My name is Jonny Grave, and I like spicy food…
Do you ever crave spicy food? Are you the kind of person who pops the top off the red pepper container at a jumbo slice shop, letting the spicy flakes fall all over your pizza? Are you a closeted thrill junkie? Do you enjoy maybe sweating and swearing a little through your dinner? I’m here to steer you in the right direction.
As far as I’m concerned, there are two kinds of people who say they like spicy foods: those who say, “I like heat every once in awhile, but nothing too crazy,” and those who say, “I would like the spiciest thing your chef knows how to make.” This list is for the latter.
This list is simple, and fairly straightforward: It’s ten of the spiciest dishes in the District of Columbia. I’m not looking at the restaurant, or what part of town it’s in, or how clean the bathrooms are, or who their chef is, or how “authentically Thai” their menu is… I’m intentionally keeping the focus on the dish itself; just paying attention to the individual plate of food in front of me, not what’s around it. I’m also keeping this list inside D.C. proper, and not the suburbs. Arlington, Fairfax, Wheaton, and Hyattsville would need their own individual lists, if I decided to venture out of D.C.
The criteria each dish had to meet for this list is also simple: I walked into each of these restaurants, and asked my server, “What’s the spiciest thing on your menu?” That’s the dish I eat.
Some of these dishes are profoundly hot, and will let you know up-front. Some are subtle, almost tricky, not cluing you in until it’s too late. Some will barely make you break a sweat, and some will leave you genuinely gasping for air. They’re all different, and they all have dedicated followers. If you’re feeling adventurous, I would highly recommend trying them all.
Just bring a spare shirt with you, in case you sweat through the one you wore to work.
Thip Khao’s Tam Muk Houng Phet Phet
The first word that comes to mind is “searing.” I can’t remember a time when I ever put something in my mouth, and could immediately tell I had chosen something resoundingly hot. Instantaneous, searing heat, similar to grabbing a hot pan. It’s a complex salad, with a fish-sauce-based dressing, complete with layer upon layer of subtle flavors. I’m sure it would be a good idea to take note of, and admire, the dish’s complexity. I believe this is almost entirely impossible with the heat. This salad is beautiful. And it hurts.
3462 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20010
Salt & Pepper Grill’s Lamb Vindaloo
Warm comfort, that slowly turns painful, just like your buddy who gives you a rib-cracking bear hug every time he sees you. It’s incredibly tender lamb, soft, delicate, falling apart on the fork. It’s swimming in a red sauce, folded gently into the fiery depths of the curry. It will burn you, and it will make you feel right at home. Comfort food from a flame-thrower.
3925 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20011
Drafting Table’s Absurd Wings
Dearest Drafting Table, these are not absurd wings. They are delicious wings, and with all my heart, I hope to have them again sometime soon. But these are not absurd. The sauce, which again, I want to reiterate was completely delicious, was a medium-spicy at it’s hottest. It’s a hard six out of ten, maybe pushing seven on the heat scale. I admit, its flavor and texture was certainly hotter (and tastier) than a run-of-the-mill buffalo-style sauce. However, it was not absurd. I would suggest running instead with “Elegantly Hot Wings.”
1529 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005
Toki Underground’s Kimchi Ramen
Kimchi, pulled pork, nori, and noodles swimming together in a pink-red broth, with a tender soft-boiled egg floating toward the rim. This bowl is massive, and threatens to eat you before you eat it. It’s a reasonably spicy broth on its own, but, at the request of my server, I’ve spilled in a dose of the house-made pepper sauce into the fray. Again, the bowl before me is a complete dish; fine on its own, spicy, salty, meaty, noodle-ey. It doesn’t need the pepper sauce, per se. But the addition of the house blend into the soup ignites the bowl, immediately engulfing the contents in flames. At least that’s how it tastes to me.
1234 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002
It’s not that I don’t like eating at chain restaurants; it’s just that I would rather eat something that doesn’t taste exactly the same wherever I am in the world. That said, there’s a reliably spicy dish at a reputable South Korean chain: it’s called “Buldak,” and it literally translates to “Fire Chicken.” It’s chunks of sauteed chicken, gooey rice cakes, and scallions, tossed in a blood-red, oily, flaming-hot sauce. The heat is pretty immediate, settling quickly to a sweet-tangy simmer. I don’t care if it tastes the same two states away; it’s wonderful.
1015 Half St SE, Washington, DC 20003
Great Wall’s Mala Chicken
Mala is a combination of the Chinese characters for “numb” and “spicy.” The Mala chicken at Great Wall lives up to the reputation. What’s more, this Logan Circle mom-and-pop restaurant is about as authentically Chinese as one can get in Northwest D.C. Chris Chen tells me so, as he strolls in to pick up his order, and sees how much I’m sweating under my shirt. I got the Mala chicken– just cubes of chicken in a pepper sauce. He nodded toward my dish, and said “yeah, that’s the one to get. Enjoy, man.” I will, Chris. Thanks to your suggestion, my sinuses are as clear as they were on the day I was born.
1527 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20005
Crisp’s Nashville-Style Hot Chicken
Okay, remember when I said we’re going to ignore the restaurants, and just focus on the dish itself? I can’t do that with Crisp. Bad service gets under my skin.
After choosing the “Chef’s Hot” spice level for my thigh/leg combo, I waited for half an hour for the dish to arrive. If the place were packed, or I had ordered something terribly elaborate, this would be understandable. However, I want to make it clear, I ordered a chicken leg and thigh, and the place had between five and eight other customers. As I waited for my chicken, I ordered a beer– just a DC Brau Pils on draft. I then realized I hadn’t washed my hands. I went to the restroom, washed my hands, walked out, and was told by my server, “Hey, man– your beer’s right there,” pointing to a beer on a ledge just outside the bathroom door, as he went happily back to texting from a bar-side table. Unless I’m sorrowfully mistaken, if a beer is ordered from a table, it’s common practice to deliver it to the table, rather than just outside where customers take a shit.
The chicken itself was a disappointment. Un-brined, poorly battered and floured, under-seasoned, and altogether very dry. Mediocre spicy.
1837 1st St NW
Pantry’s Spicy Duck
Wait, wait… since when does the Sala Thai in Petworth have fancy cocktails? What’s with the new patio furniture and fairy lights outside? They’re changing on me. I don’t like change. But, hold on, what’s this? A plate full of duck, part-fried, and part-roasted to perfection? Don’t mind if I do. On its own, the dish doesn’t scream “hot,” but the addition of the bird’s eye chili certainly does the trick. This is hot. You will sweat. It’s plays well with a glass of Thai iced tea and a little bowl of sticky rice. Sala Thai, excuse me– Pantry may have a new paint job, but the food is still quality.
3716 Georgia Ave, NW
Panda Gourmet’s Deep-Fried Chicken With Hot Pepper, and Seafood & Tofu Hot Pot
Joel, you’re a real son of a bitch, you know that? Seriously, what the hell? You told me, “Sure, they have spicy.” You explained firmly and succinctly that, “Nah, nothing weird happens if you combine the numbing properties of Szechuan peppercorns and traditional inferno heat of red chilis.” The peppercorns make my lips tingle, but it only opened my taste buds up, making the chilis that much hotter. My hand to god, Joel, I got tunnel vision at some point in there. You need to warn someone when they eat that stuff. That delicious, fiery, oily, salty, spicy, smoky stuff. When are we going back?
2700 New York Ave NE, Washington, DC 20002
Purple Patch’s Sizzling Sisig
On principle, I like any kind of dish served on a screaming hot metal plate, sizzling madly away. I like food that plays with multiple senses while I’m devouring dinner. The dish is simple enough; pork belly and shoulder over rice, in a beautiful brown sauce, topped with an egg. It’s sticky, sweet, tangy, salty, all dressed in blazing, almost fluorescent fresh red bird’s eye chilis. While several spots I’ve tried on this list incorporate dried chilis into their recipes, Purple Patch is the only one to use fresh peppers. The difference between dried and fresh is night and day, and the chefs at Patch were wise to go with the latter. The fruity, crisp, slightly stringent peppers cut right through the pork belly for a solid burn. It’s not the spiciest dish on this list, but it’s certainly one of the most delicious.
3155 Mt Pleasant ST NW Washington, DC 20010