skin, to shine. The sauce tastes elemental but not simple. It has a powerful heat, the kind that envelopes every bite in a warm, smoky glow.
When she was little, chef Danielle Duran-Zeca sucked her thumb. To break her of the habit, her mom dunked her thumb in hot sauce. The strategy backfired. She has loved hot sauce ever since. She spent years tinkering with her grandmother's salsa cruda recipe, replacing serranos with habaneros and turning it into El Chorro, a lean, mean, heat-spewing machine. Electric orange from all those chiles, it's punchy, citric and tinged with sweetness from the tomatoes, a holdover from grandma. It has plenty of heat but isn't overpowering. Duran-Zeca uses it in dishes and places a jar on the table at her MexItalian pop-up, Amiga Amore, in Highland Park.
HiLi Hot Sauce by Highly Likely
There may be no partnership more perfect than breakfast and hot sauce, and the geniuses at West Adams cafe Highly Likely have crafted the perfect one to go with their sandwiches, toasts, burritos and bowls. HiLi Hot Sauce isn't especially spicy but it brings plenty of Fresno chile flavor with a touch of garlic, smoked paprika and the telltale smack of fermentation. They leave the sauce a little chunky, giving it sticking power next to the cheese sauce and avocado in their standout breakfast burrito.
Jah Mama Sauce
Jah Negast Landis is not a chef. He's better known in the music industry, where he plays drums and produces for major acts under the name Roofeeo. In 2020, when touring was off the table, he returned to food and, in particular, to his late mother's Caribbean-style pepper sauce. He worked through quarantine to put his spin on the sauce, which is built on a sturdy foundation of scotch bonnet peppers. Jah Mama Sauce is electric yellow and tastes as sharp as it looks. It's floral and tart up front. Like Dom Toretto hitting the NOS at just the right moment, the heat kicks in late then sticks around with a touch of sweetness, like the whole Fast and Furious family.
Max's Yummy Hot Sauce
Not every hot sauce needs to crack the whip of spice across your tender palate. Food stylist Max Rappaport's fermented creation, Max's Yummy Hot Sauce, fits neatly into that gap. It's piquant without the burn and doesn't overwhelm dishes. Bright red from Fresno chiles, it lands on your tongue with savoriness instead of spice. There's a salty and garlicky fermented tang lurking underneath and the late-arriving tingle of chiles lingers just long enough.
Speaking In Tongues by SBEZ
SBEZ Hot Sauces are the side project of Spencer and Sabrina Bezaire, owners of Eszett in Silver Lake. They churn out a vast array of hot sauces from their restaurant kitchen, many of which highlight fruits such as kumquats, blood orange and fermented peaches. Lately, we've been digging Speaking In Tongues, a green hot sauce heavy on charred onion and meyer lemon. It has a vegetal wallop followed by a spicy lashing of serrano and bird chiles before landing on sweet-tart meyer lemon. The sauces come in squeeze pouches with wild political imagery, imagine a Capri Sun on acid, but beware the temptation to squeeze directly into your mouth. That's a recipe for ulcers.
Sambal Evie by Cash Only Productions
Cash Only Productions is an adventurous, food-obsessed collective of artists, chefs and researchers founded in 2019 to support independent, often cash only (hence the name) restaurants. Over the last year, they've added members with new talents and branched out. Sambal Evie is a recipe from Brian Moeljadi and his mother, Evie, based on her childhood in Indonesia, Singapore and Hong Kong. After an extensive testing process to scale up Evie's recipe, they created a distinctive, powerful sambal. The sauce is a master class in balance. It's funky as hell from the belacan fermented shrimp powder, which is offset by makrut lime and underscored by habaneros, Thai chilis and Korean gochugaru. It's great as a topping for pizza or scrambled eggs but it's strong enough to stand on its own when scooped over short grain rice and steamed vegetables.
Zab's Hot Sauce
Another super cool way to build a hot sauce is around a rare chili, as Zab's founders Miles Soboroff, PJ McNall and Josh Morgan did. Shrouded in mystery, the Datil pepper was supposedly brought to the U.S. in the 1700s by Spanish colonists from Minorca. It's produced almost exclusively in St. Augustine, Florida, America's oldest city, because it doesn't grow well outside the area. People have tried. With a unique sweetness and a late-onset heat, it's also the focus of Zab's Hot Sauce. The Datil pepper is about as spicy as a habanero but it's more of a lip-tingler than a tongue-slapper. McNall, the chef of the trio, added fresh produce to give the sauce texture and versatility, and it works well as a base for braises and other sauces. Zab's is still just the three of them, getting chilis from across the country then cooking and bottling them in a commercial kitchen in L.A., bringing the mythology of this pepper to a new coast.