By: Malcolm Mayhew
| photography by Alex Lepe |
Fort Worth can bring the heat. In a city where arguments over the merits of various salsas have the potential to destroy friendships, or at least make Saturday night dinner unusually tense, compiling a list of the hottest is a big responsibility. That’s why, when put in the hot seat, I was excited, but more than a little bit intimidated. And it turns out I was right to be.
For the past month, I have sought out the most over-the-top, ouchie-inducing, Scoville-scale-busting foods I can find. I’ve eaten Scorpion peppers, Reaper peppers, Ghost peppers, and Scotch Bonnets. I’ve taken most of my daredevil friends to lunch, and I’ve extended more invites that have been politely, but firmly, declined. I’ve seasoned sushi rice with tears instead of soy. I’ve gotten really good about washing my hands after meals - thoroughly.
There was only one rule: nothing on the list could be served on a 1-5 heat scale. Otherwise, I might have ended up in the hospital; and, ultimately, this would end up as a collection of my favorite things to order at Happy Bowl (8149 White Settlement Road) and Thai Charm (4023 E. Belknap). So if you don’t see your favorite Thai scorcher on here, I am sorry, but self-preservation and space limitations must be acknowledged.
Now that the fine print is out of the way...let’s do this thing.
Little Lilly Sushi
Dragon’s Breath Roll
No lie, this one almost broke me. If these were ranked, this sushi roll would probably take the top spot. It might not be objectively the Scoville-meter spiciest, but it for sure hurt the most. Pain ranking: all the ouchies.
First of all, ghost peppers burn. They just do. It’s a sharp, sweet kind of burning. It is also persistent. A glass of water will not solve this. A glass of milk will not solve this. A good night’s sleep and an antacid are a good start, but you’ll still wake up remembering what you’ve done.
Secondly, high-quality raw tuna is one of the greatest foods in the world, but it’s mild. The chilled asparagus in the roll has the potential to help with the burn, but one spear is not enough.
I should probably admit that, when I ordered this one, I was alone, and I didn’t order anything to go with it except water. In retrospect, I regret that. A lot. If you love spicy food, I do recommend trying it. But bring a friend, order extra rice and other sides, and do not, I repeat do not, touch your face for at least three hours following. Otherwise, like me, you will end up literally crying alone at the sushi bar. And that’s awkward for you, it’s awkward for the chefs, and it’s awkward for the other customers. Trust me.
Chef Jesús García has a reputation as a chef’s chef. His ramens are focused, expertly crafted blends, with broths and toppings carefully paired and noodles cooked just enough, still retaining their tooth. You can modify or add ingredients as desired, but it’s hard to go wrong by ordering the items as listed. That’s why, when he decided to create a specialty ramen using a blend of Carolina reaper and scorpion peppers (the first and second hottest peppers in the world, respectively), it immediately piqued my interest. After all, while there’s nothing wrong with a dish that is hot-for-hot's-sake, it didn’t seem like Chef García’s style. And I was right.
The Oni Reaper is amazingly spicy - like roll-your-socks down, warning-label and signed-medical-release spicy, but it’s not a stunt. The heat dominates but never overpowers. A creamy miso broth smooths out the sharp edges, and the parmesan, corn and fatty pork belly cut through and offer a reprieve, even as the spice continues to build. Bean sprouts and green onion add texture and freshness. The whole dish is a delight. Strongly recommended.
The Dive Oyster Bar originally popped up on my radar for its Mexican shrimp cocktail - a delightful combination of cocktail shrimp, cocktail sauce and avocado. When I ordered it, it was very, very good but mildly piquant at best. Disappointed, I asked my waitress if anything had recently changed, and she told me that they had re-worked the recipe to make it a bit more user-friendly. Luckily, she was able to redirect me to the Kamikaze Oysters, which are raw Gulf oysters dressed with ponzu sauce and Thai chilies.
For the uninitiated, Thai chilies form the backbone of Thai-style curries and other spicy dishes, and as hot as they are when dried and ground, they’re even hotter fresh. Hot enough that my waitress felt the need to double-check when I ordered them. And they did not disappoint. Still, for all their fire, this was one of my favorite dishes. The bright citrus from the ponzu and the sweet-salty flavor of the oysters paired perfectly with the fresh-tasting chili, simultaneously scorching and cooling my tongue. I recommend washing it down with a cold beer and a few oyster crackers, but if you find you’ve gotten in over your head, you can always order a cup of their creamy clam chowder to help you recover.
Hot chicken is, well, hot right now. And for good reason. It’s fantastic. But if you want really, really hot chicken, we recommend that you stick with that old college classic, Buffalo wings.
Chef Jon Bonnell might be best known for his gourmet versions of classic Texas cuisine, but make no mistake, the man knows his way around bar food, too. And if you’re looking for a delicious basket of wings that don’t hold back, don’t hesitate to sidle up to the bar at his TCU hangout and order a half-dozen (or a dozen, no judgment here) of his Suicide Wings.
I asked, and the servers insist that the sauce on the wings is habanero-pepper based. I’m sure this is true, but the vinegary tang to the glaze gives the heat a sharpness that reminds me more of ghost pepper. Pins and needles on the front of the tongue but, fortunately, a relatively isolated burn, rather than one that builds over time. A side of creamy blue cheese and a hefty portion of crisp carrots and celery balance out the heat, making the overall experience more pleasure than pain.
By this point, everyone has had a Fred’s Diablo burger. (If you haven’t, stop reading and go eat it. It’s fantastic.) But if you’re looking for a burger that can really light you up, wander over next door to Rodeo Goat and give its Hot Bastard a shot.
The hand-ground patties on offer are loosely formed, which can lead to infrastructure issues if you aren’t careful, but the juicy texture and increased sauce-absorption capabilities more than make up for it. The burger is topped with Fresno peppers (not normally thought of as spicy, but these definitely have a kick) and a pimento-style cheese, with chunks of habanero subbing in for the pimentos. There’s more Fresno pepper in the aioli spread on top - although, at a certain point, it’s hard to tell exactly where the heat is coming from. Overall, it’s hot enough that the lettuce and tomato provide welcome, cooling relief and keep your tongue from going numb – which is crucial, since you want to make sure you can taste all the sweet habanero deliciousness in every last bite.
Look, the Gorski is basically a ham, cheese and veggie sandwich on a Kaiser roll. It’s a really good ham, cheese and veggie sandwich, but that’s what it is. And while this might seem like an eccentric choice for inclusion on a list of Fort Worth’s spiciest foods, I’m here to tell you: Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it. I will admit that there’s something a bit satisfying about featuring such an eccentric entry from one of Fort Worth’s most eccentric restaurants (for example, the owners pretty regularly disconnect the phone during their busiest hours so as not to have to deal with call-ins), but trust me, this meal has earned its spot on the list. Thick sliced ham, mozzarella, mushrooms, tomato slices and avocado are all carefully piled onto a Kaiser roll and then topped with freshly sliced, unseeded jalapenos.
And before you scoff - yes, they are just jalapenos. But I’ve ordered this sandwich maybe a dozen times in the past few years and, I promise, these are hot jalapenos. Maybe it’s because they’re sliced to order. Maybe the chef goes out gathering them at dawn on the first day of the new moon. I don’t know, but they are consistently, perfectly, incredibly blazing hot. Every single time.
Tacos al Pastor with Habanero Salsa
I’m prepared to admit this one is a bit of a cheat, if only because the tacos themselves are simply not spicy. They are spiced, via the achiote rub on the tender pork, but they aren’t hot. However, there was no way I could let an opportunity to call out the sheer excellence of Salsa Limón’s habanero salsa slip by me.
The tacos themselves are top quality: two fresh-tasting corn tortillas filled with flavorful pork shoulder and classic “street taco” toppings - cabbage, onion and cilantro. One of the things I appreciate about them is that, while I never feel shorted, the tacos are filled just enough to satisfy and not so much that they actually overspill or burst at the seams. These tacos are designed to be eaten. (Which, yes, sounds silly, but it’s a real issue.)
But, obviously, the reason they’re on this list is the salsa. I mean, you have to respect a restaurant where the mildest option on offer is spicier that the hottest choice at many other restaurants. And their habanero, well, it is not for amateurs. It is excellent though. Sweet, creamy and hot, hot, hot. Slather it on, sit down, and prepare to have your mind blown.
This one’s actually a twofer, and I’m not even sorry. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to shoehorn Benito’s pico de gallo onto this list ever since I started this project. It’s plenty hot - almost shockingly so, for a free restaurant starter - and it’s also just straight-up tasty. Fresh, bright, well-balanced, and did I mention hot?
However, while it easily satisfies the “spiciest” portion of “spiciest dishes,” it falls a little short on the “dish” side. Particularly since Benito’s charges for chips, and those chips come with a totally different salsa. And while I am completely prepared to eat the stuff with a spoon, I feel like publicly advocating for that approach could undermine my credibility.
Bentley’s comes through in the clutch. Its Tex-Mex dog is griddle-cooked and served on a toasted bun, and then topped with sriracha-infused pimento cheese, avocado crema and, of course, a hefty scoop of Benito’s pico. With this dish, old and new combine - and prove that they are greater than the sum of their parts.
By: Malcolm Mayhew