The trend toward hot and spicy has been heating up for some time now, with consumers eating — and seeking out wherever they go — more hot and spicy food and drink.
New research from Kalsec, a global producer of spice and herb flavor extracts, indicates that more than 50% of consumers say that they choose spicy options when dining out or eating at home, double the number from just two years ago.
Chefs and bartenders are responding to the growing desire for fire by delivering spiciness even in ingredients or dishes that aren’t typically spicy, such as bacon, cocktails and desserts.
Adding fresh fire to food
For some time now, quick-service chains from KFC to McDonald’s to Boston Market have been firing things up with their own takes on the Nashville Hot Chicken sandwich. In a novel innovation, San Francisco Bay-area-based fast-casual burger concept iniBurger is cutting the heat with its new Nashville Hot Chicken and Ice Cream sandwich.
“Don’t get me wrong, our sandwich is hot,” iniBurger’s founder Abdul Popal said in a statement. “But the unique addition of a massive vanilla ice cream scoop cuts the heat and elevates the flavor in a way that sets us apart.”
Initially offered as a one-off on National Hot Chicken Day, March 30, the Nashville Hot Chicken Ice Cream Sandwich was such a fan favorite that it’s now available on iniBurger’s permanent menu.
Photo: The SWAG Burger (left) is one of BurgerFi’s best-selling limited-time offers to date.
“Our commitment to constantly push the envelope of flavor combinations and introduce the unexpected is what keeps diners coming back for more,” Popal said.
Similarly, spicy burgers aren’t new, but BurgerFi is adding fuel to the fire with its new limited time SWAG Burger, a premium double burger with wagyu brisket as part of the blend topped with charred jalapeños, candied ghost pepper bacon, sweet tomato relish, habanero pepper Jack cheese and hot steak sauce.
"Once we had the idea of the spicy burger, it was fun to start playing with ingredients and textures,” said Chef Paul Griffin, BurgerFi’s chief culinary officer. “The candied ghost pepper bacon is perfect for those guests who are more adventurous. That, mixed with the boldness of wagyu and creaminess and kick of habanero pepper Jack cheese, really rounds out the burger.”
Available through May 9, Griffin says the SWAG Burger is one of BurgerFi’s best-selling limited-time offers to date.
Meanwhile, Sunda New Asian, with locations in Chicago and Nashville, is offering is a literal “spin” on the spicy food trend with its new Gambler Sushi Roll. The restaurant’s signature ghost pepper sambal, a chile paste made with rehydrated ghost peppers, is incorporated into one piece of a sushi roll that’s served on a spinnable plate with a poker chip in the center. After spinning the plate, one “lucky” guest at the table gets the taste of the super-spicy sambal.
“We were intrigued by the wonder behind how hot a ghost pepper would really be, saw guests literally feeling like it was a gamble to try one or not,” said Sunda’s owner, Billy Dec. “It inspired the idea: What if we gave a whole table the interactive experience to really feel the gamble as a group, and give the vehicle a creative spin (no pun intended) to amplify the anticipation and emotional reaction to all!”
Since not all guests can handle that level of heat, the restaurant keeps shots of milk ready for anyone who needs assistance to cool down after a bite of the famously hot pepper, which researchers have ranked as one of the hottest chiles in the world.
The Gambler Sushi Roll has been a huge hit, Dec said, with guests videoing and sharing their experience, or making return visits for a chance to get back at their friends.
Marrying spicy with sweet, smoky or sour
A host of chains and independent operators are adding an unexpected spicy kick combined with sweet, smoky or sour elements to create unique, sales-driving beverages.
On the milder end, Baskin-Robbins’ latest LTO is the Mangonada, a frozen beverage made with mango purée, salty-sour chamoy sauce and Tajín Clásico seasoning, a blend of mild chile peppers, lime and sea salt.
“Over the two years we worked on this product, we saw surge of sweet and spice came into the mix,” said Shannon Blakely, Baskin-Robbins’ vice president of marketing & culinary.
“A flavor profile that’s a part of Mexican culture, we wanted to make it authentic to that culture. It’s not just an opportunity to introduce sweet and spicy, but a way to honor these guests.”
While Baskin-Robbins has used spice in its ice cream flavors in the past, this is the first time the chain has used it in a beverage. So far, Blakely says the Mangonada, which is available at Baskin-Robbins stores nationwide through May, is “doing phenomenally well.”
Meanwhile, other operators are mixing up cocktails that are at once spicy and smoky, with a touch of sweet or sour.
At Hampton & Hudson in Atlanta's Inman Park neighborhood, lead bartender Lex Valles-Armand is serving the I Wanna Get Jalapeño Business cocktail. Based loosely on a classic Margarita, it’s made with Banhez mezcal, pineapple-jalapeño cordial, lime, simple syrup and basil and is garnished with drops of jalapeño oil. Valle-Armand describes the cocktail as “smoky, spicy and slightly sweet”.
Also offering a fiery riff on a classic margarita is TGI Friday’s. One of the newest additions to the Dallas-based casual dining chain’s alcoholic beverage menu is the Fire-Eating Fireball Margarita, made with 1800 Silver Tequila, Fireball Cinnamon Whisky and sour mix.
The top-selling drink at Curio, a restaurant and bar in San Francisco’s Mission District, is a smoky, spicy and sour Chupacabra. On the menu since Curio opened a few years ago, the cocktail is made with tequila, mezcal, passion fruit, lime, habanero peppers, blue Curaçao, yellow Chartreuse, grapefruit bitters and cinnamon. It’s available as a single cocktail or in a growler that serves four.
Thai food is often associated with chiles, but the cuisine has many other flavor elements, too. Chao Baan, a Thai restaurant in St. Louis, offers a number of menu items that deliver smoke with their spice. One example is the Smoky Hot Thai Boi, a cocktail made with Banhez mezcal, Chile-infused Cimarron tequila and lime.