It's impossible to talk about the best food in Indianapolis without Jon Brooks' name coming up. He's the hottest chef in town, having secured one of five spots to cook at the James Beard House in New York this August. It's no surprise, then, that he also happens to whip up some of the hottest and most delicious pepper sauce that I've ever had.
Brooks' hot sauce feels a lot like falling in love. Get a little on a cassava fry, the way the naive and innocent wander into loves' thorny throes. Tasting is part flavor, part experience. Imagine someone pinching your nose with a citrus peel while you raise a spoonful of this stuff to your mouth. The suprising sweetness is what hits first, a scent closer to a blooming orange tree than its heavily vinegar-soaked cousins. It's not astringent or sharp. Just having the container open doesn't make your eyes burn, and it smells much closer to a pepper-heavy sambal.
Once it gets in your mouth, the burn is slower than expected. I felt the heat begin to build as I crushed the pepper seeds between my determined molars. Long before you register any heat flavor or burn, a tingle picks up in the cheeks. The skin around my hairline began to tingle too, as the little sweat droplets formed. Suddenly, the burn blazed down my tongue and settled like a hot coal in my gut. And just like love, I couldn't get enough — even though I knew this was the wrong time to be gluttonous. I felt like maybe I'd lose my grip completely, tossing that lid off of the huge container and dipping my hand in like a Winnie the Pooh in some kind of honey-hungry 'roid rage.
Like a woman possessed, I started eating two and three fries at once, piled with the red stuff. Instead of having been cooked down in a kettle, Brooks' recipe just involves blending the peppers with a splash of water, garlic, fish sauce (and some other things that Brooks won't give up) and letting it ferment at room temperature for a while. He was careful not to give the hot sauce a name or identity (the container was labeled "hot stuff"), not because Brooks is trying to guard any secrets or profit from his invention, but because that would leave less room to let the ingredients tell him how they should be used. The hot sauce is a perfect example: Blending them raw with water and leaving them alone, more or less, means you get all the subtlety of biting into a fresh habanero or Carolina Reaper peppers (which were grown in a friend's backyard as a gift), made more mellow and interesting by the fermentation process.
The phenomenon that has been Milktooth represents a change in the way diners want their chefs, menus and food to be. Brooks is part of a new generation of chefs not trying to bend every menu to their will. Instead, Brooks seems to be most happy behind the counter when he's free to react to seasonal ingredients and make a menu that might only be "valid" for a few days at most. If you're really, really lucky, sometimes Brooks will plunk down a plate of something you've either never seen before (or seen done quite like his) on your table when he's testing new recipes. If effort and variety are reliable markers for passion, it's hard to think of anyone more passionately in love with food than Jon Brooks right now.
He'll be happy to tell you about all the science experiments he's doing, like homemade Amaro, among other things. He brought out a tiny whiskey barrel in which he'd aged fish sauce for six months. Now he's going to fill it back up with a fresh batch of hot sauce and let those flavors exchange, then refill with fish sauce again, then hot sauce, and so on. He always seems to have some kind of food-centric extra curricular going on, purely for passion's sake, waiting to ferment itself into deliciousness.
It's the (perfectly safe and tested) room-temp fermentation that makes the Health Department nervous, and likely why the sauce isn't a permanent printed item on the menu. But if you know—and now you know—there may or may not be a secret menu through which you can find all kinds of Reaper Sauce-laden items. Otherwise, you can always grab a bowl of the housemade stuff for a buck. If you're looking to start your V-Day off a little early, head down to Milktooth and get some hot as hell afternoon delight.
Where: 534 Virginia Ave.
Hours: 7–9 a.m. coffee and pastry, 9 a.m.–3 p.m. full service brunch, closed Tuesdays
Info: 986-5131, milktoothindy.com