Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is a lush, verdant landscape where for thousands of years the sophisticated Mayan civilization lived, worked and grew four main crops: corn, beans, squash and chili peppers (as if the area’s sweltering weather wasn’t hot enough already). The land mass is also the home of the habanero, which has long been considered one of the spiciest peppers around.
The majority of the world's habaneros are grown in the Yucatán, and some of those peppers end up in bottles of chunky El Machete hot sauce. Its creator, Oscar Ochoa, named the sauce after a revolutionary Mexico City newspaper from the 1920s and used chilies native to Mexico as a way of honoring his heritage.
“I started by looking at hot sauce through a Mexican lens,” Ochoa says during an interview inside Boyle Heights’ Espacio 1839, the only store that carries his entire line. “It’s rooted in Mexico but inspired to reflect diverse Angeleno culture.”
With its influx of immigrants from spice-loving regions like Asia and Latin America, L.A. has always been a city that ditches the traditional hot sauce narrative. About 100 years after Tabasco — the reigning king of vinegary, Louisiana-style hot sauce — was created, a Guadalajaran named Jose-Luis Saavedra launched the Mexican hot sauce Tapatío out of a small warehouse in Southeast L.A. Then, in 1980, David Tran, who escaped Vietnam after the fall of Saigon, began making a common garlic-pepper sauce called Sriracha under his Huy Fong Foods brand, eventually moving operations to a massive factory in Irwindale.
Meanwhile, on the East Coast, hot sauce in the Louisiana tradition got spicier, spurred by so-called chiliheads or pepperheads who crave the face-melting adrenaline rush of consuming superhot peppers, all of which are at least twice as spicy as the habanero. Ghost peppers clock in at around 1 million on the Scoville scale, the international system for measuring the spicy heat of a pepper, and Carolina Reapers, the world’s hottest pepper, are at 1.57 million. (By comparison, a habanero is around 300,000; a jalepeño is around 8,000; a serrano, around 20,000).
For Ochoa and others in Greater L.A.’s small craft hot sauce community, it’s less about nuclear bombs and references to burning butts than it is about flavor. “When it comes to using Mexican chilies, it’s not always about the heat,” he says. “It’s often the flavor of fresh and sometimes of dried chilies that make the sauces unique.”
El Machete sets itself apart further from other hot sauces by fire-roasting all his chilies and pan-roasting the spices, lending a roasted, chili sauce–like flavor to recipes such as Verde Rebelde (jalepeño, serrano, habanero), Mexican Molotov (serrano and habanero) and his original release, Manifesto (morita, chipotle, habanero). He also writes recipes to include ingredients uncommon to Mexican hot sauces, such as fruits, European herbs and, as a nod to Sriracha, garlic.
At the California Hot Sauce Expo in Long Beach this weekend, El Machete will be sold side by side with some of the hottest, chilihead-pleasing brands from around the country. The festival will have eating and bartending competitions where ghost peppers, scorpion peppers and even Carolina Reapers will push people’s palates to the brink.
“In spirit, I’m part of that community but I think I've always been a chilihead, before I even knew that term existed,” he says. “But I lean toward the chili itself and what it means. Food is the most profound representation of Mexican culture, from pre-colonization through current history. In food we find elements of culture — and chilies have been a major part of that culture for thousands of years.”