Image: jalapeno peppers
Scott Olson  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Mexican-grown jalapeño peppers are suspected in a nationwide salmonella outbreak once thought to have been caused by tomatoes.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 7/25/2008 5:24:55 PM ET 2008-07-25T21:24:55

One hot pepper is having a chilling effect on restaurants.

At El Paraiso, a Mexican-style restaurant in Santa Maria, Calif., “they’re not eating the salsa,” owner Gus Arana said of his customers. “They’re actually just leaving it there, so it is kind of scary.”

El Paraiso’s customers — like those of the thousands of other Mexican-style restaurants across the country — are asking questions and rejecting old favorites after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said jalapeños may be to blame for the salmonella outbreak that has killed two people and sickened about 1,200 others.

The FDA cleared U.S.-grown peppers Friday, saying the tainted peppers probably came from Mexico. But Danielle Rios, owner of Blue Corn Café in Durham, N.C., said Mexican-style restaurants went through so many peppers that many couldn’t rely solely on locally grown produce.

“We can’t sustain our volume all the time from local growers,” she said.

At El Paraiso, Arana has pulled his signature jalapeño pepper-based salsa for a milder tomatillo-based sauce, but he is the first to admit it just isn’t the same.

“It really has affected us a lot, and we don’t know how long we can stay open,” Arana said.

Raw jalapeños are only the latest suspect. First it was raw tomatoes, then cilantro. All three are indispensable ingredients of the free bowl of salsa many Mexican-style restaurants slap down on the table with hot tortilla chips to get their customers in the door.

“Obviously, fresh salsa is jalapeños, tomatoes, cilantro and onions. So I’ve got three out of four,” said Rob Messinger, owner of Hector’s in Milwaukee. “So yeah, it’s a very big deal.”

Jalapeños unique and irreplaceable
And if jalapeños are officially convicted, the victims could be many.

When raw tomatoes were first targeted as the possible cause of the outbreak, the pain was spread across restaurants running the spectrum of cuisines. And while that scare caused kitchens to adjust, it wasn’t the dire threat that the disappearance of jalapeños could be for for small family operators.

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Raw tomatoes, after all, are usually just a garnish or part of a salad. In addition, there are many varieties of tomatoes, so cooks could substitute fairly easily for the suspected varieties, said Mike Pavis, owner of La Comida in Chico, Calif.

And for sauces and bases, canned tomatoes not only can often be substituted but many times are preferred, he said.

Jalapeños, on the other hand, are jalapeños — unique and irreplaceable in the majority of Mexican-style dishes served in the United States. Pavis and other restaurateurs say they can accept no substitute; other peppers have the wrong flavor profile, and canned jalapeños don’t have the crunch or bright, fresh taste that is the reason for cooking with them in the first place.

“This could be a big challenge,” Pavis said. “I’ve never tried to make our salsa with anything except fresh jalapeños.”

At La Tolteca in Wilke-Barre Township, Pa., cooks are experimenting with other peppers, but “it’s bad for business,” assistant manager Carlos Deleon said. “We need jalapeños for everything we cook.”

‘Our people, our customers, our community’
The popularity of Mexican-style food means pepper farmers fear for their own survival as some of the biggest supermarket and Mexican restaurant chains reject jalapeños. Among them are Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket company; Harris-Teeter; and Publix; along with Qdoba and Abuelo’s restaurants.

“Some of these farmers are going to go broke,” said Ed Hopkins, who sells peppers at a farmers market in Scranton, Pa. “If you lose one crop today, with the expenses we have,” that’s all it takes, he said.

Brian Long, a spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, said the state’s farmers were already having problems selling their product, even though most growers hadn't even pulled their peppers from the vine yet.

Owners of Mexican-style restaurants say they sympathize. Jalapeño peppers are vital to their business, but they also might be a killer.

“I worry, because if anything happened here in my restaurant or somewhere else, it’s really concerning,” said Juan Nuño, owner of Guadalajara Restaurant in Billings, Mont. “It’s our people, our customers, our community.”

At El Tipico in Toledo, Ohio, owner Frank Villa said he was resigned to changing recipes that his customers have come to love over many years.

“The people that come here come for the taste of the food, and if the taste is different, they’ll let me known right away,” Villa said.

But he has banished raw jalapeños from the kitchen, anyway.

“Not only do customers come here to eat, but my family eats here as well, too — my children, my grandchildren,” he said. “So I’m responsible for their health, too.”

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