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Chile Pepper....

In This Town, It's All About the Hot Sauce

With a name like Texas Pete®, you'd think this popular hot sauce hailed from the Lone Star State. Folks in Winston-Salem, NC know better. The spicy sauce was created, and is still produced, in their state. The origin of Texas Pete is a great little history for heat lovers.

Texas Pete’s Zesty History Lesson

The now-legendary story about the naming of the sauce goes something like this. “My uncle, Thad Garner, plus his father, mother and two of his brothers, actually started this business back in 1929--when my uncle bought a small barbecue stand and sauce recipe,” said Reg Garner, president of the company that produces Texas Pete.  As the tale goes, customers of the barbecue stand kept requesting a spicier sauce, so the Garners created a new recipe using red peppers and a still-secret blend of other ingredients (vinegar was and is a key ingredient).

In discussing a name for the unique new sauce, one of the brothers suggested the name, “Mexican Joe.” But father Samuel felt the name should be more "American", saying, “Maybe Texas…but, Texas what?” At that moment, Sam’s eyes fell upon his son, Harold, who was nicknamed Pete…and the name Texas Pete was born.

Millions of gallons later, Texas Pete Hot Sauce is the classic condiment for many foods throughout the southeastern U.S. and the rest of the world. The Garners say folks in Winston-Salem love it on their eggs, chicken wings, pizza, potato salad, and practically everything else. Many restaurants in the area keep the bottles on every table, right along with the salt and pepper--and they also include the good stuff in a variety of menu staples.

Now called the TW Garner Food Company, this spicy Winston-Salem company is in its fourth generation, with five direct descendents of the founders working there. And they've become much more than a long-time manufacturer of a single hot sauce. They began producing popular jams, jellies, and preserves for soldiers at Fort Bragg during World War II and many varieties are still made today. In the 1950s, TW Garner became the first company to manufacture canned Chili Sauce, which is typically used as a topping for hamburgers and hot dogs.

Throughout the 20th century, the company expanded the line to keep up with flavor trends. Early on, they came up with Texas Pete Seafood Cocktail Sauce, which has become a Southern staple. The 1970s saw the addition of Texas Pete Honey Mustard Sauce (great with baked beans), and in the 1980s, Texas Pete Buffalo Style Chicken Wing Barbecue Sauce debuted.

In 2004, TW Garner purchased Vermont’s Green Mountain Gringo®.  This purchase was a natural complement to the legacy of Texas Pete. Green Mountain Gringo products include salsas from mild to hot--we love the Roasted Chile Pepper--and corn tortilla strips.

The company also continues to capitalize on the popularity of the Texas Pete brand. Earlier this year, they came out with two new flavors: Texas Pete Hotter Hot Sauce and Texas Pete Garlic Hot Sauce. Both have the vinegar-based tang for which the original Texas Pete is well-known, with the heat index tripled in the former and a nice hint of garlic in the latter.

While TW Garner's Winston-Salem headquarters doesn’t host visitors for tours , partly owing to the fact that the recipe for Texas Pete is still a secret, the reception area does have an array of gifts and gear for sale. Many of the items feature the Texas Pete logo, which depicts a cowboy about to lasso some serious flavor. Purchase possibilities include various gift boxes, hats, tumblers, mugs, mouse pads, T-shirts, golf shirts, clocks, golf bags, and even a bright red “koozie” in the shape of a cowboy boot. Reg Garner or one of the other family members just might be passing through the lobby, offering visitors a brush with some zesty history far from the Lone Star State.

The Rest of Winston-Salem

For those pesky stretches in between Texas Pete-spiced meals, Winston-Salem offers an array of sightseeing options.

A great place to start is the Winston-Salem Visitor Center, situated between modern downtown Winston-Salem and historic Old Salem, and housed in a renovated 1837 cotton mill at 200 Brookstown Avenue. From there, it’s an easy stroll to Old Salem Museums & Gardens, a historic area simulating the 1700s, when the town had a thriving Moravian community. Stroll the quaint town, chat with appropriately attired interpreters, visit the three museums and do some shopping. Be sure to sample the paper-thin, gingery Moravian Cookies.

In the very modern downtown area, it’s fun to explore the thriving Downtown Arts District, with an eclectic collection of studios, galleries, and restaurants. If you shop ‘til you drop, quench your thirst or snack attack by dropping into the huge new Foothills Brewing location on Fourth Street.

Further afield, varied historical highlights include Reynolda Village, which was once part of tobacco baron R.J. Reynolds’ 1,067-acre estate; Historic Bethabara Park, where the first North Carolina Moravians settled; and the Winston Cup Museum, which preserves early NASCAR history.

Where to Stay

We found two notable options that make for a unique Winston-Salem stay. The Brookstown Inn is located in the same old cotton mill as the Visitor Center. Highlights of this convenient 70-room hotel include spacious rooms, lots of exposed brick walls, friendly service, a wine and cheese reception each evening featuring North Carolina wines, late-night cookies and milk, and a big Continental breakfast (be sure to top the sausage-and-egg biscuit with Texas Pete).

The second option, the Henry F. Shaffner House Bed & Breakfast, is just around the corner. Built in 1907, it was the home of Shaffner, a co-founder of Wachovia Loan and Trust Company. Hosts Michelle Watson and Chris Hughes welcome overnight guests with a tour of the sprawling house, wine and cheese reception with NC wines, a choice of differently decorated rooms, and a hearty homemade breakfast prepared by Michelle.

Where to Eat

Area chefs sure like their Texas Pete. At Sweet Potatoes restaurant in the heart of the Downtown Arts District, co-owners Vivian Joiner and Stephanie Tyson crank out uptown, down-home Southern cooking. The mambo chicken sandwich features a fried boneless chicken breast on a Kaiser roll, with a side of spicy mambo sauce that definitely boasts its share of Texas Pete--Vivian calls it a “sauce with attitude”. As a point of local pride, Chef Stephanie only uses North Carolina sweet potatoes--a delicious ingredient in the biscuits that grace version of the hot brown sandwich.

South by Southwest, with its Mexican and Southwestern menu, is also a delectable downtown option. Grilled fish soft tacos feature local fresh fish caught in the Atlantic less than 200 miles to the east. They also have an excellent premium tequila list and a range of creative “cactus cocktails”--try the Spider-Byte. If owner andchef Pat Burke is around, say hi--he’s considered the local expert on all things chile pepper.

The ‘burbs of Winston-Salem feature several other zesty restaurants, offering barbecue, seriously spiced wings and more. When you leave the confines of downtown proper, they don’t stop pouring the Texas Pete.

For some classic ’cue, it’s hard to beat Hill’s Lexington Barbecue, which is within sniffing distance of Texas Pete HQ. The Hill family has been serving up Lexington-style (think vinegar) chopped barbecue sandwiches and more since 1951. There's Texas Pete on the counter and many of the company’s employees are lunchtime regulars.

Over on the other side of town, East Coast Wings is an up-and-coming franchise operation headquartered in Winston-Salem. East Coast Wings features jumbo wings with more than 45 varieties of sauces and heat indexes that range from Virgin to ECW Insanity™ (sign a disclaimer to even get your hands on these!). Our favorites were Teri Jalapeno™, mango habanero™, chile garlic™, and chipotle™. Just across the street, Little Richards Lexington BBQ can provide another zesty 'cue fix.

For something completely different, check out River Birch Lodge. With the feel of a mountain lodge plopped down in suburbia, the restaurant's menu features wild venison, bison, fresh game fish, and more. But, it’s the saucy Texas Pete Wings that start many meals for locals in the know.

You have to head about 20 minutes out of town to get to Starr’s, but it’s well worth the journey. Located on historic Mocksville's quaint Main Street, Chef Starr Johnson has created a Texas Pete shrine on her menu. “You really should ask what Texas Pete is not in,” the red-haired chef exclaimed during our visit (we noticed that her hair is quite similar to the hue of Texas Pete). Highlights of Starr’s seasonal menus include Pickle’s fried pickles; fried green tomatoes fried chicken, which is filled with honeyed ham and pimento cheese.

What & Where to drink

Many people are learning of the high-quality wines now being produced in North Carolina (visit www.ncwine.org). Part of Winston-Salem is in the Yadkin Valley, currently the state’s only viticulture area. Many area wines are featured at local restaurants, but visiting wineries also provides a great way to taste and buy wines. We found the local Viognier went very well with spicy food.

There are more than 20 from which to choose from in the Yadkin Valley, but we loved Shelton Vineyards, for its stunning location and great restaurant; RayLen Vineyards and Winery, where we particularly liked the Viogner and the fruity Category 5 red blend; and Childress Vineyards, founded by Richard Childress of NASCAR fame, which offer tasting, shopping, and dining.

We also enjoyed cold ones and pub grub) at downtown’s Foothills Brewing. The Salem Gold and Torch Pilsner pair particularly well with the spicy ostrich burger with jalapeños.

Remember, for Texas Pete, just head for the Tar Heel State!

For more information on Texas Pete products, visit www.texaspete.com or call (800) 476-PETE (7383) or (336) 661-1550. Information about the expanded Green Mountain Gringo line can be found at www.greenmountaingringo.com.

For more information about the Winston-Salem area, go to www.visitwinstonsalem.com or call (866) 728-4200 or (336) 728-4200. The Winston-Salem Visitor Center is at 200 Brookstown Avenue.

What to do:

Old Salem Museum & Gardens
900 Old Salem Road
(888) 653-7253 or (336) 721-7350

Downtown Arts District
Sixth and Trade Streets area
No phone

Reynolda Village
2201 Reynolda Road
(336) 758-5584

Historic Bethabara Park
2147 Bethabara Road
(336) 924-8191

Winston Cup Museum
1355 North Martin Luther King Jr. Drive
(336) 724-4557

Where to stay:

The Brookstown Inn
200 Brookstown Avenue
(336) 725-1120

Henry F. Shaffner House Bed & Breakfast
150 South Marshall Street
(800) 952-2256 or (336) 777-0052

Where to eat (in Winston-Salem, unless otherwise noted):

Sweet Potatoes
529 North Trade Street
(336) 727-4844

South by Southwest
241 South Marshall Street
No website
(336) 727-0800

Hill’s Lexington Barbecue
4005 Patterson Avenue
No website
(336) 767-2184

East Coast Wings
4880 Country Club Road
(336) 659-9992

Little Richard’s Lexington BBQ
4885 Country Club Road
No website
(336) 760-3457

River Birch Lodge
3324 Robinwood Road
(336) 768-1111

101 North Main Street, Mocksville
(336) 753-8233

What & Where to drink:

Shelton Vineyards
286 Cabernet Lane, Dobson
(336) 366-4724

RayLen Vineyards and Winery
3577 US Highway 158, Mocksville
(336) 998-3100

Childress Vineyards
1000 Childress Vineyards Road, Lexington
(336) 236-9463

Foothills Brewing
638 West Fourth Street
(336) 777-3348