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Challenging Taste Buds With Chiles

This smooth avocado blend allowed to tastebuds a break.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary
This smooth avocado blend allowed to tastebuds a break. Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

The Chile Pepper Festival offered its guests a variety of salsas at different heats.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

Before I begin to talk about the chile challenge, I must tell you two things.

One, the ultimate chile challenge doesn’t involve a face off with a variety of sauces. It involves my quest to find the ultimate and hottest sauce that the Roosevelt Row Chile Pepper Festival on Saturday, Sept. 29 had to offer.

Two, I decided to take on this challenge with fellow SPM writer Mackenzie McCreary because being raised in a household that cherishes the complimentary hot sauce with every meal was similar to how most Americans are raised to appreciate the common condiments ketchup and mustard.

My parents were raised in Guadalajara, Mexico where the culture cannot exist without its chile tomato sauce complementing every meal, an ideal my mom brought with her when she immigrated to Arizona.

If a dish doesn’t come with a nice taste of pepper or have some spice to it, I immediately note the dull taste, and if that’s the case, I can’t enjoy the food. Seriously, it’s a big deal.

My taste buds have been passed onto me by generations that hold its sauces on a pedestal of spicy perfection that must question which is the spiciest of them all?

To this day, it is not vogue that makes my family and close friends turn their heads in admiration. It is the roasted green chilies blended with tomatillos, roasted tomatoes and a pinch of garlic that spark the disdainful or approving discussion among my family for the sauce-maker’s skills (or lack thereof). It’s quite the talk, especially after a social gathering. Whether it is my mom on the phone trying to get the secret recipe or disgracing a watery and flat sauce, you can bet that there will be some comments about the salsa served.

But I digress. As Mackenzie and I arrived to the festival, I couldn’t help but imagine a confrontation with my nemesis: the spicy sauce that wasn’t really spicy at all, the most dreaded letdown.

As we walked into the festival, the rich and tangy smell of pasilla-ancho chili pods and the sweet habanero lingered in the air when we made our way to the first stand where a beautiful array of red and green pepper pods lay on display.

We immediately moved on to the never-ending array of samples that were given out with small bags of fried, crispy tortilla chips, which as Mackenzie commented during the warm day, was one of the best parts.

From one stand to another, I gathered and tasted 11 different sauces.

Out of the many vendors, Noemi tried 11 sauces, only to discover the spiciest sauce at Big Red’s booth.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

As soon as the chile de arbol hit my tongue, the starch and black pepper taste was notable. Dipping a few chips into the sauce, it took a while for any spice to resonate.

Next came two sauces that were very similar: the avocado tomatillo with cilantro and a different tomatillo with only cilantro in it. The former was soothing and a perfect blend, but had no spice whatsoever. The latter was more lemon-y and not spicy either.  I wasn’t the only one who found these to be mild. Mackenzie, who doesn’t take to spicy foods, found these sauces a little too agreeable as well.

After trying two different salsa diablos (or, devil’s sauce) from two different booths, I decided that my next sample was going to be my last. Luckily, it took my last attempt to discover the spiciest sauce at the festival.

As I approached the chef at the last booth of more 10 booths at the event, such as Carly’s Bistro and Jobot, the chef instructed me to grab a cup of chips and choose the salsa that I preferred.

Before I picked up the bottle of the habanero, thinking it was probably the spiciest, the chef disaffirmed my thought when he advised a woman who had come up to his booth to try the ghost pepper sauce. I knew I had to go for that one instead.

I took the sauce back to the picnic table where Mackenzie readily awaited my arrival, and I confidently sat down, ready to take on the challenge. Around me, groups of college students, twenty-somethings and older people gathered around the tables to listen in on the music that was about to begin, sipping on their water or beers in an attempt to cool down from the salsas and post-summer heat.

As soon as local band Bears of Manitou began to play its soulful and rich notes, the fear seeping into my taste buds dissolved, leading me to try the ghost pepper sauce by Big Red’s. My tongue started to warm, and it took all I had to maintain calm and do my best not to vigorously gulp my Coke. (I wouldn’t want to injure my Hispanic pride.)

Despite the hint of black pepper, the sauce’s integration of the notorious ghost pepper, known for being the undefeated spiciest salsa across the world, dominated the taste.

There was no way I was losing against this ghost pepper, so I sucked it up (literally) and focused on the music in the background until my tongue felt less swollen.

After the worst was over, I laughed and offered some of the sauce to Mackenzie, negating her questions about the degree of spiciness.

She slowly took a chip, dipped it and hesitantly took a bite. In just a second she became teary-eyed with a pale, yet blushing visage.

We had found a winner that would send the deceivingly sweet habanero into hiding.

The ghost pepper nearly defeated us all. Well, it certainly knocked out the salsa diablo’s booth where three women were giving out their mild, hot and hottest chilies that were in reality just sweet salsas.

This smooth avocado blend allowed to tastebuds a break.
Photo by Mackenzie McCreary

The evening air filled with luscious smells coming from every direction, luring people towards each sampling booth and making them forget about the food trucks selling burritos and other Latin-based entrees. Well, I forgot anyway. All the salsas on display enthralled me, making me unable to pay any attention to what foods the other trucks had to offer.

As I left the festival before sunset, I couldn’t wait to tell my mom that not one salsa compared with hers. (Except for the ghost pepper salsa, but that’s a secret remaining between my taste buds and me.) The Chile Pepper Festival raises the bar for salsa-makers at the future fiestas I’m bound to go to.


Reach the writer at and vita Twitter @NoemiPossible

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