SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Tucked beneath the facade of an old menswear store, Epic Spices is unassuming at first glance. Step through the little corridor between diagrams of posters (featuring figs, cloves, and pepper), and bowls of ground spices, and you will begin to understand that you have come to Chicago’s mecca for high-quality and hard-to-find spices. The dill weed is greener, the ginger smells fresher, and all the shelves have jars marked “tester” for pre-purchase tasting of the different spices and blends. And if trying the various spices for yourself isn’t enough, the shop’s owners have suggestions and advice at-the-ready for all of your flavor-enhancing needs.
With extensive backgrounds in the food and spice industry, Steven Tobiason and Natalie Haliziw opened Epic Spices in 2012; though, they did not initially plan for it to be a retail store, but instead a wholesale pepper business. “The original incarnation of Epic Spices was a high-end pepper importer, and processor, and distributor,” explains Tobiason. “You know what every restaurant uses? Pepper!”
It turns out businesses weren’t so keen on getting only pepper at one distributor, and all their other spices elsewhere. As a reaction to this, Tobiason and Haliziw began adding a few other items, and opened up their store to the public. Soon, they were taking customer requests, and their product variety grew further with customers asking for blends like merkén—a combination of roasted cacho de cabra chile, cracked coriander, cumin, salt, a little sunflower oil—after returning from a trip to Chile. Warm and spicy flavors in this blend, along with guidance from this recipe for Camarones al Pil Pil with Merkén (scroll to the bottom), will introduce your shrimp to some Chilean heat.
Some of these requests even earned the requestor a place of honor on the spice jar label. Back when Epic Spices only offered 15 or 16 products, “if [customers] asked for a blend and it came out good enough for sale to others, whoever asked for it could have their name, or the name of their choosing, immortalized on the label,” Tobiason states. This is why you can find Raphaela’s Garlic Pepper and Madeleine’s Cookie Sprinkle, named for a mother and daughter, on display for purchase, as well as Clarence’s Crazy Hot Seasoning and Chloe’s Garam Masala. If you elect to try Chloe’s blend, you might consider applying it to our Curried Cauliflower, Chickpeas, and Tofu recipe, which also incorporates fennel seeds, turmeric, and cayenne pepper.
“The personal relationships that we get to develop here are almost as fun as the whole spice game,” explains Tobiason, as one of the shop’s loyal customers drops by with a variety of homemade marshmallows for Tobiason and Haliziw to try—created using their own peppermint extract and matcha. Haliziw notes that they often get to sample customers’ creations in the form of treats like these marshmallows, or cookies, or other baked goods. Try out matcha in your own baking endeavors with our Raspberry Matcha Muffins recipe.
And what goes into the excellent products at Epic Spices? For one, the owners keep as close to the source as possible. The more people involved, the more expensive things get—so, they do all the grinding and processing and packaging themselves, in-house. In this way, they’re able to offer things like ceylon cinnamon, which would lose all its flavor by the time it would reach the consumer of a typical grocery store, because they get fresh cinnamon bark and process it on-the-fly for their customers. Ceylon cinnamon has a subtly spicy and woody flavor that nicely tops desserts like our Rice Pudding.
Reacting to the market adds to Epic Spice’s ever-evolving stock of flavors, whether it be directly through customer asks or from the influence of impressive industry figures. Whenever renowned chef Yotam Ottolenghi comes out with a new book, they are prepared to carry these recipe-specific spices that you just cannot find at other stores: vadouvan (a French-inspired curry with shallots), shichimi togarashi (inspired from the owners’ travels to Tokyo), and baharat, for example. For some tips on using baharat, (as well as za’atar and ras el hanout), check out our guide for infusing meals with Middle Eastern flavors.
Tobiason and Haliziw also test everything comprehensively, like when they made meal after meal of jerk chicken in a journey to develop the perfect jerk seasoning. And then there was the time they had a customer request for chaat masala, so they experimented with different blends until they landed on one utilizing slightly-sulfurous kala namak. Regarding some of the more pungent flavors involved in these trials, Haliziw adds that “Asafoetida is another fun one—it just reminds me of the time I left a pineapple on the counter for way too long.” And yet, asafoetida and chaat masala can work harmoniously in this unexpected recipe for Chaat Masala Fruit Salad.
On top of it all, Epic Spices maintains affordable prices. “One of the reasons we keep our price point as low as it is, is to not exclude anyone from a delicious meal. Eating well should not be so elitist,” declares Tobiason. With most of their spices ringing up at only a few dollars each, a well-stocked spice cabinet is attainable for any of their customers.
These are all reasons why their spices are pervasive in the food and drink establishments of Chicago. If you eat out in this city, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed a meal or a drink made with their products. “We’ve been very fortunate because we’ve never advertised—we suck at marketing,” admits Tobiason, with Haliziw adding that “there are so many restaurants in the city of Chicago, the wholesale is mostly local.”
Even if you’re more into the bar scene, you’ve likely enjoyed a concoction made with flavors from Epic Spices. “Forbidden Root gets quite a lot of stuff from us for their botanical brews,” mentions Tobiason, and adds that Goose Island will experiment using their spices before committing to a particular concoction for their own customers. They have supplied to Pipeworks Brewing, and other breweries, too.
With endless possibilities for new blends, there’s always something new to try in-store. “We can make a million new things everyday just based on what we have now,” explains Tobiason. And all these wonderful flavors came about because, he notes, “I no longer was good at anything other than this, and Natalie was really into the idea of working 75 hours a week instead of 40.”
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.