It starts with a dry sandwich.
I’m at JFK International Airport in New York, chewing on an $8.99 offering from a corporate bistro named after a French phrase.
It’s not a bad sandwich: a caprese — mozzarella and tomatoes on a dwarf baguette, heaped with pesto. There’s the requisite bag of chips and an iced coffee to keep me buzzing in my airplane seat until I’ve leafed through every page of SkyMall and am wondering if I can put a replica medieval sword on the credit card without the spouse noticing.
But the sandwich lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. Now, speaking of French phrases, I’m not sure what that one means, but for the purposes of this column, I’m guessing it translates roughly to a big ol’ squirt of delicious, tongue-numbing hot sauce.
So a few days later, my dry sandwich has taken me to Irwindale, Calif. I’m standing in front of a giant, spit-shined new building fronted by a classy fountain that has the understated inscription “Huy Fong Foods, Inc.”
I’m not going to claim the skies now open up to bathe this scene in sunlight and angel song, but I will maintain that the sandwich in my knapsack started vibrating and glowing warmly, as if having arrived home.
That’s about when a security guard in a golf cart emblazoned with the Huy Fong logo scoots up and asks exactly who I am.
For those poor souls who don’t understand why my sandwich and I are having a soulful moment in a parking lot in an industrial ’burb of Los Angeles: Huy Fong is the company that produces the world’s most popular brand of Sriracha, a Thai-style hot sauce. It sells for a few bucks in a distinct plastic bottle with a green cap. Culinary authorities, including broke college students and Bon Appétit editors — who awarded it Ingredient of the Year in 2010 — agree that it improves Asian noodles, minibagels and haute cuisine because it tastes like the glorious sweat of the gods.
I sweet-talk my way into a Huy Fong visitor’s sticker and suddenly I’m in a glass-walled room, signing a form agreeing not to divulge confidential technical aspects of any chili-processing wonders I may behold.
And then he sits before me: a sprightly old man in a multicolored golf cap and cardigan, unsmiling but gracious. The Don Corleone of spice.
David Tran founded Huy Fong in 1980, peddling his first chili sauce — a pepper saté concoction — that he sold in baby-food jars in his native Vietnam and from the trunk of a Chevy in America. His perfect Sriracha formula of chili, vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt was developed later. The company was named after the freighter that brought him to the U.S. Now, it produces roughly 25 million bottles of hot sauce each year. David uses only overripe, red jalapeños, which farmers don’t intentionally produce. This particularity is his boon and his burden. David describes untold days loitering around farmers markets, looking for the red stuff: “Every day waiting the chili, waiting the chili.”
Then he found a fresh market in downtown Los Angeles that regularly sold red jalapeños, and Huy Fong began growing and never stopped. Lay’s recently introduced a Sriracha-flavored potato chip, and astronauts have used the condiment in space.
But even now, David is still waiting the chili, waiting the chili. He stopped accepting new U.S. bulk buyers years ago. There’s not nearly enough red jalapeño in the world for Huy Fong to meet the growing demand.
David answers a smartphone decorated with his company’s logo — the Emergency Chili-Logistics Line, presumably — and I’m shepherded away by golf cart to his never-ending chili warehouse, where approximately 200,000 blue barrels keep the holy stuff stored until bottling time. There are so many barrels that Huy Fong had to start a little barrel factory on the side.
I am then expelled into California sunlight, woozy as a Zen traveler after receiving answers from a monk atop a mountain.
Fans sometimes send David bottles of his product to sign, but Huy Fong declines in order to stanch a memorabilia frenzy. But before I left, David took Sharpie to Sriracha and blessed me with the Honus Wagner baseball card of hot-sauce memorabilia.
Unfortunately, I was never the kid who could keep his action figures in original packaging. Anyway, this bottle would never get by TSA.
So I grab the sandwich from my bag and coat it with the red gloss from an autographed “rooster sauce.”
That first bite lights up my tongue.