The hot sauce didn't make it to the table until a third of our whole fried snapper had been stripped down to its bones. Attracted by a laudatory L.A. Times article, we were dining at Flavors of Belize, a retooled cafe wedged into the Relax Inn on La Brea near San Vicente. One of the owners whisked past our table, and glanced over at the plates — a muddy chirmole, a khaki conch stew, and the brown-gray fish sprawled out across a bed of beans, rice, plantains and potato salad.
“Oh, do you want hot sauce?” he said casually, bringing over a jar brimming with a peach-colored, nearly incandescent concoction. We went Jackson Pollack on our plate, bombing the mound of food with glowing blotches, and instantly the fish went from palatable to sublime.
The brittle, crisp skin was almost too salty to eat on its own, but combined with the flaky, yielding flesh and a bit of the fruity, fresh, incendiary sauce, the flavors and textures became broad and expressive, the effect tantalizing. So tantalizing, in fact, that we, perhaps stupidly, treated everything on our plate as a canvas for the sauce. The rice and beans were dry and a little short on flavor but hot sauce swooped in. We did not intend to douse the plantains, but they sustained collateral damage and did not suffer unduly. The mayo-logged potato salad seemed unnecessary, but with two shakes from a spoon dripping orange, it was a welcome addition.
Something green would be nice, screeched the crotchety grandma in my head but I ignored her. At this kind of place, one doesn't sweat such things, particularly when sweating the hot sauce. This sauce is for people who blanket eggs in Marie Sharp's, squeeze Sriracha over plain rice, eat vinegar-doused serranos like Cheetos and dump a few tablespoons of shichimi onto a bowl of ramen.
My own grandma, probably fairly similar to the one in my head, was not a chile-head. Once, my extended family went to a fairly tame Sichuan restaurant, and upon trying the final dish, something involving braised lamb, she started muttering, “My lips are burning, my lips are burning,” louder and louder, as if the words were an incantation. Stoners will understand the difference between mere mouth burn and the kind of chest-opening, cold sweat-inducing hot sauce serious aficionados prefer — the difference between one puff and a body high. Flakes on pizza make you tingle. Flavors of Belize's sauce does you in.
Flavors of Belize: 1271 S. La Brea Ave., LA, CA 90019. (323) 931-4840.