Get Your Spicy Food Fix at These Delaware Restaurants

More Delaware diners crave spicy foods—even midsummer.

Wit Milburn grew up with fire in his mouth. His Thai mother served peppery foods that would cause some people pain. So, when customers at Kapow Kitchen—Milburn’s Booths Corner Farmers Market stand—asked for more heat, he created a challenge.

Participants have 30 minutes to eat fried rice, pad thai or pho at spice level 5—the highest heat. They must also sign a lawyer-drafted waiver and be filmed for social media.

“How is it?” Milburn asks two college-age kids in one video. “Spicy,” one says, quickly sipping his drink, and “Very hot,” says the other—after which they can’t answer Milburn’s follow-up questions.

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Milburn wouldn’t ask customers to do what he hasn’t tried himself. So, how was it? “Horrible,” acknowledges Milburn, who can no longer tolerate level 5 because the fire moves from mouth to stomach.

Two Fat Guys in Hockessin is the home of the Armageddon Wing Challenge, featuring co-founder Tom Craft’s homegrown habanero and ghost peppers mixed with the restaurant’s Nuclear Sauce. “You must eat six wings in four minutes and then endure five minutes of pain before you can drink anything,” explains Craft, who completed the challenge.

While not everyone can handle such extreme heat, the popularity of spicy foods is reaching new heights. Sales of sriracha—made with chili peppers, distilled vinegar and pickled garlic—soared 45% between 2007 and 2021. Between 2008 and 2020, Google searches for “hot sauce” skyrocketed 210%, while grocery sales in the hot/Cajun category hit $789.9 million in 2022, according to IRI, a market research company.

“People are starting to catch on to the spice trend,” Milburn says.

Going global

The term spicy can refer to aromatic spices, such as cinnamon, but most people use it to refer to peppers and chilis, which are staples in many cuisines. In Thailand, people initially used chilis to preserve food.

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Gyanendra Gupta, executive chef of Raas in Lewes, says that many cultures appreciate the health benefits. “Fresh chilis are full of vitamin C,” says Gupta, who grew up in India. The heat clears congestion, and you sweat toxins. Capsaicin, which creates a pepper’s pungent taste, is an antioxidant.

Spice levels are measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). In most cases, mild is 100 to 2,500 SHU; medium is 2,500 to 30,000; and hot is 30,000 to 100,000. A bell pepper comes in at zero; a poblano is 1,000 to 1,500 SHU; and a ghost pepper is 855,000 to more than 1 million SHU.

Recent additions from South Carolina cultivator Ed Currie are off the chart. For instance, his Carolina Reaper is up to 2.2 million SHU, and Pepper X measures 2.69 million. (The latter can cause heartburn and abdominal cramps.)

Most chefs use the familiar jalapeño, cayenne and habanero, partly because some chilis, such as Indian cultivars, are hard to find, Gupta notes. The increased use of these ingredients in local ethnic restaurants has made them more familiar.

Have it your way

Nevertheless, restaurants realize that only some diners have a quest for fire. That’s why many ethnic eateries have a range. For instance, Raas’ scale goes from 1 to 10, with 10 being the hottest. That said, some dishes have no heat at all.

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Cajun cuisine is known for its zing, and at Cajun Kate’s in North Wilmington, customers can order mild or spicy red beans and rice. Likewise, the kitchen seasons fried seafood with house-made Creole seasoning to order. Ask for none or a lot, says owner Don Applebaum.

Every few weeks, the chef makes a specialty hot sauce. “It’s free,” Applebaum says. “All you have to do is ask.” Similarly, if Kapow customers want to turn up the heat, Milburn gives them a custom-made fresh pepper blend. Half a teaspoon is level 1, and 2½ teaspoons is level 5. For the holidays, Kapow bottles hot sauces such as the original Thai Guy and Zombie Blood, a level 5 that turns you into “a robot walking,” Milburn explains.

At Kapow Kitchen in Booths Corner Farmers Market, customers can order a spice level of 1 to 5, with 5 being the hottest. Any dish can take the heat, including the Penang curry, pad thai, pad see ew and huli huli bowls pictured here from left.
At Kapow Kitchen in Booths Corner Farmers Market, customers can order a spice level of 1 to 5, with 5 being the hottest. Any dish can take the heat, including the Penang curry, pad Thai, pad see ew and huli huli bowls pictured here from left. Courtesy of Kapow Kitchen.

“Participants have 30 minutes to eat fried rice, pad Thai or pho at spice level 5—the highest heat. They must also sign a lawyer-drafted waiver and be filmed for social media.”

Nonethnic restaurants also sell custom sauces. Two Stones Pub, which has multiple Delaware locations, bottles six sauces, including Taco Tuesday, named for the restaurant’s long-standing weekly promotion. According to the label, Ex-Girlfriend is “a teeny bit 2spicy, like your ex.”

Taco Reho currently places El Yucateco red and green sauces on the tables for those who want more spice. “We are currently in R&D for custom hot sauces that we will provide our customers,” says Billy Lucas, co-founder of the casual restaurant, which offers Middletown and Lewes locations.

Striking a balance

Despite the attention-getting flavors, heat for heat’s sake is “no fun,” Applebaum maintains. “We do a balance of flavors.” Consider Cajun Kate’s shredded pork-and-rice boudin balls, covered in panko, fried to order and served with Creole mustard-poblano sauce.

Lucas would agree with Applebaum. “We dress our tacos with house-made customized salsas that fit the flavor profiles of our tacos,” he explains. Chicken tinga tacos, for instance, are drizzled with salsa verde with jalapeños. “We have spent a lot of time and research figuring out the best flavor combinations.”

Honey is a sweet, sticky complement to spicy ingredients. Pizzeria Maki combines honey with Philly-style cherry peppers, ricotta and shredded mozzarella.
Honey is a sweet, sticky complement to spicy ingredients. Pizzeria Maki combines honey with Philly-style cherry peppers, ricotta and shredded mozzarella. Courtesy of Pizzeria Maki.

Dairy can temper the heat. At Iron Hill Restaurant & Brewery, which includes three Delaware locations, Voodoo Chicken Pizza is topped with smoked Gouda, mozzarella, green peppers, red onion, bacon and spicy Vienna Red Lager barbecue sauce. The brewpub also features a fried chicken sandwich with either spicy sriracha IPA ranch or spicy Korean barbecue sauce.

Fried chicken is a common base for spice, and honey offsets the spice. For instance, Crooked Hammock Brewery, which offers Lewes and Middletown sites, adds an orange-honey sauce with chili to its chicken sandwich.

Pizzeria Maki, with locations in Greenville and Glen Mills, tops pizza with honey and chopped Philly-style hot cherry peppers—plus ricotta and shredded mozzarella.

Fruit is another way to create a balance. Honeygrow, a fast-casual chain, sells a spicy garlic noodle dish with chicken, pineapple and vegetables.

That’s not to say that people who like it super spicy are giving up flavor. Milburn maintains that even the Kapow challenge food is still tasty.

It’s just, well, hot.

Related: 5 Spots to Visit for Boozy Ice Cream in Delaware

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