Warm Up This Winter With a Spicy Meal
After a day of exploring the city in winter, chances are the wind has sufficiently cut through your coat and left you chilled to the bone. When that’s the case, the only thing left to do is warm up from the inside out. Here are four restaurants that specialize in spice-infused fare to do just that.
Mission Chinese Food (171 E. Broadway)Chef Danny Bowien’s legions of loyal fans (read: hipsters and pretty young foodies) came in unending crowds when Bowien’s famous Mission Chinese Food made the jump from its namesake San Francisco to a ramshackle Orchard Street locale on the Lower East Side a few years back. However, the restaurant has recently moved into a posh new home on the edge of Chinatown that’s been winning over top food critics as well with its matured style; the red-lit grunge has been replaced with chandeliers, linen napkins, and lounge areas for pre- dinner Chinese medicine-inspired cocktails, though that’s not to say you still won’t see a man-bun or two.
Bowien’s fare, meanwhile, is an interpretive version of Sichuan cuisine, meaning two things: heed those Sichuan chili peppers, and order to share. On a first visit, don’t miss the restaurant’s cult classics: thrice-cooked bacon with bitter melon, mapo tofu with pork and beef drippings, and salt cod fried rice with Chinese sausage. Drunken-style whole fish with fresh turmeric and root vegetables and chewy green tea noodles are sure to warrant a second trip back.
Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen (115 Columbia St., Brooklyn)
Fire in the hole! Carla Hall’s Southern Kitchen in Brooklyn may at first appear a genteel Southern dream with its wallpapered walls and family-style tables. But don’t let its lady charms fool you; TV personality Carla Hall—co-host of ABC’s “The Chew” and former competitor on Bravo’s “Top Chef”—means business with this temple to hot chicken, a dish borne of Nashville in the 1930s.
Here, Hall makes it slow brined in a hot oil laced with cayenne to give it an initial kick, which diners can then top up with six “Hoot’n Heat Levels” on the menu, which range from Southern on the low end to Boomshakalaka on the high. Served simply on white bread with a pickle, chicken is ordered by-the-piece, so leave room for all the sides worth trying as well: baked mac n’cheese, collard greens, biscuits and rolls, and buttermilk soft serve and banana pudding to wash away the heat with a dollop of sugar. After a stroll by the waterfront, this kitchen is sure to warm you up.
Lolo’s Seafood Shack (303 W. 116th St.)
Anyone who has ever been to the Caribbean will likely attest to a love of the lolo—a small outdoor food stand where you pull up a chair and tuck into a cooked-to-order barbecue feast in the sunshine. So when that New York winter air has you longing for the tropics, worry not; hop a train up to Harlem where Lolo’s Seafood Shack beckons with fresh, hot food, sunny pastels, and kitschy potted palms.
Jerk chicken, fried fish, crispy shrimp, and “durty” rice cooked in coconut milk are all served in paper baskets; plantain chips with crab dip and cheesy corn on the cob are nothing if not finger-licking; and ribs are smoked and slow cooked. And that’s not even touching the mains: cooked shell fish is served true island-style in a plastic bag, and steampots of crab and shrimp in coconut curry come with plastic gloves and bibs. Smother it all with a side of pepper sauce and snap your own “wish you were here” postcard food photo.
El Toro Blanco (257 6th Ave.)
A roundup of spice-fueled restaurants would be incomplete without including one of Mexican cuisine, and while chalkboards touting margarita happy hours and south-of-the-border fare stand every few blocks in the city, sometimes a nice meal is wanted after a day spent here, there, and everywhere. For that, head to modern Mexican El Toro Blanco in the West Village.
Tangerine banquettes matched with retro hanging light fixtures, wood-beamed ceilings, and Mexican poster art set a lively scene for upscale versions of favorite dishes: queso fondue with green chile; tacos with split-roasted Berkshire pork, slow-roasted goat, or even sword fish; and some fanciful mains like pan- seared scallops with bacon and roasted jalapeno aioli, and a chile-rubbed ribeye steak with lime and sea salt to share. An extensive tequila collection feeds into an impressive menu of agave-based cocktails as well. For one with a kick, opt for the Smokey Pina with mescal, pineapple, mint, lime, and habanero pepper. Olé!