Searching for the spiciest dishes in New York and facing a few near-death experiences, I think there may be a caveat about eating spice in moderation. For what it’s worth, I can handle my spice: You’ll notice some trendy spicy dishes and cuisines missing from this list, and it’s because I don’t find them that hot. (Sorry—none of the best ramen, folks.) Listed below, from notoriously spicy Thai food to surprisingly spicy soul food, are the dishes that forced me to pause between bites. They made me sweat. They made me question my life choices. If you do go ahead and try them, best of luck to you.
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Spiciest dishes in NYC
Some sage advice: Unless you’ve waxed your tongue, Homer Simpson–style, do not go for the curry at the highest spice level at this Sri Lankan mainstay. The waiter gives me a pitying, dubious smile as I order. The pork-based curry seems like a big ole dish of betrayal: With juicy swine and rich curry complexity, I think it’s love at first bite, but then the veil lifts and the flavor disappears into a fog of pain. I feel a room-spinning shortness of breath that reminds me of altitude sickness. Once it kicks in, it’s as if I reach the top of a roller coaster and realize I’m powerless to do anything but go along for the ride. All the yogurt in the world can’t bring me immediate relief. It’s merciless. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Okay, fine, maybe the chef.
You may have heard of this dish, thanks to the restaurant’s much-publicized eating challenge: If you can finish this devil, you’re awarded a congratulatory beer, and your photo is placed in the P’Hall of Fame. (Won’t your parents be proud?) The English-born curry is indeed super spicy—but not much else. Let’s just say it fits its menu description of “more pain and sweat than flavor”—if by flavor, you mean overwhelmingly bitter and oddly sour.
With a name like this, I have high hopes. But two bites into the blackened BBQ burger, which is boosted with freshly cut jalapeños and a smear of habanero sauce, and my spice-craving self is a bit disappointed. Luckily, a side of neon-orange napalm sauce comes to the rescue: I dump it onto the burger and practically inhale the thing to feel that wonderfully delicious mouth pain. The heat hits like a sucker punch. I finish the meal cradling ice cubes on my tongue and breathing heavily.
There’s a long line outside Peaches HotHouse on a Sunday morning, and for one good reason: its Nashville-style hot chicken. The Bed-Stuy restaurant’s fiery fried bird is offered at three heat levels: regular, hot or extra hot. You already know which one I choose. According to owners Craig Samuel and Ben Grossman, ghost chili peppers are used in the recipe, but amazingly, the intense heat those peppers pack doesn’t take over the poultry. I can even make out the low hum of sweetness that clings to the chicken’s crispy, craggy skin.
There’s a reason waiters at New York’s finest Thai establishments specifically ask if you want your dish “hot” or “Thai hot.” Where the former is a slight, slow burn, the latter can be an inferno. Somtum Der takes it one step further: I ask for it hot, to which the waiter counters with, “How many chilies?” “What is the maximum?” I ask. “No maximum.” Perfect. I start with a safe-sounding six chilies but send back the dish to be upped to a more roaring nine, which does the trick. The papaya salad is a refreshingly tart reprieve from all that spice, and fortunately, it is not drowned in a goopy, overly sugary sauce.
Thanks to its indigenous peppercorns, Szechuan food is a full-sensory experience, blasting your tongue with heat and giving off a slightly citrusy note. Unlike stewy hot pots, the crock dish at East Village newcomer Málà Project is dry, sans broth. When I opt for the hottest available pot—with mushrooms, taro and tofu skins for added texture—the waiter looks worried. But although the heat builds bite by bite, it’s not so overwhelming that you lose the natural sweetness of the taro and tofu. Thankfully, I don’t leave the joint a sweaty mess.
Having lived in Seoul for two years, I’ve gorged on the good stuff at my fair share of Korean restaurants, but to be honest, I never found the food to be all that sweat-inducing. Enter topokki, Korea’s street-food rice cakes that are pounded into tubes, slathered in a garlicky red-chili sauce and served alongside a fish cake and cabbage. I exit the K-town spot with a decidedly runny nose and tingly lips.
Looking for spicy Indian food?
This East Harlem restaurant serves up tapas with a twist, thanks to the influence of Mediterranean, Japanese and French cuisine. You’ll find plenty of classics on the extensive menu, with a few surprises thrown in here and there. For instance, the house guacamole comes topped with shrimp and pomegranate seeds and El Kallejon even offers tofu tacos (each $5). You might also want to try the cocas, or Mediterranean flatbreads, topped with everything from mushrooms, goat cheese and truffle oil ($11) to chorizo, cheese and spicy pico de gallo ($10). The drink menu also features plenty of Spanish favorites, like white, red, rosé and sake sangrias ($9–$10). You’ll also find a variety of signature cocktails, ranging from the Mango Mambo with cava, sake and lychee ($11) to the Chelada Burron with beer, lime, cucumber, Mexican spices and a salted rim ($7).
Venue says: “Enjoy hand-crafted, fresh cocktails and Mexican small plates infused with Latin, Mediterranean, and Japanese flavors! Happy Hour Mon-Fri 4-7”