Until around five years ago, every time we came back from Mexico we would stuff a dozen or so baseball-sized cans of Herdez chipotle chiles into our suitcase and smuggle them to our home pantry. The peppers gave a smooth, fiery finish to sandwiches, tacos, eggs, and pretty much everything this side of mint-chip ice cream. Two chipotle chiles on a sandwich and you'd remember it for hours. Three on a quesadilla and you were set up well into the next morning. You'd find a bowl full of these plump, brown, hot-as-hell babies on the tables at pretty much every sandwich shop in Mexico. But they were hard to come by in the States.
No more. Chipotle chiles are the trendiest condiment in America now that cilantro and aioli have fallen from grace. McDonald's Corp. just bought a minority interest in a Denver restaurant chain called Chipotle Mexican Grill. Grocery shelves are crowded with things like raspberry-chipotle salsa, apricot-chipotle chutney — even chipotle-corn pancake mix. One popular cookbook goes so far as to recommend combining chipotle chiles and ketchup.
To make sense of this madness, we turned to Larry Watson, founder of Sonoma County-based Bustelo's Backyard pepper-sauce company. As we understand it, Watson is the Julia Child of chipotle chiles.
Watson first became fanatical about “chiles chipotles” in 1972 while living in Cholula, Puebla. There, his neighbor would smoke-cure fish-sized huachinango chiles for more than a week at a time. The smoky smell permeated his clothes, wafted through his nose, and settled on his tongue. He was hooked, and began smuggling dried chiles into the U.S. and whipping them into hot sauce for his friends. Watson has been selling his Larry's brand hot sauces commercially since 1993, using the same smoked huachinango or “maco” chiles soaked a year in wine-vinegar-filled oak barrels.
“I was familiar with chipotles when half the population in Mexico thought it was only a slang term for an old man's penis,” explains Watson, a gray-haired, mustachioed giant of a man partial to Hawaiian shirts. “Now you can buy them in a Safeway store in Iowa.”
Convinced we had our expert, we cajoled Watson into helping us sort through the growing menagerie of commercially available chipotle concoctions.
According to Watson, “chipotle” is a contraction of the Nahuatl language term for “smoked pepper,” and can be made with any sort of chile. The most common chipotles are made with red-ripe jalapeno or Serrano chiles that are smoked dry, then reconstituted in a tomato and vinegar “adobo” sauce.
For nostalgia's sake, we start with the old-favorite Herdez chipotle chiles and Bufalo brand chipotle sauce, both of which are now distributed in the U.S. by Hormel Foods. Watson is a wine-industry engineer by trade, so he brings an oenophile's nose to pepper sauce.
“The canned ones, they're really a delightful chile, but they're factory-made, and they don't hold their flavor as well,” Watson says. As for the Bufalo salsa: “First, there's the fact that they use the 'mora' and 'morita,' rather than the maco chiles. So it's rather thin, not so much in consistency as in flavor. It just doesn't have the depth. The heat seems stronger because of the fact they're using distilled vinegar. But distilled vinegar can be made from anything — all you need is a carbon atom. Also, their sauce is cooked — which doesn't necessarily guarantee a better sauce.”
With the chile basics solidly in hand, we decide to venture into more exotic terrain. We start with Lady Walton's Raspberry Chipotle sauce, a sort of runny marmalade made brownish by chile powder. Company owner Susan Walton and a group of her friends developed the sauce after they began to see more and more products bearing the name “chipotle.”
“It seems like a pepper everyone's involved in,” Walton explains. With Walton's raspberry sauce “you can make a vinaigrette dressing, put it on grilled vegetables, poultry, fish.”
Watson dips a chip into the concoction, places it on his tongue, and makes a chewing movement.
“Fortunately, they use a dry mora chile, rather than the canned stuff in adobo sauce. It's a great sauce, but rather too sweet,” he says. “With the aftertaste, all you get is the sweet syrup. It might be good on a really good chocolate chip ice cream.”
Determined to press on before our stomach for high-concept trendy gives out, we pay a visit to Robin and Mary Fran Hopkins, whose Companions sauce line includes Spicy Apricot Fusion, advertised as “the Swiss Army knife of fusion cooking.”
“It's got apricots, chipolta [sic] peppers, and ginger — you can use it for any kind of fusion cooking — that's why we call it the Swiss Army knife,” explains Robin Hopkins.
Watson is skeptical.
“Windows 95 is the Swiss Army knife of computing,” he notes in a murmured aside. “And half the time you can't open the blades.”
And the chipotle fusion version?
“It wasn't very good. The pepper flavor was completely lost,” says Watson, already irritated by the direction our Chipotle Tour has taken. “I'm not one for the jam kind of thing, and that's all we've tried so far.”
Anxious to please, we hook Watson up with Chris Willis of Harrison Napa Valley, a vintner and condiment-maker who just came out with a chipotle hot sauce.
“It's selling really well,” Willis brags. “It's got a nice, smoky taste. It's hot, but not too hot.”
Watson tries some, swirls his tongue inside his mouth, then betrays a slight scowl.
“How's your mango salsa doing for you?” Watson asks conversationally.
Once out of Willis' earshot, we ask for a verdict.
“They use canned mora chiles. It wasn't very good,” says Watson, with more disgust than flat chile sauce would seem to warrant. “I asked about their mango sauce because they just ripped me off for a sauce that I offered to co-pack for them. I'm not fond of their sauce at all. It's two-dimensional and doesn't have any of the depth or character of some of your better sauces.”
Sensing a bit too much negativity, we steer our chile-tasting ship toward friendlier shores.
We come upon Gil Tortolani, a jovial, rotund man who runs Gil's Foods condiment distribution company. He and Watson have been pals for years. The two have competed against each other in countless chile sauce competitions, and regard each other with the kind of respect due true chile-world players.
Tortolani's sauce won first place in Chile Pepper Magazine's Fiery Food Challenge.
As for Watson, “He's got the best. He's a famous guy. Write good things about him,” Tortolani says.
“This is my own sauce, and it's got chipotle in it. It's called Crying Tongue hot sauce. It has chipotle-style smoked chiles, habanero peppers, and savina chiles. I did a tour of the Tabasco plant and got inspired to do my own hot sauce. I didn't like theirs because it was too vinegary. I had some brine from some habanero peppers I had pickled. I mixed the spent habanero brine with smoked jalapenos and made a sauce.”
The verdict: “I really liked it,” Watson effuses, without offering much explanation.
Concerned about what this backslapping might do to our journalistic reputations, we hustle Watson along to World Variety Produce of Los Angeles, producers of the Don Enrique line of Mexican condiments.
There, we ask Lori Hirari, a lithe, black-haired woman, about the company's Don Enrique's Chile Chipotle salsa.
“One thing that is different is that it does not contain any tomatoes. Tomato does thicken the salsa, but it takes away from the chipotle flavor,” Hirari says.
After Hirari and Watson share a little pepper-business small talk, we huddle to pass judgment on the salsa.
“Actually, I think this salsa is the nicest one I tasted. It has a well-rounded flavor, a full finish, a woodsy finish,” Watson explains. “Plus, she's cute.”
That said, we figure it's time to wind up our pepper journey and sample some of Larry's own Bohemian Chipotle Pep-per Sauce.
“In my opinion …,” Larry begins, as we realize that our chile tour has had just about enough of his biased bons mots.
We decide to sample the stuff ourselves. Larry pours three drops on the back of our hand. “It's cleaner than the fingers,” he notes.
We lick our hand smooth. We run our tongue along the roof of our mouth for a few seconds. We let our tongue relax as the winey aftertaste fades toward the back of our throat.
As far as we can tell, the flavor launches into a tangy, honey-lime burn accented by roasted notes, before mellowing to a smooth walnut-caramel finish.
We think we'll make a sandwich.