I can’t explain why, but the hot-sauce racket seems particularly attractive to floggers who rely less on balance and unmuddled flavors than lame punnage, puerile sadism, and opportunistic gimmickry (see Crazy Mother Pucker’s, Ass Blaster, Sarah Palin Hot for V.P., et al). Maybe that unchecked proliferation of obnoxious (and noxious) sauce is like the punk rock of condiments (or is it black metal?). Sure, lots of people can do it, but their numbers are wildly out of proportion with those that do it well.

Mike Bancroft is the Ian MacKaye of hot sauce. For the past five years the founder of the youth arts education center Co-op Image has quietly bottled three varieties made from chiles grown in the group’s community garden. “Food is a vehicle for sauce, as cheesy as that sounds,” he says. “I care way less about what’s underneath the sauce.” An avid cook and gardener, Bancroft developed his initial formula with a combination of seven toasted chiles and a chocolate-walnut mole tweaked with tahini. The resulting potion is a complex, brick-red alchemy of deep smokiness and moderate heat and sweetness, tempered by a slight citrus tang (from lime zest). He also makes a thinner, hotter, carrot-based habanero sauce amped with the black seeds of the peron chili, and a thick roasted jalapeño variety that rates lowest among the three on the Scoville scale. They’re created in small batches for freshness, and packaged in recycled bottles labeled with the help of Bancroft’s home laser printer.

The group first began selling its sauces at the Humboldt Park farmers’ market, and as demand grew started supplying restaurants–Janik’s Cafe, Treat, Flying Saucer, and Madison’s L’Etoile currently. Between that and online sales together with other assorted venues such as the Lotus Keep Gallery, Co-Op sells enough to pay the rent on its Humboldt Park arts center and to help fund the teen-produced CAN-TV Chi-Town Chefs cooking show. 

After all this time, I came across Co-op’s original formula for the first time at Birchwood Kitchen last week, and the bottle I snagged is nearly gone.