Mar 3, 2024 - News

Homemade hot sauce adds Hmong-inspired zing to traditional Southern barbecue in St. Paul

Two Asian women smile for the camera with jars of red pepper sauce in the foreground. The woman on the left wears a black T-shirt that reads 'Firebox BBQ,' the woman on the left is in red.

Yue Lee Vang (right) shows off jars of her hot sauce at Firebox Barbecue, the St. Paul restaurant run by five of her six children, including daughter Bao Vang (left). Photo: Kyle Stokes/Axios

I recently went looking for under-the-radar Twin Cities hot sauces and found not only who's making them, but why and how.

Behind the scenes: I was inspired to write this story during a recent dinner at Firebox Barbecue in St. Paul.

"My grandma makes our hot sauce," the cashier told me. "Would you like to try it?"

  • Uh, yes please. I left with a jar, and I've been putting it on my morning eggs ever since.

Behind the sauce: "Grandma" is Yue Lee Vang, whose kids run Firebox.

  • Her contribution to the business is Mama's Heat, a hot-pepper paste that brings flavor from the family's Hmong heritage into what is otherwise a traditional Southern barbecue joint.

Zing level: "This is a perfect spice level," she explained through a translator — her daughter, Bao — "because it allows you to still taste the other ingredients and flavors."

My thought bubble: My Nordic-Anglo taste buds struggled with it at first. But I also learned a small spoonful is enough to infuse your food with a complex, smoky buzz.

  • The sauce has an herbal quality that Vang calls "minty-ness."

What's inside: Peppercorns; red peppers Vang picks herself; and padek, a traditional Lao condiment of fermented fish sauce that I think adds a hint of kimchi-esque taste to the sauce.

If you go: I bought my jar for $14.99 and it'll last me a good, long while.

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