New York City wears many, many hats, but it’s safe to say “hot sauce Mecca” is not one of them (some reader is now shaking their fist and calling me a liar). There are many reasons for this, but start with sourcing — frankly, this isn’t the best climate for cultivating year-round spicy peppers.
But let’s not get hung up on technicalities. One thing this city has no shortage of is can-do spirit! Take those scrappy entrepreneurs making salt on a Manhattan rooftop: hauling a bunch of seawater to the top of a Midtown building didn’t stop them from pursuing their dreams. Similarly, we’ve now got a bevy of hot sauce makers subverting nature to grow peppers here — or else importing them to the five boroughs.
Recently a trio of staffers — myself, associate editor Claire Brown and photo editor Scott Gordon Bleicher — converged on The Heatonist in Williamsburg. Our goal was to assess, side-by-side, some of New York’s best hot sauces. The Heatonist, originally an online shop with specialty hot sauces from around the globe, opened their Williamsburg storefront earlier this year (after a successful Kickstarter campaign, naturally). Founder Noah Chaimberg graciously opened the doors of his slick new test kitchen for our adventure, and he provided all the raw materials.
But before we started, there was a disclaimer from Heatonist’s “hot sauce sommelier” Tyler McKusick: “There is just no face-melting sauce coming out of New York City right now,” he told us. “Sorry guys, your eyebrows will not be seared off today.” I’d been worried I would cry in front of my colleagues, so this was good news. Still, I had to pretend I was disappointed.
“If my eyeballs aren’t bleeding, what’s the point?!” I swaggered. “Well I guess we should go through with it anyways…”
In 2010, this fiery sweetness was simply a notion on the tip of its founder’s tongue. But in just a handful of years, this chili-inflected honey has become near-ubiquitous around the city, found everywhere from posh pizzerias to low-end grub shacks. Founder Michael Kurtz tinkered with the recipe while slinging dough at Paulie Gees, using hot honey knowledge he’d acquired in Brazil. The final recipe is “a closely guarded secret in Honeytown,” according to McKusick; the finished product is the Heatonists’ favorite hot honey. Sweet, with a burn that lingers, this stuff could mix into plain yogurt, get drizzled on dumplings… it’s quite versatile. This wasn’t our first time trying Mike’s, but it’s always a pleasure. Each judge took a bottle home!
Queen Majesty’s popular line of sauces has been crafted in Red Hook since 2013. Chaimberg is a big fan of all their products — especially this one, which took home a silver Screaming Mimi at the NYC Hot Sauce Expo (Trust: this is quite prestigious among those in the know). This sauce is not too hot — think the potency of a jalapeño margarita with a light mouth sear. And obviously that comparison is apt, as the flavor combo is something of a boozy Tex-Mex staple. This one pairs well with eggs, potatoes, and tacos (of course).
Imagine my dismay to learn that this one — my favorite of the bunch — has been discontinued by its makers. Apparently Chili Lab is a side project of two people with day jobs, and they just couldn’t keep up with the time-intensive production and ingredient sourcing. It’s a shame, as this had an incredibly robust flavor — smoky paprika and garlic rounding out the heat of wiri-wiri pepper (a rarity, imported from Guyana). I took home a jar and found myself stirring a spoonful into eggs, pasta sauces, stirfry, and more. RIP! (Consolation: You can still buy one of Chili Lab’s home hot sauce making kits.)
The day we conducted the test, this sauce was a new introduction, a concoction made exclusively for The Heatonist. Chaimberg and McCusick were big fans, though they acknowledged it may not be for everybody. It’s produced using coffee-infused vinegar (made with a Japanese cold brew process), hot habaneros, ginger root, garlic, olive oil and balsamic. The result is a singular flavor that may not work in all dishes, but could definitely lend a robust kick to say, pulled pork. Our collective reaction was: “Less odd than we imagined!”
This one was also a new addition when we visited, a Bajan (read: from Barbados) style of hot sauce made by two Brooklyn brothers. Using Scotch bonnet peppers, mustard and dark rum, these guys created a sauce to do their homeland proud. The peppers bring the fire, but the mustard and rum soften its impact into something versatile and bright. Chaimberg recommends it on a roast beef sandwich with arugula and onion. Or with swordfish. Why not!
Auria Abraham is a whirlwind entrepreneur — this Malaysian native has created a series of supper clubs, made music for TV commercials and competed on Chopped. She makes a handful of traditional Malaysian condiments, and this is certainly the spiciest. Still, as any sambal connoisseur can attest, this isn’t a dunk-your-face-in-icewater hot sauce. It has a blend of flavors, most notably shrimp paste, which convey a strong level of umami. If you have had sambal befor, Auria’s version is unlikely to surprise you — it’s tasty, but fairly conventional. Still, it’s made right here in the city! Go local.
This one has the most aggressively New York packaging, with a logo riffing on urban graffiti and a bold boast: “The Greatest City on the Planet.” Besides slight celery notes, this is the most traditional hot sauce on the list — and it won our photo editor’s heart. It’s a classic flavor, good on just about everything (well, assuming you enjoy some heat). Belcastro is very careful in selecting their pepper farmers — some are grown at Brooklyn Grange — and McCusick says this is the secret to the full-bodied flavor.
Note: After our New York City taste test, we made the mistake of complaining that we hadn’t cried once. We were treated to something insane called Extreme Karma, made in the Hudson Valley, that broke our mouths. Fool me once…