J.T. Pappy’s Gator Sauce is back at California Tortilla

Local burrito fans need no introduction to J.T. Pappy's Gator Sauce, a tangy hybrid of barbecue sauce and hot sauce whose natural habitat has long been the area's California Tortilla locations. It exists in a variety of flavors -- from mild and medium to "J.T. Pappy's Termigator Extra Hot Sauce" -- with a thicker consistency than a vinegar-based sauce like Cholula; it's a condiment to be poured-on rather than dashed. That is, until about 18 months ago, when J.T. Pappy's Gator Sauce suddenly became extinct.

(California Tortilla)
(California Tortilla)

Hot sauce companies tend to be small operations, so it's not uncommon for one to fold without warning, but such an event doesn't usually trigger the type of public outcry that followed J.T. Pappy's disappearance. "We were getting five or 10 customers a week who would write an e-mail saying, 'Where can I get that sauce?'," said Bob Phillips, California Tortilla's president. "Mostly, it was 'Why'd you stop carrying it?'"

So Phillips did what anyone (well, anyone who oversees a burrito empire) would do when facing such a saucy dilemma: He and a partner bought the Gator Sauce recipes from the product's creator and are now manufacturing it exclusively for California Tortilla. The product resurfaced in January. "Our customers really wanted it. Our franchises really wanted it. I don't know exactly what it is about it, that barbecue-y, hot sauce-y kind of taste. It's been a fun little project," Phillips said.

The legend of J.T. Pappy's goes like this: According to Phillips, it's the creation of a hot-sauce aficionado named Austin (several Web items point to an Austin Scorpio) who manufactured his sauces in Bethesda, where it originally appeared on California Tortilla's radar. After relocating several times, J.T. Pappy's was last being manufactured in Lancaster, Pa. At that point, Phillips said, California Tortilla's growth had outpaced the available supply of the sauce. "We’d get our customers hooked on it and then it wouldn’t be there for three months," Phillips said. An e-mail sent to an address believed to belong to Scorpio has not been returned.

So how did this one brand of sauce become so popular at a restaurant that routinely stocks more than 70 bottles of sauce at any one time? Phillips thinks it has to do with the sauce's original flask-shaped squeeze bottle, which stood out against the thicket of five-ounce "woozy" bottles typical of most hot sauce brands.

But the appeal spread beyond the burrito chain's Wall of Flame: Just read the comments on the Carolina Sauce Company's Web site, when the family-owned distributor announced in November 2012 that J.T. Pappy's was no longer available for sale.

One user's response: "Can someone please dedicate a blog to recreating the sauce?"

That might still be the best option for J.T. Pappy's fans beyond the California Tortilla footprint, which includes nearly 40 locations in the D.C. area, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Massachusetts: For now, Phillips said the sauce will only be available at the chain's stores. It's still being produced in Lancaster, where a company called Lancaster Fine Foods is making it from the original recipes. "It's not made in our bathtub," Phillips joked.

Could retail become an option in the future? "The primary motivation was to supply our stores," Phillips said, "but I think the answer is yes." In the meantime, you can try J.T. Pappy's in CalTor's featured "Flamin' Gator BBQ Burrito" beginning March 31.

Alex Baldinger is editor of the Going Out Guide blog, which covers food, drink, arts, music, events and other curiosities in the D.C. area. He is forever in search of a great sandwich.
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