Season's eatings! The weather may be getting colder, but Dining Month on OnMilwaukee is just cooking up, dishing out your winning picks in this year's Best of Dining poll. Dining Month is brought to you by Fein Brothers, your premier food service equipment and supply dealer in Wisconsin since 1929. Congratulations to all of the winners, and happy eating for all those who voted!
Milwaukee may not be known for its hot weather, but that doesn't mean that the Brew City can't bring the heat – namely from the kitchen. That's why Senior Developer Nick "Power Palate" Barth and Pop Culture Editor Matt "Powder Puff Palate" Mueller are on a journey, burning their buds and torching their tongues across town to find the city's spiciest dishes. Grab your fork and a fire extinguisher – this is Burning Through Brew City.
The next stop on their capsaicin-rich quest?
After taking an extra week to douse our mouths with fire extinguisher foam, it's back to burning our tongue-blazing trail through Milwaukee! And what better way to return than with a Cream City staple, The King & I.
Opened in 1988, the Thai restaurant (yes, named after the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical) originally called North 2nd Street home, bringing a style of cuisine relatively unfamiliar to the Downtown area – and to the Midwest, period.
Almost 30 years and a move to Old World Third Street later, the restaurant risk has become a Milwaukee international food icon, as The King & I is still taking locals and visitors alike on an authentic trip to Southeast Asia with sizzling dishes adapted from the family recipes of original owners Anant "Bob" and Amarawan "Marie" Phoungphol (sadly, Bob passed away in 2007, but Marie and their children, Derek and Sariya, keep the delicious cooking alive).
And those trips often come with quite the heat – and we're not talking about the warm climate.
Like many Thai restaurants, the heat level of The King & I's dishes is up to the diner, picking between one and four. Nick and I actually almost made The King & I the first stop on our Burning Through Brew City quest, popping by months ago for a lunch of Pork Sud Prig Sod and Drunk Man Noodles – ordered at max scorch, obviously.
But after we recovered, it seemed obvious that, as good as those dishes were, we needed to hone our attention on the restaurant's quite literally sizzling showcase dish: the Volcano Chicken, lightly battered chicken sitting on a bed of sautéed carrots and cabbage and bathing in its volcano sauce (and also some white rice on the side for COWARDS).
It's certainly got the name of a contender. But is The King & I's Volcano Chicken worthy of the spice crown? Or is it just a pretender to the throne? Nick and I put the iconic Milwaukee dish to the tantalizing test.
Nick: The heat level is adjustable ... so naturally we maxed it out at four. Still, I wasn't pushing any limits with it. It's a straight dry-chili heat, so it takes a a few bites to build up. Once it does, it rises to a pleasant, noticeable mouth burn that compliments the dish instead of blasting away all the flavor.
Matt: As we'll talk about in the other categories, this spice is more about durability than danger, more slow and steady lava than explosive volcano. And it holds great, but not at a particularly thermometer-busting temperature. You'll start a bit of a face sweat and swig from your drink, but even at max heat, The King & I won't fry your taste buds. A pleasant burn – but definitely persistent. And on that topic ...
Nick: The mouth burn had calmed down by the time we left, but I still had a satisfying warm belly when I got home. More plateau than crescendo, which for me is the mark of a good spicy meal.
Matt: Talk about putting the "burn" into stubborn. This heat just refuses to leave! While eating the dish, the spice level seemed very mild, mixing in with the rest of the Volcano Chicken's bountiful flavors. But by the time we left the table, without the rest of the flavors to play with, just the burn remained – complete with a nice belly heat. You don't eat this for a showy, stunt-y, instantaneous scald; this is a solid, steady sizzle that satisfyingly sticks to your gut.
Nick: Sliced fried chicken breast with steamed carrots and cabbage, covered in volcano sauce. Yeah, it's going to be good. The sauce is a good mix of sweet and sour. The sweetness fades quickly while the heat builds up; the sour notes hold the line in the background throughout. It's missing the salty in the spicy-sweet-salty-sour Big Four, but I wouldn't say I missed it. Even if you're not a big fan of spicy food, this is one meal where you need at least a little heat. The chili corrals the rest of the flavors and really ties the dish together.
Matt: Like the papaya salad before, the beauty of the Volcano Chicken isn't just the heat; it's the barrage of flavors around it too. In fact, that's probably how it pulls off its sneaky heat; the succulent slices of perfectly cooked chicken start off delectably sweet (plus a touch of sour) before the heat edges its way into the spotlight. It's a full ride of flavor as well as the cruelest kind of spicy dish: the kind that tastes so good, you can't stop eating – despite what your inner fire alarms want.
Nick: The flagship dish of a Milwaukee institution, the Volcano Chicken at The King & I comes up quickly in any conversation about spicy food in Milwaukee. The city's been eating this dish in that place for nearly 30 years; it's one of our standard bearers for spicy food. The adjustable heat makes it a delicious, spicy meal accessible to anyone. It isn't the hottest-of-the-hot meals in Milwaukee, but it's one we keep coming back to over and over and probably will for another thirty.
Matt: At first bite, I felt pretty confident that, despite its fiery name, the Volcano Chicken at The King & I wasn't too much of a challenge. Cut to ten minutes later, suddenly trying to soak down the spice with water, I knew had to reconsider my rankings. Cut to 30-45 minutes later, walking well away from the restaurant with the gentle but generous heat still boiling my buds, I knew we had a worthy entry. It may not top the papaya salad or the ghost pepper wings (though those better watch themselves) but this is a sneakily spicy dish, a slow burn that tricks you into scalding yourself more because it's so damn tasty.
In conclusion, 24 hours and several glasses of extinguishing milk and water later, it's not just a great dish, it's a pretty respectable heat wave too. You could even say I lava the Volcano Chicken at The King & I (I'm so sorry; I'm trying to remove it).
Burning Through Brew City heat index
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.