A North Carolina Hot Sauce Company Is Taking Taste Buds—And Weddings—By Storm

A groom loved Winston-Salem's A La Brava hot sauce so much he gave it as a favor at his wedding, and guests still ask about it two years later.

bottles of hot sauce and sprinkles

Courtesy of Eliza Jane Willey

Almost two years after our wedding in Chapel Hill, our friends are still asking us about the hot sauce. I had a feeling, or at least a hope, that this would happen. 

I grew up in the Boston suburbs, moving to the former textile mill city of Greensboro, North Carolina for college. I stuck around after graduating, and it’s a good thing I did—I met my future wife at 25, sitting next to her at a friend’s birthday dinner at the swanky Proximity Hotel.

After two years of internet friendship, I worked up the courage to ask her on a date to the city’s new whiskey bar. Six years later, where the farmland on the edges of Chapel Hill gives way to forest, we married in front of our loved ones under a heavy late-August heat.

Most of my family and oldest friends traveled to our wedding from out of state, and we wanted them to experience—and taste—our chosen home. No surprise then that we served pulled pork barbecue, offered with Eastern and Western North Carolina-style sauces alongside my father-in-law’s proprietary (and superior) vinegar-based recipe.

Fried chicken and waffles sliders circulated with creamy deviled eggs during the cocktail hour. We squeezed decadent shrimp and grits onto the dinner buffet. And we capped the evening with a late-night snack of crispy fried chicken sliders.

Our caterers executed everything to perfection. Yet it's the pocket-sized bottles of smokey, bright orange hot sauce given out as wedding favors that our guests are still fawning over. Where—they all wanted to know—is this from, and how could they get more?

Hot Sauce, With Love

The round, white stickers on the front of each clear plastic bottle gave nothing away. In shiny gold lettering, it simply said, "Thank you: Kacie & Eric, August 28, 2021" with a small heart. But this hot sauce wasn’t just a mystery to our guests; it’s one of North Carolina’s best-kept secrets.

Run by Marcos Medina out of Winston-Salem—the home of iconic, thin hot sauce Texas Pete—A La Brava hot sauce has grown at a steady clip over the last several years. Now producing an average of 500 to 600 bottles a week of its Salsa Diabla and Salsa Habanero blends, the sauces are available in groceries across the Old North State, including Lowes, Harris Teeter, Wegman’s, and Compare Foods. It’s sold in a few places in South Carolina too, and online through the company’s eBay store. Yet despite a faithful following, it’s somewhat lost among the wide array of options on shelves, particularly when it’s often tucked into an ethnic food aisle.

The Salsa Diabla is the flagship, and the one we presented to our wedding guests. With a burnt orange color that’s slightly darker than Auburn University’s colors or Valentina hot sauce, it derives its primary taste and hue from chipotle peppers. Rounded out by oregano, olive oil, and pepper, A La Brava's Salsa Diabla provides a mid-range kick of heat that can go on just about anything. It’s so good that it closed down a restaurant.

In 2017, Medina shuttered his popular Villa del Mar Mexican restaurant on what had become known as Greensboro’s “International Restaurant Row” to focus on his burgeoning hot sauce company full-time. I was heartbroken.

To this day, Villa del Mar is the highest expression of a Mexican restaurant I’ve experienced. Anywhere. It was a modest, hole-in-the-wall spot squeezed between an Asian corner grocery and a ghostly Toys R Us, the kind of place with a thumping jukebox, tchotchkes adorning every free inch of the colorful walls, and crooked neon posterboard taped to the front window where all-caps handwriting advertised 99-cent tacos.

I don’t know how Medina and his crew marinated their meats or evoked so much more dynamic flavors than most of their contemporaries. But ask anyone who visited during that decade Medina ran it and they’ll tell you the same thing—this was one of a kind.

hot sauce and sprinkles

Courtesy of Eliza Jane Willey

From One Store to the Southeast

Part of the draw, of course, were the hot sauces. Served in tall, cylindrical tubes and dropped on your table in a metal bucket, these early versions of the A La Diabla brand laid the groundwork for the initial following. Like the food, the recipes were inspired and partially developed by Medina’s mother, known as Mamá Nana.

“She helped me develop this recipe,” Medina explains, adding that he made minor adjustments once he decided to take the business commercial. “It is, in essence, the same. I think the combination of flavors is what makes it popular, but mostly the chipotle."

Medina, who immigrated to the U.S. from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, doesn’t sound surprised when I tell him that wedding guests from New York, Berlin, Atlanta, and elsewhere have continued asking after his Salsa Diabla. There’s a woman in the Netherlands, he tells me, who arranged for him to ship her two cases worth after she moved there from Charlotte. He’s modest about his success and talent, but he knows how quality his product is.

“I’ve been looking at it like a snowball,” Medina says, one that grows progressively larger with persistence. “To be able to be everywhere takes a long time, and a lot of effort."

"I know it takes time, but that's my American Dream, to have it nationwide."

He dreams of expanding throughout the Southeast and is working to break into Food Lion. Eventually, the goal is to take A La Brava nationwide. “I’ve seen some other hot sauces started by immigrants, like Sriracha,” Medina says, referring to the popular product of Huy Fong Foods, founded by Vietnamese refugee David Tran. “I know it takes time, but that's my American Dream, to have it nationwide."

It's a lofty aspiration, but one that is grounded in reality. After all, when was the last time you kept talking about a hot sauce two years after trying it?

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