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Monday, September 12, 2005

Fire in the bowl

Fire in the Bowl
by David Chute

David Tran: The Emperor of Hot Sauce. Published in Los Angeles magazine, April 2001.

Stop off for a $3 bowl of pho at any one of the hundreds of small Vietnamese noodle shops salted across the San Gabriel Valley--whose ethnic Asian communities are strung out along the 10 Freeway east of Los Angeles--and you'll notice certain commonalities. There are noisy family groups plus a scattering of single men, who could be clerks from Chinese video stores, slurping through a lunch or dinner break. The name of the place is probably the equivalent of Mom's or Joe's. Distinctive design elements may include checkered tablecloths; basin-sized, flower-patterned noodle bowls; and breakaway wooden chopsticks.

And one more thing: There is likely to be a big fat squeeze bottle of Huy Fong Sriracha HOT Chili Sauce on every table. You may have contemplated this de facto centerpiece, embellished with snappy slogans in five languages, the white lettering seemingly printed right on the gleaming orange-red concoction under the clear plastic, all topped by a bright green dispenser cap. The overall effect is oddly Christmasy. The contents are loudly identified as tuong ot sriracha, but many adventuresome Westside gweilos can't get their mouths around that and simply call it "rooster sauce," after the proud bird on the label.

More than a mere utilitarian container, the bottle is a hot-sauce delivery system, and there's a tactile charge to squirting the contents onto your food, an action much more gratifying than the blup-blup-blup of throttling a glass bottle and forcing it to disgorge. Huy Fong has to be squeezed out because it's too thick and silky and stubbornly cohesive to pour easily; it has a slight gelatinous clinginess that ketchup lacks. You can decorate a serving of noodles as if you were frosting a cake, and the sauce won't separate and leak to the bottom of the bowl. It stays where you place it. In the words of Huy Fong fanatic John DeSimeo, a publicity consultant with a collection of more than 200 spicy condiments, "you can lay a bead on a sausage, like a welder. It welds the palate to the foodstuff." Huy Fong Sriracha is a simple product, but its plain ingredients--mostly peppers, garlic, and sugar--are just about perfectly balanced. The sauce makes a clear and basic appeal to the senses, but tasting it is a complex experience, an experience that unfolds in distinct waves: First comes the strong garlic flavor, then a gust of heat from underneath, and finally an insinuating sweetness, which is the element that lingers. The garlic, in fact, even more than the peppers, may have cemented the reputation of the sauce as a condiment that brings more than blunt-force hotness to the table. It makes sense instantly on the tongue and seems familiar even when we taste it for the first time.

Huy Fong sauce, made by a company in Rosemead, was a custom-fit success story in the ethnic Asian market almost from the moment it was introduced in 1983 as an inexpensive local variation on a Southeast Asian staple. It soon began to migrate outward, borne proudly home by food explorers who had "discovered" it in second-floor dim sum palaces and six-table noodle shops. The stuff seemed tailor-made for word-of-mouth proliferation. It was so cheap and plentiful that restaurants didn't even bother decanting it into side dishes in order to conserve supplies. Owners could afford to plop down the entire bottle, encouraging customers to slop on as much as they wanted. When diners pushed back from their pho-stained tables and went looking for Huy Fong at the nearest Asian mom-and-pop, the eye-catching container practically jumped off the shelf.

Its creator, David Tran, is an ethnic Chinese refugee who arrived in Los Angeles from Vietnam in 1980. He certainly never set out to invent something that would resonate across cultures. He has never explicitly marketed his wares to non-Asians, and he has never advertised. His goods are disseminated through both domestic distributors and import companies, the ones that also handle competing Sriracha brands shipped in from Asia, like Poo Khao Thong and Sriracha Panich. The Huy Fong brand is available only in Asian neighborhoods and in supermarkets with an extensive Asian-foods section.

Launched with an initial investment of $50,000 in family savings, Huy Fong has evolved into an international enterprise that sells 6,000 tons of chile products for around $12 million a year. The sauce has become a global hit, with verified sightings in London, Paris, and Australia. In Saint-Ouen, France, a music-management and booking agency took the name Sriracha Sauce after its founders tasted Huy Fong's version at a local Chinese restaurant. "It's really come to dominate the market," says The Hot Sauce Bible author Dave DeWitt. "You could say that Huy Fong has become the Tabasco of Sriracha sauces."

Some skeptics claim that heat and taste are antithetical qualities, that hotness obliterates and masks flavors rather than enhancing them. While it's true that every kind of chile has a distinctive flavor (the hellacious habanero, for instance, the hottest known variety, also exudes a seductive lotus-eater sweetness), any chilehead will tell you that the burn of a pepper-based recipe and its flavor are separate issues. The sensation of heat itself is not a flavor; it's more a texture than a taste, a direct abrasion of the nerve endings by capsaicin, the heat-generating alkaloid in peppers. "Peppers really let you know you're eating something," a friend said recently over an incendiary Indian meal. "They make you vividly aware of every square centimeter of the inside of your mouth." Pepper fever can become an addiction, and as such it can easily be manipulated. Ask the fabricators of those ingenious boutique hot sauces that show up for a few months on a shelf at Bristol Farms and then vanish forever into fad-food oblivion. These entrepreneurs make a good living concocting things very few people can bring themselves to eat.

Every one of the world's great hot sauces, including Huy Fong, is in some sense a folk product. A truly useful condiment has to be an organic outgrowth of a culture's daily meal; it draws its character from its surroundings and finds a niche in the cuisine. For collector John DeSimeo, the authenticity of David Tran's plainspoken version is unmistakable. "Huy Fong Sriracha sauce is an old-fashioned, simple product without any pretensions," he says. "It's like the pickup truck versus the SUV. They both get the job done, but one is yeomanly and working-class, while the other is overprocessed and overthought."

As the source of such an unassuming offering, the office and factory complex that is Huy Fong Central seems a little grandiose. Standing near a set of railroad tracks and next door to the Turbo-Jet plumbing-fixtures showroom, it is one of the few industrial structures in this weathered, mixed-use section of northeastern Rosemead that is actually pleasing to look at, its russet brick facade adorned with a giant yellow rendering of the rooster logo. Inside, however, the place is simple to the point of drabness.

Yet the plain premises are expressive in spite of themselves. The desks in the uncubicled office are standard-issue Formica, and the small reception area could be a waiting room at a Jiffy Lube--except that the knickknack rack in the corner displays pepper products rather than air fresheners and tire-patching kits. Eight members of the founding Tran family now work for Huy Fong Foods, in positions ranging from management to the line. But none has a fixed job title, and nobody wears a business suit or even a tie to the office. David Tran still joins his secretaries and factory workers for lunch every day promptly at 11 a.m. in a large, bright room that contains a couple of folding tables, a microwave oven, and a full case of Huy Fong Sriracha.

When first glimpsed, David is a hundred yards across the factory floor, a fit-looking middle-aged man in store-bought shirt sleeves, sweeping out a corner of his workspace with an ordinary kitchen broom. At 51, he is roughly my age, but I nevertheless feel more in tune with his son, William, a poised and articulate young executive with blond streaks in his spiky hair and a lemon yellow Hummer in the parking lot. William, 25, a graduate of Cal Poly Pomona, handles Huy Fong worker- and product-safety issues. Last year, when a batch of Sriracha shipped to Hawaii fermented in the bottles, splattering out like a dose of pepper spray when the caps were twisted, William organized the recall effort. ("He handled it just about perfectly," Dave DeWitt reports.) It's almost as if the maturities of the Tran family are accelerated a decade or two ahead of the American norm.

The traits could be partly cultural, too. In the late 19th century, David's grandfather moved the family to Vietnam from Teochiu, in the South China province of Canton, and they settled into the Chinese community in Saigon. The enclave must have been fairly insular, for even now, after two generations in Vietnam and 20 years in the United States, the Trans still speak Cantonese among themselves. Such solidarity was encouraged from without as well: Chinese ZmigrZs have been notably successful elsewhere in Asia and have become a target of social resentment as a result--most recently in Indonesia, where anti-Chinese riots erupted in 1998. The wandering Chinese have been called "the Jews of Asia," says Pan Guang, head of Shanghai's Center of Jewish Studies. "Both peoples live in many places, but the people never change."

David Tran suggests that the Chinese in Vietnam were resented "because they worked hard and collected some wealth." The Vietnamese Trans owned just enough land to do a little farming, and David tried raising peppers on it. But, he says, "too many other people were growing them, so the price was very low. I couldn't even cover the cost of labor. So I thought I would try to make the peppers into a sauce." This experiment, he admits, was only a moderate success: "There are many kinds of sauce in Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, but they're not very popular. Fresh chile is much more popular there. Most of the prepared product is shipped to the United States."

David insists that he loved his adopted country and that "if Vietnam had not changed, I would still be there. It is a very beautiful place, very pleasant to live." After the war, however, the Vietnamese Chinese--like the large population of native Catholics--were viewed with suspicion by the new regime, seen as outsiders with potentially divided loyalties. No longer welcome, they fled, abandoning land, businesses, accumulated capital. In 1977, David converted most of his savings into gold wafers and sent his family out of the country in four groups in case one of the ships was seized. William, then three, left the country in his mother's arms. David endured the first leg of his own journey jammed in with 3,000 others in the cargo hold of a rust-bucket Taiwanese freighter.

The name of the vessel was Huy Fong. "'Huy' means something like 'flowing together,'" David says, "like streams that run into a river. And fong just means 'big.'" A star-spangled analogy comes to mind, but David shrugs. Perhaps the notion doesn't do justice to the journey's grim details, which are still fresh in his memory. The Trans joined the postwar wave of Vietnamese boat people who were herded into squalid transit camps in Hong Kong. In theory, the United States had opened its borders to these refugees, but the family was becalmed for six months in Kowloon as its case inched its way through the maze of INS bureaucracy. When David finally arrived in Los Angeles in the spring of 1980, he was fed up with forced inaction.

It didn't take him long to find a project. His epiphany occurred the first time he visited a grocery store in Chinatown and bought a bottle of imported chile sauce: "I thought, 'This stuff really isn't very good. We could make a better one.'" A study of the shelves suggested that the market was significantly different in Los Angeles than at home. "Prepared food is much more popular here, so I felt that our sauce would sell better," he says. "At first we tried to finance the business from a bank. We said that with $200,000, we could buy chiles and process them and make a million dollars. And they said no. So we started the business with our own savings. It was a terrifying risk. I really had no idea how big the market was." David found a 2,500-square-foot shop on Spring Street in Chinatown for $700 a month--a good rate even then. The first Huy Fong effort, which he made himself with a 50-gallon electric mixer, was the Thai-style Pepper Sa-TZ Sauce. He sold it door to door out of a Chevy van to local restaurants and markets. From the beginning David was amazed by the momentum. "I will never forget how happy I was in the first month when we made $2,300," he says. "After that, I didn't care. We have made a little more money every month, and whatever happened was okay with me." David introduced several other products before hitting upon his Sriracha blend, which hasn't changed since 1983. The Trans admit they were surprised at first when that sauce started to attract non-Asian followers. "We began with the Asian community in mind," William says, "and that's still our primary focus. We haven't made a big push with non-Asians because while they may like it, it still isn't as popular with them as Tabasco. A lot of Americans tell us our products are intimidating, with all the different languages on the label. We get e-mails asking us how to pronounce Sriracha. And since we are barely able to keep up with the demand as it is, we are not trying to expand. If the market continues to grow, we will be happy, but we don't go after it."

Others have already tried to corner it. Huy Fong's success with American consumers has attracted at least one serious competitor. Lee Kum Kee, a Hong Kong company whose food products are a fixture in Chinese households around the world, was founded in 1888 by the chef who invented oyster sauce and now has branches in Paris, Tokyo, and L.A. The firm's looming office buildings, gleaming factories, and dark-suited, stiff-backed executives displayed in Lee Kum Kee's promotional brochures suggest a Chinese industrial behemoth that could overtake David Tran with a single advertising campaign. But when the company fired up a factory in the City of Industry in 1981 for the sole purpose of manufacturing a Sriracha sauce for U.S. buyers, the result barely made a dent in Huy Fong's sales.

The Huy Fong operation does have a certain element of grandeur, even if it's not the kind the taipans of Lee Kum Kee would recognize. To take the tour, I don protective headgear and ride along with William Tran in a golf cart with roosters on its side panels. He drives to the nearby warehouse where the barrels of chile mash are stored: This is the raw gold from which all Huy Fong recipes are refined, and the blue plastic drums are stacked six high on wooden pallets as far as the eye can see, row after row of them receding into the distance. How many bowls of noodles would a person have to eat to use up that much chile sauce?

The stockpile was created out of necessity. In 1987, driven by a need for storage space as production increased to meet the burgeoning demand, David moved the operation from Chinatown to Rosemead. Five years ago, he acquired the old Wham-O factory on the same block. Those blue barrels of chile mash stand where the Frisbee and the Hula-Hoop were born. "Twenty years have passed," he later says, "and I don't want any pressure. Our business is still something we can control ourselves, that we can hold in our own hands."

There are so many stunt varieties of hot pepper sauce available now, one almost forgets that in this hemisphere there have traditionally been only two basic modes of liquid heat. There's the Mexican style, built on a tomato base, and the Louisiana style, typified by Tabasco, which is an aged brew of pepper juice and vinegar. Huy Fong epitomizes a third foundational hot-sauce recipe, the pan-Asian. "Garlic is what really sets the Asian sauces apart," says Dave DeWitt. "There are not many sauces from other parts of the world that use it."

Because the Vietnamese name is so prominent on the Huy Fong label, most Western fans assume it originated there. Actually, this particular style of lightly sweetened chile-garlic sauce is supposed to have been created in the seacoast town of Sriracha (sometimes anglicized as Si Racha), in southern Thailand. David insists, however, that he never thought of Sriracha sauce as a Thai product. It is ubiquitous in Vietnam and in Vietnamese communities the world over, he says, reinvented in each case from the ingredients at hand. "It's just like pizza," William suggests. "American pizza is not exactly like the pizza in Italy. They are basically the same idea, circles of dough with toppings, but the details are different."

The ingredients at hand in Southern California include peppers raised on contract farms in Oxnard and places farther north. Most of the chile mash is produced in just two months during the autumn harvest, when truckloads of peppers arrive at the plant almost daily. Within hours the fruit is dumped onto a conveyor belt and trundled into the processing train. The pulping chamber, which is the first stop, is thick with capsaicin-laden mist; take an incautious deep breath and you get a sudden, sharp impression of your entire sinus cavity, vivid as a multicolored thermograph. It's no wonder the production employees are decked out like Dr. No's henchmen in dust masks and white lab smocks, almost always spotless in spite of all the sticky red stuff in the room.

As high-tech and as chrome-shiny as the place looks, the Huy Fong plant has been tweaked mostly by hand. Throughout the factory, painstaking welds are clearly visible at the joints and junctions of every piece of equipment. The machines have to be modified and maintained in-house, David says, because Asian condiments tend to be much thicker than their American counterparts. "At the beginning," he says, "we wasted a lot of money on machines that were too small." David decided to modify the ready-made models himself. With no engineering experience, he taught himself to cut metal and weld joints, an impulse that harks back to an era of personal craftsmanship, to a village life of blacksmithing and handmade tools. One large room at the plant is still devoted to David's metal shop, where he carries out repairs and modifications with the help of a single handyman.

During the harvest season, these machines see a lot of action. After the stems of the peppers have been shaken out, the remaining pulp is washed, dried, and chopped; it is then mixed with salt, preservative, and distilled vinegar and squirreled away in the 50-gallon, vacuum-sealed blue drums. Throughout the year, William says, the production process for each recipe draws upon that stock of chile mash. In something close to its base form, it is the pasty relish Sambal Oelek; with garlic added it becomes (what else?) Chile Garlic Paste. The most complicated procedure, which requires a separate, glass-walled chamber, sees the mash pureed into a smooth, ketchupy fluid and mixed in vats with a little sugar, a small amount of a thickener called xanthan gum (an industrial emulsifier made from fermented corn sugar), and a whole lot of garlic powder. The result is then injected into plastic squeeze bottles by David's hand-modified machines and sold to enthusiasts as Tuong Ot Sriracha.

The revelation that the key ingredient in Huy Fong's version of Sriracha is ordinary garlic powder, purchased in bulk from a local wholesaler, will shock only people who expect picturesque ethnic foods to be fresh and unprocessed. Such attributes are strictly first-world luxuries, off-limits elsewhere because they boost production costs and raise consumer prices beyond the reach of John DeSimeo's yeoman. David says he keeps the cost of his products low by minimizing overhead, but obviously that isn't the only critical factor. All the constituents of this genre-defining sauce are surpassingly, one could even say refreshingly, mundane.

In fact, if you ever find yourself standing over the crates of recently delivered chiles on the Huy Fong loading dock, the fruit itself might look strangely familiar: David confirms that the peppers he uses are ordinary jalape–os. To the Tran palate, at least, the jalape–o, the serrano, and the Anaheim are all very similar. "We chose jalape–os because they are hot but not too hot, and because they are easy to harvest, not like serranos." Here he makes a finicky pinching gesture with the fingers of one hand, as if struggling to hold on to something small and slippery. "The peppers are not the most important thing," he says. "The recipe is much more important."

So it must have taken a long time, and a lot of trial and error, to get the recipe just right, to formulate the ideal balance of chiles and garlic and sugar that has won adherents around the world? David Tran shrugs impatiently. "Not at all," he says. "Maybe a couple of days. We knew what we wanted to do. We never researched the market. We didn't care how the other companies made it. We tested it on our own taste, just me and my family. We tried to do our flavor the way we liked it. And from then on we just kept the formula the same."

1 comment:

Karen said...

There is no Pho in Athens, GA. Will somebody please open a Pho Noodle soup reataurant here, I love Pho Ba.