A Tour of the United States in Hot Sauce

published Jul 4, 2016
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(Image credit: Samantha Bolton)

They say your palate is a place of memories, which is why I bring home bottles of sauces from all over the country. They’re a way to make the trip last long after your bags are unpacked and your suntan has faded. And, let’s face it, they’re tastier than a snow globe, an ill-fitting T-shirt, or tiny silver spoon.

Here are some saucy souvenirs you should try the next time you’re traipsing around the U.S. (Fortunately many are available to purchase online too.)

Thanks to changes in TSA laws, it’s much harder to bring home the kind of souvenirs that come in glass bottles and have the potential to make a sticky mess in checked luggage. I still do it, but now I limit myself to items that are small enough (under four ounces) or if I have the bubble wrap and packing tape (or many, many socks), I’ll pack my sauces in my just-shy-of-50-pounds suitcase. Here are a few of my favorite finds.

10 Saucy Souvenirs from Around the United States

1. Alex’s Ugly Sauce: Boston, MA

These natural, artisanal hot sauces are made with a base of beets, honey, garlic, and onions, and use hot peppers exclusively from a small farm in Massachusetts. They come in heat levels ranging from “just a hint of heat” (jalapeño) to “burns sooo much” (ghost).

You can find Alex’s beautifully ugly sauces at farmers markets, specialty shops, New England Whole Foods stores, and even on some Boston-area food trucks.

2. The Boulder Hot Sauce: Boulder, CO

“We are not some clunky practical joke of a hot sauce guaranteed to cause you untold minutes of agony … ” So says their website, and I agree. These sauces have developed flavors of habanero and serrano that add something more than just heat to your sandwiches or meats.

Many a family special event has taken place at this BBQ joint in Memphis. When a place is a favorite of locals and tourists, you know it has to be good. Back in 2000 on a visit, I remember Charlie saying, “All my food here’s good!” when a friend of mine deigned to ask what was good on the menu. It was true.

Charlie passed away in 2010, but his family continues the tradition. Their ribs are dry-rubbed, and in addition to their dry-rub seasoning mix, they make and sell a sauce that you can bring home to be the envy of your neighborhood BBQ cook-off.

4. Co-op Sauce: Chicago, IL

Co-op makes beaucoup sauces: From their own house version of Sriracha (Chi-racha), to a poblano mustard, this is what you need to find when visiting Sweet Home Chicago. Their original sauce is a mole hot sauce, and it’s one of the very best flavors out there.

But what makes Co-op so great is that it began as an arts and entrepreneurship organization servicing Chicago youth. Founder Mike Bancroft worked with kids to brew and bottle hot sauce, and it took off. Thirteen years later, Co-op Sauce still donates half the proceeds to the nonprofit Co-op Image, and hires former program participants.

5. Filfil’s Garlic Hot Sauce: Brooklyn, NY

Brooklyn might not be the first place you think of when you think of hot sauce, but given the city’s inherent sauciness, you should. It’s the garlic that makes this sauce — not just heat. It’s flavor … tremendous garlicky flavor.

Filfil partners with a few restaurants in New York, or you can purchase their elegantly simple bottles (I’m a sucker for packaging) in choice food purveyors around the country (primarily in the east) and online.

6. Lazy D’s BBQ: Libby, MT

BBQ in the great West is a thing to behold. It’s bolder than elsewhere and Lazy D’s BBQ sauce is definitely that. The label reads “outdoor taste in the bottle,” which is exactly what you’d expect out in Western Montana. Mostly you can find it in shops in the Libby area, although some specialty food stores in Bozeman and Helena also carry it.

7. NW Elixirs: Portland, OR

In true Portland form, NW Elixirs doesn’t use refined sugars, gums, or gluten in their sauces, and the chef, award-winning Andrew Garrett, has a beard. But if it were easy as all that, everyone’d be doing it — and they’re not.

Garrett’s Hott (the extra T is theirs) sauces come in three recipes: habanero, jalapeño, and chipotle. The latter is my favorite — the smoky chipotle is perfect in just about any taco, sandwich, or rice bowl you would want to make.

8. Sadie’s Salsa: Albuquerque, NM

Despite the name, Sadie’s isn’t limited to salsa. Sadie’s got in the game over 50 years ago and continues to make salsas and sauces that put their family restaurant on the Southwestern culinary map. They don’t sell small sizes. In fact, you can buy jugs of their products — and once you taste them, you won’t want anything less.

Check one of their Albuquerque-area restaurants out and then when you return to your own home kitchen, order some of the good stuff online!

9. Williamson Bros. BBQ Sauce: Marietta, GA

I love BBQ and I live in Seattle. These things do not compute. When I’m missing the taste of the South in my mouth, I reach for my Williamson Bros. sauces. They have three restaurants in the Atlanta area, where they sell bottles of their sauces, and they also sell online. Just writing this is making the kale casserole (I did say I lived in Seattle) that’s cooking in the oven seem like weakness in a pan.

The Williamson brothers started in the 1980s with a little money and a dream. They rooted near Atlanta, built a barbecue pit, and things progressed from there. Currently they make and sell a wide variety of sauces, and they sell gallon jugs!

10. Yellowbird Sauce: Austin, TX

When I think of hot sauce, my mind goes directly to Austin, Texas. There are innumerable tasty hot sauces in this town, but Yellowbird brings jalapeño, habanero, and serrano hot sauces to tables all over the area, and you should really consider bringing some tangy deliciousness home for yours.

Your turn — what hot stuff have you brought home from your travels around our great nation?