By reputation, the Minnesota diner’s relationship with spice begins and ends with saying “when” to a server grinding pepper onto a salad.
Maybe we deserve that. Think of the ubiquitous Bloody Mary beer-back, or the fact that Amy Klobuchar spices up her hot dish by adding both pepperjack cheese and garlic.
Those admissions aside, the Twin Cities has plenty of places that can get a little steam rising off your tongue. Most employ ingredients and recipes that originated far from the mild, milky Midwest, from cultures where spice is as essential a culinary consideration as salt, heat, and time.
For centuries, people crossed oceans and mountains, traversed deserts, even killed each other, over spices. Now you only need a bike or bus pass and a sense of adventure to get them. Below, find seven Twin Cities restaurants and signature dishes that bring just the right amount of heat—and then some.
Mala Hot Pot
A little intimidated by hot pot? That’s fair! There’s a lot going on here. Here’s where we’d start: Spring for Little Szechuan’s $32 all-you-can-eat option, then order two broths, one savory, one spicy. You might as well make the latter choice the Mala—a distinctive, citrusy Szechuan pepper dish known for the oddly pleasing numbing effect the peppers have on your tongue. Order a combination of items from various sections—say: lamb, bok choy, wood ear mushroom, and lusciously squishy fish balls—and simmer some in each side of the pot, spooning or stabbing when you’re ready for another bite. Repeat many times, noticing how different broths flavor different ingredients (and vice versa). Bring close friends. You’ll be here a while, and you don’t want to go sharing drool and spice-sweat with just anyone. 422 University Ave. W., St. Paul
Pimento Jamaican Kitchen
Kingston Style Jerk Chicken with Kill Dem Wid It! sauce
The base ingredients here—mildly seasoned chicken (roasted bone-in), plantains, diced veggies, and a bed of rice—are nothing to cry about, until you throw in the delightfully named hot… substance. To call Kill Dem Wid It! a “sauce” is a misnomer. This here is a gel, a pitch-black distillation of habanero, lime, and soy sauce flavors that oozes, menacingly, and brings to mind the putrefied remains of a particularly nasty Ghostbusters villain. A little goes a long way: Drop one dab on a mouthful to get a sense of its awesome power. Use too much, and you won’t know if you’re chewing chicken or your napkin—and trust us, you’ll need one to wipe the tears from your eyes. 2524 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis
The signature sandwich at this narrow Roseville establishment is a celebration of richness. Golden-brown flakes of carnitas are wedged between avocado slices and refried beans, all held perilously in a buttery, crunchy baguette. La Tapatia serves its Torta Ahogada with a savory tomato sauce, which you should drink down like the tasty little cup of soup it resembles. Move on to the three salsas in squeeze bottles. Apply the brilliantly red homemade salsa picante, a smooth, peppery tomato blend that binds the little carnitas bits together. With fatty flavors top to bottom, no amount of salsa can steal the show, as layers just keep fusing into smoother, smoldering bites. 1237 Larpenteur Ave. W., Roseville
Shrimp Boil, Awesome Sauce, “Insane Ghost” level
Awesome Sauce’s pleasant, silly-sounding name indicates it combines garlic butter and Cajun-inspired “Louisiana” flavors. Order it at the Insane Ghost heat level, the highest of five available at Grand Catch, and you will, indeed, feel like you lost your mind, and then perished, but without losing your appetite. Beware the thin crimson broth pool beneath your shellfish. It’s like lava. So why did I catch myself dragging Texas toast and spinning a half-ear of corn in that wicked liquid? Because this is about as high in Scoville units as you can get without sacrificing taste for torment. There’s a garlicky, tangy, fishy depth here, one so gorgeous you’d happily spend your last conscious moments etching its glory onto the inner wall of a volcano. 1672 Grand Ave., St. Paul
Bangkok Thai Deli
Larb Glass Noodle Salad
Let’s say you want a taste-packed lunch that won’t send you to your afternoon meeting sleepy and sweating chili sauce. Bangkok’s larb salad is bright and light and green all over, thanks to mint, cilantro, green onion, cabbage, lettuce, and lime. Plate ratios tend to be heavy on protein, light on carbs, with red pepper flakes coloring mounds of crumbled pork sausage and a generous portion of shrimp. Order yours extra spicy, and/or kick up its potency with condiments already on the table. Wrap up a little ball in lettuce or cabbage for a juicy, leafy bite, and for a brief moment you’ll almost think this isn’t just a vehicle for a spicy cholesterol spike. 333 University Ave. W., St. Paul
This gem’s buried in more ways than one. First, Dong Yang exists in the weird little “town” of Hilltop (surrounded entirely by Columbia Heights). And then, it’s tucked away at the back of a Korean grocery store. Though about half the dishes feature the word “spicy” in either title or description, none could be more fascinating than this take on traditional jjigae stew. Here lies a perfectly balanced heat: Every bite shocks the senses, though none makes your hand hesitate before another thrust of the spoon. Tofu, disc-shaped rice cake, and pork belly float in a fiery orange broth, its flavor somehow even danker and zestier than cold kimchi – which, by the way, comes as part of their banchan. Koreans credit the fermented cabbage staple with their world-renowned longevity. That’s nice, though honestly we’d tell you to slurp this stew even if we’d heard it could kill you. 725 45th Ave. NE, Hilltop
The Portuguese who settled along India’s western coast wanted to recreate a favorite dish from back home, with a little local twist: a handful of chilis. (When in Goa, do as the Goans do.) Other items on this list come with a warning. Gandhi Mahal has a dare: “Suggested extra hot.” The little copper pot that soon arrives at your table is, somehow, as heavy as an anvil. Its contents emerge dark brown and mushy—at last, a dish everyone will be more tempted to smell than to photograph. Pile it on yellow basmati rice, or a wedge of squishy naan, though it’s not so hot you can’t eat it by itself. Feel the spice and fragrance rise right up your face; it comes on less like a threat than a familiar embrace, kind of like pulling on a wool hat. To be clear: The menu’s correct. In this case, extra is just right. 3009 27th Ave. S., Minneapolis
Disclaimer: City Pages is not responsible for any involuntary reactions, including but not limited to sweating, crying, or profanity, that may be caused by consuming the above dishes. If, on the other hand, you find these offerings disappointingly mild: Congratulations, you’re dead inside, please proceed to D-Spot.
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