Hot and unbothered
When restaurants dish out mean spices, these firefighters show they can take it

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Helping us find the hottest dishes in the Tristate, taste testers from Ladder Company 3 and Engine Company 3 of the Cincinnati Fire Division sampled spicy dishes from:

  • Ambar India, 350 Ludlow Ave., Clifton. Chicken vindaloo, $8.99.

  • Aralia, 815 Elm St., downtown. Deviled turkey, $9.75.

  • Cactus Pear, 3215 Jefferson Ave., Clifton. Red pepper noodles, $8 or $10.

  • Dee Felice Cafe, 529 Main St., Covington. Gumbo, $4.95 at dinner.

  • J&W Bar-B-Q, 3500 Burnet Ave., Avondale. Pork ribs with hot sauce, $12.95.

  • Riverside Korean Restaurant, 512 Madison Ave., Covington. Dark Bulkogi with kim chee and other relishes, $10.95.

  • Sirichai Thai, 8254 Alexandria Pike, Alexandria. Red curry chicken, $7.95.

  • Szechwan Wok, 7207 Montgomery Road, Silverton. Yu-shiang pork, $7.95.
  • This time of year, you need more than the warmth of Valentine's Day chocolate to jolt dulled senses. Cold, dark days call for the dangerous heat of spicy food -- Indian curries, tangy ribs, Creole gumbo.

    Where to get the hottest food in the Tristate? It's a question I was willing to research, but I wasn't about to sacrifice my taste buds in the process. I needed tasters, people who had no fear of a little fire.

    My volunteers were the firefighters of Ladder Company 3 and Engine Company 3 of the Cincinnati Fire Division. This particular group has a reputation for liking it hot.

    As firefighter Steve Hoog says, only half joking: ''When you've put your head in the mouth of the dragon, spicy food is nothing.''

    Here's an important piece of advice: Don't ever let a firefighter order your dinner in a Mexican restaurant. These guys really like it spicy.

    I showed up at the firehouse at Ninth and Broadway, downtown, with bags and Styrofoam boxes from eight restaurants.

    We spread the food on the long table in the mess, where the men usually eat meals they cook themselves.

    Most of the food was from various spicy ethnic cuisines, chosen from personal experience and suggestions from friends and Enquirer staffers.

    When given the choice, I ordered spiciness at an 8 out of 10, thinking I was being considerate.

    Unfazed fighters

    I needn't have held back: Nothing fazed these tasters. From Dan Meyer, who said he puts hot sauce on hot food, to Dan Mitsch, who does a lot of the firehouse cooking, no dish set off alarms.

    We started with red pepper noodles from Cactus Pear in Clifton, something a friend told me had been too hot for her to eat.

    The noodles were a favorite, flavorful with red pepper in them and a sauce that includes chipotle, green peppers, chicken and crumbled white cheese.

    The takeout order came with a bag of chips and Cactus Pear's good smoky homemade salsa.

    ''It's good, but it ain't hot,'' was the general consensus as everything disappeared.

    We tried yu-shiang pork from Szechwan Wok in Silverton. ''That's a little hotter,'' was the best I could get from the tasters.

    We ate ribs with hot sauce from J&W Barbecue in Avondale. ''I haven't even broken a (sweat) bead,'' Mr. Mitsch said.

    The red chicken curry from Sirichai Thai, a new Thai restaurant in Alexandria, had eaten a hole in its first plastic container, but it must have been from cooking heat; it wasn't hot peppers doing the burning.

    This dish got positive comments, though Thai food was new to several of the tasters. They liked the coconut-sweetened sauce.

    I thought that surely the deviled turkey from Aralia, the Sri Lankan restaurant downtown, would get a reaction.

    It was delicious, with big chunks of turkey in a sauce rich with roasted curry, tomato and almost caramelized onion.

    They ate every bit, along with coconut bread for cooling down palates.

    ''That's not even a one-alarm,'' was one defeating opinion.

    Some of the spiciest food I've eaten has been from Riverside Korean Restaurant in Covington.

    Not knowing how parched squid would go over, for the test I ordered Dark Bulkogi, or ''spicy grilled chicken.''

    The chicken, grilled with a dark glaze, was only a little warm, but I figured the heat would be in the accompanying kim chee, a pickled fermented cabbage relish.

    Good but not hot

    ''It's good, but it ain't hot,'' I heard again. ''Wait a minute, maybe it is.'' Some of these spicy things have a way of sneaking up on you.

    Next up was gumbo. We had a container from Dee Felice Cafe in Covington, which has been serving spicy Louisiana food for 13 years.

    It was an unusually thick gumbo, almost beefy, though made with chicken, shrimp and sausage.

    Finally, a reaction: ''Now that's got a kick to it.'' ''Definitely the hottest thing so far.''

    I figured the capper would be the chicken vindaloo from Ambar India in Clifton.

    Vindaloo, a specialty of central and western India, is usually the hottest thing on an Indian menu, the sort of thing that has you leaving the restaurant in tears. When I ordered it, I was warned that it came at 5 on a 1-6 scale.

    Mr. Meyer took a bite. Wasn't his forehead turning a little red, a few tears springing to his eyes?

    But Capt. Jim Barrow burst the bubble. ''This has some nice curry and spices in it, but it's not really hot-spicy.''

    Everything I'd brought was gone, except a few cartons of rice. I had a piece of peach pie, and a few of the men moved on to homemade chicken noodle soup.

    ''This is spicier than anything you brought,'' one said.

    What was going on here?

    Just being macho

    Surely these guys were just trying to maintain a macho reputation. But I sampled the vindaloo and the gumbo, too, and I wasn't calling for the fire hoses.

    Either I didn't choose extremely hot things, or cooks in area restaurants are holding their fire. Which suits me.

    I wouldn't want to drown the delicate coconut flavor in Sirichai's curry or the deep smokiness of Aralia's deviled turkey with mindless heat.

    But if you like it hotter, you might want to pack a bottle of Raging Inferno Hot Sauce with you when you eat out.

    Do you like it hot?
    There may be hotter food in town. Where do you go to really get burned? Let us know where you've found the hottest tamales or chicken wings, the most incendiary vindaloo.
    Send suggestions to Hot Food, Polly Campbell, The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; 768-8376; fax: 768-8330.