It was sometime around 1999, as a full-time LEO employee, that I first had food from El Mundo. Our Tuesday deadline days were the kinds of days when we really didn’t have time for lunch breaks, so the then-owners would bring in lunch. For the longest time, that lunch came from the relatively new El Mundo (it opened in its sweet spot at 2345 Frankfort Ave. in 1995).
If you’ve ever had El Mundo food, you know we were a happy, happy staff on Tuesdays (or at least our stomachs were happy). But back in those days, I didn’t really focus on the sauces. I became enamored with the chicken enchiladas, with the dark red — almost black — mole poblano sauce. But sometime in early 2008, I arranged a first date with a girl who will remain nameless, and we agreed El Mundo would be the destination.
When we landed, she was quick to ask if I’d tried the habanero sauce.
“They have a habanero sauce?” Gosh, I had no idea.
Well, the relationship with the girl didn’t pan out, but my relationship with the sauce did. Anytime I went to El Mundo after that, I needed a cup of what is known as the Red Hot Mamma sauce.
Red Hot Mamma is now available in bottles. And for those who fear the heat, you can also get the Smoked Chipotle in bottles. LEO’s esteemed editor Sara Havens alerted me to this fact, and I immediately (OK, the next day) drove to El Mundo and purchased a bottle of each ($5.99).
I eat a lot of chicken at home. I buy whole-wheat tortillas, fresh pico de gallo and shredded cheese, and I eat the hell out of burrito-sized chicken tacos several times a week. And I also have a jungle of hot sauces on my kitchen counter that gives me a red-hot cornucopia of choices for spicy flavorings to enhance those chicken tacos.
And on the day I bought these two El Mundo sauces, I decided to do a hot sauce experiment. First, I snatched the box of Trader Joe’s-brand wheat crackers from my cupboard, dropped a dollop of the El Mundo Chipotle on it and ate it.
Well, it was really good. The sauce has a big smoky flavor, with plenty of chipotle character. The smoke lingers. I had one and then another. And then another. In spite of the big pepper seeds I saw floating in the sauce, the heat is a slow and cumulative build, but after the fourth cracker, I started to feel meaningful heat, and even then it was smooth and fairly subtle. It was just about perfect, to be honest.
Next I poured some of the thinner Red Hot Mamma on a cracker. First I gave it the nose test, and it was pure habanero, just as I had remembered. The taste buds confirmed the same, and the heat was immediate. But here’s what I’m going to say: For those who fear the heat, please understand that the habanero pepper has a unique flavor, and that’s what draws me (and many other heat heads). This sauce is perfectly balanced — the flavor of the pepper is front and center, and the heat is just a by-product, as it should be.
After the cracker test, I made one of my signature chicken taco-rritos and tried it with both. As much as I prefer the heat, I think the Smoky Chipotle probably pairs with the chicken better, perhaps because there is a hint of adobo in it. I did a test with both sauces on pieces of chicken independent of the taco, and the chipotle sauce won. Then I did the same with the taco, and the chipotle won again, at least in terms of how it paired with the delicious chicken (which also came from Trader Joe’s).
Of course, as a heat head, I wanted more of my taco to be slathered in the Hot Momma. But for the first three or four bites, I realized I had under-sauced, at least for my heat needs. So I added more for the latter half of the taco and nailed the balance. I got the flavor blend — which wasn’t quite as natural as the chipotle, but still great — and the heat I wanted at the same time. Score.
The Hot Momma is not all heat, as I mentioned — it also contains carrots, pineapple and bell peppers to enhance the flavor. It works. It is a nicely blended sauce that will go with a lot of different dishes, from chicken to seafood to, well, wheat crackers.
The chipotle sauce, meanwhile, is probably the decisive winner simply in terms of versatility. I think the stuff also would be fantastic with steak, to be honest. Or a burger. Or eggs. Or cardboard. I probably won’t try the latter, but there you go. Experiment as you will.