When winter hits Wisconsin, diners seek heat – the hotter the better
Baby, it’s hot inside
When winter hits Wisconsin, diners seek heat – the hotter the better
By VIKKI ORTIZ
Posted: Feb. 3, 2005
Each year at this time, our friends from Florida and California begin throwing out the smug questions: How can you stand the bitter cold winters in Wisconsin? Doesn’t it bother you that it’s been frigid outside for months? How do you survive in a climate that makes you shiver?
Next time they ask, just tell them:
We eat heat.
Local restaurants say the demand for spicy foods increases noticeably during the winter. We order more dishes with “devil” in the title. We choose barbecue sauces that are so hot we’re required to sign a waiver first.
“Our busy time is Dec. 26 through June,” said Usha Bedi, co-owner of Dancing Ganesha, an Indian restaurant where many Milwaukeeans go to warm up their stomachs.
“We’re not shy about making things spicy,” Bedi said.
There’s a scientific explanation for our current fiery fixation. Researchers have proven that capsaisin, the active ingredient in chiles, releases endorphins in our bodies that speed up the metabolism. A faster metabolism causes the body to produce heat.
So one bowl of spicy chili is sometimes all we need to break a sweat, even during winter.
“January and February can be so dreary,” said Bill Phillips, a chef and associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America. Spicy food, he said, “adds excitement to an otherwise dreary time, and it gets the juices flowing.”
Here are some – but certainly not all – of the spicy samplings available in the area.
Serious about spices
At Dancing Ganesha, an Indian restaurant at 707 E. Brady St., mother and daughter co-owners Usha and Ami Bedi take spicing very seriously. You almost have to when your restaurant boasts spices toasted and ground on the premises – that’s no job for spice sissies.
When the dried red Indian chiles are toasted in the restaurant kitchen, the fumes in the air make employees’ eyes water. And when the ground spices are accidentally inhaled, the strong flavoring has been known to knock the wind out of people.
“It’s nasty stuff (to prepare), but it tastes wonderful,” said Usha Bedi.
The spices are added to dishes such as the pork vindaloo or turkey kheema, both customer favorites. The vindaloo is a Portuguese-influenced dish that has vinegar and dried Indian red chiles for extra kick. Turkey kheema has ground turkey that is flavored with cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, chiles and other spices.
Usha Bedi also makes a green cilantro chutney dipping sauce as a fresh topping with a punch.
While many other restaurants across the area see a drop in business over the bitter cold months, the Dancing Ganesha is feeding more people. Usha Bedi attributes this to the spicy selections.
“I know that when it is damp and miserable, I want something spicy,” she said. “It comforts you, it warms you up, it just feels very good.”
Going up to 11
When waiters point out a hot scale of 1 to 10, you might be led to believe there will be some room to experiment with mild before it turns hotter.
Not at EE-Sane. The Thai restaurant, at 1806 N. Farwell Ave., has a scale from 1 to 10 – but it was developed mostly to allow customers to make the hot hotter.
“I warn people all the time, because they think they can outdo the scale,” said Lany Nanthasane, manager of the restaurant. “I’m like, ‘No, you can’t.’”
The restaurant packs so much heat even the papaya salad can cause diners to break out in a sweat. Nanthasane says it’s because EE-Sane uses all the seeds and skin of the fresh peppers when preparing the lettuce drenched in dressing.
Looking for something spicy but more substantial? Try any of EE-Sane’s meals in the red curry sauce, a flavorful mix of curry paste, red chile peppers, golonga, lemon grass and caper leaves. EE-Sane also offers chicken, beef, pork, shrimp and tofu in the spicy variety.
Some like it ‘wot’
In Ethiopian cuisine, if you want something hot, you want something “wot.”
That’s how you would say it when you order the spicy dishes at Lula’s Cafe, 2921 N. Oakland Ave.
Wot dishes, which can be chicken, lamb or beef, are given their electrifying kick with such African spices as Berbere, awaze and the hottest of them all: mitmita.
Each of the dishes is served with injera flat bread to help soothe the burning.
When it comes to feasting on food that is hot, barbecue wings need their own category.
Several restaurants around the area claim to have wings of fire. Here’s just a sampling:
If you’re up for a road trip, take a drive to Quaker Steak & Lube, which just opened in November in Madison at 2259 Deming Way. The state’s only branch of the national chain considers its Atomic Wings some of the hottest around – so hot that the restaurant makes diners sign a disclaimer before eating them.
Officials at the restaurant say close to 1,000 people have attempted to eat the Atomic Wings since late last year. Of that number, fewer than half have successfully eaten their order and the side cup of jalapenos required to be listed on the restaurant’s “Wall of Flame.”
The secret ingredients? Habanero peppers and other pepper oils, restaurant officials said.
Closer to home, GameTime Sports Bar and Grill, 1118 N. 4th St., prints a warning on its menu that Firestorm and Hotter than Hades sauces are non-refundable and not recommended for children.
Owner Dave Prestin says it took him and his kitchen staff two weeks to develop the hot sauces, which are also made of a habanero puree base. The work paid off. Each week, 125 diners dare to try the Firestorm sauce, while another 40 try Hotter than Hades.
“Very few people finish it, but there’s a few people who just astound us,” Prestin said. “Most of the time, people turn almost green and start sweating profusely.”
The diabla, they say
When your restaurant has a pepper in its name, you come to expect that heat-seekers will inevitably visit.
At Jalapeno Loco Mexican Restaurant, 5067 S. Howell Ave., co-owner Janet Saynes greets the heat-seekers with a few spicy recommendations. The shrimp a la diabla (shrimp of the devil) features sauteed shrimp in a very spicy tomato sauce, flavored by potent chile de arbol peppers.
“If they were looking for something really hot to knock their socks off, that would be the dish,” said Saynes.
Pork chops at Jalapeno Loco are also known for their spiciness, cooked in a tomato-based sauce with chile chipotle.
Here’s the beef
Korean cuisine also experiments in the world of hot. Unok Hong, owner of Han Kuk Kwan, 2178 N. Prospect Ave., makes a fiery bowl of beef soup she believes can satisfy even the most chili-obsessed. The dish is called yukntae jang. It comes with beef, noodles, bean sprouts and green onions, all flavored with a Korean chili powder.
And what Korean meal would be complete without a side of spicy kimchee? Hong makes her kimchee by first soaking shredded napa cabbage in salt, then seasoning it with chili powder and garlic for potency.
Chili with a kick
It wouldn’t be winter in the Midwest without bowls of chili to combat the chill. Real Chili serves up bowls of mild, medium and hot chili at multiple locations: 419 E. Wells St., 1625 W. Wells St. and at kiosks at the Milwaukee Public Museum and the Bradley Center during Milwaukee Bucks games.
Aaron Upton, co-owner of the chili chain, welcomes people feeling a heat craving.
He suggests starting with the hot chili, then adding any or all of the following sides (available at no extra charge): shakers of cayenne pepper, crushed red pepper seeds, a cruet of apple cider vinegar with small red peppers, dried red cayenne peppers and at least three different hot sauces.
“You want to knock your tonsils out, it wouldn’t take much. We’ve got plenty of things to make an extreme kick,” he said.
Some bubbling brew
If a spicy drink is what you crave, Paulie’s Pub & Eatery, 8031 W. Greenfield Ave., West Allis, is prepared to satisfy.
On weekends, Paulie’s offers a make-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar stocked with no less than 10 hot sauces. The hot sauces change weekly, but recent offerings had daunting titles including “Hot Beef Injection” and “Dave’s Insanity.”
In addition to the sauces, the tavern provides jalapeno-stuffed olives, jalapeno-flavored pickles and peppercinis.
Carrie Holmes, a waitress at Paulie’s, said the bar recently expanded its hot section because of demand.
“People love to spice it up, especially during the winter,” Holmes said. “I guess it makes them feel like they’re warming up.”
Make your own heat
Or maybe you’re in the mood to concoct a spicy hot dish of your own. The Spice House, 1031 N. Old World 3rd St., offers a multitude of suggestions on how to add fire to your food.
The hottest spice in the house is the dried habanero peppers, which, for comparison’s sake, are 100 times hotter than jalapeno peppers.
Other “warming spices,” as the folks at the Spice House like to call them, include ground ginger root, hot curry powder and a Moroccan spice mixture. Spices are sold by the ounce, and recipes for the spices are offered at www.thespicehouse.com.
Food critic Dennis Getto contributed to this story