Vegan chili at Weary Traveler
Time was that Madison wasn't so hot. Diners craving spicy foods relied on just a handful of Southeast Asian, Mexican, Caribbean and Cajun spots to deliver lip-burning, endorphin-releasing pleasure. The few fiery menu items available became rites of passage into a small cult of heat seekers. One of the more famous of these was, and still is, the "four star" pad Thai at Vientiane Palace. It has set many a frightened diner's mouth ablaze.
Outside of such "ethnic" joints, as they were usually called back then, the hot-curious were mainly relegated to chicken wings with Frank's Hot Sauce or salsas at Americanized Mexican restaurants.
But over the past few years, the heat has definitely been turning up. This follows a national trend -- not only a decades-long trend of increasing adventurousness on the part of American diners, but a trend toward the radically spicy. Who could have predicted a decade ago that Sriracha would mainstream, even in the Midwest, to become the hippest condiment? Or that kimchi would find its way into nearly everything? Today, habanero is the new chipotle to a generation of eaters that keeps chili oil in the fridge and knows how to blend harissa.
According to the restaurant research firm Technomic, Gen X and older millennials are driving the heat wave. Last year the firm found that 57% of those ages 25 to 44 prefer their food at seven or higher on a 10-point heat scale. That was up from 48% in 2009. Apparently, MTV latchkey kids have grown up to enjoy bold flavor.
Whatever the cause, the result is clear: There are more restaurants at which to find spicy foods than ever before, and establishments that have always offered spicy options are offering more spicy dishes. For those who have always wanted to step out of the vanilla comfort zone, or already live outside of it, this is a glorious time to be dining out.
Not toned down for Americans
Several of Madison's hottest restaurants are relative newcomers. Based on food cultures that use heat to make diners sweat -- and thus physically cool down -- in warm climates, South Indian/Sri Lankan restaurants Minerva and KJ's Curry Bowl both have patrons breathing fire. They offer gradations of heat in all of their dishes, but the menus aren't necessarily toned down significantly for non-natives. Curries at either can test the endurance of any hothead, and are defining additions to Madison's spicy dining landscape.
In addition to South Indian, Sichuan cuisine has arrived on our isthmus shores. Hot peppers were introduced to Sichuan cooking from South America in the 17th century. Before that, the regional cuisine had the sweet and pungent flavors of mustard seed as well as Middle Eastern exotic spices from the overland trade route.
But when the hot chili arrived, Sichuan chefs began to believe that spice helped combat the area's many foggy, damp days. In Chinese medicine, hot peppers are thought to be internally drying. The red chilis from South America then were blended with Sichuan's famous peppercorns to produce a zingy combination unlike anywhere else in the world.
In Madison, both Fugu and Ichiban deliver authentic versions of the region's hottest dishes. There are mild options, but the menu does not cater to the faint of heart. Order a hot pot and you will experience what the Chinese call "ma," that tingling, sizzling, numbing sense of heat-pain that is the signature mix of peppercorns and red chilis.
For those in the know in Fitchburg, takeout joint Curry in a Box has been offering a supremely spicy green curry with beef, a dish that manages to be both hot and delicate. It sports a light coconut broth along with good crunch from julienned bamboo shoots. The heat is an integral part of the dish, not an add-on.
Cajun heat first started mainstreaming in the U.S. when Brigadier General Walter S. McIlhenny, who also happened to be the president of the company that made Tabasco sauce, issued The Charlie Ration Cookbook to troops in Vietnam. The cookbook came with a two-ounce bottle of Tabasco.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Army began putting miniature bottles of Tabasco in MREs, or Meals Ready to Eat. Now two-thirds of all MREs come with the hot sauce.
The principal stop for a Cajun hot sauce fix in Madison has long been New Orleans Takeout, with its signature mix of bright vinegar and searing red peppers. The hottest dish is the shrimp creole, although any item can be doused in additional sauce.
Similarly, the shrimp etouffee or the jambalaya at Louisianne's in downtown Middleton can offer a sweat-inducing ride. You just have to ask for the additional heat.
Veering from Cajun to something more akin to Tex-Mex is the vegan chili at the Weary Traveler. Its lip-numbing flavor explosion makes up for the unctuous richness of meat with a hit of lasting fire. It's been enjoyed by spice-seekers for nearly a decade now.
¿Puedo tener un habanero?
Caribbean restaurants often employ the now über-trendy habanero pepper for heat. David's Jamaican Cuisine, Jamerica and Jolly Bob's all offer jerk dishes as well as some mighty hot sauces. Of particular note for heat-hounds is Jolly Bob's crab cake with habanero remoulade.
The fish tacos at the Great Dane also sport a fiery habanero sauce worthy of attention, and may be the hottest such dish in town. Uninitiated diners may want to ask for the sauce on the side.
Madison's uses the habanero for its fun, crunchy Hot Tots -- spicy tater tots served, for wimps, with cooling sour cream. Dexter's Pub also relies on the habanero pepper to make a habanero-pineapple sauce for its habanero shrimp. It's a dish that will have smoke blowing out of your ears.
Pizza has been getting hotter in Madison, and Ian's offers a hot sauce, as do many of the other larger outfits. But relative newcomer Grampa's Pizzeria leads the way with its Barbarini pizza, which has an integrated heat that builds into a full burn as you eat. The classic pie is made with Italian Calabrian peppers that are not just hot, but also sweet and smoky.
Forequarter serves another trendy pepper, the shisito, when they are in season. The kitchen usually lightly batters and fries them. These Japanese versions of capsicum are likewise sweet and smoky, and underneath the heat have a beguiling tender mildness that sneaks up on you.
Wings that sting
Any discussion of the rise of heat in American dining cannot leave out the ubiquitous hot wing. Spicy chicken wings are a curious American product. Legend has it that they were created in Buffalo, New York, in 1964 by Teressa Bellissimo as a snack for her son. Since then, they've spread across the country and appear with a dizzying variety of sauces.
Spicy chicken wings represent the intersection of the bar snack with America's competitive streak. They're not just a food, but a social phenomenon, a way to measure one's endurance for pain in public. It doesn't hurt that the heat helps businesses sell beer.
Wings have played a big role in spreading the gospel of spice to the masses. Their shortcoming is that by far the least interesting way to cook a protein is to put sauce on it after cooking. It is the wing's stunning efficiency -- fry while frozen, then add sauce -- that's helped it overcome its poor process.
However, it's a departure from this standard deep-frying-then-saucing procedure that makes Madison's better spicy wings stand out. Notable in this respect is the Indian restaurant Minerva and its Drums of Heaven. The wings here are a mix of Chinese sticky red sauce with Sichuan fiery pepper. The heat gets trapped in the sticky sauce and coats the lips to agonizing effect.
Another singular preparation is found at Chicken Lips, a bar on Highway N outside of Sun Prairie. The wings here are first dry-rubbed with spices -- more like pork ribs than drummies -- before frying. Then they are sauced. Original is plenty hot, but ask for the off-menu "extra-sexy" to really break a sweat. The prep is novel, and the wings are devilishly spicy while still being flavorful.
Liliana's is notable for smoking its wings and then searing them briefly on the grill. These are wings worth a spice aficionado's attention.
At Quaker Steak and Lube, the Atomic wings are so hot partakers are required to sign a waiver. It's a silly bit of marketing, underlining the competitive social function and machismo of this dish.
However, the single hottest food item, wing or otherwise, in the Madison area must be the wings at the new bar Funk's in Fitchburg. Here, another trendy pepper makes its appearance: the ghost pepper. As heat-seekers know, a pepper's spiciness is measured in Scoville units. The ghost chili weighs in somewhere just below pepper spray.
So what is it like to experience the final frontier of spice? What do a few bites of Funk's Ghost Chili Wings taste like?
Your eyes will instantly well up with tears. You cannot see. You become concerned you may be asphyxiating because your throat is constricting. Your stomach feels as though you've taken shots of burning whiskey. You begin to involuntarily drool. You would laugh with your dining companions dumb enough to join you in this adventure, but their faces are a scary bright red. They also look as though they are choking. It is a curious mix of pain and fear -- and flavor. Surprisingly, the ghost chili tastes quite good, rich and smoky.
Many minutes too late, the heat begins to subside and you rejoice at being alive. You experience a massive endorphin rush.
Proprietor Jeff Funk says the kitchen has a small dropper of an even hotter pepper sauce, if diners prefer something a little spicier.
Some hard-to-find classic hot sauces are sold at Jamerica, 1236 Williamson St., if you need your fix at home. Local musician Jay Moran makes a Wisco Tropicál Hot Sauce inspired by the sauces of the Caribbean. His novel blend of cranberry and habanero is especially addictive on fish, and is available at Metcalfe's Markets and other local retailers. Two young Madison food startups combine peanuts and chilis to extra-spicy effect. YumButter makes an on-trend spicy peanut butter dubbed "Asian Jazz," available at local markets. Calliope Ice Cream offers a "Hot Peanut Butter" flavor that combines peanut butter and Sriracha. The flavor is often available at the Chocolate Shoppe, Ian's Pizza, Stalzy's, Next Door Brewing and the Weary Traveler, as well as local markets.