Let's face it: Sriracha isn't that good
Today, "hot sauce Twitter" was in an uproar over reports that the Southern California-based maker of Sriracha had placed a hold on all shipments to distributors until next month. The LA Times reports that Huy Fong Foods, which debuted the sauce in 1983, is now required to wait 35 days before shipping it, and food suppliers who are already running low are worried their businesses will take a hit.
Like many entrepreneurs and startup workers, we take hot sauce pretty seriously here at Pando. When you've accidentally let your ramen sit out for too long, who's there for you? Hot sauce. When the idea of yet another $2 pizza slice makes your stomach turn and your soul falter? Grab the nearest bottle and let the capsaicin-induced endorphins quash your sadness. Along with coffee and Twitter, hot sauce forms the holy trinity of startup coping mechanisms.
So why haven't I bum-rushed the grocery store, stockpiling Sriracha for the impending Sriracalypse?
Because Sriracha, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is not that good.
Before you start screaming "hate reads!" or "Slate pitches!" this is something I've felt passionately about for a long time. And upon sharing this sentiment with friends on Twitter and elsewhere, I am not alone. As this season's dominant pop cultural debate over "Love Actually" revealed, there are often silent naysayers around every corner. (On a related note: To me, "Love Actually" is perfect).
So what's my beef with Sriracha?
Other than tasting like hot, oily ketchup, there are a couple issues at play here. First, compared to other sauces, Sriracha has a very low number of use cases. It works fine on most Thai and Vietnamese food; after all, Sriracha-style sauce originated in Southeast Asia and its ingredients are a part of that region's culinary DNA.
It's okay too on salads and other foods that aren't terribly rich. Therein lies the second problem: Sriracha is so thick and its flavors so unsubtle that it tends to mask or clash with the flavors of other strong-tasting dishes. It functions far better as a salad dressing or dipping sauce than a hot sauce. If we charted the lineage of condiments, we'd find Sriracha much closer to ranch dressing or barbeque sauce than to Tabasco or Cholula. Which is fine, but you don't drop a dollop of barbeque sauce into soups or onto pizza (unless you're in California, but that's not real pizza anyway).
But the biggest reason our love affair with Sriracha must end? The squeezable faux-liquid Sriracha everyone raves about isn't even the best Asian chili condiment. The hot chili paste made by Huy Fong and others has a similar taste, but is coarser with a more pleasing texture. It's also spicier so you don't have to drench your dish with it for a suitable kick, thus preserving the original flavors of whatever you're eating.
If Sriracha is so average (and it is, it is) then why are we obsessed with it? Over the past decade, Sriracha has expanded its domain, from the food trucks of Los Angeles to the fine dining establishments of New York, stopping off at every suburban Applebee's and P.F. Chang's along the way. Unlike other condiments, many people tied their love for Sriracha to their identity as an insider, as someone who knew a secret that the Frank's-swillers and Tabasco-lickers did not. Sriracha fans even have a code name for it: "Rooster Sauce." All this despite the fact that the sauce was so popular across the country that it merited a big New York Times feature as early as 2009. Like Bon Iver, it provided fans with the illusion of alternativeness while appealing to mainstream tastes. And also like Bon Iver, it's not that good!
Where do we turn in our search for a more perfect hot sauce? Tabasco is still a classic and damn near perfect but, like the Beatles or Starry Night, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a little played out. Around the breakfast table, Cholula is unmatched, but it's a bit too salty for every-meal consumption. Ditto for Tapatio. Then there's Crystal, but that opens up a whole new discussion about the nuances of different Louisiana hot sauces which could fill up a whole second post.
My vote for the perfect hot sauce? Mexico's El Yucateco. With a strong kick, a subtle flavor that exists alongside your food's natural flavor, not on top of it, and a texture that is neither too watery or too viscous, El Yucateco should be a staple in every hot sauce lover's kitchen. The sauce's two flagship varieties are Red Habanero and Green Habanero, but the difference I think is largely psychosomatic. It tastes wonderful on Asian food, Mexican food, and burgers, but it achieves its greatest feats of flavor when dripped onto pizza.
There are plenty of times when it's not unadvisable to use Sriracha (though, again, I prefer the paste). But the fervent cult that's developed around it continues to mystify me. If you improbably enjoy it on all manners of cuisine, from Italian to Mexican, then by all means carry on. But if you've ever sat before a meal and taken pause as you began to squeeze those runny red boogers all over your plate, know that you are not alone. And there is another way.
Illustration by Brad Jonas