A Survey of the Hottest Spicy Foods in the Twin Cities

You know what helps you cool off on a steamy summer day? A good sweat. From the inside.

There’s actual science that says eating spicy* foods helps regulate the body’s temp and cools you down (though your mouth and intestines might disagree). There’s a pervasive myth that Minnesotans think ketchup is a spice. Pshhht. Sure, some such Minnesotans exist, but as a whole, we have plenty of restaurants and eaters that prove this false on the daily. We’ve appealed to many of them to help us create this proof-of-spice story, which should light many a mouth on fire, no matter where you are on your path to hot-headed nirvana. Seek the heat, friends: The hot life is a good one.

*A note about the word “spicy”: We are backing local award-winning chef Raghavan Iyer’s mission to clarify that spice-laden food doesn’t automatically register a heat level. All spices, from anise to za’atar, are spicy by definition, but only some deliver the fire-branded spicy that is typically used to distinguish hot foods. And while we’re at it, we talk a lot about chili peppers and heat, but are they really a spice anyway? Aren’t they more like a vegetable? Wait, they’re a fruit?? Man, I still can’t deal with the tomato as such. Bygones. 

MN Warm-Up

Find some level of heat in these dishes. Consider them a point of entry if you are of the ketchup clan. They will awaken but not maim your taste buds. Some people will plow through these and exclaim, “Not hot,” and we are all allowed to give them the stink-eye because, really, who asked? Let’s call this level of heat: delightful.

Volcano Bowlat Song Tea and Poke

This poke bowl is a hot mess, in the nicest possible way. Bits of fresh raw salmon and tuna commingle with cucumbers, avocado, edamame, and bright pickled radish over a bowl of white rice. It all gets dressed with a kicked-up sauce, but ultimately, the read is fresh and snappy. Flame Notes: Jalapeños, spicy mayo, and drizzled chili oil zing it up. Beat the Heat: The mango-coconut slush should be a nice and cool side sipper. Several metro locations, songteapoke.com

Lucifer’s Inferno at Hell’s Kitchen

Nothing like a sneak attack, right? The kids at Hell’s Kitchen think it’s all fun to hide ghost pepper jack cheese in the middle of the burger, along with diced jalapeños, so that you have to double-prepare for that molten core. Watch out for the temperature burn so that you can still feel the pepper burn. Flame Notes: Sorry, did you say ghost pepper jack cheese? What the hell are the cheese people doing over in Wisconsin? Beat the Heat: Honestly, you should just set up with a side scoop of the Blackberry Ginger Jam ice cream from Sonny’s. Downtown, 9th and Nicollet, Mpls.

Jalapeño Poppers at The Lowbrow

Do jalapeño poppers feel so ’80s to you? Well, the ’80s were awesome, and so are these little pepper snacks, which come hollowed out and stuffed with jack and cream cheese before being fried. Flame Notes: Jalapeños can be hit or miss; some are wildly spicy, and some are just average. You’ve been warned. Beat the Heat: There’s a buttermilk ranch for the dipping, but might we suggest that a Pimm’s Cup is the actual answer? Don’t dip, just sip. Kingfield, 42nd and Nicollet, Mpls.

Firehouse 21 Burger at Peppers and Fries

The dairy on this burger is your friend. You’re chomping down into freshly grilled jalapeños that are tucked under a blanket of pepper jack cheese and chipotle mayo. But there’s also cream cheese on that bun to buffer the kick. Flame Notes: You knew that chipotle peppers are just ripe jalapeño peppers that have been smoke-dried, right? And chi-pol-tay peppers are only eaten by Iowans, right? Beat the Heat: Try the Watermelon Moscow Mule to wash down any burn. Longfellow, E. Lake St., Mpls.

Extremely Hot Breakfast Noodles at Lake and Bryant Cafe

Why wouldn’t you start your day with a revved engine? Tuck into udon noodles lolling in a secret-spice sauce, simply adorned with cilantro, sesame, scallions, and a perfect egg whose job is to make it all silky. This is at the top of this category—it might even belong in the Pro-Level Burn category for some. Flame Notes: The secret is in the sauce, but owner Sanjeev Azad did post a video showing a bowl full of dried chilies being dumped into the pot. Beat the Heat: Go for the Iced Golden Milk, which is black tea loaded with oat milk, turmeric, virgin coconut oil, and freshly ground spices. Uptown, Lake and Bryant, Mpls.

Hot Chicken Sandwiches

“Nashville hot” has become a nationally respected culinary designation for chicken, thanks to the family behind Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack. The origin story tells that ladies’ man Thorton Prince came home late one night, and his then-girlfriend cooked him up an extra-pepper-laden plate of chicken as revenge. Too bad he loved it, perfected the recipe, and in the 1930s built a restaurant around it. Men.

Poultrygeist from Revival

Choose this ghost pepper level of heat for your righteously fried chicken sandwich, and we cannot be held responsible for the euphoric hallucinations that visit. Please come with a designated driver. Only available at the Mpls. location.

Nashville Coop

Freshly adding a Stadium Village location to their already booming collection of food trucks and eateries, this team is spreading the heat as far and as fast as they can. The Growlin’ level of heat on that tender sandwich is just the right amount of challenge to finish the whole thing. Mpls., St. Paul, and Rochester, plus wherever the trucks roll

Others worth a go:

Pro-Level Burn

These dishes are in the middle of the spectrum and might vary wildly for the heat seeker, depending on your experience. Most of these recommendations come from avid hot heads, of all walks and citizenry, so we feel good about saying: yes, hot. How the heat translates, whether it’s a sweating head or a numbing tongue, is really about your own biology—which we’re sure you’ll happily record on social media. Let’s call this level of heat: interesting.

Silken Tofu Stew at the Kimchi Tofu House

Behind the cutest striped awning, in the smallest yellow restaurant, bubbling cauldrons await. Silken tofu stew is delivered to your table ripping hot—the roiling boil should be your cue not to grab it. You’ve made your choices: gone very spicy or very very spicy and added vegetables, seafood, or meat to the mix. (Note: Don’t skip the kimchi.) And yet it’s still not done. You crack an egg into the soup, right there at the table, and patiently wait for it all to calm down and get in your face. Flame Notes: Kimchi, of course, is a Korean condiment of salted fermented vegetables—usually cabbage in a mix with radishes, garlic, peppers, ginger, and fish sauce (though each cook has a personal rubric). Beat the Heat: Have you tried shoving rice cakes in your mouth? Stadium Village, Oak and Washington, Mpls.

Lao Papaya Salad at Bangkok Thai Deli

This richly flavored cold salad of papaya, beans, salted crab, and black crab paste with tomatoes and Thai eggplant in fish sauce is a fan favorite of heat-seeking chefs around town. It’s the fermented funk they love to find before their mouths light up and they start breathing heavy. Flame Notes: Thai chilies are roughly 15 times hotter than a jalapeño. The menu says you can get this dish M+ for spicy or M++ for very spicy. Have a meeting with yourself before ordering. Beat the Heat: Where else are you going to get a lime smoothie? Acid cuts the heat, you know. Frogtown, University and Western, St. Paul

Kingston Style Jerk Chicken at Pimento Jamaican Kitchen

There’s something about the clean heat from Jamaican jerk rub. It just comes straight at you, no small buildup: It’s a hot line seared from your mouth to the top of your hairline, which is where you start sweating. The chicken at Pimento sits in that jerk marinade for a good long while before it ever meets the searing grill flame. Flame Notes: The rub is one thing, but you still have to pick your sauce. If you don’t go Kingston Kick or higher, you should adjust your category. Beat the Heat: Get a Red Stripe. And then get another Red Stripe. Keg and Case in St. Paul and Eat Street in Mpls.

Dry Chili Chicken  at Legendary Spice

There’s a lot to love at this little Stadium Village spot, and it was a toss-up between the dry chili chicken and the hot and spice pot series with all sorts of meats, veg, and seafood in a kicky sauce. But the dry chili chicken confronts you with little sleeves of peppers in each bite, and it’s the one to experience. It’s less of a fire burn and more of a sophisticated, complex, numbing sensation in your mouth, almost like a seltzer burn (but nicer). It’s a particular thrill that keeps your chopsticks dipping back in for more. Flame Notes: Sichuan peppercorns, visible in the dry chili chicken dish, are actually dried berries of the prickly ash tree. Those little nibs are what’s numbing your tongue through, get this, micro-vibrations. Beat the Heat: Lao Sze Chuan Cucumber Cooler chills gin with sake and a bit of tonic in a cocktail that might just quell those mouth vibrations. Stadium Village, Huron and University, Mpls.

Boil Feast Combo 2 at Cajun Boiling

Perhaps it’s best if you sweat at home, in private, wearing your least restrictive clothes. This spot will bag up some serious seafood boil if you order ahead. The #2 combo nets you a half pound each of king crab, snow crab legs, and shrimp along with your corn, potatoes, and fries. You choose both your sauce and your heat level: The hot-head move is to go with the garlic sauce and the Fire heat. As you get to cracking crab, this kind of saucy heat will travel when it gets on your hands, lips, and nose as you’re wiping it. And God forbid you rub your eyes or other places soft and vulnerable. Flame Notes: A new level of heat was added to the traditionally southern seafood boil when the 1970s Vietnamese immigrants around the Gulf Coast started adding their hometown spices to the boil liquid. The Viet-Cajun designation is now sweeping the nation. Beat the Heat: Plan ahead for this one and stock your fridge with all the thirst-quenching Fulton Northern Standard lager you can fit. Get ready to chug. Stevens Square, Franklin and Nicollet, Mpls.

Currito with 3 Kicks at Vellee Deli

Pan-Asian and Mexican fusion means this menu is willing to mess with you. The Chicken Currito is here to readjust your palate. The Thai curry burrito overflows with chicken, potatoes, and rice, all held together by a creamy zing sauce. But what roots it in this category are the added kicks. To “kick” one’s Currito means to add locally grown, sun-dried Thai chilies. And three kicks means you’ll lovingly scorch your afternoon. Flame Notes: There are robust online discussions about which one is hotter, a red Thai curry or a green Thai curry, but it’s really more about the chilies used in the curry paste. So, either color can vary wildly from maker to maker. Beat the Heat: Um, fountain Coke? Downtown Mpls. in the Baker Center skyway and Northeast Mpls. on 1st Ave. NE and University

Quenchers with Kick

You might have to think twice about reaching for your libation to calm the throbbing mouth heat if you’ve ordered one of these sassy drinks. Or maybe you think, like revenge, heat is best served cold. That’s cool.

Habanero Cilantro Margarita at Pajarito

We’re here for the new salty swipe in addition to the salted rim, because now we get to lick our glass with impunity. Reposado tequila mixes with dry curaçao, a cilantro syrup, lime, and a few drops of habanero tincture for a comfy heat. West Seventh in St. Paul and 50th & France in Edina

Enmolada Infused Stout at La Doña Cervecería

A thick and rich stout beer is infused with chocolate and peppers, giving it a smoky kind of spice level. Ultimately enjoyable to sip while watching fútbol. Harrison, Glenwood and Fremont Ave. N., Mpls.

Horseradish Vodka at Moscow on the Hill

Listen, you don’t have to dumb this one down with tomato juice. What’s stronger than simply throwing back a sinus-clearing shot of 45th Parallel vodka that’s been infused with fresh horseradish? Cathedral Hill, Western and Selby Ave., St. Paul

Chipotle Bloody Mary at Hola Arepa

The magic in this glass comes from the addition of Salsa Lizano, a Costa Rican sauce that is spicy in the fullest sense of the word, not just hot. You definitely get cumin, mustard, and turmeric in the mix on this brunch-menu sipper. Kingfield, Nicollet and 35th, Mpls.

Wicked Hot

Look, you do you. You might have a need to punish your colon; that seems personal. These are dishes—nay, experiences—that you might find you have been called to undertake. We are not calling you, to be clear: This is on you and your higher power. For some, this list is a Tuesday dinner. But if you can’t taste things for a few hours, or feel the need to send a DM from your bathroom the next day—just don’t. Let’s call this level of heat: fully optional.

Roasted Tomato Jeow at Khâluna

If you look at the tiny bird’s-eye pepper, you know that small things can pack a fiery wallop. So it is with this Laotian dish, which is really just an innocent-looking pot of tomato sauce. It’s not innocent, and you’ll just need a bit of this on your dried ginger sesame beef as you wrap it in lettuce. But if you want to order it as a side condiment to any of the dishes, including the already smoking pineapple noodles, no one is stopping you. Heap it on. Flame Notes: Jeow mak len is usually thought of as a Laotian salsa, and how hot it gets depends on the family recipe. Chef Ann Ahmed said that this is the hottest thing on her menu. Beat the Heat: Alternate between the salted piña co-lassi yogurt drink and the old-fashioned. Just trust. Kingfield, 40th and Lyndale, Mpls.

Lamb Vindaloo Ordered Indian Hot at Best of India

A strip mall joint in St. Louis Park is perhaps as unsuspecting as it gets; there’s even an Ax-Man and a doggie shampoo place next door. But do not be lulled into thinking this suburb isn’t lit: It has been since 2005 at least. Vindaloo is already a hotter option on the menu, and somehow the lamb is a bit more boosted than the chicken. But when you order it Indian Hot (XXXXX), they will ask you a few times if you really mean it. You have to really mean it. This hot is one that blurs your eyes and makes your nose run even before you put it in your mouth. It will eradicate any memory of what you’ve eaten for the last 24 hours. You might forget words, but you will keep eating. Flame Notes: It’s common for Vindaloo to be laced with chilies both fresh and powdered, giving it that extra punch. Beat the Heat: You will be offered a mango lassi. Take it. Texa Tonka, Minnetonka Blvd. and Texas Ave., St. Louis Park

Wings at :D-Spot

The wings in this Oakdale strip mall bar have pilgrimage status for heat seekers across the country (just search “D-Spot wings” on YouTube). There are dozens of flavors and many heat levels on Darin Koch’s menu, and nearly 400 off-menu combinations he’s played with over the years. But it’s the level known as Death Row that might be like the hand of God reaching into your mouth.

There are two flavors in that section: The first is called Seppuku, which means “ritual suicide” in Japanese. There’s definitely a samurai thing going on here. Seppuku wings take 24 hours to make and use Trinidad Scorpion peppers with Carolina Reaper peppers to bring the heat up to about 5.7 million Scoville units. Ladies, that’s hotter than the pepper spray in your purse, so you might as well just carry a wing in there. In fact, it’s hotter than military-grade pepper spray, which hovers around 5.3 million. But hey, you’re tough, right? Don’t fret that silly waiver you have to sign before eating them. The second flavor is called Seizonsha, which means “survivor,” and those ring in right at 6 million Scoville units. You will be allowed to order those only if you’ve made it past the Seppuku and lived.

The only way to get on Death Row is to prove you can handle the Scorpion’s Lair level of wings, the two hottest of which are Witch Doctor and Scorpion King. Witch Doctor is a diabolical dry-rub wing that won’t burn your fingers, which is that warning bell you weren’t going to heed anyway. Scorpion King is sauced with regret.

You might plow forward after a few bites and think all is well. All is not well. Your body will start to get really pissed at you and communicate through hiccups, flop sweat, coughing, and potentially full rejection of the evil you’ve put down your throat. Does it feel like your tongue is swelling? Like the inside of your cheeks have moved to Florida? You’re winning.

It’s true: Like all things, the heat will pass, and you’ll start to breathe normally again. You may even plot your return to Oakdale to level up. Just remember, those wings blazing a trail through your intestines are not done with you yet. Maybe take a day to decide. Oakdale

The New Hotness

You pepper-heads need to step aside and welcome chili crisp to the stage. Thanks to the international fascination with Lao Gan Ma (invented by former street vendor Tao Huabi, whose face graces the label), local foodists have started making and bottling their own versions of the infused chili oil, which features crunchy bits of fried garlic, onions, and other aromatics for a multilevel flavor play.

Zen Box Chili Crisp

Zen Box Izakaya, $8.50

John Ng and Lina Goh have layered a lot of good flavors into this one, especially important since it’s less heat-forward than some of the others. Use it to zhuzh up your ramen or any sandwich (looking at you, grilled cheese). Available at the restaurant or for pickup online at zenboxizakaya.com

Krunchy Chili Oil

Union Hmong Kitchen, $8

Yia Vang uses dried Thai chilies in his recipe, then adds fried garlic and shallots for the rounder punch. Use it on his Hilltribe Grilled Chicken or just dump over all rice. Available at UHK at Graze Food Hall, at Kowalski’s, and online at unionkitchenmn.com

Panda Crunch

The Salsa Collaborative, $12

Heat lovers Brian and Nikki Podgorski have cooked up this fresh offering that hits you right in your umami. The fermented gochujang and soy sauce elements give it an earthiness that is balanced by a lick of sweetness. Put it on your eggs or amp up delivery pizza. Available online at thesalsacollaborative.com or at select farmers’ markets

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