The Search for Denver's Spiciest Dishes
I'll just go ahead and say it: the whiter the people, the blander the food. Nowhere is that adage more apparent than in Denver. And although we have our merits -- you can't throw a stone without hitting a brewery -- we've definitely established a reputation as a town that lacks ethnic (and therefore culinary) diversity.
It’s true that, with the exception of our beloved green chile, the dining scene here was pretty much built on meat and potatoes. But that’s been changing for some time now. My question is, by how much? Enough to prove this city finally has an international-food scene worth exploring? I decided to find out, and my mission was clear: I’d set out to find spiciest dishes around town.
Here’s to brass balls, nerves of steel, and an iron stomach...
The boring and the neutralThere were some places I didn’t even bother to look -- in most Latin American restaurants, for instance. That may sound crazy considering South America’s the birthplace of the Capsicum genus (to use the scientific name for chile peppers), but the fact of the matter is they tend to play a supporting role in the continent’s food, appearing mainly as accents in salsas and other condiments. Peruvian cuisine’s the only exception, and a mild one at that. And the same goes for Central America. Don’t believe me? Here’s a regular lunch special at Los Parceros Restaurante, a Colombian kitchen on East Colfax.
It’s no knock on Denver or its (admittedly small) cadre of Salvadoran, Venezuelan, Brazilian, and Argentine cooks to dismiss them out of hand -- it’s just the nature of their tradition. The dishes just aren't that spicy.
In fact, I didn’t even sweat too much, literally or figuratively, over Mexican food. Don’t get me wrong: the array of chiles and their uses across Mexico are staggering. But they’re more likely to contribute complexity and piquant contrast than downright hellfire. Think about it: how many of your favorite Mexican dishes are spicy without the addition of salsa? Just in case, I tested a few dishes known for their destructive potential along the way, including El Valle’s birria de chivo -- or goat stew -- and the ceviche-esque aguachile at Torres Mexican Food. Que rico? Sí. Killer? No.
But other cuisines that I counted on to slice through me with spice didn’t even come close. Take my foray into what little Caribbean food we’ve got.
Considering the West Indies grow some of the world’s most incendiary peppers, including the Trinidad scorpion and the Scotch bonnet, I harbored high hopes for bursting into flames over the island fare. But Jamaican Grill’s curry goat, while delicious and rich, gave off little more heat than pot roast in gravy. And if the chicken I had at Caribbean Bakery and Catering was jerk, it was the most laid-back, pleasant jerk imaginable, causing little more than a tingling sensation on my lips and tongue that just sort of hung around like a guest that was teetering on overstaying its welcome.
So I moved on to the kitchens specializing in China's most famously fiery regional cuisine, Sichuan. My first stop was China Jade in Aurora, where in the past I’d survived the electric shocks of its dry-fried green beans and ma po tofu. But the preserved pepper fish that sounded so promising petered out on me. So did the boiled fish slices I had to order from Golden’s New Peach Garden a day in advance. When traditionally prepared with a pile of dried chiles, the dish is as notoriously brutal as its name is innocuous, so by the time the owners delivered it with worried expressions and strict serving instructions, I thought surely it would have me in tears within a few bites. It didn't.
While aromatic and filled with numbing Sichuan peppercorns and herbs, the broth was no more than zesty. At Yum Yum Spice, a purveyor of Sichuan dry hot pot near DU, I hardly broke a sweat wolfing down the contents of a sizzling wok loaded with lamb, potatoes, sliced lotus root, bean sprouts, and other veggies, plus more peppercorns but precious few chiles.
That’s not to say Denver’s regional Chinese-food game sucks. In fact, it keeps improving. But you can’t blame Sino-American cooks for their reluctance -- after decades of being practically forced to serve nothing but pupu platters and beef with broccoli while enduring jokes about dog meat -- to cook for Anglos the way they cook for themselves.
Despite my wearisome disappointment, I wasn’t ready to wave my #DenverSoWhite flag just yet.
The betterAfter all, there's one thing that I knew Denver’s primarily white population stats don’t show: our surprising range of African cuisines. I could take you for Sudanese fatta fool, Nigerian chin chin, South African biltong, Moroccan b’stilla, and Somalian spaghetti with a goddamn banana on the side all in one day. Want more? I'll show you the brand-new AfrikMall with a fledgling food court that includes Ivorian and Congolese vendors and direct you (again) to the Ghanian-run African Grill & Bar where a blistering condiment called shito is requisite on a number of dishes. And I can point you straight towards an Ethiopian community whose cooks don’t skimp on berbere and mitmita -- a red-pepper-based spice mixture essential to their platters.
And because that mixture is pretty standard from restaurant to restaurant, I won't lie about what invariably brought me to Axum: the full bar. Just a little liquid courage helped me handle the red-blooded attack of kitfo -- think beef tartare-meets-sloppy joe mix -- as it flying scissor kicked the back of my throat like Kurt Sloane seeking vengeance for his murdered brother. The lamb stew called awaze tibs did the trick too, its warmth building as slowly as the fire under the proverbial boiling frog, which in this scenario happened to be my mouth.
However, the effect wore off as quickly as it took. But at least I was finally getting fired up after a little reassurance that not everyone in this town’s so quick to dumb (and numb) it down.
Encouraged, I made my way to Aurora’s Koreatown. Granted, Koreans couldn’t dumb down their food if they tried -- it’s nothing if not fundamentally pungent. Omit the garlic, the fish sauce, the fermented soybeans, the vinegar, and so on (never mind the chiles), and there’s little left but beef and cabbage, at which point you're probably better off heading to the nearest Irish pub. So now that we’ve established that it’s hard to go wrong at a Korean restaurant, the question is: how far you want to go right? Up for clearing your sinuses? Besides Dae Gee’s tofu with kimchi and the ddeokbokki at Funny Plus, you might try golbaengi at Aurora’s Seoul Korean BBQ and Sushi: the cold dish of sliced snails in a gochujang-based sauce reminded me of shrimp cocktail... if shrimp cocktail were chewy and also spicy enough to make me sweat from pores I didn’t know I had. Now we're getting somewhere.
The scorchingly insaneIf you're up for totally annihilating your sinuses, a couple of doors down from Seoul, there’s a little place called Yong Gung that makes two versions of the seafood soup known as jjam bong. You want the one called “dynamite jjam bong.”
If it looks like a shellfish bloodbath, that’s no coincidence. Halfway through my own bowl, I’d been knocked so senseless by its viciousness that I was broth-spattered, gasping for what felt like my last breath, and literally bloodied, having punctured my thumb on a crab claw in the chaos. But I was also elated by the smoky, salty, umami punishment, softened just enough by plump, sweet shellfish and slurpable noodles -- and ready for more. Particularly, Indian food.
From tandoori kebabs to saag paneer, what most of us stateside grew up thinking was Indian food actually represents only a slice of the subcontinental pie, primarily to the north and west. It’s the increasingly available food of the south, however, that will melt your face off like Toht’s in Raiders. Take the Andhra Pradesh-style goat pepper fry I tried at Paradise Biryani Pointe in Greenwood Village. The deep, dark, tender, bone-in chunks of goat meat came coated in a gravy that tasted as fierce as it looked, reminiscent of cumin, cinnamon, turmeric and enough pepper -- red and black -- to seep immediately through my tongue and keep on going all the way down my gut, where it clawed me to shreds for a few hours. What joyful abuse it was.
That said, it had nothing on phall.
Like chicken tikka masala, phall’s a British-Indian invention. Unlike chicken tikka masala, it will blow the roof off your mouth. On the menu at India Tavern in the DTC, it’s listed with a warning that you have to verbally agree not to sue for damages before they’ll serve it to you. As it turns out, I wasn’t forced to voice a waiver; I was, however, forced to voice agony while basically committing arson to my insides with every incinerating bite. Forget flavor; the focal point here was the endorphin rush it provided -- the feeling that I couldn’t stop eating it, because when the adrenaline slowed, the horror of my self-inflicted crime would fully sink in. Which is delicious in itself.
The same goes for ordering “Thai hot.” US Thai in Edgewater has a long reputation for obliging the request, but my server admitted when I asked that the concept is somewhat gimmicky. In Thailand, balance among contrasting flavors -- spicy, sweet, sour, bitter -- generally trumps heat for heat’s sake. She also suggested, with a disconcertingly nervous laugh, that I stick with plain old “hot.” But I was in it to win it, so Thai hot green curry it was.
Oh shit. What had I done? Seeds swarmed that bowl like gnats. I put a scant tablespoonful on a huge scoop of rice and took my first bite; the scorching sensation spread instantaneously like a wildfire through a forest stricken by drought. After another few bites, I was piling up napkins to mop my forehead and blow my nose. A few more and my gut started flinching from the blows, clenching in a promise to win round two of this battle. True, through it all, I could still detect the smoky bittersweetness coating the chunks of tofu, eggplant, green beans, and other veggies; it didn’t entirely lack for nuance. I just couldn’t appreciate it -- I was too busy appreciating how miserable I was.
And that, friends, goes to show this town's not just white bread, meat, and potatoes. We've got a whole world of cooks out there -- all you have to do is accept their challenge to your tastebuds. (Just be prepared to destroy a few in the process.)
So what'd I miss? Sound off in the comments section with your recommendations (as though I even have to ask).
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Ruth Tobias has taken more Altoids and Tums in the past few weeks than you ever have in your life. Find out where she's saying FU to good breath and digestion now @Denveater.