I was a real hottie in college. Ah, those delirious semesters of spicy encounters and fiery escapades when I would smuggle my little sizzler into the frat house for a pungent bliss-tryst that got pretty blistery long before the sun came up. I still can remember the pungent aromas that wafted into my sinuses when I popped open those jugs, revealing the smoldering cabbage in its entire olfactory splendor. Once you’ve had your first fill of kimchi, you’ll always go back for more.
You see, I’m a spice junkie. While my blander beer-soaked buddies were spending their run-of-the-gin-mill nights in the dorms, my more intellectual taste buds were chili-ing out as I’d go for a night-capsaicin. Forget the dragon breath the next morning; it only put hair on my chest.
Why would I want my thrills on the hot side? Am I being sadomasochistic by insisting on getting my tongue burned every time I indulge in good food? While I don’t like to think it can all be reduced to an unromantic thing like chemistry, there is an explanation. When the tongue is burned, nerve cells release substance P (a neuropeptide chemical that sends pain signals to our gray matter) making the body produce endorphins, those pleasure-inducing peptides that act on brain cells in the same way that morphine does. So you do feel good.
The heat of any chili comes from the oil called capsaicin, which is found mostly in the seeds and “ribs” of the peppers. Capsaicin acts on the same nerves found in the tongue and on the skin that give us the sensation of heat. They too release substance P into the blood, which signals the brain that you’re eating something hot. As anyone who’s popped a hot pepper into his mouth will attest, drinking water won’t help; that’s because capsaicin is not soluble in water. It’s like trying to wash away grease by pouring a bucket of water on it. Most spice aficionados say that you gotta put out the fire with a fatty substance, so drink milk, or eat yogurt, or even peanut butter.
Remember this advice, because you’ll surely need it as you visit any of the following Westchester hot spots—those eating places that walk on the wild, fiery side. The closest I’ve come to those halcyon days of youth (when I was imbibing kimchi and spoiling myself with the whole L.A. Koreatown experience) has been at Yonkers-based Kang Su (2375 Central Ave, 914-771-4066). Not only is the kimchi crisp and crunchy, but you can revel in the grill-your-own spicy barbeque pork, wrapped in cool lettuce, and stuffed with shreds of pickled cabbage, optional anchovies, fresh green jalapeño, and whole garlic cloves (not good for a first date unless your main squeeze is also a spice-o-holic.) Equally delicious is the cold-busting yook gae jang, a freshly shredded beef soup with scallions and mushrooms, all in an incredibly spicy beef broth that will make you feel like you’re snorting pepper and chile. (Tip: this dish normally is served with white rice, but you should request the secret special brown rice, a nutty flavored, fiber-rich rice that’s chock full of beans and grains. This obscure treat, left off the restaurant’s menu, has a superb grainy texture that will make any other ordinary brown rice look like it hasn’t passed its physical.)
Now if I could find even one Sichuan Chinese restaurant in Westchester, this article would be twice as long, so I’ll settle for my favorite Cantonese: Aberdeen Seafood & Dim Sum, that little gem in White Plains (3 Barker Ave, 914-288-0188). To my knowledge, salt and pepper is about as spicy as it gets in Cantonese, so it’s no coincidence that my favorite dish here is the perfectly crisp yet tender salt-and-peppered fried shrimp. If you stroll across the street into the mini-mall, Kam Sen Foods LLC (22 Barker Ave, White Plains, 914-428-4500), located beneath the DMV, whips up a fierce rack of spare ribs in a mild chili sauce—or, better yet, traipse the aisles of this market and you will find a treasure trove of trinkets for your spice rack from Thai sriracha chili sauce to Sambak Badjak chili paste. (I once spent an entire summer devoted to randomly purchasing unfamiliar ingredients and then entering them online into my PC’s “Cookin’ with Google” feature. I’ve accidentally stumbled upon the most mouthwatering recipes this way.)
The pahd drunken from New Rochelle’s Red Lotus Thai Restaurant (227 Main St, 914-576-0444; redlotusthairestaurant.com), served with your choice of chicken, scallions, or shrimp and loaded with string beans and basil, is red-hot and damn spicy— without having to ask the waiter to pour on the hot stuff. Fiery and fragrant, this dish had me drenched, if not drunken, with sweat dripping from my brow and tears of love running down my cheeks. Pain is glor-ious when it’s so utterly delicious. I would suggest ordering it extra spicy if you think you can handle it—or toned down if you’re a wimp. Red Lotus’s mildly spicy tom yum gai soup, with generous portions of chicken suspended in a spicy chicken broth, together with mushrooms and lemongrass, also is extraordinarily delicious.
Moving down to the Indian subcontinent, Khan’s Indian Kitchen (546 Commerce St, Thornwood, 914-747-0445), formerly known as Westchester Grocery, is a great off-the-beaten-path hole and dirt-cheap; we spent $20 for enough food to feed a maharajah’s court. With its emphasis on the Punjabi cuisine of northern India, Khan’s offers a spicy goat curry that will make your hair curl and a chicken tikka masala that’s spicier than anything you can find on Manhattan’s Sixth Street, all paired well with freshly baked $1 naan. While waiting for your food in this tiny eatery, you can feast your eyes with anticipation on a vast array of spiciness from pickled chili limes to their famous pickled relish, rarely found outside of the curry shops of England that are the new fish-and-chipperies there. Six bits will get you samosas with more kick than a linebacker. The sweat I worked up here was real monsoon-season steam.
On the other side of the county, Bengal Tiger in White Plains (140 E Post Rd, 914-948-5191; bengaltiger1.com) makes dipping sauces that kick like a water buffalo in heat. There’s the sweet tamarind sauce, and a powerfully hot yet fragrant coriander-mint concoction, both of which pair particularly well with everything from tandoori chicken to samosa. And if you’re in the mood for takeout, Ambadi (141 E Post Rd, White Plains 914-686-2014;ambadi-usa.com), across the street from Bengal, serves a wicked vegetable dosa with a suitably spicy sambar lentil sauce.
Arguably, the spiciest dish (outside of Candlelight Inn’s Chernobyl wings) is the lamb phaal at Spice Village in Tuckahoe (8 Village Ave, 914-779-5400; spicevillage.net). This red Indian curry dish has the reputation of being the spiciest form of curry, even more so than vindaloo. Legend has it that phaal is not a genuine curry, but rather a clever invention of Indian restaurant owners in Great Britain to pique the cravings of spice fiends. Packed with dried green chilis, onions, tomatoes, ginger, and tender morsels of lamb, this dish can easily be consumed on a dare if you ask the kitchen to kick it down a notch. You would have to be either exceptionally fearless or bordering on lunacy to contend with this dish in its delivered form and its modest in-house rating of “three chili peppers.”
To my seasoned taste buds, Middle Eastern food has ever ratcheted me up the spice ladder like the offerings from India, Indonesia, or Thailand. Those were the fabled Spice Islands of old—it seems as if the milder Mediterranean siroccos just don’t blow as hot. Give me stouthearted spices that want to sock the other ingredients out of the ring. In the Middle East, spices are used copiously but are less pungent. Although Afghan cuisine takes an even more measured and selective approach to spices, it has a noble cardamom-and-sweet marjoram tradition, and that’s no Kabul. If you’re an Afghan chowhound, try Bronxville’s Kraft Bistro (104 Kraft Ave, 914-337-4545; kraftbistro.com), whose lamb kabobs clearly demonstrate the region’s more selective approach to spicing up a dish. The kabobs come mouth-wateringly subtle, with hints of cardamom and cumin and a kick of spice from just a hint of secret Afghan spices. Their samosas—puff pastries filled with ground beef, spices, and yogurt chutney sauce—are mildly but brilliantly piquant, ever so subtle for those with more sensitive stomachs. Kraft makes the best Martini ever, a top-shelf concoction called the Kickin’ Kabul in which Plymouth Gin is infused seductively with crushed fresh jalapeño, muddled with raw sugar, cucumber, and a dash of garlic Tabasco. What a perfect combination of spicy and sweet to sneak up on you.
Another of my favorite Middle Eastern spots in the county is Zitoune in Larchmont (1127 W Boston Post Rd, 914-835-8350; zitounerestaurant.com), whose classic lentil tagine (only available on its winter menu) is cooked in a traditional pot with delicate lentils, spicy lamb sausage, onions, and plum tomatoes. It stews perfectly, creating just the perfect nuance of spiciness, whether you’re too tired to tango or ready to sear off the dried paint from your driveway.
Good old American food can be devilishly delicious too. Take the selections at Chat 19 (19 Chatsworth Ave, Larchmont 914-833-8871; chat19.net), to where I escape whenever I’m in the mood for chicken and spicy sausage gumbo. They also make a mean seafood jambalaya—not flamethrower-quality like you get down South, but definitely the kind that would give Mame’s mint julep a kick.
For that old workhorse chili with a mild kick to it, gently spiced with herbs and seasonings, look no further than Mount Kisco’s Ladle of Love (11B S Moger Ave, 914-242-9661; ladleoflove.com), which stocks the pot with ground beef, hot Italian sausage, and ladles full of beans. Little girls may be made of sugar and spice and everything nice, but Ladle of Love proclaims to the soup Nazis of the world that chili and spice are nicer.
If you prefer to soar to the peaks on hot wings, Scarsdale’s legendary Candlelight Inn (519 Central Ave, 914-472-9706) will put you on Cloud 99. Stick with the hot or extra-hot varieties. While I simply adore the Chernobyl wings, most people go nuclear after eating them. A bite of these suckers is the equivalent of raking out your tongue with a sickle and pounding it with a hammer, if not Khrushchev’s shoe. The Lazy Boy Saloon in White Plains (154 Mamaroneck Ave, 914-761-0272; lazyboysaloon.com) also has some awesome spicy wings, but nothing as hot as the grenade-tossing stuff Candlelight ignites.
For a hemispheric change of pace (or spice), skip down to the Caribbean via Ripe Kitchen & Bar in Mount Vernon (151 W Sandford Blvd, 914-665-7689; riperestaurant.com), which serves up a spicy curried shrimp with rice and the best jerk in the state. There is nothing more Jamaican than jerk seasoning, a staple in every household from Kingston to Mobay. Its hot habanero peppers will make you do the limbo to a steel-drum beat as you savor the Scotch bonnets of the jerk chicken with their incredible flavor and insane heat.
Spice junkies who are afraid they’ll be missing out on their hot fixes can always ask their friendly dealer—er, waiter—to have the chef kick up the dish a notch or two. Recently, while at Flames Steakhouse in Briarcliff Manor (533 N State Rd, 914-923-3100; flamessteakhouse.com), I asked for a spicier T-bone steak and they responded by gently dusting it with Cajun spices that made it taste like more than just a juicy slab of beef. You can’t get it this good at my second favorite steakhouse—the one in Brooklyn whose name I’m keeping on the DL. And then there’s Lusardi’s (1885 Palmer Ave, Larchmont, 914-834-5555; lusardislarchmont.com) where I can’t resist my hankering to order the chicken scarpariello with hot cherry peppers and a generous sprinkling of pepper flakes.
The pork chop with hot vinegar peppers at Buon Amici Italian Restaurant in White Plains (238 Central Ave, 914-997-1399; buonamicirestaurant.com) made me a sassy kid again, not just a college hottie. Its succulent, juicy steaks with a side bowl of the sweetest, tangiest juice dripping with fiery hot peppers evoked memories of Arthur Avenue years ago. There’s nothing better than dunking your Italian bread in spicy pork garlic sauce like a good Jewish boy.
Speaking of sauces, some of the best finds in the country are right here at home in Westchester, where you’ll have no trouble finding something that meets your Scoville requirements. (For you hot-spice newbies, the Scoville Scale measures the piquancy of peppers.) A sweet pepper clocks in as zero on the scale, while pepper spray is rated as two million, in case you’re on the run.) Mint Premium Foods in Tarrytown (18 Main St, 914-703-6511) makes a to-die-for extra-virgin olive oil tapenade laced with crushed aleppo, a fruity, yet mild Syrian red spice with cumin undertones traditionally used in many special Middle Eastern dishes. Mint owner Hassan Jarane uses this seductive concoction for drizzling over everything from cured meats to aged cheeses. It’s also the secret ingredient to the best-spiced rotisserie chicken in the county. Is it any wonder Mint sells out of these birds every day?
And then there’s aji. I once learned from my host while having dinner with a Peruvian baker that a table set without aji might as well be bare. This is a creamy mélange of aji peppers, lime juice, cilantro, and mayonnaise. At Pollo a La Brasa Misti Restaurant in Port Chester (110 N Main St, 914-939-9437), the roasted pollo a la brasa would be stark raving naked without it.
Not to be outdone, there’s the fiery twosome of salsa verde and salsa rojo that’s to be found in abundance at La Herradura in New Rochelle (536 Main St, 914-235-2055). Salsa verde is made with tomatillos, serrano chilis, garlic, and cilantro while its ruddier cousin is made with the fruity chile puya, tomatoes, onions, and garlic. They’re both perfect with Herradura’s carne asada tacos and even more delicious with their chile rellenos.
If you go to the Little Mexican Café (581 Main St, New Rochelle 914-636-3926) up the block, be careful not to bite into a whole guajillo chili in the camarones a la diabla, a classic spicy shrimp dish in a traditional chile de arbol mole sauce—or your ears will be ringing before you get a chance to say “parking ticket.” The chipotle chiles in the Oaxacan tamales at Sunshine Deli in White Plains (31 Lake St #A, 914-428-1722) are also a mighty force to be reckoned with, but that’s if you’re lucky to get your hands on one of these items at lunchtime, when they literally sell out like hotcakes.
And finally, for the inner hottie of every truly adventurous soul, there’s the pico de gallo popsicles at Paleteria Fernandez (33 N Main St, Port Chester 914-939-3694) just around the corner. Ben and Jerry’s, eat your cold hearts out. Here’s a frozen treat whose interesting meld of spice and garden soothe and stimulate the tongue at the same instant. Jammed with cucumber, orange, jicama, lime, chili, salt and pepper, it tastes as if someone poured homemade V8 into ice cubes. Nevertheless, I give them credit for creativity and maybe would be more open minded (and tongued) about this after a few shots of tequila. When it comes to sweets in general, I think I’ll stick with the D’agoba Organic Xocolatl chocolate bar with dark chocolate, chiles, and nibs found at Whole Foods in White Plains (100 Bloomingdale Rd, 914-288-1300; wholefoodsmarket.com). Or better yet, the spice infused sweets at Cocoa (2107 A Boston Post Rd, 914-834-6464, cocoachocolate shop.com) in Larchmont. There you will find wonderful little Mayan chocolate bon bons spiced with chili, vanilla, and cinnamon, a curious chipotle roasted-almond milk chocolate bark, or my favorite, milk chocolate coated caramels spiced with cayenne.
Chocolate has come a long way from the candy bars and chocolate milk of your childhood. When you taste these spicier concoctions, you’ll realize that a Hershey’s kiss is just a cold peck on the cheek.
Jay Muse, known for his luscious sweets at Lulu Cake Boutique in Scarsdale, reveals his spicy side.
PHOTO BY CHRIS WARE/BOWL PROVIDED BY SOHO EAST