Dawn Cisney wears her love of Sriracha on her sleeve.
A sleeve is a collection of small tattoos, usually with a theme, that cover most of a person's arm. In Cisney's case, the inked images that adorn her right arm are of her favorite foods: avocado, eggs, garlic and a bottle of Sriracha sauce.
The Omaha woman's obsession with the Asian hot sauce started a couple years ago when she noticed a bottle of it on a table in a Chinese restaurant. She'd never tried it but decided to squirt some of the spicy, bright-red sauce on her food. She's been hooked on the stuff ever since.
Cisney and other fans like Sriracha for its tongue-tingling heat, vinegary tang, garlicky flavor and subtle sweetness. They drizzle, dab and douse the condiment on omelets, burgers, potatoes, sandwiches, mac and cheese, hot dogs and more.
A staple in Asian restaurants and grocery stores, Sriracha has crossed over into many non-Asian restaurants, home kitchens, supermarkets and mainstream retailers like Target. It's moved beyond spicing up Asian soups, noodles and stir-fries to being incorporated into a variety of cuisines and dishes. At some restaurants, you're just as likely to hear “pass the Sriracha” as you are requests for ketchup and mustard.
“I love the flavor of the intense chili and the garlic,” said Cisney, who uses it on everything from chicken and dumplings to pizza and French fries.
Like ketchup, the word Sriracha is a generic term. Several companies make it, but to many American consumers the product is most commonly associated with the version with the rooster on the bottle, manufactured by Huy Fong Foods. The California-based company sold 20 million bottles of it in 2012 for $60 million, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. Revenue grows about 20 percent a year. The company's founder, Vietnam native David Tran, based his version of Sriracha around a hot sauce thought to have originated in the town of Si Racha, Thailand.
Ingredients include red jalapeño chilies, sugar, salt, garlic and distilled vinegar. A 17-ounce bottle sells for a few dollars, depending on the retailer.
It can be used to enliven salad dressings, dips and marinades with a touch of heat. Cisney makes a compound butter with it. She combines softened butter with Sriracha, rolls it in a tube, then refrigerates the mixture. She slices a round of the spicy butter and puts it on top of steak or sauteed vegetables.
Spurred by the product's popularity, other food companies have developed Sriracha-flavored snacks. As part of Lay's “Do Us a Flavor” campaign, fans can vote for their favorite new potato chip flavor. Sriracha is among the three contenders. And Subway is experimenting with a creamy Sriracha sauce for sandwiches.
Coming out this summer is “The Veggie-Lover's Sriracha Cookbook” by author Randy Clemens. The Oatmeal, a popular online comic strip, sells Sriracha merchandise on its website, including T-shirts, lip balm, tote bags, posters and popcorn. Last year, Cook's Illustrated tested nine different hot sauces and named Sriracha the best-tasting of the bunch, ahead of Frank's Red Hot, Cholula, Tabasco and other brands.
Cisney said she prefers the thicker consistency and richer flavor of Sriracha over other hot sauces, which she finds too thin and vinegary tasting. Though she has yet to use it on desserts, one of her friends likes to drizzle Sriracha over dark chocolate ice cream.
“People are going nuts for it,” Cisney said.
Isa Chandra Moskowitz, a popular vegan food blogger and author of eight cookbooks, has been a Sriracha fan since she was a teenager in New York. She and her friends called it “rooster sauce.”
Over the years, Moskowitz, who now lives in Omaha, has used Sriracha in meals she makes at home as well as for recipes — including grapefruit-Sriracha vinaigrette — she develops for her cookbooks and blog. She considers it a pantry staple and said it has the perfect balance of heat and garlic.
“It's trendy right now. It has been for a couple years,” said Moskowitz, who wears an “I love Sriracha” T-shirt and is planning a Sriracha-inspired Halloween costume. “It's got a whole cult following.”
At Leo's Diner in Benson, customer demand for Sriracha prompted owner Jason Brown to keep the condiment station stocked with several bottles of it.
The restaurant first started using it in fall 2011 for a special called the Pelini Island. Served during football season and inspired by the Husker head coach, the dish features hash browns, biscuits and gravy, eggs, tomatoes, corn, ground beef and steak. It's finished with Sriracha because “we needed something a little fiery,” Brown said.
But customers started requesting the hot sauce for other items, too.
"We were constantly getting asked for a side of it," Brown said.
Since the diner's staff kept having to make trips back to the kitchen to pour some Sriracha in a cup and bring it to out to customers, Brown decided to leave it out with the rest of Leo's hot sauces. Now customers can grab a bottle whenever they want.
“They throw it in on everything,” he said.
Down the street at pizza-and-sandwich joint Baxter's, customers can find a bottle of Sriracha next to the napkins, utensils and housemade ketchup. Baxter's owner Brad Marr, who also runs Benson restaurant Lot 2, said Sriracha is popular at both establishments.
Compared to other hot sauces, he said, Sriracha boasts a fuller flavor and intensified heat. Diners at Baxter's dip sweet potato tots into Sriracha or puddle it onto their plate to enjoy with a slice of pizza. At Lot 2, Sriracha is a frequently requested item during Sunday brunch, where customers add it to fried potatoes, croque monsieur and croque madame sandwiches and Bloody Marys.
“We have other types of hot sauce at Lot 2,” said Marr, “but seven out of 10 times they ask for Sriracha.”