Food

Turning Up the Heat

Two Chicago sauce-makers show their mettle at the city’s first (annual) hot sauce expo

Emeline Posner

After several years of one-off events, Chicago finally has a hot sauce festival that’s promising to stick around. At the First Annual Chi-Town Hot Sauce Expo last weekend—the latest addition to an expo circuit that already includes Portland, Anaheim, and New York City—thirty-three hot sauce vendors convened in the parking lot of Toyota Park, just southwest of the city limits, to show off their finest and spiciest.

National favorites like Hellfire Hot Sauce and Volcanic Peppers brought their mouth-scorchers, doling out sample spoonfuls of sauces made with Carolina Reaper peppers—the hottest in the world—to bolder attendees. But the expo wasn’t just for diehards: there was no shortage of sweet, smoky, funky, and fruit-based sauces and jams, from as far as Vermont and as near as Lake in the Hills, Illinois. A number of events—eating competitions, cocktail mix-offs, and a chihuahua beauty contest—and an incredibly reasonably priced drinks tent ensured that visitors had multiple ways to keep cool and entertained.

While we were disappointed not to see beloved South Side–based habanero sauce line Quarter Mile Runnin’ Hot represented at the Expo, two other local hot sauce vendors brought a distinctly Chicago flavor to the weekend’s lineup.

With a couple of Chicago flag–adorned shirts for sale hanging behind them, West Loop residents Shane and Shelli Christensen of Sh’ That’s Hot were giving out spoonfuls of three sauces: Angry Ginger (habanero ginger sauce with a lingering burn), Carolina Reaper Throat Punch (very hot, but with some sweetness to it), and Habanero Hop Infusion (a dry, milder sauce with carrot and lime). The couple, who started their business in 2017, donates a dollar from every bottle sale to veteran support nonprofit Hope for the Warriors.

Several tents down, I found Soothsayer Hot Sauce owner Kyle Janis doing the most Chicago food industry thing ever: trading complaints about Chicago’s health department regulations while handing out spoonfuls of his limited-edition Malört-infused ghost pepper grapefruit hot sauce. (He also makes an Old Style–inspired hot sauce, for those interested in a non-alcoholic Chicago Handshake, along with a number of milder hot sauces with complex flavor profiles.)

Janis, who started his company in 2016, is based in Logan Square. But he drives out to a shared kitchen in west suburban LaGrange to get around Chicago’s inspection process, which he found too time-intensive and costly. He was trading stories about shared kitchens and regulations with Beverly resident Cassandra Washington, who used to have her own hot sauce business.

“With all the rules and stipulations it makes it real difficult,” said Washington, who started her business after her mango habanero sauce grew to be a hit among friends. But after coming up against the city’s requirements for nutrition labels, which are required for sale in grocery stores, she turned back to concocting sauces on an informal basis. “After a while you just say, forget about it.”

While nobody’s holding their breath waiting for the city to loosen up its arcane food regulations—though mobile vendors and urban farmers and gardeners are doing the legwork to fight for better policy—it’s a treat to see Chicagoans push through in spite of it all.

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Emeline Posner is the Weekly’s food & land editor and a freelance writer. She last wrote for the Weekly in June about a panel on reclaiming parkland as public space.

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