Burning love

“Stop it!” I cried, giving my husband a dirty look.

“I’m sorry. I can’t help it,” he said, looking sheepish but unremorseful.

We were on our way to Chico, taking a leisurely day trip to the quiet college town. The afternoon was hot and sunny, perfect driving weather.

I started to forget about the last one, when, boom—another blast.

“Could you at least warn me?” I complained, marveling that having the windows rolled down seemed to make no difference at all.

It all had started the previous night. Upon the recommendation of my husband’s co-worker, we had made a trek out to Town and Country Village, the refurbished postwar California-style shopping center at the northeast corner of Marconi and Fulton avenues in Sacramento’s Arden-Arcade area, to try Paree’s Thai Garden, tucked in one side of the plaza’s maze. I’d been to Town and Country a couple dozen times, but I’d failed to notice the restaurant, with its prominent outdoor patio and attractive neon sign.

My husband and I disagree on few things. Unfortunately, Thai food is one of them. I am an avid appreciator of that particular cuisine. My husband is not. Too much coconut milk, he opines. Nonsense, I counter. Not only does Thai food make fantastic use of coconut milk, but it also couples the sweet milk with chilies and spices to make so many great curries! What genius!

So, it was with great excitement that we arrived at Paree’s cheerful and tastefully decorated establishment, with me mentally ordering in the car. We’d have the pad Thai (of course), a red curry (with lots of basil), a special seafood dish (whatever they praised) and whatever appetizer struck our fancy. In my mind, I was already eating the meal when we arrived.

Ordering as planned, I confidently asked for all of our dishes to be medium to very spicy. When asked if we wanted the chili plate, I responded with a resounding, “Sure!”

The chili plate should have been the tipoff. The plate held a handful of jars. Inside each jar was a different kind of heat: dry and powdery, cool and pickled in liquid, chutney-esque, and brilliant chunks of red chilies diluted in fish sauce. I tasted each of them. And then I began to worry. My mouth was growing hot. Really hot.

Clue No. 2. The pad Thai was a welcome tangle of noodles, more tomatoey than usual but deliciously tangy, with crisp, cool sprouts; plump shrimp; chicken; and fried tofu. The dish looked innocuous enough, fit for a young child. But with each bite, I felt a slow, inexorable buildup of heat. If the pad Thai was that hot, we were in trouble with the curry.

The red-curry duck came with modest amounts of rich, flavorful duck, coupled with pineapple chunks, bamboo shoots, eggplant and zucchini orbs. The accompanying basil stood out amid the rich coconut-milk base. A wonderful dish, it took only a few bites before it became clear that we were flying too close to the sun. The blaze was building. Fire engines were screaming in the distance.

Only the king garlic prawns, Paree’s signature dish, could save us now. At $16.95, it was a showstopper. Several huge prawns, cleaved in two, adorned a large platter garnished with green broccoli, pale cucumber and red tomato slices. Generous portions of minced garlic cooked to a crisp were piled high on the prawns, which rested on a bed of cabbage, snow peas and mushrooms. Truly, it was a dish fit for royalty. The first attack with a fork yielded some prawn meat, less tender than expected. But it wasn’t long before we picked up the prawns with our hands and started sucking on the shells, which yielded a sweet, satisfying, garlicky succulence. We gorged on the juices, dampening the fire from the preceding dishes.

Another blast brought me back to reality. I gave up scolding my husband, who was not really to blame. After all, wasn’t it I who had ordered all our dishes medium-spicy to spicy the previous night, with such self-assuredness? Wasn’t it I who had dragged us to the land of spicy coconut-milk products? Wasn’t it I, then, who was really responsible for the unpleasant olfactory déjà vus, which hit us like minefields on the road?

I looked over at my poor husband. Sometimes, there’s a price to pay for spiciness. Unfortunately, sighed my mental voice, I was the one paying it.