New London - For 45 years, the late Hortencia Torres cooked up some of the best Mexican food this side of Durango at El Sombrero restaurant on Jefferson Avenue.
Now, Torres' daughter and son-in-law plan to market some of her family recipes, starting with Miss Hortencia's Original Mexican Hot Sauce.
The $4.99 bottles with attractive labels are selling well at four locations: Noank Community Market, Willimantic Food Co-op, Fiesta Market on Mountain Avenue and Terrace Bakery next to the space once occupied by the now-closed El Sombrero. It also is marketed by the business's co-backer, Ashburn Sauce Co., in the Virginia Beach, Va., area.
"It's hot, but it's not hot like it's gonna kill you," said Porfirio "Phil" Ramos, owner of Terrace Bakery.
Ramos reports that he ordered two cases of the hot sauce last month and quickly sold out. He asked for three more cases this month.
"Whenever anybody tasted the sauce in that (El Sombrero) restaurant, they loved it," Ramos said.
Akil Peck, son-in-law of El Sombrero's longtime owner and a master chef at Mohegan Sun, said bottling the restaurant's hot sauce is part of a long-term vision of introducing authentic Mexican cuisine to the public.
"A lot of our ingredients are straight from Mexico," Peck said. "You can't find what we have anywhere else."
Peck describes the hot sauce as robust and full-bodied, with a sophisticated mix of ingredients. Everything is made fresh from scratch, without any powders or fillers, he said.
"It's not watered down," Peck said. "It's not over processed or blended."
He and wife Angelica Peck, both New London residents, formed a company called El Peka Foods LLC a year ago and are funding the venture largely with their own money.
The couple had hoped to produce the hot sauce in Connecticut, but couldn't find a plant here that was willing to take on such a small venture. Peck located a company in Virginia that would back his concept, and hopes eventually to market a variety of Mexican foods, from tamale sauce to frozen dinners.
So far, Peck has found success at small, locally owned food co-ops and markets, but he hopes to break into the bigger chain supermarkets.
Hot sauce is growing in popularity, Peck said, as people look for something to spice up their eggs or top off a tortilla chip.
"Hot sauce is something a lot of people like to put in their food to enhance the flavor," he said.
C.J. Lewis, manager of the newly opened Noank Community Market, and Alice Rubin, manager of the 32-year-old Willimantic Food Co-op, said customers report that Miss Hortencia's hot sauce is delicious.
A public tasting of the sauce this month in Noank led the market there to request another case of the product on the same day, Peck reported. Orders on the company's website have come from as far as Michigan and Arizona.
"I'm shocked that it's moving quicker than I anticipated," Peck said.
Peck added that one of the best aspects of the hot sauce is that it has a real story behind it of a remarkable woman who worked as a judicial marshal by day and cooked for her friends at night.
"Miss Hortencia cooked for love," he said. "That's a major selling point: It's not just another product sitting on a shelf; there's a real person behind it."
Peck said he hopes eventually to start his own plant to produce and package various Mexican specialties and wants to provide jobs for the New London community. He plans to transform the old El Sombrero space on Jefferson Avenue into company headquarters and may even start growing some of the hot sauce's ingredients locally.
"There's a lot of loyal customers that are still out there," he said. "We want to give them something they remembered and loved."