Seattle chefs fulfill Sound‘s burning desire for chili peppers
Pow. Zap. Bam. When it comes to heat, I’m a superhero. I love spice, from subtle to strong—even with recent reports of a man’s death from eating a plate of hot chili sauce. So for this month’s Dish-Off, I say bring it on. Sound invited three restaurants to turn up the heat and dish out food on fire from peppers in pieces, powders, potions—heck, perhaps even pepper spray.
First off: Yes, Tango is well-known for its El Diablo dessert, “a bittersweet cube of sinfully rich dark chocolate graced with cayenne, spicy almonds, cocoa nibs and burnt meringue finished with a tequila caramel sauce.” It is decadent, but almost excessively sweet, leaving me wanting more punch from the pepper. While couples come to this romantic Latin restaurant to coo over this devilish dessert, I prefer different dishes that Chef Michael Bruno graces with peppery tastes.
Topping my list is Green Beans and Harissa. Now this is sensual stuff! The North African chili pepper sauce contrasts well with the coolness of the perfectly roasted beans, delivering a back-of-the-mouth buzz that grows as I gobble up the remainder with bread. Another highlight is Tomato-Melon Gazpacho. The sweetness of the cantaloupe hits first, followed by a bloody Mary-like flavor with nice bite from basil and habanero oil. Food like this gives me a natural high.
Chili-enhanced coconut broth adds spicy smoothness to Moqueca de Peixe, a traditional Brazilian stew of assorted seafood and potatoes. A slice of dried plantain rises majestically out of a cocktail glass of Ecuadorian Shrimp, though I need to add cilantro and lime to give the sea creatures a jolt. Meanwhile, Gambas Picantes is more smoky than picante. While I appreciate the subtlety of the chipotle tiger prawns, I’m starting to crave a bolder bite.
Worry not for me, though. I soon get my spicy shrimp and more at Steelhead Diner. Chef Kevin Davis flashes a fiendish smile as he sends out Gulf White Shrimp Fra Diavola. Plump prawns swim in a fiery hot, mustardy hell-broth, containing Scotch bonnets, habaneros, and pequins. Some say chili peppers destroy the flavor of food, but I think they actually open the taste buds. The sweetness of these shrimp shines through this spiciest of sauces, which I sop up in burning bliss with tortillas.
Next is Angry Crab with Serrano Chili Sauce. It’s dive-in-and-get-your-hands-dirty food that’s finger-licking good. Crack the crab, extract the succulent meat, eat with crispy basil, and enjoy the heat. Oh, and reach for a drink to quench the thirst. But watch out, as the bartender’s sent over a Brazen Lady: muddled serrano mixing with peach schnapps and tequila.
The next two dishes slide down in Scoville units: Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho (smacking more of salad than soup) and Chicken and Andouille Gumbo are interesting renditions, but a little lacking in intensity. Entrees rebound. Mole Conejo has a chili-filled sauce that is lusciously lip-tingling and complements the gamey goodness of the rabbit. And Crispy Whole Trout with Red Chile Paste is a showstopper typical of Steelhead’s over-the-top, elevated diner food approach. The whole fish is flopped on a platter and littered with peppers, adding oomph that tempts me to pull all the spicy bits off the bones.
There’s a natural affinity between shrimp and spicy peppers, so I’m not surprised that Camarones Mojo de Ajo is first up at Austin Cantina. Chef Jefe Birkner chooses chipotle for many of his menu items, and while I savor the smokiness in this dish, the prawns pale in comparison to Steelhead’s. I much prefer the Chile-Dusted Calamari. Expertly fried, the chili in the batter and the chipotle in the mayonnaise provide a subtle one-two punch.
Part of Birkner’s mission is “providing healthful sustenance.” This shows in his Lone Star Chili. I like the leanness of the grass-fed beef, though I’m reaching for bottles from his fun collection of hot sauces to dial up the heat meter. Same for the Dungeness Crab & Jalapeño Mac & Cheese, which could use more New Mexico flake, as the heat is lost in the dish’s cooling creaminess.
As for entrees, the Redneck Meatloaf is advertised as “kickin’ butt and raisin’ hell,” which sounds like folksy Palin talk and—like the VP candidate herself—is all bark, but no bite. The chipotle mashed potatoes are watery and the zucchini is overcooked. Better is the Enchiladas plate. The pork shoulder is braised in brown sugar molasses and chili seasoning, melding well with the enchilada sauce. I’m not sure if the accompanying spicy apple chutney is the right match, but I like it better than rice and the beans that cry out for fat—even if that counters the “healthful” goal.
As I sit over some of Birkner’s homemade Mango-Habanero Sorbet (finally, the spice I’m seeking at Austin Cantina!), I’m thinking he’s a nice guy running a down-home friendly place, but I wanted strength over subtlety for this “Some Like It Hot” challenge. Tango offered similar subtlety but also some standout dishes; from an opening Chile-Pena drink to the cayenne-tinged butter to its closing dessert, this sweet, sophisticated restaurant provided a well-rounded meal that was peppery and pleasing. For its bold and memorable dishes, though, Steelhead Diner is the overall winner. With a menu featuring things like “Mussels from Purgatory,” you can think big and expect a hot and wild, perhaps devilish ride. If Davis had only delivered a spicy dessert to round out the meal, he might have landed Steelhead Diner in the top three restaurants of the year. (Watch for a playoff between the year’s best in Sound’s next Dish-Off.)
WINNER: Steelhead Diner
Note: Dish-Off reviews are based on announced visits. Restaurants get guidelines and choose what to serve according to the month’s theme.