It took two glasses of water and a bowl of white rice to douse the fire set by a forkful of Washington D.C. Kung Pao chicken.
I love spicy food, and so did my dad. He's where I got my masochistic love of foods that taste like the business end of a flamethrower. Growing up, grilled Serrano peppers were a frequently side dish to any Mexican food my mother whipped up. Legend has it that my mother tried to get me to stop sucking my thumb as a kid by soaking the digit in jalapeno juice. This plan backfired.
The old man would have adored that experience. But even that boiling pot of liquid hellfire was not the spiciest dish I ever ate.
I had that with my dad at a grubby Chinese food restaurant in Washington D.C. I don't think it's there anymore. He loved Asian cuisines. Allow me to pile regret upon regret: Flushing, Queens, where I now live, is a mini-metropolis of authentic pan-Asian food. Ah, well.
So we were at this little joint on a Sunday afternoon. My dad had to work and I was hanging out with him. He ordered kung pao chicken.
The waiter asked if we wanted it spicy. My dad said "Yes, very spicy."
"Are you sure?" the waiter replied.
This insulted my dad. He frequently acted like he singlehandedly invented the habanero pepper. This started a game of brinkmanship.
"Yes. I want the Kung Pao chicken very, very spicy."
The waiter clucked and shook his head, as if to say "It will be too spicy. He won't finish it. What a waste."
My dad decided to up the ante.
He looked at the waiter and jabbed a finger at him. "You tell the chef that he can't make this Kung Pao chicken hot enough."
The waiter cocked an eyebrow. "Are you sure?" My dad repeated the challenge. Loudly. Clearly. The waiter shrugged and started to serve us.
Eventually, the plate of Kung Pao chicken arrived. In between chicken chunks, peanuts, and celery were Chinese red peppers glowing like Christmas lights. The whole dish radiated heat. Behind me, I heard the kitchen doors swinging open, then closed. My dad's head popped up.
The chef was standing by the doors. In the dining room. Watching us. Both men narrowed their eyes. The challenge was about to be met.
I was capable of only a few bites. My dad woofed down half of it, through tears. He ate grimly, but with determination. And respect. It was hot enough. Too hot.
Well done, chef.
Do you dig a nuclear nosh? What's the hottest bite you've ever taken? Brag it up in the comments below.
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