The El Paso Connection

Longtime 'Austin Chronicle' Hot Sauce Festival Contest judges Henry and Fred Alvarado and Carlos Contreras

l-r: Henry Alvarado, Carlos Contreras, Fred Alvarado
l-r: Henry Alvarado, Carlos Contreras, Fred Alvarado (Photo by John Anderson)

What do a graphic artist, an occupational therapist, and a state information technology auditor have in common? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Brothers Henry and Fred Alvarado and their compadre Carlos Contreras grew up together in El Paso; they all moved to Austin in the early 1980s; they love to cook, eat, and party together (especially if chiles and premium tequilas are involved); and as Hot Sauce Contest preliminary judges since the first contest in 1991, they each have tasted about 4,500 hot-sauce entries (see box at right).

A Hot Sauce Family History

In contest-judging circles, the Alvarados and Contreras are known as "the El Paso Connection," and they come by their salsa calling naturally. As Fred puts it, "We were raised on hot sauce." They grew up as back-door neighbors, and Contreras and Fred have been close friends since they were 5 years old (Henry was a newborn at the time). "Henry and Fred's parents were like second parents to me," Contreras says. "I was orphaned at 13, and my older brother was looking after me, and I had to learn to cook. We're all just family."

The Alvarados' family hailed from New Mexico's Doña Ana County, just across the state line from El Paso. Fred remembers going with their grandfather to Hatch, N.M. "He'd gather up the grandkids and take us to pick chiles: It was cheaper if you picked them yourself. Then, back home, he'd roast the chiles outside. Our mother would make hot sauces and other dishes with the roasted chiles." Similarly, Contreras' family picked chiles at New Mexico State University. "The ag program there grew chiles; they'd open their fields, so you could come and pick."

In the best family tradition, the three regularly convene in Austin to cook and celebrate. "We buy ristras, and we'll make trays and trays of enchiladas, lots of dishes with chile colorado," Henry explains. "These are parties: We get together and cook all day, and then more people show up to eat. It always happens for Super Bowl and holidays. Cooking is fun for us. But you know, Mexican food in El Paso is different than Tex-Mex in Austin. They don't even use that term there. The chiles are different, and in El Paso you see a lot more tomatillos.

"We love seeing more and more chiles verdes entered in the contests. We didn't used to see them much here in Austin. Now you can buy them in Central Market. Green chiles have a totally different flavor profile than red ones."

What Do Preliminary Judges Do?

To fully appreciate the important role that preliminary judges play in the Hot Sauce Contest, you have to understand the judging logistics. Here's how it works: On the morning of the contest, the group of preliminary judges gathers to collectively taste every one of the hot sauces entered in the contest – the first heat, so to speak. Identified only by a number and category (homemade red, green, special variety, and pico de gallo and restaurant entries for the same four classifications), the Top 30 entries are selected by the preliminary judges. Then these 30 contenders are submitted to the celebrity panel for final evaluation and award designations.

The preliminary judges are a rotating but dedicated group of writers and other pepper-minded people. Over the years, they've included many Chronicle contributors, such as Pableaux Johnson, Jim Shahin, Robert Bryce, and Marion Winik, as well as other veterans like Dave Walsh, John Burnett, and Joe Nick Patoski. The celebrity judging panel (the ones with the cushy job and the greater glory) comprises contest founder Robb Walsh along with local and regional chefs and an occasional guest chef who's "not from here." The celebrity judging phase simply wouldn't be possible without the prior work by the intrepid preliminary team.

Way back at the beginning, Henry Alvarado worked at CompuAdd Corp. with Robb Walsh, who was Food editor for The Austin Chronicle and who'd accepted the San Antonio Current's challenge in 1991 to a hot-sauce throw-down between the two cities. Preliminary judges were needed; Henry agreed to participate, and 17 years later, he's still at it. For the second contest in 1992, Henry brought reinforcements in the form of Fred and Contreras, and all three have been on the job ever since.

How Do They Do It?

I met Fred and Henry Alvarado at the 2006 contest – my maiden voyage as a preliminary judge. I somehow had the good sense to sit down next to these two veteran tasters (Contreras missed his first contest that year), and they showed me the ropes about how to evaluate 300 fiery sauces within a couple of hours and still live to tell the tale.

Hot Sauce Contest Prelim Judges 1993: Clockwise from top left: Henry Alvarado, Fred Alvarado, Carlos Contreras, Wayne O'Connell, Phil Born, Kevin Combs, and Dave Walsh (center, seated)
Hot Sauce Contest Prelim Judges 1993: Clockwise from top left: Henry Alvarado, Fred Alvarado, Carlos Contreras, Wayne O'Connell, Phil Born, Kevin Combs, and Dave Walsh (center, seated) (Photo by Christine Galida)

Believe me, they've got their system down. "At the beginning, oohhh yes, we did get sick," Henry remembers, laughing. "Now we enjoy the judging, but the first few years, we suffered. We didn't understand that you really just need to take a tiny taste of each sauce. We would eat way too much of the entries, especially if we liked them. But we learned that it's all about pacing yourself." Fred agrees, recounting that on the Mondays after the contests, his colleagues at work would tease him with signs on the men's room door saying, "Reserved for Fred."

In addition to the pacing and tiny tastes, a reasonably full stomach is a critical component to successful judging. In the early days, when the contests were held at the old Farmers' Market on Burnet Road, there wasn't any food for the preliminary judges. "We just tasted sauces under the shade of a tree in the corner of the market," Contreras recalls. Today, the preliminary judging takes place in Cafe Serranos at Symphony Square, and the restaurant provides a fortifying buffet of migas, beans, enchiladas, tortillas, chips, and plenty of liquids. Experienced mentors heartily recommend "laying down a base" of food to help absorb the heat. Milk and ice cream are also available for requisite cooldowns.

During the preliminary rounds, the judges fall into a steady rhythm: As entries are relentlessly placed on the table one by one, they dip spoons or chips into each, make an assessment, pass it over, and move on to the next one. Bites of sauces are interspersed with bites of food, sips of iced tea or beer, and much pithy commentary. As the collective level of pepper-induced endorphins elevates, so does the mood in the room. Lots of laughter, story-swapping, and brow-mopping. The judges are flying. So many hot sauces, so little time.

Thanks for the Memories

As the El Paso Connection reminisces together about sauces and contests past, what seem to stick in everyone's minds are the losers more than the winners.

"We've had some pretty nasty salsas over the years," Henry admits. "I think the absolute worst was the one with coffee grounds. That was about six years ago. It was crunchy." Fred concurs: "Sometimes we have to play 'What is that?'" All agree that they detest Liquid Smoke. "You can smell it before you even taste it," says Contreras. "Why don't people just roast their chiles for the real smoky flavor?" And when asked about overused ingredients, they shout in unison, "Cumin! Cilantro! Black pepper!" Listen up, future contestants.

Several years ago, a visiting celebrity judge (who shall remain nameless) observed the preliminary judging and was overheard making disparaging remarks. The piqued judges decided on a little payback, so they added the worst-tasting sauce in with the batch of selected entries to go to the celebrity judging. Although the offending celebrity judge no longer participates, it's now an annual tradition for preliminary judges to slip in a big-time loser sauce for the celebrities' delectation. Just to keep things equitable.

All three guys say that special variety is their favorite of all the categories. "You have to keep an open mind," Fred says. "Mangoes. Peaches. Pineapple. Not traditional, but they can be really good." Henry agrees: "You never know what you'll be getting. And some of them can be a little, uh, out there." They try to recall the more unusual ingredients they've seen, coming up with cabbage, peanuts, corn, shrimp, coffee, and beets.

"We're all about flavor and balance; it's not just about heat," Fred says. Apparently, a few years ago, a memorably fiery habanero salsa completely knocked out the entire preliminary panel.

"We had to take a 20-minute break to recover," Contreras remembers. "We couldn't taste anything. Everyone just had to get up and walk around." Nonetheless, "Sweating is a sign of success for a hot sauce."

Henry Alvarado has the last word: "We don't claim to be experts; we just know what we like. And, everyone: Keep on coming out. It's fun. That why we keep doing it."

How Many Tastes of Hot Sauce?

How did we arrive at the estimated number of tastes ingested by Henry Alvarado, Carlos Contreras, and Fred Alvarado in the course of judging Hot Sauce Contests since 1991? Well, each of them has missed only one judging of the 16 years of the contest. Contest founder Robb Walsh and coordinator Elizabeth Derczo estimate an average of 300 entries per year. Thus, 15 years multiplied by 300 entries per year equals 4,500. Multiply that by three guys, and that's a lot of hot sauce down the hatch in the name of duty. And just think of the numbers of chips.

A Favorite Hot Sauce

So what hot sauces do the El Paso Connection eat during the rest of the year, when they're not evaluating other people's creations at the Hot Sauce Contest? Upon being asked for a recipe they all liked, they laughed at the idea of choosing just one. But choose they did, and here it is. (Try it, but don't even think about entering it in the contest – they'd know.)

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