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“Fancy food” is an old-fashioned phrase that used to refer to, basically, Spam with pretensions. Our parents—or grandparents, depending on how young you are—would break out the Vienna cocktail sausages, smoked oysters, After Eight mints, and pimento-stuffed olives at martini time, which meant they were ready to party like it was 1969.
Since then, the specialty food market has grown into a $127 billion business, according to the trade group that runs the massive, bicoastal Fancy Food Show, a sort of Willy Wonka mecca for food makers who hope to make it big the way that Justin’s, the Boulder-based nut-butter company, did when it sold to the owner of Skippy in 2016 for $286 million. More than a quarter of a billion dollars for those little squeeze packets of ground almonds? Yes, because the U.S. appetite for specialty foods is gigantic, and the niches, from sulfur-free apricots to organic za’atar, are legion. Walk the Fancy Food Show—post-pandemic, of course—and you’ll find that for every 10 misbegotten products like keto-friendly emu jerky treats, there’s a real discovery, like Poirier’s dark Louisiana cane syrup.
Which brings me to sauces. In the early 2000s, I was an editor working at a Manhattan media company alongside Maya Kaimal, who was a photo editor until she decided to quit and move into the Indian food business. I remember thinking at the time that the idea was admirable but loony. Kaimal saw the future, though, and her excellent Indian simmer sauces are now available nationwide. “The sauce aisle,” she tells me, “has gone from depressing to practically inspiring.”
For home cooks, packaged sauces for pasta, rice, meat, seafood, and vegetables of the sort Kaimal makes are a pantry godsend. The best of them bring concentrated, complex flavor right out of the container to your pot or plate and can be modified in minutes with other ingredients you have on hand.I recently spent a day visiting a dozen Denver metro-area stores and then tasted more than 30 sauces. Below are a few of my favorites and some ways to use them.
Let’s begin with pasta sauces, since that category is enormous. I experienced a 2020 lockdown conversion to Rao’s Homemade that rocked my noodle world after years of doctoring inexpensive pasta sauces with smoky bacon, fresh garlic, Calabrian chiles, and the like. Rao’s costs at least three times more than a cheap jarred sauce on sale, but it has a pure, bright, slow-cooked tomato flavor without pasty overconcentration or sugary additions. There are several flavors, but Costco’s two-jar Rao’s marinara pack is the best bargain in town at $10.80 for a pair of 28-ounce jars.
There are local rivals to Rao’s: Family-owned Spinelli’s Market in Park Hill sells house-made sauces, and of its five jarred versions, I enjoyed the Roasted Garlic Fra Diavolo the best ($6.99 for 26 ounces). It tastes strongly of roasted garlic, unlike other sauces that don’t live up to their flavor promises. In Spinelli’s fresh, nonjarred sauce category, meanwhile, the Sun-Dried Fresh Tomato Pesto ($8.99 for an eight-ounce tub) delivered deep roasted-tomato flavor along with the full cheesy-nutty richness of a basil-based pesto.
Mercantile Dining & Provision’s thick, smooth Red Tomato Mother Sauce ($10 for 12 ounces at Mercantile; $11.99 at Marczyk Fine Foods), meanwhile, may be a bit pricey for a noodle dinner but goes a long way when smeared onto oiled, toasted slices of French bread or focaccia; add good feta, cured black olives, paper-thin slices of spicy salami, or other salty toppings.
I mostly avoided the barbecue and hot sauce categories because both are ridiculously crowded—with a couple of exceptions. I must mention what will henceforth become a staple in my pantry, found at Marczyk: Lillie’s Q Ivory Barbeque Sauce ($8.99 for 17 ounces), made by native Southerners who live in Chicago. Before moving to Colorado, I lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and it was there that I came to appreciate that state’s main claim to barbecue fame: tangy, mayo-based white sauce. It’s nonpareil on a smoked chicken sandwich and also excellent as a salad dressing (add minced fresh garlic and then thin the sauce with a bit of water or oil) on what I call an Alabama Caesar.
On the hot sauce side, Ninja Squirrel Coconut Sriracha ($4.99 for 18 ounces at Whole Foods Market) caught my eye because I wondered if coconut-milk sweetness would mellow the harshness of Sriracha. The answer is yes, and in a lovely way; try it on stir-fried noodles or squirt it onto an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich for a little wake-up zing.
Ruby’s Market in Platt Park is a small, homey shop that supports local businesses led by refugees and immigrants, many of which are female-owned. I particularly like the DIY Delish Tomato & Zaatar Simmer Sauce ($8 for 12 ounces) I discovered there; it’s made by three sisters, including Denverite Rajwinder Harika. It’s a finely balanced, intense mixture with robust Middle Eastern spice-market flavors and just the right chile heat. Finish a pan of garlicky lamb meatballs with it and serve with saffron-infused basmati rice.
Also in the simmer sauce genre, I enjoy Brooklyn-based Masala Mama Vindaloo cooking sauce ($5.99 for 10 ounces), which I found at Leevers Locavore in Highland. Vindaloo is a complex, vinegary curry from Goa in western India, often prepared with seafood, which is how I like to use this sauce: Pan-fry sliced onions and fillets of firm white fish in ghee or butter until browned, then top with Masala Mama and serve with steamed rice.
This past Christmas, the gift of an air fryer led me to make Buffalo-style wings at home. Denver brand Blonde Beard’s makes several flavors of wing sauce, and two are available at the Local Butcher inside Denver Central Market ($6.99 for eight ounces). My family’s favorite is the lightly bitter IPA version, made with Upslope beer, which isn’t too spicy but does have a throat-catching vinegar kick.
While shopping at the Local Butcher, I picked up two thin, brined pork chops that had ample bands of the lovely fat that makes pork taste so good. Pan-fried to a deep brown, the chops needed only a dollop of applesauce, and Colorado-made Ela Family Farms’ organic Jonathan Applesauce ($5.99 for 24 ounces at Marczyk) was perfect: rosy-hued and unsweetened, with full-on Jonathan apple tanginess.
I also recently bought a rack for steaming idlis, those little South Indian and Sri Lankan savory rice-and-dal-flour cakes. With idlis, you need sambar, a brothy, vegetarian curry dipping sauce, and MTR Sambar Curry with Onion and Lentil ($2.49 for 10.5 ounces) at the remarkably well-stocked Bombay Bazaar in Aurora is a great match, especially if you add fresh curry leaves, as I did. (These are also available at Bombay, and you can purchase idli mixes and steamers there, too).
Moving farther east (and back to Whole Foods), Mother In Law’s Gochujang Bibimbap Sesame Chile Sauce ($7.29 for nine ounces) is a winner. Gochujang is the fermented chile paste used as a base for myriad Korean sauces, soups, and stews. This version, my favorite of the five from California-based Mother In Law, has more of a cocktail-sauce texture but lots of rich, sesame-inflected gochujang flavor. It’s great straight from the jar as a dip for grilled shrimp, but you can also brush it on skewered pork or flanken-style ribs a couple of minutes before removing the meat from the grill or broiler.
I tried an expensive, artisanal mole verde paste a few months ago, wondering as I ate how it would compare to the ubiquitous, much cheaper, Hormel Foods–owned Doña Maria Mole Verde ($2.89 for 8.25 ounces at Lowe’s Mercado). It turns out that Doña Maria makes as good a sauce at one-third of the price! It’s a dense paste and only moderately spicy, with a vivid pumpkin-seed flavor. To use it, purée fresh onion and tomato, sauté that in oil, add the paste, and then add water until you get a thick sauce, which is lovely with chicken.
Finally, there’s the completely uncategorizable but delicious Bitchin’ Cilantro Chili Sauce ($5.99 for eight ounces), produced in Carlsbad, California, that I spotted on my way through Leevers Locavore. It’s a dense, almond-based vegan dip/sauce with a humorously dated-looking label on its plastic container. No matter: You can simply deploy celery or carrot sticks as dippers until the sauce disappears, but I prefer it as a sort of cilantro-centric romesco, thinned out a bit with water and warmed, then poured over grilled scallions or leeks. It’s darn close to a saucy miracle.