A few months ago, as we waited in vain for a table at Flour + Water, my uncle described something he'd eaten for lunch: the "extremely hot pepper" (#28) at Old Mandarin Islamic Restaurant, essentially, he said, a massive jumble of dried chili peppers with, in a little protein-flavoring agent role-reversal, a small quantity of chicken mixed in as well. Although my uncle is a demonstrative lover of hot food who grows big swaths of peppers in his Fairfield backyard, he reported (with a grin) that he’d managed only a few bites of the dish. He'd packed it up though, he said, envisioning, perhaps dangerously, that he might keep the capsaicin-logged concoction in the fridge indefinitely, and occasionally pluck out spoonfuls to add to his weekly stir-fries.
He told me all this because he knows I like hot food too. My tendencies border on the anti-social. I tell servers I want dishes advertised as spicy to be "hot, for real," and enjoy powering through the molten reality with which I'm soon confronted -- even if my dining companions are put off by my sweaty face and pained countenance. At El Metate, I'll ask the owner for a cup of the habanero salsa he often keeps in the back. At Vientiane Cafe in East Oakland, I’ll take a nibble from one of the whole Thai chilis interspersed throughout a pile of rare beef larb -- just to see if it’s hot. Of course, it’s hot, I find out five seconds later. The larb itself was delicious and just hot enough. Shouldn’t that be enough to know and savor? No, I need to taste the heating agent, to put my hand on the burner. That moment invigorates me, and I revisit it when I can: paring off a half-centimeter-length sliver of pepper, downing it, and waiting gleefully for lightning to strike my tongue, chest, and gut. There’s an element of daredevilry at play, which is an odd impulse for someone normally quite adverse to risk-taking -- afraid of heights, wary of germs, and, when possible, disinclined to drive on busy highways.
As I flipped through the restaurant’s menu on Sunday though, the “extremely hot pepper” didn’t call out to me -- perhaps because I’d breakfasted on thick Casa Sanchez chips, homemade guacamole, and sriracha sauce. If I were handy, I’d affix a bottle to a sprinkler set-up and have red ribbons spitting around the breakfast table every morning, but after the wake-up call I’d given myself, I needed a balanced lunch, not a saucer of lava. Entranced by the promise of authentic, Halal-ified Beijing cuisine, we ordered too much food -- a customary decision given our habit of picking at leftovers before bed-time -- sipped some tea, and surveyed the surroundings.
The restaurant has some quirks. Water comes in plastic cups of varying sizes and hues. Mine was green and translucent, but I saw several customers sipping from flimsy red “keg party” numbers and tall, clear, non-disposable ones too. The store-front outside seems scarcely wider than my outstretched arms. A mirrored wall inside makes the room look twice its size, but it really boils down to eight tables or so, a tiny counter, a clean-looking kitchen you can peer into, and a bathroom located beyond the kitchen. When we arrived towards the end of Sunday’s lunch service, the place was full of adorable children, and for the entirety of our meal, they scampered past our table, to and from the bathroom in the back, which didn’t bother us at all. The owner was gregarious. Initially, he stopped by our table every few minutes. He hovered, asking questions, and then stepped back briefly, before leaning in to hover some more. He was nice though, not nosy, and once the dishes started landing on the table like chili oil-dosed bombs, they were all we could focus on.