Dear Glutton: Preparing for the Hot Sauce Festival
Get ready for the heat with local sauces
I'm excited for the Hot Sauce Festival, but am a total Austin hot sauce noob. What are some local sauces I should get to know in preparation for the big day?
– Spice Cadet
If you're an Austinite who's a fan of food that fights back, the Chronicle's Hot Sauce Festival is pretty much unmissable. But a lot has happened since the festival started in 1990, when it was nothing more formal than a few pals holding a small contest. Today, the festival is a daylong, packed full event, with craft beers, food vendors, and live music, along with the requisite hot sauce tasting (pro tip: drink lots of water and eat lots of chips to cleanse your palate and keep your tongue from literally catching fire). It's a lot to catch up on! But, with a little work and preparation, I think we can get you all caught up to speed by the big day.
The first thing you have to consider is the current hot sauce situation in your own pantry. I'm assuming that since you took the trouble to sit down and write me a letter about correct hot sauce approaches that you have a pretty solid stock, but just in case, let me say a few words about methods.
There are three basic varietals of hot sauce: You have your vinegary sauces, your fruity sauces, and your smoky sauces. A well-rounded hot sauce collection should have examples of all three, and, fortunately for you, past winners of the competition are pretty evenly spaced across the board.
Setting aside individual winners, whose work is not commercially available (but who should definitely invite me over for dinner), perennial favorite Aztexan's Habanero Supreme sauce is a good place to start for acid-backed fire, using both vinegar and lime to pack a sour spicy punch. On the fruity front, you can't go wrong with Two Hot Mamas' salsa roja, with a well-rounded, sunny blend of tomatoes, cilantro, and onion. And for smoky, try out Austin Slow Burn's Jamaican jerk marinade, which OK, yes, is both smoky and sweet – the system's not perfect. You can pick up all three, and scout for a few more in-person recommendations, at the excellent and immaculately stocked Tears of Joy hot sauce shop.
Now that you're all stocked up at home, you're ready to gather some friends and hit up a few past winners from the local restaurant scene. Start out with some comparative breakfast taco chomping at Torchy's and Tacodeli, both past winners for their house sauce, before working up an appetite for your next meal with a long hike off the Spyglass entrance of the Greenbelt, right across from my favorite Tacodeli branch. Trudy's, the far and away record holder with 42 awards for both their green and red sauces between 1991 and 2004, is the perfect place to break for lunch. If you ask nicely, they'll give you a little ramekin of each to pour all over your chile relleno. If you're truly a professional, you can give yourself a walking around and digesting break, maybe take a nap, and then end the day with an extra-fiery meal at El Caribe, a charming neighborhood spot with kiddie pool sized margaritas and a full bar of (award-winning!) house-made hot sauces.
Good luck with your first Hot Sauce Festival, Spice! I'm sure you'll enjoy it. And who knows, maybe next year you can even be a judge! Drop me a line if you're interested; I know a guy.