Holy Molé: Dishing Up the Heat in the Holy Land

From peppers and Bulgarian cheese at Shishko, to a spicy hot frankfurter at Ha’Ahim, and enchiladas rojas at Mezcal, brave diners can get their fill of the fiery at some of Israel's spiciest chowhouses.

Contrary to popular wisdom, spiciness is not one of the basic tastes. It’s actually a form of pain.

It is the feeling caused by the presence of capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot. It is usually found in pepper seeds and in the white fiber that goes through it. Peppers are usually hotter in summer than in winter, but anyone who has tasted them recently knows that this summer, the peppers are particularly scorching. A small tip and a word of caution: red hot peppers are ripe, so they are relatively less hot than green hot peppers. If you got one of those, put salt on your tongue, eat some bread, drink milk or even an alcoholic drink. Even an ice pop will help.

Since sharp flavors tend to crowd out other tastes, we tried to find the best dishes whose sharpness did not overpower the other flavors, so everyone who likes it hot will manage to come out of the experience alive.

Ah, it burns: Shishko

The concept of Shishko was born in one of the Bulgarian restaurants in Jaffa. The idea was to take the hamarot – small, intimate and lively eateries in the area of the Levinsky market – add air conditioning and silverware, a little music and Bulgarian-Jewish food, and end up with an inexpensive place to drink alcohol and have something to eat with it. The result: a Bulgarian hamara that has taught all the other restaurants in the market how to live it up.

The hottest: Hot peppers with Bulgarian cheese. This dish became a hit the moment the place opened, and with good reason. While Bulgarians are not known as fans of hot food, they had to put something down on the table near the vodka. It is possible that that its innocent appearance caught us unawares, but we were not at all prepared for what was coming. You are faced with an appetizing plate piled high with white grated Bulgarian cheese, but the layer of cheese conceals a killer in the form of a roast hot pepper with a bit of paprika and salt. Sprinkled on top and giving the dish a Bulgarian twist is the Bulgarian savory spice chubritza. Ah, what a pleasure.

The price:NIS 17

Also hot: While it is not as lethal as the dish described above, the kebab runs a close second.

Shishko, 2 Har Sinai Street, Tel Aviv

Just like in Jaffa: Ha'achim

Seeking to heat up Central Tel Aviv, the Doktor brothers opened a grilled-meat restaurant of a different kind, with Chef Asaf Doktor in the kitchen. A lot of thought, preparation and creativity go into the appetizers here, and the grilled beef is in a class by itself.

The hottest: The spicy veal and lamb frankfurter. The frankfurter comes has several incarnations: in a pita with mashed potatoes, on a plate or just on a skewer. It is delicious – plump and well-roasted, made of veal and lamb with fat and hot paprika that gives it a spicy presence without overpowering. It may not make your eyes water, but don’t fret. The side dish of horseradish will. The bottom line: Merguez is for sissies.

The price:NIS 32.

Also hot: For the particularly brave, try the grilled jalapeño (NIS 14) as an appetizer. Four peppers, a bit of garlic, lots of olive oil and a fresh leaf of oregano. You do not need any more than that.

Ha’achim: 12 Ibn Gabirol, Tel Aviv

A seriously hot tamale: Mezcal

Mezcal is the salvation of Mexican-food lovers in Israel. It opened four years ago as a small bar with a Mexican orientation, and a year ago was expanded into a full restaurant. Owner Ziv Erlich, who grew up in Mexico, decided to show the public that there is a lot more to the Mexican kitchen than rice and nachos.

The hottest: Enchiladas rojas. The Mexicans have several peppers that could easily show other places on earth what hot means. Enchiladas are a variation of tortillas, made from corn flour with a sauce based on hot peppers, which is where it gets its name. Before finely chopped chicken (in this case) is rolled into it, it is dipped into a sauce based on chipotle (smoked jalapeño). The sauce contains cream and grated cheese in order to balance the sharpness. This is not the hottest item on the menu, but it is definitely one of the most delicious, with the kind of sharpness we like best – the bite of the chipotle starts off weak and builds to a crescendo, even as it leaves room for the accompanying flavors of cheese and chicken. Fantastic.

The price: NIS 46.

Also hot: Mezcal offers a mango and hot pepper dessert. Odd and challenging, but still delicious.

Mezcal, 2 Vital Street, Florentine, Tel Aviv

The purest: Montefiore 7

Montefiore 7, which opened just at the peak of the wave of open-air market restaurants, was not easy to digest. As time passed, the kitchen stabilized as a Mediterranean-style chef’s restaurant headed by Chef Emily Goldberg, whose kitchen is based on the nearby Carmel Market, which means that the menu is mainly seasonal.

The hottest: The hreimeh – or, as the menu describes it, extremely spicy fish with hot pepper sauce and chuma peppers, is nobody’s fool. The hreimeh, which is served only on Thursdays, must be specially prepared for. It was dreamed up 10 years ago according to the recipe of a Moroccan woman named Mimi. Over time Emily tweaked the menu, making it healthier and more personal. As true hreimeh ought to be, the aromatic sauce is made with a great deal of garlic and a mixture of peppers that includes red, green, and killer hot, with the chuma peppers delivering a piquant taste that borders on hot. The fish itself is juicy mullet, and it is hard to know what to do first – whether to dip another bit of bread or drink another glass of water. For those who are not impressed by this level of hot, the kitchen will be happy to make it stronger. Like it says – nobody’s fool.

The price:NIS 57

Also hot: When the chef is a sworn lover of hot, spicy food, it is no surprise to find many hot items in her restaurant. Keep an eye on the pickled lemon dip, which has a pleasant sharpness, and the tomato salsa that comes as part of the tehina sauce.

Montefiore 7,  Montefiore St., Tel Aviv

The spectacular: Mizlala

Exactly a year ago, Meir Adoni opened Mizlala, bringing his touch from Catit in a more relaxed and significantly less expensive version than its older sibling (relatively speaking, of course). It seems that the concept of a Mediterranean chef’s bistro also brings with it a great deal of joy, a wide variety of people and also excellent reviews from all over the world.

The biggest hit: Slices of pork confit on a Belgian waffle with smoked chipotle. Hats off to Adoni just for coming up with the idea of taking a dessert item such as a Belgian waffle, changing our perception of it and dishing it up spicy hot. Add to that the wonderful look provided by the meat slices together with the avocado and sour cream, which gives it a Latin twist. Together with a grilled Bermuda onion, the poached egg and the green, spicy hot chili, this is a roller coaster of flavors. The vinaigrette-chipotle dressing has more of the hot stuff as well. In a word, only Adoni could orchestrate this marriage between Belgium and Mexico.

The price:NIS 71

Also hot: Adoni puts in a bit of chili with his considerable skill, but you can find the really spicy stuff in the mullet fish (NIS 69), which takes the dish into an Asian direction.

Mizlala, 57 Nahalat Binyamin Street, Tel Aviv

The runners up:

Kalamata– It is dishes such as the Kalamba (NIS 46) that make us regret that there is no more room in the top five. The chef has created a dish inspired by shwarma with amba (a spicy, savory mango sauce) and hot peppers. He took the condiments, which are known to all lovers of Mediterranean street meat, and gave them an upgrade in a mix of calamari and mussels. The result: a gorgeous dish that plays with a wide range of flavors, from a tomato salsa base to hot peppers with yogurt and, of course, mussels, calamari and amba. The hot peppers, which are sour and spicy at the same time, balance the oiliness of the seafood, which is cooked à la plancha. A Mediterranean delight, ideal for sharing as you sit at the window that looks out onto the rolling Mediterranean Sea.

Kalamata,10 Kedumim Square, Jaffa

Long Sang– Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the hottest dish on the list. How hot is it? So hot that it makes your eyes water. So hot that even seasoned diners have a tough time finishing it. Aside from its “Israeli” menu, Long Sang, the most authentic Chinese restaurant in Tel Aviv, offers a different menu intended for those who are willing to challenge themselves with Chinese dishes that are out of the ordinary. One of them is the stuffed hot peppers (NIS 78), a big pile of hot green peppers stuffed with a mixture of pork and seafood (shrimp and calamari). In order to make this dish even more decadent – and even hotter – they throw black hoisin sauce with ground pork on top of the peppers. Feeling brave? Let’s see you handle this one.

Long Sang,15 Allenby, Tel Aviv

David ve-Yosef– This restaurant will soon be celebrating its third birthday with a move to bigger digs on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. In the meantime, you can indulge yourself with several dishes so spicy hot that they sting. One stinging example: The corvina sashimi (NIS 52) with soy ginger, orange and pickled turnip, which gets its spicy sharpness not only from the ginger but also from hot peppers. All this heat is balanced by cucumber, olive oil and tomato juice. It is summery, sharp and delicate all at once.

David ve-Yosef, 22 Yirmiyahu Street, Tel Aviv

Wineberg– This wine and tapas bar, which is celebrating its third anniversary this summer, upgraded its kitchen significantly a year ago. As is fitting for a place that serves tapas, the element of hot and spiciness is present, perhaps best enjoyed in a shrimp basket with fresh asparagus and almonds (NIS 39). The pleasant sharpness, which borders on the piquant, comes from the basket itself, which is crafted from dried paprika peppers. The Mediterranean flavors are completed by pickled lemon, a great deal of garlic and roasted coriander seeds. The asparagus takes the dish to a refreshing, surprising place. Worthwhile.

Wineberg, 106 Ben Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv

Da Peppe– Giuseppe (Peppe) Giordano’s Neapolitan pizzeria prepares pizza by the book. The secret is in the heavenly dough and also in the toppings. One of the most delicately spicy pizzas in the restaurant is named after Giuseppe’s wife (hmm, what could that mean?): the Spicy Shira. The base takes the beloved margarita, adds hot red pepper and tops it with a spicy Italian frankfurter and fresh mushrooms. The best NIS 54 that you could ever shell out for a pizza.

Da Peppe, 14 Ibn Gabirol Street, Tel Aviv

Mama Mafruma– No Tripolitan home is complete without the salads at the center of the table at a holiday dinner. At Mama Mafruma in Ashdod, the salads at the beginning of the meal are fiery hot. Make sure to keep an eye on the roasted hot pepper salad and the hot pepper sauce, prepared in-house. Unpretentious and just plain hot.

Mama Mafruma, 44 Ha’avoda Street, Ashdod

Asia Monica– Chef Daniel Zach’s restaurant combines the American kitchen with the Asian one. On the Asian side, you will find several spicy hot dishes. After a close race between the som tam salad with hot chili, the winner is the tom yum soup with seafood (NIS 48), which gets its spiciness from the hot curry that makes up the dish. Can’t fly to Thailand? Run to Hod Hasharon.

Asia Monica,  2 Hayarkon Street, in the shopping center, Hod Hasharon

Maharaja– This long-beloved Indian restaurant in Ramle, a city in central Israel with a high Indian population, has modest, unpretentious Indian food and is a paradise for vegetarians and lovers of hot spicy dishes. It offers a wide variety of spicy foods, for beginners to pros. Our choice was the baingan bartha (NIS 30), eggplant in Vindaloo sauce, which originally comes the Goa region and Kerala State in India. Affordable, electrifying, spicy and pleasing.

Maharaja, 87 Herzl Street, Ramle

Gazpacho– When you go to Chef Guy Peretz’s restaurant, leave any preconceived notions at the door. Yes, this is a hotel restaurant in Ashkelon and yes it is excellent. Let us just focus on the food. We chose the tajine-cooked fish (NIS 92), a Moroccan version of a slow-cooked stew. In this case, the stew comprises rock bass in hot pepper sauce with cherry tomatoes, coriander and garlic. Hreimeh: the next generation.

Gazpacho, 9 Adam Yekutiel Street, Holiday Inn Hotel, Ashkelon

Lara– It doesn’t take genius to find spicy hot food in Jerusalem. What does take a lot of smarts, though, is finding the tastiest and most special dishes there. At this Jerusalem bistro, Chef Lior Hafzadi (formerly of Arcadia) takes quite a few familiar dishes and gives them a twist to make them even better. Take his grape leaves, for example. Hafzadi took this well-known and fairly mild dish (NIS 54) and zapped it into a spicy hot offering by serving a spicy tomato salad with it. Lovely, sophisticated and delicious.

Lara, 3 Ben Shetah Street, Jerusalem