Have I actually become an old person or am I still on the cusp? is a question one asks with increasing urgency as the years go by. And the answer is, it depends: Do people still offer you spicy food? Because no one does that to an old person. When you are old, fellow diners and skittish waitstaff conspire to steer you away from dishes packing even the slightest heat, crack lame jokes about the road to hell being paved with Rolaids—or worse, let you eat what you want, but only if they can post it on TikTok.
When you are old and order Sichuan hot pot, Hicksville heads turn at Potasia (pronounced “pot Asia”) and the servers go all Pfizer-Moderna, demanding to see how you react after 15 minutes of mild pot before they up the ante. Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to take your teeth out in protest.
Everyone will deny that this has anything to do with age. Friends will bring up your well-documented history of avoiding all things spicy, remind you that your Scoville sweet spot hovers somewhere between barbecued Lays and Trident cinnamon, remind you that you’ve called spice lovers gastro-masochists who’d have you eating whips and chains if they could, remind you that everyone else puts on the sombrero at Cinco de Mayo parties, and you never do, not even for a second. Oh, and remember that trio of What Kind of Pepper Are You? quizzes you took online once? The ones that concluded you were bell, wax and black?
Whether it is worse to be accused of being old or a wimp is a question for another day. Besides, you’re neither. Your only crime was coming of age in a world where tears of agony at the dinner table were a bad thing. Yes, there’s catching up to do, but you can learn to love the spicy and keep up with the kids. Walk with me.
Start slowly with a dish highlighting ají amarillo, a Peruvian yellow pepper with a heat index anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000. With papas a la huancaína (pronounced “wan-kay-ee-na”), however, the peppers are combined with cheese and cream, which lowers the flame, although you might fear otherwise upon stepping inside Brasas Peru, where a gas firepit greets you at the entranceway and a hanging TV plays crackling replace videos on an endless loop.
But this Franklin Square restaurant’s huancaína, composed of sliced boiled potatoes, bits of hard-boiled egg and olives—stay with me—are served with a heavy ladling of amarillo-spiced sauce that brings fruitiness with only the barest hint of heat. And while another option, substituting fried planks of yuca for Brasas’ potatoes, might call to mind memories of cheese fries past, it too favors comfort over capsaicin.
You’re essentially doing something that causes you pain but with that pain comes euphoria.
– Joe Lodato, Founder, 86 Peppers
One rung down the ladder to hell is the jalapeño, which started all this mess, rising from humble Mexican roots to become the people’s pepper. With fame has come overexposure, which is how we ended up with jalapeño jellies, poppers, Doritos, Goldfish, sunflower seeds, Spam and tequila. But at Verde Kitchen & Cocktails in Bay Shore, there’s a house-made jar of the last—complete with floating jalapeños, poblanos and more—on proud display at the bar, making for a fine, multipotent spicy margarita. Don’t dwell on how jalapeños lay waste to the pain receptors at the tip of the tongue, the back of the mouth, but what that sensation gives rise to, namely a cocktail with added complexity, one that somehow soothes and jolts at once.
Now do you see the appeal of this chili business? What do you mean you’re going home? Hold on, Rome wasn’t burned down in a day. Besides, as Joe Lodato will remind you, pain means gain—eventually.
“You’re essentially doing something that causes you pain but with that pain comes euphoria,” he said, with palpable enthusiasm. “It releases endorphins and gives you a rush, and that’s really what people are after. It’s called chasing the heat.” Lodato has loved peppers for decades, but the chase began in earnest in 2019, after he sowed a dozen pepper plants in his backyard. The Setauket resident grew 100 the next year and 150 the next, enthusiast chilies such as Apocalypse Scorpion and Death Spiral and the legendary Carolina Reaper, more than 40 varieties, many “beyond what you can find at Home Depot and Lowe’s.” The plants bore fruit, which bore seeds, which birthed Lodato’s company, 86 Peppers, and a burgeoning business selling seeds nationally through his website and Etsy.
The 43-year-old, who works at Stony Brook University producing video and online tutorials for the college, has a great teacher’s charisma and affection for his subject matter, pepperology, and his YouTube presence, along with talks at nearby Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, have proved a godsend for novice gardeners near and far.
“Once you get involved, you open yourself up to the underground of the hot sauce world, and expos and hot pepper eating contests,” said Lodato. “It’s a fascinating, tight community, with people crossing different strains of peppers, creating peppers that are gnarly-looking and hotter than their parent strains.” Like other so-called pepper heads, there’s almost nothing he won’t add hot sauce to, from salads to soups to ice cream. “The other day I put it in my smoothie,” he noted. “That was really good.”
Still, Lodato acknowledges that he too was once a pepper novice, just as he was once a drummer in a local band, one whose mates liked to order the hottest wings everywhere they played. “We told them we want to die. Make us the death wings.” Cue the release of feel-good neurotransmitters and a spontaneous giddiness that the brain comes to crave. “You build up a tolerance and are constantly looking for the next hotter thing.” The next hotter thing for you might be the African bird’s eye chili (Scoville 50,000+), which finds its way into fabulous foods all over the world, none more so than piri-piri chicken, in which the tangy chili coaxes lemon, vinegar and garlic into extraordinary marinades and sauces, all the while producing a lip-lingering heat. Peri-Peri Guys in Hicksville offers house-made sauce with several levels of lingering, although it’s the Cat 5 version (“the hottest we go for now”) that will change the way you think about chicken, and might even change the way you think, period. Order a leg quarter, wings or skewers, then light the fuse and get away. Kidding! “Even our hottest sauce has only moderate heat,” said owner Hafeez Raja, although he’s happy to amp things up for pepper heads upon request. “I give them what they want.”
Moving on, we come to Cajun seafood boils and their signature cayenne-heavy spicing, a sea of flames of the happiest sort. When your server says “the seasoning and spicy level is up to you,” congratulate yourself on the ho-hum reaction to your order—extra-hot snow crab legs and head-on shrimp doused with the signature spice blend at Sexy Crab—and recognize it for what it is, proof that all this pepperdom is shaving years off your life. Roll up your sleeves in Levittown, revel in the marriage of buttery broth and your sea creature of preference, and ignore any snorting, coughing or belching produced thereby. Such noises are both inevitable and common at Sexy, a no-judgment, no-frills seafood joint that has a way with taste (its statue of a scantily clad lady pirate in the vestibule not included).
Cayenne, along with dried paprika and Kashmiri chilies, powers the red chili powder of Indian vindaloo as well, and the delicious versions of it served by Punjab in Mineola (formerly Jassi’s Indian Grill). The dish’s deep rust color there serves as a warning of what’s to come, a warning you blithely brush aside. Chicken, goat, shrimp, lamb, fish, vegetables—it turns out that smoky, vinegary vindaloo imparts something special to almost all flora and fauna, even as checking the extra-spicy box at Punjab risks setting o smoke detectors overhead. Add in a scoop of basmati rice and a basket of naan, and get ready for an eye-watering, nasal-clearing, surefire cure for summer’s doggiest days.
Need a breather before rappelling to the depths of Thai chiles? You could take a little time to ponder why the spiciest foods typically come from tropical and subtropical climates and cultures. Well, for one thing, peppers typically flourish in places like that. For another, spicy foods make you sweat, which actually cools you off more efficiently than a brain freeze–inducing Slurpee. And some chilies have antibiotic properties—critical in hot, humid regions where healing can be slow.
Or you could sit a bit with Jack Jamgochian, part-time cayenne farmer and full-time Huntington resident for whom, like Lodato, peppers are about much more than heat. “I think that food is just so bland now, and people are craving that extra flavor,” said the 31-year-old Bioventus engineer and creative force behind Rugged Jack’s, a new line of hot sauces. “It’s definitely a spectrum of flavor that people don’t really tap into, but I think it really does add something to your meal and makes you enjoy it even more.”
The terms chili (sometimes spelled “chile”), pepper and, yep, chili pepper all refer to the same thing—fruits of plants in the Capsicum genus—and tend to be used interchangeably. The heat in chilies comes from a substance called capsaicin (cap-say-sin), primarily found in the membrane that holds the seeds; the amount of capsaicin a chili contains is measured in Scoville units on a pungency scale created by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. A bell pepper has a Scoville rating of almost zero, while a Scotch Bonnet can clock in at 100,000 to 350,000. Even within one variety, though, a chili’s heat may vary according to weather, soil and growing conditions. Depending on the type of chili used and whether it is fresh or dried, its heat is generally balanced by a back note of flavor such as sweetness, fruitiness or smokiness.
Jamgochian, who also grows habaneros and jalapeños, is not your typical man with a plow. Indeed, a few years ago, he was living in a 600-square-foot apartment in Bayside, Queens, idly germinating pepper seeds with no real plan for transplanting. Ultimately, a Moriches friend with a plot of land agreed to adopt the seedlings, even as the Stony Brook University Food Business Incubator at Calverton offered a place for making sauce. There, Jamgochian washed, stemmed and seeded his peppers one by one, before boiling, blending and, in August of last year, bottling the results. A few months later, he had 1,200 bottles of sauce in six medium-heat flavors to sell on his website, and a few months after that, two-thirds of them were gone.
“I like just getting a little kick, getting the nose running and feeling the spice. I don’t like to be in pain,” said Jamgochian, bravely risking his rep as a pepper head. “The sauce is meant to complement the flavor, to give you a little zing, to take what you’re eating to the next level.”
Speaking of next level, remember your Thai meals past, when every skinny chili was a land mine marked for careful extraction and exile to the edge of the plate? How quaint those days seem now that you’ve tiptoed to the threshold of Scoville 80,000 and places like Raan Thai in Smithtown, where heat-seeking evenings involve counting the number of chilies next to a dish’s name on the menu and proceeding accordingly. Only one of these has achieved five-chili status, kua king duck, which is Raan’s wonderfully lacquered leg quarter in a bed of green beans, and perhaps also the sound a quacking duck makes with chilies in its bill. The meal brings a first-class inferno to the tongue but also a heightened appreciation of the duck’s succulence and rich flavor. If this dish doesn’t make you sing “Hurts So Good,” either hum it or circle back to Raan’s menu and the three-chile-level red- or green- curry fried rice, or perhaps the drunken noodles, an SPF-50 affair in which Thai basil is almost more pungent than the Thai chilies.
By this point, the pepperless diner you once were is almost unrecognizable, or so you hope when you stride back into Potasia. Now you have a spring in your step, confidence bordering on arrogance, a no-one-will-thin-my-broth imperiousness. More chili oil! More Chinese red peppers! Platters of crushed ice burst forth from the kitchen, yours topped with cylindrical shavings of raw chicken, lamb and beef, along with shrimp, crab and mussels, each piece of edible tinder eager to be set aflame by the cauldron of spiced broth boiling demonically at your table, and eager too, in an act of oral arson, to scorch the back of your mouth and throat with impunity. Out of the corner of your eye, peering through a waterfall of tears, you see the server watching over you with increasing alarm, noting the rivulets of sweat soaking through your shirt. Pretend not to share her fears by ordering glass after glass of Sapporo on draft, and then, when she turns her back, think about sticking your tongue into that crushed ice.
Success has turned you into a heat-seeking missile, yes, but are you a true pepper head? Almost but not quite. Not until you’ve cleared the final hurdle that is Blazin’ Inferno chicken tenders, which get their heat from the Carolina Reaper, by some estimates the hottest pepper in the world, at 1-million-plus Scoville units. This is pro-level spicy, an activity probably best left to fearless types like Joe Lodato, who, after all, has a pepper-laden Reaper growing on his desk at Stony Brook, along with a sign warning would-be pilferers of the consequences. At Kick’n Chicken in Farmingdale, birthplace of the Blazin’ Inferno, that warning takes the form of a mandatory waiver, one in which you “acknowledge that there are certain risks associated with the activity” and that those “risks and dangers are, but not limited to, [a] burning sensation in the mouth, lips, profuse sweating, bodily injury or even death.”
The hatch opens, you check your parachute, and then, just before the jump, take a moment to reflect on how far you’ve come, how strange one’s relationship to food can be, what the journey has meant for your palate, or what remains of it. You bite.
It’s been said that just before death one’s life ashes before one’s eyes, and you can now confirm that the same is true of near-death experiences. The sides of your tongue begin to curl up as the flames start slowly, then accelerate dramatically, along with the scenes in your head. You want to laugh at the fast-motion imagery, but your throat has closed, and your face is locked in a perpetual frown. You have visions, first of actress Morgan Fairchild, who once claimed that laughing down instead of up was the secret to avoiding wrinkles, crow’s feet and other marks of aging; then a mushroom-beclouded exploding-head emoji; then Wilbur Scoville himself; and then the three of them taking turns slapping you across the face. Your nose is running wildly, and someone is doing the same thing down the street, someone wearing your exact same clothes. The burn goes down your throat, continues to the stomach, through the floor, into the earth, and re-emerges in Asia, a culinary China Syndrome. You are lightheaded, then dizzy, then I might faint, then No, I’m really going to faint. You wonder who the hell had the audacity to call these pieces of chicken “tenders.” You wonder why dairy products are supposed to help and where the milk is, wonder where Morgan Fairchild is now and what she looks like, wonder if you will live long enough to find out.
Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you wonder about none of these things. Among the many mysteries of hot chilies is that no two people react the same way to them. Each ordeal is as unique as a fingerprint. Still, there is one thing that every single person on the planet, yourself included, feels after an extreme pepper experience, or rather doesn’t feel: old. Because you’re not, you see, not at all. You’re totally on the cusp!
BRASAS PERU: 673 Franklin Ave., Franklin Square; 516-284-6852, brasasperu.com
KICK’N CHICKEN: 342 Main St., Farmingdale; 516-730-8906, kicknchicken.com
PERI-PERI GUYS: 285 S. Broadway, Hicksville; 516-470-0303, periperiguys.com
POTASIA: 600 S. Oyster Bay Rd., Hicksville; 516-938-6666, potasiany.com
PUNJAB IN MINEOLA: 267 Mineola Blvd., Mineola; 516-747-5277
RAAN THAI: 203 Terry Rd., Smithtown; 631-656-5887, raanthainy.com
SEXY CRAB: 3345 Hempstead Tpke., Levittown; 516-622-6688, sexycrabny.com
VERDE KITCHEN & COCKTAILS: 70 E. Main St., Bay Shore; 631-665-6300, verdekitchen.com
86 PEPPERS: 86peppers.com
RUGGED JACK’S HOT SAUCE: ruggedjackshotsauce.com