In the heyday of Big Steel, when Pittsburghers practically ate hot metal for breakfast — local palates were pretty timid. Aside from the occasional dusting of paprika, or stray pepper dropped in a plate of pasta, we weren’t real big on spicing our food.
Recently, though, that’s begun to change, as other traditions have slipped into our culinary bloodstream. It has taken a while, but Pittsburghers’ tastes are getting spicier all the time.
Here’s a list of some of the best, hottest things you can eat in Pittsburgh. Because while you can ask many restaurants to crank the spice up to 10 or beyond — and they will if they think you can handle it — not every eatery has the expertise to put flavor ahead of fire.
So for those of stout hearts and stomachs, here are 11 places and dishes to try. As always, if you’ve got a contender, please add it in the comments.
Smiling Banana Leaf
As with Indian food, Thai food is usually as hot as you want it. In our experience, Smiling Banana Leaf in Highland Park isn’t shy about adding heat (but, of course, you have to ask). Green Curry is usually the hottest, but it’s a rich, flavorful heat, with bell peppers and Thai basil balanced by the rich sweetness of coconut milk.
There’s a wall of bottled hot sauces here that probably contains enough capsicum to stop an infantry battalion. If you’re graduating beyond Cholula and Frank’s RedHot, this place has just about everything. Many have monikers that reference extreme gastrointestinal discomfort in fairly unsentimental fashion, the nature of which you can probably guess (don’t make me spell it out). Favorites include the Marie Sharp’s line (Green Habanero, especially), and Louisiana’s classic tangy Crystal hot sauce, but there’s lots of other obscure/weird/scary stuff here too.
It’s Natrona’s finest, actually, but this locally made (Natrona Bottling Co.) ginger beer is just about the best thing on the market. Great for making a Dark ‘n’ Stormy, with rum and lime, or a Moscow Mule, with vodka and lime juice. There’s also a “HOT HOT HOT” version, which you should definitely try after you get used to the original. It’s three times as spicy. Rumor is that they used to be afraid to sell this version around here — it was an export intended for significantly spicier places — but not anymore.
This place doesn’t look like much, either online or in person. Looks can be deceiving: It may be the best Chinese restaurant in the state, and one of the very few with a James Beard Award-nominated chef (Wei Zhu) at the helm. Unless you’ve lived in China, you’re probably going to see some new things on the menu, and many of them will be swimming in chiles. The trick is to embrace the unfamiliarity and take some chances. Prices are very reasonable, so it’s not that big of a risk. You can safely assume that if you order something like Spicy Rabbit in Flaming Pan, Frog with Pickled Turnip in Spicy Sauce or Spicy Duck with Devil’s Tongue Yam, it will not need any additional hot sauce to supply the flavor.
Jerk chicken can get hot, and Leon’s Caribbean in Allentown goes pretty far in that direction. The Jerk chicken here is fiery and fall-off-the-bone tender, and the Curry Goat also has a pretty rich, flavorful application of spice. This place is about as bare bones as it gets, and seems to do a lot of takeout business. Get a Jamaican ginger beer, which pairs well with everything.
Archie’s on Carson
Every bar in Western PA seems to have wings — we’re just outside the “Wing Belt” that extends from Erie to Buffalo, where wings are practically a religion and every wing spot seems to have their own special hot wing. Where does one even start in Pittsburgh? A good place would be Archie’s on Carson, located on the South Side. Their Six Pepper Dry Rub has a well-rounded, robust spice to it, more than simply heat. Flaming Hot, Spicy Parmesan, Spicy Thai and Honey Habanero also set the taste buds alight, with the latter the clear winner.
This little grocery in Brookline (among other locations) is known best for its spectacular taco stand out front. They make every taco to order, and you can add salsas and toppings of varying hotness. There’s usually at least one sauce that brings the peppery pain, so choose with care. You can’t go wrong with the chorizo tacos, with a healthy scoop of salsa verde, some pico de gallo, cilantro and lime, but so many combinations are possible. At just $2.50 each, we hope they never change.