The secret behind Mexican restaurant Sazón's success as a four-time first-place winner of the "Red Sauce, Restaurant Category" (Hall of Flame status, y'all) at the annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival is obvious, if you ask co-owner Margarito Aranda Jr.
"It's gotta have balance," he says, "[in the] flavor profile as well as the heat. If I'm not gonna taste my dinner because that salsa burned a hole in my mouth, it defeats the purpose."
When Aranda and his wife Maria Cecilia opened the eatery in 2006 after meeting at Curra's Grill (he was general manager, she was prep cook), they created a menu of multiregional, authentic Mexican cuisine with only one expected ATX Tex-Mex standard added: free chips and salsa. But they consciously veered away from the "all garlic, all cumin" salsa recipes "where you don't taste any of the fresh peppers" found at many local fusion joints. During a recent visit to the Southside mainstay, Aranda gave "Snapshot" a glimpse of the process and history behind their special house blend.
A tomato base is packed with jalapeños sourced from Fredericksburg's Basse Orchard and Ranch, plus chipotle chiles soaked in adobo sauce, which conjures the salsa's lingering kick.
And, of course, they add a secret spice blend, the only element the owners aren't willing to reveal. "Every table's going to have it, so we said, 'Let's take some pride in it,'" says Aranda. "It's our little Frankenstein."
All of that's puréed, then more fresh tomatoes and garnish are added, resulting in the chunkier finish to the 4.5-gallon batches they produce daily.
Each batch requires a taste test: "This one might not be spicy enough [for the Hot Sauce Festival]," says Aranda. "We'll change the recipe between now and Sunday."
Sazón always offers spicier, non-menu options available upon request. Pictured: a dozen sauces made with peppers of varying heat. One mixes serranos, fresh jalapeños, roasted jalapeños, and fresh habanero: "We'll normally serve that in an 8-oz. cup and I've never seen anyone finish it, ever," says Aranda.
Aranda does all the talking, but says the kitchen is really ruled by Cecilia (left), whose previous profession as an in-home chef in Morelia (her hometown) and Mexico City gave her the "sazón" the restaurant is named after: "In Mexico, there's an expression, kind of like when you say someone has a green thumb," he says. "When you're referring to someone's ability in the kitchen, you say, 'Tiene buen sazón' – he or she has that right touch." Essentially, Cecilia's the salsa mastermind, the flavor to Aranda's fire: "It all goes back to balance."
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