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
I must start with two points about Sigiri. The first is that this is a truly wonderful restaurant with a friendly staff and delicious Sri Lankan food that everyone should try at least once. The second is that no one should ever do what I did, which is order its spiciest curry at the spiciest level. The waiter gave me a pitying, dubious smile as I ordered, but I’d encountered this reaction before and had so far been unimpressed.
But the Black Pork Curry feels like a big ol' dish of betrayal. The first bite is delicious. You taste the juicy pork and the rich curry flavor, distinct from Indian and Thai varieties, and you think it’s love at first bite. And then the veil lifts. Like a bait and switch, the flavor disappears into a fog of pain. I felt a woozy, room-spinning, shortness of breath that I had experienced once before—when I suffered altitude sickness on a hike in Peru. Once it started to kick in, it felt like reaching the top of a roller coaster and realizing I was powerless to do anything but go along for the ride. All the yogurt in the world could not bring me immediate relief.
This curry wins the No. 1 spot, hands down. This was beyond painful. This was merciless. I wouldn’t wish this on my enemies.
This dish came with looots of hype thanks to its brilliant marketing scheme of offering an eating challenge: If you can finish the infamous Phaal Curry, it’s free and you get your photo placed in the Phaal of Fame.
Okay, guys, the Phaal Curry is indeed spicy. But it’s not much else. Overwhelmingly bitter and slightly sour, this dish perfectly fits the menu’s description of “more pain and sweat than flavor.” Although the Phaal Curry is indeed one of the spiciest dishes in the city, if you’re going to go all in with the spice, I suggest you try a dish that can also hold its own flavor-wise. Nonetheless, in terms of pure spiciness, it wins second place.
With a name like Napalm Burger, I had high hopes. The burger arrived with freshly cut jalapeño on top of a thin smear of habanero sauce. Two bites in and I was feeling extremely disappointed, tasting practically nothing but the jalapeños and, to be fair, a very delicious burger. So I ordered extra Napalm Sauce, which came neon orange in a little plastic cup. I dumped it all onto the burger, which I then practically inhaled in an effort to feel that wonderful sensation of mouth pain. The heat hit me all at once, like a sucker punch. I imagined, as I sat there staring blankly ahead and sucking ice cubes, that I must have looked like Gob from Arrested Development as he says to himself, “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
Does the fact that I would do this all over again mean there’s something wrong with me? This burger and its spicy sauce gets an A-plus—just be sure to ask for an extra cup if you’re really looking for the burn.
There was a long line outside Peaches HotHouse on a Sunday morning, and for good reason. The fried chicken comes in a sandwich or as a plate and can be regular, hot or extra hot. You already know which one I got, and that extra hot was so satisfyingly spicy. According to the owners, Craig Samuels and Ben Grossman, ghost chili peppers are used in the recipe, but amazingly, as intense as it is, the heat does not overwhelm the flavor. This was not only the spiciest fried chicken I’ve ever had, this was the most delicious fried chicken I’ve ever had. The magically crunchy skin is slightly sweet, and I think I might have even detected a hint of cinnamon. Even though the heat kicked right in from the get-go, I happily ate through the pain all the way to end.
Somtum Der was the third Thai restaurant I tried in my search for something spicy to write home about. Now, I know Thai food is notoriously spicy, so I’m left with the conclusion that the waiters at New York’s finest Thai establishments simply don’t trust my spice-eating capability, despite my assurances. Somtum Der, however, pulled through. Even though plenty of items on its menu have a little symbol with three chilies, you still need to specify how spicy you actually expect that to be. I asked for it hot, to which the waitress countered with a question of her own, “How many chilies?” “What is the maximum?” I asked. “No maximum.” Perfect.
I started off with six chilies, which had to be politely sent back and upped to nine, which finally did the trick. I fell in love with this restaurant. The papaya salad, refreshingly tart and sweet, was a delicious balance between flavor and heat. Everything else I ordered also had a nice kick, and nothing was drowned in overly sweet, goopy sauce. If you haven’t tried this place, you must—just be insistent that you mean business, and don’t waste your time on fewer than nine chilies.
Sichuan food is a sensory experience. If you haven’t tried it, it combines a heat on your tongue with a numb, tingly sensation on your lips, a unique result of Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve been around the Sichuan block, so I thought this time I would try a new spot, a very recent addition to the East Village, MáLà Project. Unlike hot pot you may have tried, this one comes dry, without broth. You choose from a lengthy list of ingredients, including vegetables, noodle options, meat and seafood, and you choose your spice level. I, of course, asked for it as spicy as it comes. The waitress looked worried.
This is one of the dishes where the heat builds bite by bite. But it’s not so overwhelming that you lose the taste, which is wonderful. Sichuan food often has a sweetness that combines perfectly with saltiness, and I can’t recommend enough adding some interesting vegetables and roots, like the mushrooms, taro or even tofu skins, because the mix of textures is one of the best parts. This concoction was heaven, served up alongside a bowl of beautiful black rice. The restaurant’s bare-bulbed, bare-brick coziness is an extra plus.
I have eaten at my fair share of Korean restaurants (I lived in Seoul for two years), and to be honest, I never found the food to be that spicy. Delicious, to be sure, just not super hot. But Yuppduk’s “EXTREMELY SPICY” rice cakes, called topokki (or ttoekbokki or teokbokki or ddeokbokki—the English spelling options are endless!), deserve a place at the bottom of this list. If you have never tried topokki, they’re extremely chewy little pasta-like logs (or slices) made out of pounded rice. They come served up in a sweet, red spicy sauce, often with some fish cake and cabbage, and are one of Korea’s most popular street foods. These had a nice kick, which had my nose running and my lips tingling. If you’re a spice-addict roaming around K-town, these are good bet.