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Jul 27, 2009 10:51 AM

Why is it so hard to get spicy Chinese and Thai food in the DC Area

There is a thread on Hunan Legend's secret menu, now not a secret thanks to CH, where some of the posters complain that it is har to order the authentic dishes. One of the arguments in favor of Grace Gardens is that the owners want you to try the authentic stuff if you show any inclination to do so. Its just too darn far for me to ahve gotten there yet, but someday soon.

I have to say that I don't generally have this problem in NYC, LA, SF. There I can usually convince the waiter with an introductory conversation that we like the real thing and are at the restaurant to discover what they do different/special etc. I've had the last laugh at places like the original Ocean Star in LA which gave me lobster sashimi in an attempt to put me off, the head of the lobster walked off the platter. But boy was that a great dish.

I had a fish sashimi where the body was used as a serving piece and the fish was opening and closing its mouth as we were eating the slices. My wife told me to stop playing with our dinner!

I have been served kidneys and liver and blood in Sichuan restaurants (very good too) on my first visit. Brandy Ho's and Henry's Hunan made dishes so ma la ma la that you remembered them for days after. Still, there are places here where you can talk till your blue int he face and you are not going to get the real deal.

Tempt Asian has yet to see a return visit from me as the meal was quite good but annoyingly not spicy.

One of the real shames about Nava Thai's move to its new digs is that even if you order the food spicy and ask them to make it really spicy, it just is not as spicy as it was at the old place.

At Vit Goel, to get really spicy soon doo boo, I have to order it spicy spicy spicy spicy and then tell them I have Korean friends and eat it really Korean spicy and then I am likely to get what I want. But all is not like this: At Gamalsot, order something spicy and be prepared to have your tongue melt if you didn't really want spicy! Honey Pig's Chul Pan is hot enough to etch concrete but boy is it good!

Not that Hunan Legend is in my normal area of dining and I have GG to go to first, But I hope these two places will not follow the dumbed down approach.

I mean I don't have a secret menu at my restaurant and I don't make you pass an authenticity test before I let you order the stuffed duck neck where if you fail, I really give you breaded chicken fingers with mambo sauce because I don't think you're ready for duck neck stuffed with gizzards & hearts. You want tripe o rtongue and its on the menu: have at it. I will probably tell you to try it especially if I think its somethign you have never tried before. They always say you will always remember your first tongue. Or somethign like that! ;)

But even after probably 100 visits to Joe's Noodle House, I washaving trouble getting things truly ma la if Audrey wasn't there. When it happened again (serving me the wrong dish and then remaking it not spicy) I stopped going for over a year. Now, no problem but what a way to have to get what you want! There is a thread right now on about Joe's and how hard it is for some to get real ma la and how others have it figured out. Maybe they should have a release for us endorphin addicts to sign:

How hot do you want it? {check only one}
__Spicy {and I usually eat at PF Chiang's so just walk past the wok with a chile pepper}.
__Spicy {I like hot polish sausages and the green sauce at El Pollo Rico so make it a little spicy}
__Spicy {I regularly eat amercianized Chinese and Thai so add about 1/2 of the usual amount of hot}
__Spicy {I like the real stuff so make it as if I was from {insert the name of your home city}
__Spicy {make it like I was your crazy uncle who loves food so hot it hurts your eyes just to loook at it}
__Spciy {Hotter than the above!}

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  1. To be kinda blunt: high concentration of lawyers + amount of people who THINK they can handle lots of spice but end up not being able to handle as much as they thought + cultural misunderstandings on both sides = disaster.

    I know this isn't the case for everyone. I know it's frustrating sometimes. But honestly, the restaurant owners are trying to cover their own butts here. Having grown up in the "industry", you won't believe what some people try to get away with, including the "I didn't say to make it THAT spicy! What are you, trying to kill me?! I have a heart condition!!" type of crap that leads to almost-violence and heated arguments.

    If you really want it very spicy, just ask for some chili oil/whatever on the side and add it to your dish yourself (after asking the staff to make it spicy for you and finding it not sufficiently spicy enough).

    4 Replies
    1. re: yfunk3

      Adding chile does not a proper spicy dish make.

      And you think LA doesn't have more lawyers?

      What about your second or third trip to the same restaurant and saying last time is wasn't hot enough and then it comes out just as hot. And why is it not a problem at Mexican joints or Korean? No Korean Lawyers? Or Koreans can't get sued?

      I think your answer is the stock one, but way off base.

      I have been in the food business over 25 years now. I have had over 14 years in restaurants. I spent years at Whole Foods where lawsuits were not uncommon. Did that stop Whole Foods for selling olives with pits even though folks sued for breaking their teeth?

      1. re: deangold

        We usually get take out from our usual Thai place, but I remember eating in one time, and we split larg gai for an app. Man, we were almost tearing from the spice and downing water-all the while giving the servers "thumbs up". They seemed very pleased that the spice level was kicking our butts-in a good way.

        1. re: deangold

          When I said "industry", I meant the types of restaurants that you are talking about: small mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants, not Whole Foods or anywhere that can even remotely afford any semblance of attorney representation. Yeah, it's the stock answer, but it's the stock answer for a reason. And quite frankly, you're asking for a lot if you've only been to a restaurant a few times and you expect them to know exactly how spicy they made your dish the first few times. At most of these mom-and-pop restaurants, measurements aren't exact. It's more like a couple heaping teaspoons here, a couple heaping teaspoons there. It's basically up to the chef. If you don't like the spice level, then ask them to take it back to the kitchen and make it spicier.

          I have no idea what you are talking about with Korean restaurants. Your personal experiences do not mean this is the same throughout the entire metro area or country.

          And at most of these Asian restaurants, yes...all they do is add more chili to your dish to make it spicier. Most of the dishes are designed to be made with a few main ingredients supplemented by other ingredients that are kept in a lower stock, Indian restaurants being the possible exception.

          1. re: yfunk3

            Lets see to go point by point....

            When I had the probelms at Joe's. I had been going there for several years and it was just when Audrey was not there that there was a problem. When I go to a restaurant, I accept that the first time may not be hot enough, but when I go the second time and I say, last tie I was here I ordered spicy and it was very mild to me, this time make it very spicy and I get it mild as last time, I don;t think the issue is my expectations.

            With Korean restaurants, I have been to about 35 to 40 in the DC area and have come across this problem only at Vit Goel but the second time I was there they told me to order it spicy spicy spicy spicy and that has worked every time I remember to do so. Not all were good enough to merit a second trip, but I never noticed a dumbing down of the food because I am not Asian or a Korean speaker. I have never had any trouble ordering tripe or other ofal like I have had at Thai and Chinese palces on a regular basis. Sometimes I am asked "Do you like that?" and when I say yes, their smiles at my appreciating the wide range of their food culture is huge.

            I have had instances where the first time I go to a restaurant I go with Chinese who order in Chinese and the food comes out with a intensity to the sauces, wether hot or mild. The next time I go by myself and order and the sauces comeout thinner, less flavorful and the heat level pulled down. Why is it different? That is the point!

            In Sichuan cooking, there are so many ways to add heat to a dish: chili paste with garlic, red pepper paste, chili oil, green hot peppers, whole red chili, red chile flakes etc. With many Sichuan recipes, the main ingredients are first partially cooked by various techniques. Then the wok is cleared and the final assembly begins with oil and usually the flavorings: garlic, pepper, ginger, whole red chili, fresh chiles and sichuan peppercorns, all of which need a time in hot oil to release their flavors. Next comes the veggies & meats and then the finishing ingredients which include the red chili oil. So dumping red chili oil on a dish at the tabble approximates only one aspect of how heat gets into a Sichuan dish. There is a place for adding chili oil, but that is for extra heat, not for the basic construction of the dish.

            And again, why does this not happen in LA whee you can go to 100's of hole int he wall Thai places and get searingly hot foods with no prooblem by saying I want it Thai spicy? Why does this not happen at a similar rate in SF?

      2. Dean: Thai Luang in Herndon serves very spicy Thai food that is also very tasty. There are a lot of Thai restaurants out this way and Thai Luang definitely stands out for heat levels.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Bob W

          Especially the northeast style curry, which I had Friday. Tarin Thai also does a good job (Herndon also).

          I've hardly -if ever - had this problem, but I know that once at Thai Square with friends ONE friend only got singled out and they wouldn't give him spicy.

          I do think that the way you order and what you order helps. For instance asking for Kee Mao instead of drunken noodles, and also ordering some larb gai, or a more creative appetizer than satay can help. Back to Thai Square, there's a spicy squid salad that cannot be made unspicy. By ordering that, they know you've got skin in the game.

          1. re: Dennis S

            Dennis, the discussion started over folk ordering non traditional dishes. You can go to Joe's and how spicy you get your food depends on who takes your order and their impression of how hot you really want it. As opposed to a discussion of how hot you really want it.

            I have tried to order non spicy tripe or kidney or liver dishes at many a restaurant. I have received more "oh! You won't like that responses in the Washington DC area where I have lived and eaten Asian foods for 9 years than in LA where I lived and ate Asian Foods for 25.

            At Gamalsot, when I ordered blood sausage soup, they simply asked if I knew it was blood sausage and when I said yes, they were pleased as punch that a non Asian was interested in one of the more challenging dishes on their menu rather than being afraid I wouldn't like it.

            I never order Satay. I would think the restaurant would take a hint when I order 4 or 5 dishes and they are all marked as spicy. Thai Square is one of the places where I never had the problem but I haven't been for a year or so. A&J is another which, while not specializing in spicy, delivers a consistent level of spice.

            Bob: I rarely get to Hearndon but if I do I have a Thai place to try.

            Littlew1ng: Spicy hot Italian in pretty much an American invention. In general, Italians don't use much in the way of hot chiles and garlic exceppt for garlic in the south. But even in Napoli, there is far less garlic in the meal than at a good Italian American joint in NJ, Philly or NYC. I know my use of garlic far exceeds that of any place I have ever eaten at in Montalcino or Venezia.

            1. re: deangold

              I think the Gamalsot phenomenon is another Butterfly Effect issue: since the demand for authentic hasn't crossed that tipping point yet, the places that because of location get more American traffic tend to quickly have enough bad experiences to be gunshy, while the more out-of-the-way places that cater more to native eaters of the cuisine in question are more likely to *potentially* be open to giving authentic food to non-native diners--but because they have fewer non-native diners, they're also liable to get gunshy quickly if the first few non-natives who come in end up not liking the authentic dishes. I think Grace Garden is one of those rare places in this area where the first few people who tried the authentic stuff loved it, and then thanks to chowhounds that initial reward feedback got reinforced for the owners tremendously. I shudder to think about what would have happened to their menu if the first months had gone just a bit differently...

        2. i've found that my tolerance of spice level depends heavily on what ingredient brings the heat. if it's sriracha or gochujang, dump it all over my food, seriously. if it's crushed red pepper or cayenne, be generous but proportional. if it's tabasco or other kind of cajun hot pepper sauces be gentle. is it like this for others too? and you're right, dean, spicy chinese and thai IS harder to find, but my real spicy search is for a good hot marinara sauce. the atomica pizza at pizzeria paradiso barely even scorched the surface of my tongue.

          1. I think a large part of it is a Butterfly Effect situation, where small differences in initial conditions grow into big differences in final results. For whatever reason, DC historically has had less of a tradition of authentic Asian food being eaten by non-Asians, and we're caught in a feedback loop--most people here *don't* want spicy, and so even if they ask for spicy, if they get authentically spicy, they're going to send it back. A few months ago I was at Sakulthai having the floating market noodle soup, and a group sat down next to me and were so entranced by the smell and sight of it that they asked the waitress what I was having and one of them ordered it for himself. She actually pointed out that I had ordered it Thai-style, and offered it to him Americanized, but he insisted on the Thai style. She asked him how spicy, and he said he wanted it as spicy as mine (which was their "default" spiciness--I hadn't asked for Thai phet, as I often do). So his bowl came out, and after a few minutes of trying to eat it, he sent it back and ordered another dish, because he couldn't take either the heat or the "weird" meat in it (tendon). Rewarding a behavior is great, but just a few punishments can wipe out a ton of past rewards; it takes just one or two experiences like that for a waitron to "give up" on the American who thinks that they want it authentic. So until we reach some tipping point of the proportion of people in this area who *actually* want things authentic, which I think a lot of other big cities have, most staff are going to be conditioned to not believe people who say they want it spicy.

            There are also issues of differing interpretations of subjective words like "spicy"; I know that at a few Asian restaurants in the area, certain waitrons either do or don't like spicy food themselves, and so how spicy the food is that you get varies according to that as well. (Using Sakulthai as an example again: there's one waitress there who can't stand spicy; after the first time she saw me eat a slightly-spicy dish that she found blazingly hot, everything I order from her is twice as spicy as from anyone else there, I suspect because she tells the chef "the crazy guy is here again; crank up the heat" since she thinks that I'm a pepper fiend based on that one mildly spicy dish.) You get the same issue w/ things like what a particular restaurant considers "medium-rare" for meat, but there you also have objective measurements like color and temp and firmness that you can discuss, and you also don't have language barriers to potentially fight with. I think all of that also feeds into the "tipping point" problem, where there just isn't enough of a regular demand for the spicy food for conventions to develop about just how spicy someone wants something when they say "spicy", and so the quirks of the waitron have a much greater impact on the result.

            With all of that said: get thee to Grace Garden. It's probably not as spicy as you would want (I think they do best on the more subtle dishes), but it will be worth the trek.

            1 Reply
            1. re: sweth

              Too bad they are not open at 11pm when Kay and I usually eat. It is definitely on the to do list.

            2. maybe i'm way out of your high-spice-tolerance league, deangold, but when i order som tum and pad kee mao "spicy" at thai square, my eyes tear up, and my lips burn. YEAH, BABY! even then, i add some vinegar-with-chili on top of the kee mao (which is better, by the way, with minced chicken, and caramelized-char areas on the noodles). i see above that you've had success at thai square with your spicy requests. would you say the dishes i describe are "spicy" or sort-of-dumbed-down-for-americans "spicy"? i need to calibrate my spice-o-meter! ;-)).

              also, you can't get spicy-hot authentic or unusual dishes at hong kong palace?

              ps, anyone know about "thai temple" that's in tara thai's old ballston space? i was never impressed by tara thai.

              4 Replies
              1. re: alkapal

                i ate there (thai temple) nothing special really to be honest....i liked the kimchee soup, but i don't think my dining companions appreciated me ordering it, hahaha. very pungent. it's a pretty restaurant, and we liked the drinks, but the food i had was meh.

                1. re: alkapal

                  I said that Thai Square is one of the places where it is not a problem getting spicy but it's been 12 months at least since I was there. Their som tum was delightfully spicy. I have not had the pad kee mao. Ruan Thai also is pretty good about spicy orders.

                  1. re: alkapal

                    Order Som Tum Boo Kapee (papaya salad w/crab and shrimp paste) and let them know you want it spicy..they'll take care of u ;)... Thai Square

                    1. re: akster

                      their regular som tum is spicy enough for me.