30 Years of Hot Sauce Festival Creates Many Memories

Reminisce with event staff, judges, and fans during this year’s break from the heat

1996: Hurricane Dolly drenched the fest at Central Market. But, as Elizabeth Derczo wrote, "The rain couldn't dampen anyone's fiery hot passion to be there." (Photo by John Anderson)

Elizabeth Derczo

"The only unpleasantness that we ever had was at the Travis County Farmers' Market on Burnet Road. A guy got really drunk, and when the event was over, was really mad that he hadn't won, was berating us and wouldn't leave. He had it in his head that the contest was rigged. I have no idea how we could have done that, but he was convinced. My hero that day was Bryan Beck from KGSR. He wouldn't leave until that guy did.

“Everyone was so happy to see rain! They wouldn’t leave, even when the bowls of salsa were filling up with water. Then it stopped and everyone who left came back!” – Elizabeth Derczo

In 1994, we officially proclaimed ourselves the largest hot sauce festival in the world. In 1996 we held the event at Central Park where Central Market is (pre-Seton Heart Hospital). That day there was a drought-breaking rain. Everyone was so happy to see rain! They wouldn't leave, even when the bowls of salsa were filling up with water. Then it stopped and everyone who left came back! You can't douse a pepperhead with hurricane-force rain. It only encourages them.

There was a giant live oak at the northeast end of Waterloo Park that was the most perfect setting for the stage. Don Walser with Don Walser's Pure Texas Band yodeling under that big old tree was what Austin was all about! I have no idea how he could play in a long-sleeved Western shirt, blue jeans, and cowboy hat, but he did – for six years.

In 2011, the event was held on the actual hottest day of the year: 111 degrees. When you stood in Waterloo Park, it felt like you were standing in an oven, but there were roving beer sellers that came to all the folks standing in lines to sample salsa, so I guess that made everything okay.

The preliminary judges had the unenviable task of narrowing down the hundreds of sauces to a manageable few for the celebrity judges. The preliminary judges used to play a little trick on the celebrity judges though. They would throw in the absolute worst sauce they had come across that day, and yes, there were some bad ones. They just wanted the celebrity judges to get a glimpse of their suffering.

There are numerous people from those early days that helped make this event what it is today, but it's the ones who have passed that I would like to acknowledge. In loving memory of Luke Zimmerman, Hill Rylander, Miguel Ravago, Jill Lewis, Bob "Bulb" Cannon, and Don Walser who, each in their own way, made their mark on an amazing world-famous cultural event. I couldn't have done it without them and wouldn't have wanted to!"

– Elizabeth Derczo was the Hot Sauce event producer for the Hot Sauce Festival's first 25 years.

1997: Judges sample competition sauces during the first year at Waterloo Park, and the inaugural People's Choice Awards was a huge hit. (Photo by John Anderson)

Kenny Pailes

"I grew up here in Austin. My love for hot sauce started with visits as a teenager to Sambet's Cajun Store, which was on Spicewood Springs Road in the Greatest Strip Mall Left in America. It's hard to even think of something like this existing now, but they had every hot sauce imaginable available for sampling on toothpicks or saltines. Self-serve. Just open a bottle and pour. Those days seemed like Peak Hot Sauce. Dave's Insanity Sauce was the 'hot new thing,' co-packers were turning regular folks into hot sauce brand owners, and heat-loving people self-identified as 'chile-heads.' There was even a magazine dedicated to the capsaicin-obsessed and a Chile-Head convention that made its way through Austin a time or two.

“The AC Hot Sauce Festival is, to me, an essential part of Austin’s identity. It celebrates the unique talents of locals and maintains no pretense: Everyone is equal in the eyes of the chile!” – Kenny Pailes

I love a good balanced mild red salsa with all natural ingredients, not too hot where the hot veggie flavors really shine. I experiment with new finds all the time, because I believe anyone can make a great salsa if they just find high quality chiles and get out of their own way. I'll never turn down a dollop of Tacodeli's luscious green Doña. It's an Austin icon as much as Leslie, Stevie, and the bats. Nobody can deny its influence on countless copycats, but nothing beats the original.

[As for favorite uses]: If your tacos aren't dressed are they even tacos? [And] for a simple local gift of nature, you can't beat this old Central Texas tradition: Turkey Pepper Sauce. Stuff a small mason jar full of wild chile pequins and fill all the spaces in the jar with white vinegar. Let it live in the fridge. The longer it sits, the richer the heat. You can usually refresh the acid a few times over several months before you need to go find a new plant to harvest new pequins from.

In 2008, my best friend Tim Hudgeons and I entered a bright orange burner in the Special Variety Category. We worked hard on that recipe, down to growing our own peppers. It paid off with what we will always claim as a Top 10 finish (honorable mention), and I think we both expect that to be engraved on our headstones someday. The highlights for me in the judging room have mostly been belly laughs and silly moments with the other folks that have been judging year after year – especially the legendary Alvarado brothers and Carlos Contreras. It's like a tiny red-faced family reunion. It can get pretty rowdy, in a good way. Let's just say there's no doubt that capsaicin is a stimulant, especially about 20 samples into the day. There's a special bond formed from the shared madness of enduring so much pain to find those winning blissful bites of beauty.

The AC Hot Sauce Festival is, to me, an essential part of Austin's identity. It celebrates the unique talents of locals and maintains no pretense: Everyone is equal in the eyes of the chile!"

– Kenny Pailes, former Chronicle contributor and Hot Sauce judge for eight years

1999: The tasting tent is full of hungry attendees. (Photo by John Anderson)

Henry Alvarado

"This year would have been my 30th year. Started in 1991, the very first one. [I am] one of the El Paso Connection judges – and I've been in Austin since 1983, originally from El Paso. Mary Margaret Pack wrote a story in the Chronicle in 2007. After the first year, I invited my brother Fred Alvarado and childhood friend Carlos Contreras to help with judging. We've been judging ever since.

[I'm not sure if I really have a favorite [type of hot sauce]. I like good flavor and some heat at the end whether it be green, red, or special variety. I'm a little picky on the green. Being from El Paso I prefer the green ones with New Mexico peppers (hatch). [And] Tears of Joy is one of many favorites. I like it on many dishes, and I put it on almost everything. Breakfast tacos, tacos, huevos rancheros, etc.

I love getting together with my fellow judges. Always a great time. I'll miss seeing them and judging with them this year. Many of whom I've got to know over the years. [And] I think it's so important to help the food bank, even more so during this time of COVID."

– Henry Alvarado, longtime Hot Sauce Fest judge and part of the El Paso Connection

Fred Alvarado

"I started judging the second year of the festival in 1992. I've missed one so that makes 28 years. I currently live in Round Rock. As a child in El Paso we would go with our grandfather to pick and buy green chile from the farms in New Mexico. We would bring them back and roast and package them for the year. Our grandparents and mom made the best chile verde, which we put in stews, enchiladas, or salsas for all occasions.

Green chiles and hatch chiles are my favorites, although I like the creativity of the special variety category with the different heat and flavors – Caribbean, Indian, etc. My favorite part of the festival is reuniting every year with fellow judges, a mix of chefs, food writers, and chile heads!

The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival has continued to grow in size and reputation, its contribution in the community raising food and money donations for the [Central Texas] food bank, and has propelled some of the winners into starting their own hot sauce businesses."

– Fred Alvarado, longtime Hot Sauce Fest judge and part of the El Paso Connection

2000: This year the Hall of Flame was established and some of the inductees included Sgt. Pepper's Hot Sauce, Evita's Botanitas, Iguana Grill, Texas-Texas, Aztexan Pepper Co., and Tears of Joy Hot Sauce Shop. (Photo by John Anderson)

Carlos Contreras

"I missed the very first contest; it was very small and I believe Henry was the only judge other than Robb Walsh. I also missed 2006 due to a car wreck that sidelined me. I've had the pleasure of attending all the others. I was raised in El Paso and left in 1987 for Dallas; there two years and moved to Austin in 1989. Growing up down the road from the hatch, I grew up eating both red and green. My family would roast at least 120 pounds of green chile for three families for the year. We'd also make some ristras and let the chile dry to make red chile in the fall/winter. I really do not favor one [hot sauce] over the other; both have their specific uses and ways to prepare and serve. Heat is nice to a certain point; too much heat detracts from the taste of the food you're trying to enhance. I do not understand some people's desire to eat ghost peppers/Thai chiles just for the rush.

There were a number of small mom-and-pop restaurants that had great salsa. However, many of those have closed due to the pandemic. I prefer to make most of my salsas, so getting store-bought is rare. Most tacos need salsa, but the type depends on the protein and accoutrements that are included. Some types would be a green tomatillo, red guajillo, pico de gallo, chipotle, and arbol. I like to make a molcajete salsa and roast the veggies and chiles prior to preparation. Mash roasted garlic and salt in the molcajete and layer in the other ingredients. You decide just how chunky or smooth it should be.

Early on [Travis County Farmers' Market on Burnet Road], we first sat outside in the heat and then transitioned into a small unairconditioned room in later years. As the popularity grew, the accommodations were better. We were at Waterloo Park and then moved to Serrano's for a number of years. Each location brings back memories of the various contests and the great folks that participated. I'm amazed at the success over the years and the support it has provided to the Central Texas Food Bank. God willing, I will continue to participate as long as I'm able.

The festival allows us to reconnect with old friends who really move in different circles than I do. I get a kick out of seeing these folks every year and catching up with them. We live in a great city that is adventurous, creative, and loving. What better way to celebrate these qualities than to endure the summer and chile heat for a great cause?

– Carlos Contreras, longtime Hot Sauce Fest judge and part of the El Paso Connection

2007: Record attendance and over 400 salsas entered into the competition; commercial bottler sauces were allowed to enter again after a hiatus. (Photo by John Anderson)

Lily Laux and Prassana Govindarajan

"We started [judging] in 2018 but it has quickly become our favorite event of the year! We can't wait to try the virtual event and look forward to being back in person. We're Austinites who live nearby and enjoy trying every hot sauce in the city and around Texas. Some people go wine tasting, we go hot sauce tasting.

[As for favorites], we love the pepper category! We're always interested in trying the hottest of hot sauces. We also love a green for everyday taco use. And we have quite a few [favorites]: Yellowbird and anything from Tacodeli are both up there. One of our favorite parts of the festival is finding new Texas brands we haven't tried, particularly in the small batch or restaurant categories.

One of our favorite memories is the shock of a hot sauce that tasted like pickles – it definitely confused our palates. We felt vindicated when we entered the festival after judging and saw the large sign for the pickle hot sauce. In general, we love meeting the other folks who are judging and comparing notes on flavor, texture, and heat.

It really is our favorite Austin event – lots of delicious hot sauce and unlimited tortilla chips! Besides our love of hot sauce, supporting the Central Texas Food Bank is always crucial, even more so now in the time of COVID. We're grateful that we've had the chance to participate and hope to continue doing so for years to come."

– Lily Laux and Prassana Govindarajan, judges

James Canter

"I believe this [would] be my fifth year as a judge at the Austin Hot Sauce Fest. I am not an Austinite (we currently live in San Antonio), but I usually travel to the festival. I am a professional chef of 30 years and a Food Network/TV personality.

I love chile peppers, my [favorite] is wild chile pequin. I also love spicy foods but with depth of flavor. We usually have about 30 types of hot sauce on hand at home at any given time. [And] I really enjoy all types of hot sauce but I tend to lean toward more traditional flavors. I like a hot sauce that has a quick pop of heat in the front, followed by complex flavor nuances, then a nice slow subtle burn to finish. I like to be surprised by fruit-forward hot sauces, and I'm a real fan of hot chile-flavored oils or hot chile crunches. I enjoy Bravado Spice hot sauces, Humble House hot sauces, Cascabel Salsa Co., Vatsana's, and Tio Pelon's. I think some dishes that benefit from a nice spicy kick are pasta bolognese, tacos of course, any Southeast Asian cuisine, mac & cheese, fried chicken, chicken soup in all shapes and sizes. Hell, just about anything lol.

Every year I get to sit at a table of [around] 25-year veteran judges, and listening to them tell stories of the past hot sauce festivals is a highlight of my fest experience. So many great stories, so many amazing hot sauces. I think this event says so much about our communities in general and really nails down and embodies that Austin, Texas, experience and shows others a glimpse of our heritage and what Texans, especially Austinites, are all about. I love it and [am] honored to be a part of it, hopefully for many years to come."

– James Canter, judge, exec. chef/owner, Guerrilla Gourmet LLC

2018: Festivalgoers join the "Tamalady" to dance in sweltering heat at Fiesta Gardens. (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Matt Melton

"In 1993 or 1994 habaneros were just coming into mainstream consciousness and the Hot Sauce Festival was at the old Farmer's Market on Burnet Road. My buddies Dusty and Matt and I strolled in and were smartly selective in not touching anything with a name referencing tears or fire or Satan or Hephaestus, but were pretty quickly reduced to open-mouth breathing anyway from the first or second salsa we tasted.

One of the vendors was selling habanero ice cream, which we figured was a gamble. We went for it. I remember us all laughing and crying as each of us went through the same happy torment cycle of heat building up and up but continuing to take the next bite for the few seconds of cooling it afforded."

– Matt Melton, fan

Lois Goodman and Stan Slater

"I almost passed out from the heat right when I got in the red sauce line. I never got any salsa that year. Ended up in the medic tent. Also I remember being at the very first festival at the farmer's market. The most fun festival was the rain out in the park next to Central Market. We all grabbed a bag of chips and kept eating, critiquing the salsa as we went through. There couldn't have been more than 20 of us diehards left. The salsa ended up getting watered down and we got so wet. It was the most fun one of all. I also remember bringing a friend's kids who loved hot sauce – the hotter the better. It was so much fun watching them go XXX with no reaction. I loved the festival and am so happy I made it to the 'no pass out from the heat' section by being a judge.

Considering I have only missed one because I was out of town, I would say it is one of my favorite events of the year. Salsa is important if you are a Texan. I never travel out of the country without two jars for my eggs in the morning or for other emergency issues, food issues that need real salsa, not some sugary substitute. We all need to keep up with the new salsas out there and it is a great way to find a new one to fall in love with.

– Lois Goodman and Stan Slater, local judges for four years and longtime fans

Terri Mitchell and Kathryn Smathers

"One hot August day back in 2008, my friend and I decided to check out the Austin Hot Sauce Festival at Waterloo Park and hear a new band in town, the Band of Heathens. Wow, they did not disappoint with their music. We stood in line in the sweltering heat to taste all the hot sauces in the tent. We met Scott Samson at the T-shirt booth, who several years later opened The Townsend, a bar and listening room on South Congress. We continued going to the Hot Sauce Festival when it moved to Fiesta Gardens a few years later. We loved Big Wy's Brass Band – we danced with them and with the Tamale Lady. We stood in line and burned our lips and mouths with award-winning hot sauces. We bought some hot sauce to take home and bought T-shirts to show our pride. We drank cold beers. One year, we went to Martin Pool just up the road to cool off. It was the hottest day of the year, with the hottest food, and hottest festival. We have great memories, and hope the Hot Sauce Festival gets revived after COVID."

– Terri Mitchell and Kathryn Smathers, fans

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