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Food for Thought

The surprising sauce that has spicy hold over many of Houston's best restaurants

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Tony Mandola in his new kitchen Photo by Marene Gustin
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The ubiquitous bottle of Tabasco at Tony Mandola's Photo by Marene Gustin
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Yep, there it is. Photo by Marene Gustin
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Tony Mandola's beautiful new building expands on the old West Gray site, making it familiar yet better. Photo by Shelby Hodge
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I have to say I love the new Tony Mandola’s on Waugh Drive. And what’s not to love?

The beautiful new building expands on the old West Gray site, making it familiar yet better. And the patio is lovely (when it’s not 100 degrees outside). Of course the food is wonderful, much of it the same that the Mandolas have been making since the early ‘80s, often based on Mama Mandola’s recipes.

And there’s one other thing that is familiar to the legions of Mandola followers: There’s a bottle of Tabasco brand pepper sauce on every single table.

The ubiquitous little red bottle sits on tables everywhere, yet how often do we really pay attention to it?

Frankly, I’ve never given much thought to Tabasco sauce. Sure, like most of the planet, I have an ancient bottle in the fridge (the shelf life of a bottle in a cool, dry place is five years but I fear my bottle is even older), but I’ve only ever used it for whipping up a batch of Bloody Marys. I’ve certainly never thought about adding it to Italian dishes, Cajun or Tex-Mex. But restaurants of various ilk use the peppery sauce in all kinds of dishes.

“I don’t know a restaurant in town that doesn’t use it,” says Phillip Mitchell of Phil & Derek’s Restaurant & Wine Bar where the kitchen goes through about a gallon a week. “Except maybe French ones.”

Haven uses a gallon every other month, but chef/owner Randy Evans also goes through about a pound and a half of Tabasco mash every month.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot,” Evans says, “but it is.”

Tabasco mash is the gunk that’s left in the bottle of the barrel after the sauce has aged for three years. As Evans says, it’s basically the Tabasco trash. But good trash.

 Tabasco has been around for a long time. The family run McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana (today run by the sixth generation) has been selling it commercially for 143 years. 

“We use it for the remoulade on the shrimp corn dogs and in our Avery Island dressing (named for the island where it’s made), which is sort of my take on Thousand Island dressing.”

Evans explains that he uses the liquid to finish almost all of his sauces because of the vinegar in it. “It’s like adding a squeeze of lemon,” he says. “It gives it a touch of acid.”

Back at Mandola’s the owner says the kitchen uses about 60 gallons a year. “And about 240 bottles on the tables,” Tony Mandola says.

In the kitchen the Tabasco goes into a lot of dishes, but at the tables it’s the gumbo and the oysters that mostly get the pepper sauce treatment.

“It’s just absolutely wonderful for seafood,” Mandola says. “And I like it on my steak once in a while.”

Then he shows how he likes to eat his chilled oysters on the half shell, whipping up a mash of horseradish, lemon juice, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce and a couple of drops of fiery Tabasco.

It’s a little pepper party in your throat as the oysters slide down.

Tabasco has been around for a long time. The family run McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana (today run by the sixth generation) has been selling it commercially for 143 years. Edmund McIlhenny created the hot stuff in the mid 1800s from red peppers (capsicum frutescens) he grew on the island. He mixed it with spice and white wine vinegar and aged it in old bourbon barrels before bottling the sauce in used cologne bottles to give to family and friends. (We assume he washed them thoroughly.)

It proved so popular as a spice for post Civil War food that he started the company to sell it commercially in 1868.

Originally all the peppers for the sauce were grown on the island, but now they take seeds from the plants and send them to pepper farms in Central and South America so they have peppers all year long and can handle the worldwide demand for Tabasco sauce. It is sold in 160 countries and labels are printed in 22 different languages.

But back to Tony Mandola’s. Turns out the McIlhennys have actually been there.

“They’ve been to the West Gray restaurant several times,” Mandola says. “Once they just stopped in for the Key lime pie.

“I remember the first time he came. He looked around and said, ‘this is my dream come true, a bottle of Tabasco on every table!”

Tabasco Fun Facts

Each 2-ounce bottle of Original Tabasco Sauce contains 720 drops.

Yes, it’s kosher and meets the K standards.

The Original version has a Scoville Heat Unit rating of 2500 to 5000.

The McIlhenny Company can produce up to 700,000 2-ounce bottles of the original sauce per day.

And yes, you can tour the facilities at Avery Island.

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