Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Salsa Connoisseur: D.L. Jardine's Texas Champagne

There's probably an important distinction between "hot sauce" and "salsa", but it's far from obvious. If I had to nail it down to one single difference, it would be in their intentions: salsa is an end in itself, while hot sauce is often relegated to a means to the end of making food spicier. Foods are custom-designed to go well with salsa, while hot sauce is more or less designed with the aim of making existing food better. Maybe it's that hot sauces "know their place" where salsas are currently in the middle of a culinary explosion of new (and not necessarily good) ideas.

I think it's because of this that hot sauces as a category are more internally consistent or homogeneous than salsas are. The consistency issues that plague salsa (with respect to the smooth-chunky axis) just don't show up in hot sauces. And the set of ingredients varies a lot less from hot sauce to hot sauce than they do from salsa to salsa.

That said, hot sauces and salsas share a lot in common with each other. The criterion of balancing heat with flavor is especially applicable to hot sauces, where some purveyors sell you a bottle of habanero juice, slap a "10/10" or "Insane!!!" or "XXX" or pictures of fire on the bottle. Then they leave it to you to find out that instead of using their product, you may as well have immersed your mouth in boiling water--it's just as hot and doesn't have any more flavor.

D.L. Jardine's does not make that mistake with their Texas Champagne hot sauce.

Texture: shakes from the bottle easily. Maybe slightly thicker than a standard hot sauce like Tabasco, but only if you're looking for it to be.

Heat: reasonably hot but not unbearably so. You can easily eat some of this by itself (if you're so inclined!), or put it on a chip, and not be driven to apply an ice cube to your tongue. Intensifies the longer you keep it on your tongue. When shaken uniformly over food, or stirred into a soup or chili, it gives a noticeable kick to each bite, but the heat never overtakes the flavor of either the sauce or the food. D.L. Jardine calls it "hot" with no reference to what "mild" or "insane" might be, which is a little ambiguous but seems right to me.

Flavor: saltier than you might expect. Scent is tangy, similar to a pepperoncini pepper, but less acidic or briny. The three ingredients--cayenne peppers, vinegar, and salt--mix beautifully. A food item is well-made when you can taste each and every flavor in each bite, and Texas Champagne hits the nail on the head there. D.L. Jardine's website boasts that this sauce is the new partner to salt and pepper in condiment land, and I think the sauce is versatile enough for that to be true.

I bought a 3-ounce bottle at Berkeley Bowl, and it ran me $3.29 for a 3-ounce bottle (or $1.10 per ounce!), but part of that is my fault for buying a name-brand grocery item at a more "marketplace" establishment.

Recommended, especially if you're not on a budget. It's similar to, but better than, Louisiana Hot Sauce, which you might find on the tables at your friendly neighborhood Popeye's. For slathering on fried chicken, Louisiana might be a better choice, but for a few drops in gumbo or red beans and rice, this is a fine hot sauce.

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