With sweat on our brows and a tingling in our lips, Portland Monthly’s panel of fearless taste-testers sampled 23 local hot sauce varieties. We tried old favorites and new standards, from ubiquitous Aardvark to newly minted Miss Delta.
The parameters: No barbecue sauce, no chutney, and no salsa. Almost all of our samples were plucky, vinegar-based sauces, imbued with fresh chile heat and carefully calibrated using a few secret ingredients. Below, our top five represent the beautiful, varied spectrum of hot sauce possibility: thick Sriracha-esque sauce in squeeze bottles, traditional biting Tabasco, and funky Thai chile sauce. Proceed with caution.
The Top 5
The Goldilocks hot sauce from Miss Delta’s Southern restaurant in North Portland. Delta bottles red fresno chiles, cayenne peppers, and white vinegar to make their subtly spicy, pitch-perfect blend.
“Like a unadulterated chile pepper reduction…captures the bright and fruity essence of a pepper.”
Like a better Sriracha, Hot Winter uses their own heirloom chile variety grown in California's Humbolt County blended with a mix of cider and rice vinegars. The result is a thick, neon red, slightly sweet sauce with a slow burn and a familiar fermented kick.
“Sweet, fruity, and funky…well rounded, almost jammy.”
Using a generations-old Mexican family recipe and all-Northwest chiles, Hot Mama is the sauce for hot heads looking for a serious dare. It starts with a deliciously sweet, creamy carrot hit and slowly builds to a scorching burn.
“Mmm…creamy…I know it’s going to hurt me, but I am going back for more…I can feel the heat under my eyes!”
From Sok Sab Bai’s Cambodian food cart-turned brick n’ mortar, a hot sauce with intense notes of lime, ginger, and fish fermentation that make “Da Sauce” the holy grail for those who love playing on the Asian flavor spectrum.
“I’d use this over Sriracha any day”
The pickling experts behind Picklopolis’s farm-fresh brines have ventured into the world of hot sauces—to great effect. Their green Jalapeno variety holds a gentle heat, and appropriately, tons of concentrated, salty brine.
“It has an almost beefy quality…incredible, like a pickle”
Best "Not Hot Sauces"
We argued for hours about what qualifies as hot sauce, and ultimately, these two fell outside the boundaries. Hot sauce or not, they were so good that we had to include them on this list.
Israeli food cart Wolf & Bear’s crafts a legendary “hot sauce.” Bright green and flecked with cilantro and garlic, it was the most delicious sauce to scorch our taste buds all day. We finished off an entire jar of the stuff, even after two hours of scoville torture.
“Like pesto’s wicked little brother…a total garlic-cilantro bomb.”
Marshall’s artisanal “Haute” brand makes a sweet, creative curry mix packed with balsamic vinegar, carrots, habaneros, and Jacobsen sea salt that slowly builds with explosive heat.
“This could perk up any dish.”
Aardvark: “Well balanced…punchy…not overwhelming, with a nice tongue-tingle…a little thick?”
Marhshall’s Serrano Ginger: “Nice and floral, with a sharp heat…but too sweet”
Marshall’s Ghost Chili Apple: “Like a sweet n’ spicy applesauce…ghost chiles lend an uncomfortably intense after burn.”
Hotmaple: “Maple syrup gives it a nice sweetness…very untraditional…super smoky, more like a barbecue sauce.
Saucesome: “Not not unimpressive”
Thai and True: “Like an overly-sweet store-bought salad dressing”
Portland Red Pepper Sauce: “Strange chemical aftertaste”
Portland Pepper Sauce, Fresanero: "Velvety texture, nice build to a big kick…less fake-tasting than the original”
Portland Pepper Sauce, Extra Hot: “Acrid stinging at the back of the throat…fermented—like baby food gone bad”
Flameboy, XXX Hot: “Watery, dirty barbecue sauce”
Flameboy, Hot Mango: “Ditto the XXX, but worse…it separates…tastes like Satan’s Gerber”
Did we miss your favorite Portland hot sauce? Let us know in the comments below!