Celebrity chef David Chang, the founder of the famed Momofuku restaurant empire, inadvertently caused a social media storm earlier this month when his company attempted to enforce a trademark for the phrase “chili crunch,” even going so far as to issue cease-and-desist orders to other condiment brands using the term.

It wasn’t long before Chang was roundly clowned upon by…seemingly the entire internet. Critics rightly pointed out how absurd it was to attempt to trademark such a generic term—after all, the beloved condiment chili crisp has been around since long before Chang manufactured his signature Momofuku Chili Crunch, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a distinction between “chili crunch” and “chili crisp” (or a danger of consumers mistaking other brands’ offerings for Momofuku’s, for that matter). The fact that Momofuku was using this as an excuse to tear down small AAPI-owned businesses was also not a great look, to say the least. Consumers even called for a boycott of Momofuku products, with many retailers vowing not to stock goods from the business in response to the decision.

After being publicly shamed for this unabashed bully behavior, Chang eventually issued a public apology on his podcast, saying, “I spent the greater part of my adult life trying to bring light to Asian food, Asian American food, Asian identity, what it means to be Asian American. I understand why people are upset and I’m truly sorry.”

In light of the controversy, we here at The Stranger decided to take it upon ourselves to conduct a chili crisp taste test to determine the best non-Momofuku alternatives. Our extremely (un)scientific methodology: We gathered a bunch of chili crisps from various sources (including Uwajimaya, Cone & Steiner, and Ba Mien Seafood Market) and tried them all both by themselves and paired with various snacks, including saltine crackers (both plain or spread with peanut butter or cream cheese), shumai, instant ramen, and vanilla ice cream (don’t knock it until you try it).

A note: Rather than crown one chili crisp “the best,” we’ve opted to instead investigate which condiments cater to certain situations and palates. After all, taste is subjective, and an inclusive, non-hierarchical approach seems more in the spirit of the collective “fuck you” to Momofuku. Community over competition, right?

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Best for Garlic Lovers

S&B Umami Topping Crunchy Garlic with Chili Oil and Momoya Chili Oil with Crunchy Garlic

Garlic freaks, these two are for you. Both of these options had a nice hit of umami with a pop of salt and crunchy garlic flakes. (In fact, they were almost suspiciously similar to the point where we wondered if they might be produced in the same factory.) The Stranger’s advertising coordinator Evanne Hall noted that they were “not spicy, a little sweet—well balanced” and “would be great with cream cheese on anything or used to dress a dish.” Arts editor Megan Seling called the S&B one “robust” and “the quintessential versatile chili crunch.”

Best for Spice Lovers

Ba Mien Seafood Market’s chili oil and Bells & Flower Brand Fried Chili Paste

These two chili crisps were preferred picks for the testers in our group who don’t shy away from spice. I happened upon little plastic cups of chili oil in the prepared foods section of Ba Mien Seafood Market in Othello and brought them in for the tasting. Testers mentioned the initial blast of heat—Stranger editor Rich Smith said “it makes its argument immediately,” while Megan compared it to “gasoline”: “It has a fruitiness to it, but then it kicks you in the face!” Evanne thought it was “spicy up front, slightly bitter on its own” with “no crunch” and “would go great in a soup, with noodles, or used in a peanut sauce—the peanut butter allows for the spice to come through, but takes away the bitterness.” 

Bells & Flower Brand Fried Chili Paste, found in the condiment aisle at Ba Mien and reminiscent of Mexican salsa macha, was another popular choice for our spice lovers. Evanne found the flavor profile somewhat one-note but enjoyed the “nice hit of spice that builds quickly, plateaus, and remains,” noting that it would be great on “anything already flavorful that you’re wanting to add a punch of heat to.” Bold Type Tickets Customer Solutions Manager Kevin Shurtluff gave it a “thumbs up” and liked “how concentrated the chili flavor itself was.”

The Classics

Lao Gan Ma Spicy Chili Crisp and Lee Kum Kee Chiu Chow Style Chili Crisp Oil

We’d be remiss not to include Lao Gan Ma, the OG chili crisp with a cult following, easily recognizable by its grumpy-looking mascot on the label. (Lao Gan Ma translates to “old godmother.”) Like many others, I’ve long loved this stuff, adding liberal spoonfuls to homemade chicken soup, scrambled eggs, and bagels slathered with cream cheese. Evanne called it “savory with a hint of fruitiness.” The texture was chunky, chewy, and less crispy than others in the lineup.

Lee Kum Kee’s chili crisp is another tried-and-true staple widely available at Asian grocers. I enjoyed its mellow, savory, almost tomato-y flavor, which I thought would be delicious on a slice of pizza. Evanne found it lacking in the crunch department but “sweet with a moderate spice” and “pleasant overall flavor.”

Local Indie Favorite

Kari Kari Garlic Chili Crisp

If chili crisp is at all on your radar, you’re probably already aware of this Seattle-based small-batch brand, which has earned national acclaim and legions of fans. As someone who prefers my chili crisp on the savory side, I found this one a little too sweet for my liking due to the addition of cane sugar, but other testers enjoyed the sizable garlic flakes and peanut pieces. It was also milder and would be an ideal choice for the spice-averse. Megan deemed it a favorite and said, “I think the Kari Kari was especially good on the noodles with a little peanut butter. It really cut the richness of the peanut butter and even though it's kind of sweeter than others on its own, it took on a more savory, robust flavor when paired with the PB. I think it was a little too sweet on the ice cream, personally. So I would use this one more in sauces, on eggs, on noodles, etc. Savory stuff.” On the other hand, Evanne thought its sweetness complemented dairy products like ice cream and cream cheese nicely.

The Splurge

Fly By Jing Sichuan Chili Crisp

The trailblazing specialty chili oil brand Fly by Jing, produced in Chengdu, is another inescapable presence in the chili crisp world. Founder and CEO Jing Gao was among those who spoke out against Momofuku’s trademark antics, writing, “I am disheartened to hear that Momofuku is using a trademark with a validity that is tenuous at best to go after numerous brands including small minority women-founded businesses. This kind of action, if successful, sets a dangerous precedent for the squashing of fair competition, not to mention how ridiculous it is to try and take ownership of a generic cultural term.” At $15 a jar, the upscale brand doesn’t run cheap. As a longtime Lao Gan Ma loyalist, I admit that I was initially put off by Fly by Jing’s slick appearance before trying it, but its tingly, Sichuan peppercorn-spiked flavor profile quickly converted me. I love this one stirred into peanutty knife-cut noodles or drizzled over steamed dumplings with chopped cilantro and scallions. 

Best for Cooking

Master Sauce Black Bean Crisp Chili Oil

Home cooks looking for a quick way to zhuzh up weeknight meals would do well to add this sauce with an edge of funky black bean flavor to their pantry. Evanne observed, “Definitely the most unique flavor of all them, but it disappears quickly and then you’re left with a fairly standard, not crunchy chili oil,” adding that it would be excellent “served as a sauce with veggies like green beans or gai lan.” Kevin echoed this sentiment: “ I imagine myself reaching for that one mainly if, say, I have a pile of steaming tofu and greens on the plate.”

Who are you, Chef Troy??? MS

The Crowd Pleaser

Chef Troy’s Recipe Crunchy Garlic Chili Sauce by Mishima

Just about everyone in the office was unexpectedly beguiled by this unassuming jar from Uwajimaya, released as part of a collaboration series from Mishima Foods USA with someone calling himself “Chef Troy N. Thompson.” We agreed this sleeper hit was the most versatile and well-rounded pick of the bunch, with a uniquely appealing texture and flavor. “I’m a Troy boy,” Rich announced upon trying it. Evanne noted that it was “garlicky, but not overpowering” and had “great crunch,” while Megan commented, “I loved the texture and how the garlic was minced. Most crisps seem to use sliced garlic. This felt like punchy caviar! The little garlic bits are chewy and got stuck in my teeth but I didn't care because YUM. I especially liked it on the ice cream, because I think it is itself a little sweeter than some, and the pungent garlic worked well with the cold, creamy vanilla.” Kevin praised the “good foundation of flavor with chili/spice/garlic/crunch” and “really pleasing sense of the flavor/texture combo being nicely balanced and executed.”

Strangely, I could find little about the mysterious Chef Troy online, save for a few inactive social media profiles (proclaiming his passion for “Hats, Clean Flavors, the Color Orange, Boxer Dogs and the Grateful Dead” in the bio) and a defunct website, which led me to wonder whether he’s a fictional Betty Crocker-like figurehead. Either way, it’s safe to say he has won over the hearts and minds of the Stranger staff.