Heatseeking Mission: A Chilehead's Journey

PHOTO: James Wreck, iBurn
iBurn

The first week of October marked a special milestone for spicy-food fans in the United States. Number 1-ranking spicy food fan site in the country (or if you want to refer to them by the proper insider term, "Chilehead" site) EatMoreHeat.com opened a bricks-and-mortar store named iBurn in Houston, Texas. Chileheads from near and far came to celebrate and sample. We asked founder and main chilehead James "Wreck" Beck for a list of some favorite products—and those with the best stories—for a view of the Western Hemisphere through a chilehead's palette.

PHOTO: Tabanero Hot Sauce - Tabasco, Mexico
Courtesy Tabanero
Tabanero Hot Sauce – Tabasco, Mexico

You think you know Tabasco. But aside from being the brand name of the USA's most mainstream spicy condiment, it's also the name of a – completely unaffiliated – state in the Yucatan Peninsula area of Mexico. The makers of all-natural, preservative-free Tabanero hot sauce not only source their ingredients but create the products in Tabasco, Mexico. They export to a few specialty stores like iBurn, and handle online orders for customers from as far away as Alaska. Soul-warming extra: They also donate a percentage of all sales to a community church in Tabasco.

PHOTO: Smokin Eds - Ft. Mill, S.C.
Courtesy Puckerbutt Pepper Co.
Smokin' Ed's – Ft. Mill, S.C.

Ed Currie has been on countless TV programs for cultivating "Smokin Ed's Carolina Reaper," currently set to break the Guinness record for world's hottest chile. This friend of iBurn invites people to his own Main Street location in the small town of Ft. Mill, S.C. if you're in the neighborhood, saying, "If you would like to try a bite of any of the thousands of varieties of peppers we grow, or sample any of our products, come on in and join us at the table with Smokin' Ed. You never know what crazy concoction the Mad Scientist is brewing up on any given day."

PHOTO: Half Moon Bay Trading Co - Nosara, Costa Rica
Courtesy Half Moon Bay Trading Co
Half Moon Bay Trading Co – Nosara, Costa Rica

Former ad man Tom Nuijens is living the dream that basically everyone in today's small farm-loving era might aspire to: He owns a small farm in Costa Rica and divides his time between there and Neptune Beach, Fla. He's turned a passion-project side gig into a growing business, and finds inspiration for new products from his world travels. For example, his Iguana XXX Habanero Pepper Sauce was first dreamed up "in the middle of nowhere, at this killer little ranchito bar overlooking the surf… We saw this huge green iguana nipping these bright orange bonnet-shaped peppers off a bush and eatin' them like peanuts. Overcome by curiosity, we stumbled over to join him for a snack that peeled the skin off our lips."

PHOTO: Mad Gringo - Ontario, Canada
Courtesy Mad Gringo Hot Sauce
Mad Gringo – Ontario, Canada

The name connotes another expat who's set up shop in Central America, but it's misleading. The Mad Gringo is actually a young Canadian chilehead, who sources his ingredients from the farms and fields around Ontario, and is currently hand-selling his fiery-hot sauces in farm markets and specialty retailers in the same geographical area. He's a newcomer but one who's already caught the attention of heatseekers like James Wreck for his ultra-hot products that also incorporate fresh berries, honey and other diverse ingredients.

PHOTO: Sparkys Burger - Hatch, New Mexico
Courtesy Sparkys BBQ & Espresso
Sparky's Burger – Hatch, N.M.

As anyone from the Southwest knows, New Mexico is the heartland of chile farming, and the epicenter of it all is Hatch, the southern New Mexico farm region known as the "Chile Capitol of the World." Just about every restaurant in the state serves a green chile cheeseburger, but James Wreck contends that the best burger of all might be—not surprisingly—in downtown Hatch, at a burger joint called Sparky's.

PHOTO: Zane & Zacks Honey Chipotle Sauce - Renton, Wash.
Zane & Zacks Honey Co.
Zane & Zack's Honey Chipotle Sauce – Renton, Wash.

With a focus on fresh natural ingredients, this artisan brand found a spiritual home in the Pacific Northwest, and appeals to many niches: chileheads, gourmet foodies, farm-to-table fanatics. It's more of a specialty food innovator than a hot sauce producer. Recommended by iBurn buyer Amy Beck, the honey chipotle sauce was Zane & Zack's first product, "created from fresh smoked Jalapeños and surplus honey from our backyard beehives, combined with other fresh ingredients."

PHOTO: Bajan Pepper Sauce - Barbados
Courtesy Aunt Mays Food Products
Bajan Pepper Sauce – Barbados

Plenty of Caribbean locals like a bit of spice in their food (and their dancing…and their conversation), but probably no island is as hung up on hot sauce as Barbados. Though Trinidad might be home to the hottest pepper variety (the Moruga Scorpion), it's Barbados that has nurtured a cottage industry of small Bajan pepper sauce makers. By now, successful island entrepreneurs like Aunt May's have gone international –but a foodie explorer will still discover many local brands and one-off products in Barbados' shops and markets.

PHOTO: Grumpys Foods - Thornton, Colo.
Courtesy Grumpys BBQ Sauce
Grumpy's Foods – Thornton, Colo.

Spicy mustards, relishes and jams all exist, but the chile-centric condiment closest to hot sauce is BBQ sauce, and many companies specialize in it. Bold XX "Kansas City style" and Goodnight-Loving "Texas-style" sauces are two of the best sellers for Colorado-based Grumpy's BBQ – a favorite at iBurn. Though available across the Southwest and as far east as Pennsylvania, this is a Colorado artisan producer with the locavore swagger and excellent product quality often found in Rocky Mountain farm-to-table businesses.

PHOTO: Cambridge Chilli Sauce Co.
Courtesy Cambridge Chilli Sauce Co., UK
Cambridge Chilli Sauce Co. – Cambridge, UK

Although it seems incongruous given Great Britain's legendarily bland traditional cuisine, iBurn reports that some of the most passionate chile eaters in the world are across the pond. In fact, some UK-based chile eating contests are stopped midway through to stop contestants being hospitalized due to capsaicin overload. This brand doesn't just cater to extremists though. While products like the Trinidad Scorpion Sauce (featuring the worlds-hottest-chile contender) are for cast-iron stomachs, others, like Raspberry & Chilli Jelly, are for everyone – especially tourists shopping at Cambridge Market, where this family business sells its products every week.

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