clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Search for a Better Sriracha

New, 1 comment

Why the next fermented sensation could come from a restaurant kitchen.

Rey Lopez/Eater

You like Sriracha. We get it. Even massive fast-food conglomerates get it, tabbing Sriracha as one of 11 surefire ways to lure in millennials. The fervor for the hot sauce is why Sriracha-doused pizza can be found at Pizza Hut and Sriracha "Quesaritos" are available at Taco Bell. Subway uses Sriracha on several signature sandwiches. Heinz Ketchup has a Sriracha flavor. So does Tabasco. Grocery shelves are lined with everything from Sriracha-flavored potato chips to jerky to themed cookbooks. There's even Sriracha beer, courtesy of Rogue's Hot Sriracha Stout. Enough is enough, don't you think?

Some of the best chefs in the country seem to think so. They're embarking on a quest for a better Sriracha, a spicy sauce which can capitalize on the attention and demand that Sriracha has created. Last month, Momofuku chef David Chang announced he's getting into the game with his Ssäm Sauce, a spicy, tangy Korean chili sauce. In Washington, DC, Doug Alexander, the executive chef of Art and Soul, has created Angry Chef Hot Sauce. And fellow DC chef Erik Bruner-Yang wants his hot sauce, called Endorphin, "to be eaten with everything," while staying true to his principles of local and organic ingredients. Ideally, these new chef-driven hot sauces will exceed the Sriracha standard and live up to the hype.

Inside the Huy Fong factory in California. Photo: Dixler/Eater

The Beginnings of the Sriracha Craze

Sriracha sauce owes its heritage, or at least its name, to Si Racha, Thailand, a town located along the shores of the Gulf of Thailand, southeast of Bangkok. It's thought that some variation of the sauce debuted in the town more than 75 years ago to pair with seafood dishes. But most American diners who have fallen in love with sriracha are most likely acolytes of the California-based Huy Fong Foods, which produces the rooster-bottle, green-squeeze-top Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce. Today, Huy Fong's Sriracha has become synonymous with a tangy, fermented Asian hot chili sauce, although the word "sriracha" can also be used to refer to a specific type of chili pepper. (The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office considers "sriracha" to be a generic term, which is why companies like Taco Bell can advertise its new Sriracha offerings, randomly capitalized "S" and all, without actually utilizing the Rooster Sauce from Huy Fong Foods. Many other sriracha menu items do not include Huy Fong Foods' Sriracha, either.)

Huy Fong Foods founder David Tran, who escaped Vietnam to live in the United States, created his sauce in the early 1980s. Despite being based on sauces from Si Racha, Thailand, Tran's doesn't actually include Thai chilies — his recipe calls for red jalapeños, and was originally made to complement Vietnamese cuisine like pho. According to Huy Fong, the company sources all of its peppers from one place, Underwood Ranches in Ventura County, California, which is the largest red pepper farm in the United States. Freshness is of paramount importance, hence the facility's proximity to a local supplier: Huy Fong is able to begin processing the peppers just three to four hours after they've been picked.

Huy Fong's iconic Sriracha recipe features red peppers, vinegar, garlic, salt, and sugar, all fermented together.

The Huy Fong Foods recipe for Sriracha features red peppers, vinegar, garlic, salt, and sugar. After grinding the peppers into a thick puree, the puree is left to sit with vinegar and garlic, and ferment. Because the peppers are only picked once per year, Huy Fong processes its annual supply in bulk before the final ingredients are added and the sauce is cooked in batches. And while Huy Fong's Sriracha brand may be hardly present in Thailand, the opposite is true in the U.S. The 2013-14 legal battle which nearly shut down the California factory caused mass panic. Disaster was ultimately averted, but with the tidal wave of Sriracha drowning America's collective palates right now, some might wonder if that was really a good thing.

Moving Beyond Sriracha

Sriracha came, it conquered, and it opened up many new doors, with millions of eaters suddenly willing to explore different flavor profiles. But what else is out there?

Erik Bruner-Yang is the mastermind behind Washington DC's Toki Underground, a Taiwanese ramen and dumpling joint. Heading the charge for DC's ramen craze, Toki Undeground is tucked away in a trendy upstairs, attic-like space. Signature ramen at Toki includes a Taipei Curry Chicken version, and what may be the crowd favorite Kimchi Ramen, consisting of a kimchi infusion, greens, an egg, pickled ginger, pulled pork, and more kimchi on top. From there, diners can customize dishes with anything from fried prawn heads to chicken butt, pork belly to pressure-cooked pork cheek, and of course, Toki's Endorphin sauce. The Sriracha-style Endorphin sauce has been on Toki Underground's menu since the restaurant debuted in 2011.

Mirroring Huy Fong's process, Bruner-Yang now has plans to make one huge batch of the sauce every year, to the tune of 300 gallons.

Bruner-Yang's Endorphin sauce began as a seasonally changing recipe, utilizing what was available and fresh while incorporating between three and five total chilies. "We're basically making salsa roja," says Bruner-Yang, a nod to his days at a taco pop-up years ago. "We use tomatoes, tomatillos, garlic, and chilies, but then we wanted to make this a little more Asian. We throw in some ginger, some lemongrass."

Currently, Bruner-Yang makes one five-and-a-half-gallon batch per week for use at Toki Underground. On a recent visit to his kitchen, the chef utilized jalapeños, serranos, and habaneros as the chilies du jour. He chops the ingredients and adds them to a pot with water, cooking the combination for several hours before blending everything together to form the raw base. Then, Bruner-Yang adds kimchi and sugar, which provides the fermented flavor and a bright red, Sriracha-esque color. This marks a change from the sauce's original recipe, which involved pickling one of the chilies and utilizing the fermented vinegar residual as the "stock" to cook everything else in.

Compared to Sriracha, Bruner-Yang's Endorphin sauce has a brighter, more vibrant flavor, with greater complexity, along with a lighter and more liquidy texture. So is this the Sriracha killer we've been searching for? It's spicy but not overpowering; it's fresh and versatile. It has that fermented tang familiar to Sriracha, although that's a smaller component of its profile.

Like Huy Fong Foods, which sources its fresh ingredients once per year for a (much larger) mega-batch, Bruner-Yang now has plans to make one massive annual batch of Endorphin sauce per year. "In theory, the idea is to make it all when all of this stuff is in season," he says, as opposed to a fluid and ever-changing recipe based on seasonal availability. "Then just store it and have enough to last for a whole year." That's a big batch of sauce — nearly 300 gallons worth before accounting for consumer demand. Bruner-Yang's plans are to make Endorphin available at both his own restaurants, as well as to shoppers at his Asian market/food R&D lab Honeycomb Grocer in DC's Union Market. "Honeycomb will act as a pantry not only for consumers and retail, but for the restaurant as well," Bruner-Yang says. "We can have our own little food ecosystem."

The Future of Fermented Chile Sauce

Bruner-Yang isn't the only chef toying around with his own hot sauces. David Chang, a vocal supporter of all things fermented — including Sriracha — represents the largest new entry in the fermented hot sauce market. Chang's new-to-the-market Ssäm Sauce combines gochujang seasoning with miso, sake, soy sauce and rice vinegar, producing a spicy, tangy, Korean chili sauce. Bottled versions of the sauce are currently available at his NYC outposts of Momofuku Noodle Bar, the eponymous Ssäm Bar, and Má Pêche, although retail availability is planned for the very near future, as well.

Chef Doug Alexander, a longtime Sriracha fan, started his own Angry Chef hot sauce line last year as a Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $8,000 for the Thai-chili concoction. Alexander currently makes about one 20-gallon batch of the sauce per month, yielding approximately 450 bottles of Angry Chef (and resulting in an ongoing sold-out status). Like Sriracha, Angry Chef is a fermented chili hot sauce, and Alexander uses an assortment of peppers, including Thai, habanero, and ghost chilies, incorporating onion, garlic, carrot, and salt before fermenting for 30 to 45 days. Alexander adds vinegar, purees it, and cooks it up before straining it through a chinois to create an ultra-smooth texture.

"When the trend is over, we will still have a delicious sauce — and a lot of hipsters will still have a Sriracha tattoo."

"I love the flavor of Sriracha," Alexander says. "Without it, pho is just not the same." Still, he believes the sauce has been devalued as of late with its omnipresence. And no chef wants to be caught riding yesterday's craze once everybody else has moved on. "When the trend is over, we will still have a delicious sauce," he says, "and a lot of hipsters will still have a Sriracha tattoo."

However, Alexander has seen firsthand the positive influence of the Sriracha craze, marveling at what diners are now buying at their local Asian markets. "The shelves are packed with all kinds of condiments that most Americans would have never considered purchasing [before Sriracha]," he says. "It's the gateway drug."

For Bruner-Yang, his Sriracha-like Endorphin sauce is indeed a gateway: It's just one example of what his team, including Woodberry Kitchen alums Isaiah Billington and Sarah Kenezio, is feverishly working on. "We're producing our own misos, soy sauce, hoisin sauce," he says, ticking through several offerings which also include organic kimchi, fish sauce, chili oil, gochujang, and fresh noodles. "That's what Honeycomb started as," he says. "It's like our R&D home base."

Erik Bruner-Yang CITK: Endorphin Sauce

The pantry at Honeycomb. Photo: Lopez/Eater

Ultimately, Bruner-Yang wants his products to adhere to a strict food philosophy, with the tenets of connecting with farmers (and focusing on local ingredients, organic foods, and sustainable practices) at its core. That philosophy, along with an internal food ecosystem and some bonus availability for local shoppers, is great — but what if that's not enough? What if Endorphin sauce (or a house-made sweet potato miso or any other R&D experiment) explodes in popularity? "I really don't know how I feel about that," Bruner-Yang says. "It's really convoluted, and it takes away from our philosophy. If the hot sauce takes off, then where am I gonna get all of [these ingredients]?" What if he has to buy in bulk, moving away from his created food ecosystem with local farmers and partners?

"Am I okay with that?" He hesitates. He's torn on the subject, knowing full well he could have a hit on his hands that would be at odds with the way that philosophy pushes him. Yet, here he is, a chef possibly on the cusp of something much greater. "For me, philosophically, I don't want to be in the food manufacturing business," Bruner-Yang finally, firmly declares. A moment passes. "But maybe. If it works."