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The Island Fire sandwiches have a sweet habanero sauce for an extra kick. “You always have guests who want more spices or who might think it’s too hot, but I really think we were able to find the right spices with this,” Petersson says.
Most diners expect hot and spicy when they visit a Mexican restaurant, since chile peppers are so much a part of that ethnic cuisine.
“We do chilies in just about everything,” says Ted Stoner, director of strategic product development at Qdoba Mexican Grill. “We use seven different chilies across our menu, and all but one of our sauces use jalapeños.” The one exception is the habanero sauce.
“Chilies serve a dual purpose,” Stoner says. Just as different chilies and spices have various levels of heat, they have a range of flavor profiles, he says.
Chipotles, which are smoke-dried jalapeños, provide smokiness, while anchos (dried poblanos) have more of a sweet, dried fruit quality. Qdoba also employs poblanos and dried California and New Mexico red peppers.
“It’s up to chefs to understand the nuances of these chilies to provide the most depth in flavor and how the flavor lingers,” Stoner says.
The chain’s ancho chile barbecue sauce, inspired by Mexican mole, includes several chilies, with flavors of hickory, mesquite, and chocolate. Qdoba’s salsas range from mild (traditional pico de gallo) to extra hot (habanero).
At TacoTime, the hottest item on the menuboard is the 5-Alarm Burrito, which uses the chain’s fiery 5-Alarm salsa made with red peppers and red chile paste. The sauce “has the perfect amount of burn,” says brand president Kevin Gingrich.
Early Asian influences on the U.S. palate came from Chinese restaurants that catered to tame American taste buds. More recently, however, the spicy flavors of China’s Szechuan province, Thailand, and other parts of Southeast Asia have come to the fore.
“It’s more of a flavor profile in the Asian community to have the heat,” says Geoff Alexander, vice president of the six-unit Wow Bao, part of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises. “We do more heat than spice. Heat is more digestible on the palate.”
Wow Bao has two particularly hot baos and bowls, Spicy Kung Pao and Spicy Mongolian Beef, the latter being the second-biggest selling item across the chain’s six units. “People are looking for heat to heighten their meal experience,” he says.
Panda Express has also found that the demand for hotter dishes has increased, and it has a range of spicy items on the menu, including the sweet and mildly spicy Orange Chicken, its most popular dish. The Kung Pao chicken is slighter hotter because it is not sweet.
“Sugar cuts the power,” says Andy Kao, executive chef of product innovations for the 1,600-store company based in Rosemead, California. The company uses whole and crushed chile peppers, as well as ingredients like gochujang, a Korean condiment
with red chile.
In the fall, Panda Express launched Sriracha Shrimp as an LTO, with shrimp, string beans, bell peppers, and sriracha sauce.
Sriracha, a popular Thai-influenced sauce, is made from ground red chile peppers, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt. It has gained a fervent following for its bold flavor, and “a lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon,” says Food Genius’s Stanley.
“Sriracha has a bold tangy flavor and is very versatile, allowing its popularity to expand outside the Asian community and into the mainstream culinary world,” Panda Express’s Kao says.
Subway is also using a version of the sauce, having launched the Sriracha Chicken Melt and Sriracha Steak Melt in the fall as part of a Fiery Footlong Collection.
“We are looking at the food trends and are intrigued by the way different foods are changing in the world,” says Subway’s executive chef, Chris Martone. Sriracha is a “flavor trend, and we wanted to offer that.”
The sriracha melts feature a creamy sriracha sauce made with a number of chilies and garlic. The sandwiches also incorporate pepper jack cheese.
“The great thing about sriracha is there’s real flavor to it,” Martone says, adding that the Subway version is not shy on heat. “Sometimes with a chain our size, you look for a sweet spot to appeal to a broader audience. But this is hot. For our segment, this is aggressive.”
Sauce-maker Kikkoman USA also makes sriracha, with chilies cured by vinegar, garlic, and sugar. Its heat is “geared to the back half of the mouth,” says Debbie Carpenter, senior manager of national foodservice and marketing for Kikkoman.
The company, originally known for Japanese sauces, also has a sweet and spicy Thai chile sauce and developed a wasabi sauce made from the Japanese horseradish-like root.
“\It’s not nearly as hot as a wasabi paste,” she says of Kikkoman’s sauce. “I showed it at a school event, dipping chicken in it. Some of the attendees said, ‘Oh, no, no, not wasabi.’ But I told them not to let the word scare them. This won’t grab your tongue.”