Bellaire Boulevard is Houston’s Las Vegas Strip of spice. Starting at the 610 Loop and stretching west, past the Sam Houston Tollway and out toward Highway 6, it carries a wealth of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese restaurants where you can get the heat, or the heat can get you.
But quietly tucked into that area is La Cruderia Micheladas & Grill, home to a great starter kit for people wary of spice: the mango-habanero ceviche. Now, before you get nervous, this isn’t the typical habanero experience. Here, fresh diced tilapia meets chunks of mango, red onion, and cucumber in a thin, barely tingly salsa that’s far more mango than habanero. Put all of it on a crispy, homemade corn tortilla with avocado slices to help tamp down the burn even further. lacruderiabar.com
Seven more dishes around town with tamer heat:
Let’s talk chicken. Don’t worry—this isn’t some Nashville-grade five-alarm clucker (we’ll get to that later). Start out slow with The Toasted Coconut’s fried chicken, brushed with homemade chile crisp, a Southeast Asian condiment with dry chiles that adds a mild bite. gettoastedhtx.com
For a highly flavorful, smoky heat, visit Cool Runnings—Houston’s best Jamaican restaurant—for its addictive jerk wings seasoned with spices including cayenne and red pepper flakes, available on Sundays. (You can cool down with rice and beans with oxtails after.) coolrunningsjamaicangrill.com
Ready for a step up? You’ll find some of the Bayou City’s spicier fare in its Sichuan (or Szechuan) restaurants. This cuisine, found in a number of Chinese eateries across the city, is characterized by a flowery peppercorn and dried chile sensation that literally numbs your lips. Try the milder by comparison thin-sliced Szechuan chile beef, tossed with green onions in a tingly chile oil, which you can find at the aptly named Spicy Girl. spicygirlhtx.com
You can also find bold flavors at Japanese ramen joints like Ramen Tatsu Ya. Its spicy pork, corn-and cabbage-laced miso bowl will pinch you a little if you add “fire in a bowl,” a shot of amped-up Thai chile and habanero paste. ramen-tatsuya.com
Korean spice can be surprisingly intense thanks to gochu, a pepper with a low level of heat but complex smokiness and floral aromatics. Gochu is used to make the cuisine’s signature salty, sweet, and hot paste gochujang—the more you use, the hotter it gets
At Bon Ga Korean in Spring Branch, some of the meats and seafood are marinated in a lot of gochujang; the most furious of these is maeun-o-jing-uh-gui (squid). For a slightly cooler experience order maeun-dwaeji-bulgogi (grilled pork). bongahouston.com
Also paying tribute to Korean spice is Chris Shepherd’s famous Korean braised goat and dumplings at The Hay Merchant, which incorporates gochujang (and beer!) in the sauce for a firm slap of heat. haymerchant.com
If you’re ready to jump into hotter fare, look for a banh mi with whole, raw jalapeño slices, like the spicy ones at Les Givrals in Midtown. Any of its meat fillings will do, though we’re partial to xiu mai (pork meatball). 713-529-1736.