Aside from humans, there is only one animal that prefers spicy peppers to other foods. Apparently, tree shrews have a genetic mutation that lowers their sensitivity to capsaicin, the chemical that makes some peppers spicy. Tree shrews gobble up chile peppers with reckless abandon.
I may have found my spirit animal.
Chile peppers and other spicy foods produce capsaicin specifically to ward off harmful organisms. Besides us and tree shrews, the chiles largely succeed in doing so.
Then again, chiles are known to have positive health effects. People who eat spicy food tend to live longer. Chiles are good sources of nutrients, and have been shown to lower blood pressure. I've read that chiles increase salivation, which is good when your diet is based on a bland staple crop, like corn or rice. As such, chiles show up in a broad range of cuisines.
What better place to explore spicy food than Buford Highway, the metro area's multicultural spice route?
Fellow tree shrews, go forth!
Scale of Spiciness: 1-5
At the low end of our spice scale is a rating of 1. That would be similar to the level of heat in a Chick-fil-A Spicy Chicken Sandwich. It's spicy enough that some people won't eat it, but mild enough that spicy food lovers will just shrug their shoulders.
A 5 would be something like a tablespoon of Mad Dog 357 hot sauce, named for its 357,000 units on the Scoville scale of spiciness. It's the hottest thing I've ever eaten, thanks to a college prank from which I've yet to recover completely. Something this hot is essentially inedible, and will cause involuntary weeping and hiccups.
Mamak - beef rendang (2)
The first stop on this tour de Scoville is also one of the most flavorful. A traditionally Indonesian specialty, the beef rendang at Mamak balances a late-arriving spiciness against aromatic flavorings like coconut and galangal root, a rhizome similar to ginger. Like a curry, rendang blankets the protein of your choice in a thick sauce with a laundry list of spices. The end result is a dark stew that binds together tender pieces of beef. It's a hearty dish that easily clings to sticky Bangladeshi rice. Mamak's beef rendang has plenty of heat, but the depth of flavor is what keeps you coming back for more. 5150 Buford Highway, Doraville. 678-395-3192, mamak-kitchen.com.
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Yummy Spicy - Hot and Numbing BB Chicken (3)
The names of this restaurant and one of its spiciest dishes both are absurdly accurate. Hot and Numbing BB Chicken is a dry-fried dish of very small chickens, about the size of Cornish hens or large quail, cut in half and topped with a huge mound of bright-red chiles. The pile of chiles is intimidating, and with good reason - it packs heat and provides that signature Sichuan funny-bone tingling in your mouth. I find it is best to eat the chicken by hand, and mix the chiles, onions, spices and oil into the rice. It's like an old-fashioned Southern Sunday fried chicken dinner, except 1,000 times spicier. 5164 Buford Highway, Doraville. 770-680-5605, yummyspicyga.com.
Abol Cafe and Mart - extra spicy lamb tibs (3)
Abol Cafe's lamb tibs, the classic Ethiopian dish eaten with injera, can be ordered extra spicy, and it's worth the request. Similar to Mamak's beef rendang, there is some latency to the heat. But, before you know it, the spiciness is all-encompassing. Despite the pain, the tender lamb, cooked with onions and tomatoes and topped with a slick of herb-infused butter, keeps calling you back. The hallmark of a great spicy dish is just that: No matter how spicy it is, you can't stop eating it. 4166 Buford Highway, Doraville. 404-390-3371, abolcafeandmartco.com.
The Halal Guys - red sauce (4½)
Yes, the Halal Guys is a chain Mediterranean restaurant, but it serves something no other chain seems brave enough to make: a truly spicy hot sauce. Its red sauce is the kind of condiment that easily can take over a whole dish, so it pays to be careful. If you really enjoy spicy food, the sauce at the Halal Guys can elevate an entire plate of food, like the straightforward falafel platter, from simple to surprisingly delicious. It provides a very clean, sharp brand of spiciness that allows other flavors to shine through. A little will give you a pleasant sting mixed in with every bite, while a little more will make you sweat and see red. Too much, you might as well go order another plate of food, because you've made this one inedible. And, be sure to thank your server, because he or she definitely warned you beforehand. 4929 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 470-268-8481, thehalalguys.com.
Purnima Bangladeshi Cuisine - goat halim (1½)
Spicy food typically is associated with hot weather, but those warming spices can be comforting when the temperature starts to drop. The goat halim at Purnima makes an excellent fall or winter dish - the gustatory equivalent of a knit blanket. Halim is a slow-cooked stew of lentils, barley and, in this case, goat. It has a subtle but persistent heat, and plenty of warming spices from Central Asia. It's also the type of meal that will stick to your ribs, especially with a side of Purnima's fresh naan. 4646 Buford Highway, Chamblee. 770-609-8587, purnimabangladeshi.com.
Masterpiece - spicy peppercorn boiled beef/tofu (3)
The connotations of boiled beef - sad, gray, stringy chunks of unseasoned meat - could not be more opposite of what you get at Masterpiece. The Sichuan version found here is, to my mind, an almost perfect Chinese-American dish. Served in a massive bowl, large enough to feed two people without ordering anything else, tender slices of beef are suspended in a deep red sauce that includes several layers of spiciness. These combo-punches of spice are a Sichuan specialty. Hot peppers sting your nose and taste buds. Red chili oil rimming the bowl brings on secondary heat. After the chili oil gets going, Sichuan peppercorns sing their buzzing, numbing song, from your lips to every edge of your palate. If you can take the heat, you might be singing, too. 3940 Buford Highway, Duluth. 770-622-1191, masterpiece-chinese.com.