There’s a weird subculture out there full of diners who aren’t satisfied if their meal doesn’t bite back. A dash or two of Tabasco is akin to ketchup to these folks. A habanero pepper is a perfectly reasonable salad topping. And if their burrito doesn’t have a fiery, Mace-like quality to it, they can’t taste it at all.
I am not one of these diners.
Granted, I make sure to keep a bottle or two of Sriracha and Crystal hot sauce in my fridge, and I’m a firm believer that the only cure for a hangover is a spicy plate of green chile, but I’ve never been one to eat for sport. Maybe I’m a wimp, but if I’m reaching for a glass of water every few seconds, or girding myself for that next bite, I won’t fondly remember that meal.
August 19 is celebrated as Hot & Spicy Food Day in some circles. When an email about this holiday landed in my inbox last month, I decided I’d celebrate by trying Aurora’s hottest food.
It’s hard to imagine a better city for people who either like to burn away their stomach lining, or for people like me who don’t, but are dumb enough to try. The city’s ethnic dining scene is jammed with Thai, Indian, Mexican and a smattering of other cuisines where spiciness is a main ingredient.
Tops on that list of spicy food in Aurora is Thai. When spicy-food aficionados talk about the meals that really burned them up, their conversations often wind toward Thai food. There is hot, then there is “Thai hot,” a sort of beyond-the-range of normal dining style of spice that scalds the palette.
With that in mind, I pulled up to Thai Street Food. Utumporn Killoran, known to the regulars as Anna, runs the small Thai restaurant on East Montview Boulevard, just west of Peoria Street. Her menu has several levels of spicy, starting with “no spice,” growing to “baby spice” and finally building up to “FIRE.” That’s the Thai spice, and it’s so hot, Anna is always sure to give customers who order it a sort of “are-you-tough-enough” line of questioning before she serves it.
I explained what I was looking for, and Anna agreed to serve up some of her spiciest sauce on a heaping plate of drunken noodles with chicken, chuckling at the foolishness of an admitted spicy-food novice ordering something so face-meltingly hot.
Next to her cash register Anna has posted a lengthy list of behaviors that aren’t allowed in her restaurant. There’s no sitting on the floor, no being rude to the employees, no running, etc. No. 10 on that list is “No crying.” I asked Anna if I’d get the boot when she caught me weeping a few bites into my drunken noodles.
“Just sit down and cry by yourself,” she laughed. “That’s fine.”
When the steaming plate of noodles hit my table, it seemed to radiate spiciness. Maybe that was just my nerves convincing me it was a plate of lava-soaked noodles. But there were countless little pepper seeds dotting the noodles and chicken, clinging to the meat with a pasty red sauce. The seeds, I knew, were likely the spiciest part of the dish and there had to be hundreds of them on the plate, enough that every bite, no matter how I tried to pick around them, would scorch my mouth.
I’ve smelled spicy food before, but the scent rising from Thai Street Food’s noodles was different, it had a whiff of fresh, green vegetables that didn’t fit with the pinkish sauce.
I scooped up a first bite and nervously blew on it over and over, as if I could chip away at the spiciness with a few breaths. Finally, without taking a bite, I put the fork down and jotted down a few notes, worried that I wouldn’t be able to think, let alone write once I took a bite.
I finally took a bite and my mouth buzzed. “More tingly than hot,” I thought, picturing Harry Dunne and Lloyd Christmas blasting their mouths with ketchup and mustard.
It took a few seconds, but eventually the spice spread to every corner of my mouth. Even my teeth hurt. The bottom of my ears started to ring and I could feel the blood rushing toward the top of my balding head.
I expected the spiciness to plateau after a bite or two, but it didn’t. Each bite made the pain dramatically worse. Our photographer asked me a few questions but I couldn’t think straight enough to answer. Besides, I was drooling so much that if I tried to talk, I wouldn’t have made much sense.
Between bites I couldn’t stop tapping my feet, nervously rubbing my leg and knocking on the table. At one point I had to stand up, my hands on my hips as I tried to think about something other than the excruciating pain from those damn noodles.
“Eat slow, and then you’ll be fine,” the waitress said as she set down a plate of Thai coconut jelly. She also said she never orders dishes that spicy, though, so I’m not sure how useful the advice was.
That coconut jelly proved to be a godsend. A few hunks of that between bites of noodles cooled the spice enough for me to keep going. The cool, sweet jelly acted as an antidote, coating my mouth with a calming coconut flavor. But it also made me a bit cocky. The jelly worked so well that I assumed I could scarf down a few bites and be able to easily tackle several bites of the noodles quickly after. I was wrong. Several bites in quick succession seemed to roast away that cooling film of coconut jelly, making me desperately want to break rule No. 10.
After a few more bites, I was done, having hardly put a dent in the massive plate of noodles.
It was without a doubt the spiciest food I’ve ever tried, but it was strangely satisfying. I was expecting food that was just spicy, and in a way that completely overpowered the other ingredients. This didn’t. Sure, the spice felt like I bit the business end of torch, but I could see myself ordering it again, under the right circumstances, but I don’t think I’ll make a habit out of dining as self-flagellation.
Not for the faint. Not really for people either. The ghost chili is the hottest in the world.
Exceptionaly hot and used more than the Ghost, Habaneros can be found at most markets.
Not as hot as the Habanero, Thai chilis are frequent ingredients in Asian food.
Depending on the seeds and ribs, jalapenos can be mild to medium hot.