Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Spicy Hut

Sometimes you are better off not knowing where your food comes from.  As an example, if you didn't know what prairie oysters were, you could be forgiven for actually enjoying them.  "Oooh, dumplings!  I love dumplings!"  Yeah right, dumplings.  As in "Billy ain't feeling so good, Coach.  I think he got kicked in the dumplings."

I dated a farmer's daughter in high school (don't freak out, I was in high school, too) who had a younger brother who loved to fry up and eat prairie oysters; they gave off an unwholesome smell as they popped and danced on the frying pan.  To me, it just seemed like he was betraying his entire gender, and (I could be remembering this wrong) I recall him smacking his lips like Hannibal Lector right before "digging in".  The testicular origins of prairie oysters are bad enough, but I also found it disturbing that this culinary abomination is taken from a live bull.  No, I'm not squeamish about the fact that meat comes from animals.  I know that some people feel that killing ol' Bessie by driving a steel rod through its barely active brain is somehow inhumane, but I'm fairly certain that no cow has ever left this earth regretting all the things it never got to do because its rich life was cut so tragically short. Besides, you can't use lethal injection; it leaves a metallic aftertaste. 

But I do feel there something intrinsically disturbing about eating a still living animal one part at a time.  You can't just go out and and take a cheese grater to an alive-and-kicking Wilbur every time you crave a fresh BLT.  And you can't treat a bull's wiggly bits like low-hanging fruit on a live tree.  It's just plain wrong.

You know what, I may have ruined your appetite for anything I had hoped to recommend.  That's okay.  If you need to step away for a moment, I'll understand and save your place.  When you return, I promise to stop talking about bovine grape-smugglers.

So, as I said before, sometimes you are better off not knowing where your food comes from, and that can include restaurants.  When we used to live in Calgary's Little Italy - Bridgeland, - we had many places to go out and enjoy excellent food.  But there were at least a couple of places that usually came to us.  One was a pizza joint called Peppino Pizza that would only deliver.  Once, we tried to locate them to see where the pizzas came from, but we could only narrow it down to either a bus shelter or a chiropractic office.  My theory is that they were actually located underground, the pizza was baked by hideous Morlocks, and it was delivered by an adult human pet they raised from a baby they stole from a self-absorbed mother who parked her stroller outside a LuLuLemon while trying on age-inappropriate yoga pants.

The other restaurant, one of my favourite places on Earth, does have tables, but we started out only ordering takeout or delivery.  The place is classically dingy, its walls decorated with chair scuffs and Asian souvenirs made out of discolored plastic.  I can't say I ever found the idea of dining in to be very inviting.  In fact, it was nearly three years before we decided to reserve a table and try their food served apart from a styrofoam container.  After taking in the atmosphere and the state of the restrooms, and after sitting funny all evening to avoid the soy sauce stains on the chairs, it was another four years before I went back to dine-in at Spicy Hut.  (Alison has yet to return, even after the family who owns the place finally renovated it and made it almost presentable.)  And yet, we continue to order take-out from Spicy Hut every New Years Eve and a few times in between.  I think this is a textbook example of cognitive dissonance, which is Latin for "out of sight, out of mind".  The food is just that good.

Spicy Hut is, as the name implies, not for the faint of heart nor for the low on Tums.  Our kids call it Spicy Butt, not just because it sounds funny, but also because of the damage it does the following day.  

It seems that human beings need to have at least one unhealthy relationship in their lives.  That's why some women date chain-smoking roadies for AC/DC cover bands.  That's why some movie directors continue to hire Lindsey Lohan.  And that's why some people own cats. However, the Gregson clan (Calgary chapter) loves spicy food, even when it doesn't love them back.  Yes, even when he promises he will never hurt them again but comes home the following weekend drunk and angry, pounding on the warped and yellowed door of their double-wide trailer with his grease-stained fists because he can't find his keys and someone has blocked the door from the inside with the beer fridge, praying he'll black-out before he forces his way in.  (Sorry, I think this metaphor just got away from me.)  

Let's just say that the low point of my spice addiction (my "less than zero" moment, if you will) involved a fried shrimp Po' Boy sandwich, a literal wall of hot sauces, and me leaving permanent finger-shaped marks on the tiles of the bathroom wall at 3:00am.

My grandmother would often scold us for adding so much heat to our meals, claiming, "You are ruining your tastebuds!"  That might be true; I've reached the point that I can't even feel anything less than 50,000 on the Scoville scale, but it is a craving that is hard-wired into the Gregson genes.  I remember when Will was only three and I had brought home a sushi bento for my lunch.  He had already finished his Kraft Dinner, but he was fascinated by this Japanese concoction of raw fish, rice, and, of particular interest...wasabi!  Will asked to try some of the green mustardy horseradish, and I told him it was much too hot for him.  He continued to watch, and giggled every time the wasabi's effect went up my nose and made me convulse and writhe in my chair like I had just received a wet-willy from Newt Gingrich.  He asked again to try some.  His mother, being uncomfortable watching her baby boys suffer, knew what was coming next and left the room.  I warned Will again of the powerful effects of even a small amount, but he still insisted.  So I scooped out a pea-sized portion, handed him the spoon, and he popped it in his mouth.  For a brief moment, there was no reaction.  Then his eyebrows disappeared into his hairline.  As the panic began to build, he turned red, then purple, and tears began to flood from his eyes.  I was on the verge of panicking myself when he appeared to stop breathing altogether.  But after a heartbeat or two, he caught his breath and, in a tiny pleading voice, said only one word:


It was one of the proudest days of my life.

Spicy Hut, with its fusion of Thai and Peking cooking styles, satisfies our spice addiction on many levels.  They have several curry-sauced dishes in all three major colors (red, green, and classic yellow) as well as many pepper-based (black and chili) items.  They also have one of the few soups I honestly look forward to eating (drinking?).  Generally, I find soup to be a  Dickensian meal-replacement, not an actual meal, just a couple steps ahead of those chalk-flavoured Slim-Fast shakes.  I need food that requires chewing.  If I can't put it in my mouth and shake it around like a Care Bear in the teeth of a 2-month-old Rottweiller, I'm usually not interested.  But Spicy Hut makes a perfect Tom Yum Goong soup, which is basically a bowl of lime-kissed liquid fire.  A word of advice: if you order a large take-out tub for sharing back home, don't be the last one to get your cup-full unless you don't have anywhere important to go the following day.  The last serving always gets all of the chilli pepper seeds that sunk to the bottom, and you will be delayed leaving the house the next morning.

Spicy Hut also makes the best Ginger Beef I have found anywhere.  If you aren't already familiar with the stuff, Ginger Beef isn't (strictly speaking) Thai or Peking.  In fact, it's Calgarian cuisine.  (I kid you not.  Look it up!)  Typically, at most restaurants it's pretty soggy as it has probably been soaking in its cloudy brownish sauce since last Tuesday.  But Spicy Hut uses a clear version of the sweet and spicy sauce that features more peppers than the average variety, and they also wait until they serve it before adding the sauce to keep the fried beef crispy.  If you order delivery or take-out, they even package the sauce in a separate container to prevent mushifying in transit.  (Another word of advice: if you get take-out, always check to be sure they included the sauce.  Getting home for New Years Eve with an order of Spicy Hut that included sauceless Ginger Beef ruined the entire 2009 calendar year for our family.)

I've also eaten lunch at Spicy Hut many times, and I highly recommend going with a few friends (or reasonably tolerable co-workers) and each ordering a different version of the lunch special.  It comes with a spring roll, rice, one of of four different soups (don't be afraid, get the Tom Yum Goong), and a choice of 5 different entrees.  The entrees still arrive on separate plates as if you had ordered them a la carte, so you can share each other's selections.  However, if there are more than three of you together, make sure two of you order the Ginger Beef so you have enough to satisfy everyone.  When fights break out over the last strip of beef, it always ends with someone getting poked in the eye with a chopstick.

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