Fat has always equaled flavor, with meat, with cheese, with French cuisine and classic Southern comfort cooking. But down by the bayou, along Caribbean coastlines, and all over Asia, people use spice to make food taste nice. Spices are also nutritional powerhouses, packed with antioxidants that reverse the signs of aging and heighten resistance to disease. So ditch the butter, the bacon lardons, and the mayo. Charleston may not be known for ethnic food, but scattered around town are a handful of restaurants serving seriously spicy cuisine.
The Level 10 Spicy Tuna Roll ($4.25)
West Ashley. 1975 Magwood Drive.
Ever since Man vs. Food star Adam Richman came to Charleston last May and completed Bushido’s Spicy Tuna Roll Challenge, the strength of Bushido’s spicy tuna rolls has been widely known. This time, we thought we’d skip the challenge, and start right at the top, at the level-10 roll. If the waiver Bushido makes you sign is any indication, this sushi roll is hot. Even licking the nori at the end of the cone-shaped hand roll will make you ready to run. The level-10 tuna roll is made with Bhut Jolokia or “ghost peppers,” the world’s spiciest chili grown in India. Eating this roll will transport you to a different place, leaving you with an endorphin rush similar to being punched in the face. The Bushido staff is well trained for this challenge, but everything they toss you to cool down — water, ice cream, pink lemonade — is only a temporary relief from the all-pervasive pain. But heed the old samurai saying “Embrace or deflect. Never resist,” because only when you accept the feeling of white hot flame, will the pain dissolve away. That is until you start digesting, and then you’ll need some Tums. About an hour later, those ghost peppers will be haunting your stomach.
West Ashley. 908 Savannah Hwy.
Vindaloo has long been revered as one of India’s most piquant curries. At Nirlep, it can be ordered in two temperatures: medium or hot. When we asked for hot, one of the owners tried to talk us out of it. “Are you sure you’re ready?” she asked. At first, the vindaloo doesn’t seem so bad. The tang of white vinegar and taste of garlic, ginger, and poppy are the flavors that strike you immediately. But as you begin to breathe, the power of the curry creeps up quickly. Your nose begins to run. You start hyperventilating slightly. The vindaloo is a dish so spicy, all the mango lassis and yogurt raita in New Delhi couldn’t save your mouth from burning. Luckily, the folks at Nirlep leave a pitcher of water at each table. We walked to our car shivering, wondering if it was because of all the spice, or all the ice water we’d been drinking.
The Braveheart Wings (eight for $6.89)
Wild Wing Café
Downtown. 36 N. Market St.
Of the 33 different flavors of wings at Wild Wing, the Bravehearts are the hottest. Deep fried wings arrive smothered in sauce made with chili and habañero. One bite and your tongue will ignite, and closing your mouth becomes a battle only for the brave. With a glass of milk on hand, celery, and blue cheese dressing to douse the flames, the Bravehearts can become bearable to eat — some Caribs with conditioned palates could consider them quite tasty. But eating wings must be done by hand. So whatever you do, don’t touch your face after attempting the Bravehearts. Two hours and multiple hand washes later, we put contacts in, and our eyes started stinging.
Crawfish Etouffee ($8)
North Charleston. 1910-E Montague Ave.
Chef Iran Coleman at Crescent Connection will make any dish on his menu extra spicy upon request, but he’s resolute about adding just enough so that the heat won’t mask the other flavors of his fantastic New Orleans cuisine. Coleman won’t tell you the ingredients he uses in his family’s secret recipes — not one. But the roux he blends with imported Louisiana crawfish tails, a mirepoix of vegetables, and (what we guess is) cayenne pepper, is incredible. Wash the etouffee down with a glass of sunshine punch. And be sure to order a side: three-cheese macaroni, Bourbon Street greens, or corn macheux. Perhaps the best part of it all is soaking up the etouffee with a square of Crescent Connection’s homemade cornbread. It’s so fluffy and so sweet, it crumbles in your hands.
Downtown. 1302 Meeting St.
There are plenty of dishes at Santi’s that pack a punch — the poticinas enchiladas made with chiles de arbol or the fro burrito salsa verde — but none will tangle with your tastebuds quite like the menudo. Menudo can translate from Spanish to “small” or “little” (think Ricky Martin in his boy band days), but also refers to the organs or entrails of butchered animals. At Santi’s, this tripe soup is made spicy with onions and jalapeño. When we inquired about the menudo a while back, the waiter told us, “It’s good, but it’s stinky.” And though we wouldn’t exactly call it stinky, ordering the menudo is an adventurous undertaking. Even one of Santi’s potent margaritas can’t wash down the taste of chewy cow intestines and sting of raw onion. It takes some kind of person, usually a native of Mexico used to menudo, to finish an entire bowl of this soup.
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