Editor Hannah Lee and photographer John Michael Simpson tested their limits with some of the Bull City’s spiciest foods
By Hannah Lee | Photography by John Michael Simpson
After years of running Big Island Smoothie at The Streets of Southpoint, Fasil Tesfaye (pictured above) and his cousin Zewditu Zewdie struck out on a new restaurant venture called Goorsha in 2017. Kitfo has been on the menu since the Ethiopian restaurant’s inception. “It’s our favorite food in Ethiopia,” Fasil says. “Almost every Ethiopian restaurant that we go to, we kind of judge how good the kitfo is.” It’s served in one variation or another, but Fasil prides himself on building the dish with traditional flavors: slightly cooked (leb leb) minced meat spiced with clarified butter (niter kibbeh), cardamom and mitmita – a popular spice blend that draws its heat from serrano chiles and comes from the Gurage people who make up about 2.5% of the Ethiopian population. Fasil admits he keeps the mitmita to a minimum but encourages customers to add more as needed. “Most Ethiopians come in and ask for it on the side,” he says.
The traditional accompaniment for kitfo is gomen (collard greens), and it comes paired with a side of ayib – soft Ethiopian cheese similar to cottage cheese. The best part is eating it all by hand with injera, the spongy Ethiopian sourdough flatbread. The mitmita hits first with a definitive burn while the sting of fresh chiles lingers with every bite.
HEAT INDEX 2.5/5
Chicken Vindaloo, $14
Vindaloo is as traditional as it gets when it comes to Indian fare. The word itself comes from the Portuguese “carne de vinha d’alhos,” a dish of pork marinated in garlic and wine. The Goans of Western India got hold of it and spiced it furiously, and today’s dish remains truer to that modification. At Sitar, which has made the dish for well over two decades now, the vindaloo is loaded with red chiles (the star ingredient), with a few green chiles sprinkled in for good measure. The tang in the saucy curry comes from the vinegar, which balances the flavorful blend of aromatic herbs.
Sitar offers three different spice levels: mild, medium or hot. “[On] the scale of one to 10, hot is an eight and nine because, you know, that is the original recipe of the vindaloo dish,” co- owner Linda Davis says. The meat – customers have the option to choose among chicken, beef, pork or shrimp – is fork tender, but the heat doesn’t hit until you get an unexpected dose of green chile.
HEAT INDEX 1.5/5
Flamemango, $6 for 10 oz. pour; $7 for slushy
The cidery’s newest spicy concoction gives its popular Matador cider a run for its money. Founder John Clowney takes the seasonal Flamango cider and injects it with about 50 pounds of habaneros – thus creating the “Flame”mango. The tropical notes of mango and hibiscus agreeably play off the heat of the peppers. The drink sold out over a weekend when it was first released in early July. “It’s one of the hotter things we’ve made,” John says. “Just because they are fresh habaneros cut up and blended, and we basically filter it right into the cider. So you’re getting all of the heat.”
It’s a heat that hits the front of your tongue and stays with you in the back of your mouth and down your throat. The tropical flavors peek through only in the pauses between sips. Then the heat returns with your next sip. “I would definitely recommend trying it, but don’t expect it to cool you off ” even in its slushy form, Taproom Operations Manager Johanna Burwell says.
Note: Spiciness varies by batch. Check in with your bartender about the current heat level.
HEAT INDEX 2/5
Burnie Zass-hoff Vegan Wings, $10.49 for seven
The original Heavenly Buffaloes location – “The Shack” as some like to call it – opened for one simple reason in 2014: “We weren’t happy with the standard of wings that we could get [in Durham],” co-owner Mark Dundas says. “And if you want to say it’s for selfish reasons, then yeah.” Mark, along with co-owners Dain Phelan and Jennifer Phelan, ultimately created one of the most diversified wing menus you’ll see in the state: 19 different wet options and seven dry rubs. Among those options, the one that consistently knocks customers back on their “zass” is the the Burnie Zass-hoff sauce, served with vegan or chicken wings. You’re probably not surprised to see it on this list.
“The name just comes from associations with my friends back in Australia,” Mark says. “It was a running joke that came around, and I grabbed it and ran with it. And it works.”
“When we were trying to come up with the recipe for Burnie Zass-hoff, that was the worst for me,” says Dain, who can neither handle the Burnie Zass-hoff nor the slightly milder Zass-hoff.
The joint ranks its spicy wings on five levels, with Burnie topping off the list. It contains a combination of cayenne pepper, Fresno chili pepper and two of the world’s hottest peppers: Trinidad scorpion and ghost. But it’s not a heat where you need to sign a waiver. The savory flavors from the vegan wings hit first and only a minute or so later is when the heat begins to accumulate. “There’s no butter or fat to cut the heat from the ‘zass’ like there is in the traditional Heavenly Buffaloes sauces,” Jennifer says. The secret to avoid the burn: Don’t stop eating.
HEAT INDEX 4/5
Kimchi Jjigae Ramyun, $12
If you’re in need of a hearty pick-me-up, consider ordering the kimchi jjigae ramyun at Ramyun Time at Park’s Food St., Durham’s Korean food hall that opened in April on Old Chapel Hill Road. It might be the spiciest bowl of noodles you’ll ever eat.
Fiery, hearty and full of flavor, the kimchi- centric dish is great in chilly weather, but Koreans eat it anytime, anywhere. “People call it a ramyun instead of instant ramen,” owner Jay Park says. “Korea grew up so fast, developed so fast, and people always look for fast food, so it’s very popular and common in the country.”The base level of spice starts off at one, and customers can choose all the way up to level five (which is what we tried). “I usually eat it at level three,” Jay says. For every increase in spice level, Jay adds a dash of capsaicin, the active ingredient that produces the sensation of heat on our tongues. If you’ve never met a spicy dish you can’t handle, then this might be your match. If you can brave those capsaicin-laden slurps, then your reward is a flavorful combination of spicy kimchi, braised pork, enoki mushrooms, green onions and carrots. But the heat legitimately calls for whole milk and is guaranteed to make you sweat.
HEAT INDEX 5/5
Hot Guava Margarita, $10
This specialty drink has been on Dos Perros’ menu since its opening in the old Rogers Drug Store building in 2009. Owner Charlie Deal fell in love with authentic Mexican food growing up in California and wanted to bring those flavors to Durham. Perfect for late-summer sipping, the cocktail combines jalapeno-infused Lunazul blanco tequila with sweet, velvety guava nectar juice and tart lime. It’s hot, but not too hot. Sweet, but not too sweet. “I really like the color, honestly,” says manager Kevin Schaefer. “I mean, it’s a silly thing, but it’s really nice when there’s a visual component that’s appealing as well. When you can enjoy something with all of your senses.” It has us envisioning cool beach breezes and swaying palms, but in the heart of the Bull City.
HEAT INDEX 1.5/5
Basil Sauce with Shrimp, Squid and Scallop, $18
You know the drill at Thai restaurants: You pick an entree, and the server asks how spicy you want it. In many cases, you call out a number from a scale printed on the menu. And at the top of that scale are the scary words: “Thai hot.”
Thai @Main Street keeps to that tradition. Co-owner Jay Aparoj opened the downtown restaurant with three friends in May 2018. He’s no stranger to spice, having grown up in Bangkok before moving to Queens, New York, and then to North Carolina when he was 14. He’s worked in Thai restaurants ever since.
The dishes are made to order, so you can add spice to practically any meal. But you may as well go ahead and pick the most commonly spicy dish in Thailand: the basil sauce with seafood. It features onions, scallions, red bell peppers and, most importantly basil paste – a combination of naturally spicy Thai basil, garlic, ginger and other herbs. “If you order basil in Thailand, you don’t get one star,” Jay says. “You don’t get two. You get three-plus automatically, or they kick you out. They’re like, ‘Go somewhere else. I can’t do basil without heat.’” Make the dish “Thai hot,” and you’ll get a combination of both fresh and ground Thai chilies plus some ghost pepper for good measure. Thai @Main’s version of “Thai hot” is manageable, with a slow and gentle buildup of heat.
HEAT INDEX 2.5/5
The Extra Hot, $12
Head chef Chris Hassey joined the team at M Kokko in March 2020 and has been known to experiment with spice in its kitchen during his off-hours. He took his adoration for hot chicken to another level when he added a Nashville hot option for the menu’s original fried chicken sandwich just over three months ago. But the heat still didn’t match the staff ’s high heat tolerance, so now he’s taking it to a new level with “The Extra Hot,” which was added to the menu in early August. “The staff and I have been regularly eating it because we like it really hot,” he says.
Chris stays true to the traditional Nashville hot chicken by avoiding the saucy imitations that restaurants have tendency to produce outside of Tennessee. The heat comes from a spiced rub added to the fryer oil, which is meant to open up the mixture of Sichuan peppercorn, Korean chili flake, and the world’s three hottest peppers: Carolina reaper, ghost and Trinidad scorpion. The fried chicken is then topped with housemade pickles, all squeezed between a King’s Hawaiian hamburger bun. It’s not so spicy that you miss the super juicy and crispy chicken, but the Sichuan peppercorn sneaks up on you and numbs your mouth a little bit. Your eyes might even begin to water – ours did.
HEAT INDEX 4.5/5
Mango Chili Popsicle, $3
The all-natural popsicle features mango, cayenne pepper, sugar and water. “That’s it!” says LocoPops owner Summer Bicknell. It’s been a menu favorite since the family- friendly business opened 16 years ago. “This was one of the first flavors we made because we always wanted something very reminiscent of my time in Mexico,” Summer adds, referencing her travels to Tlazazalca, Mexico, where she ate plenty of sliced mangos seasoned with cayenne pepper. It was originally offered year-round, but they discontinued it after children would pick out the pop time and time again because of its bright orange color but weren’t big fans of the peppery kick. “You don’t want to try [to] talk a kid out of eating the orange pop because it’s spicy,” Summer says. “But that means we bring it back once a year for its fans.” It’s a flavor now only available in September. The cayenne won’t hit you on the first lick since the frozen treat is water-based, but you’ll start to feel it in the back of your throat as you whittle it down.
HEAT INDEX 0.5/5
Achari Paneer, $19
Viceroy co-owner B.J. Patel wanted to stay true to his roots and bring a completely unique Indian concept to downtown when he opened the restaurant in November 2016. “One of our goals was to create those true, British-style Indian curries,” Managing Partner Nick Singh told Durham Magazine back in 2017.That meant kicking the heat level up a notch.
And boy, have they stuck to that promise. Every customer can spice up their dish on a scale from one to six, but if you want the real heat, ask for “fire in the hole” – an option not mentioned on the menu.The achari paneer features homemade cheese nestled in onions, peppers and tomatoes, which is marinated for more than 24 hours in spicy pickled masala – a ground spice blend – fresh garlic, chili and ginger and then grilled in the restaurant’s tandoor. Ask for “fire in the hole,” and Thai chili peppers and ground red chili will be added to the dish. “But then you’re going to be warned, ‘Hey, you gotta eat this. We’re not taking this back,’” B.J. laughs.Take it up yet another notch and request the secret menu item – hot sauce made up of six peppers – for a real heat stroke. “Typically, when chef [Chetan Vartak] makes that hot sauce, nobody can be in here,” B.J. says. “It’s that strong. He has to get all the sous chefs out of the kitchen just because [otherwise] everybody’s gonna have a coughing attack.”
HEAT INDEX 4/5