Breanne Hunt holds Laili’s roasted cauliflower with ginger sauce, one of the local dishes recommended for putting post-holiday spice back in your life.
Right about now, as the new year begins, many of us raised in the North American tradition of turkey, ham or roast beef as the centerpiece of the holiday table would kill for a bit of spice. I'm not going to cite the obvious drawbacks of two winter feasts featuring mashed potatoes, stuffing (off the scale gluten-wise) and gravy (delicious, yet unexciting). And cranberry relish is not really anyone's idea of a piquant condiment. Yes, indeed, unless you're lucky enough to have consumed home-cooked pozole during Christmas, right about now your tastebuds are looking for something in the key of wasabi, raita or hot chutney. I fondly recall the tradition we used to have of starting off the new year with fiery hot and sour soup from the late China Szechuan, where Hula's is now.
Choosing from our current culinary landscape, I might like to spend some quality time at Laili, where an entree of roasted cauliflower, with its sensuous tomato-y ginger sauce would cater to my quest for spice. Or I could climb into some chile colorado splashed liberally with pickled jalapeños and pico de gallo at El Palomar. Almost any dish from Charlie Hong Kong will put you in touch with vibrant pan-Asian rice bowls and noodle creations. I am mad for Charlie's pad thai in which veggies, noodles, mushrooms and carrots are penetrated by intensely flavored black bean sauce. Then I hit the condiment counter and pile on the blazing Sriracha red chile sauce. Or just get a bowl of noodles and the incredible braised pork hoisin topping, iridescent with fresh ginger. Yeah, baby! At Aptos’ Ambrosia, we can inhale Rogan Josh lamb curry and a side of aloo gobi laced with turmeric and fenugreek. Add some of that mysterious and highly potent mint sauce and enjoy the heat! Or simply ask for any of Ambrosia's authentic Indian dishes, customized for those who like it “medium” or “hot.” Another great spice stop in Aptos is Zameen, where the Mezze sampler platter will take your tastebuds around the Mediterranean with garlicky hummus and tzatziki, joined by dolmas, roasted eggplant and, of course, the distinctly non-spicy felafel. I love the house slow-roasted lamb loaded with cumin, garlic, smoked paprika and coriander—add some fig chutney or mint pesto and you'll forget all about roast turkey and cranberry sauce. Thai cuisine is one of my go-to flavor regions for bright flavor and spicing. The lunches at Soquel’s Sawadee offer a variety of zippy curries, as well as an energizing pad prik sod that teams chicken with garlic, Thai basil and fresh chiles. At Sabieng on the Westside, I love the silver noodles laced with prawns, cilantro, peanuts and chiles. As hot as you want it to be.
And if you want to linger long over your regional Chinese cookery, start off with a plate of red oil dumplings at O'mei. Add one of those sexy small plates of incendiary chili-cilantro carrot salad. Start sweating with the first bite of fabulous Sichuan green peppercorn chicken, and don't neglect the never-better house specialty, Kung Pao chicken with peanuts, gooey sweet/tart sauce and plenty of firepower.
Our last big home-cooked holiday dinner of 2013, just for the record, consisted of moderately spicy homemade chili verde. With the stewed pork, I made black beans, brown rice and flour tortillas. Verve Clicquot partnered the chili verde, followed by a multi-dimensional 2007 Le Cigare Volant and aged Spanish manchego cheese. God, it was good! Maybe 2014 will be the year that we reinvent our holiday dining traditions—a bit more spice couldn't hurt, could it?