ZestFest: We Found Some Good Spicy Stuff That Won't Send You to the Hospital
I tasted a fantastic array of bracing and exhilarating hot sauces last week at ZestFest, but since I did my sampling as a judge for the Fiery Food Challenge, I wasn't privy to the names or brands of any of the products I tried. So this weekend I returned to the Exhibition Hall to see if I could find salsas and sauces I liked as much as the unlabeled samples served in Styrofoam cups.
Interestingly, the random numbers assigned for blind judging are usually forgotten before judges' tongues have cooled. The exception this year was No. 337, the extract-enhanced, triple-X-rated sauce that sent a judge to the hospital. (Chili Pepper publisher Sir McMillen was treated and released and gamely returned to the judging table two days later.) The story inspired the weekend's most popular sales shtick: Multiple vendors at the show tried to lure customers into their booths with the claim that they'd supplied the sauce tagged No. 337. (The real one was Crazy Uncle Jester's The Jester.)
I didn't have the opportunity to fully explore the many, many straight-up hot sauces -- with or without extract -- available at ZestFest. But I made a fairly good dent in the other food categories. Here, five of my favorite products:
1. Jolokia BBQ Sauce, CaJohns
CaJohns, an Ohio-based company, cleaned up at the Fiery Food Challenge, winning awards in more categories than most producers entered. I was especially fond of a smoky, tomato-based barbecue sauce, warmed up with ghost peppers. The sauce was surprisingly complex, with a heat that accentuated and unified the sauce's more traditional ingredients.
2. Premium Bloody Mary Mix, Tank's
An astounding number of vendors were pouring Bloody Mary mixes this year (although few offered the liquor to match.) Tank's product stood out for its rich tomato flavor, pleasing mouth feel and integrated heat.
3. Jalapeño Cheddar Chips, Deano's Jalapenos
Deano Duckworth, a Vermont restaurant owner, noticed an increasing number of potato chip makers were toying with jalapeños. He decided to produce his own version of jalapeño potato chips -- minus the potato. Duckworth recently introduced ranch-flavored jalapeño chips, but I preferred the original cheddar variety: The chips, with their unmistakable jalapeño flavor, are crisp and clean.
4. Bacon Hot Sauce, Bacon Hot Sauce
Of course there's a bacon hot sauce. But unlike bacon popcorn, bacon chocolate and many of the other bacon-flavored snacks to emerge during the food world's ongoing bacon lovefest, Bacon Hot Sauce doesn't taste like a novelty. Bacon and hot sauce are natural mates for eggs, and Peter Fishman -- a CaJohns mentee -- has done a fine job of producing a robust, balanced, go-to breakfast sauce.
5. Whitson's Moist Chili Seasoning, Whitson Chile Products
Whitson's Chili Seasoning isn't a new item: Sarah Bourbon's grandfather started marketing the stuff in Denton back in 1932. But after Whitson Food folded in 1968, the sweet, just-add-meat product disappeared. Bourbon, who lives in Terlingua, recently reintroduced the brand, complete with its vintage label. It's a terrific primer in North Texas chili traditions.