For the spice-obsessed, the first California Hot Sauce Expo this weekend will be a peppery, vinegary wonderland. Those expecting something like the Sriracha Festival — which was practically a food fest, a chance for restaurants and bartenders to showcase a variety of Instagrammable Sriracha-themed creations — may be disappointed.
That's because the two-day California Hot Sauce Expo is about hot sauce and only hot sauce. It's a celebration of the chile pepper, where 37 hot sauce makers from around the country (but mostly the West Coast) will give out spoonfuls of their sauces — and where the biggest names in America's chile scene will converge.
Yes, there is such a thing as a chile scene.
"The hot sauce business is like the microbrewery world 10 years ago," says the expo's founder, Steve Seabury, who owns a company called High River Sauces. Seabury founded the NYC Hot Sauce Expo four years ago and decided it was time to move the concept west. "We are the hard-core fans. We live, breathe and die for the pepper. If I could have an IV of hot sauce with me at all times when I walk around, I'd do it."
Hot sauce is not your basic vinegar-and-pepper recipe anymore. It's about adding seasonal fruits and local ingredients (like mixing blood oranges and apples with serrano and ghost scorpion peppers), experimenting with local ingredients (including cabernet and habaneros) and getting geeky on new cross-bred peppers, of which there are now too many to count.
Only one or two of the booths at the California Hot Sauce Fest will be serving their hot sauce on top of food. There may be an unsalted chip or two, but for the most part these artisanal makers will serve their creations on a spoon. "Purists like to try the sauce straight," Seabury says. "It lets their imagination run wild, and they can visualize all the food it will taste good with."
Food vendors will be on site to sell you grub, of course, and there will be beer and spicy spirits to wash it all down, too. Beyond tastings, you can sign up for a spicy-food-eating challenge if you think you can wolf down the most burritos or bowls of ramen in a minute; watch local bartenders throw down in bloody Mary and margarita mix-offs; and observe the bravest heat freaks at the expo's famous Carolina Reaper–eating contest, where particpants try to beat the current world record for consumption of the world's hottest pepper (the inventor of the pepper, Ed Curry, is flying out for the event).
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"Going to a hot sauce festival is like driving your car at 300 miles per hour," says Seabury. "Your mouth and your whole senses just comes to life."
California Hot Sauce Expo takes place Saturday, July 11, and Sunday, July 12, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; $10, tickets available here; Rainbow Lagoon, 400 E. Shoreline Drive, Long Beach