It used to be difficult to find ghost peppers around metro Detroit – like running into a yeti or hitting the Mega Millions. Recently, though, the ghost pepper is rearing its heat in more places. Maybe people's tolerance for heat has increased or people have been watching too much Man V. Food and Bizarre Foods and think they can handle the heat, too.
Let me be perfectly clear: ghost peppers are fucking hot. Uncomfortably hot. Many times there will be a warning near the menu item that contains the peppers. For as hot as they are, their flavor is fantastic. And when used with finesse, ghost peppers add a level of heat that puts even habañeros to shame.
Just a couple blocks from each other in Hamtramck, Amar Pizza and Maria's Comida both have ghost peppers on their menus. Both items are seemingly innocuous – pizza and burger, but adding ghost peppers to the mix takes these commonplace items to fiery flavor-town.
Al Pronko has always enjoyed pushing the culinary envelope. He and his family opened Maria's Comida, a Mexican-Asian fusion restaurant, a couple years ago and have not looked back. The menu has Kung Pao chicken burritos right next to Asian baby back ribs. Our focus, however, is the ghost pepper burger.
Aside from being a restaurant, Maria's Comida is the distribution center for Maria's House Made Salsa. Always on the cutting edge, Al started making ghost pepper salsa about a year ago. Research and development takes time, so while the salsa isn't available in stores yet, it is the main seasoning in the ghost pepper burger.
Each burger is hand-formed and cooked to order, then topped with Jack cheese and bacon. This is a tasty burger and the ghost pepper adds a pleasantly searing level of heat that is slightly uncomfortable, but ultimately satisfying. As the heat builds, you will begin to sweat about half way through the burger. Power through to the finish and not only will your hunger be gone, but you will have sweated away the calories you just consumed.
If the burger hasn't beaten your taste buds into submission, take a stroll up the street and over a couple blocks to Amar Pizza on Conant. Recently featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, Amar Pizza is known for the way they use ghost chilis.
Owner Khurshed Ahmed explains how he uses the peppers. "We don't just put ghost pepper slices on the pizza," he explains. "The pizza would be almost impossible to eat. It would be a novelty." Instead, Ahmed blends the peppers into the sauce. There's no way to avoid the pepper, however, and you don't want to anyway.
While you are able to order the ghost pepper pizza with any toppings you'd like, my suggestion is to order it the way Ahmed suggests with tandoori chicken, cilantro and red onion. I challenge you to take one bite and stop. Soon one bite turns into a slice, then a slice turns into slices and then you've eaten the whole pie.
As mentioned above, the heat does build, but there is an addictive quality to this pizza. First off, the chicken is tender and flavorful, and the cilantro and red onion offer freshness and texture.
When Andrew Zimmern visited, Ahmed made him a special pizza. The dried fish pizza, while not officially on the menu, might be the most unique pizza in the metro Detroit area. Rather than just topping the pizza with dried fish, Ahmed makes a paste with oil, fish, ghost chiles, and spices to use in lieu of tomato sauce. He then liberally tops the pie with cheese, dried fish and shrimp, cilantro, onion and garlic. Do not be afraid of this pizza. The dried fish is quite similar to anchovy, and the ghost peppers work magically. Briny, spicy and garlicky, this pizza is just screaming for a cold beer. Between the two pies, I ate eight slices in one sitting (no joke). It is THAT addictive.
Possibly the most logical place you'd expect to find a ghost chili is a Thai restaurant. However, while many Thai restaurants claim heat levels of "suicidal" or "XXXTra Hot," not many actually stock the ghost chili.
Khom Fai in Shelby Township does. The menu at Khom Fai is classic Thai. Owners Isaiah and Chris Sonjeow learned the business from their father who has been a restaurateur for decades. While it is totally possible to order pad thai or spring rolls, it is also possible to order the hottest bowl of curry you may ever eat.
It is completely up to you which dish you have them put the ghost chili in, but the gang gai is the way to go. Gang gai is made with red curry, coconut milk, green and red peppers, mushrooms, bamboo shoots and Thai basil. Choice of protein is personal – I chose shrimp, but chicken, beef or tofu would do the trick, too.
Gang gai seems to be the most extreme manifestation of the pepper. Maybe there is more chili per tablespoon; I'm not sure, but after two bites I was definitely uncomfortable. With each bite I took, the heat grew more and more intense. So intense, in fact, that I had to stop eating less than half way through the bowl. As upsetting as it was not finishing the bowl, I did have leftovers in the morning – nothing wrong with that.
And there's nothing wrong with the ghost chili. As the mystique wears off, you'll begin to see it in more places. Fresh ghost peppers at Eastern Market, ghost pepper brownies and any other application you could imagine. If you like heat, give one of these places a visit or buy your own, but be careful – Real Detroit Weekly takes no responsibility for improper use of ghost peppers. Have fun! | RDW