Gut Instinct: The Spice Is Right

What’s the cure for a case of the blues? Cuisine fiery enough to make me cry

Much to my girlfriend’s ever-mounting mortification, I get my jollies watching serial killers behead libidinous teens. I’m titillated when middle-aged men are eviscerated by pointy garden implements, and I dig quicksilver zombies chomping brains with a bloodlust typically reserved for stoners and Cool Ranch Doritos.

Hi, my name is Josh, and I’m a horror-movie addict. I adore viscera-spattered flicks because they quicken my pulse, pound my heart and force my fingers across my eyes: Watching death makes me feel so very alive. They’re a bazooka blast of endorphins, much like my other addiction: spicy, sinus-draining cuisine—Thai, Sichuan, New Mexican, whatever. A Capsaicin jolt sizzles my senses and measurably brightens my mood. Consider chili peppers my ghetto Zoloft, of which I recently needed a double dose.

If my life were a novel, recent tribulations would be titled, Joshua and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week. In no particular order: My computer died; my apartment building’s boiler also died, nixing hot water; I was slipped a counterfeit $20 bill; I lost my keys; and then, topping my shit sundae with a maraschino, my glasses split in half, making the world as blurry as a scrambled porn channel.

I was feeling so blue that I needed red-hot cuisine from Flushing, Queens. On a cloudless Saturday, Main Street was mobbed with stooped grannies, stroller-pushing moms and chain-smoking men appraising spicy durians and bok choy and knockoff doodads lining the block.

“DVD! DVD!” shouted a man with fewer teeth than toes, urging me to buy a bootlegged Transformers or I Am Legend.

I ignored him and descended a staircase into Golden Shopping Mall (41-28 Main St. at 41st Rd., Queens). It’s a rabbit’s warren of stalls vending everything from hooker high heels to rhinestone-studded purses. More importantly, there’s a ramshackle food court. Little ladies folded pork-and-chive dumplings, while men stretched rice noodles like taffy and served murky soups containing organ meats sliced into lopsided chunks.

Though there’s nothing awful about offal, my sunken heart was set on stall No. 31: Chengdu Heavenly Snacks, which trafficked in hot, numbing cuisine. The bare-bones outfit contained a stove and a few tables filled with teenage girls gabbing. Chengdu’s yellow menu bore Mandarin script, which is as mystifying as nipples on men. “Need some help?” volunteered one girl. She wore a sweatshirt the color of cooked salmon.

I nodded like a bobble-head doll. “I like it spicy. And I’d like tofu.”

Winter was unkind to my girlish figure. Sloth and a deep-fried diet provided me a spongy paunch. “How about ma po tofu?” she asked, reading the board.

“Yes, please,” I replied. Ma po tofu mixes bean curd with minced pork, creating a scrumptious heresy for vegetarians and Jews alike.

Miss Salmon ordered my meal, and a few minutes later my ma po ($6) was delivered, steaming. I swirled the Satan-colored glop, then I spooned up a jiggly heap of bone-white tofu. It was soft and squishy, a tad crunchy, and tasted like a nuclear reactor explosion. My pupils dilated. My brow poured sweat. And with each scorching spoonful, my morale exponentially increased.

But one blistering meal doesn’t destroy my despair. The next day, I pedaled my plump rump to Sunset Park’s Yun Nan Flavour Snack Shop (775A 49th St. betw. Seventh & Eighth Aves., 718-633-3090, B’klyn). It’s a wee husband-wife eatery focusing on homemade rice noodles and piquant soups from the southwestern-China province of Yunnan.

“Hello,” the husband said, all toothy good humor. “What you like?” He stepped from behind the counter. We examined the menu together, like father and adopted son. “Spicy?” he asked, pointing at the hot-and-sour sauce dumplings ($3.75). Jiminy Cricket, was this man a mind reader?

To ensure happiness, I also ordered cold noodles ($3.75) and soup with “spicy meat” ($3.75), no animal specified. A few minutes later, I was enraptured: The pork dumplings were crimped like miniature brains and swam in a thin, red broth that was by turns puckering and piquant. The cold noodles were numbing and chewy, flecked with fragrant cilantro. The crumbled spicy meat—pinhead-size bits of ground beef—was a cafeteria-quality disappointment. I pushed that aside and alternated between slurping noodles and popping dumplings, much to my—and the husband-owner’s—endless delight.

“Spicy is good,” he said appreciatively.

“Spicy is good,” I echoed, as each blistering, numbing bite righted my mental ship to something approximating an even keel.