Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

A Dozen Ways: Feeling Hot-Hot-Hot Twelve ways to satiate diners’ never-ending appetite for heat

Bad Hunter in Chicago demonstrates aguachile’s versatility, moving its bright combination of chile, lime, cilantro and onion into a Hominy Aguachile.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jackie Gillum

Today, with many consumers peering around the corner for the next big flavor experience, taking a look at trending hot sauces makes for a savvy menu strategy. Hot sauce has always been hot, carrying with it a built-in bravado that delivers a much-appreciated and sought-after thrill.

Modern heat delivery sees that same thrill proffered through complexity instead of palate-killing heat. Sriracha set the tone here, inspiring loyalty with its street swagger and nuanced flavor—still with a serious kick that keeps it firmly in the hot sauce category.

We take a look at a dozen other heat sources, not positioning them as the next Sriracha, but instead, showcasing opportunity with ingredients that bring a unique—and hot—flavor story to your menu.

1 Aguachile

The ceviche and poke trends have signaled an enthusiasm by diners for marinated fish dishes that boast big, fresh flavors. Aguachile, a Mexican seafood dish that literally means “chile water,” often sees shrimp or fish immersed in a liquid spiked with chile pepper, lime juice, cilantro and onion—it’s that concoction that holds such great menu promise. It’s bright and hot, offering a flavor system that’s perfectly poised for translation and adaptation.

  • Steak Tartare Tacos with “aguachile negra,” cucumber, lime, soy, Serrano, crisp cilantro, Cotija cheese
    Ada Street, Chicago
  • Aguachile on a tostada with cucumber, onion, cilantro and avocado slices
    Oceanos, San Diego
  • Hominy Aguachile with cucumbers, pickled onions, radish
    Bad Hunter, Chicago

2 Salsa Verde

This zesty, fiery fresh salsa hailing from Mexico is getting a modern makeover by chefs today. The familiar and much-loved classic combines tomatillo, Serrano chile, garlic, cilantro and onion. Perfect with tacos, swirled into baked eggs or drizzled over artisan toast, it’s now getting spiked with signature items for a unique take on this versatile hot sauce.

  • Salmon en Pepita: Pumpkin seed-crusted Atlantic salmon fillet over sweet potato mash and pineapple salsa verde, topped with watercress relish
    Fonda, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Daily cut of pork with dandelion salsa verde
    Alta CA, San Francisco

3 Gochujang

This Korean red chile paste perhaps best defines flavor complexity in a hot sauce—savory, sweet, spicy and fermented. That all makes gochujang a great way to punch up umami and lend a bit of excitement at the same time. Interestingly, some chefs are choosing to keep its superpowers under wraps, letting it give a sauce backbone without calling it out. For instance, Publik Draft House in Atlanta menus Kimchi Marinated Chicken Wings and serves them with “Asian hot sauce,” which features gochujang, lime juice, fish sauce, sesame oil and soy sauce.

  • Emily Burger with aged Grafton cheddar, caramelized onions and gochujang aïoli
    Emily, two locations in New York
  • Gochujang Pork Bowl: Pork, gochujang sauce, cilantro, sweet and green onion, sweety drop peppers, pickled ginger, radish, seaweed salad, sesame seeds and furikake on jasmine rice
    One Fish Two Fish Poke, Carrboro, N.C.
Gochujang is the key ingredient in making these Kimchi Marinated Chicken Wings so craveable at Publik Draft House.Publik Draft House

Gochujang is the key ingredient in making these Kimchi Marinated Chicken Wings so craveable at Publik Draft House.

4 Pepperoncini

Calabrian peppers have outpaced the well-known pepperoncini as a way to express Italian heat, but we’re seeing a bit of a comeback from this vinegary, hot chile pepper. Perhaps thrust back into the limelight by the fascination with pickled ingredients, or it might be gaining traction through the trend that reimagines retro or classic ingredients. Either way, chefs are rediscovering the potential in this clean, bright, acidic pepper.

  • Hot & Dirty Ketel One Martini: House-bottled olive and pepperoncini juice, garnished with two blue cheese-stuffed olives and a pepperoncini
    The Social Register, Boston
  • Left Coast Pastrami: Hot pastrami with grilled onions, Dijon mustard, pepperoncini peppers and melted Swiss cheese on a toasted French baguette
    Board & Brew, multiple California locations

5 Sambal

Southeast Asia is a goldmine when it comes to layered, fiery profiles, with Sriracha the most valuable treasure to be discovered so far. Sambals are showing up on menus more and more, with chefs leaning into their funky, hot profiles as finishes to wings, burgers, bowl builds and more. The most common one here is sambal oelek, a sharp, bright mix of ground red chiles, vinegar and salt. But look to other sambals, like sambal jeruk, with green or red pepper and kaffir lime, ideally suited for fried rice dishes.

  • Rice with egg yolk, short rib, sambal, daikon, mustard greens
    Revel, Seattle
  • Bangkok Oysters with red sambal oelek
    MeMe’s Bar & Grille, New Orleans
  • Sambal Patatas Bravas with aïoli and smoked paprika
    Pagu, Cambridge, Mass.
Sambal gives patatas bravas extra zip at Pagu, with smoked paprika and aïoli adding another dimension.Pagu

Sambal gives patatas bravas extra zip at Pagu, with smoked paprika and aïoli adding another dimension.

6 Nashville Hot

This once-niche fried chicken dish from Nashville is now a veritable flavor system of its own, proving the theory that when high heat is done well, it catches fire. Party Fowl in Nashville features Nashville Hot in its Brunch for Two: a 55-oz. Bloody Mary with hot chicken spice, topped with two fried Cornish game hens, two Scotch eggs, fried okra and avocado. At Bird & Bone in Miami Beach, Fla., chef Richard Hales serves his signature version of hot chicken, with a hot spice oil (cayenne, habanero and Carolina reaper peppers). It’s smothered in Florida honey, topped with the oil and cucumber sugar pickles, then served on top of Zak the Baker bread. “Although the flavors of the hot spice oil are predominantly spicy, they’re all balanced,” he says. “It’s not just about the heat.”

  • Hot Chicken & Stuffed French Toast: Thick-cut, housemade cinnamon brioche stuffed with apples and bourbon cream cheese, dipped in orange custard, skillet fried and served with hot chicken
    Party Fowl, Nashville
  • The Rojo Hot Chicken Sandwich: Crispy fried chicken breast, red salsa, spicy cayenne, smoky chile pepper crema, slaw, sweet pickles and American cheese on a bun (nopales offered as an add-on)
    —Rojo’s Hot Chicken Pop-Up, Orange County, Calif.
Party Fowl serves a Hot Chicken & Stuffed French Toast on its brunch menu, cleverly tying Nashville hot chicken to breakfast fare.Party Fowl

Party Fowl serves a Hot Chicken & Stuffed French Toast on its brunch menu, cleverly tying Nashville hot chicken to breakfast fare.

7 Green Harissa

Harissa, with its fiery red profile, has made big moves on menus today, but we’re now seeing green harissa coming onto the field. Boasting jalapeño, cilantro, parsley, cumin, lemon juice and oil—with regional tweaks here and there—it’s got a mellower heat than its red cousin. The other advantage is its green hue, a familiar color to consumers, thanks to pesto and chimichurri. Used as a sandwich spread or dolloped atop a bowl build, green harissa lifts flavor beautifully.

  • Grilled Swordfish with yogurt marinade, heirloom bean stew, green harissa
    James Republic, Long Beach, Calif.
  • Beet Party Toast: Roasted beet, chêvre, sieved egg, green harissa, toasted pepitas
    The Daily Beet Juice Bar & Cafe, New Orleans

8 Hot Combos

The combination of heat and sweet or heat with savory is a phenomenon on menus today, but chefs are also creating flavor powerhouses by bringing together hot sauces, like Sriracha and sambal, dialing up heat delivery, menu interest and flavor complexity. It’s a doubling down—and in some cases, tripling down. That gamble relies on a savvy ability to find hot sauces that build on each other rather than duke it out for flavor supremacy.

  • Spicy Slap Roll: Shrimp tempura and avocado rolled up, topped off with tuna and salmon, with spicy mayo, unagi sauce, triple chile sauce (chef’s special blend of sambal, Sriracha and sweet chile sauce) and furikake
    Sakerum, Washington, D.C.
  • Queso fundido with green chorizo (jalapeño, poblano and Serrano), poblano rajas, Chihuahua cheese
    La Principal, Evanston, Ill.
A power combo of spices blend together in the Spicy Slap Roll. Sambal, Sriracha and sweet chile sauce bring heat and flavor to the shrimp tempura and avocado roll.Sophie Pyle

A power combo of spices blend together in the Spicy Slap Roll. Sambal, Sriracha and sweet chile sauce bring heat and flavor to the shrimp tempura and avocado roll.

9 Peri Peri Sauce

This hot sauce features the African bird’s eye chile. Translating to “pepper pepper” in Swahili (and also spelled “piri piri”), it was developed by the Portuguese and stars crushed chiles, onion, pepper, citrus peel and more. Familiarity here has certainly been propelled by Nando’s Peri Peri, an Afro-Portuguese chain serving flame-grilled chicken with this spicy, deeply flavorful sauce.

  • Wood Grilled Chicken with peri peri, white toast, charred onion, Serrano peppers, lime
    Fielding’s Rooster, The Woodlands, Texas
  • Piri Piri Pavo Sandwich: Smoked turkey, piri piri sauce, sprouts and avocado on sesame semolina
    Publican Quality Meats, Chicago
  • Sin Killer Peri Peri Chicken: Flame-grilled chicken marinated in olive oil, agave nectar, chile peppers, orange, lime, lemon, cilantro, onion and spices
    Street’s Fine Chicken, Dallas
Street’s Fried Chicken serves flame-grilled chicken marinated in a peri peri marinade of chile peppers, agave, lime, orange, lemon and cilantro.Kevin Marple

Street’s Fried Chicken serves flame-grilled chicken marinated in a peri peri marinade of chile peppers, agave, lime, orange, lemon and cilantro.

10 A Hot Dusting

A little bit of heat developed through a textural element is a showstopper today. Sriracha flakes, gochugaru (flaked Korean chile) and chile dust are just a few ways chefs are adding a high-impact ingredient with a modern take on heat. From popcorn bar bites to crusted chicken tenders, fiery flakes and dusts offer a new versatility in the delivery of a bold finishing punch.

  • Grilled Prawns with roasted squash, chile-dusted rice popcorn, hot sauce butter
    Barnwood Bar & Grill, Colorado Springs, Colo.
  • Elotes: Grilled corn on the cob served with a sweet miso cream, chile and beet tempura crunch, and cilantro
    Sakerum, Washington, D.C.

11 Hot Honey

Hot honey figures prominently at Hen Quarter, where the Fried Chicken Crackling shareable dish gets a balancing dose of sweet heat.Hen Quarter

Hot honey figures prominently at Hen Quarter, where the Fried Chicken Crackling shareable dish gets a balancing dose of sweet heat.

Sweet and heat are not a new pairing, but hot sauce tempered with honey seems to be hitting all the right notes today. Honey adds a roundness of profile with a lingering sweetness that matches heat’s ability to carry through flavor. Creativity comes in on how it’s executed. A good example of a modern hot honey dish is at Woodley Proper in Encino, Calif.: a bar bite of Scratch Bar and StepLadder Triple Crème on sourdough toast is topped with smoked honey and black pepper, demonstrating a nuanced honey spiked with bright heat.

  • Korean Fried Chicken with cornmeal scallion pancake, napa slaw and gochujang honey
    Hemingway’s Bar & Hideaway, Nashville
  • Fried Chicken Crackling with roaster hot honey
    Hen Quarter, three locations in Washington, D.C., area

12 S’chug

This sharp green hot sauce hails from the Middle East but carries with it a familiar profile of cilantro and parsley emulsified with olive oil—think chimichurri or salsa verde—spiked with serious heat from chile peppers and a few spices, like cardamom or coriander seed. Showing up on menus as zhug, s’hug, schug and skhug, it makes a white-hot, bright counterpoint to unctuous meats, like shawarma, of course, but also porchetta, or any braised meat dish that needs a memorable zing of contrast.

  • Tuna Ceviche with jalapeño dressing, radish, squid ink chips, green s’chug
    Byblos Miami, Miami, Fla.
  • Grilled Branzino with cauliflower couscous, labneh, s’chug
    Cleo, Las Vegas

 

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.