A 12-Napkin Salute

Photo by Matt OttoI remember it well, that summer dinner with the Chihuahua side of the clan when To Quico handed me a glistening dish of jalapeos. Being only six years old at the time, and with fragile, developing taste buds, I promptly passed the pickled peppers down the table.

"Aren't you going to have any?" To immediately teased. "It'll put hair on your chest! Look, your prima eats them!" With a reaction only Pavlov could've loved, my cousin Piquis, mere months older than I, jumped into action, proudly grabbing a jalapeo and gobbling the slimy thing with one exaggerated bite.

I refused to be one-upped by a pig-tailed, fire-eating freak. Foolishly competitive, but with steel in my little heart, I picked up the largest jalapeo in the bowl and bit it to the stem. Tears gushed through my eyes almost as rapidly as the mucous through my nose. Through my blurry eyelids, I could see Piquis and To Quico laughing until they, too, cried. Content, To Quico slapped me on the back and fetched a glass of water. "You're all right, mija," he roared with a drawl befitting a Texas oilman. Had my throat not been on fire, I would have responded, "Vyase a la chingada, To."

But now I thank my garrulous uncle. Hairy chests aside, his dare endowed me with a digestive system capable of consuming anything from habanero peppers to wasabi like they're mayo on Wonder bread. Korean kids must go through a similar initiation. Portuguese merchants introduced the chile plant to the Japanese during the 16th century, and they in turn introduced it to the Korean Peninsula during the brutal Imjin War of 1592-1598. The result? A cuisine once chalklike is now renowned for hellfire that would make Uncle Quico sob like a six-year-old. Did I mention he once told me the bowl of salsa on the table was really just homemade, chunky ketchup? Asshole.

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Thankfully, the cheery owners at Lucy's Barbecue Hot in Fullerton have the decency to ask for your peppery preferences before you order any of their namesake spicy tofu stew entres. Spicy tofu might seem a fantastical concept, but the intrinsic genius of this humble curd lies in its chameleonic adaptability. At Lucy's, their silken tofu pillows take on the savor of the surrounding broth, an incendiary onslaught of blasting chiles, sweat-inducing garlic and tangy ginger.

We're talking a 12-napkin salute here, folks: one for your lap and eleven to mop your sweaty brow. Eating even the least-fiery spicy tofu platter—there are four different levels—is like dipping a spoon into Mount Etna and slurping down magma. Best pick is the mandoo stew, which is delicately spiced pork dumplings simmered alongside tofu in a bubbling broth. Served in a clay stewing pot known as a tukbaege,it continues to boil as the waitress, at your request, cracks a raw egg into the potage to simmer until it's fully cooked and indistinguishable from the tofu.

The human mouth was not meant for Korean tofu alone, though. Lucy's provides a plethora of accompaniments to offset the incendiary tofu. Sticky rice is plopped onto the stew in a separate bowl and cools the tofu like cream in coffee; various panchan (Korean side dishes) such as chilled bean sprouts, cabbage salad and pickled Korean radish in sweet wine vinegar surround the tukbaege like vegetable soldiers ready to assist in the battle against your sinuses. But lest the sweat on your forehead dry, just reach for a chopstick of kimchi, Korea's most notorious culinary hotshot. Naturally loaded with antioxidants, the fermented cabbage supposedly helps control body odor, but the combination of pungent spices will do nothing for your breath other than make it as hot as the gape of a dragon. Wash it all down with a glass of barley tea and let the cool, nutty flavor settle your shocked and awed belly.

Lucy's Barbecue Hot, located at 500-G, N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, is open Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (714) 773-4860. Dinner for two, $15, excluding drinks; Beer, wine, cash Only.

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