I Got Lucky at the Hot Pepper Spa

luckystrikeext2It was Friday night, work was a rapidly fading memory, and my tumbly was rumbly. Time to play the ‘where do you want to eat tonight?’ game. I had a few ideas, I usually do.

“Some people like to come home after a long week, put their feet up, watch a little TV, relax,” my boyfriend said wearily. “You want to go drive around and look for food.”

I have to admit, that made me slightly hysterical, not in a vase-throwing way, in a pee-your-pants way, because it occurred to me he might have just summed up the fundamental focus of my existence in under 10 words. I like to drive around and look for food. Sort of a modern day urban hunter and gatherer, but my horse is a slightly battered silver Honda CR-V and my weapons are my lengthy “must-eat” list, my ever-evolving palate, and I suppose, my beleaguered Mastercard.

A few minutes later we were hurtling up SE Powell. “Where are we going again?” boyfriend asked. “Lucky Strike,” I said. “You like it.” He thought about that. “Wait a minute, you mean the Hot Pepper Spa?” he shouted, looking a little panicky. Michelle isn’t the only one susceptible to the old “ring of fire” response to peppers.

“Yup,” I said grimly. Traffic was bad on SE Powell, but we were making progress. I figured it wouldn’t be too busy yet, we were still on the good side of 7pm, the long wait-guaranteed witching hour.

“The one all the way up at 188th Street?”

“It’s 122nd, but yes.”

At that he lapsed into a gloomy silence. Some people aren’t made to forage in the hot pepper wilds of the Southeast on a Friday night.

Lucky Strike’s approach to exterior aesthetics could probably be best characterized as “Curb appeal? We don’t need no stinkin’ curb appeal.” Michelle flat-out refused to get out of the car for a good five minutes the first time we went there. It doesn’t help that they share the dilapidated strip mall they inhabit with a seedy cigarette store and a neon-sign infested discount nail salon.

luckystrikeintBut inside is a different story. It’s not that the restaurant is fancier inside, it really isn’t–the furniture is cheap, there are soda coolers and televisions in the dining room, a lint brush sits upright on the bar next to the Keno cards, and the scuffed black and white linoleum reminds you of your first college apartment, the one that made your mom tear up the first time she visited. But the dining room is clean, tidy and carefully arranged, and there are cheery touches like the brightly colored plastic Ikea cups that come with the chilled wine bottles filled with water, and owner Rita You is so sweet and pretty and friendly, you instantly feel at home. I look at the carefully painted walls and the stacks of Ikeaware and the rumpled dollar bill and yellowed order tickets stuck on the wall above the register and I think about how excited she and boyfriend Stefan Leopald (who are both Lucky Strike’s owners and chefs, although Rita runs the front of the house during service) must have been to open their new venture, and how hard they must have worked, and I wonder if they ever suspected it would become the unlikely Portland foodie destination it is today.

And I do mean today. Because we had to push our way in the door. Every table (granted, there are only six) was packed, one with a party of 10, and the bar was two people deep. A forlorn looking guy was doing his best to stay out of the way as he lurked at the entrance to the kitchen waiting for his takeout. I looked behind us and saw a couple and a foursome heading up the grimy sidewalk.

“Busy night,” I commented to boyfriend, then promptly sneezed twice and launched into a coughing fit. The air was volcanic with capsaicin particles. It had to be a 4 million on the Scoville scale. Rita, who despite the tropical summer temperatures and fire marshal-perturbing crowd, had only a few delicate beads of sweat on her upper lip, said the wait would be five minutes. Boyfriend preemptively scanned the menu of authentic Szechuan (aka Sichuan) fare, a cuisine that is characterized by its fiery garlicky spiciness, pungent flavors, and use of the mouth-numbing spice Sichuan pepper, enough of which can mimic the tingly insensate effects of a shot of novocaine, but without the nasty drooling. Hopefully.

We hadn’t put our name on any list so we eyed the six newcomers squashed just inside the doorway warily. But in five or so minutes, Rita had us seated at the small bar. I ordered a Singha and boyfriend ordered a Diet Coke. “I don’t know what that is?” Rita said sweetly, then asked him if he’d take a Diet Dr. Pepper instead. I watched with interest, I know how much he likes his Diet Coke. He smiled sappily, and nodded. I smirked behind my Keno card.

“There are more people coming!” he said in an astounded voice, watching the front window. “How’s she going to fit all these people in?”

I knew Lucky Strike was popular, but this was ridiculous. Then I looked at the small child’s white board easel under the television. Written on it was a celebratory message congratulating Lucky Strike for making Portland Monthly’s Top 10 Restaurants of 2009. Of course. I’d forgotten.We quickly ordered the Spicy Jellyfish Salad, Dan Dan Noodles, Twice Cooked Pork Belly, Hot Pepper Chicken Bath, Sauteed Fresh Vegetables, and Kung Pao Chicken before the table of 10 could mobilize and place their giant order.

The jellyfish salad came first, a tangle of long, thin, ragged translucent ribbons of jelly flesh, tossed with crisp stalks and bold green leaves of Chinese celery, chopped fresh garlic, scallions, and a generous sprinkling of red chile pepper, all sitting in what looks like a pool of bright orangey-red pepper oil. Biting into them, there’s a distinct gelatinous crunch as your teeth penetrate the noodle-like strips, and as you chew them, this crispy crackling sensation does not diminish. Finally I swallowed the mouthful whole, and popped a thin section of Chinese celery in my mouth. It was fresh, crisp, and had a clean and pungent celery flavor that cut the heat of the pepper.luckystrikejellyfish2

The Dan Dan noodles came next, a small, innocent looking bowl of noodles topped by a sprinkling of crumbled cooked pork, scallions, and peanuts. Mixed with the sauce pooled beneath them, they were a tasty and relatively benign respite from the fascinating and heated jellyfish salad. The twice-cooked pork arrived shortly thereafter, thick slices of tender, meaty pork belly tucked in with slick and shiny bright green Chinese chives that have a beautifully mild flavor, almost spinach-like. The dish was punched up with fresh chopped ginger, squishy salty little fermented black beans, and of course, pepper, and more pepper. The sauteed fresh vegetables were quietly charming, fresh baby bok choy sauteed in ginger and garlic, the spice kept low to let their gentle flavor seep through.

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By now my mouth was numb and tingly from the Sichuan pepper and I was starting to feel full, but I gamely poked my chopsticks into the Kung Pao Chicken, which the menu proclaims is a “Traditional Sichuan Dish Reclaimed.” I’d say it’s been Respiced too, amped up a bit. Not that I really noticed the fire by now, the fierce burn had been reduced to a pleasantly throbbing pain that I’d come to welcome. Bring it on, was my new mantra. A good attitude to have when the Hot Pepper Chicken Bath arrived.luckystrikekungpao

The bright shining stinging burning star of the two-page menu, the Hot Pepper Chicken Bath consists of small bits and pieces of chicken fried with plenty of garlic and chile and Sichuan pepper, tossed with bright green chopped scallions, and then covered in a “bath” of glistening blood-red dried imported chiles. It’s dangerously spicy and almost too good-looking to eat, kind of like George Clooney.

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By now the crowd outside had multiplied exponentially, and the wait was reaching 45 minutes. Rita brought us to-go boxes, we filled them quickly, and left. Once outside, boyfriend made a big show of noisily sucking great greedy gulps of the cool autumn evening air into his burning mouth. A few of the people waiting looked alarmed.

“That was like a hot pepper sauna!” boyfriend shouted as we started the long drive home.

The Hot Pepper Spa is growing on him, I can tell.