Erik Buehler laughs off the suggestion that he’s a hot sauce sommelier, but few people in Southern Arizona can compete with his credentials in the environment of combustible condiments.
Buehler is the curator of the Wall of Heat, the collection of hot sauces that dominates the market at Tucson Tamale’s northwest location at 7286 N. Oracle Rd. More than 300 hot sauces are currently on the wall, ranging from tame to incendiary, and he predicts that number will grow to 400 by year’s end. This reportedly makes his retail hot sauce collection among the largest in Arizona and his palate arguably one of the toughest and most tested in the industry.
The wall began as a small space on a single shelf in 2019. Its occupants were the restaurant’s own signature hot sauces, chipotle, habanero, and jalapeno, with others slowly added to the line-up by Tucson Tamale co-owner Todd Martin.
“Todd loves hot sauces, and one of the pivot opportunities that the pandemic introduced was a plan to grow that offering as part of a new marketplace concept,” said Buehler. Every plan requires dedicated personnel to manage it, so Buehler, who at that time was a utility player at Tucson Tamale doing everything from deliveries to catering, got the nod.
Equating Buehler’s work with that of a sommelier seems natural when you consider the services that one provides — creating and managing a list, recommending food pairings, advising guests on selections based on personal tastes, and informing them on varieties and price points.
That all begins with a conversation.
“When customers walk in the door, they’re immediately drawn to our hot sauce wall, and that’s where I start the conversation,” said Buehler. “I ask questions about flavor preference, heat tolerance, how much capsaicin they’re willing to actually put in their mouth, that kind of thing.”
He even offers free tastes of several of his most popular selections, with a few tortilla chips, to help build profiles for what his customers like in a hot sauce in ways that will ultimately inform their purchasing decisions.
“This exploration regularly results in our selling four or five different bottles of hot sauce to a single customer,” he said. “I’ve already done it twice today.”
Trust is another element of the sommelier experience. When somms make wine recommendations to guests, there’s an inherent trust that the somms have tasted the wines themselves which enables them to offer their own observations about the wines and their pairing potential.
Buehler shares that sentiment (I think you know where I’m going here!), and yes, it’s true that he has personally tasted nearly all of the 300+ hot sauces on the wall.
“Before a new hot sauce goes on the wall, before it goes through the computer and gets a price tag, I taste it,” he said. And Buehler’s tasting method is an exacting one. For most sauces, it’s a single drop that he shakes with precision onto what he calls “that fleshy little pocket between your thumb and index finger.” Then he proceeds to “lick it off and see how it goes.”
He calls for an assist with sauces that are less viscous, routinely from a tortilla chip, while taking special care to stay focused on the flavors that come from the bottle.
Buehler showed me that branding is big in the hot sauce industry and he has seen it all when it comes to creative designs and packaging. But he warns that a big eye-catcher can sometimes be a big letdown.
“We had a hot sauce come in the other day that looked pretty cool, in a fancy little whiskey-type bottle, like a small bottle that you can put in your back pocket,” he said, “and, honestly, it had no flavor at all, it was like pure heat and vinegar.”
The lack of flavor notwithstanding, that Buehler immediately thought of the mobile transport potential of a hot sauce, taking residence in his back pocket, earned him elite status in my book.
He says the real winners are those that come from “companies that actually do their work and determine how to use the pepper without making the sauce so incredibly spicy, or incredibly bland, so there’s no flavor,” he said. “You can still have a full-flavor hot sauce that’s super spicy, it’s all about the balance.”
Buehler holds local products close to his heart and has a separate area of the wall dedicated exclusively to sauces from the Grand Canyon State. Among his favorites are Tucson’s own High Desert Sauce Company and Big Red’s Hot Sauces from Phoenix.
Among the more imaginative hot sauces that he sources from outside the state are four from Whitehouse Station Sauce Company in Hunterton County, New Jersey. These include the Applewood-Smoked Poblano, Blueberry Reaper, Cranberry Reaper, and White Peach Habanero.
He’s also partial to sauces from Karma Sauce Company in Rochester, New York, like the tropical-inspired Ghost Island with pineapple, mango, apple cider vinegar, orange juice, agave nectar, curry, and a three-pepper blend of ghosts, habaneros, and fataliis.
I couldn’t do justice to an article about a hot sauce sophisticate without asking him the obvious question about the hottest sauce on the wall. Without pause or ponder, he introduced me to an extract called Round One Screaming Hot Pepper Distillate, made with Carolina reaper, Trinidad Moruga scorpion, and red habanero peppers.
“I put a single drop on my tongue with no milk, no water, and no chips,” he recalled, the trauma still fresh in his quivering voice, “and I felt like I cried for 45 minutes.”
If that’s Round One, I’d hate to see Round Two.
Food pairings are yet another opportunity for these sauces to shine. While there are countless possible matches among his 300+ sauces and the restaurant’s 15+ varieties of hand-made tamales, Buehler’s personal favorite celebrates the thematic connection between the green chile and cheese tamale and the Applewood-Smoked Poblano hot sauce.
“This hot sauce is more of a verde sauce, and it kind of keeps the green chile theme going with our classic green corn tamales,” he said. “The poblanos aren’t very spicy, they have a huge amount of flavor, and I’ve actually had to stop myself from tipping the bottle and chugging it,” he admitted.
Hot sauces on Tucson Tamale’s Wall of Heat range in price from under $10 a bottle to around $20. No matter your budget, your taste preferences, your risk tolerance, or where your palate finds comfort on the Scoville Scale, Buehler has a sauce or two for you. He may even be carrying one in his back pocket — for emergency use, of course — as one never knows when the craving for capsaicin will hit.
The “Wall of Heat” inside Tucson Tamale is located at 7286 N. Oracle Rd. For more information, visit tucsontamale.com.
Matt Russell has been a food and beverage writer/broadcaster covering stories in Arizona and beyond since 2009. He’s been the food and beverage writer for Inside Tucson Business for the past decade and is a regular contributor to Tucson Foodie...