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Why Does LA Love Spicy Food?

A celebration of the high-heat, palate-scorching dishes across all cuisines beloved by Los Angeles

Photo-illustration: Eater; Photos from: Asri’ rie/Getty; EyeEm/Getty; Xuanyu Han/Getty; FotografiaBasica/Getty
Matthew Kang is the Lead Editor of Eater LA. He has covered dining, restaurants, food culture, and nightlife in Los Angeles since 2008. He's the host of K-Town, a YouTube series covering Korean food in America, and has been featured in Netflix's Street Food show.

If you try to reduce the soul of a city’s restaurant scene to a single dish, you’ll fail. Sure, it seems simple: You could distill New York dining to the near-scalding joy of dollar-slice cheese stretches, boil down Boston to silken chowder, or narrow Austin’s offerings to smoky slivers of plump, juicy brisket. (You’d still be wrong, though.) But no city defies reduction like Los Angeles.

When we at Eater LA first put our heads together to find a unifying dish — hell, even a unifying characteristic in a city so full of culinary contradictions — we flatlined. But the longer we thought about the neighborhoods and cuisines, individual dishes, and cultural kinks that define Los Angeles, the more one throughline became apparent. The city’s most widespread flavor component, inherent to so much of its food culture, isn’t a singular flavor at all: It’s spicy heat.

We can’t resist steaming bowls of ramen so laden with spices that even the broth glows with chile oil’s ruby hue. We crave the slow burn of crisp, fiery Nashville-style hot chicken, a regional staple with underappreciated Los Angeles roots. On colder nights, we insulate ourselves with soul-warming curries from Jitlada to Luv2eat Thai Bistro, or seek the divine comfort of tortas ahogadas that leave our noses running after two bites. And consider the addition of whole chiles toreados on tacos, a Los Angeles staple adopted from Mexico and beloved on streets from Venice to Boyle Heights to Panorama City to Compton. Habanero-laced onions often form the acidic slaw topping tacos al pastor at Leo’s and Tacos Tamix, adding a fiery kick to smoldering sliced pork meat.

This is the start of Heat Week at Eater LA, or, as we’ve been affectionately calling it these past few months while quietly working on these stories, Heater LA. Spice and heat are essential parts of the city’s beloved staples, from the smoky, pungent salsa rojo on trucks, to ghost pepper-laden vindaloos, to searing serrano aguachile at Sinaloan restaurants, to deceptively fiery papaya salads that blast the palate with copious capsaicin — overwhelming the senses and leading to a rush of endorphins. Spicy food is everywhere in Los Angeles, so timid diners beware; those with a low spice tolerance often find rather quickly that virtually every menu has something to set your mouth ablaze.

A variety of colorful Sichuanese dishes from Chengdu Taste. Farley Elliott

The spiciest food experiences in Los Angeles can be measured by the number of times one grasps for water to soothe a burning mouth or a stack of napkins to wipe a damp brow. But no matter how punishing, how unrelenting in its sharp vibrance or lingering burn, spice often begets the desire for more spice. And in Los Angeles, it’s remarkably easy to find pleasure in the breadth of options. The kitchens and street stands don’t hold back on the heat, and neither does the Angeleno appetite.

Most people living in Los Angeles have had an experience like this, where the simultaneous pleasure and pain of spicy heat marks a high point in a meal. And we know for certain that this ubiquitous flavor reverberates through its kitchens and cooking spaces, whether they be long-standing restaurants or scrappy stalls. Cooks infuse chiles and more into staff meals, which leads to hotter plates on customer tables. Chefs take cues from street tacos and tortas, weaving layers of spice into signature dishes. Customers ask for spice bombs at ramen shops, amping up dense tonkotsu broth with a blast of red chile paste. Diners in Koreatown request not the regal soy sauce version of galbijjim, but the red pepper-covered spicy version, as hot as they can handle. And the unsuspecting first-timer agrees to unhindered spiciness for an order of pastrami pad kee mao at Night + Market.

A white and blue bowl of noodles, spice, and garlic. Cathy Chaplin

This week, Eater LA will have stories from across LA’s spicy spectrum, from tomato- and salsa-doused sandwiches to berbere-infused Ethiopian classics. We’ll learn the secret family story about the first time LA had a taste of the real Prince’s hot chicken. We’ll read about the third-generation family that introduced some of America’s most iconic canned Mexican foods, including a green jalapeno salsa found at every neighborhood tienda. And we’ll draw lines through the evolution of LA’s spice tolerance, from street-cart tamales to the proliferation of Sriracha sauce.

Welcome to Heater LA.