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Night + Market crispy rice salad
Photograph: Courtesy of Night + Market

Can you handle these spicy food challenges across the USA?

You might not be able to feel your tastebuds after attempting the spicy food on this list

By Lauren Rothman and Sarah Medina
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Those who seek out spicy food challenges just to be seen sweating and cursing in public are a brave breed indeed. Even if you think spicy food is good for you (or that it makes the best hangover food), we draw the line at crying in a crowded restaurant. But for those of you who seek out the thrill of devouring the spiciest dishes in the USA (and maybe having your photo posted on a wall in celebration), this list is what you need to complete your ghost pepper-fueled dreams. From searing Nashville hot chicken to fiery Sri Lankan curry, these are the most tongue-tingling, sweat-inducing spicy food challenges in the United States. Have a glass of whole milk at the ready. 

RECOMMENDED: Guide to the ultimate foodie adventures across the USA

The best spicy food in the USA

Sigiri
Sigiri
Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

1. New York, NY: Black pork curry at Sigiri

Restaurants Indian East Village

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 pork-based curry seems like a big ol’ dish of betrayal: With juicy meat and rich curry complexity, it appears to be love at first bite, but then the veil lifts and the flavor disappears into a fog of pain. Once it kicks in, you’ll feel as though you’ve reached the top of a roller coaster only to realize you’re powerless to do anything but go along for the ride. All the yogurt in the world won’t bring you relief: it’s merciless.

Discover the best restaurants in New York 

2. Los Angeles, CA: Dynamite spicy challenge at Jitlada

Restaurants Thai East Hollywood

There's no Thai iced tea that will temper the excruciating inferno of this tear-jerking dish, Jitlada’s infamous dynamite spicy challenge. Choose your method of torture, as chef Tui serves the plate swimming in a molten curry or mint leaf sauce with a multitude of protein options from tofu to frog legs. True to its title as the spiciest dish in Los Angeles, the challenge leaves you teary-eyed, light-headed and in for a night of insatiable heartburn. If you can lick your plate, the bill is waived and you’ve conquered the city’s number one spice challenge. Our two cents: Stock up on T.P.

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Hattie B's fried chicken
Hattie B's fried chicken
Photograph: Joseph Woodley

3. Nashville, TN: Shut the Cluck Up!!! hot chicken at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken

Restaurants Music Row

It’s no easy feat to deliver the city’s best rendition of hot chicken, the spicy-crusted fried bird that’s perhaps Nashville’s defining dish. But the ever-present line snaking out the door of this Midtown spot is the first clue that the fryers here produce a damn qualified contender. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak: With five levels of heat ranging from “Southern” (mild) to “Shut the Cluck Up!!!” (insanely hot), Hattie B’s moist bird boasts a well-seasoned and super-crisp exterior. To cool your mouth down, dig into the mayo-laced red-skinned potato salad and crunch on the complimentary icebox pickles.

Discover the best restaurants in Nashville

Salvador Molly’s great balls of fire
Salvador Molly’s great balls of fire
Photograph: Courtesy Salvador Molly’s

4. Portland, OR: Great Balls of Fire at Salvador Molly’s

Restaurants Caribbean SW Portland

This colorful Pacific Northwest spot offers an array of street foods from around the world: think mojo pork, jerk barbecue, tamales and jambalaya. The restaurant’s notoriously hot habanero cheese fritters, aptly named Great Balls of Fire, are so spicy that the restaurant offers a challenge: any diner that successfully manages to consume all five fritters (and all of their piquant pepper sauce) gets her photo up in Molly’s hall of fame. They even sell them to-go so you can spice up your next dinner party. 

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Night + Market crispy rice salad
Night + Market crispy rice salad
Photograph: Courtesy of Night + Market

5. Los Angeles, CA: Crispy rice salad at Night + Market

Restaurants Thai West Hollywood

At first glance, the nam kao tod or crispy rice salad at West Hollywood’s Night + Market doesn’t look too fatal—tangy sour pork, raw ginger and cilantro are tossed harmlessly alongside deep fried balls of rice. But one bite and your mouth is set ablaze from the colossal dose of fresh bird’s eye chilies speckled throughout and the dried chili powder entrenched in the dressing. Chef Kris Yenbamroong unabashedly lays the spice smack down, as every mouthful of this intricately hot Thai classic reveals a new layer of heat reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno.

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Hot Sauce and Panko chicken wings
Hot Sauce and Panko chicken wings
Photograph: Courtesy Hot Sauce and Panko

6. San Francisco, CA: Ghost pepper chicken wings at Hot Sauce and Panko

Restaurants Nob Hill

This tiny Nob Hill spot does just two things: hot sauce (the store sells more than 300 varieties) and takeout chicken wings (more than 30 wildly inventive variations that range from Korean gochujang to hot garlic, bacon and parmesan). Wings are made in small batches and sauced to order. Even avowed heatheads will want to approach the menu’s ghost pepper wings with trepidation: they clock in at 1.4 Scoville Heat Units and are likely to burn even the toughest of tongues.

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7. Philadelphia, PA: Dry pot at Han Dynasty

Restaurants Chinese West Powelton

This Old City favorite is a hotspot—pun intended—for seekers of spice in the Philly area. Satisfyingly home-style Szechuan dishes are lavished with dried chiles, chili flakes, hot chili oil, Szechuan peppercorns and still more iterations of peppers. While most dishes on the menu carry at least a tingle of heat, Han Dynasty’s signature dry pot ranks at level 10 and seethes with peppercorns and chiles. Have plenty of plain rice—and cold Tsingtao—at the ready.

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8. Austin, TX: Waterfall pork at Thai-Kun

Restaurants Trucks East Cesar Chavez

Thai-Kun's three Austin locations offer just enough breathing room for die-hard fans to spread across the city in search of the ultra-spicy Thai food. The menu ranges from grilled bread with peanut curry (perfect for padding the stomach after a few drinks) to the black noodles, a heartier option that won’t overpower a cocktail. But be warned: Approach the waterfall pork, featuring a five-alarm “Tiger Cry” sauce, with extreme caution—it’s one of the city's spiciest dishes.

Discover the best restaurants in Austin 

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Peaches Hot House
Peaches Hot House
Photograph: Paul Wagtouicz

9. New York, NY: Extra-hot fried chicken at Peaches Hothouse

Restaurants Soul and southern American Bedford-Stuyvesant

There’s always a long line outside Peaches HotHouse on weekend mornings, 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—and you already know which one to 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; you’ll still make out the low hum of sweetness that clings to the chicken’s crispy, craggy skin.

Discover the best restaurants in New York

Ramen Tatsu-ya
Ramen Tatsu-ya
Photograph: Courtesy Ramen Tatsu-ya/Chiai Matsumoto

10. Austin, TX: Mi-So-Hot ramen at Ramen Tatsu-ya

Restaurants Japanese Wooten

Tatsu Aikawa and Takuya Matsumoto dreamt up the concept for Ramen Tatsu-ya after living in Los Angeles and Japan, two cities in which authentic ramen shops are as common as they are delicious. With Ramen Tatsu-ya, they have absolutely seduced Austin with their classic approach to ramen. The rich, aromatic broth is time- and labor-intensive, and fresh noodles created in partnership with L.A.-based noodle maker Keisuke-san are shipped in weekly. Spice-lovers will want to opt for the bold miso ramen and then up the Scoville ante with a “Fire in a Bowl” add-on, a wallop of a Thai chile and habanero chile paste.

Discover the best restaurants in Austin 

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11. Atlanta, GA: Chicken choila at Himalayan Spice

Restaurants Nepalese Briarcliff

Nepalese food might not be the first cuisine to come to mind when thinking of the Deep South, but this Atlanta gem serves top-notch momo dumplings, juicy stir-fried lamb and soulful thukpa soup noodles. And don't let the straightforward menu description fool you, its choila, grilled marinated chicken scattered with ginger, onions, garlic and cilantro, thrums with chile heat. Wash it down with a cold Taj Mahal beer.

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12. Dallas, TX: Pad Kee Mow at Sabaidee

This Texas hotspot for Lao and Thai streetfood is a favorite for flavors bright with lime, cilantro and tangy fish sauce. Heat-seekers will appreciate the restaurant’s enthusiastic usage of chiles: all dishes are available at “Sabaidee”-level spicy—which, in case it isn’t clear, is spicy indeed. Pad Kee Mow (also known as drunken noodles) are already hot to begin with, but take on an atomic burn when ordered at this level.

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Photograph: Courtesy Budlong

13. Chicago, IL: X-Hot chicken sandwich at the Budlong

Restaurants Soul and southern American Lincoln Park

This snug Lakeview spot is frying up hot chicken that hits all the right notes. That is to say, the chicken (locally-sourced and antibiotic- and hormone-free) is briny, the breading is shatteringly crisp and the cayenne paste that coats it gets you sweating and stains your fingers just the right shade of atomic red. Four heat levels—naked, classic, medium and extra hot—are available; the X-Hot packs a slow, lingering burn that’s best cooled with a cup of the restaurant’s super-creamy banana pudding. Choose your level of heat and enjoy some Southern comfort and hospitality in the Midwest. 

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14. San Francisco, CA: Spicy pork burrito at Señor Sisig

Restaurants Tenderloin

This roving food truck is a Bay Area favorite, satisfying taste buds with fusion comfort food like tacos, fries and nachos lavished with Filipino-style roasted meats. All dishes are available mild or spicy, and the latter more than live up to the promise: tucked inside a burrito alongside adobo garlic rice, pinto beans, pico de gallo and cilantro cream sauce, shredded pork is as fiery as it is tender.

Discover the best restaurants in San Francisco

 

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