The gloom of February is the perfect time to celebrate meals that heat you two ways.
Come for the invigorating steam that thaws your bones. Stay for the incandescent magic of capsaicin and piperine, the Scylla and Charybdis of spicy stuff. The first is what makes chiles spicy, the second the power behind black pepper. Over millennia, canny cooks have figured out an entire arsenal of delivery vehicles.
They range from small-caliber grinds of fresh peppercorns to the thermonuclear-warhead-scale hot sauces weaponized with so much lab-grade pepper extract that they are no longer legitimate food enhancers, and only useful for determining which of your friends is susceptible to bad advice.
These dishes aren’t double-dare-you stunt food, but ones that deliver flavor first, even if it’s followed by a sheen of sweat.
Pork chop with cherry pepper sauce ($32) from Siena Restaurant
4516 Main St., Snyder, 839-3108
This 14-ounce rib chop with a bite has been a mainstay for seven years, especially in winter. Coated in panko breadcrumbs, pecorino Romano and other seasonings, it’s pan-seared in olive oil and butter, then finished in the oven before joining a pan sauce of garlic, shallots, white wine, marsala demiglace, chile flakes and crushed pickled Italian cherry peppers. It’s a luxe slow burn. 2 flames.
Chinese Napa cabbage in mala sauce ($8.50) from Home Taste
3106 Delaware Ave., Kenmore, 322-0088
Fare at this Northern Chinese restaurant include this bowl of chile-infused liquid powered with dried chiles, chile oil and Sichuan peppercorn, a spice that leaves a moderately tingly numbing sensation. Sliced pork, cabbage and chewy noodles crowd the bowl. Dredge out the solids and enjoy; what remains of the liquid is usually left behind, not drank like soup. 4 flames.
Thai green curry ($10-13) from Lin Restaurant
927 Tonawanda St., 260-2625
Thai curry is a coconut milk gravy imbued with spice paste and the essence of ingredients simmered in its creamy embrace. It’s packed with vegetables like eggplant and green-bean-like long beans from the market next door, aromatic Thai basic and choice of protein. Cilantro and green chiles give “green” curry a pale jade cast, and a lip-tingling aspect that dissipates quickly. 3 flames.
Blackened green beans ($7) from The Dapper Goose
491 Amherst St., 551-0716
Fresh green beans are rolled in blackening spices – including fresh-ground black pepper, cayenne, chile flakes – then blistered in a smoking-hot cast iron skillet. They’re plated with a schmear of housemade mayonnaise with garlic, lemon and charred onion. The result is a crunchy, practically healthy vegetarian appetizer that makes you reach for your drink even faster. 1 flame.
Gunpowder masala dosa ($6.90, pictured as lead image) from Chennai Express
1460 Hertel Ave., 768-4426
Dosas are crispy-edged savory crepes rolled into bazooka-caliber tubes, served with coconut chutneys and zippy lentil soup. This one, with a payload of spiced Indian homefries, is infused with “gunpowder,” dried chiles, other spices and legumes that have been fried in oil and ground fine. It gives the crepe a nutty warmth that grows until you finish, leaving your fingers smudged orange. $6.90. 2 flames.
Wild pepper fried frog ($20.95) from China Star
4001 Sheridan Drive, Amherst, 631-7198
Among many deliciously fiery dishes at this Sichuan specialist is the hottest thing I have continued to eat of my own free will. It’s frog legs chopped and wok-fried with at least two kinds of chiles, the dominant one a pickled “millet pepper.” First bite: I’ve made a terrible mistake. Second: Not dying makes me so happy to be alive. Third: frog tastes like aquatic chicken – tasty. 5 flames.
Chapli kabob ($9) from M Asian Halal Food in West Side Bazaar
25 Grant St.
A stand inside this international food court serves Pakistani favorites like chapli kabob, two crusty patties of sausage made from coarsely chopped chicken. The meat is laced with cilantro, red onion and green chile, and fired up with a dose of cayenne-powered spice mix. Toasted pita bread and a dab of salad provides all the fixings for lip-tingling little sandwiches. 1 flame.
Peperoni caldi ripeni ($14) from Casa Antica
490 Center St., Lewiston, 754-2581
The stuffed Hungarian pepper is almost as pervasive as chicken wings in Buffalo restaurants, but I like a Lewiston version best. Instead of soft cheese that smooshes out when you cut, these are filled with sliced Pecorino Romano and other hard Italian cheeses and Genoa salami. Then they’re grilled, baked and covered a sauce in a gorgonzola sundried-tomato sauce. 2 flames.