So I’m sitting at Thai Nakorn, hundreds of napkins stacked at the ready.
“How spicy do you want it?” asks the waiter. “On a scale of 1 through 5?”
Do not say ‘5’.
Don’t do it.
You’ll be sorry.
The waiters will come by later, concerned, and innocently ask, “Too spicy for you?”
And you’ll have to say no, no, of course not, as tears run down your face and water runs from your
nose and into your napkin as you try to surreptitiously spit out pepper seeds and simultaneously cool the fire with Thai iced tea.
Because, let’s face it, you said 5. And now you have to suffer the consequences. Here’s a secret: the only thing that will help your poor tongue now is not Thai iced tea. It’s sticky rice. Not regular rice. Sticky rice.
I always say '4'. '4' is tongue-swellingly, forehead-sweatingly spicy enough.
But Thai Nakorn doesn’t rest on its fiery pepper laurels. Its flavors come through, mingled, quite well enough on their own. The crispy catfish green mango salad is a particularly arresting dish texturally, with the peanuts and crispy fried catfish skins giving a satisfying crunch to the sour and juicy spears of green mango. The tiny orange half-circles are not some sort of exotic orange Thai pepper; they’re shrimp. Their microscopic legs and eyes are visible if you peer closely at your plate, but you don’t need to see them to be able to taste them: a savory ocean dash at the edges of your tongue.
Thai, Laotian, and Cambodian food has always thrilled my taste buds at the same time as it pushes my tear ducts' boundaries to the limit. It's not afraid to offend me, and I LOVE unapologetically pushy food.
Take Vientiane Thai Laos' larb goong (shrimp larb). There are shrimp chopped tiny and just barely seared, like ceviche, from the lime juice. There are impossibly crisp vegetables and shredded strips of mint leaves that aren't afraid to take over. But they don't have to worry about having to do that, because everything is thickly coated in finely chopped red pepper.
Or the gang thy pa from the same place, a soup that looks like it's going to be a neutral, perhaps coconutty or fishy cross between tom yum and tom yum kai, but then turns out to be a seething bowl of fermented fish sauce, tamarind, and pepper, pepper, pepper.
Sometimes you think you're safe ordering fruit. Wrong! Wat Dong Moon Lek Noodle's rambutan salad - rambutan salad, come on! - comes out so shockingly hot that you have to practically mainline your basil-pineapple smoothie just to keep breathing. Its base, spicy lime cream, is dotted with fiery orange chilies, and the juice from the rambutan spreads over the cream like oil over water, creating a swirled kind of tonguefeel.
Whenever I eat these dishes, and even though my nose is running and my mouth is aflame, I am able to taste straight through to the complex flowery tones beneath, I give thanks to one man.
I know him only as 'Kim'.
He runs Thai Avenue in Boulder and I used to order drunken noodles from his little food court stand weekly. I started going there in 2006, ordering my noodles emphatically mild. By 2010, when I left Boulder, I was well into the 'spicy' category and going strong.
I have no evidence of this, but I strongly suspect he upped the pepper content by microscopic amounts weekly to get me accustomed to it. I never noticed the difference in his plates - they were simply perfect and delicious every week - but I gradually started noticing I was able to hold my own with jalapeño pepper-infused Mexican dishes and Korean gochujang-soaked side dishes. And more than that, I was tasting them in new and wonderful ways.
Now, you'll find me vigorously entreating Thai waitresses to please believe me, yes I want it spicy, yes I know what that means, yes, I promise I won't run out of here cursing you. Yes. Spicy. Please.
Thank you, Kim.