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December 1, 2021

The ‘spice of life’ – and food

Under the radar in Gilroy is a thriving gourmet food industry, home to all kinds of delicious, locally-made spices, sauces and spreads. In an age where foodies run rampant and shopping like a locavore is the new American ideal, Gilroy is where it’s at. So throw out that old jar of Tabasco and that Walmart brand steak rub and check out these Epicurean delights, sourced and produced in your own backyard.


Alex Larson, co-owner of the Garlic Shoppe – a conclave of jellies, sauces, seasonings and condiments (available at two locations, one near the Gilroy Premium Outlets on San Ysidro Avenue and at Rapazzini Winery near U.S. 101 in south Gilroy), is known around town as a gourmet food mogul. His food line, Mama Rap’s, is the label for all kinds of Gilroy-made food items including hot sauces, spice rubs, jellies, spreads, stuffed olives and more.

Larson began cooking up the goods in 1979 when he bottled his first jar of garlic mustard, back when Gilroy’s now thriving food industry was just barely heating up.

“There’s this cottage industry here about food,” Larson said from his shop on a March afternoon. “Gilroy has a lot going on in that area.”

As Larson talked, a man and a woman popped in the store for some garlic ice cream and a bottle of Mama Rap’s BBQ sauce.

“This stuff is great on ribs,” said Janice Wong, 40 of Fresno. Wong and her friend Ernie Garcia, 33 of Fresno were on their way to a Maroon 5 concert in San Jose and with a couple hours to spare, they decided to stop in Gilroy for some local, garlicky morsels.

“We were driving through, and thought, ‘we can’t drive by and not stop,’” Wong said as she paid for her goods.

People are willing to shell out a few more dollars for something local and artisan, Larson said, and it’s not just because of the “shop local” hype – sauces made in small batches actually taste better. Small batches enable Larson to omit a lot of the acids that major foodmakers add to their products to elongate shelf life. Because of this, Larson’s sauces pack a richer, more delicate taste than their mass-produced competitors. Here are a few of the gourmet food mogul’s delectable specialties.

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Psycho Hot Sauce: This award-winning hot sauce is bred and bottled right here in the Garlic Capital. The garlic infused jalapeño sauce base is a moderately spicy blend (it ranks at eight on a scale of 1-10+++, in comparison, Tabasco sauce is a level three) with just a hint of habañero. The sauce is blended with molasses, causing the heat to creep up slow and smooth on the tongue. Try a few drops on anything for an added kick. It nicely offsets creamy food – it can even transform banal meals such as boxed macaroni and cheese to something more flavorful and interesting.

Garlic Bleu Cheese Spread: This creamy, indulgent spread is Larson’s personal favorite. The garlic and bleu cheese are dehydrated, causing the two components to come to life when heated. Let the spread melt into toast, burgers, chicken, steak or add a dollop on a baked potato in place of sour cream. Garlic and bleu cheese is a marriage that should have consummated centuries ago, and we’re so glad that someone local figured that out.


The Pepper Plant’s gourmet sauces – jars of jalapeño-based puree found on restaurant tables from the Central Coast to Ventura County – carry a cult-like following from people all over the U.S. who refuse to eat any other hot sauce after having tried The Pepper Plant’s. The sauce has 25 five-star rave reviews on Yelp, the online business rating website, collecting accolades from people who describe it as “liquid crack,” compare it to “bottling God’s tears and using it on food,” and designate it as the “WD-40 of hot sauce, (because) you can literally use it for everything.”

The rare, highly coveted sauce is cooked and bottled in an inconspicuous warehouse right here in Gilroy.

Bob Wagner, president of Blossom Valley Foods, the company that creates The Pepper Plant products, laughed about the sauce’s following from his office tucked away on a dead-end street off Leavesley Road on a recent afternoon.

“People who like it, really seem to like it,” Wagner said.

While the sauce isn’t hard to find, per say, it isn’t heavily advertised or campaigned by the company; marketing isn’t his strong point, Wagner admits.

The company’s low profile might be in their favor, however. Pepper Plant lovers are a part of a niche group of people who stumble upon the hot sauce while dining at mom and pop restaurants in Central California, perhaps adding to the sauce’s allure.

Recently, a few ardent Pepper Plant fans created a Facebook page for the sauce – and quickly gathered 175 members. Wagner has not visited the page, but his son, Michael Wagner, asked for permission from the group’s founders to post to the page and occasionally update group members on Pepper Plant happenings.

“I don’t do Facebook, but I should check out that page,” Wagner said, sort of chuckling and shaking his head.

Wagner didn’t create The Pepper Plant recipe, but he loves it like it was his own. In the early 1980s, the company began bottling a hot sauce for a man who wanted to capture year-round the flavor of fresh jalapeños. After about 10 years, Wagner took over the recipe when the sauce’s creator wanted to sell, and he’s been transcending tastebuds with the stuff ever since.

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Original: This tangy, fiery sauce is tough to describe – lovers of the sauce say you just have to taste it to understand. It’s great in egg dishes, chili, as a glaze for chicken wings, shrimp or anything that could use a little punch. It’s made from unprocessed pureed California jalapeños with added garlic, chili and onion. Unlike Tabasco sauce, which is mostly watery, vinegar-soaked cayenne peppers, according to Wagner, the jalapeños for his Original sauce are pureed to give it a full flavor.

Chunky Garlic: How could anything be made in Gilroy without a little extra garlic thrown in the mix? The garlic version of the sauce features 1/8-inch pieces of local garlic. It’s extra delicious in place of salsa over scrambled eggs.


Caryl Simpson created Garli Garni seasoning 27 years ago when she put her favorite herbs and spices in a tennis ball container and got raves from her guests when she sprinkled the mixture on her cooking. It works like fairy dust for any meal that needs a pinch of pizzazz.

Garlic Festival Foods, a family-owned company now based in Hollister, is behind more than 30 different food products and has specialized in the gourmet spices and sauces industry. Heather Bluhme, Simpson’s daughter, said that family has a few new products in the works but wouldn’t divulge anything about the recipes just yet. In the meantime, here are a few of her favorites.

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Sweet and Spicy Mustard: This mustard is feisty with a sinus-passage opening spice, but also includes just enough honey to balance the flavor. Add a smidgen to olive oil and vinegar for an interesting salad dressing, or mix it with sour cream for a pre-game veggie dip.

Spicy Apple Garli Glaze: Sounds weird, but tastes amazing. The obvious way to serve this garlicky apple jelly is with cream cheese on a cracker, but it is also is delicious with grilled chicken or pork. While you might hesitate to chomp into an apple sprinkled with raw garlic chunks, this apple-garlic glaze gets the combination right. It’s a surprisingly savory treat.


Gilroy resident Andy Viale has worked at Harris Ranch for 26 years, and through company events and gatherings, has became known as the go-to BBQ guru among a group of people who really love their beef. Through trial and error, Viale developed a seasoning blend that became a hit with his coworkers and friends.

“My wife kept encouraging me to market it, so eventually I did,” Viale said.

Three years ago, he began bottling and selling the spice blend, which he calls “a rub with attitude.”

The “attitude” comes from trace amounts of red chili pepper added for a tangy – but never spicy – flavor.

The rub features 13 herbs and spices and is all-natural with no MSG or gluten. It’s great for BBQs but is also a delectable all-purpose spice blend for vegetables, potatoes and most everything else. Andy’s Rub is sold online and at specialty grocers in the area. According to the website, Andy’s Rub “comes in three convenient sizes: big, bigger, and bonanza!”

We’re sold.

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