Heat in St. Pete: The best spicy food spots in the Burg

Heat in St. Pete: The best spicy food spots in the Burg

A spicy chicken sandwich from Nash's Hot Chicken
Photo courtesy Nash's Hot Chicken

Some just like it hot. Others absolutely LOVE it hot. While my palate can certainly appreciate flavors across the spectrum from sweet to salty and every umami in between, I find myself on a constant search for one thing in particular: heat.

Luckily, St. Pete’s diverse food scene provides plenty of options for those who want all the spice they can get. Spicy takes a variety of forms in the Burg, and even outside of full restaurants, there are at least half a dozen retail stores that specialize in house-made and carefully curated hot sauces, spices, and other tongue-tingling goodies (the ghost pepper salsa from the newly-opened Butcher’s Mark gets our seal of approval).

A full list of restaurants with spicy dishes would fill a small book, and highlighting every hot plate of food in town would turn the list into a full anthology. Instead, this guide will explore highlights from four categories that lend themselves particularly well to spicy concoctions. We’re looking for places that offer a full range of spice, no matter what vehicle for delivery you prefer.

Did we miss your favorite place? Please, let us know. (Seriously – we want to try it! Email [email protected]). Now, onto the good stuff.

Don’t be a chicken

A chicken sandwich at King of the Coop
Hot chicken sandwich from King of the Coop

Let’s start with one of the basics: hot chicken. Spicy sauces on chicken wings have long been a staple, but the hot chicken movement of the last decade or so has brought a new and often less messy approach to mouth-numbing yardbird, and St. Pete has several outstanding options.

Nash’s Hot Chicken, like so many St. Pete success stories, started as a food truck. Its success quickly led to the need for a full brick and mortar, which is now open at 905 Central Avenue. You can get your chicken in a tender basket or on a sandwich, but the key is the level of heat.

The spice comes in levels 1-5, with three being tolerable for people who “don’t mind” spice and five packing a punch strong enough to make even the driest of eyes begin to water. And don’t sleep on the seasoned fries (though they don’t help when your mouth is aflame.) New on the menu this summer: Level 10 spice made with Carolina Reaper. Share a review if you give it a try.

On the west side of town, King of the Coop is one of my favorite restaurants in Tampa Bay. I’m a sucker for southern-style, rib-sticking eats, and this crew does it as well as anyone. Like Nash’s, you can get the chicken (or catfish!) in a variety of forms. Yet again, the real question is: how hot do you want it?

“Midway” checks in as the middle ground for those who are interested but apprehensive, while the Nashville Hot delivers the traditional flavorful kick that launched the hot chicken movement. As for me and my house, the Coop’s Fury is five-star heat that will have you racing for a refill of lemonade, and it’s worth every bit of runny nose rubbing. Cool the mouth down with some delicious banana pudding afterward.

Looking for hot noodles

A postcard from Nitally's
Photo courtesy Nitally’s

From Pad Thai and Drunken Noodles, to fried rice and bibimbap, the world of carb-fueled spice is vast and delightful. Here more than any other category, there is an absolute abundance of options in St. Pete. Most people likely already have their favorite Thai or Korean spot picked out, so instead, we’re looking at two who do hot well.

Nitally’s ThaiMex in Uptown St. Pete has been a favorite of mine for years with their Mexican-Thai mashup menu, and I’m relatively certain it’s the only place you’ll find that offers Pad Thai Con Salsa and Thai-Mex nachos. The first time I went, I simply got the Pad Thai and asked for it “as hot as you can make it.” They laughed. Then they double-checked, informing me that the highest level – “Thai-Mex Hot” – was truly serious stuff. Then they triple-checked, just to be sure.

It was one of the best dishes I’ve had anywhere. And sweet mother, it was absolutely as advertised. If you’re extremely hungry, drop the spice down a notch, because you likely won’t be able to finish this plate. But for the flavor and heat, it’s more than worth it. Nitally’s spice levels range from mild to medium, hot, Thai hot, and finally Thai-Mex hot.

Speaking of dishes that changed my life for the better (and perhaps my stomach lining for the worse): 9 Bangkok Thai and Sushi Restaurant is the home of my favorite plate of Pad See Ew I’ve had (ordered as hot as it comes, of course). The wonderful restaurant on Central Avenue has all the Thai staples, as well as several great house specials. What makes them standout, once again, is their ability to deliver heat in its most flavorful and satisfying form.

The key to spicy dishes isn’t being the hottest. At a certain point it’s no longer enjoyable, anyway. But I’ll go for close to any level of heat, so long as the flavor profile is there to match it. Heat for the sake of heat is no fun. Heat that’s bursting with flavor, now that’s what we’re looking for. And that’s what 9 Bangkok does well on any dish you want made spicy, Pad See Ew or otherwise.

Let’s squash this beef

A burger at Engine No. 9
Photo courtesy Engine No. 9

So, this is the oddball on the list, but I love a spicy burger. And no offense to Chili’s (it has its time and place!) but a cowboy burger with honey BBQ sauce and jalapenos doesn’t quite tip the Scoville scale the way heat-seekers like. Luckily, there are two standouts downtown who deliver the kind of handheld heat we’re looking for.

Their full list of burgers is my favorite part of the menu anyway, and the Firecracker at The Avenue DTSP is top of the beefy list. Now, it may not leave blisters on your tongue, but as spicy burgers go, The Avenue’s take is full of great flavor and has just enough to heat to satisfy those in need. Topped with thick-cut peppered bacon, habanero sauce, jalapeno slices, and pepperjack cheese, the Firecracker delivers on its name in grand fashion.

Of course, no reference to burgers in the Burg is complete without Engine No. 9. Pulling inspiration from Chicago, New Orleans, and seemingly everywhere else from here to Transylvania (the Van Helsing burger is a garlicky delight), Engine No. 9 brings heat in a variety of forms. And if you need some time to make a pick from the expansive burger menu, grab some sriracha wings to snack on while you decide. They’re up there with Mullet’s Merman wings for the best in St. Pete.

On the burger end of it, the options are many. At least half a dozen burgers on the menu can reasonably be deemed spicy, and the variety for the palate is wide even within those parameters. My top picks are The Lower 9th (jalapeno bacon, cheddar, and ghost pepper cheese), Resurrection (bleu cheese, bacon, garlic, jalapenos, sweet Thai chili sauce, and mashed habaneros) or the sweet and spicy Alice In Pain (sriracha, pancetta, roasted red pepper, grilled pineapple, and sweet chili paste).

S-curry to these hidden gems

Pans of Indian and Pakistani food
Photo courtesy Naan Boti Chai Shai

Filling out the holy trinity of spice-laden cuisines, Indian food is one of my favorite heat-delivery systems. Much like Thai, restaurants showcasing Indian fare tend to give you the option of making any dish as hot (or not hot) as you want it, rather than making specifically-spicy entrees. That certainly makes it easier to dine with less Scoville-savvy companions. There are plenty of well-known Indian spots on the beaten path (shoutout to Twisted Indian in Grand Central), so instead we’ll take this opportunity to showcase a couple hidden gems.

The family behind Café Masala, tucked into a nook by Gandy and 4th Street, has been dishing out incredible authentic Indian food for nearly 30 years. The Tikka Masala is the most popular dish on the menu, but it’s the spicy Chicken Vindaloo that will keep readers of this list coming back for more. If you have an appreciation for flavorful curry, Café Masala’s comes in all kinds of tasty varieties, including veggie, chicken and lamb.

On the opposite end of town, some of the best Indian and Pakistani food around can be found on The Deuces. And it isn’t just about the great flavors coming from the husband-and-wife team that run Naan Boti Chai Shai. This hidden gem can make nearly any Indian dish vegan, giving a welcome and flavorful option for meatless diners. From samosas and tandoori to goat curry and vegan falafel, there’s nothing this restaurant doesn’t do well.

Spice it up and stop in to Naan Boti Chai Shai Thursday-Monday. There’s limited seating inside, so it operates as more of a to-go spot, but you’ll be hard pressed to find more flavorful spiced goodness anywhere.

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