Illustration by Bob AulThere's some speculation that hot foods were once (we're talking centuries ago, and certainly not in the Weekly's experimental test kitchen because we never, ever dabble in the psychotropic) closely related to the pursuit of hallucinogenic experiences, past-life regression, vision-questing, and other otherworldly encounters—and that all of this could be, at its gastronomic bottom, the reason we still eat stuff that hurts our mouths and esophageal passages, causes our eyes to water, our sinuses to run, and etc.: we're looking for God in a plate of chiles or a bowl of curried whatever. Physiologically, it may be only that the burning causes pain and pain releases endorphins; endorphins, of course, are organic pleasure-producers in the brain, and well, you get the rest of the picture.
But your true fire-eater searches also for flavor, not just heat for heat's sake—if you want heat (and pain) alone, swig pepper spray. The fire-eater discerns the subtle flavors imparted by a good hot chile and notes how each blends with various dishes. That's why the habañero chile (also referred to as Scotch Bonnet and Bird Pepper) is so beloved by chile fanatics. Originally cultivated in Havana and now grown primarily in Mexico, the habañero is the hottest on the planet. But it also has great flavor and a wide range of intensities—not just, "Put me out; my head's on fire!"—that make it ideal for sauces and dishes. Even some dried habañeros sprinkled over pizza or salad can impart blistering heat and flavor.
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OC offers many possibilities for such sacred culinary encounters, most of them Mexican. But consider Thai. Among the hottest cuisine on the planet, Thai is characterized by a delightful blending of hellish heat and heavenly sweetness. Like many Thai restaurants, Thai Spice allows you the option of raising the temperature on some already sizzling "mild" dishes. The house pad Thai—an exceedingly spicy version of the traditional Thai noodle dish —arrives at your table with a side of red-hot chile powder to add to the chicken, shrimp, eggs, green onions and bean sprouts. Tom yam kung is a cauldron of hot and sour broth swimming with shrimp, mushrooms, lemongrass, nuclear-reactor-hot green Thai chiles and a red-chile paste that defies description outside a class on thermometry. Even the peanut sauce—oh, look what has become of the gentle peanut!—served with the Southeast Asian kebab called a satay is enlivened by flecks of the demon red chile.
Other good choices for fiery Thai cooking: Thai Nakorn's chicken with green chile and mint or any of the curries; Mongkut Thai's Amher Ruby Chicken, stir-fried chicken in a spicy brown sauce, or Jewel of the Ocean, seafood in a spicy lime sauce; Kitima's Twist and Shout Chicken, with its delicious spicy garlic-and-chile sauce; and Thai Place's gaeng pa-naeng, a spicy red-chile paste and coconut-milk curry with basil.
There was a time in the 1980s when Thai restaurants were as popular with investors as Southwestern and Tex-Mex; Indonesian cuisine has yet to experience its boom. In OC, there's but one outpost: Java Satay & Coffee House, purveyors of fine curries. But satays are their specialty. Ask them to make the peanut sauce extra hot, as they generally tone it down a bit for the gringos. And then pray.
Thai Spice, 615 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 548-4333, and 15455 Jeffrey Rd., Irvine, (949) 857-THAI; Thai Nakorn, 8674 Stanton Ave., Buena Park, (714) 952-4954; Mongkut Thai, 212 Ave. Del Mar, San Clemente, (949) 492-3871; Kitima, Koll Center, 2010 Main St., Irvine, (949) 261-2929; Thai Place, 5111 Ball Rd., Cypress, (714) 827-7101; Java Satay & Coffee House, 825 N. Euclid St., Anaheim, (714) 533-3041.