Thursday, November 19, 2009

Death Wings

Pluck U.'s Best Effort

Rumor had it that there was a place in the West Village that serves wings so hot you need to sign a waiver just to order them. When my friend Dave told me this, I felt my life take on a noble sense of purpose - like a priest who has been called to the clergy, my path was laid out in front of me.

The restaurant (though 'restaurant' is misleading... more like a cash register with indoor seating) is called Pluck U. Based on the varsity-style lettering on the sign (see below), I assume that this must mean the Manhattan campus of Pluck University and not a chicken pun pejorative. We got inside, and the guy behind the register was talking to a friend of his on the phone. Instead of hanging up, he indicated we should order by making eye contact, picking up a pencil, and continuing to talk to his buddy while squeezing the phone between his shoulder and his ear.

It turns out there was no waiver - just a normal wing scale that ranges from mild to medium to hot to 'death'. Suddenly I understood the sense of destiny I had felt earlier - if death be my predestination, let me accept it with peace and tranquility. 10 death wings it is.

Overall, it was pretty spicy - hotter than Atomic Wings, but only because they used enough sauce to fill a small lap pool. Also, atomic's wings tasted better - they had more flavor and nuance. Turns out the poet was right - death be not proud. And if you disagree, pluck you anyway.

Pluck U. has recently tried to buck its reputation as a party school by investing heavily in its physics department and offering free delivery.

So... much... sauce...

Friday, October 9, 2009

An Exorcism

The Demon

[As a recap, the Phaal Challenge at Brick Lane requires participants to eat a whole bowl of the Phaal Curry. If they are successful, they get a certificate and a free beer]

You have to respect marathon runners. They compete in a sport whose only objective is to see who can put up with the most misery over the course of 26 miles. No thrills, no distractions, just a grueling two hour grind as you feverishly await the finish line.

This is also how I would describe the Phaal Curry at Brick Lane.

It comes in a sixteen ounce bowl. The sauce is a deep brown and has a thinner consistency than most curries. The smell is kind of similar to SMAACMS, in that it has that same same lingering sour plum scent to it. And yes, it is damn spicy. Hotter than the ma paul. Hotter than the Pork on Fire or Jungle Curry. But even so, the hotness is manageable in moderation. Everyone who ordered the Phaal agreed that the first few bites of chicken are actually pretty tasty.

But having fought in the trenches, let me tell you - the Phaal's first secret weapon is that it accumulates. The hotness is manageable at first, but it does not abate, and each subsequent bite pours extra gasoline on the fire. Thank god for the mango lassi, a miraculous mango and yogurt frozen drink that helps you forget about the inferno for a few seconds.

Oh, and the Phaal's second secret weapon? INSURGENT TACTICS! Phaal, once in your stomach, lays low for a few minutes, establishing sympathy with local gastric juices and probably handing out pamphlets or something. Then, just when you think you might be able to win the Challenge, the Phaal you've already eaten declares its independence from you and tries to establish its own sovereign state within your digestive tract. This is not a pleasant feeling.

So a few bites after you start, you're already embroiled in a two-front war -- the sea of flames where your mouth used to be and the guerrilla warfare in your belly. There are other interesting physiological changes as well. Your hands and feet tingle slightly, as though they had all fallen asleep at once. Probably because all the blood from your extremities has rushed to heal the open wound in your stomach.

Also, check out the picture at the top of this post. Note how the sauce almost touches the rim and how its surface isn't broken by chunks of protruding chicken. That's because there were maybe 6 pieces of meat in there and the rest of the bowl is that hellish sauce. And to win the challenge, you have to eat the whole thing, sauce included. This presents a quandary - how do I eat the sauce? Put it over rice? Cut the chicken in to little bites and eat it that way? Or just take my spoon, dunk it in there, and eat it like soup?

Well, four of us tried the Phaal Challenge, and we each used our own approach. Isil ate a piece of chicken with each bite and she finished first. In fact, I was about 50% done, sweating and hallucinating when she casually spooned the last bit of phaal on to her plate. So evidently that way works best.

An interesting characteristic of really spicy food is that a few bites make you feel full. So after two bites of Phaal chicken, I felt stuffed and realized that I would never finish the bowl if I ate a lot of rice. So tried a different route: I braced myself, gulped 3 spoonfuls of pure sauce, and then sat back gasping and twitching. After a 5 minute break, I did it again. And then I did it four more times. After the last one, I stood up from the table and walked to the bathroom to splash some water on my face.

Honestly, I wanted to quit right then and there. But Isil had already finished, and Paul was well on his way. Only Jordan and I were struggling. I came back to the table and feebly polished off the last of the bowl. Unfortunately, Jordan had poured his over rice, and thus had a huge mound of phaal-soaked starch he would need to slog through in order to finish. He threw in the towel, and I can't blame him.

Later, when my free beer came, I couldn't even drink it. I just went back to my apartment, curled up in the fetal position, and waited.

Twenty four hours later, I could finally put the experience behind me. I won't go in to detail about the event the next day that capped off the journey, but let's just say it felt exactly like the title of this post.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Day of Reckoning

I have a confession to make. For a long time, I've had a good idea of what is most likely the hottest dish in New York, but I've been postponing the trip because I wanted to build up my tolerance first.

Check out the following video:

The Phaal Curry from Brick Lane is legendary, but what really impressed me in the video is that the guy is wearing a GAS MASK as he makes the sauce. In any case, I'll be taking the Phaal Challenge this Thursday. To practice, I've been taking a daily dose of SMAACMS with dinner each night (and inevitably paying for it several hours later). Wish me luck!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mmmmm Bibimbap

A Bowl of Yook Ke Jang

Since I try to involve new cuisines in my spicy food quest whenever possible, I was excited when a friend of mine told me a certain soup at Bonjoo would light me up. Bonjoo is a trendyish new Korean place in the east village with lots of wood paneling and the kind of background music you usually hear at upscale lounges (i.e. upbeat and electronic but not so intense that you're ready to break out the glow sticks).

The soup itself is called Yook Ke Jang and has beef, sprouts, glass noodles, and lots of chili powder. Overall it's pretty tasty, but I wouldn't consider it overly spicy. For a main course, I had the Jeyuk Dolsot Bibimbap. For those of us (like me) who aren't familiar with this dish, bibimbap is a popular Korean dish served as a bowl of warm white rice topped with various sautéed and seasoned vegetables and Gochujang (Korean Chili Pepper Paste). The ingredients are stirred together thoroughly just before eating. My particular selection came with thinly sliced spicy pork. It was delicious, but again, not too spicy, sigh...

Bibimbap, before being mixed together

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Slap Heard 'Round The World

Smack My Ass And Call Me Sally (The Slap Heard 'Round The World)

So I've been doing some research. The sensation of hotness found in most spicy foods is created by a chemical agent known as capsaicin, an active component of plants belonging to the Capsicum, or chili pepper genus. Some theorize that the pain sensation caused by eating capsaicin causes the release of endorphins, producing a pleasant feeling. How right they are...

Capsaicin can also be used as a topical analgesic for muscle and joint pain. Since the chemical mimics a burning sensation, the nerves are overwhelmed by the influx, and are unable to report pain for an extended period of time. As you've probably already guessed, it's also the active ingredient in pepper spray. In sufficient quantities, capsaicin can cause death - symptoms of overdose include "difficulty breathing, blue skin, and convulsions."

The Scoville scale, named after American chemist Wilbur Scoville, measures the concentration of capsaicin in a particular substance. A solution of the pepper extract is diluted in sugar syrup until the "heat" is no longer detectable to a panel of tasters; the degree of dilution gives its measure on the Scoville scale. Thus a sweet pepper or bell pepper, containing no capsaicin at all, has a Scoville rating of zero, whereas the hottest habanero peppers can have a rating of 200,000 Scoville units.

To make a more familiar comparison, Tabasco is rated at about 2,000 units. There are many sauces hotter than that, but the one that claims to be the hottest condiment in the world is called Slap My Ass And Call Me Sally (The Slap Heard Round The World). SMAACMS carries a of 500,000 units, and about a week ago, the bottle I ordered arrived in the mail.

It sat on my counter taunting me for days before I convinced Jordan to try some with me (thus fully exonerating himself from the Atomic Wings shame). We ordered some chicken sandwiches and made sure to have some glasses of milk ready on standby. Then we dabbed a few drops on roughly every other bite of sandwich. I'll be honest, there was no pouring involved. I used a dainty little skewer to apply the sauce, and it still singed every part of my mouth with which it came in contact. Taste-wise, it's interesting, but I wouldn't call it 'good'. If it were a fine wine, I would say it has a bouquet of plum and tobacco followed by notes of napalm and armageddon.

Also, for a science experiment, I poured a bit on to the back of my hand and let it sit for 10 minutes before wiping it off. 30 minutes later, it still stings.

The Chicken Sammich with some SMAACMS smeared on the left hand side. As you can tell, I didn't get too aggressive with it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to mention that substances with higher Scoville ratings than SMAACMS are available for sale, but those meant for consumption are only supposed to be use as an additive, not a condiment.

Law enforcement grade pepper spray carries a Scoville rating of 5 million units. You can even buy a bottle containing a pure capsaicin crystal with a Scoville rating of 16 million. And while we're talking about extremes, wikipedia mentions that the Scoville scale can be extrapolated to express the pungency of substances that are even hotter than pure capsaicin. One such substance is resiniferatoxin, an alkaloid present in the sap of some species of euphorbia plants, with Scoville scale rating of 16 BILLION. Nice.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Queens Thai

Papaya Salad with Seafood

So good. So very good...

Yesterday two friends and I hopped on the 7 train and headed out to Queens to try Sripraphai (pronounced see-PRA-pie). New York foodie blogs can't seem to rave enough about this place, so the fact they they have some spicy dishes was just icing on the cake. Even so, when we arrived and saw 25 people milling around outside in front of the restaurant, I was worried that coming on a Friday was a bad idea. Fortunately, the interior of the restaurant sprawls deep in to the building and then opens up to more outdoor seating in the back, so the turnover was quick. We were seated within 20 minutes, and eagerly flipped open the catalogue of foods available.

I say 'catalogue' because it's basically a notebook binder with 20 or so laminated pages containing an impossible number of choices. Luckily, part of the decision was made for us - I insisted on trying the Papaya Salad and the Jungle Curry, reputed to be two of the most fiery offerings. We also got some Fried Shrimp Rolls, an order of Drunken Noodle with Beef, and an order of Crispy Chicken with Pineapple.

When we ordered the papaya, the waiter asked how spicy we wanted it. "Thai spicy," I said. "Same thing with the Jungle Curry." His eyes got wide. "Really? Are you sure? Ok."

The overall favorite dish was the Papaya Salad with Seafood, where the interplay of chili spice, cool citrus dressing, and sweet peanut crunch made for a dish that was both spicy and refreshing. My personal favorite was the Crispy Chicken, and damn, I don't even know how to describe except that it was crispy, sweet, and awesome. Hotness-wise, Jordan and I agreed that the Jungle Curry was almost as hot as the Ma Paul from Szechuan Gourmet, but not quite. Even so, the schvitz was in full effect, bahlee dat.

Crispy Chicken with Pineapple

Drunken Noodle with Beef

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Assisted Suicide

'Suicidal' Wings

It was high time I brought the spice quest back home to America, so the next food on the list was buffalo wings. Crispy, greasy, salty, saucy, juicy, wonderful buffalo wings. My buddy Jordan and I set out for the 60th and 2nd location of Atomic Wings, which just happened to be situated inside a bar. Hmmm, wings and beer... sounded risky, but journalist integrity forced me onward.

You can specify the level of heat you want at Atomic, so naturally I went for the highest level: Suicidal. Jordan, meanwhile, decided to put on a frilly pink dress and order the "medium" (Five rungs below Suicidal and two rungs below dignity on the hotness ladder).

But when the wings came, we noticed the medium and Suicidal weren't actually that different. The only difference was that the Suicidal wings had a bigger nose - when you smell them, the vinegar-y, tingling, acrid sensation in your nostrils is almost overwhelming, as though they had poured a bottle of Tabasco on them. Needless to say, I loved them.

If you go, make sure to order a plate of waffle fries. They're just like regular waffle fries that have been dipped in the fryer an extra five or six times (awesome). You can also order the waffle fries covered in cheese sauce and gravy, but it's so messy you have to eat it with a fork, and I think that technically makes it a salad :(