Markets & Makers: Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co. has been turning up the heat since the ’40s

Welcome to Tucson Foodie’s new column, Markets & Makers. The title tells it all. In the coming weeks, we’ll be exploring the myriad of small local, markets. The makers side will highlight the talents of people who create some of the best food in the city, most of whom don’t work in professional kitchens. Please feel free to send your ideas and suggestions.

Back when Nogales Highway was the main route to Mexico, visitors often stopped in the sleepy little village of Tumacacori, which sat on both sides of the frontage road. Tourists could explore the old presidio and mission established by Padre Kino in 1691, enjoy a meal at Wisdom Café, grab a cold beer at the local bar, or shop at the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company. When I-19 was built, a lot of the traffic just kept on driving south but fortunately, Santa Cruz Chili & Spice persisted, no doubt because of the quality products.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company

Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company was opened in 1943 by Gene and Judy England. Judy was raised in the area on a hacienda called Rancho el Alamo. Gene, who was raised in Texas, led a colorful life as a cowboy, Hollywood stunt driver, and a welder in the oilfields. It was his experience as a welder that helped create the workings of the company.

Created from WWII discarded material, Gene built a pressure cooker that allowed them to turn chilis grown in their garden into a savory, rich red paste. Using the same equipment, he turned the chili pods into their soon-to-be-famous chili powder. Because their products were made using only chilis and nothing else, both home and professional cooks loved them.

In the early 1960s, the Englands opened the market and from that point, there was no stopping them.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company

Photo by Rita Connelly

Today, the market/gift shop/bookstore/history museum is run by their daughter, Judy England Neubauer, who over the years has expanded the product line.

Located just south of the Tumacácori National Historical Park (a visit there is an inspiring lesson in Arizona history), Santa Cruz is hard to miss. A huge, red chili pepper with the word “Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company” sits on the right side of the road. A good-sized parking lot allows for easy access.

The building itself, is nondescript, resembling a typical adobe brick home, but don’t let that fool you. Inside there are many treasures.

The market, where the aroma of roasted chili powder envelopes you, is a veritable cook’s paradise. Santa Cruz is also the ideal place to find a gift for out-of-town friends and family that truly says, “This is the flavor of the Southwest.”

For the powder and paste, Anaheim chilis are grown locally. They are then roasted and ground in the Santa Cruz facilities. Mounds of chili powder are hand-packed by a team of people who have grown accustomed to the fine powder that wafts in the air. Some employees have worked here for decades and are multigenerational.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company

Photo by Rita Connelly

The market is usually busy with visitors from near and far. Since many of the items are exclusive to Santa Cruz, people stock up for their home kitchens or to send to friends.

Three tiny rooms are packed with their products and a plethora of other items.

The front room is small but every available space has hundreds of products to enhance a cook’s repertoire. And while they’re known for their chili powder, which comes in both hot and mild, that’s just the start.

Tables and shelves hold house-made spice blends, dried herbs, salts, peppers, salsas (of every style, heat level, and taste), samples for tasting, essential oils, tea towels, and postcards. The options are mind-boggling. You’ll find blends for beef, pork, chicken, fish, or veggies. Because many of their products are one-of-a-kind folks often stock up when they visit.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company

Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company

Cooks have options of mixes for roasting, rubbing, baking, marinating, and barbecuing. Whole herbs and spices (cardamom comes three ways, for example) are available. Sea salt from the Sea of Cortez is found in colorful cloth sacks.

Sweet? Savory? Salty? Spicey? It’s all there for the taking. And while it seems the majority of the products lean toward Southwestern flavors, file gumbo, bouquet garni, galangal, and garam masala are only a few of the worldly flavors on the shelves.

A table sits in the center of the middle room. On it is a humongous bowl filled with tortilla chips. Surrounding the bowl are samples of all of Santa Cruz salsas and other mustards, jellies, and sauces that change on a regular basis.

The salsas are in what can only be described as plastic balls with a little window in them. A spoon makes for easy drizzling. Each is labeled, too. The entire design makes it ideal, and safe, for sampling. Many of the products, including the house salsas and the chile powders and paste, are “Certified Gluten-Free.”

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company

Books and Ranch Museum (Photo courtesy of Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company)

The middle room is also known as the “Books and Ranch Museum — a most apt description. Old photos tell a visual history of the area. Sombreros, harnesses, and other ranch tools hang on the walls and from the ceiling.
And then there are the books, the majority of which are cookbooks dedicated to the foods of the Southwest.

Others include both history and fiction titles, also with a Southwestern spin. The children’s books take up one wall, with a nice mix of both educational and fun storybooks, providing a great way for kids to learn about life in the Great Southwest.

Santa Cruz products are also used in professional kitchens from as close as Wisdom Café up the road and as far away as the Bit & Spur restaurant in Utah. Many Mexican restaurants in Tucson include Casa Molina, El Minuto Café, and Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.

Judy England Neubauer wrote a book, Recipes & History from Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company, detailing the story of the company, including many family photos. Recipes run the gamut. The forward was written by James Beard Award-winning chef, Janos Wilder, who used their products at all his restaurants and at home.

Wilder sums it up perfectly:

“You can taste the earth from which the chili grows, you can feel the warmth of the Arizona sun when you cook with it … I don’t think you can create the flavors of the region without it.”

The book is available at the store or online.

If you’re lucky, you can find the chile powder on local grocery shelves and certain products are available for shipping (albeit at a premium price because it’s costly for them to ship), but for a real sense of this Southwestern goldmine of flavors, a trip to Tumacácori is the only way to go.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company is located at 1868 E. Frontage Rd., Tumacacori, AZ 85640. For more information, call (520) 398-2591 or visit santacruzchili.com.

Rita Connelly is the author of "Lost Restaurants of Tucson," "Historic Restaurants of Tucson," and "Arizona Chimichangas" published by The History Press.

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