Anne Marie Panoringan
Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for eight years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly “On the Line” column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.
Once winter temperatures eventually cool down in our part of the state, what better way to keep cozy than through comfort dishes kicked up with spice, warming oneself from the inside out. You don’t have to leave Orange County to find three great sauces created by local makers of bottled heat during National Pepper Month.
The Award-Winning Home Cook
A Fullerton family man with a green thumb, John Kessler’s Infinity Sauces origin story began with a few plants unexpectedly bearing an abundance of habanero pods. Kessler took what life gave him and turned them into pepper jams, jelly, pizza sauce and experimental batches of hot sauce.
Friends and family encouraged him to build his own brand but Kessler hesitated, instead submitting his recipes for habanero and chipotle sauces to compete at the OC Fair back in 2014. He wound up winning the Best Overall Hot Sauce award that summer (plus each subsequent year through 2019), prompting him to focus his energy on producing sauces for retail.
When 4th Street Market opened in Santa Ana, he toured its East End Incubator Kitchens. He realized he could cut out the middle man by crafting his products on-site. With the accessibility of consumer feedback available by being connected with the food hall, Kessler shifted operations to East End, making all sauces by hand in small batches. “Our scale has grown considerably, but our process and attention to quality has not changed. We still continue to strive to work with local farmers to source ingredients when possible,” he said.
The Infinity name stemmed from Kessler’s test iterations of sauce. Soliciting feedback from a neighbor during his research and development phase, he labeled his current batch with the number 8. When he heard back from the neighbor, they mistakenly questioned Kessler’s use of the infinity symbol and the name stuck.
Offering a comprehensive lineup of hot sauces, the order of mild to spicy is as follows: Chipotle, Original, Ghost Monkey, Hatch-Quatch, Tri-Haba-Saurus Rex and Ghost F**k Yourself. The Kessler household incorporates Infinity into everything, including pasta dishes, potatoes and as a chili seasoning base. “My 8-year-old brings the Chipotle sauce to school to put on his sandwiches at lunch,” he commented.
Celebrating seven years of Infinity Sauces, John Kessler said he would grow the company parallel to his kid’s growth. “As my (two) boys grow and need less attention and guidance from me, I can spend more time on the business. So right now there is a lot of growth happening,” he said. Infinity’s Instagram account is the best way to keep up with his progress, including participation in the upcoming SoCal Hot Sauce Festival at Radiant Brewery in Anaheim toward the end of the month in addition to a few holiday collaborations.
Infinity Sauces are available online and at Alta Baja Market in Santa Ana.
The Reality Star Entrepreneur
Following her win on Food Network’s cooking competition Chopped in late 2019, Shachi Mehra informed host Ted Allen that she wanted to invest her winnings to create a line of Indian sauces. However this saucy lady’s ambitions go back to 2010-2011, when she was selling mini-grilled cheese sandwiches paired with homemade chutney at Oakland’s East Bay Underground Market. “People have always gravitated towards my sauces – whether it’s a hot sauce or a chutney or the base for a curry, and I have considered the idea to package in the past,” Mehra said.
Once the words were spoken on television, Mehra devised a plan to make Spice Girl Sauces a reality. Her husband, Maneesh, provided the term of endearment that would become her company’s brand. He also encouraged the use of her face on the bottles, letting consumers know it is a woman- and minority-owned business.
What is the Scoville Scale?
- Measures spice level of chile peppers
- SHU = Scoville Heat Units
- Named after pharmacist Wilbur R. Scoville
- Scale was created in 1912
- Bell peppers score below 100 SHU
- Habaneros are above 100,000 SHU
- The Carolina Reaper is the hottest at over 1,500,000 SHU
Why didn’t she brand the sauce to link to her established Adya restaurant concepts in Anaheim and Irvine? She wanted to market a sister brand that would reach beyond the expectations of Adya’s ethnic cuisine. “I wanted to be sure that the sauces were seen as having an Indian soul, but that they would work well with many foods and cuisines from all over the world,” explained Mehra.
Malagueta peppers, serranos, black pepper, garlic and cumin contribute to Spice Girl’s intense profile that finishes strong. Produced by Irvine-based Village Green Foods, the sauce is described by Mehra as having a high heat level, preceded by lots of bright, complex flavors as a counterbalance. The necessity for balance was instilled by her mentor, the late chef Floyd Cardoz, and Spice Girl Sauces pay homage to him and others who have been a positive influence in Mehra’s career.
Mehra not only dips all her favorite Indian snacks in the hot sauce, “I love it in a wrap with bacon and eggs in the morning or on a BLT for lunch,” she said.
By the end of 2022, Mehra’s goal for Spice Girl is to have at least four different flavors in her sauce collection. Be on the lookout for a tangy tomato chutney to be introduced this winter.
The Double Entendre Chef
Debuting earlier this year, Chef Strong’s Salsa Fuerte literally translates to “Strong Sauce,” conveniently describing both the product and creative force behind it. Clocking in with a Scoville rating of 720, it’s on par with the medium heat of Tabasco’s classic red pepper sauce.
With a penchant for Mexican food, Craig Strong frequently served tacos as a staff meal in his kitchens. “I created this for family meal to eat with my team,” said Strong. (Family meal is food made specifically for and eaten with restaurant staff prior to the start of service.) Enough people told him that it should be bottled, so he opted to finally go through with it during COVID.
In Hotel Laguna’s Larsen kitchen, Strong incorporates the condiment into a number of dishes including hummus, chilaquiles and its house burger’s mustard aioli sauce; Salsa Fuerte also goes well with scrambled eggs. I was pleasantly surprised by the condiment’s palpable well-rounded flavor after drizzling it over chicken tacos from Larsen’s lunch menu.
He explains the manageable heat: “I don’t want to get into a competition for the hottest sauce, which is easy to accomplish, but the most balanced flavor instead.” Made using habanero chiles, caramelized onions, vinegar and garlic, avoiding the use of powdered ingredients tamps down vinegar’s sour nature, resulting in a more flavorful finish. It is a hot sauce that enhances instead of enrages taste buds. Bottled in Oceanside by California Hot Sauce Solutions, Strong selected the specific co-packer because it was able to accommodate the multi-step cooking aspect of his recipe.
Salsa Fuerte is currently available online. Expect another sauce (rumor has it as barbecue) adding to Craig Strong’s repertoire in the future.
Bonus Find In Costa Mesa
Specializing in dry-aged meats carved in-house and prepared over a wood-fired grill, Butcher’s House, which is scheduled to open next month, is the culmination of chef-owner Jeoffrey Offer’s career as a classically trained French chef. This lunch, dinner and brunch destination is housed in the former Pueblo space at South Coast Collection off Hyland Avenue in Costa Mesa.
The contemporary brasserie will include a curated drink selection that includes French-inspired fermented cocktails featuring soju-based spirits. Duck confit and Toulouse sausage proteins are nods to his upbringing in the south of France. His most recent experience is with the French eatery Moulin at its Laguna Beach outpost, with whom he dedicated the last six years helping the brand grow from its initial Newport footprint.
Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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