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Charlie Hatton
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Ordered Spice is Twice as Nice

If you’re anything like me, you like your food spicy.

And if you’re everything like me, then you’ve tried sucking the seeds out of a live jalepeno, to see just how intense the heat would be.

(The answer: Pretty intense. I’ve never felt the lining of my esophagus recoil in horror before. I remember it tickling a little before I passed out on the kitchen floor.)

In my personal quest for tasty and sweat-inducing goodies, I’ve learned a few things about ordering spicy food in restaurants. The optimal strategy changes drastically depending on the style of cuisine, the specific restaurant, and the skill and disposition of the chef. Still, there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. For instance:

Never order ‘as hot as possible’ at an Indian restaurant

Of course, this doesn’t apply to those of you with a heritage tied to India or the subcontinental neighborhood. You likely have the super secret gene that allows you to metabolize boiling hot lava into edible food. The rest of us, though, require a bit of caution.

“The most danger you could get in with hot sauce around there was to squirt tabasco into your eye or mainline Arby’s ‘horsey sauce into an artery. They don’t exactly ‘kick it up a notch’ around those parts.”

I used to think I could handle any level of heat in a dish. If it was legal to serve and not physically on fire, I believed I could handle it. But remember — this attitude was coming from a naive, white-bread, scrawny American kid in the blad, boring, meat-‘n’-potatoes middle of the country. The most danger you could get in with hot sauce around there was to squirt tabasco into your eye or mainline Arby’s ‘horsey sauce into an artery. They don’t exactly ‘kick it up a notch’ around those parts.

So you can imagine my surprise when I attended my first reasonably authentic Indian joint, and said, ‘Give me about an 8-out-of-10 heat, for starters‘. It was an intense and exquisite pain, as a world of culinary possibilities — and every pore in my entire body — opened up before me. If I’d asked for the ’10’ that first time, I might have spontaneously combusted on the spot. I hear that’s where a lot of these joints get their ashes for the tandoori clay ovens. Disintegrated Midwestern tourists. You could look it up.

Always trust the salsa at a Mexican joint

The beautiful thing about Mexican, Tex-Mex, and many South American eateries is that they actually give you valuable information with the pre-appetizer munchies. Not so with other restaurants. There, the server shoves warm bread and baskets of buns at you, trying to fill you up with starch before the good stuff comes. That’s not nice — nor does it show any mad kitchen skills. So you can brown a dinner roll, or bake up a breadstick.

Big. Fucking. Deal. Get thee to an Olive Garden, rookie. The big hombres are talking now.

Because at a Mexican restaurante, they bring you tortilla chips, and a bowl of salsa. And that little pot of chunky red gold tells you everything you need to know about the place. If it’s some watery bland bunch of tomato piss, then you know what you’re in for — Taco Bell-style faux fajitas, at fourteen times the price. Somebody’s got to pay for those sombreros on the wall, and it looks like it’s going to be you, gringo.

If, however, the salsa’s got some bite, some body, and some zing, then you’ve chosen your dinner site wisely. Order up the spicy fish tacos or enchiladas del fuego with confidence. If your hosts aren’t slopping some bullshit Olde El Paso crap on the table for starters, they won’t slap it on your tamales, either. Get in there and get caliente, ese.

Wasabi is a different beast altogether

There are (at least) two common sorts of edible spicy heat out there. The more common of the two, found in Indian, Korean, Spanish, Mexican, Thai, and many other cuisines, is what you might call ‘pepper heat’. Most peppers grow on plants or vines low to the ground, and their heat is usually straightforward. If you were to eat, say, a peck of jalepenos, or gobble down a fistful of habaneros, you’d likely feel three distinct sensations where the pepper oil leaves its trail.

First, you’d find your lips affected — initially raw and inflamed, and possibly later altogether numb. There would also be considerable heat inside your mouth, especially along your tongue and the roof of the mouth approaching the throat. Finally, you’d almost certainly hear from the nerve endings along the first few inches of your esophagus, as the spicy oils slithered their way slowly down your throat, leaving red flaming carnage and death in their wake.

In my world, this is considered the ‘good’ kind of heat. That’s what we’re looking for.

The second kind of heat might be referred to as ‘horseradish heat’. This heat comes from small vegetables and plants grown close to or under the ground — and mostly in the dark, evil pits of hell itself. Heat from the radish family — including what most Asian restaurants color green and inaccurately call wasabi — works differently than the heat from a pepper, in a very fundamental way.

‘Pepper heat’ is delivered by oil, and its effects are contact-based. Whatever it touches, it will probably cause pain. Like boiling water, or gasoline, or bankrupt in-laws. ‘Horseradish heat’, on the other hand, is delivered by airborne particles, much like noxious fumes. Instead of slithering predictably down your throat, they rise up into your nose and eyes. If ‘pepper heat’ can be like slugging a shot of napalm, then ‘horseradish heat’ is like deepthroating a bug bomb. Your nostrils check in, but they won’t check out.

To be fair, I mostly have a grudge against horseradish because I didn’t know the distinction, and pasted up a piece of sushi with ‘wasabi’ like I was frosting a birthday cake. When I came to, I didn’t remember much about the experience, but I’m told my breath was ‘spicy fresh’ for weeks afterward. Also, I peed green the next day. Bright, shiny, hurty green. When the hot food comes after my peepee, I say, ‘Enough!

Push ’em hard at the chain restaurants

It’s simple demographics, really. The Red Lobsters and TGI Fridays of the world serve millions of people across the country and beyond. Why they’re so popular, I don’t know. Apparently, nuking a box of Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, or tossing some cheddar on a plate of stale Tostitos is too much work for your average family of schlubs to do at home, so they pay Joe Pencilneck and his flair-wearing crew of pimple farmers to do it for them. That’s all I can figure.

Still, there’s the occasional set of unfortunate circumstances when a pepperophile will find him- or herself stuck in a chair, surrounded by grinning hostesses, safe sterile menu fare, and annoying shitloads of schtick on the walls. What’s a spice hound to do when that happens?

Give them the business.

Don’t leave your order at: ‘Oh, and could you make my nachos spicy?‘ Because they can’t. Or at least, they won’t, if you put it like that. Because for every serious request they get to kick it up a few dozen notches, there are umpteen dozen Grandpa McGeezers out there who say the exact same thing, when all they want is a whisper of cilantro added. Anything more, and they’d light their damned gums on fire, and have to dip their dentures in the sundae bar to recover.

So, if you want heat, ask for heat. Tell the waitdork you want yours spicy. Then look ’em in the eye, and say you mean it. Spicy. When they turn to leave, ask again. You got it? Spi. Cee. Si? Tell ’em tabasco’s for gargling. Tell ’em if your food’s not hot enough, you’ll be giving them a Frank’s Red Hot enema, free of charge. Tell ’em to tell the chef you slept with his sister, and she wasn’t nearly as good as the bums at the bus stop would have you to believe. Seriously. If you want spicy in those joints, you’ve got to work for it.

Just don’t be surprised if your dish is laced with dirt, spit, bacon grease, hair gel, dishwashing soap, toothpaste, ass sweat, or motor oil. Or worse. Just forget what it tastes like, pay no mind to who might be contracting what from who’s bodily excretions, and feel secure in the fact that your meal is the first that ratty craphole has served with any sort of spice, ever.

And then see your doctor, to get your shots. Lots and lots of shots. We can’t have you sick when we hit the bar tomorrow night for the ‘atomic assbuster’ hot wing-fest tomorrow night, now, can we? Perk up, pumpkin — there’s spice on the table.

Permalink  |  1 Comment

One Response to “Ordered Spice is Twice as Nice”

  1. Very true!

    I love hot things as well. The hotter and spicier, the better.

    Habaneros are wonderful and amazing things. (My esophagus forgives me eventually.)

    Thanks for writing such a true and hilarious post. Love the blog!

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