Spring Guide: A Tongue-Torching Tour of Town
We've endured a historic winter—earlier, longer, snowier, and more frigid than any in recent memory. How to emerge from winter becomes our culinary assignment. Last year, we advised you to reduce your intake of meat and fat and concentrate on salads. This year, let's just eat lots of hot, spicy food to melt the deep freeze of our souls.
But eating spicy doesn't mean you have to eschew vegetarianism. The mysore masala dosa at Jersey City's Sapthagiri (804 Newark Avenue, New Jersey, 201-533-8400) ("Seven Hills") is one of the hottest things I've eaten lately: a thin, crisp pancake coated on the inside with a scarlet masala, then rolled around a cooling mixture of potatoes and cashews. This $6.99 dosa is big enough for three or four to share. And if that's not enough hot for you, request the caddy of three red chutneys and the spice powder called malaga podi.
Also in an Indian vein (in this case, Anglo-Indian), Brick Lane Curry House (306-308 East 6th Street, 212-979-8787) is named after a London thoroughfare famous for its South Asian restaurants. The curry house proudly trumpets the hotness of its offerings, most especially phaal, which the menu describes as "an excruciatingly hot curry, more pain and sweat than flavor." In fact, if one diner finishes the whole thing, she gets a free beer. But who goes to an Indian restaurant and doesn't share their dishes?
Certain regional cuisines of China give Indian food a run for its money, heat-wise. Lately, the city has been blessed with a plethora of Sichuan restaurants, often in neighborhoods where you wouldn't have expected them. Despite the wonky spelling, Szechuan Gourmet (242 West 56th Street, 212-265-2226) has distinguished itself in reproducing relatively authentic versions of Sichuan specialties, and "spicy" here includes the added incendiary fillip of numbing Sichuan pepper-corns, in addition to green chilies, crushed cayenne, and bright red chile oil. Named after a famous Chengdu street food vendor, the ma po bean curd at the new 56th Street branch is wobbly, beany, and incredibly hot—and I've never tasted better.
Even Brooklyn now has its share of spicy Sichuan eateries—in fact, one of the best overall Chinese restaurants in town is Bensonhurst's Bamboo Pavilion (6920 18th Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-236-8088). You can warm yourself with a hot pot, or go for the sliced baby lamb with leeks and fresh red and green chilies. For vegetarians, there's a fine dish of shredded potatoes with jalapeños. The sweltering dan dan noodles represent one of the finest renditions in town. Make sure to request that your food be made spicy-hot when you order.
In China, incendiary food is certainly not restricted to Sichuan. Indeed, the new crop of Dongbei restaurants from the northeastern verge of the country currently debuting in Flushing are just about as hot as Chinese food gets. If you relish the confluence of spicy food and organ meats, you can really go to town at Northeast Taste Chinese Food (43-18 Main Street, Flushing, Queens, 718-539-3061), where you can down such delicacies as hot and spicy pig intestines, lamb kidney in pepper sauce, and spicy beef tendon soup. But don't neglect the marvelously direct "stewed hot pepper," which is, quite simply, a passel of long green chilies deposited in an agreeable brown gravy.
Certain long-established American foods have their more tongue-destroying evocations. Remember that the fabled Chicago red-hot comes with tiny, potent "sport peppers" intended to sear the mouth, among the clash of diverse flavors. Here in New York, we have a weenie called the "spicy redneck" at Crif Dogs (113 St. Marks Place, 212-614-2728), which features a frank wrapped in bacon, then heaped with chili con carne and fresh jalapeños. Yee-haaah!
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Korean franchise New York Hotdog & Coffee (245 Bleecker Street, 917-388-3742) offers a dog boasting both bulgogi and fermented kimchee as its twin toppings, and if you need two dogs to make a meal, you might also try the Texan, which features chili, pepper jack cheese, jalapeños, and—crushed potato chips?
Speaking of Korean, there are so many chances to eat hot food in Manhattan's Koreatown and in Flushing that I can scarcely pick just one or two. Before you've even ordered at a Korean eatery, in fly a whole host of pan chan, little dishes that include various kinds of kimchee and related fare, some of it featuring raw skate and raw beef. My longtime fave in Koreatown is NY Kom Tang Soot Bul Kal Bi (32 West 32nd Street, 212-947-8482), where the selection of pan chan is particularly fine, but if that's not enough heat for you, try the pancakes called jeon, which can be filled with either kimchee or jalapeños, or one of the chingols—soups sporting an explosive red broth, available in four permutations.
In Flushing, Book Chang Dong (46-09 Kissena Boulevard, Queens, 718-961-2618) fabricates its own tofu, then uses the imperially soft curd as a jumping-off point for all sorts of Korean stews known collectively as soondubu. Have the homemade quaking curd in a kimchee broth, with pork or eggs, or in any of a dozen other configurations, many of them very hot and some of them vegetarian.
You didn't think I was going to neglect Mexican, did you? Hell, no! The mountain-dwelling south Pueblans who constitute some of our most adept taqueria owners have plenty of surprises for you from their state cuisine and that of Guerrero to the west. One fiery Pueblan favorite is tinga, a thick stew of chicken and chipotle peppers that's a frequent special at grocery-turned-café Tulcingo Del Valle (665 Tenth Avenue, 212-262-5510), or go for the mole poblano enchiladas or the flaming-hot soup called chilate de pollo.
For a version of tinga slightly more restrained but still mega-delicious, zoom into La Superior (295 Berry Street, Brooklyn, 718-388-5988), Williamsburg's favorite Mexican restaurant. Once again, ask for it hot.
We've saved the hottest for last—Thai food. Somehow, those tiny pickled bird chilies pack more heat into a small space than even Scotch bonnets. At Chao Thai (85-03 Whitney Avenue, Queens, 718-424-4999)—a Siamese café every bit as good as Sripraphai—the jungle curry is as spicy as Brick Lane's phaal. Bring a carload of friends, and eat it with plenty of rice.
There are plenty more spicy cuisines we've neglected, including Jamaican, Peruvian, West African, Malaysian, and Canadian (just kidding!). We'll save those for next spring.
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