In Los Angeles, Sriracha fans line up for the hottest tour in town
The large room where tour groups gather at Huy Fong Foods looks like any other meeting space — except for the seven-foot-tall bottles of Sriracha sauce that anchor either side of a small podium. The giant inflatables tower over a life-size cardboard cutout of David Tran, the company’s 72-year-old founder, and match the bright red hair nets worn by all visitors, including a surprisingly well-behaved baby.
The excitement in the room is palpable. We are about to witness how the iconic red chile sauce is made in a 650,000-square-foot factory on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The presentation that precedes the shuttle tour highlights Tran’s journey from unemployed Vietnamese refugee who sold his handmade hot sauce out of a van to head of a multimillion-dollar empire that grows every year. It ends with a clip featuring a red Sriracha version of a Lexus IS sports sedan (sadly, not for sale) custom-made for the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show.
Most visitors on this Friday morning in May are from the area and familiar with Tran’s story. Everyone nods when our guide explains that Huy Fong takes its name from the Taiwanese freighter that carried the founder from postwar Vietnam to the United States, and that the name Sriracha (pronounced SEE-rah-cha) comes from a village in Thailand known for its homegrown chile sauce. When asked whether anyone knows why there’s a rooster etched on every bottle, a young boy pipes up that Tran was born in the Chinese zodiac year of the rooster.
In the past few years, the green-capped rooster bottle has become a ubiquitous staple across the country in Asian restaurants and TV’s “Top Chef” competitions. But in Los Angeles, Sriracha remains a homegrown product with humble immigrant roots and a huge following that combines pride with obsessive loyalty. National food manufacturers have developed their own versions of Sriracha (the name is not trademarked), but fans and area chefs raised on the rooster bottle remain loyal to Huy Fong, using it as an ingredient in Korean fried chicken and burgers — even desserts and cocktails.
“I’ve met a lot of Sriracha fans, and there’s something almost tribal about it,” notes Randy Clemens, author of “The Veggie-Lover’s Sriracha Cookbook” and organizer of two Sriracha street festivals in Los Angeles. “It’s like we all know a secret handshake . . . even if it’s not so secret anymore.”
Roy Choi, the L.A.-based founder of the Kogi Korean barbecue food trucks and restaurants, offers a Sriracha-laced chocolate bar and fried chile garlic beef bowl at his Chinatown counter-serve joint, Chego! Nearby restaurant Plan Check Kitchen + Bar, known for its ketchup “leathers,” which are essentially dehydrated squares of freshly made ketchup, also features a Sriracha version on its burgers and pork-belly Benedict. Albert Shim, founder of a chain of Korean-inspired wing joints, concocted a Sriracha-and-lime sauce based on the traditional use of the two ingredients as a topping for pho in the Vietnamese cafes of his hometown, Garden Grove. It’s a favorite flavor choice for wings at his Belly Bombz restaurants, he said, along with Mom’s Recipe and Firecracker.
“I grew up with Sriracha — I’d toss it on pizza, ramen, anything,” Shim said. “It’s well seasoned as a base and the perfect application to add heat to all kinds of Asian dishes.”
Dragons and forklifts
Huy Fong began opening its doors to the public in 2014, after it expanded to bigger quarters in Irwindale and drew national attention when neighbors complained about fumes during chile-grinding season. A public-nuisance lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but Huy Fong decided to make the open house an annual event across four weekends in September and October. It also introduced free hour-long tours on weekdays.
Despite the factory’s industrial location near warehouses and rock quarries, the open house has the vibe of a street festival, with taiko drummers, food trucks and promotional giveaways, including a bottle of Sriracha for everyone. One year, there was also a tongue-in-cheek nod to the odor complaints in the form of a large sign near the entrance that read “No Tear Gas Made Here.”
Unlike the open house, weekday tours of Huy Fong are held year-round (except when grinding season is in full swing) and have more of a workaday feel; the dancing dragons and Sriracha ice cream cones are replaced by security guards and beeping forklifts.
Once the meeting-room presentation ends, guests are whisked away on open-air minibuses to the other side of the factory, past spare equipment areas and ceiling-high stacks of blue barrels filled with a chile mash-up that forms the base of every Huy Fong product. Besides Sriracha, Huy Fong also makes sambal oelek, an Indonesian chile paste, and chile garlic sauce — essentially Sriracha without the pureed sugar.
Everything except the green caps are made on premise, our red-shoed guide explains, even the 55-gallon barrels that hold the sauce, and an average of 8,000 to 10,000 bottles are filled per hour. We watch machines use heat and air to turn plastic test tubes into signature bottles, then walk down the line as another machine fills each finished bottle with red sauce.
Selfie-taking is rampant.
What we don’t see on the May tour are the fresh red peppers that begin arriving by the truckload from fields in Baja California in August and September. (That’s when the open house comes in.) No one on the tour seemed to mind, and the shuttle buses dropped us off at the Rooster Room, a gift shop crammed with T-shirts, socks, sippy cups and gift packs. As my companions browsed chile pepper boxers and T-shirts emblazoned with “Stay Saucy” and “I put Sriracha on my Sriracha,” I headed outside to snap photos of the main entrance, where the flags of the United States, California and Huy Fong fly beside a fountain.
It reminded me of a portrait of Tran that I had seen earlier. It hangs in the meeting room among the framed press articles and best-hot-sauce plaques. Created by California artist Chris Christion, it’s a digital collage, “Founder,” that melds Tran’s face with that of President Thomas Jefferson. A framed explanation near the portrait, which was created as part of an exhibit titled “L.A. Heat” at the Chinese American Museum, describes the merging of the images of Tran and Jefferson as “a symbolic reclaiming of the American Dream that sees success as the expansive belief in possibilities.”
It’s a striking piece of art, and a reminder of sriracha’s unique connection to a variety of places and cultures that all contributed to its extraordinary growth.
Randall is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Instagram: @socaltravelwriter.
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