My teenage son’s love of all things chiles started with Dragons Love Tacos. He and I were introduced to the children’s book—illustrated by Daniel Salmieri and written by Adam Rubin—when a friend left a copy of the New York Times best-seller on my porch a decade ago, shortly after the book’s publication. In the story, a young boy hosts taco parties at his house and invites some mythical reptiles to attend, only to find out they don’t like spicy salsa. Dragons can only tolerate the mildest of salsas. If there is even a hint of chiles, steam will eject from the dragons’ ears and the creatures will eventually exhale fire. At the end of the book, an accidental addition of jalapeños leads to the dragons unintentionally burning down the boy’s house. Even ten years later, Dragons Love Tacos continues to make my kid and me laugh. We’re not alone.
A generation of children and their parents have found humor and reflections of themselves in the picture book. It was a runaway hit that has been the subject of library reading series and children’s theater productions. Many children have fixated on the salsa. My son, nicknamed Taquito, is among them, and he’s collected his own spicy sauces over the years.
His lineup has expanded since I began my tenure as Texas Monthly’s taco editor. I bring home a few bottles or jars of salsa whenever I return from a trip. My son receives them with excitement. “Your butt is gonna burn, old man,” he once said, referring to our Instagram Live tasting sessions hosted on my @tacotrail account. Taquito loves those broadcasted contests, which comprise a series he christened the Ring of Fire. I do too. The tastings allow us to bond, and they give him the freedom to let loose his cheeky attitude. During the tastings, we arrange six to ten salsas in a random order, with the labels facing the camera to increase suspense. The next salsa could be milder than the previous one—or it could scorch your intestinal lining. Taquito’s smack talk is also spicy. I snicker each time he cracks wise. “Watch out, Papi, you might crap your pants with the next one!” “Are you crying?” “This one’s going to fry your nose hairs, Pops.”
Last year we stopped by the New Mexico State University Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces, 45 minutes north of El Paso. In addition to a teaching garden (available for tours) and a public garden, there is a gift shop in a nearby academic building. It’s modest, about the size of a small college classroom, with a sign above the door. When we opened the door to the shop, Taquito and I gasped so loudly it sounded like we might be sucking all the air out of the space. Inside the room was a treasure trove of chile-related books, posters, seed packets, tchotchkes, and salsas. Of all the items we purchased, the four-pack of hot sauces was my son’s most beloved memento. The hot sauces contained hefty servings of jolokia and scorpion chiles, two of the hottest in the world, according to the Scoville scale, a measure of capsaicin in chiles. Of course, as soon as we returned to Dallas, Taquito insisted on a Ring of Fire contest using his new sauces. I agreed, trepidatiously.
It’s not that I have a low tolerance for capsaicin. There’s no way I could fulfill the requirements of my job without the ability to endure infernally hot chiles. It’s just that my tolerance is lower than my son’s. During one Ring of Fire challenge, I went through two glasses of water, one beer, and a small mound of tissues, which I had blown my nose into several times. There was also a bout of hiccups. However, Taquito didn’t even take a sip of water, and to his disappointment, the salsas did not adversely impact my gastrointestinal tract.
Our most recent Ring of Fire challenge featured a single salsa: Totally Mild Salsa, a red salsa tatemada produced as a collaboration between Dragons Love Tacos author Adam Rubin and San Antonio native Miguel Bañuelos, owner of Salsa Pistolero, for the tenth anniversary of the book’s publication. (Full disclosure: I know Rubin and Bañuelos, and I connected them when Rubin put out the call for a food producer for the commemorative salsa.) The label is a replica of one in the picture book. The colorful, crayonlike script belies the slight heat within. The tomato-based, fire-roasted salsa with a touch of jalapeño is nothing a teenager and his taco editor father can’t handle. It’s mild and sweet at first. Slowly, though, spice coats the tongue and moves up the sides of the mouth before dissipating. What’s left is a rich condiment perfect for snacking—or for a Dragons Love Tacos party.
The salsa is very much like table salsa served with chips at Tex-Mex restaurants. As a matter of fact, Bañuelos was inspired by the salsa roja at La Fogata Mexican Cuisine in San Antonio. He calls it one of the platonic ideals of salsa. “That salsa is one of the touchstones of my life,” Bañuelos told me over the phone. “It was my North Star.” After three test batches, Bañuelos had his finished product, and Rubin was overjoyed. Only one hundred jars were produced, so they are in limited supply, but if you’re interested in a jar, you can contact Salsa Pistolero through its Instagram account.
“It was the perfect way to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the book,” Rubin told me during a phone interview. He confessed he never imagined the book would be as influential or popular as it’s become. “So many picture books come out every year, every month. It’s just impossible to think that’s how it was going to go,” he said. “It’s surreal, making a real-life thing that you can eat and taste that helps connect to the actual reality of this thing that we made ten years ago.” I don’t know how much longer Taquito will be interested in salsa taste tests with his old man, but I’ll take the pain, attitude, and laughs while they last.