Chef Adriel Montes spends half his days on land tinkering with the recipe for his latest hot sauces and half his days at sea serving meals aboard the Excel, a local sportfishing boat docked at Fisherman’s Landing in the San Diego Bay. These worlds collide when he sets out a bottle from his hot sauce brand, Eye of RA, as a condiment in the galley for the fishermen to pair with his daily menu. Montes serves freshly caught Bluefin tuna and Yellowtail sushi and sashimi alongside classic dishes such as tacos, ceviche, and steaks.

Cooking at Sea

Montes has been cooking professionally for decades but cooking aboard a long-range fishing charter introduces its own set of challenges. Each deep sea fishing voyage travels south from San Diego along the coast of Baja and lasts between three and 18 days depending on the season. He crafts three meals per day for the crew and guests while balancing with the ebb and flow of the waves. 

It is not uncommon for his ingredients to slide back and forth across his cutting board as he preps his dishes. In one such instance, when attempting to bake a cake at sea, Montes reached for a tool in one of the kitchen’s drawers. Rough surf unexpectedly rolled the boat and the drawer slammed shut on his finger with such force that it is still healing months later. 

For the record, the cake turned out wonderfully once the waves subsided.

Each evening aboard the sportfishing vessel, weatherworn fishermen exhausted from hours of reeling in tuna, report to the galley for family-style dinners featuring the daily catch or other proteins purchased from San Diego prior to departure. If desired, diners can choose to amplify the dish’s flavor with a few dollops of Eye of RA hot sauce, Chef Montes’ concoction of Sichuan peppercorns, habanero, garlic, shallot, and charred red Fresno chiles.

A New, Mouth-Numbing Hot Sauce is Born

Sichuan peppercorns deliver a unique sensation to the palate by numbing and tingling the tongue. The chemical compound that induces salivation and intensifies the flavors that follow it is known as hydroxy-alpha-sanshool and is exclusively found in plants from the Zanthoxylum genus. The effect of the peppercorn on the tongue is akin to the feeling of pins and needles when a limb falls asleep. Sichuan peppercorn and Uzazi, a West African spice, are the two most common culinary ingredients that contain this numbing property. Sichuan peppercorns originate from the Sichuan province in southwestern China and are most notably found in dishes from the region such as mapo tofu and Chongqing hot pot.

In the case of Eye of RA hot sauce, the Sichuan peppercorns amplify the heat and fruitiness of habaneros and brighten the ripe, sweet characteristic of charred red Fresno chiles. In China, the combination of charred hot peppers and Sichuan peppercorns is referred to as mala. Although mala is a common seasoning in Sichuan cuisine, Montes notes that the “hot and numbing feeling is quite amazing but not very well known, especially in the hot sauce industry.” 

Montes has found that mala gives his hot sauce a mouthwatering combination of fruitiness and intense heat that pairs well with Baja and Asian cuisines, the nexus of his culinary interests. He says his hot sauce “encapsulates Baja-Cali flavors yet is clean and balanced enough to enjoy with sushi and sashimi.”

In April, I joined Montes as he developed a new recipe to complement this story. He donned a gold necklace with the Eye of Ra symbol as he shopped for Mexican wild-caught bluefin tuna and yellowtail amberjack at South Bay Fishery in Barrio Logan. The ancient Egyptian symbol of the Eye of Ra is believed to offer protection, repel negative energy, and restore balance. Whether at sea or ashore, Montes wears this necklace to ward off negativity and provide his life balance. He shares that this ideology steers the direction of the Eye of RA brand. He is preparing to debut a new extra-charred black hot sauce, Embers, and a milder bell pepper sauce, Oasis, in the next few months.

Montes gained inspiration for creating his own seafood recipes from his studies of sushi and Japanese seafood preparation techniques. He says his Cali-Baja Poke recipe was inspired by “Crudo style ceviche and Japanese, Sichuan, and Baja flavors.”

The sweet and spicy dish sings with the flavors of West Coast tropical weather with bright notes of lime and cilantro, and unexpected, satisfying taste combinations from mango and freshly ground Sichuan peppercorns. Pair this dish with a Mexican or Japanese lager and a few dollops of Eye of RA’s SUN hot sauce, and enjoy in the San Diego sunshine for a true Baja-Cali experience.

Chef Adriel Montes can be found selling Eye of RA hot sauce at various markets and events around San Diego. Visit his Instagram and Facebook to find out where he’s selling next or order online on the Eye of RA website.

Make the Poke

Chefs Adriel Montes and Ryan Rizzuto collaborate to write up this recipe for Cali-Baja-Poke.

Mouth watering? Yes. Here's a shopping list preview of the ingredients to get ready.

• sushi or Calrose rice

• rice vinegar

• 5 limes

• white soy sauce

• garlic

• granulated sugar

• shallot

• Eye of RA’s SUN Hot Sauce

• roasted red bell pepper

• avocado

• mango

• cilantro

• red Fresno chile

• Sichuan peppercorn

• Aleppo pepper

• ½ pound bluefin tuna

• ½ pound yellowtail 

This article originally published on Edible San Diego Weekly May 11, 2022. Become a digital member today.

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About the Contributor
Ryan Rizzuto
Ryan Rizzuto is a chef, entrepreneur, and event curator in San Diego. You can taste his work at his own soul food popup, Southside Biscuits. Chef Ryan was nationally-recognized as a 2020 Food Hero by Edible Communities and Niman Ranch for his Covid-19-related hunger relief operations at Kitchens for Good. Follow him on Instagram at @chefryanrizzuto and his soul food and public events at @southsidebiscuits.