Chili has been my favorite flavor since I was a kid growing up on the Oregon Coast. Our going out treat was Mazatlan, a small restaurant that, in retrospect, was more Tex than Mex but, crucially, served fresh salsa. Maybe it was the contrast between the heat of the chili and the year-round damp climate; maybe it was the association of spice with special occasions. In any case, my youthful enthusiasm blossomed into a full-grown adult obsession with all forms of hot food. Here are four fiery finds that won’t burn a hole in your wallet.
This tiny, family-run Thai spot (3145 SE Hawthorne Blvd.) punches in above its weight in the fresh, feisty food stakes. Named for the largest city in Northern Thailand, it draws on the culinary traditions of the region which include a serious amount of spice.
Everything on the menu is cooked as hot as you like, and most can be made gluten-free, vegetarian or vegan. The spice-o-meter goes from zero (bland) to four (extra hot), and applies across its curries, stir-fries, noodles, and fried rice dishes. Choosing just one dish is the hard part. In a pinch, try the Pad Kee Mao Goong: spicy fried rice noodles topped with a sprig of fresh peppercorn. It’s worth it for the crunch of the pepper berries alone. For the best deal, pop in at lunch when generous main dishes with tofu, pork, or chicken are just $8.50.
This farm-to-fork Mexican eatery (524 NW 14th Ave.) epitomizes Portland cuisine at its best: local, seasonal, caters to all sorts of dietary needs, and has happy hour from 3 to 5:30 p.m. every day.
Nab a seat by the window for great people watching and order a dish unique to Verde Cocina, the El Infierno “Chicharrones.” Instead of pork crackling, this version is made from crispy tofu and served with Infierno salsa. “It’s SUPER hot,” the menu warns, and then adds, “WE MEAN HOT.” I treat such claims with skepticism but this is the hottest thing I’ve eaten in a restaurant. Blisteringly good. If you’re feeling brave, wash it down with a habañero margarita.
One thing I love almost as much as spice is playing with my food. Abyssinian Kitchen (2525 SE 21st Ave.) is an Ethiopian and Eritrean eatery that offers a surfeit of both delights. Instead of cutlery you get injira, a thick, sourdough crepe you tear into pieces and use to scoop up the accompanying stews and curries.
Abyssinian Kitchen offers gluten-free, 100 percent teff (an Ethiopian flour) injira, and makes its own spice blends, which include berbere, a punchy combination of red chili, ginger, and garlic; and mitmita which marries chili with cardamom, ginger, and cumin. These flavors suffuse the menu, which is split between meat dishes like lamb, chicken, and ribs, and veggie/vegan options such as chickpeas and red lentils. The veg dishes are especially budget-friendly, and you save on beverages as they don’t serve alcohol.
Everyone from Serious Eats to the New York Times raves about Mi Mero Mole (32 NW 5th Ave.), but my affection for this cheap-and-cheerful chili haven is personal. It’s where my husband and I had our first date. We shared two kinds of vegan mole, several margaritas and an after-dinner kiss.
The food is awesome, even if you’re not falling in love. Everything is made fresh and from scratch, including a rainbow assortment of chili sauces and the tangy pickled onions that garnish its guisados, rich stews starring chicken, pork, beef, or veggies with lots of spice. These are served as filling for tacos, burritos, quesadillas, or “gabacho bowls,” all for $5 to 10 per dish. MMM has a daily happy hour from 2 to 6 p.m., all-you-can-eat Taco Tuesdays and a three-course meal deal every Wednesday.
None of these hot spots will disappoint folks who like to kick their chili thermostat up a notch or two. Enjoy!