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What's up with spice wimps in this town?

As a former Texan who enjoys a little heat in my food, I'm pretty frustrated trying to order spicy cuisine here.

Last night, my partner and I got the Ibiza bocadillo at Meza on Capitol Hill, which comes advertised thusly: "Fresh and spicy like this island in the south of Spain, a sandwich of seared scallops, jalapeños, lettuce, and fresh garlic aioli." Our waiter even warned us that it was spicy and we assured him that we knew and wanted that.

It had no discernible heat! None.

I even picked out one of the alleged jalapeños and ate it separately. Zip. I've gotten more kick from certain sweet peppers. Where on earth do they find capsaicin-free jalapeños?

This has happened to us at a variety of restaurants in Seattle. I routinely order "5 stars" at Indian, Thai and other Asian restaurants (and re-assure them that I really mean it), in order to get heat that would be a 1 or 2-star level in Texas or D.C.

WTF? Who taught all the restaurants that we're a bunch of spice wimps?

And any tips for getting the heat you need in this town?

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  1. Order the Szechuan Crab at Seven Stars Pepper Restaurant in the International District. The perfect blend of heat and flavor to make one of the best seafood dishes in the region. (Their other Szechuan offerings will appeal to you as well.)

    1 Reply
    1. re: Leper

      I was so disappointed with the Szechuan Crab at Seven Stars Pepper....one of the most overrated dishes mentioned on this board! And the other dishes we had there were sloppy-textured and just not fresh.

    2. "Where on earth do they find capsaicin-free jalapeños?"

      Texas A&M, of course :-(. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TAM_Mild...

      These bland 'chiles' were developed for the bottled salsa market *cough*Pace*Old El Paso*cough* and have thoroughly infested supermarkets all over the western US.

      2 Replies
      1. re: DiveFan

        Interesting. I sometimes get jalapenos with no spice, while other times I get them that have plenty of spice, at the store. I always try a little piece raw first to see if I'm dealing with the no spice or regular kind before using them. But I just assumed it was something to do with the growing cycle, the way that, say, oranges can be sweet and juicy or dry and not so sweet. I wonder if stores knowingly order these but don't label them spice free for the consumer.

        1. re: DiveFan

          A cynic, I suspect genetic engineering, but time in El Paso, where jalapeno is nearly staple, taught me to expect much varability in jalapeno. We often got lunch at a local truck-stop with a good salad bar (uncommon there). We brought along a newcomer one day, and, when he saw me taking several on my plate, did the same. Not noticing that I had taken a tiny bite and spent a few moments with the experience before proceeding to chomp, big-time, he went straight to the chomping. Poor boy. I fear I ruined his experience of Texas.

        2. In our experience, if you are not asian, you will initially have a hard time getting served really spicy food in Asian restaurants because of one too many experiences with people ordering food, saying they want it spicy and then pitching a fit when it is. That said, when you have been someplace more than once and demonstrated your ability to eat things that are not americanized, try telling the waiter you want it spicy like if a Chinese person would order it or "indian spicy" or what have you. Works pretty well for me. Also helps to be able to say I like it spicy in which ever language.

          That said, if you are driving around in the Stanwood area, there is a restaurant that actually has seriously spicy chicken wings. Its called Leatherheads.

          4 Replies
          1. re: jenn

            I think that's good advice. I've seen that happen, where people order spicy then complain when it's too spicy. I think it happens a lot. I don't have any trouble getting spicy food, but I'm a regular at the Szechuan and Thai places I like. I didn't have to become a regular at Noodle Boat to get truly spicy food there, so if you're desperate, you might try them.

            Noodle Boat
            700 NW Gilman Blvd Ste E104B, Issaquah, WA 98027

            1. re: jenn

              If you're looking for hot, try Jai Thai in Fremont (http://www.jaithairestaurant.com), which has an 'adventurous' menu that is really awesome...BTW I think their other food is great too. I'm a white guy (grew up in Hawai'i, raised by Texans so I'm all culturally messed up) and was able to get them to serve me the Country Curry Thai Hot. The only person who worked there that said it wasn't quite hot enough to be Thai Hot was the only person actually from Southern Thailand...which is evidently where the really hot food is.

              I do go there frequently, but if you chat them up (and this is a general rule for me when eating any cuisine) about the food before ordering, they'll serve it to you however you'd like it.

              Jai Thai
              543 NE Northgate Way Ste I, Seattle, WA 98125

              1. re: Thiggy78

                +1 on jai thai.

                +1 on it being incredibly difficult to get truly spicy food here.

                +1 on saying "Thai Hot." You could always ask for a little minced bird chile on the side, maybe in a little condiment dish with some fish sauce.

                1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                  or BYOH(ot). My favorite butcher and hot sauce purveyor sells Tabasco bottles small enough to slip in the breast pocket of your dinner jacket. Or keep a little bottle of hot chile oil in your purse.

            2. I am also a former Texan and I very much agree with you. Spice as in heat is not much up here. In addition, spice as in big, strong, bold flavors is also not favored, such as in reviews. I have found that if a local reviewer says something is too overwhelming, I will probably like it.

              That said, I have not had a problem with non-spicy 5 star Asian food. I do agree that context makes a huge difference. When we order Indian, I can pronounce it all correctly, but my husband can't (over the phone). We get discernably different levels of spice depending on who calls. I do think asking for "Indian spicy" may help.

              Finally, I have definitely noticed that the jalapenos available in the stores over the past year or so are larger and way too mild. We are growing our own peppers now!

              1 Reply
              1. re: cocktailhour

                I, too, have found unreliable the heat levels in fresh jalapenos here. I buy the serranos now...or even the thai chilis for more reliable 'heat' in my cooking.

              2. I think it is the Pacific Northwest personality that you are running into - Scandanavian heritage, mild climate, polite people. These are not the kind of people who are going to serve you a kickass meal. Chill out Tex, savor the moderation!

                2 Replies
                1. re: JohnnyT

                  I'm all for moderation. In fact, I consider myself a spice moderate. I've known some spice freaks who ask for "10 stars" at places that'll really sock it to you and then add more from the condiments section. I'm not one of those people. It just seems that the whole scale has shifted here and the default setting is no heat, even on dishes labeled "spicy."

                  I imagine the true spice freaks just have to raid the pepper section at QFC and cook their own.

                  1. re: jjmccoy

                    Is 'spicy' synonymous with capsicum heat?

                2. That Ibiza sandwich might well have been spicy - by Spanish standards.

                  1. The, now defunct, Szechuan Beanflower had a butt-kicking Water Boiled Beef. I do not know if that chef's new joint, Szechaun 99, does, but it's worth asking. Seems to me somebody recommended a particular special menu there?... to get the fiery stuff. Posters here are mostly right, our Scandanavian heritage left out some important flavors, but several are still seen in Chinatown.

                    2 Replies
                      1. re: mrnelso

                        The 2 Szechwan flagships in Seattle - Bamboo Garden and Szechwan 99 will deliver the spice upon request. Although I've heard complaints about food censoring when ordering-while-not-Mandarin-speaking.

                        Bamboo Garden
                        202 106th Pl NE, Bellevue, WA 98004

                      2. I 'd suggest that you ask for the spice tray at any thai restaurant you go to. It usually has 4 different kinds of spicy condiments, the hottest being the thai chilis in fish sauce.

                        I've found that asking for hot sauce and doctoring them up on your own is the only sure-fire way to get the super spicy taste one is looking for.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: soypower

                          If you ask them to make whatever your ordered with fresh chilis (normally they'll use chili flakes to cut down the heat), they'll do that and it will make the dish substantially hotter. I usually order my food with fresh chilis and then ask for the spice tray as a fallback (and because I love those chilis in the fish sauce).

                        2. I suspect that, as a city, we are not much different than many others. There is a perception that most, if not all people, cannot handle the heat (which is what I believe you mean by using the term spice). This is, obviously, untrue, but tends to be the rule around many restaurants. It is too bad, but predictable.

                          I, too, have the friends that go for the "15 stars" at Thai places. One place that I've found that is predictable every time is the Thai Siam on 15th and 83rd in Ballard/Crown Hill. They only go to 4 stars. 3 stars comes with a warning and is plenty hot. The quality of the chow can be a little hit or miss, but if it is on it is good.

                          Thai Siam Restaurant
                          8305 15th Ave NW, Seattle, WA 98117

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: BallardFoodie

                            According the owner of Pok Pok, a Thai place in Portland, Americans have problems with the funky, fermented Thai ingredients, than with the heat.
                            This is from an interview with him on The Splendid Table last year.

                            Maybe Portland is the place to go to prove how spicy hot you can take your food.

                            1. re: BallardFoodie

                              Ballard Foodie makes a good point. I hadn't thought about it before, but I've eaten Thai/Asian/Mexican/New Mexican/spicy cuisines in general all over the US, and I don't find Seattle restaurants any less spicy than anywhere else. I don't find the Thai in LA's Thaitown or Mexican in SoCal particularly spicy, and it's probably because they were cooking for an American blonde. It's probably about getting to be a regular at most places.

                              1. re: christy319

                                It's all personal experience and perception, of course, but I have found less spice (as in overall intensity of flavor) and less heat (spicy hot) in Seattle as compared to similar styles in Texas. The low bar for spice/heat in Texas is higher--that is, your standard dish, before asking for extra spicy or anything. you can get things 0 or 1 star here, and the equivalent is not in Texas.

                            2. There are two places on the East side that might suit you. One is the fairly new Spicy Talk Bistro in Redmond. http://www.yelp.com/biz/spicy-talk-bi...

                              There is also Spiced in Bellevue http://www.yelp.com/biz/spiced-bellevue

                              My husband grew up in Phoenix and loves hot and spicy food and does not think anything is hot and he was pleased with the spice level at these places. It is not just heat too - they do know how to balance the heat.

                              1. Bick's has an awesome fire roasted habanero and jalapeno app.

                                Bick's Broadview Grill
                                10555 Greenwood Ave N, Seattle, WA 98133

                                1. Just got back from Jolly Roger Taproom, where I ate "Fritters of Fury" (Habanero fritters). They were a mite gummy, but with fair flavor and real heat.
                                  This got me thinking about other hot items in town:
                                  At the Wingdome, on Greenwood, the main menu offers wings in several heat levels, like 1-2-3-4-5, from mild to hot. Even bigger numbers are on a different menu page altogether. As I remember, #7 was made with ground Habanero seeds - OMG - and is the hottest thing I ever ate in my life: I cried. I moaned. I writhed. I think I remember a fetal position, somehow.
                                  Tetsu Hellfire, at Samurai Noodle, is also quite good - flavorful and fiery. Nearby, Green Village has a spicy (loaded with garlic heat) noodle bowl that is no shrinking violet.
                                  The inscrutably-named Water Boiled Beef at the defunct Szechuan Beanflower was loaded with beefy flavor and, though served cold, was fiery hot. The chef moved on to become Szechuan 99, barely in Lynnwood. Maybe he still offers this. I hear, also, that you will encounter protective resistance to real Szechuan heat, there. I've also heard there is a special heat-menu, but do not know the password.

                                  Szechuan 99
                                  6124 200th St SW, Lynnwood, WA 98036

                                  Green Village Restaurant
                                  , Seattle, WA 98101

                                  7818 Greenwood Ave N, Seattle, WA 98103

                                  Samurai Noodle
                                  606 5th Ave S, Seattle, WA 98104

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: mrnelso

                                    The Jolly Roger Taproom is back open!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You just made my weekend. I missed them so much!

                                  2. One of our favorite budget eats is the food court at the Alderwood HMart (combined with a grocery shopping trip). I've been sampling various Korean dishes from one of the shops, some mild, some spicier. Today I had the spicy seafood noodle platter from the Noodle House (Chinese). While the noodle dish was not super hot, the kimchee side dish was refreshingly cool by contrast. Seems the favorite items from the Noodle House are a black beans noodles and spicy seafood noodle soup combo (which comes in a large divided bowl).

                                    1. dixies BBQ in bellvue. and alagator soul in everett

                                      1. I don't think it's just here in seattle, it's all over the country. Spicy, as in kick your a** hot seems to be what you want, and well that might not be the point of the heat spices in the food you are ordering. That siad, I've had hot-spicy food at the litle Lao-Thai place on MLK and certain dishes at Schezuan (sp) Cuisine on Jackson, like the Boiled Schezuan Fish can be intensely spicy. I grew up traveling in Asia and eating authentic Mexican and when I first moved here I missed the big kick .. but honestly have felt that the need for super hot left me missing on some of the nuance.

                                        1. Another thing I've found helpful is----without being pretentious or ostentatious---asking a question or two about the menu that only people who know their way around a cuisine would ask. I find I tend to get more authentically spiced and flavored dishes when I do so.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: eight_inch_pestle

                                            I've noticed that when I order "som tum" extra spicy, the heat level is always higher than if I order "green papaya salad". Sad but true.

                                          2. Rom Mai Thai has some good spicy food, just make sure you tell them "thai spice". When we ordered we said 4 or 5 stars and they asked if we wanted it "thai spice" so we said sure, and should've realized when our server said "you want thai spice..wow" we were in for a treat. Well, it was too spicy for me (and I find 5 stars in most thai restaurants bland) but my spouse loved it. So yea, give it a try :)

                                            Rom Mai Thai Restaurant
                                            613 Broadway E, Seattle, WA 98102

                                            1. I thought about this thread this week when I was in California for work--I ate almost nothing but Thai and Mexican and didn't notice that it was spicier than what you'd get here.

                                              1. Go to Dixie's Barbeque in Bellevue. Ask for "The Man".

                                                1. I don't find Texas spicy very spicy since it largely uses jalepenos which aren't a terribly spicy chile. That being said, I find that restaurants that just mark their dishes as spicy (without the 1 to 5 stars rigamarole) tend to serve spicier food. And as other people here have mentioned, in Thai and Indian restaurants, you can always ask for the spice tray .. my daughter, whose capacity for heat is apparently limitless, always does that.

                                                  1. There is a Thai restaurant in the U District -- Som Tam Thai -- where they are pretty generous with the chiles in some dishes (particularly the Isan dishes -- som tam and the like). It took them a few visits to get used to me. Nowadays when I walk in and order a som tam, the waitress just says, "five-star spicy?" with a big grin and an ominous glint in her eye.

                                                    The last couple of visits were not as spicy as I remember. There were a couple of times I got take-out there that my south Indian grandma would have found pleasantly spicy (i.e. it corroded a hole in the take-out box).