Perhaps you’ve heard of a restaurant on the Lower East Side turning out incredibly spicy, Sichuan-ish Chinese food to hordes of diners that huddle outside for hours at a time just waiting for a table? Mission Chinese Food might be the tongue-burning temple of the moment, but it’s hardly the only place that can blast its customers’ taste buds. There’s plenty of heat to go around in New York. Read on to see our favorite baker’s dozen of blistering plates.
Where to get it: El Atoradero
It looks like an ordinary Bronx bodega, but this crammed little shop makes up for what it lacks in seating with a truly killer Mexican lineup, prepared on a flattop griddle near the register. That includes the famous hangover-busting pancita (tripe soup): The cropped ribbons are tender and almost buttery, as though from a fatty part of the animal rather than its stomach. Squirt in extra hot sauce, and any traces of the night before melt away.
Where to get it: Famous Sichuan
Barring a trip to an actual sweat lodge or perhaps a Finnish sauna in the depths of winter, the next closest thing, therapeutically speaking, may be to hunch oneself over a steaming tureen of chili-riddled liquid and start to dip. Get the spicy broth, and as you bob in slices of meat or chunks of veggies, there’s no escaping the layer of floating dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns — don’t try. You’ll be giddy, sweating, and shouting for another round of Tsing Tao.
Habanero grapefruit margarita
Where to get it: Barrio Chino
Chilies and tequila are a natural south-of-the-border match, and they’re married particularly well in this Mexican restaurant’s spiciest quaff, made with habanero-infused tequila and red-grapefruit juice. The drink is balanced and not too sweet — take refuge in some chips if the spiciness becomes overwhelming.
Spicy big-tray chicken
Where to get it: Henan Feng Wei
The funny little Flushing shop has all the ambience of a church basement, but it’s worth it for the spicy big-tray chicken, a vast tureen of chopped chicken chunks swimming in a fat-slick broth where star anise and Sichuan peppercorns float.
Where to get it: NY Tofu House
Ignore the cheesy décor and touristy St. Marks Place location: This Korean restaurant delivers solid home-style grub. Get the soondubu (tofu stew) — this place makes its bean curd in house. Though ostensibly a soup, it’s more of a liquid-y casserole, strongly flavored with chilies, garlic, soy and fish sauces, green onions, kimchee, and a bunch of other stuff, all of which combines in a throat-searingly awesome way.
Where to get it: Szechuan Gourmet
Rumor has it the overcast skies that afflict China’s Sichuan province are partly responsible for its status as one of the world’s spiciest food regions: On a gray day, all that chili helps to clear the head, including this, the top mapo tofu in town. The puddinglike texture — melting cubes of silken tofu — is comforting and innocuous. But throw those in a mess of chili oil, leeks, ground pork, and chile paste, then toss atop this a handful of mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns, and you have something so intensely hot, you might as well have sweated through an hour of yoga class by the time you’re done.
Thelewala chicken roll
Where to get it: Thelewala
This Indian street-food shop is a must-stop anytime you’re near MacDougal Street. An order should always include a Thelewala chicken roll, ordered spicy. It isn’t knock-your-sandals-off fiery, but somehow the combination of chicken with grilled eggs, slivered red onions, lime, and chilies is balanced and just piquant enough to leave the pleasant trace of an after-burn.
Spicy fried chicken
Where to get it: Peaches Hothouse
The Nashville-style chicken at the Bed-Stuy favorite can be ordered “regular” or “hot,” but spice fiends know to ask for it extra-hot. In fact, let them know you can really take the heat, and they’ll crank the cayenne to tongue-blasting Tennessee levels.
Where to get it: Sripraphai
Surely the shredded green papaya salad known in Thai as som tum is one of the world’s greatest spicy dishes. On the streets of that country, its fire level can be specified to a roadside vendor by indicating the number of chilies a person wants crushed in — three and up is damn hot. One of the city’s best versions can be found at this deservedly famous Woodside restaurant, where cooks don’t stint on the chili. The young papaya’s watery crunch might be cooling to the mouth — if it weren’t swimming in a relentlessly incendiary lime- and fish-sauce-based dressing laced with those chilies. The only escape is your much-needed side of sticky rice.
Where to get it: Miss Lily’s
It’s a testament to how good a food is when customers are willing to risk public humiliation (not to mention pupil damage) just to eat it. The pepper shrimp appetizer at Miss Lily’s is so messy, fiery, and finger-coating that it should really only be consumed at a picnic table or perhaps over the sink. But instead, you’re in the glamourpuss-filled Serge Becker hot spot. Own it, dig in, have a beer on hand to soothe your tongue.
Camarones a la talla taco with habanero Yucateco sauce
Where to get it: Fonda Nolita
The Mex-hound favorite and home of Tacombi is no stranger to heat, but the spiciest taco option is perhaps the newest: shrimp prepared Veracruz-style with sautéed tomatoes, garlic, onion, and cilantro, topped with blackened habanero salsa. Good thing this place finally landed its beer-and-wine license last year so you can cool the fire.
Where to get it: Brick Lane Curry House
This Curry Row staple outright dares its customers to try its most famous dish. (If diners succeed, the prize is a place on the wall of fame, a free beer, and a certificate of achievement.) The menu warns that the curry is “more pain and sweat than flavour,” and brave types must issue a verbal disclaimer before digging into the dish, which contains more than half a dozen different types of chilies.
Where to get it: Sigiri
This Sri Lankan restaurant is a spice fiend’s paradise, where even the “mild” dishes might be too much for pepper-phobes. For mind-destroying spice, the kotthu roti is the way to go. The re-creation of that country’s most popular street food is a fry-up of shredded flatbread mixed with your choice of meat, onions, egg, and veggies — and, of course, lots of chili pepper. Masochists might pair it with a selection from the “devilled” section of the menu, which ominously advertises “capsicums” as a main ingredient.