Austin is a serious salsa town, and we take pride in the fact that the annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival is a major contributing factor: Many of Austin's top Mexican restaurants wage the battle for salsa supremacy every year; some of our grocery stores devote entire aisles to salsas; locally made salsas are a popular item at our farmers' markets; and commercial bottlers encouraged by festival wins sometimes achieve regional and even national distribution. This year's fest offers some great information for salsa aficionados. We've included a review of Festival co-founder Robb Walsh's new Hot Sauce Cookbook (see our blog for info on the book-signing party), and three talented local chefs will present salsa preparation demos with tasty samples during Sunday's event. In addition, Chronicle Food section contributors Kate Thornberry, Kenny Pailes, Gracie Salem, Anna Toon, and I share our views on some of the best bites around Salsa Town these days.
– Virginia B. Wood
Alabama native, musician, and 15-year food industry veteran George Milton likes it hot. Yes, folks, his Yellowbird Sauce will make you sweat. Fed up with the ho-hum burn of Sriracha, not to mention the added sugar and preservatives, Milton decided to make his own hot sauce; like Sriracha, but spicier and more natural. What started as a personal pursuit to re-create and improve upon the much beloved rooster sauce, Milton's habanero sauce soon became so popular with family and friends that the next step was inevitable. He moved to a commercial kitchen and started bottling. His girlfriend, Erin Link, designed the logo as well as the website, and after receiving all the proper permits, Yellowbird officially took flight.
Made with habanero peppers, onions, carrots, tangerines, and limes, Yellowbird Sauce is sweet and smoky and fiery as hell. The produce is fresh, and the sauce is aged for optimal flavor "mellowing." Already gluten-free, the brand hopes to soon be certified organic and non-GMO verified. Now a fixture on the tables of Gourmands Neighborhood Pub and Counter Cafe, the brand was designed as a table condiment, perfectly paired with eggs, burgers, pizza, and anything in need of a swollen lip, nostril-flaring kick.
In addition to Gourmands and Counter Cafe, you can find Yellowbird at Hillside Farmacy, Thom's Market, Wheatsville Co-op, and featured atop homemade kettle chips at this year's Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival. As a result of increased demand, a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a production facility will soon be in the works. While Milton did not share the gory details of his most horrific encounter with capsaicin fingers, suffice it to say, it burned for days. – Anna Toon
Greg Cook started making his signature salsa purely for his own consumption. Extremely overweight and suffering from severe diabetes, Cook had a difficult time sticking to diets because he quickly got bored with bland foods and invariably began cheating. As his health worsened, Cook reflected that his relatives in Peru seemed to live long, full lives in spite of their tendency to develop diabetes. "In Peru, they eat a lot of ceviche," Cook explains. "They use a lot of lemon and lime in everything, and they eat a lot of fermented foods."
Cook decided that he might have a chance if he ate more like his Peruvian relations. He set out to make a salsa for himself that was half Peruvian, half Texan. Combining the avocados and tomatillos of Texas with the red onion and citrus juices of Peru, Cook went through years of perfecting his recipe. All the while, he put it on nearly everything he ate. "It adds not only flavor, but tons of beneficial nutrients and enzymes to everything," Cook enthuses. "It's great on eggs in the morning, salad at lunch, and over fish or chicken at night."
Bright and fresh, every ingredient in Tomatillo Heaven Salsa is raw and vegan. Each jar contains at least an entire avocado (sometimes more) as well as tomatillos, garlic, red onion, lime, lemon, and cilantro. It packs a powerful punch of flavor while remaining cool and refreshing, and it manages to spruce up the flavor of whatever you put it on, rather than overpowering it. Available in Hot, Medium, and Not Hot, even the chiles take on a supporting role and accent rather than dominate.
"It has taken about eight years to perfect the recipe," says Cook. "Using it I have lost about 150 pounds." Naturally, friends and family began asking Cook to please make his tomatillo salsa for them as well. Now Cook and his wife Melissa are making enough to sell commercially. It is available at Barton Creek Farmers Market, Mueller Farmers Market, and the Cedar Park Farmers Market for $8 a jar, as well as at various retail locations listed at www.tomatilloheavensalsa.com. – Kate Thornberry
One of the first things most people notice about Chihuahuas is that they can be yappy, feisty little things. Salsa entrepreneur G.W. Raesz certainly noticed that about his pet Chihuahua, Freddie. "He had a tendency to snap at people until we got him better socialized," Raesz explains. Freddie's snappy demeanor may have required some doggy etiquette classes, but it made him the perfect standard bearer for the company trademark. "We wanted a catchy name and logo that would really stand out, something people would remember," recalls Raesz. Though Freddie isn't allowed to make personal appearances at tastings, his picture in a jaunty sombrero with a chile pepper in his holster does make a memorable logo, hence My Chihuahua Bites.
G.W. Raesz was so encouraged by his first and third place wins in the Individual Red Sauce category of the 20th Annual Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival, he started the process toward commercial preparation not long after. He was back as a Commercial Bottler the very next year, with both his Red Sauce and his Blanco Party Dip taking second place in the Red Sauce and Special Variety categories, respectively, in the Commercial Bottler division. The party dip starts with the spicy and delicious fresh red sauce base and smooths things out with some mayonnaise and sour cream. Together, they make a very appealing team. My Chihuahua Bites red sauces are now available in most area H-E-B's, but the Blanco Party Dip is still not in store refrigerated cases. That's a mystery to me. I snagged a little bucket of the delectable dip at the Dripping With Taste Festival in Dripping Springs last September and have been pining for more of that creamy deliciousness ever since. They can't get it to my neighborhood store fast enough to suit me.
– Virginia B. Wood
Tacodeli's Salsa Doña is Austin's favorite food puzzle. From its very name, foreign in construct, appearance, and pronunciation, to the presumptively simple list of ingredients that combine to create a complex palate of flavors, many loyal admirers have tried in vain to crack the sauce's secret code. Is it the ratio of oil to salt that is key? Are the jalapeños and garlic roasted before they are pureed? Is there an unknown, alien fifth element?
Arguably our city's most famous condiment yet to be sold in a grocery store, part of Salsa Doña's appeal is that it is so universally complimentary. Fresh batches are made daily and served cold in Tacodeli's three restaurants, where the bright green salsa illuminates nearly any item on the menu that isn't already dressed in red sauce. Regulars know to fill up their plastic ramekins at self-serve salsa pumps or snag a packaged-to-order pint for $7.50. The best pairings include the marinated portobellos of the Space Cowboy, shredded pork of El Conquistador, chunks of white meat in the Frontera Fundido Chicken, and crisp slices of bacon in the Otto (especially when enhanced with an egg, an off-menu breakfast creation dubbed "The Craig").
One word of caution: Though it deserves world-class admiration, this creamy, grassy elixir is not meant to be sampled like a fine wine, gently slurped between the lips and gargled for a fine examination of its hidden aromas. For, even in small doses, Doña delivers her goods in a clenched fist, swinging like an uppercut from jaw to nose, leaving behind tears and a sweating face flush with pulsing capillaries. Every taste is a searing and delicious reminder that she does what only the best hot sauces manage to do: feature the intricate flavors of ripe chiles without stripping them of the capsaicin that makes them so unique; and so very, very addicting. – Kenny Pailes
Once Austin's food truck trailblazer and now with nine local storefronts and growing, Torchy's Tacos began bottling the popular Diablo Sauce about four years ago. The tongue-tingling blend of habanero peppers, tomatoes, and vinegar will be entered in the Hot Sauce Festival competition again this year, in both the Special Variety and Commercial Bottler categories. "We've entered before and never placed, which has bummed me out," says Torchy's owner, Michael Rypka. "It's really good. The bottle is really cool, and it fits with our brand."
Rypka started making the scorcher sauce in Torchy's first year, and he says it lends itself to bottling because the vinegar allows the sauce to maintain a safe ph balance. According to him, it's naturally shelf stable. "Otherwise you have to boil it for 30 minutes, which compromises flavor." Diablo Hot Sauce is available by the bottle for $6.95 at all Torchy's locations (www.torchystacos.com) and Downtown at Serve Gourmet Gadgets and Goods for $8.00 (www.servegourmet.com). Win or lose at this year's festival, local taqueria mogul Rypka is clearly a happy guy. As he told me upon answering my call, "I'm living the taco dream!" – Gracie Salem
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