Is there an epidemic of secrecy in north Ballard? At two of my favorite restaurants in that area, the best item is not on the menu. Is it because there’s so little of it that it’s precious? (In which case I may live to regret writing this article.) Or is it because the restaurants just don’t think that many people want it? (In which case I beg to differ.) It’s not on their specials boards either. Unless you’re seated near me—or a fellow spice-hound—you might not even know it exists. But we’re hounds and we can smell our own. We notice when the diners at the table across the room are spooning fire-engine red oil over their pizza or dipping their bread into a mysterious silver bowl.
To some, spicy sauces are torture; to others, that pain is pleasure. To me and those like me, hot sauce provides comfort, and we seek it everywhere. Sometimes, without even knowing if they have one, I’ll inquire about a hot sauce and discover a gem (Safari Restaurant in Columbia City is on that list). Other times I’ll spot a saucerful and beg for my own portion. It’s hard to say why these restaurants hide their best assets behind smoke screens and secrecy, but it only fuels the fire when I’ve got to work that little bit harder to find a great sauce.
And because of this, I have discovered that at both Delancey and Café Munir are phenomenal hot sauces made in-house but served only at the request of a customer.
If you’re a frequent diner at Delancey, you might be asking “Why would I want to put hot sauce on this delicious pizza?” You are not my people. It’s OK; it’s not a bad thing. We’re just different. If you just said to yourself, “Damn, I’ve been missing out on housemade hot chili oil at Delancey all this time?” then you’re my people. You know that hit of adrenaline that comes from a great spice paired with the perfect food?
For pizza, Delancey always has the traditional red-pepper flakes on the table and often offers spicy pickled peppers as a topping, but what takes the spice to a new level is the silky-smooth hot chili oil, redolent with the fruitiness of peppers steeped in good oil. It’s especially nice to dip the crust into the oil, as you would bread into olive oil. Yes, it may be odd to sprinkle oil onto something already on the greasy side—but hey, there’s already cheese on there, and how many people do you see sprinkling Parmesan on their slices?
Meanwhile, up the street at Café Munir, the hot sauce hit the menu for a split second, a softer, more demur entrance into the spicy-food game. I discovered it, I loved it—and the next time I was in, it was off the menu.
I inquired of the waitress if it might be available. “Of course!” she said, as if that were the dumbest question in the world. I briefly considered whether it had been available since Café Munir opened, fearing I’d missed out on a year of hot sauce because I didn’t know of it until its brief menu appearance. Then I spooned the thin red sauce of puréed peppers and herbs over my pita loaded with Munir’s buttery hummus, and everything was OK with the world. I sighed, like a junkie hit with his fix.