Editor's Note: The following is The Big Spoon, an opinion column on San Antonio's food and drink scene.
The Hoodrat Burger from Big Poppa's Tacos
You know a food has reached deep into the bowels of pop culture when it becomes a Halloween costume. In 2014, Katy Perry, a self-proclaimed Flamin’ Hot Cheetos fiend dressed like the “extruded snack” (that’s what Frito-Lay calls them). And this year, a toddler in San Diego, California, was a snack-sized Cheetos bag complete with giant Hot Cheeto toy.
The enriched corn meal snack has had quite a run since launching in 1991, a product of innovation by one of the custodians at Frito-Lay. It’s the stuff of Hollywood, and yes, Richard Montañez’s story is being turned into a movie.
But the snack has a complicated history. It’s been banned from schools, it’s been maligned as triggering diabetes in the Rio Grande Valley and it has sent fans to ERs across the country.
Yet, in San Antonio, this little extruded snack that could is re-shaping dining culture.
That’s So Hot
Until recently the fervor for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos was kept to the usual locations: chip aisles at local grocery stores (and yes, Trader Joe’s and H-E-B both have lukewarm varieties to choose from) and snack shops such as Wicho’s Deli, Las Nieves and Fruteria Los Trejo sprinkled throughout the city’s Mexican-American neighborhoods.
Nacho cheese is the natural pairing that mutes the hotness, or you can take the acidity up a notch and drown them in dill pickle juice.
But San Anto’s love of all things hot has transcended regional demographics. New shops such as Munchies and Señor Mango are shaking up the FHC offerings and taking up residence in Castle Hills, the UTSA main campus area and the North Central area. The snacks get bigger, and, in some cases, hotter.
At Munchies, with locations off Hausman, Loop 1604 and NW Military, Tostilocos combine nacho cheese, corn, lime, Valentina and jalapeños, and eaters can choose what base chip to dress, including Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. At Señor Mango, which opened off West Avenue in April, owner Carl Zuniga and staff serve up red-hot elotes. Parmesan, mayonnaise, and lime are joined by a dusting of Flamin’ Hot Cheeto crumbles and thick squirts of smoky house-made Monterrey sauce.
Older sister Ciara Zuniga recalls hustling snacks in school on the city’s Northwest Side.
“Our mom used to make us the snacks when we were kids, and when we got into high school, we began experimenting and going to Sam’s Club to sell the candies to our friends. We’d make everything out of our kitchen and sell it in Ziploc bags,” Zuniga said.
Several school districts eventually banned Flamin’ Hots (IDEA schools still don’t allow them on campus), but those flavor memories stuck with the siblings. They opened Señor Mango seven months ago inside a former prom dress shop with a menu of their childhood favorites, including “manzanas locas” topped with Chinese candy, two chamoy syrups and crumbled Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
“People love that tang, that kick, that bite,” Ciara said. “When I have a snack, I want to feel it in the back of my jaw, right below my eardrums.”
The shopping center where Señor Mango is located also holds a Beer-N-All, so all your snacking needs are met in one quick trip.
For the Zunigas, the space had to be clean and neat. White, folding tables and chairs make up the space, and a bright menu anchors the room, along with a Señor Mango wall for the Instagram crowd.
A Guilty Pleasure
Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and their fandom have skyrocketed since their release 17 years ago. They’re a snack of choice for anyone looking for a quick release of endorphins, as theorized by Marcy Pelchat in a 2006 NPR segment. The food preference expert noted spicy foods triggered the trigeminal nerve and caused that tiny burst of euphoria. The fact that they pack in a ton of salt and fat doesn’t hurt either — we literally can’t put them down.
But the same addictive appeal that lends itself to Flamin’ Hot Cheetos nail decals (get your own for $6 through cha-cha-covers-2.myshopify.com), YouTube hits and plenty of FHC gear (socks, pajamas, hoodies, you name it) has led to even more nay-sayers. Their criticism ranges from hating that tell-tale red dye that stains fingers long after FHCs are consumed to more private bodily reactions.
In 2013, the Washington Post all but tied consumption of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to rampant diabetes found in the Rio Grande Valley, where food stamps often leave parents reaching for more empty calories than “quality calories.”
“Antonio needed to increase the dosage of his cholesterol medication.
“Can I still eat hot Cheetos?” Antonio asked. “Just one bag a day?”
“Not anymore,” the doctor said.
“One a week?”
The article, “Too much of too little: A diet fueled by food stamps is making South Texans obese but leaving them hungry,” went on to describe the use of EBT cards to purchase Hot Cheetos “smothered in cheese,” suggesting more policing of the poor’ health habits.
But obese teens and kids in the Valley aren’t the only ones affected by their love of salty, spicy snacks.
This summer, two stories put Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in the spotlight as responsible for gall bladder removals and hospital stays. Lil Xan, née Diego Leanos, a Cali-based rapper, took to Instagram to let his followers know his hospital stay was not drug-related: “I just want to let everybody know that I was in the hospital not due to any drugs, but I ate too many Hot Cheetos and it ripped something in my stomach.”
In Memphis, a teen’s daily intake of the snack was blamed for stomach problems that resulted in the removal of her gallbladder.
A love of Hot Cheetos landed svelte Rossi Ramirez, a KSAT producer, in the hospital in her teens.
“My ninth grade year I was hospitalized for two weeks because I got pancreatitis. I would eat one large bag of Hot Cheetos a day and a jar of pickles a week,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez grew up with her grandfather who refused to buy them for her after her hospital stay, but she still found ways to sneak them into her diet. These days, though she still has acute pancreatitis, she only eats them three days out of the week, instead of daily.
“I usually like to eat them alone but if I’m feeling really fancy, a dill pickle with a Chinese candy,” Ramirez said.
The hospitalizations this summer prompted a statement from Frito-Lay that advised moderation.
“Flamin’ Hot Cheetos meet all applicable food safety regulations, as well as our rigorous quality standards. That said, we realize some consumers may be more sensitive to spicy foods than others and may choose to moderate consumption or avoid spicier snacks due to personal preference.”
So, have they created a monster?
Gimmick vs. Actual Taste
San Antonians have leaned into their love of Hot Cheetos.
Some menu items stick: Big Poppa’s Taco House carried several FHC-filled menu items, including burritos and “Hoodrat” burgers, and diners have the option to add the snacks to any menu item for 75 cents.
But others don’t. Kuma San Antonio faced a small backlash for adding it to their soft serve. It didn’t sell and was pulled from the specials menu. Crepes took a spicy turn at Chocollazo, where a savory, bright pink Flamin’ Hot Cheetos crepe landed briefly on their menu.
Chef Jenni Williams “whizzed Hot Cheetos in the food processor to make a dust that’s cooked into the crepe, so it’s a red crepe.” The crepe was then filled with scrambled eggs, spicy crumbled sausage, cheddar and queso fresco and served with a side of sour cream.
As tamal season approaches, a small snack shop in Converse is adding Flamin’ Hot Cheeto tamales. Big Daddy’s Eats and Treats will serve up carne asada tacos topped with FHC’s smothered in nacho cheese. Mac ’n’ cheese is topped with the snack at the newly opened Sandbox Bar, and poke bowls across the city are finished off with a generous dusting of red crumbles. And local pop-up Smackerel served FHC-crusted fried chicken sandwiches this past weekend.
“The city loves that stuff,” owner Keenen Hendricks said.
At both locations of Bubble Waffle Bar, owner J.R. Gallegos and staff added Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to their ice cream base this September to create a sweet and savory treat that retains some of that signature heat. Gallegos tossed two experimental batches on his quest to nail that flavor he first sampled in California.
“I’ve had good feedback from people that have had it, and it’s definitely adults that order it, not kids,” Gallegos said.
He’s working on a Takis flavor next.
For those who have left the area and can’t find their fix, Jackie Earhart’s Hoodrat Snacks sends monthly subscription boxes filled with kits to recreate these specific snacks.
Mexican-American and San Anto native Earhart went off to college in Boston and missed her hometown snacks.
“I loved my time there because I feel like people don’t realize how culturally diverse Boston is with all of the colleges bringing people from all over the world, and that’s reflected in the food there. But Hispanic food was hard to find, and we definitely missed our Texan, Mexican-American food,” Earhart said.
As Frito-Lay preaches moderation, and restaurateurs dive into mad scientist mode, we’ll likely see more over-the-top creations. But could the snacks be used for good instead of gimmick? I coerced our reviewer to taste-test seven varieties on a recent Friday afternoon — for the sake of science.
We cracked open some beers, and opened up bag after bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: classic Crunchy, Chipotle Ranch, Limon Crunchy, Hot Fries, Hot Funyuns, Puff Corn. We theorized what they could be used on without playing on the gimmicky side of the snack: a topping on ceviche, as a crouton on a non-traditional Caesar salad, atop mac ’n’ cheese. We dipped them in homemade pickle juice. We used chopsticks so our lab coats would remain red dust-free.
And we couldn’t stop eating them.
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