Explainer: Sriracha, Irwindale, and the Politics of Hot Sauce

Sriracha Bottles.
Sriracha Bottles. | Photo: Ted Eytan /Flickr/Creative Commons License

Sriracha, the almost mythical red sauce made in Irwindale, is actually pretty simple stuff: puréed jalapeños blended with vinegar, garlic, salt, and a bit of sugar. Relatively mild compared to incendiary hot sauces, Sriracha is supposed to make anything -- from eggs to cheesecake (really) -- something more.

The "more" comes from the chilis' capsaicin, a tricky molecule that unlocks a protein on the tongue that urgently signals the brain when exposed to temperatures over 109 degrees ... or chilis. You sense that your mouth is on fire, and your brain releases pain-easing endorphins. You feel the false burn and as it fades, you feel good. And you repeat.

Sriracha may be simple stuff, and its pleasures a little masochistic, but its manufacture is something of a mess right now, because politics in little towns is so intimate. Huy Fong Foods' Sriracha plant in Irwindale has had a few residents gasping and gagging. Complaints about offensive smells and burning eyes come when new batches of jalapeños were ground and blended into red sauce.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District has logged complaints about the Sriracha plant from 20 Irwindale households, with just four households making 41 of the 73 complaints the AQMD received.

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Huy Fong Foods used to be in Rosemead, until it was lured away by the enterprising Irwindale city council with the usual development sweeteners. The council members were eager for the jobs the Sriracha plant would bring to their working-class town of 1,500 residents. They also liked the idea that Sriracha had a fan base to which the city might attach some of its identity.

(Irwindale still has muted hopes that an NFL team owner might build a stadium there. But that's a different story of small town politics.)

Economic development is the aspiration of every working-class town. It gets complicated by the region's increasing density and urbanization. Not every new business can be a quietly humming technology hive. Stuff still has to be manufactured, and some of that stuff has to be made where raw materials and transportation connect, even if homeowners were there first and the stuff is chili sauce.

In a town as small as Irwindale, politics is more than local. It's familial. One of the residents complaining loudest about the Sriracha plant is the son of Irwindale Councilman Hector Ortiz. The son's reasons for complaining may include the councilman's irritation that Huy Fong Foods backed out of a lease deal with the city when the company bought the site of the Sriracha plant.

The Irwindale city council is suspended between competing aspirations: jobs (and a bit of Sriracha's glamour) versus the community's quality of life. The dilemma got the usual answer at last week's Irwindale city council meeting -- kick the can a little further down the road. Following a raucous meeting, the council put off taking any action on the Sriracha plant until early April.

Meanwhile Huy Fong Foods is ramping up its international fan base to lean on Irwindale council members. Sometimes local politics can be global, too.

Sriracha's Global Brand.
Sriracha's Global Brand. | Photo: kattebelletje/Flickr/Creative Commons License

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