Spice It Up

British poet William Cowper once penned the renowned line “variety is the spice of life.” When it comes to eats with a kick, though, it’s spice that often provides the zestful variety enjoyed by many food connoisseurs.

Spicy food, according to numerous researchers, is known to diminish hunger, increase body strength and even bolster brainpower. Never mind the enhanced flavor that stimulates the palate and awakens the senses.

Whether you prefer chilies, curry or hot sauces, you are sure to find much to like about the four local destinations we discovered that are dedicated to spicing things up at mealtime. Also, since the “heat index” is up to each diner’s discretion, don’t hesitate to let your server know the spiciness level you desire.

9549 Chapel Hill Road, Morrisville
(919) 380-7799

Martin’s Curry Rice offers an intriguing concept for customized Indian food: Choose your protein, vegetables and sauce, and then wait five minutes for your meal to be cooked to order. What’s more, fresh local vegetables like bell peppers, squash, kale and other seasonal items are sourced from the Western Wake Farmers’ Market.

“It doesn’t get any fresher than buying local produce,” said chef/owner Martin Sreshta, originally from Bangalore, India. “I came to the United States in 1995, and that’s when I first started cooking.”

Proteins like fish, chicken, tofu and eggs are infused with sauces such as the mild curry “mellow yellow,” the medium-spiced black-pepper-and-cilantro “masala green” and the “spicy red,” the fieriest of the trio with Kashmiri red chili and tamarind tang.

Martin’s is committed to grinding spices and preparing sauces fresh each day. Not surprisingly, vegetarians and vegans find solace here. “All sauces and most dishes are gluten free and have no MSG,” he said.

The build-your-own-bowl routine works nicely, but half a dozen quick combination meals also entice customers to consider choosing one of Martin’s fine-tuned concoctions.

“The spiciest of the combos is the Asian Persuasion,” Sreshta said. This dish contains fish or tofu with spicy red sauce, bamboo shoots and water chestnuts. “None of the spices is too overpowering, but everything blends together to kick up the flavor.”

The counter service provides free Wi-Fi Internet access, thus encouraging patrons to linger. Local artwork hangs on the walls and is available for purchase. Martin also plans to feature monthly wine dinners (check out Facebook.com/MartinsCurryRice or call for details).

Martin’s Curry Rice is open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. The restaurant is closed on Sunday.

121-A East Chatham St., Cary
(919) 388-5885

Authentic Chinese cuisine awaits all who visit Taipei 101, a welcome addition for diners in downtown Cary. Whether it’s beef, chicken, pork, tofu, seafood or vegetarian, all the bases are covered — and the menu is replete with spicy selections.

“Spicy dishes are very popular with our customers,” said owner Wen-Kai Ho, from Taiwan, who learned to appreciate cooking from his mother during childhood.

Among the most savory entrees: the incendiary Szechuan fish fillets. Tender pieces of tilapia deliver just the right amount of heat without contributing any adverse burn. “We use red chili peppers to add intensity to the dish,” Ho said.

Another smoldering option is the hot chili chicken, in which Szechuan and other peppers generate a tingly sensation on the tongue. Further piquant choices include chili pepper steak, kung pao shrimp and sautéed spicy cabbage.

Unlike many Chinese restaurants, Taipei 101’s spacious dining room is filled with natural light emanating through copious windows. Gracious, efficient servers make the overall dining experience even more satisfying.

Closed on Monday, Taipei 101 is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday. Be advised: Reservations are not accepted, and no alcoholic beverages are available.

222 Fayetteville St., Raleigh, (919) 832-6082
231 Grande Heights Drive (Harrison Pointe Shopping Center), Cary, (919) 468-6007

Where is the Triangle’s go-to spot for quality Cajun fare? It’s The Big Easy, situated in the heart of downtown Raleigh, with a new sister location now open in Cary. Everything about it, from the décor and ambiance to the music and the food, will leave you feeling like you’re dining in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

“We wanted to fill a needed niche in the area,” said proprietor Andy Seagle, a High Point native and an N.C. State graduate. “People have responded well, and that’s why we think Cary will also be a good place for us.”

As for the food, Seagle explained that The Big Easy’s menu offers a distinctive spiciness that’s in a class by itself. “Cajun food has more of a residual heat about it,” he said. “For example, our jambalaya will likely make you sweat, but it’s not going to burn you up.”

For a zesty appetizer, consider either the jalapeño-laden crab stuffed poppers or the “South of Buffalo” chicken wings with spicy Caribbean jerk sauce. “Mild is plenty spicy for most people,” Seagle said of the wings.

Chef Frank Ferlo also churns out requisite standards like red beans and rice and po’boy sandwiches as well as standout entrees like seafood gumbo (chicken and sausage gumbo with shrimp, crawfish, catfish and oysters) and the 12-ounce Angus ribeye steak, which is dry-rubbed with Cajun spices.

Nighttime action involves a dynamic mixture of live music, disc jockeys spinning new and classic records, and a jazz saxophonist from 6–9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. “We also have trivia on Tuesdays,” Seagle added.

The Big Easy is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. See the website for a list of daily drink specials and parking alternatives for the Raleigh location.

327 West Davie St., Suite 102, Raleigh
(919) 755-0556

Who knew modern Mexican cuisine could be this nicely seasoned? At Jibarra, located in the renovated train depot in downtown Raleigh, executive chef Oscar Diaz employs innovative cooking techniques to create traditional Mexican dishes with contemporary flair.

Diaz, a Chicago native who honed his skills at kitchens in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, loves unleashing what he calls “culinary ambitiousness” to craft new and exciting menu items. “I am an adventurous chef, and I like to get playful with the menu,” he said.

Evidence of his creativity is presented in soft-taco selections like pollo al Carbón (adobo-marinated grilled chicken, honey-glazed bell peppers and habanero-citrus pico de gallo) and Cochinita with Yucatan-style shredded pork shoulder, pickled red onions and habanero salsa.

“I enjoy using things like serrano, poblano and banana peppers when I cook,” said Diaz. “These are what my mom used when I was growing up, and they give everything such great flavor.”

A variety of salads, soups, small plates and full-portioned specialties give patrons plenty of tempting options to consider. A centralized bar contains a posh “Tequila Tower,” which showcases the eatery’s premium tequila bottles.

Open daily for lunch and dinner, Jibarra serves brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. A private dining room is available and seats up to 35 guests. Reservations are accepted by phone or by using Open Table on the Web.

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