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Hot Pepper Etiquette

At a pizza restaurant, is it rude to add red pepper flakes to pizza before tasting it? What about parmesean? Is it rude to remove the cap from the pepper flakes and pour it on? If it is rude, who am I offending?

Is it rude to ask for the hottest salsa available at a Mexican restaurant? Many people think that you should not add salt or pepper until after you've tasted the food. If I wait until I've tasted my food to ask for extra hot salsa, does this make my request any less insulting?

I live in the country, outside a small town in Central California. I went to one of the two restaurants in town with my mother-in-law and some other relatives, and I asked for habanero salsa as I placed my order for a burrito. Maybe it was rude to assume that just because they're a Mexican restaurant, they would have habanero salsa. After the waitress returned to the table without any habanero salsa, I asked her to bring me some of the hottest salsa they had. (I asked nicely. Her English wasn't that good, so I had to repeat myself a couple of times.) She brought me mild salsa to which lots of red pepper flakes had recently been added. I return to this restaurant a lot with my in-laws, and somehow they always manage to serve me five minutes after they have served everybody else. Is this just a coincidence, or are they trying to get back at me for having made a request that they see as insulting?

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  1. You are asking two, possibly more, different and not really related questions here.

    If the pizza restaurant provides the condiment, then there should be no problem using it.

    In the Mexican restaurant you are asking for something they don't make, to be made specially for you, and for which they obviously didn't have the proper ingredients. They tried to satisfy your request by adding chili to their regular salsa. It seems they tried to the best of their ability to satisfy you.

    As for whether "they trying to get back at me for having made a request that they see as insulting?" Possibly. You may have insulted them by the request, how they perceived the request, your actions after the request, or maybe they aren't and you are falsely perceiving that they are getting back at you. Hard to tell.

    I do know that I personally wouldn't assume a Mexican restaurant had habanero salsa, or even any really hot salsa. I have rarely seen ones that serve anything other than a mild to medium salsa.

    1. Why would you assume a Mexican place had a habanero salsa? That pepper (and related Scotch Bonnet) is more commonly used in the Caribbean and Yacatan, not the rest of Mexico.

      Also, when asking for such a salsa, were you expecting a freshly made one, or a bottled brand? I'm sure the place had bottles of Tapatio or Cholula sauces; would a larger amount of one of those have worked in place of Marie Sharps?

      Maybe next time you should bring your own bottle of Dave's.


      1. I belive somewhere it became a custom to at least sample the presented meal before you decided it needed correction. A Show of respect to the efforts and talents of those who prepared the food. This I am sure originated in a time and place where cooks/chefs had their tongue on the pulse of the publics taste (back when salt and pepper a luxury) and any flavoring was welcomed. Problem is these days every cook is a "chef" and every blue plate they send out at a greasy spoon a masterpiece all because they watch food network. Where proper etiquette begins/ends can probably be closely related to things like plastic cups and tablecloths. ?
        Maybe they like your business and see it as a good thing to send your food out last."All must wait till the host/hostess."
        Or maybe they took offense at how you asked/demanded?
        I would be upset if I asked for "hot" sauce and I noticed they had given me the house regular with a packet of Domino's red chili flakes dumped on top.
        Maybe you should feel insulted. Maybe it is time to eat somewhere else.

        1. there are plenty of cooks who don't believe the idea is to eat something that will set your head on fire, since it masks the flavor of the food. habaneros are not native to most mexican cuisine, so it was incorrectly assumptive of you to think they had it.

          i'm always a bit surprised by people who salt and pepper their food before tasting it. what if the salt shaker accidentally got spilled in there already?

          i was also taught "it's not what you say, but how you say it."

          1. In a restaurant I don't consider it rude to pour on the pepper flakes or what-have-you before tasting, unless you're sharing the dish (e.g. pizza) and end up "poisoning" someone else's food. Seems like it would be smarter to at least check and see what the dish tastes like first though, just in case. What if the chef recognizes you and tries to accomodate your known preferences?

            1. These customs derive from home dining where the hosts are present at the table. Their salience in restaurants is somewhat diluted. Other guests are supposed to not be aware of your condiment usage...unless they are your parents and you are their child, in which case they have the right to show you the best of their manners...

              1. I support you that it's not rude to add spice before tasting in a restaurant. You can make a reasonable assumption that most food served in a restaurant will not be as hot as you seem to prefer without specific mention on the menu or from the server. Is it ruder to assume the food is bland before tasting it or taste and then season? Tasting before seasoning proves to the cook that you find it bland. I suppose it's all about being respectful.

                I once cut up hot peppers (asked for on the side while ordering) and mixed the juice into a dish called Angry Chicken Pomodoro. It was edible, but hotter than I would have liked.

                I wonder why you keep returning to a restaurant that can't meet your needs.

                I recently started a thread asking for thoughts on bringing metal cutlery or hot sauce to a meal. One guy brings a mini pepper grinder wherever he goes. Maybe you could carry hot sauce.

                1. Some years ago I asked for a hotter sauce at one of those thoroughly Americanized Mexican places - the ones that bury their food under a thick blanket of melted yellow cheese. But since I didn't specify the type of pepper, they had no problem giving me something appropriate. But I tend to avoid that type of place, since I've rarely found something I really like.

                  The 'taquerias' I prefer often have a salsa bar, with sauces that the plenty hot for me. Sometimes I'll just take some of the pickled carrots. There is more to good Mexican than just heat.


                  1. I never understand why people add seasonings before tasting. I think it was Thomas Edison who always took a prospective employee out to lunch and if the interviewee salted his food before tasting he would never hire them. Why? He did not like people who made conclusions before looking at the data.

                    I do not mind if anyone I serve in my house adds salt, pepper or any other normal ingredient at the table. I try to serve as I think fir, but there are some members of my family that are on a salt-restrcited diet. I cook to the lowest common denominator at that point and inform everyone that we may need salt. Likewise i can not stand spicy so there is always a bottle of Franks around for the little Jfoods.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: jfood

                      Well, Edison was limited that way, as he was a strong Sensate who obviously didn't understand Intuitives....

                      Anyway, people who are familiar with a restaurant's seasoning style can happily pre-season to their hearts' content....

                      1. re: Karl S

                        Well, Edison was limited that way, as he was a strong Sensate who obviously didn't understand Intuitives....

                        . . . that is probably the most brilliant response to the whole pre-salting food story ever! thanks, I will borrow this

                    2. True, but Taralee did not sound as though she was familiar with the restaurant at the time.

                      1. What I do think is a pepper-n-parmesean faux pas is when a casual type place has
                        1-2 chilli flake and cheese dispensers to run off with it to your table ... often this is the case
                        at places that does a lot of per-slice business, but does have sit down space for a few
                        people getting whole pies. shake, pour, whatever it into a napkin or on to your pizza
                        and then leave it there for others to use.

                        for bay area people, cheeseboard is a good example of this.

                        in general, i'm a believer in the "lockean proviso" in circumstances like this.

                          1. re: Franken

                            well not exactly ... say you were living with housemates ... nobody
                            reasonable minds if you borrow somebody's salt, or a cup of rice.
                            reasonable people dont mind if you drink some of their soda, or grab
                            a beer from the case in the fridge. but if you eat your housemate's last
                            dove bar, or his single chimay he was looking forward to after work,
                            or eat all of the leftover pizza they were looking forward to ...
                            now that's obnoxious.

                            if there are 8 or 9 shakers at a large pizzaria, go ahead and take one ...
                            if there are one or two, then dont expropriate the "common resource".
                            the people who take ALL of the shakers are the truly amazing ones.
                            "uh are you done with the pepper ... and the oregano ... and the
                            parmesean?" "oh you're not done? ok, i'll just hover over your table
                            until you are."

                            i dont want to push this too far, but if you are interested, see e.g.

                            ok tnx.

                            1. re: psb

                              Here is a contemporary thread with the lockean proviso ... or should we call
                              it the "shrimp proviso" ... in action:

                          2. Do you realize that hot sauce and salsa are two different things? If so, did you really expect a Mexican place in a two-restaurant town to have a seriously hot, fresh habanero salsa on hand? Most offer one or two fresh salsas, and if they have a hotter version, it usually just has more jalapeno, not habanero. (In fact, I would be pretty pissed if, after asking for "hot" salsa I got a seriously mouth-burning habanero salsa.) Instead, they offer bottles of hot sauce like tapatio or something for those who want to doctor their own. Sounds like this was a communication error more than anything else.

                            1. Not really the main issue, if I'm reading correctly, but I'll run with a point that others have:

                              The whole "never season before tasting" peeve is sort of an anti-peeve for me. I know I like clam chowder and spaghetti carbonara with a lot of pepper -- no need to taste. I know eggs at coffee shops are customarily presented unseasoned -- no need to taste. I know I like to oversalt tortilla chips -- no need to taste. And so on. Among my anti-peeves, this ranks right up there with going out of your way to get offended by waiters who say "You guys" to mixed groups.

                              3 Replies
                              1. re: Bill on Capitol Hill

                                Regarding the pizza with pepper flake issue I'd say go ahead and pepper away before that first bite. I've never had a cut of pizza that had pepper flakes on it right out of the kitchen so I already know that the pizza won't be hot with pepper. No need to taste first to double check if it's spicy hot or not.

                                1. re: Rick

                                  If you are in an Italian pizzeria, there is no problem in asking for the hot oil or hot red pepper flakes as it is common practise to add this to pizza (and in many pizzerias in italy, I have had a hot oil bottle on the table). However, as for the parmiggiano, it is not normally added to the pizza and therefore it would, imho, be comparable to asking an italian restaurant to put parmiggiano on your seafood pasta. If you were in a North American pizza parlour, it might not be as much of a problem.

                                  1. re: icey

                                    Well, it's a waste to put parmigiano on pizza; that's one of those things pecorino is better suited to.