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Fire in Queens

The first thing I noticed when I opened the menu at Tangra Masala – the Indian-Chinese restaurant recommended by Mizanur, the star of last week’s taxi adventure – was the sea of chili pepper symbols.

108 chili pepper symbols. 108 hot and spicy dishes out of 159. (Yes, I counted them. I’m nerdy like that).

Having spent the last 3½ years in Argentina, where black pepper is considered spicy, I knew my tolerance for heat had faded into steak. Gone were the days when I could munch on raw habaneros and throw a handful of Thai bird chilies into my Tom Yum soup.

Face to face with 108 chili peppers, I chose to repress this reality.

A more reasonable person would have eased back into the universe of yang flavors, ordering a single explosive dish and balancing it out with something mild, like pan-fried noodles or beef with oyster sauce. But everything I truly desired – and everything I assumed was India and China fused – had a chili pepper symbol next to it.

And when the waiter in the green polo shirt asked me if I wanted my dishes spicy, I told him yes. Plus, there were two jars of homemade chili sauce on the table – one red and one green – just in case I needed to increase the temperature.

After a few bites of chicken hot and sour soup ($3.95), one of Mizanur the cabbie’s favorite dishes, I knew I wasn’t going to touch those jars. Once I got past the heat and the crazy amount of corn starch, I realized that the chilies were turning up the volume of the other ingredients: cilantro, black mushroom, cabbage, tofu, and chicken. I coughed and wiped my nose until I reached the bottom of the bowl. Every spoonful tasted like a shout that my palate was happy to hear.

The tears came halfway through my first piece of lollipop chicken ($6.95). This is Tangra Masala’s glorious answer to the Buffalo wing: chicken legs crowned with ground vegetables, deep fried in garlic-soy-chili batter, and served with a mayonnaise-based chili and pickle dipping sauce. I pictured the Superbowl party this dish could inspire: roomfuls of men falling victim to the allure of chicken lollipops who would claim it was the game that was making them cry.

The phone was ringing steadily with take-out orders, and I was sweating aromatics from every pore, by the time the Manchurian beef ($10.95) arrived. An esophagus-scorching stir-fry of Halal meat with red chili, garlic, fresh ginger and cilantro, it snapped my mouth to attention, as did every dish in that hurt-so-good feast.

I grabbed a spoonful of Pan Masala breath freshener from the bowl by the cash register before I staggered to the subway with a bag of very fragrant leftovers. A few people wrinkled their noses when they inhaled my strange perfume, but most had that ‘what-are-you-eating?’ longing in their eyes.

This is only three chili peppers, I wanted to tell them. There are 105 more dishes to try.

Tangra Masala
87-09 Grand Ave.
Elmhurst (Queens), NY 11373
Phone: 718-803-2298/718-803-2381
Open: Sun-Thurs: Noon-10pm; Fri. & Sat: Noon-11pm
Subway: V, R to Grand Ave.
Appetizers: $3.95-6.95
Meats/Seafood: $9.95-13.95
Noodles/Rice: $6.95-9.95
Cash only, no alchohol, Halal meat

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