I take my Buffalo sauce mild.
I’ll admit it. I’m somewhat of a pansy when it comes to an enormous spark of spice in my food. I enjoy some ferocity, but I’m not a big fan of when flames hit my tongue and overtake the flavor of any dish. But I get it: Some like it hot. Some travel with their own hot sauce and exfoliate with red pepper flakes. I respect that. For those on the tame end of the heat spectrum, though, read on.
It is winter, after all, so with the chilly air among us, now is the time for culinary creations that warm us from the inside out. I went on a hunt for locally-prepared international cuisine that could satisfy my spice itch with an exotic scratch. What I discovered was surprising. Not every “spicy” spread I stumbled upon was outrageously hot. Instead, I found myself facing flavors with inexplicable depth and complex hints of spice. OK, I thought to myself. I can get down with this.
Candle Nut Restaurant
Beef Rendang with Sambal
21 N. Front St., Unit 103 • (910) 399-2054
“I like hearing customers are enjoying my food, even though it’s unfamiliar to them,” Candle Nut owner Novi Rickert said, as I slid my fork under a pile of her ethereal coconut rice. “But what really melts my heart is when people say my food tastes like home.”
Where Saigon Bistro once sat (smack dab in the middle of Front Street to be exact) is now Candle Nut Restaurant. Upstarted by husband-and-wife team Jeff and Novi Rickert, their maroon awning welcomes guests for a taste of authentic Indonesian and Malaysian cuisines. “We try not to Americanize the food,” Novi told me. “My country has such an influence of different backgrounds, and with the history of trading, you really get a mixed hybrid of flavor. We use some dried spices for richness, but a lot of the ingredients we use are fresh roots like ginger and turmeric.”
I came in to take the beef rendang (one of Indonesia’s most well-known dishes) for a spin and left with six to-go boxes of food. If the Rickerts are anything, it’s wildly generous. They had no intention of letting me leave on an empty stomach, and when Novi got wind of my enthusiasm for coconut milk, back into the kitchen she went.
“We use angus cut beef for the rendang,” Jeff stated as his wife was manifesting a pile of lamb kebabs and shrimp fried rice. “It’s good quality, meat braised low and slow for about two hours, and the main spices are garlic, shallot, ginger, galangal, turmeric, coconut milk, and candlenut.”
The ingredient they named the restaurant after also is called candleberry, Indian walnut, kemiri, varnish tree, nuez de la India, buah keras, or kukui nut tree, and Kekuna tree. The generous slabs of beef come coated in a thick spongy layer of earthy flavors. Though a new flavor, it was familiar and comforting.
One of the most stunning parts of the presentation was the collection of eclectic condiments. Some were clear lime leaf mixtures, perfumed with lemongrass; some were studded with thick pickles, and others were inky black with ringlets of shallots. One was a chunky yellow medley speckled with red and green.
“This looks like it’s going to hurt me,” I noted with wide eyes.
Novi laughed. “The dish itself is full of spices, but, yes, that’s the sambal. Sambal brings the real heat. I don’t force people to eat spicy things, but my sambal has to be spicy.”
One dab of the tangy relish on the rice and my palate was immediately lit with a blast of hot, funky flavors. The sambal, made from scratch like everything else in Candle Nut’s kitchen, is a fusion of dry roasted chiles, shrimp paste, shallots, and candlenut.
The rendang also features gloriously fluffy coconut-scented rice, topped with crispy garlic and collard greens. Listen up, Southerners: These ain’t like collards y’all ever tasted. After a quick blanch to release the bitterness, the leafy greens are wok-fried and simmered in coconut milk and spices.
“I would typically use cassava leaves,” Novi said, “but I can’t get those here. You just want to find a green that’s not too bitter.”
Into a nearby container I mounded a scoop of aromatic rice—which filled my nose with warm, peppery notes of cardamom and cinnamon. Jeff sprung up in his seat.
“Oh, and we do a lot of specials!” he told. “Sometimes we have a piano player [James Jarvis on Saturday nights]. We also do half-price beer, wine and appetizers, and we do signature cocktails.”
Sunday Funday participants: Candle Nut makes a Spicy Sambal Bloody Mary with Tito’s, lemongrass, and house-made Indonesian hot sauce.
Aguachile with Shrimp
3114-3430 S. 17th St. • (910) 833-5142
“This dish is sometimes referred to as ‘levanta muertos’ that translates to: raise the dead,” Zocalo’s head chef Julio Camberos said with a chuckle.
Great, I thought. Here come the meat sweats.
Excited to spread the word about The Pointe at Barclay’s new Mexican street food eatery Zocalo, I reached out to Chef Julio for his take on something that would “gently” blow my socks off. “If you’re a sissy, just reach for some carbs,” he said as I gulped down a mouthful of shrimp marinated in lime-habanero-serrano-cilantro juice. Steam trickled from my ears. His spin on this righteous ceviche was tossed with crunchy shavings of red onion, cucumbers and bell peppers. Thank goodness for the nearby basket of thick-cut, housemade white corn tortilla chips—a.k.a. “totopo.” Using the salty triangles as a vehicle for his fiery, green-hued sauce (with an avocado sliver or two to cool me down), I was able to turn down the heat a few notches.
“You have to keep eating until you get to the end, otherwise the burn will kick in,” Chef Julio said. I’m a big fan of trusting the professional; I did exactly that. Some bites had tinges of fruity fire, while mouthfuls of shrimp and veggies were floral and packed with notes of citrus. A word to weak stomachs: Avoid the thin orange rounds on the outskirts of the plate. Those are habaneros—you will burst into flames. Not exaggerating.
“It is the ultimate hangover shrimp cocktail because you sweat out all of the alcohol,” Chef Julio explained to me.
I liked this guy immediately; he totally gets me.
He told me the base of the dish was a direct translation of its name (chile water), but when I asked him if the marinade could be made with anything other than water, he shook his head firmly.
“Oh, no, there’s no water! I blend the chiles, so the liquid is literally the water that’s released from them, plus spices and the lime juice (the acid that cooks the shrimp). You could also make it with scallops or fresh fish like mahi.”
“Out of 100,” Chef Julio said, “a habanero is like a 25, and the serrano is about a 75. If someone wanted it really spicy—I mean super spicy—I would use pequin chiles.”
For a heat bomb, he uses the little red, dried nuggets of fire by toasting them and mixing them with garlic. Diners who go this route might want a grab a libation (to douse your entire body with). Just looking for a killer pairing? Pour a caramelized pineapple mojito straight down the gullet.
In addition to an abundant lineup of classic Mexican brews on draft, the epicurean extension of the El Cerro group offers 50 tequilas and expertly crafted cocktails, like a refreshing sugared-rim watermelon margarita. Other signatures on the chef-driven modern/regional Mexican menu include tuna watermelon ceviche and five different types of tortillas made in-house.
YehMon51 Food Truck
Smoked Jerk Ribs
www.facebook.com/Yehmon51 • (910) 619-4714
“Wanna hop in and get a look at her?” shouted Yeh Mon owner Calvin Lewis from inside his scotch bonnet-colored food truck.
Rule number one of being a food writer: When a chef asks to see where he smokes his meat, oblige.
I hopped inside the spacious trailer and stared in awe at the oversized smoker. “She works like a charm, that’s for sure,” he said. “She’s water-fed. She does the magic. I just put the love into it. What I put out the window is what I serve at the house.”
Caribbean fare lovers know jerk seasoning is at the core of the cuisine. I asked Calvin which spices he credits for giving the blend its unique depth of flavor and fire.
“Walkerswood, straight out of Jamaica, is my go-to,” he said. “It’s a hot and spicy style that works as a rub and a marinade. Scotch bonnets are the main source of heat.”
Calvin’s tropical flavors whisk away diners to the islands—and that’s the point. Yeh Mon, though slightly Americanized, is purposefully set up to mirror the street food found in Jamaica. When he first started taking the truck on the road, customers would ask for dressing for the wings.
(Look people—if you’re in Jamaica, you ain’t getting ranch. So you ain’t getting it at Yeh Mon either.)
Folks dig Calvin’s menu so much he’s observed customers stopping at a brewery where he’s set up shop specifically to order a meal and take it home—quite the opposite of the norm, where most buzzed patrons snag a snack from a food truck strictly for the convenience of not having to leave where the alcohol lives. Despite the predominantly international menu, Calvin keeps the kids in mind with child-appropriate goodies, like smoked hot dogs. However, the American handhelds are wildly popular with adults, too (particularly in the brewery crowd).
“My stuff is sweet and easy,” Calvin said. “It takes a long time to cook (like the almost 13-hour low and slow ribs), but I don’t like to over-complicate things.”
Although he doesn’t personally eat pork, Calvin requests a tremendous amount of feedback from his food-truck fans and family so he can make sure he’s doing it right. “Let me know if I’m slipping!” he told his son.
When I unwrapped my slab from their tin-foil package, I could tell the dry rub had permeated the ribs. Thanks to an hour-long kiss of smoke (and the meat slowly simmering in its own natural juices inside its foil shell), each chomp into the crispy bark was juicy, tender, and deeply concentrated with spice. When it comes to ordering, you can get your spice fix two different ways. For the “dry” version, Calvin dusts his famous smoked meats in a specialty jerk seasoning. If you’re a sauce head—go for the “wet” and get your pork or chicken cooked dry and then finished in Calvin’s homemade sweet, tangy sauce made with honey, ketchup, two different spice rubs, and apple juice. Best of both worlds—am I right? A juicy chunk of pineapple also dresses the dish to calm and offset the heat of the rib’s pungent sauce.
And the vegetarians? Well, non-meat-eaters go nuts for Yeh Mon’s righteous rice and beans soaked in this signature mixture.
I ordered Calvin’s housemade wet sauce alongside for dipping and was eventually tempted to drink it as it welcomed a whole different spark.
“The spice in here is perfectly balanced,” I noted. “I love it doesn’t linger too long. But what about customers who want you to blow their heads off?”
“I keep a selection of hot sauces outside the truck so people can do what they like,” he told. “One is made from scotch bonnets and one is straight from Trinidad and Tobago and comes in medium hot and extra hot. I also have this one dark sauce I got from a small market. I keep it inside the truck so people don’t get crazy with it [laughs]. It’s made with chocolate scorpion peppers, chocolate ghost peppers, and chocolate habanero peppers. I once let a guy try it and it went down the wrong pipe. He cried. Now, he comes back and asks for it every time.”
Other than the hot dog buns, everything on the truck is gluten-free, and Calvin makes sure to display such on the menu. “Speaking of dietary restrictions, I also rotate the type of wood I use from pecan to hickory to cherry. I once had a woman with a nut allergy at Burnt Mill order the pecan-smoked wings and eat alongside her EpiPen ‘just in case.’ She really wanted those damn wings.”
Moral of the story? If a spicy dish is so good it makes you cry or want to risk your life, grab a cold beer and stay a while.