Sacramento’s Assfire erupts in Marin, SF, and BeyondJanuary 13, 2014 • By Ryan Donahue
Signs and symptoms: Persistent burning, localized redness, perspiration, coughing and sneezing.
Pathophysiology: Direct contact (oral/nasal).
Diagnosis: Almost always originates in restaurant kitchens primarily in, but not limited to, the city of Sacramento, CA.
While working as a photographer in area kitchens I began to notice unlabeled hot sauce that would appear during family meal in various establishments. Over time I was introduced to Assfire: at that time; origin unknown. What I did know was that the hot sauce was out of my league. From time to time I would delicately place a pin drop of the sauce on a chip or chicharron just to remind myself of my own mortality. The burn is substantial and unrelenting (yet strangely addictive).
My fascination was sparked by its ubiquity in local restaurants. Containers vary, but the milky orange hue borne from the primary ingredient (habaneros), is unmistakable. Anyone who knows the name also knows the lineage. Assfire was born at Mulvaney’s Building and Loan in 2006. Robb “Rossi” Venditti a long time Mulvaney’s cook (now Chef at Pangaea) recalls,“In the first year at Mulvaney’s (2006) we discovered a container in the walk-in that the original chef, John Kosorek, who had just left had labeled Mulvaney’s ass fire. It was a habanero hot sauce. We ate it on eggs and whatever else we could. It didn’t last long. I wanted more. So I asked Patrick how he made it and started making batches of the stuff.”
I dropped in on Patrick Mulvaney and he was happy to illuminate the history and preparation of Assfire showing me vessels of the sauce in various stages of fermentation. Sauce from the early stages of the process (dubbed Hot Young Ass) is purely for the impatient thrillseeker as it has yet to develop the fruity notes found after a month or more of fermentation. Assfire has also been repurposed into a more potent Weaponized Assfire which results from dehydration of the hot sauce into a powder which is used to dust foods like chicharrons or fried gnocchi.
Uses of Assfire isn’t always culinary and it has been used for medical applications in the past. On more than one occasion the hot sauce has been used to induce labor. Mulvaney recalled a very pregnant woman asking for the hot sauce in an attempt to instigate labor and after it’s consumption hearing that “her water broke right there at table 23”.
The recipe? Venditti says to, “Put habaneros into a non-reactive container with a few cloves of garlic and a couple sprigs of oregano, and submerge in white wine vinegar for at least a 3 or 4 weeks. Then after fermentation, which in this case is more like pickling mellows the sharp flavors and brings out the heat of the peppers, you place everything except the oregano into the blender and wiz it up adding the salt to taste. Now, that’s the original recipe.” Venditti was nice enough to blend up a batch at Pangaea and let me sample it. The flavor was memorable and the burn served memory as being unforgettable. I retreated to the bar to attempt to cool the flames and Venditti rinsed the blender pitcher causing cooks to pour out of the kitchen coughing like he had detonated tear gas. One variation of the recipe does exist and appeared around ‘07 at Mason’s outlined by chef Rob Lind (now Chef De Cuisine at Ella Dining Room and Bar) where the chilis were salted and allowed to make their own vinegar opposed to being soaked in vinegar. The result is the same. Lind’s current batch is 50% Fresno and 50% Habanero chiles and is quite flavorful.
Habanero hot sauce is not unique and by no means the spiciest in existence. The ubiquity of Assfire is more about branding than it is about a recipe. It’s not spicy for the sake of selling funny labels or approaching the pure capsaicin on the scoville heat scale. Assfire’s prevalence is a product of chef’s cherishing their own culinary heritage and celebrating their education as cooks. As Sacramento cooks have moved on to kitchens in neighboring cities so has Assfire. Confirmed sightings have occurred at Wayfare Tavern (SF), LB Steak (Menlo Park) and El Paseo (Mill Valley). Locally it can be found at Formoli’s Bistro, Ella, Pangaea, Taylor’s, Mulvaney B&L, Tuli Bistro and OneSpeed. Make sure to ask for it by name and to sample it prior to dousing your food with it because the cooks will be watching.