You’ve been marketed to your whole life, so I’ll spare you the cliché “beat the heat” setup here. But we know a hot summer awaits us. There are wiser food and drink choices that can cool us down, some of which are counterintuitive — like drinking hot beverages and soups, as well as spicy options, to sweat and cool off naturally. We’re lucky to live in a dry climate where that’s possible.
But still, most people will favor an iced treat because it’s more comfortable and satisfying — the easy road — and because the vast majority of us are addicted to sugar to some degree, and that’s generally what most of those drinks are sportin’. So, with that in mind, I’ve created a compromise with my selections for summer food and drink highlights: spicy main items, and sweet drinks. Yin and yang.
I’m skipping the obvious categories of coffee and ice cream — I believe we already know how to handle ourselves well in those arenas with fabulous items available widely. Instead, I want to focus on six international cuisines that come to mind when I’m thinking about fighting fire with fire and then dousing it with something chilly: Mexican, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Indian and Japanese. You could add Taiwan to the list, given the origin of some of the drink selections below, though these are now widely popular across Asia and the world.
Obviously I’m leaving out many other culinary traditions, as we can’t reasonably cover everything, so I’m being super selective here. (It’s called a loose framework for an article, people.) Respectively, these featured countries (of which I’ve visited five of six to see for myself) deliver kick-ass dishes that scream summer in vastly different but equally effective ways. Consider these picks, geographically spread across town, as just a starting point, a toe in the wider waters that await. Don’t hesitate — it’s time to dive in, and cool down.
We begin with Antojitos Los Pollos
(2826 E. Pikes Peak Ave., 719-310-9851), our Mexican representative. Mexican fare’s ability to battle hot weather can’t be understated — our Southern neighbors are masterful in their approach. The Springs has tons of full-service restaurants for all your margarita needs and beyond, but our local snack bars are awesome for quick, affordable street-style snacks, called antojitos.
Hit Los Pollos for a variety of savory goodies, like elote, and sweet yum-yums like paletas (popsicles). We go for the incredibly refreshing Michelada Ceviche, which may win the presentation of the year award. Micheladas can be beer or spirit drinks, but here it’s a virgin drink made with Topo Chico mineral water mixed with Clamato and fresh lime juice, further flavored by black pepper, sea salt, Tajín chile pepper seasoning, Tapatío hot sauce and soy-like Maggi-brand Jugo seasoning sauce. You could stop there and be happy, but why not poke the drink’s fat straw through the bottom of a foam bowl and fill it with ceviche? Soft, chewy bits of shrimp chopped with pieces of hydrating cucumber, sharp red onions and tomatoes tossed with cilantro and lime juice and garnished in hot sauce, with a side of tortilla chips. It’s a vibrant, colorful, effervescent, peppery, two-in-one treat that will transport you to a beach somewhere.
A second option here: the house strawberry horchata, a fun take on the traditional cinnamon-rice milk drink made more awesome (and pink) by blending in fresh fruit with ice; the result is like an ice cream shake: thick, cold, sweet and delicious.
Other Mexican counters and markets for similar treats:
Viva La Vida Mexican Snacks and Ice Cream (1728 S. Circle Drive, see Facebook page);
Sofias Antojitos (1035 N. Academy Blvd., facebook.com/sofiasantojitos);
Luna Market (280 S. Academy Blvd., see Facebook page);
Carniceria Leonella (3736 E. Pikes Peak Ave., carniceria-leonela.com).
Vietnam gets HOT, and it’s a humid place. It was one of the great Bourdain’s favorite culinary countries. And it’s well represented locally. Americans have long since learned what it means to have a certain craving that only a giant serving of pho can mitigate. I drop into Saigon Tapioca, (3712 Galley Road,. saigontapioca.com) intent on drowning myself in a bowl, but am lured to a specialty offering (highly popular in Vietnam) of spicy beef noodle soup, called bun bo hue. Renditions vary (some include pig blood), but what’s common is the cylindrical spaghetti-like vermicelli noodle versus common pho’s flat rice noodles.
At Saigon Tapioca, the beef bone broth’s made with lemongrass for a floral, citrus element, and it hits the table molten-hot. As with pho, you receive a side plate of garnishments like limes, bean shoots, basil, cilantro and perilla leaves, but also some fried banana flower shavings here. The soup incorporates a meatball, strips of brisket, bits of tendon and tripe and pieces of pig trotters. Add in the side of aromatic herbs and you have a symphony of complementary flavors, set off by some chile spice. Mine arrives only mildly hot, so I add Sriracha and a fiery house chile paste at the table. I kinda overdo it and get my nose running — a good sign that internally I’m heating up to cool down.
For a drink pairing, I pick a coconut cream cheese milk tea and order it with chile-flavored bursting boba to stay on theme. They aren’t spicy, actually, but more fruity and floral, and the drink overall has a bit of a jasmine vibe. It’s definitely on the sweet side, especially with the thick, rich foam (that has a slight caramel flavor) garnished with toasted coconut shavings. It offers nice counterpoint to the hot soup. I’m more than content.
More pho options:
Pho Brothers (1107 S. Nevada Ave., phobrotherscoloradosprings.com);
Pho Buddy (1861 S. Academy Blvd., facebook.com/Phobuddy1861);
Viet Spring (7640 N. Academy Blvd., vietspringrestaurant.com);
Pho Luu (4488 Austin Bluffs Pkwy., facebook.com/PhoLuuAsianNoodleRestaurant).
Thai cuisine rightfully lures all the hotheads and lovers of the curry sweats and all things chile oil. It’s an all-the-time food, but particularly useful during hot weather months. Pad Thai probably reigns supreme as the most popular and recognizable dish, but those aforementioned curries have become many people’s favorite plates. I hit up Chaang Thai (7525 N. Academy Blvd., chaangthaicos.com), sister outfit to Elephant Thai, open to anything that will heat me up. But my eye falls on the Khow Soy (also spelled Khao Soi), a dish I fell in love with locally a few years ago at (the recently shuttered) Mangosteen Thai. It’s not normally a scorcher, but I do order it “hot” — which I learn should be “Thai hot” next time, since this doesn’t smolder too much. Still, it’s a nicely spiced yellow curry bowl of egg noodles topped with crunchy wonton strips; I order it with chicken. The velvety coconut milk broth holds a fair sweetness to counter pickled mustard green pungency, lime bitterness and biting red onion garnish.
To pair, I of course go for a Thai iced tea, a sweet and highly dangerous substance for its addictive nature — few drinks make you want to suck them down faster and order another, and another. So bring your restraint along. To shake up the usual tea, I order mine with coconut milk for a richer, thicker head and welcome back-flavor of coconut versus cream or condensed milk. I also add tapioca pearls to effectively make it a boba drink; the starchy black orbs work particularly well with the tea’s faint spice notes.
Several more of our abundant Thai eateries:
Wild Ginger (2628 W. Colorado Ave., facebook.com/WildGingerThaiRestaurant);
NaRai Thai (805 Village Center Drive, 120 E. Cheyenne Mtn Blvd., narai-thai.com);
Thai Mint (1725 Briargate Blvd., thai-mint.com);
Arharn Thai (3739 Bloomington St., arharnthai.net).
Indian food generally wins the awards for aromatic activity, with tantalizing spice blends and layers of rich flavor showcasing what’s commonly called the most diverse cuisine in the world. Indian diners don’t shy from spiciness in their meals. It’s easy to light up your tongue at Indian restaurants, especially with vindaloo dishes, but also by requesting curries be served hotter. I’ve definitely put beads of sweat on my forehead before and flushed my cheekbones pink.
But I don’t get quite that crazy with my visit to Sherpa Garden (1005 W. Colorado Ave., sherpagarden.com), where only a couple items on the menu have a chile pepper pictured next to the description. I could have requested my Tibetan Chilli hotter, but having never ordered the dish here, I wanted to see how it came out typically — and the answer’s only medium hot (so make your request accordingly). Still, it’s a colorful, piquant dish with enough spice on it to assist your cool-down on a hot day. I pick paneer for my protein (from a list that includes tofu, veggies, chicken, lamb and more), which by virtue of being dairy (mild, almost-squeaky-to-the-teeth cheese chunks), tones down the heat a bit. Scoop portions over long-grain basmati rice and enjoy the fresh snap of carrot and bell pepper pieces, sautéed but left al dente, with strips of white onion plus green peas in a thin, habanero, garlic, ginger and tomato house hot sauce spiked with lime.
To pair: What other reason alone to hit an Indian restaurant? A mango lassi. The pure fruit flavor blends beautifully into thick, lightly sweetened yogurt-milk that again cools the palate should you overdo any spice. Otherwise, it’s just a nice tropical fruit-flavor complement to the floral spices.
Other Indian options in town:
Little Nepal (1747 S. Eighth St., 4820 Flintridge Drive, lnepal.com);
Urban Tandoor (8125 N. Academy Blvd., theurbantandoor.com);
Mirch Masala (5047 N. Academy Blvd., mirchmasalaa.com);
Babu’s Kitchen & Bar (915 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, babuskitchens.com).
Ok, I know the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Japanese food is sushi, and were I focusing on cold main dishes instead of hot, this would be my summertime pick. I think I speak for the vast majority of us in saying I could punish sushi any time. But thinking hot, I have to go with ramen — which technically introduces another country to our list, China, for the actual roots of what we know as ramen today. Anyway, the average ramen bowl’s not spicy, though plenty of modern fusion spots offer spicier options for hotheads. What I like about ramen on a hot day is more just its hot pork bone broth that invites good perspiration for its temperature alone. All the fixings and starchy noodles are the bonus.
At O’sae Sushi Ramen Bistro (1825 Peterson Road, osaesushiramenbistro.com) you can choose among six broth styles and seven toppings, such as seafood, gyoza and tofu. I go for tonkatsu (pork bone broth), double down with grilled chashu (braised pork belly) and ask for my bowl to be spicy. It comes with a potent red chile oil floating around the edges and toppings of seaweed, corn, soft-boiled marinated egg, scallions and the fabulously fatty bits of the charred pork pieces. It’s fantastic.
For this restaurant selection I break form and get it to-go, so I can match it with a fun summer drink that I think pairs well. That leads me to Kung Fu Tea (7489 N. Academy Blvd., kungfutea.com) where I order a matcha milk cap with oolong tea jelly. I’m craving matcha’s bitter flavor, which comes through strong here even though they sweeten the milky drink. The jelly adds an extra tannic, black-tea-like oolong pop atop the green tea brightness for a novel redundancy. It disappears effortlessly.
Other spots for a bowl of ramen (other than many Japanese/sushi restaurants too):
Smokehouse BBQ & Ramen (660 Peterson Road, smokehousebbqandramen.com);
Rooster’s House of Ramen (323 N. Tejon St., cosramen.com);
Oka Ramen (5605 N. Academy Blvd. and 964 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, okaramencos.com);
Ramen O Ramen (3669 Star Ranch Road, see Facebook page).
A couple more tea lounges:
Teapioca Lounge (5660 Barnes Road., teapiocalounge.com);
RoyalTea COS (6020 N. Carefree Circle, facebook.com/royalteaCOS).
For my final cuisine pick, I go Korean, and again break form: I get my food to-go from Yong’s Korean Kitchen (1712 S. Circle Drive, yongskoreankitchen.business.site) so I can pair with a playful boba tea served elsewhere, but I also choose an appetizer versus a main plate, to mix things up. Korean soups can easily be more scorching than pho and ramen — I’ve delighted in Mordor-Mount Doom-level-hot kimchi soup before — and dishes like nakji-bokkeum (stir-fried octopus) tend to deliver on big spiciness as well. Plenty of places serve a spicy bulgogi option, too. But I’m in the mood for one of my favorite starters, tteokbokki.
This is an item I’ve tasted in Seoul at a ridiculous spice level that just floored me. But around here, restaurants prepare it tastefully hot for the average consumer (though nobody’s saying you can’t ask the kitchen to turn up the volume). Tteokbokki is a plate of long, cylindrical Korean rice cakes doused in Korean red chile sauce (typically incorporating both gochujang and gochugaru) and garnished with sesame seeds and green onion; sometimes other veggies like carrot or bell pepper threads are added.
One thing I love about this dish is its texture: The compressed rice strips are big chewy starch sticks that are somehow rewarding to chew through as you soak up the smoldering sauce. A bonus at Yong’s is they serve their tteokbokki with thin, spongy strips (more texture!) of fish cake too, as seen on common banchan (complimentary sides) setups. Set off by a little sesame flavor, the dish as a whole always pleases.
For my symbolic pairing, I venture to SilalaTea (2856 N. Powers Blvd., facebook.com/silalatea) — newly opened, for which I’ll have a more comprehensive writeup soon — and order the summer drink you have to get in some form, somewhere: ube milk tea. The purple yam has risen in popularity with the rise of Asian fusion and bubble tea spots, and you’ll find it in desserts as well. You’ll know it when you see it, because it’s the most deep beautiful hue of purple once blended in milk; in garnishing syrup form it’s darker and inky. And you’ll know it when you taste it because it’s unique and delightful, most often described as faintly nutty with vanilla hints, basically a more dazzling sweet potato. At SilalaTea they use Lactaid (lactose-free) milk base (unless soy or almond are requested) and I get my ube drink with egg pudding jelly as my topping, which has a highly sweet, caramel-flan-like vibe, making for an overall rich treat.
More Korean options:
Tong Tong (2036 S. Academy Blvd., 719-591-8585);
San Chang House (3659 Austin Bluffs Pkwy., sanchanghouse.com);
Shin Sa Dong (3845 E. Pikes Peak Ave., shinsadong.com);
Happy Time Korean (5547 Powers Center Point, 719-282-2110).
And a few more spots for boba tea and fun, colorful drinks:
Coffee & Tea Zone (12225 Voyager Pkwy.; 25 N. Tejon St.; 3245 Cinema Point; coffeeandteazone.com);
Fat Bee Cafe (3230 Centennial Blvd., fatbeecafe.com);
Buns & Bubbles (162 Tracker Drive, bunsnbubbles.com).
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