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How Far Can Dexter Holland's Gringo Bandito Go?

What started as a gag gift by the Offspring singer is becoming a serious business

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Holland understands, even appreciates the bewilderment most people feel about the idea of a gabacho, a punker, a kid from Garden Grove, selling his own brand of the manna of Mexican food. “I realize the inherent contradiction,” he says, munching on a lunchtime pupusa at El Chinaco in Costa Mesa, just up the street from Da’Kine Foods. “It’s unlikely. It’s unexpected. It was wrong to make it, and that’s the fun of it. It’s a challenge.”

But in many ways, Holland is just following the path of his home—white Orange County has long loved its Mexican picante food. From the early 1900s until the rise of the Central Valley, local farmers grew the majority of chiles produced in California. One of them, Charles E. Utt (father of infamous congressman James Utt), invented a pepper dehydrator that revolutionized the industry and made production of hot sauce and other spicy products easier. One of the earliest cookbooks printed in Orange County, a 1926 collection written by members of the Ebell Society of the Santa Ana Valley, lists a recipe for a “Spanish sauce” that called for more potatoes than chili peppers.

You're gonna go far, kid: One fine day in the kitchen for Holland
Chapman Baehler
You're gonna go far, kid: One fine day in the kitchen for Holland
I just work here: Checking the pH on the hot sauce before its bottling
Keith May
I just work here: Checking the pH on the hot sauce before its bottling

The explosion of Mexican fast-food chains in Southern California during the early 1960s, coupled with a growing Latino population, ensured that hot sauce became a sort of condiment lingua franca in Orange County by the time Holland was born in 1965. He immersed himself in Mexican culture from a young age, and not just in the Spanish classes he enrolled in at Pacifica High or with Chicano classmates. At 10, his family took a trip by bus to Patzcuaro, Michoacán, staying near the town’s historic colonial square. “I remember it being so beautiful, eating dulces and watching some type of parade,” he says. “Being so young, it intrigued me.” When he was 13, Holland and his mother spent a month in Guadalajara with a Mexican family as part of a student-exchange program. He recalls eating Mexican food early and often.

“There used to be a place in Garden Grove, El Burrito Bravo, that sold hot dogs and tacos—those hard-shelled kinds,” he says between sips of a Negra Modelo. “It was good. Growing up in Orange County, Mexican culture is just a part of everyone. I don’t want to overstate it—I’m not totally down, totally with it. I don’t know everything about Mexican culture. I just really appreciate and enjoy it.”

This love for mexicanidad translated professionally. Holland sprinkled Mexican motifs in the Offspring’s output, from the 1964 Chevrolet Impala lowrider driven by the clueless protagonist in the video for “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” to the Dia de los Muertos-inspired cover of their 1997 album, Ixnay On the Hombre. The Offspring’s recording studio has a small Dia de los Muertos-style altar in its rest area, and calaveras hang respectfully on the walls.

“There’s a real sense of freedom and happiness in Mexican society,” he says, “not the confinement you sometimes feel with American society.”

One day early last decade, while eating Mexican food, Holland began reading the label of a bottle of Tapatío, the Vernon-based giant that is as common to Southern California restaurants nowadays as Heinz ketchup. “It just clicked that I had to make one,” he says. “People who like hot sauce are a certain type of people. They’re passionate. They’ll have a bottle with them wherever they go. I’m one of those people. And when I’m into something, I really get into it. It’s like my music—I liked records, so I learned how to play a guitar. After that? A band.”

In between recording and touring with the Offspring, Holland began experimenting with different blends of hot sauces at his house—just him, some knives and pots, a cutting board, and a stove. He relied on his master’s degree in molecular biology from the University of Southern California to determine how to make hot sauce smoother, how to bring out certain flavors, but mostly he relied on trial and error. Once Holland was completely satisfied with a batch, he poured it into bottles and handed them out to workers at his Nitro Records label as a gag Christmas present in 2005.

“They came up to me after tasting it and said, ‘Dude, this is good,’” he says. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. ‘No, we’re serious. We’re addicted to it.’ I thought they were just being polite.” But once workers finished Holland’s hot sauce, they asked when the next batch was coming.

“That’s when I realized I might have something,” he says. “From there, we just went with it. ‘I need a label—hey, it’d be funny if I dressed up like Pancho Villa, how silly would that look?’ And then the name—someone said ‘gringo,’ someone rhymed it with ‘bandito.’ Then someone else suggested we should sell it, and it just clicked.”

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