The first house hot sauce I fell in love with was a velvety, bright green zhug from the now-defunct Cafe Jaffa in Back Bay. I would make a special request note in my Grubhub orders (HOT SAUCE PLS :) THANK YOU), and relish in the arrival of little plastic tubs of spicy, herbaceous sauce carefully wrapped in aluminium foil for transport. It made all fry sauce pale in comparison when mixed with ketchup and fat, pillowy chips. Tahini dressing was elevated with a spoonful and a thick smear on a chicken kebab pita added a layer of zip that I fantasize about most often in my now-meat-free nights.
House hot sauces are often an unsung hero of a restaurant’s repertoire. Carefully crafted by owners, chefs, and kitchen staff, to call them a “condiment” would be an insult. Sometimes you need to be in the know and ask for it. Sometimes it’s offered silently and generously on your table or bar. Either way these peppery concoctions do more than raise the heat on a round of tacos or oysters, they can complete a meal.
While I’ll never replace my beloved Yemenite hot sauce of yore, the Boston area offers dozens upon dozens more house sauces to explore. Here are some to check out:
Boston Kebab House’s Hot Sauce
Chef and owner Osman Kiranoglu tried an unforgettable hot sauce at a Turkish gyro shop in London 15 years ago. He tried to find the chef to ask for the recipe but didn’t have time. Once home, Kiranoglu experimented to find a similar blend of sweet and spicy to add a layer of balance and heat to a traditional plate of red meat and yogurt sauce. Carrots and white cabbage create the base — ”People are shocked when I tell them,” he said. (We were.) — and are blended with cayenne pepper, Turkish pepper paste, brown sugar, and olive oil.
Where to find it: In tiny plastic cups en route to the checkout lane.
How to eat it: As Kiranoglu intended, layered on doner kebab and falafel with housemade yogurt sauce.
Buenas Empanadas’ Pebre
Buenas owners Melissa Stefanini and Sebastian Galvenz based their Pebre on the spicy sauce found on every Chilean household’s kitchen table. They swapped out traditional tomatoes and merkén peppers, and use toasted, ground chile de árbol with red wine vinegar, garlic, onion, and cilantro for balanced savory sweetness. Stefanini, who is admittedly spice-adverse, says she’d rate the heat a 3 or 4 out of 10: “It’s not painful hot, but there’s definitely a kick.”
Where to find it: Buenas sells their Pebre by the jar or on the side ($0.50 a pop) from their shop in Bow Market.
How to eat it: As a dip for ground beef empanadas, slathered over their Nata Dog — a hot dog wrapped in empanada dough — or as a mignonette for oysters (it’s the house choice for East Boston Oysters). Or, a woman after our hearts, Stefanini suggests adding a shake into a Bloody Mary.
Chicken & Rice Guys’ Extra Hot Sauce
Stop by any C&R location at lunchtime to find folks drenching heaping plates of gyro and chicken with liberal doses of four signature sauces. Extra Hot is, as the name implies, the spiciest of the batch and is inspired by an assortment of the team’s own favorites: sriracha, habanero, ghost pepper, and cayenne-vinegar hot sauces. With double the habanero and ghost pepper of the Medium Hot, director of marketing Steven Collicelli said it took a lot of trial and error by the self-proclaimed spice heads to find the right balance of heat, flavor, and pourability.
Where to find it: In the plastic squirt bottle labeled Extra Hot at any of C&R’s Five food trucks and three brick and mortar locations.
How to eat it: Swirled over creamy garlic sauce to cut the heat with any signature protein and rice plate. Or Collicelli challenges the brave to take their Hot Sauce Challenge and down a 2-ounce shot of Extra Hot for a free plate of your choice.
Ruckus’ Ruckus Paste
Chiu Chow Chili Oil from the South China province where owner Brian Moy’s grandmother is from inspired the thick, scarlet red sauce at Ruckus. Executive chef Mike Stark replaced the sesame oil and dried soybeans from the store-bought version with his special blend, using fresh Thai chiles and dried chile flakes with two quarts of chopped garlic. Unlike condiment du jour, Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp, Stark’s Ruckus Paste is mellow, smoky, garlicky while still adding a satisfying level of spice.
Where to find it: It comes on the Miso Lit Ramen but is available on the side to anyone who asks.
How to eat it: Stark says it kicks up any of the noodle soups, but he highly recommends adding it to the Kake Udon.
Lone Star Taco Bar’s Habanero Sweet Potato Sauce
When Lone Star partner Max Toste and then-chef and partner Rian Wyllie opened the first Lone Star location in Allston eight years ago, they knew they couldn’t replicate “another red pepper sauce.” With a lingering obsession for Matouk’s Calypso Sauce — a blazing blend of mango and Scotch bonnets — they set out to make their own spicy-sweet bright orange sauce. “Habaneros have a nice flavor but you can’t taste them unless you blend them with something — typically it’s fruit,” explained Toste. They ended up with sweet potato (“not a fruit”) blended with habaneros, white onion, apple cider vinegar, and brown sugar — made fresh weekly to this day.
Where to find it: On every tabletop and bar alongside their house verde sauce (also good) at both Lone Star locations (the second is in Cambridge).
How to eat it: Toste loves the Habanero Sweet Potato sauce on their Baja Fish Tacos so much he considered making it a menu staple before ultimately deciding guests could control their own heat. Also, try it on the dry rub chicken wings from the restaurants’ late-night menu served at 11:30.
Veggie Galaxy Hot Sauce
It sure is spicy but owner Katherine Tanner would call this more of a “salsa” than a hot sauce thanks to a chunky, veggie-heavy texture. With their own dill pickles and fresh jalapenos and a tomato, Veggie Galaxy’s hot sauce has been a customer fave since the scratch kitchen opened in 2011. Always vegan, always house-made, always the just-right amount of spice. (Tanner ranks it a 5 out of 10 for heat.)
Where to find it: Ask for a side and you will receive.
How to eat it: Tanner recommends adding the sauce for a kick to their falafel burger, tofu scramble, and grilled cheese.
Row 34’s Small Batch Hot Sauce
Chef and owner Jeremy Sewall had a lot peppers after a farmer he worked with regularly somehow wound up with hundreds and hundreds of pounds with nowhere to go. He called in Alex Bourgeois of Alex’s Ugly Sauce to cook down the four types of peppers (Jimmy Nardello, Rezha, Caldero Guero, and Cono Di Toro) and they collaborated to find the ideal balance of heat and sweet. For Sewall, who wanted to keep the heat moderately spicy to complement seafood, it’s the perfect blend: “It checks all the boxes for me: it’s local, it helps great local farmers growing these peppers, and it grew into something we didn’t expect.”
Where to find it: On the tables at Island Creek Oyster Bar and Row 34. Also available for purchase by the bottle at islandcreekoysters.com.
How to eat it: Sewall loves it drizzled over fries and Row 34’s fish and chips or adding a few drops to ceviche for a hint of spice.
Shore Leave’s House Sriracha
When Huy Fong Foods’ factory was shut down following a 2013 lawsuit over the smell of sriracha, chef Colin Lynch had an idea. (“How bad could it smell?”) After making his own batch, he was struck by how easy it was to recreate, eventually adding a tweaked version to his repertoire for family meal at Shore Leave. Lynch’s spin on sriracha is a blend of Fresno chile peppers, garlic, brown sugar, distilled vinegar, and salt with one surprising addition: grapefruit zest, inspired by the citrus notes of yuzu kosho.
Where to find it: In the condiment caddies on every table at Shore Leave — and Lynch hints it may be available to take home by the bottle soon.
How to eat: It comes with the Rohan Duck, to be smeared onto bao buns with crispy skin, and Lynch likes it on the Banh Mi Club sandwiches or “pretty much anything.”
Shy Bird Hot Sauce
It’s a long haul process to make Shy Bird’s signature hot sauce. Chef Matt Garland mashes hybrid cayenne peppers from Sparrow Arc Farm in Copake, N.Y., and sticks them into an Old Forester bourbon barrel to ferment with salt for seven months. Then the pepper mash is pureed, strained, and mixed with distilled vinegar before it’s ready to mingle with the menu at Shy Bird. The result is slippery, complex, and solid.
Where to find it: Ask for it at the counter.
How to eat it: “Obviously the sauce probably wouldn’t be here if it didn’t go great with chicken,” said Garland, who suggests adding it to the rotisserie birds, fried chicken sandwiches, and the Shy Bird Benedict. Also delicious: a welcome wakeup call to the breakfast egg sandwiches, particularly the simple Egg & Cheese on a Portuguese bun.
Ana Sortun’s Zhoug is so beloved it made a leap from shakshuka garnish to ask-for-it-by-name add-on. Made fresh with Hungarian hot wax peppers, cilantro, parsley, garlic, spices, salt, olive oil, and sherry vinegar, the bright green hot sauce has oomph.
Where to find it: Ask for it as a side or to be added to any dish on the menu.
How to eat it: Sortun likes it swirled into scrambled eggs, blended into Greek yogurt or hummus as a drip or a drizzle, and added to the stellar breakfast sandwich — egg, halloumi, and feta butter.
Rachel Raczka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.