David Tran: Sriracha
America loves its immigrant success stories, and few are as good as David Tran's. Tran founded Huy Fong Foods, the Southern California company that started making "rooster" brand Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce in the early 1980s. Born into a Chinese family in Vietnam, Tran has seen his creation hit like the Macintosh computer: a brand that transcends simple marketing to define an identity.
In less than five years, Sriracha has gone from being the greasy-bottled table condiment at pho joints in the San Gabriel Valley to the hot sauce of hipsters, the star of a cookbook hocked at Urban Outfitters, and now, a design element at Chipotle. That is, at Chipotle's new noodle and rice-bowl spin-off, ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen (the first branch opened for beta testing in Washington DC in September). There, a single row of unopened, green-topped Sriracha bottles lines one wall.
In LA, Kogi pastry chef Beth Kellerhals recently created perhaps the ultimate expression of Sriracha's ascendance to cultural icon: a candy bar with a layer of rooster sauce ganache at its heart. "There's definitely a Rocky Horror Picture Show following to Sriracha," says Kogi's Roy Choi.
Now in his 60s, Tran (who did not respond to interview requests) seems as surprised as anyone by Sriracha's new status. In Vietnam in the 1970s, he made a range of spicy sauces using chiles his brother grew near Saigon. Tran arrived in the United States in January 1980, and by February he was busy grinding chile sauces, according to a 2009 New York Times profile. The rooster? Tran's astrological sign. The name Sriracha? A town in central Thailand known for its chile pastes. And the polyglot of languages on the bottle? Tran's genius may be the very ambiguity of Sriracha's provenance.
"He had a so-so level of success, living in Chinatown in LA," says Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, "mixing up sauces for the top Southeast Asian cuisines—he even made sambal oelek for the Indonesian community—but the thing that hits is rooster sauce. Is it Thai? Is it Vietnamese? It's completely messed up as to which cuisine owns it." Momofuku chef David Chang told a reporter in 2008 that Sriracha is one of five ingredients that must always be on his kitchen shelves.
Choi—whose first Kogi truck parked in Rosemead, California, site of Tran's Huy Fong factory—thinks Sriracha will always belong to the Asian home cooks who used it long before Tran's rooster sauce had a Facebook page. "A lot of stuff that's hipster cool is just normal everyday shit for us," Choi says, "like ketchup on the table." As for the Sriracha-bottle décor at ShopHouse, Choi calls it "fucking cheesy."
Still, Choi says, the sauce that started out in Vietnam, with David Tran's brother-in-law filling Gerber baby food jars sourced from American GIs, will always keep something of its raw edge. "That's the amazing thing about the rooster," Choi says. "There's this crazy little outfit in Rosemead, California. One dude started it, and nobody else can replicate the flavor. There's something spiritual and magic about it." —J.B.NEXT: PHILIP PRESTON