When the Heatonist opened its doors in Williamsburg in 2015, the NYC-made hot sauces it carried were strong on flavor but weak on punch. As hot sauce sommelier Tyler McKusick noted at the time, “There is just no face-melting sauce coming out of New York City right now.”
As New Yorkers have ventured beyond the confines of sriracha and Tabasco, the hot sauce scene has ripened like a habanero in the July sun. A full 15 percent of the Heatonist’s sauces are now produced by local companies, sparking a wave of newly addicted hot sauce junkies who demand ever-spicier blends to hit the same sweat-inducing high. Makers are responding with red hot enthusiasm.
“The nature of the hot sauce scene here has stayed consistent with people going for sophisticated flavors and interesting, fresh ingredients, but the appetite for higher heat is increasing,” says Noah Chaimberg, founder of the Heatonist. His shop still carries tamer gateway vintages, but they share shelf space with more and more bottles that read closer to a 10 on the hotness Richter scale. Moments after I lap up a few dabs of Bushwick Sauce Company’s Scorpion Pepper Purple Carrot, for example, my screaming, leaking nasal cavities cause me to reach for a tissue. As the tingles of my tongue build to a crescendo, I ask for more.
Luckily, there’s plenty on offer. From Queen Majesty’s Cocoa Ghost Hot Sauce to Pirate’s Lantern Pepper Sauce, options abound for getting your burn on with New York City originals. Here are several more favorites that will be sure to please the heat addict in your life—or satisfy your own masochistic cravings.
Small Axe Pepper’s Habanero Mango Hot Sauce
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In 2014, John Crotty, an affordable housing developer in the Bronx, got a grant to turn a trash-strewn backyard into a community garden. He was looking for something that would bring small plot farmers more bang for their buck than, say, lettuce, and realized that hot sauce—with its diversity, widespread appeal and long shelf life—was the answer. Small Axe Peppers Hot Sauce now sources community garden-grown peppers from nine different cities, including, of course, New York. In 2018 alone the company bottled 1,400 pounds of serranos from Bronx gardens and 800 pounds of jalapeños from Queens plots.
Early user-friendly blends proved a hit, but Crotty and his colleagues soon began to hear a common complaint. “People were saying, ‘It’s not hot! It’s not hot!’” says Daniel Fitzgerald, chief operating officer at Small Axe Peppers. So the team tasked hot sauce chef King Phojanakong to create new blends with extra umph. King’s tear-inducing answer is Habanero Mango, an apple cider vinegar–based blend inspired by his Filipino mother and Thai father’s cooking. Mango puree and tamarind paste conjure the flavors of Southeast Asia, while blood orange adds a bittersweet can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-it zing. Habaneros—the little red devils that deliver the sauce’s bite—are sourced from community gardens in Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Tucson, Sacramento and San Diego. “To grow habaneros, you literally need heat from the sun, so they do better out there,” Fitzgerald says.
Despite fears that Habanero Mango would be too spicy for New Yorkers to handle, it’s proven to be a best-seller and was even featured on the popular web series Hot Ones. But while it’s the company’s hottest commercially available hot sauce, it’s not actually their hottest; that honor belongs to a semi-secret ghost pepper–based recipe. “We did a very limited release for that one because it’s so spicy as to not be commercially viable,” Fitzgerald says. But those up to the challenge can find that wicked brew for sale on the company’s website.
Shaquanda’s Hot Pepper Sauce
Dinner at Andre Springer’s family home in Bed-Stuy was always accompanied by pepper sauce—an onion, turmeric and habanero-heavy Barbados staple. Food was pivotal to Springer’s upbringing, but equally important was performance. After honing his artistic side at the Parsons School of Design, he introduced to world to Shaquanda, his drag queen alter-ego.
In 2015, Springer was seeking a way to create “a portrait of myself that was most authentically me”—a way to “combine these different elements of my life into one product”—when he realized that drag queen hot sauce was the sweet spot in his Venn diagram. “Walking through the aisles of a store, I feel emotional and connected to having this very queer, very visible product on the shelf,” he says. “We all love to eat, we all love humor, and through those things Shaquanda is trying to inspire understanding and empathy.”
Shaquanda’s Hot Pepper Sauce blends Bajan flavor with a Brooklyn twist. Springer turned to recipes and techniques he learned from his grandmother but incorporated American ingredients like horseradish and apple cider vinegar. He also added ginger juice—an homage to the Trinidadian and Jamaican families who lived on his block.
The result is a highly floral yet robust sauce that Springer describes as being willing to please yet eager to burn—just like Shaquanda. The sauce is equally at home as a marinade for chicken or fish as it is a spread for an aggressive sandwich or slice. “It’s an all-purpose hot sauce because that’s the way we use it in Barbados,” Springer says. “It’s the secret ingredient in anything you’re cooking.”
Springer’s company, Shaquanda Will Feed You, was one of the 175-plus Brooklyn food businesses that were left homeless after the abrupt Pilotworks closure in October. As Springer crowdfunds to get Shaquanda back in the kitchen, stocks are sadly in short supply. But hot sauce can still be procured from Bed-Stuy Provisions and enjoyed atop eggs, sausage and toast at the Fat Radish’s brunch.
Cantina Royal’s “Just One Drop” Tomasa Hot Sauce
After an earthquake destroyed Julio Mora’s family home in Mexico City, he, his parents and his brother moved into a hotel. It was supposed to be temporary, but they wound up staying for 25 years. As a result, the family ate out constantly, sampling all the flavors the city had to offer and helping Mora develop his palate. At the same time, his mom managed to teach him the family hot sauce recipes using the hotel’s tiny kitchen.
After moving to New York City and opening Cantina Royal, a gem of a Mexican restaurant near the Williamsburg waterfront, he knew hot sauces would play a central role. “As a Mexican, when you don’t have your chili with your food, you get crazy,” he says. “You need something to burn your mouth—you want that feeling.”
Mora uses some 20 Mexican chilis to create around 45 original hot sauces. But when he opened his restaurant in 2011, he found that American customers needed some training. He handed out hot sauce samples for free, and the strategy soon paid off: Customers got hooked. The spicy salsa sampler is now a best-seller and unscrupulous patrons even steal the bottles of YaYa Hot Sauce—a versatile, everyday condiment named after Mora’s ex-wife—that he leaves on tables. “It’s a compliment because it means it’s good,” Mora says, laughing. “I want you to open your fridge at 4 a.m. and see the hot salsa that you’ve stolen from my place!”
But not all of Mora’s hot sauces are as easygoing as YaYa. Tomasa—a smoky, jet-black Manzano and habanero concoction—is the hottest sauce Mora bottles commercially. For the “intensely spicy” sauce, Mora toasts, smokes and dehydrates the chilis, then rehydrates them with garlic oil. He recommends adding just a few drops—at most a quarter of a teaspoon—to soups, barbecue sauces or marinades to turn up the heat and flavor. Dousing an enchilada in Tomasa, on the other hand, would be a “really, really bad idea,” he warns. “The way it’s going to burn your intestines, well, it’s not gonna be fun.”
This story was originally published in December 2018.