Som Tum Poo at Andy's Thai Kitchen
Andy's Thai Kitchen may have just opened a couple months ago, but it immediately became known as one of the best Thai restaurants in town. It did so refusing to tone down the flavors of much of the menu, and nowhere is that more apparent than with the som tum poo, the restaurant's papaya salad with salted crab. Featuring thin strands of raw papaya mixed with loads of fresh chiles, this thing is an assault from the very first forkful; Thai cuisine fanatics know that it should be no other way. For some reason the salted crab only makes each bite more stinging, though this doesn't quite explain why the dish why we couldn't help but keep digging in.
Andy's Thai Kitchen, 946 West Wellington Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60657 (map); 773-549-7821
Nam Sod at Thai Aree
You know when a restaurant asks you how spicy you'd like something, but even "extra spicy" comes out mild? Thai Aree is not one of those places. Instead, "medium" here means "medium spicy for someone from Thailand." For those of us not from Southeast Asia, this can be jarring, but don't be a hero. Go with the nam sod (an incredible ground pork salad) and order it medium. It will be spicy enough to cause you to start sweating, but you'll still be able to admire the play of sour, sweet, salty, and bitter.
Thai Aree House, 3592 North Milwaukee Avenue, Chicago, IL 60641 (map); 773-725-6751
Mapo Tofu at Double Li
This one had to make the list. Double Li's version of the classic Sichuan dish features creamy cubes of tofu suspended in a silky, chile-laden sauce. Luckily, there is also some crushed Sichuan peppercorns sprinkled on top, which help numb your tongue to the intense heat of the sauce. It only partly works, but that's half the fun. This dish, more than any other on the list, is about the pleasure of riding the wave of spice. Just as it becomes slightly overwhelming, it cools off.
Double Li, 228 West Cermak Road, Chicago, IL 60616 (map); 312-842-7818
Tan Tan Men Ramen at Slurping Turtle
We had been warned by the waitress, but we didn't believe her. Well, not at first. The tan tan men ramen at Slurping Turtle has a red tinge to the broth and a slight kick, but not enough to warrant a serious warning. But all that changes towards the end of the bowl, when all the sudden the spice arrives. Perhaps the chiles were lurking down at the bottom of the bowl, but the heat is definitely welcome. This bowl of noodles had been taken off the menu during the summer months, but now it's back to warm us up during the cold winter.
Sabri Nihari at Sabri Nihari
At first glance, sabri nihari at the restaurant of the same name looks like a basic beef stew. Big hunks of beef bob up and down in a brownish gravy that looks like the opposite of something spicy. But while this one doesn't attack right away, it certainly builds into something impressive. After one bite, you'll notice a slight glow that starts to build in the back of your throat. A few minutes later and that glow is now a very real heat, which won't go away, no matter how much water you drink.
Salsas at El Pueblito
As Nick wrote during a review of El Pueblito, this taqueria features some of the most incredibly spicy salsas around: "The habanero-laced orange salsa is legitimately crazy, but in a completely captivating way. With a distinct citrus note, it heightens your senses, allowing you to detect all kind of flavors before the burn sets in. Use it with care, and it will reward you."
El Pueblito, 6712 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL 60626 (map); 773-381-1638
Torta Ahogada at Taqueria Traspasada
We first sampled the torta ahogada at Taqueria Traspasada well over a year ago while searching for alternatives to Hot Doug's, but the memory of the spice has stuck with us. That's probably because the whole sandwich is dunked in a chile de arbol salsa that is madly hot. Thanks to meaty roasted pork, the pain never overwhelms each bite, instead it just hovers in the background, waiting for you to finish eating. Then the heat really starts. Make sure you have something to drink with this one.
Taqueria Traspasada, 3144 North California Avenue, Chicago, IL 60618 (map); 773-539-4533
House Special Grilled Fish in Spicy Pan at Lao Ma La
Walk into Lao Ma La and the aroma of chiles and Sichuan peppercorns immediately hits your nose. The smell comes from a variety of dishes, but the one that gets to the heart of the matter the quickest is the House Special Grilled Fish in Spicy Pan. It's exactly what it sounds like: a grilled fish is tossed in a pan filled with a spicy broth. We advise adding vegetables to the order, so that you can get as much of the intoxicating broth as possible.
Will's Special at J.P. Graziano's
Will's Special was created by a customer at Riviera Italian & American Imported Foods named Will Philpott. To be sure, the mix of spicy sliced meats is a wonder, but a few of us feel like the sandwich truly come into its own at J.P. Graziano's. When Will sadly passed away earlier this year, Joe penned an ode to the remarkable creation:
Plenty of hot sopressata, prosciutto, and fresh mozzarella are piled into Italian bread from D'Amato's. The sandwich is garnished with Graziano's house slaw (shredded iceberg, dried oregano, red wine vinegar, and olive oil are mixed before being added to the sandwich), house-brand hot giardiniera, and the kicker—fresh basil. (I always order mine with extra giardiniera, which seems fitting for such an excessive sandwich.) While there is still plenty of meat on the sandwich, the fact that it is thinly sliced and applied with restraint ensures that meat isn't the only thing you taste.