Sunday, February 25, 2007

Surviving Spicy Food

A Mexican-American co-worker, during my 2.5-year exile on the outskirts of hell (a.ka. Yuma, AZ), gave me one of the most valuable tips I have ever taken. What do you do when your Mexican salsa is too hot? This also applies to when you accidentally eat one of those little red peppers with which Chinese restaurants lace their Kung Pao, or when the cumulative effect of a dozen Buffalo wings leaves you pouring sweat, or when an overdose of wasabi mustard sets your sinuses on fire...or, as happened to me today, when a delicious "medium hot" Thai curry receives a standing ovation from all the nerve endings in your mouth, nose, and throat. What if you can't afford to bolt down 3 tall glasses of beer in a row? What if the waiter doesn't refill your water glass fast enough? What if - as experience has proved possible if not probable - what if no amount of beverage-swilling puts the fire out?

The trick, courtesy of Angie Garcia (who no longer lives in Yuma either, so don't look her up): eat something starchy. See that covered dish of tortillas (or naan, or roti, etc.)? Grab a hunk and suck on it, chew it up slowly, let it suck the sting out of the yum. See that side of white rice (or pilaf, or fried rice, or Spanish rice, etc.)? Eat it straight. Just a bite or two, when your mouth gets too hot; then go back to the main dish again. For once, you won't mind the bland flavor of the rice. For heaven's sake, don't mix it up with the curry, or Kung Pao, or enchilada sauce, or what have you. The survival of your taste buds (and sweat glands) may depend on that blob of sticky white blandness! In a pinch, even chips or French fries will do!

So there's your general dining tip of the day. Now comes a couple of specific ones. Yesterday, I treated myself to another meal at Lily's, the homestyle Mexican place on South Kingshighway. It was packed with people, including a large group having a party. It's nice to see quality mixed with success. I had special #4, which is a chile relleno, a tamal, and an enchilada, accompanied by more beans and rice than I could finish and, of course, the always-complimentary chips & salsa. Every bite of it was absolutely perfect. (Newcomers to tamales, take note: you're not supposed to eat the corn husk it comes wrapped in.) I also recommend their burritos, rolled tacos, the horchata ("rice water," served only on weekends)--basically, everything I've tried there. They do it all just right!

And today, after church, I lunched at The King and I, an attractive and popular Thai restaurant on Grand Blvd., a couple blocks south of Arsenal. It was only my second visit there, though I have been fascinated by the taste-world of Thai food for many years. I think "fascinating" is the best word to describe the flavor of a good curry. Even when it is spicy to the point of pain (and at "medium" spiciness, my sweat glands go into overdrive) the distinctive, always interesting flavor of curry is in the foreground, inviting you to try more of it, and condemning you to long for it when you haven't had any for a while. There are infinite varieties of curry, a complex blend of spices mixed in varying ratios, applied in varying forms to varying mixtures of meat, vegetables, and even fruit. Yet mysteriously, curry can never be mistaken for anything else. I think Thai chefs have a special knack for inventing interesting and absolutely convincing variants, often mixed with coconut milk, loads of hot pepper, and exotic, colorful things like basil leaves, lemon grass, bamboo shoots, and straw mushrooms.

Another thing Thai and Vietnamese restaurants have going for them is the fresh spring roll, consisting of greens, vermicelli, and shrimp wrapped in clear rice paper. Sometimes meat, herbs, and other things are added; and you can count on the dipping sauce to be sweet and tangy. These are basically a kind of salad you can pick up in your fingers, a good starter. For finishers, you might try a pudding of fruit in coconut milk. (At one Vietnamese restaurant, I even tried a pudding consisting of mung beans suspended in a clear gelatin with coconut milk poured over the top). And for a beverage, you must try Thai (or Vietnamese) coffee, a strong dark brew mixed with sweetened, condensed milk and poured, if you like, over ice.

I had a delicious "Panang Curry" of chicken, red and green bell peppers, and coconut milk with red curry and, of course, a mound of white rice. I had 2 spring rolls and the iced coffee. Everything was spectacularly good. My waiter didn't look or sound Thai; I asked him, and he told me he's French. So I had a French waiter at a Thai restaurant. Isn't that something? The whole shmeer cost $15, including a generous tip to the French guy. Why isn't this place packed?

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