Editor's note: Please welcome friend of Serious Eats (and former contributor) Joe DiStefano, a.k.a. "The Man Who Ate Queens." These days Joe is the chief writer of Chopsticks and Marrow, where he explores food all over Queens and beyond. Today he's dropping by to dispel some myths about ordering spicy food in New York restaurants. — M.F.
I don't remember the first time I ordered food "Thai spicy," but I certainly remember the last. Rego Park's very own barbecue legend Robbie Richter and chef of the forthcoming Roadhouse L.A. and I were having a late dinner at Zabb Elee in Jackson Heights. We ordered pla som, a fermented and fried fish served with chilies on the side, a delicate catfish soup with greens, and a papaya salad. The last I insisted be prepared "Thai spicy." Richter was especially keen to try the soup having developed an affinity for Thai flavors from his work with Zak Pelaccio on Southeast Asian barbecue joint Fatty Cue.
The fish and the papaya salad came out first, the latter shot through with bird's eye chilies and fresh garlic. There was plenty of fishy funk too and I relished balling up sticky rice and dredging it through the piquant pool at the bottom of the plate. Richter looked like he was at about his spice tolerance. And then the soup came out.
"Joey, does this taste too salty?" Richter asked, "because I can't fucking tell, my palate's blown out. Why do you have to order things Thai spicy!?" Why indeed? I'd been doing it at Thai restaurants throughout Queens for the better part of a decade, whether out of a sense of machismo—the mighty white food explorer is here, bring on the chilies—or as part of a misguided, but well-intentioned quest for authenticity, if I don't ask for my grub Thai spicy they'll shower it in sweet sauce and peanuts, or even worse—pineapples.
It usually went down something like this: "I'll have the papaya salad with raw crab, make it Thai spicy." "You, sure?" the waitress would ask. "Yeah, I'm sure," I'd respond. Soon would come the som tum, a haystack of shredded papaya surmounted by hacked up blue crabs, pitch-perfect in terms of funkiness and with a sharply mounting spiciness thanks to fresh chilies. Within the first few bites I'd be reaching for the ice water, my tongue starting feel as if it were pierced by tiny hot needles and soon the telltale sign of spice overload: the outer edges of my lips would start to burn.
"Is it too spicy?" the waitress would ask as she refilled my glass of water. "No this is perfect," I'd say, nose running and eyes tearing, but I'd usually be thinking, "Yep, I am A-OK fine, I always look this when I eat." And I would always finish the entire order; I wasn't gonna lose face over Thai spicy. After all, I'm representing an entire race here. If I don't torture myself like this, these guys will be serving Polynesian food to whitey in a heartbeat.
Once I even brought Bret Thorn, a Thai-speaking NRN blogger, to Elmhurst's Ploy Thai because I had been served a som tum with barely a hint of spice. The waiter's explanation: "We don't make it spicy unless you ask." When I returned with Thorn, he ordered in Thai, saying to the waiter, "Ta mai pet, mai arroy," or "If it's not spicy, it doesn't taste good."
A while back I asked Thai food maven Andy Ricker why whenever I ordered food Thai spicy it's always just too damn hot, almost as if the kitchen has something to prove. His response: "Au contraire, that's because they often simply chuck in a shitload of crushed dry chilies to satisfy the farang's need to prove something to themselves or their friends. Thai cooks aren't out to prove anything to you, they know how the food is supposed to taste, according to their upbringing. They're just being accommodating." (You can see more of Ricker debunking Thai food myths here.)
A few weeks ago I popped into Thailand's Center Point, a homespun little spot that I prefer to the Thai juggernaut Sripraphai. "Do you want it spicy?" the waitress asked of my order of tom zap ka dook moo, spare ribs in spicy soup ($9.95) . "No, not Thai spicy," I started to explain. "So you want it mild?" the waitress asked.
Now I was in a panic. Surely I'd been pegged as a white man who'd soon receive a dumbed-down version of the dish. "No, no, no," I exclaimed, "Make it like you would back home." And then I remembered a phrase Ricker taught me, "Tham Thai Thai noi khrap"—"Make it as you would for a Thai person."
The resulting "Thai homestyle dish" consisted of several meaty ribs cooked to spoon-tender softness in a galangal and makrud lime leaf-scented broth. Dried chilies and a few fresh ones gave it just the right amount of heat. Ricker, who vociferously debunked the notion of Thai spicy, would be proud.
These days I'm quicker to ask for the khruang phrung, or "stuff to adjust flavors," as Ricker says it's called in Thai, than I am to utter the words "Thai spicy." The caddy of four seasoning agents—sugar, ground dry chilies, mild green chilies in vinegar, and Thai chilies in fish sauce—can be found on the tables of New York City's better Thai restaurants. And to think we farang are stuck with just salt and pepper.
Hot as they can be, "Thai spicy" larbs and som tum are not the most fiery things I've ever eaten. That honor goes to a ceviche de pescado I once had at Rinconcito Peruano, a bygone restaurant in Hell's Kitchen. I'd requested that it be made bien picante, for you see, I was battling a raging hangover that day and placed much store in the restorative properties of a bracing serving of spicy lime-cooked fish.When it came to the table, there was just a little bit of finely minced orange chilies strewn on top. I dug in and it didn't even trip the spice meter.
"I ordered this spicy," I said to the waiter, "Do you have any aji verde?" I asked, referring to the green Peruvian hot sauce commonly found at Peruvian roast chicken houses. "No," he countered, "but I will take it back to the chef and he'll fix it for you."
A few minutes later the waiter emerged from the kitchen bearing my "fixed" ceviche. It was now covered in finely minced ribbons of orange and red chilies. I'll never know whether Rinconcito's chef was screwing with the crazy gringo or not, but I suspect he was. Within minutes my entire mouth was ablaze my lips burning fiercely. When a bottle of Cusqueña Pilsener didn't quench the fire, I ducked into the restroom and swished cold water around my mouth. Macho man that I am, or rather was, I finished the entire portion.
One of my earliest memories of spicy food is the time my old man tried to make his own Chinese-style chili oil. My mother and I were upstairs and my father was in the kitchen frying peppers in oil in a cast iron pan. All of a sudden we started coughing and gagging as the weaponized capsaicin fumes wafted throughout the house. "Take that outside, Vito!" my mother screamed. That was the last time he tried to make chili oil.
Every now and then we'd make a trip to Vincent's Clam Bar in Westbury where we'd order scungilli in medium red sauce, with a little gravy boat of the hot sauce on the side. Chili head that he was, even my father was willing to admit that the highest level of the spicy marinara sauce was too much for him. I wonder what he would have made of the whole Thai spicy thing.
Even though my chili head masochism/machismo has mellowed over the years, I still sometimes overdo it. Tortas Neza makes a wonderful pickled onion and habañero condiment that's a great foil to his fatty, cartilaginous carnitas. It is also spicy as hell, and the burn doesn't let up until after the last bite of torta or taco. On more than one occasion I've I asked for a bit of quesillo cheese to tame the heat. Chewing on the cool, salty cheese takes care of the fire in minutes.
My friend Anne Noyes Saini, whose husband is North Indian, says she often has problems getting waiters in ethnic restaurants to serve her food that's up to native spice levels. So as a public service she's compiling a list of the appropriate phrases in several languages, including Thai, Indonesian, and Korean. You might want to keep a piece of cheese with you when you try the respective phrases out. Don't say I didn't warn you.
About the author: Joe DiStefano is a Queens-based food writer and culinary tour guide, or as he likes to say, an enabler of gluttons. In between food tours and blogging at Chopsticks and Marrow, he is writing a book on the history of culinary culture along the 7 line.