Thursday, July 23, 2009

Some Like It Hotter

I have found out something, partly by accident but largely by design.

Few things don't taste better with some hot sauce added.

Meet me and my cast iron stomach.

It started when I was a pre-teen. In the fridge one day I found some of those Vlasic pepper rings, though likely they were of the mild variety. But to a youngster, that's quite a different taste paradigm.

I loved them---their tanginess, the vinegary aftertaste. And I thought it was cool how they made my salivary glands spritz, even when I simply opened the jar and sniffed.

I guess my story is similar to how a heroin addict would tell of how he hopped on his train.

For the mild pepper rings gave way to the "hot" pepper rings, which gave way to Tabasco sauce.

But until I went away to college, I thought hot food was pretty much limited to my pickled peppers and the hot sauce at Taco Bell, plus the fiery menu at Mexican joints.

I had no idea what awaited me.

I soon found out that "hot food" was a big part of cuisine from around the world.

I remember the epiphany.

I was working at a drug store in Ann Arbor, part-time, and one of the pharmacists sent me out for some lunch, since he couldn't leave the premises. He wanted Chinese, and there was a terrific one down the street, he said.

My experience with Chinese food, to that point, was the bland, Cantonese fare: chop suey, almond boneless chicken, etc.

But this place was different, he said.

"They've got all these spicy dishes. They're great," he told me.

What???

Turns out the place was Szechuan and Mandarin-themed. And that's when I discovered hot and spicy food, international style.

I ordered one of the entrees he recommended, and the burst of spice and heat and flavors in my mouth was so wonderful that I am literally wistful to recreate that moment as I sit here and type this.

That became one of my favorite restaurants, in a hurry.

So spicy Chinese food led me to try Indian food, which I heard was even spicier. It was. And I had another of those glorious moments, discovering something new in the hot and spicy food world.

But I was in for another thrilling discovery.

Thai food.

I remember the place: Siam Spicy (it's still very much there), on Woodward in Royal Oak, circa 1989.

I was to attend a bachelor party that night, and I had spent the day at a friend's house in town. I remember seeing the restaurant's sign on the way to his street, so I decided to check it out on my way home.

I can't remember what I ordered, but I remember my reply when the waitress asked me how spicy I wanted the food.

"Oh, extra hot," I said, chest puffed out.

She looked at me the same way you'd look at someone who just ordered a bag of nails for lunch.

In a small, polite voice, she said, "Have you eaten here before?"

No.

She all but put her order pad down and patted my hand.

But she did explain that the food there was awfully spicy and that I might want to reconsider my desire for "extra hot."

The tough guy in me---I fancied myself a veteran of spicy food by that time---initially fought her, but then I backed down, slightly. I ordered, simply, "hot", and if I recall, she still didn't think that was a very good idea.

It wasn't.

I labored and struggled and winced my way through about half that dish, my mouth on fire. I kept adding rice, but it wasn't working all that well. I had them wrap it up, hoping it would cool off in my refrigerator over night.

It didn't, not really. I think I ended up throwing some of it out because it was just too damn hot.

But I was hooked on Thai food.


Be still my heart....


I've come to know the heat ranges of some of the Thai places that I frequent, so I know that extra hot at Place A isn't dangerous, but even medium at Place B can be hazardous.

Place B, by the way, is Pi's Thai in Hazel Park, at John R and Ten Mile.

Pi, who also has a restaurant in Sterling Heights and works there nowadays, was a smiling, moon-faced guy whom I met when my future wife and I discovered his place.

It was a crisp, sunny, fall Saturday afternoon in 1991. I know the year because we were out scouting locations for our wedding reception. It was lunchtime. And we saw the sign.

"Hot and Spicy Thai Food" was painted on the side of the building, either as a warning or a beckoning.

I was foolish again, and ordered hot, even though it was my first time there. I should have known that "hot" takes on different meanings, depending on where you're eating.

I found out why Pi smiled so much. Probably got a kick out of all of us non-Thai folks who think they can stand his hot food.

I labored through that dish as well, just like during my premiere performance at Siam Spicy.

So that's my story. I put hot sauce on just about everything, sprinkle crushed red pepper on almost everything else, and even buy the "Hot and Spicy" cardboard bowls of Ramen noodles for 99 cents at the grocery store, and even then I add ground red pepper I purchased at an Asian store.

I happened upon the ridiculously hot Habanero pepper, further proof that there is a god, and ended up growing my own in the backyard.

I once bought a small bottle of something called Dave's Insanity Sauce at the Rafal Spice Co. at Eastern Market. One drop, no joke, could make an entire large bowl of chili scorching hot. Took me years to get through that two-ounce bottle.

Still dating my fiancee, who I found out with great excitement early in our courtship that she had experienced Szechuan food and liked it, I heard about a challenge issued by a restaurant in Novi.

It was called Too Chez (still there? not sure), and they offered to give you their "Orzo from Hell" dish for free if you could finish it. Orzo, for those who don't know, is a small, oval-shaped pasta, often confused for rice.

We double-dated with my colleague at work, Mickey Kent, and his wife. Mickey was a hot food freak like me. Probably still is.

So we order the dish and figure that between the two of us, we can finish it.

Well, we did, but not without a lot of sweat and beverage.

Was it worth it?

Hell, yeah!

1 comment:

  1. I bet you and Mickey are still feeling the effects of that! And that was almost 18 years ago! Notice that the women didn't try that dish? Who's smarter? LOL

    ReplyDelete

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