Sriracha

David Tran has long been a hero to me, before I knew who he was or what he did, for creating sriracha hot sauce. I discovered it the same day I was introduced to Vietnamese pho, a soup that markedly improved my life. Debbie and I were living in Fremont CA, still childless after a few years of marriage, and I was working across the bay at Adobe Systems in Mountain View. Adobe was still small enough that there was no cafeteria, and I fell in with a group who knew the best local places to eat.

One was Pho To Chau, a soup shop in downtown Mountain View, where I had my first bowl. They served the best I ever ate, a belief I confirmed the last time I visited Mountain View nearly twenty years later. We went there at least once a week, maybe twice. I proudly took Debbie there to introduce her to pho, and not long after we tracked down shops on our side of the bay which served decent versions, so it wasn’t uncommon for me to eat three bowls a week, two at work and one on the weekend. I could have gone more often! And I have fond memories of watching a very young Chris, sitting in an old-fashioned high chair, figuring out how to use the big plastic oriental soup spoon on his own small bowl.

Silicon Valley was much younger back then (1987-89), and the denizens were affluent but not crazily so. I don’t recall the variety of available food being remarkable. I do clearly remember being disappointed by the lack of great Chinese food, Indian food, even seafood, things we had learned to enjoy during our time in Boston. Exotic food had not yet become a thing, either, so those of it who were fond of it had to track it down in its native environment, out-of-the-way eating spots frequented by ethnic communities. At the pho shops we were often the only non-Asian family there, but nobody seemed to find our presence weird.

Pho is wonderful to me because it comes to the table boiling hot and so continues to cook its contents as I eat it. It comes with a standard array of condiments—bean sprouts, thinly sliced serrano peppers, fresh basil leaves, a couple of wedges of lime. I toss most everything but the peppers into the broth to customize it, stir, then grab the bottle of sriracha and squeeze a stream of chili sauce into the bowl until the broth begins to glow red. Then I focus on eating the rice noodles, giving the meat and other ingredients more time to cook. Eventually I get to those as well, and towards the end I am left with a bowl of intensely flavored broth—which I will always finish spooning into my now-aching belly. Back then I always ordered a ca phe sua da with the soup, a Vietnamese iced coffee where a small drip coffee gizmo is placed over a cup or glass with a thick layer of sweetened condensed milk on the bottom—once the coffee has dripped through, you stir it up and pour the contents over a glass of ice, then enjoy. It was a very nice way to come down off the high of the soup.

Even though I’ve been eating sriracha for 25 years, only recently have I learned the story behind it. If you’re interested, you could probably look it up. Sriracha’s creator, David Tran, is a remarkable guy in many ways. And he is now my intellectual property hero, for intentionally not trademarking the name sriracha. I love this article because of the selfish greed that oozes from every pore of the folks who are puzzled at why he would do such a thing—in their view, leaving money on the table. Whereas in Tran’s view, the many imitators who use the name are simply spreading news of his remarkable creation (a new flavor, really) far and wide, and as long as his sauce remains the gold standard the benefits will return to him—enough of them, anyway, to satisfy him. Sriracha is his gift to the world, and he is blessed in many ways by having given it.

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