Until they discovered sriracha in their respective university cafeterias, Shauna Ward of Williams Bay, Wisc., and Tiffany Thompson of West Springfield didn’t know the Thai chile sauce existed. Now each keeps a large bottle close by. “I use it pretty much on everything I make that is bland — which is pretty much everything,” says Ward, a Boston University senior. Thompson, a junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, thinks sriracha gives everything a little extra zing, and it goes on “anything that I want spicy,” she says.
It’s that zing that makes sriracha a favorite among chefs. Suzi Maitland of Trina’s Starlite Lounge infuses her aioli with the puree of chiles, garlic, vinegar, and sugar for her Somerville restaurant menu. Matthew Gaudet of West Bridge, in Cambridge, mixes it into his miso barbecue sauce. Brookline restaurateur Deborah Hansen of Taberno de Haro adds it to a Spanish omelet. The signature sauce at the new brick-and-mortar Mei Mei Street Kitchen in Boston is a mix of sriracha and ketchup.
Sriracha is the go-to sauce of the moment. And though dozens of companies make the chile-garlic condiment, for aficionados, only one brand matters: Huy Fong Foods’ jalapeno red sauce with a rooster logo and green cap. Rooster Sauce, its most familiar moniker, may be temporarily in short supply. Shipments were halted last month to meet a federal health code after a review of the California firm’s new manufacturing process. The hashtag #srirachapocalypse quickly lit up social media.
Current Rooster Sauce woes began after the company opened a $40 million plant last summer in Irwindale, Calif., in Los Angeles County. Neighbors complained about the odor, then the state Department of Public Health advised owner Dave Tran that his uncooked sauce needs to sit for 30 days to be bacteria-free before shipping. Maitland immediately ordered extra cases; ditto Andrew Li, co-owner of Mei Mei’s.
All that remains available of Rooster Sauce bottles is currently on store shelves, in Asian markets like C Mart, in the South End, and in supermarket chains. The C Mart manager says his stock won’t last long and Boston-based wholesale restaurant supplier Food-Pak is sold out. But shipments will soon resume. “We are looking forward to being able to release the product at the end of the month,” a Huy Fong spokesperson writes in an e-mail.
The popularity of Rooster Sauce can be attributed to its cost: A 17-ounce bottle typically sells for $2.99 to $5. It’s so popular that sriracha is now a potato chip flavor, part of a Subway chicken sandwich campaign, the subject of two cookbooks, a winking reference on “The Simpsons” TV show, and more.
Of the scores of sriracha brands, made domestically and abroad — Lee Kum Kee and Kikkoman offer variations — many connoisseurs favor Shark, a Thai brand. The differences are in the variety of chiles used, the sweetness, and the viscosity.
But Rooster Sauce has obtained iconic status. “People want the Rooster Sauce because it’s become synonymous with this chile sauce,” says Andrea Nguyen, the California-based author of “Asian Tofu” and the upcoming “The Banh Mi Handbook,” who posts her own sriracha recipes on Vietworldkitchen.com. “They’re using the condiment as a way to give heat and an Asian twist to their food. The popularity of this sauce is a way to see the way Americans are now so attracted to big flavors.”
The affinity for sriracha is often instilled in college, where it’s a regular fixture on the condiment bar. UMass-Amherst has provided it for 10 years. The campus’s various cafeterias go through 60 bottles a week, says Ken K. Toong, executive director of auxiliary enterprises. Five years ago, the Amherst campus switched from only using Huy Fong brand and now also provides Lee Kum Kee sriracha. At Tufts University, Rooster Sauce is used in two dozen recipes. Switching brands would be a dilemma for the Medford college. “The alternative brand with a similar flavor profile contains an allergen,” says Patricia Klos, director of dining and business services. Lee Kum Kee sriracha contains anchovy extract, which can be an allergen. “How would we manage that? We’ve been contemplating pulling the sauce for the time being until [Huy Fong Foods] is in compliance.”
There isn’t universal agreement on how Rooster Sauce tastes. Maitland says it has “a nice heat that creeps up on you. You can overuse it and regret it.” Eunice Feller of Bread & Chocolate Bakery Cafe in Newton Highlands says the heat “hits you right away, in the nasal passage and top of my brain, before it kind of vaporizes and is gone.” Max Hull, Mei Mei’s food manager, likes its “umami character. It’s a nicely balanced hot sauce with not too much vinegar.”
Sriracha sauces originated in 1949 in the Thai city of Si Racha. Part of the appeal of Rooster Sauce is the immigrant success of founder Tran. He is profiled in a recent documentary titled simply “Sriracha” ($5 on Vimeo.com). Of Chinese descent, Tran grew up in Vietnam, where he made and sold a chile paste. In 1979, he boarded a freighter for Hong Kong, then headed to Boston, and soon relocated to Los Angeles. Before long, Tran was making several chile products. His company name is a variation of the freighter name on which he fled Vietnam.
Huy Fong Foods has never had to advertise. In the documentary, Tran says revenues have grown 20 percent every year. The Los Angeles Times reports Huy Fong does more than $60 million in sales of sriracha a year.
The potential Rooster Sauce shortage has encouraged some chefs to make their own. Maitland is impressed with the sriracha made by Bob Botchie of Shanghai Social Club in Allston. “It’s a little sweeter, but ridiculously good,” she says. Botchie says he favors the very hot Thai bird chile because “it’s very small and packs a lot of punch. If you go with a mellower chile, you won’t get what you expect out of sriracha.”
Meanwhile, cookbook author Nguyen believes the sriracha shortage is media-driven. “I don’t know if regular people care that much,” she says.
She may have a point. With Rooster Sauce shipping about to resume later this month, the public is worried another crisis may arise just before Super Bowl: a possible shortage of Velveeta.
Does a #velveetapocalypse loom?