In my preteen years, I remember testing my heat tolerance through a game: my brother would dare me to eat a few jalapeno potato chips, and then not drink anything to temper the heat for five minutes. My young palate had yet to develop the resistance to such spice, so this was painful. Often the only technique I had to wait out the clock was to just eat more chips. It was great fun.
My affinity for spicy hot chips hasn’t abetted in adulthood, but I’ve developed some additional criteria. There are three things I look for in a great spicy potato chip.
- It needs to be a good potato chip. All chips should smell fresh, have proper salting, and deliver a pleasant, humidity-free crunch.
- Since these are spicy chips, there should be enough discomfort to know you’re eating something spicy. The sweet spot is something that makes you go “whoo!” or a “there it is.” If the spice makes you cry, cough or vomit, that’s too much.
- Finally, there needs to be more to the flavoring than just the spice. The accompanying flavors should be like a great rhythm section—something that elevates the overall performance without overshadowing the Scoville soloist.
What makes finding a great spicy chip challenging is the sheer diversity of spicy chip flavors. There’s no uniform code to the flavor other than “does it taste hot,” so I sought good flavor and noteworthy heat. You’ll see a representative sampling of what different brands label as “hot” in the chips described below; this is certainly not a comprehensive list, but we only chose chips with mass distribution nationwide, easily found online or in finer grocers/specialty stores. Each chip has three criteria mentioned above—chip quality, heat, flavor—and scored on a scale of 1 to 10.
The chip itself is a decent, continuously-fried option (a.k.a. regular, non-kettle chips), with a good thin, crisp, and fresh taste. The spice tackles your tongue immediately, and hangs around the entire mouth for at least a minute. Flavor-wise, there’s heavy paprika and cayenne notes with little else happening. It’s a fine example of a hot potato chip, but you will find more creative interpretations.
Chip Quality: 5 (out of 10)
Kettle Brand’s potato chips have strong crunch and a distinct potato taste to them (which is a compliment). The spice kick was lacking, despite the bag’s proclamation of capital “H,” exclamation point-hotness. Their flavor reminded me more of Funyuns than a jalapeno pepper.
Chip Quality: 5
Living up to their name, these chips were quite crunchy but somewhat oily. They seem engineered to absorb the flavor powder during manufacturing. Speaking of the flavor, it’s a spot-on jalapeno, with real back-of-nose peppery elements. The spice was enough to make you notice, and it surprised you a few seconds after eating.
Chip Quality: 6
Occasionally available at Costco, Tim’s are ubiquitous and a staple in the Pacific Northwest. Chip-wise, flavor-wise, and heat-wise, just increase the Krunchers! score by about 30 percent. The chip was fresh and crispy. The pepper flavor was pure, and the spice was fierce. You won’t find a better example of a hot potato chip.
Chip Quality: 8
Offering perhaps the most unique flavor labels of any mass-market chip, Rap Snacks were a real delight. The Louisiana Heat was the only ruffled variety I sampled, and these wavy chips almost disintegrates in your mouth after a crunch or two. Where it lacks in spice it compensates in overall flavor—I could pick up hints of Crystal hot sauce and brown sugar. It’s on the low end of the spiciness spectrum, but they’re incredibly snackable.
Chip Quality: 5
Congratulations to the food scientists and engineers at Lay’s, for making a chip that tastes exactly as advertised. This is a flaming hot chip that tastes like a dill pickle. The heat is strong, but the dill and vinegar offer a good counterbalance. View these chips as an amuse bouche rather than a full snack—I bet I couldn’t eat just one, but I’ll take the under on eating just 10.
Chip Quality: 5
Enter almost any Asian market and you’re likely to find an assortment of Calbee snack products from Japan. The chip was really hard for being so thin. Their uniform orange-brown hue stood out to me. Similar to Rap Snacks, Calbee’s wasn’t spicy. However, the meaty, umami, sweet, nutmeg flavor stands among some of the most unique in any chip category. I could eat a whole bag of these.
Chip Quality: 4
Found usually in specialty grocery stores outside of the mid-Atlantic, Route 11 offers really high quality kettle-fried chips. The Mama Zuma’s flavor had the most “Whoo! There it is” of any of the chips sampled. The sweet and mesquite notes that played with the spiciness made the overall experience not just a class in heat. There’s a lot of seasoning on these chips, but I don’t mind. I found myself eating more to compensate for the heat, just like childhood.
Chip Quality: 7
Mama Zuma’s Revenge and Tim’s are the leaders in my spicy chip clubhouse. Both of these offered ample heat and enough flavor complexity to stand out among the others sampled. Although I really liked the flavor of both Rap Snacks and Calbee, the mild heat disqualifies them as a truly spicy chip. On a few occasions, the bag’s boasting didn’t live up to its billing, but more often than not when you eat a “hot” chip, you’re going to get a decent amount of heat.