Spicy bites to light your lights

July 17, 2012
Humble tofu packs a punch at Confucius restaurant. BY STEPHEN CHERRY PHOTO

If you went skydiving yesterday, will your chili relleno at Mariachi taste extra spicy today?  If you’re scared of stubbing your toe because of how much it will hurt, are you still willing to knock back one of David Engle’s double-hot cucumber margaritas at a(Muse.)?

Penn State doctoral student Nadia Byrnes is hot on the trail to answering these questions. Her Ph.D. studies involve people and eating. (Like a night in Rehoboth - only throw in a doctoral thesis.) She’s an avowed foodie, loves Food Network (especially the finicky Alton Brown, but then who doesn’t?), and she’s fascinated with the study of taste perception. In fact, Byrnes’ presentation to Penn State’s Graduate Research Exhibition, “Determining the Relationship Between Personality Variables and Liking of Spicy Foods” won second place in her category. (Learn more at

There’s a lot of data yet to collect, but patterns are emerging that link certain personality traits with the love of spicy foods. As you might predict, Byrnes has found that sensation seekers (like the guy jumping out of the airplane) don’t seem to be as sensitive to the alarming effects of capsaicin, the pepper extract that started it all.

So, sensation seekers of Rehoboth Beach, unite! Grab your not-so-sensation-seeking friends (tell them it’s not going to kill them) and investigate some of the local spots where they will make it blazing hot - if you ask. The restaurant that tops that list is Confucius Gourmet Chinese. Chef and owner Shawn Xiong takes particular delight in seeing just how hot you can take it. His hot pepper pork and chicken, and his spicy tofu with long hot peppers will have you mumbling to yourself. If, however, you are concerned about (1) stubbing your toe or (2) having your head taken off by a mouthful of piquant chilies, 90 percent of Shawn’s dishes will be perfectly mild for you. But it’s that smokin’ 10 percent that lures me to Wilmington Avenue.

When you ask for hot sauce on the side, most restaurants bring the milder varieties like Texas Pete or Crystal. Not Dos Locos Stonegrill. They make it themselves with four varieties of habaneros and smoky chipotles. They call it Melt Your Face. I’ve left there many times with my face suitably melted, and lived to tell … uh, write … about it. I’ll warn even the confirmed chiliheads: Approach this one with caution!

If sauces are your thing, the mother lode is at Peppers near Midway. Certified chilihead Chip Hearn will happily take you from the mildest all the way to bottles requiring a signed legal release. Yum!

When Touch of Italy opened in Lewes, I received emails asking me to identify the powdery substance in little jars at each table. Intense research determined that the mystery substance is red pepper flakes typical of most pizza joints - except Bob and Joe grind them up so they’ll spread out in your mouth quicker. Sort of a search-and-destroy mission aimed at your taste buds. It’s delicious sprinkled on the sharp provolone and spicy sopresatta sub.

Downtown sushi lovers get their horseradish rush from the wasabi at Stingray, Saketumi and Cultured Pearl, while Lily Thai will kick it up as much as you want with tiny Thai peppers. Go to Port Dewey on Thai’d Up Thursdays when Chef Inton Mouynivong is free to do what he does best. They ask you, “Heat level, 1 through 10?” When I say “15,” co-owner Mitch King returns with a bottle of fiery Sriracha pepper-garlic sauce. (Squirt it into the lobster and shrimp lemongrass soup. Trust me on this.)

For all of you running for a glass of cooling milk, I’ll give Nadia Byrnes the last word: “Food choice is a really complex system that takes into account cultural expectations, the physical environment, cost, cravings … there may [even] be genetic components.”

Genetics, huh? I guess I was born to have my face melted.

  • So many restaurants, so little time! Food writer Bob Yesbek gives readers a sneak peek behind the scenes, exposing the inner workings of the local culinary industry, from the farm to the table and everything in between. He can be reached at

    Masthead photo by Grant Gursky. Used with permission from Coastal Style Magazine.