Another gorgeous and sunny fall Southern California afternoon – the smog, apparently, is taking the weekend off – and here I am in a traffic jam deep in the industrial heart of the San Gabriel Valley.
To my left on Asuza Canyon Road is a huge gravel pit, a moonscape-like crater covering at least three square blocks. To my right is the boxy, beige concrete facade of one of this city’s largest and most controversial businesses, Huy Fong Foods, where this conga line of cars is trying to squeeze into the company parking lot built to accommodate only about a hundred vehicles. Men in reflective vests wave orange flags semaphorically, as drivers jockey to get a coveted spot, park and then briskly walk to the ever-expanding line at the entrance, as if rushing the stage at a rock concert.
As I inch along, I stare into the gaping maw of the pit and think, I’m giving up my Saturday for this? I’m heading to an outpost in L.A.’s vast sprawl east of downtown, an area people usually flee from on the weekend, to check out a condiment? I’m going to don a hair net with other visitors and watch factory workers grind chilies, mix them with sugar, salt, garlic, distilled vinegar, potassium sorbate, sodium bisulfite and xantham gum (that always popular viscous polysaccharide) for an hour or so? I’m going to pour adoration on a humble sauce that scores of diners squirt on, well, anything that needs a bit of spicing up?
Yes, reader, I am. And, by the end of the day, so will have 2,400 other people.
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Such is the mass appeal of Sriracha, fast becoming the unofficial king of condiments. Ketchup and mustard, salsa and soy sauce? Sorry. They are but bland also-rans to the fiery Asian concoction that, in the past two years, has spawned fan clubs and loyal followers, jumped from a mono-cultural dinner table staple to finding its way onto the menus of Subway, Taco Bell, even Applebee’s. Heck, Sriracha is so All-American that you can now buy it at Wal-Mart. It’s truly a crossover hit.
But it’s not just the four-alarm, taste bud-firing, nasal-scouring sensual nature of the sauce that has made Sriracha the Beyoncé of condiments – hot, full-bodied and irresistible. Controversy, too, has boosted its public profile, elevating Sriracha from the food section to the front page.
Last spring, Irwindale’s city council filed a lawsuit and public nuisance declaration against Huy Fong Foods, maker of the sauce, after nearly 70 residents in the community of 1,400 complained that the odors emanating from the factory burned their eyes and throats, as if grinding chilies were akin to brewing toxic waste. Public hearings were held, protests staged by the pro-Sriracha faction, officials from the South Coast Air Quality Management District consulted, and even Gov. Jerry Brown’s Business and Economic Development Office weighed in as Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to lure Huy Fong to his state.
By the summer, Irwindale finally woke up and smelled the Sriracha and realized what a good thing it had, dropped the lawsuit and deemed the factory a public nuisance no longer.
In response, Huy Fong’s CEO, Vietnamese immigrant David Tran, made the savvy PR move to fling open the factory doors to free public tours during the three-month grinding season, running mid-August to late October. Which is why, on the last Saturday of October, scores of Sriracha supporters flocked to the manufacturing plant for a look-see. Rumor had it, too, that free samples might be included. And, if there’s anything better than Sriracha, it’s free Sriracha.
“It’s the mystique of it that brings me here,” said Veronica Hahni of nearby Monrovia. She’d come with sisters Christina and Tanya, Sriracha fans all. “It’s been closed off for so long, and you heard so much about the people complaining, now they’re letting people in to see behind the curtain. We had to come.”
Christina exuded chest-puffing San Gabriel Valley pride at Huy Fong’s success, saying it would’ve been a shame, and quite an economic hit, had Irwindale’s actions led the company with the distinctive rooster logo to fly the coop to Texas.
“We need to support them,” she said.
As for the odor?
“We actually like the smell, so that’s no problem,” she said.
Before I made the trip to the grinding machine, where the eau de chili is said to be strongest, I stopped three visitors on their way out. They breathed in the fumes – enticing to many; noxious to some – and dismissed the complaints out of hand.
“It wasn’t as bad as we expected,” said Justin Hsu of Irvine. “They give you the tissue to cover your face, I guess, but you don’t need it.”
“Much different than what we read in the newspaper previously about the controversy,” his friend, Jeff Lin, said. “When we were walking down from the parking lot, we were talking about it and asked each other, ‘Do you smell anything? Nothing. In here? Not really.’”
Camera-toting Sriracha tourists who filed into the grinding area with me were hardly overcome by wafting essence of chili. As I joined a family, leaning over the vat that takes the chilies dumped off trucks and transports them via conveyor belt to the grinder, I almost dropped my smartphone in the mix. When a worker, John Acuna, helped steady me, I noticed his eyes were a little watery.
“It’s OK,” he said. “It took me two weeks working here to get used to it. My first day, man, it was intense. My nose was running and eyes watering. Now, it’s, like, no problem.
Only two or three of the hundred visitors I encountered opted to wear surgical masks, and many didn’t even put to use the tissues workers handed out. Most were so enthralled with capturing, for their social media uses, the image of barrel upon barrel of Sriracha lined up along the factory floor, the processing of the savory elixir into the clear plastic bottles with green caps, and the packing into boxes to make way for public consumption.
Michael Liu dragged his wife, Amy Tung, along. Amy, who says she’s pretty neutral about Sriracha’s allure, held the tissue to her nose most of the time. For Liu, though, it was a trip back in time.
“I remember as a child using it,” he said. “It was always something we had in the house. I really like the logo, the rooster, and pretty much everything about it.”
As a chef (who doubles as an attorney), Ron Moore of Irvine said he was introduced to the sauce as a culinary student, well before Sriracha’s anointment as a saucy star.
“Yeah, I’ve been using the sauce for years,” he said. “I’m not somebody who came by it recently. You can’t go to an Asian restaurant in Southern California and not see a bottle on the table.”
Moore’s teen daughter, MacKenzie, perhaps rebelling, was wearing her objection – a red T-shirt that read, “I put ketchup on my ketchup” – and she pointed out that the red chili earrings she donned came from the chain restaurant Chili’s.
“I don’t really like it,” she admitted.
“My wife doesn’t either,” Moore added.
That put them in the distinct minority. After the tour, visitors flocked to the gift shop, where they snapped up T-shirts with provocative slogans playing off the spiciness of the sauce and the preening rooster. (A tame example: “This is why I’m hot.”)
Out front, one of Huy Fong’s top executives, operations manager Donna Lam, greeted visitors as they emerged from the experience and pointed them toward free Sriracha ice cream, Sriracha popcorn and chocolate, a complimentary T-shirt commemorating the company’s 34 years, and a free bottle of sauce.
“David (Tran, the CEO) did this so people could see for themselves how sanitary we are and what the operation is like and to show we are not making toxic odor,” said Lam, who added the company will likely resume tours next fall during grinding season. “There was talk that it was making people nauseous and giving them bloody noses. You saw that’s not the case.
“The thing is, we do make hot sauce. You drive by Starbucks, you’re going to smell them making coffee. But the issue is, is it enough to make people ill? No.”
But it is enough to drive people wild enough to spend a Saturday in Irwindale.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis
HUY FONG FOOD
What: Sriracha sauce tours are given during chili grinding season
When: Late August to late October
Where: Huy Fong Foods, 4800 Azusa Canyon Road, Irwindale
Information about 2015 tours: www.huyfong.com