"Dear Janice: In the last couple of years I have grown fond of chiles. Cooking with them and occasionally eaten raw. To say the least, my tolerance has grown quite a bit.
"I am a fan of 'Heat Seekers,' and other shows where people take up challenges of ultraspicy foods (the kind a lot cannot finish, or sweat a lot doing so). So my question to you is, are there any places in the Buffalo region that serve these types of dishes or challenges?"
-- Jeffrey F.
If sweating is the objective Jeffrey, why not just visit the gym? I personally haven't seen the new "Heat Seekers" show (it's on the Food Network on Monday nights). Those are athletic contests; my beat is eating.
I can say that in the last decade or so, Western New Yorkers have become more accustomed to -- and even yearn for -- intense spicy flavor in the foods they eat. But those spicy flavors are meant to complement, to add depth or excitement or novelty, to the other ingredients in the dish. In a real meal, they aren't intended to stand on their own to prove palate strength or even -- it must be said -- machismo.
That said, I will admit that, locally, it sometimes is pretty hard to get a dish that is perked up to your standards. Since you are a chile fan, you already know the ethnic cuisines that supposedly specialize in them. But the average Thai, Mexican, Chinese or barbecue place can mark menu offerings in red ink on their menus to indicate heat all they want -- you may still be disappointed when you get your order.
The truth is that many restaurateurs are afraid to add many chiles or any other kind of heat. They cook for the mainstream because they know that many of their customers are timid at the table. The recourse is to try to impress on the server that you really, really want the item hot (get up and do a little dance if you must) and maybe the server then will relay that request to the kitchen.
Also, patronize small, family or locally owned restaurants instead of national chains. We are lucky to have many of these modest places in Western New York.
* * *
I must mention the recent sensation about the Midwest Olive Garden review. You likely already know that a Grand Forks, N.D., food reporter by the name of Marilyn Hagerty wrote a description (she claims it was not a review) of an Olive Garden that had just opened in her town.
The opening had intrinsic interest, from a news perspective. The restaurant was jammed as soon as it opened. It was so crowded that Hagerty had to visit in the middle of the afternoon to get a seat. In her report, she called it "the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks." She praised the servers' uniforms at great length.
But she also cagily called the Fettuccine Alfredo "warm and comforting on a cold day," although she said that the salad was good. (I went to check locally, and it is adequate.) Hers was an earnest effort, and earnestness is not in style right now, so the darn thing went viral. It popped up all over the Web and the snarks had a field day laughing.
Hagerty turned up on national television, too, and her dignified mien and gentle humor stood up well in the face of inept questioning from overcoiffed, underprepared anchorwomen.
But what I did hate was the undercurrent of snobbery and ageism behind all this. (Hagerty is 85, manages to turn out five columns a week and didn't originally know what the term "viral" means online.)
"I've been a lot of things, but never viral," she joked. That is known as "grace," my friends. Snobbery has no place in any food discussion.
Janice Okun, former food editor for The News, has been out and about in the regional restaurant scene for 40 years. Send your dining questions and comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.