The problems we encountered in 2020 are still very much present in January 2021. And for that reason, some of us are reaching for the kind of pain we have control over: extremely spicy food.
“You are meant to feel and taste something when you eat spicy food,” says food critic Jenny Vergara. “You may sweat. Your mouth may burn. And your eyes may water. But if it is delicious and balanced, it can be worth the pain.”
As food critic Bonjwing Lee points out, though, spicy isn’t always the same as sweat inducing.
“Spiciness also includes a rainbow of ingredients that add flavor, but doesn’t poke and pique your senses. Curries of South and Southeast Asia, for example, or Mexican moles,” Lee says.
Not everyone likes their cuisine spicy. Or hot. But for those that do, here are the restaurants and dishes our food critics highly recommend trying.
- Taj Palace — Chicken 65. This spicy Indian chicken is marinated in yogurt and spices, then fried, and this version in particular hurts so good. It’s tossed in a spicy chili garlic sauce that is savory and not too hot.
- Waldo Thai Place — Pam’s Special. This traditional Northern Thai dish created by chef/owner Pam Liberda features ground pork and calamari sautéed with garlic, serrano peppers, bell peppers, dried Thai chili and Thai basil, served with jasmine rice. But be warned: Liberda cooks it the way she would eat it and that means spicy. No “choose your own adventure” heat scale here.
- Mesob Restaurant & Rhum Bar — jerk ribs, doro tibs, rum. On the Caribbean menu here, I recommend the smoked St. Louis spare ribs with jerk rum sauce, spiced cabbage slaw, and Parmesan steak fries. The heat really builds, courtesy of the jerk spice rub. For a spicy Ethiopian dish, try the doro tibs featuring cubed chicken breast sautéed in a blend of house spices, onions, jalapenos, tomatoes and clarified herb butter. The key to this dish is the house Ethiopian spice made from chili peppers, coriander, garlic, ginger, basil and cumin.
- Kobi Q — spicy BBQ + rice cakes, bi bim bap, tonkatsu cutlet. Here, Korean street food favorites mingle with popular dishes, but get the spicy BBQ + rice cakes for a true taste of Korean spice. The small gnocchi-sized, soft yet chewy rice cakes are tossed with house-made Korean red chili pepper paste and grilled pork or squid. The slight sweetness of the sauce paired with the punch of the chilies makes for a well balanced flavor.
- Sichuan Dynasty — ma po tofu. Featuring silky tofu, ground pork and chopped scallions for texture and flavor, this classic Chinese dish from the Sichuan province has hundreds of variations around the globe. The secret to its tongue numbing fire is Sichuan black peppercorns and chili bean paste.
- Spices Asian — som tom papaya salad. This green papaya salad comes in two different versions: Thai style and Lao style. Both are great and feature tomatoes, lime juice, sugar, Thai bird eye chili and fish sauce. The Thai version also includes dried shrimp and peanuts, while the Lao version utilizes fermented crab paste to give it a deeper, funkier flavor.
- Carniceria y Tortilleria San Antonio — tacos. I love getting the tacos here in part because of the salsa. In addition to great flavors, there’s a wide range in spiciness.
- Kin Lin — mopo tofu, hot & sour soup. At Chinese restaurants like this, Szechuan dishes like mopo tofu tend to get their spice from chili peppers. But sometimes, Szechuan dishes rely on the numbing mala flavor of Szechuan peppercorns. The fantastic hot & sour soup here derives its spiciness from cracked black and white peppercorns.
- Bo Lings — build your own stir-fried dish. The star of the show here are the three spicy sauces you can add to your stir fry. In addition to Szechuan peppercorn, there’s sweet and spicy yu xiang sauce made of sugar and chili and sha cha, a thick paste made of garlic, oil, chilis and dried seafood.
- Vietnam Café — pho. One of the things I love most about this Vietnamese noodle soup with meat broth is the sweet fragrance of star anise and the pile of fresh herbs involved like Thai basil and cilantro.
Jenny Vergara and Bonjwing Lee joined Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR’s Up To Date.