Spice addicts are a strange species, celebrating a food’s ability to cause pain while chasing an endorphin rush that’s accompanied only by sweat, tears, and colon spasms. When talking about their meals, hotheads sound more like marathoners than gourmands.
They have a harder time of it here than in cities closer to Mexico and the Caribbean, since most Seattle restaurants’ take on “very spicy” would qualify as nursing-home dinners in Houston or Miami. Nevertheless, there are tongue-stunners about for you culinary masochists.
Here are the top five spiciest dishes in town, along with a couple of honorable mentions. (Every Wednesday on Voracious, the Weekly‘s food blog—seattleweekly.com/voracious—we post a new Top 5.) If you eat all five in one day, send a copy of your gastroenterologist’s bill to Seattle Weekly, and we’ll be happy to post it on the blog.
Runners-Up: a) Man sauce. Holy Smoke stand, Safeco Field, and Dixie’s BBQ, 11522 Northup Way, Bellevue, 425-828-2460.
As the stand’s sign says, “Have you met The Man?” Well, why does being a man involve doubling over in cramps after tearing into smoky animal flesh? Why can’t being a man involve hugging and cupcakes?
b) Mama Lil’s Kickbutt Peppers, available in stores all over town.
What? Good ol’ Mama Lil’s pickled goathorn peppers, you say? Too spicy? If you mound the hot ones on your sandwiches the way I do, I can assure you: The pain is almost hallucinatory.
5. Spicy Broccoli (5 stars). Thai Tom, 4543 University Way N.E., 548-9548.
As in most Thai restaurants in the area, when you order at this beloved Ave. restaurant, you specify the spice level you want, on a scale of one to five. Thai Tom’s five-star food has been punishing daredevils for years now, and thousands of students have figured out that the post-sweat rush rivals D-grade Ecstasy. The most alarming thing about five-star spicy broccoli is that it’s served directly over rice—not bland rice to recover from the pain, but grains saturated in chile-spiked sauce, making it the most incendiary part of the meal.
4. Habanero sauce. Tie: Kalaloo, 3820 S. Ferdinand St., 760-7766; and Pam’s Kitchen, 5000 University Way N.E., 696-7010.
Both of these Trinidadian restaurants serve a tiny bowl of yellow purée on the side with dishes like oxtail stew, goat curry, and beef roti. While red is usually the danger color most of us associate with capsaicin fire, the yellow Scotch bonnet pepper (habanero) used in this sauce is one of the hottest chiles on the Scoville heat scale—and here it’s undiluted, puréed only with a little vinegar. You measure the sauce by drops, and notice the appeal of the chile’s waxy, fruity flavor a half-second before the pain sets in. It’s like walking outside in the dead of winter and reveling in the crisp smell of the air before the searing cold causes all the muscles in your face to seize up.
3. Spicy broth. Little Hot Pot, 15920 N.E. Eighth St., Bellevue, 425-562-8118.
Whereas most of the other dishes on this list take their fire from hot peppers, chiles aren’t the only portal to hell. In fact, I dare say this broth—one of two broths available at the Mongolian hot pot chain—is more dangerous than the bright-red Szechuan hot pot from Szechuan Chef or Seven Stars Pepper. The heat in Little Hot Pot’s broth comes from a combination of bright-red chile oil and other peppers (unnamed, but probably black and long peppercorns). The spice scale is 1 to 10; order above a 5 and even hotheads will cough and wheeze as the peppers rasp their tonsils and upper trachea. It’s all in the name of good health, the waitress will tell you, promising no gastric distress afterward. (She’s almost telling the truth.)
2. Swimming Fire Fish. Bamboo Garden, 202 106th Pl. N.E., Bellevue, 425-688-7991, bamboogardendining.com.
Newcomer Spiced: Truly Chinese Cuisine (“Red Baiting,” SW, Sept. 16, 2009) has been drawing the crowds for Szechuan-style intestines, frog, and lamb simmered in cups of chile oil, but the food at Bellevue’s other great Szechuan restaurant is actually more nuanced. In one of Bamboo Garden’s spiciest dishes, fillets of poached fish, cabbage, and bean sprouts lurk under the surface of a giant bowl of red oil. Even once you shake off the extra drops, enough clings to the meat to fill your mouth with the buzz of Sichuan peppercorns, the hot glow of chiles, and the vivid aromas of garlic and Chinese celery. You’re not just sweating, you’re sweating and self-aromatherapizing. Think of it as an herbal sauna.
1. 7 Alarm Wing. Wing Dome, 7818 Greenwood Ave. N., 706-4036, thewingdome.com.
Wing Dome gives its customers a choice of six spice levels for its Buffalo wings, which you can order by the five-pack or the flock. Then there’s the “7 alarm” sauce. You have to order these special wings by the piece (reminding me of Chris Rock’s “just one rib” sketch in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). Nothing looks more ludicrous on a plate than a single chicken wing and a celery stick, but the joke’s on you. The tomato-based sauce is chunky with coarsely ground habanero peppers. You’ll be gulping down beer seconds after taking a bite, feeling the contours of the burn on your cheeks wherever the sauce splashed when you bit in, and wondering if the meat you just ate was chicken or phoenix immolating on its own death pyre.
On its menu, Wing Dome advertises: “Eat seven 7 Alarm Wings in seven minutes with no beverages and get a 7 Deadly Wing Challenge tee shirt and your face on the Challenge Wall!” Good luck there, cowboy.