A bit of advice to those who attempt Orochon Ramen's debilitatingly spicy "Special #2" ramen bowl: Don't let the "Wall of Bravery" trick you. The successful diners look nonchalant in photographs, inscribing boasts like "I have spice in my blood!" and "More noodles, please."
Do not listen to them. They are lying. The Special #2 bowl is the ramen equivalent of Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity:" Its lusty flavors seduce you before leaving you for dead on a bathroom floor in Little Tokyo.
Orochon's 3-year-old Special #2 contest is a simple proposition. Finish your bowl (half the size of a basketball) in under 30 minutes, and you join the survivors on their dining room wall for perpetuity. Three or so people a day ignore the warning to "eat at your own risk," and about half succeed in finishing it. There are other delicious and less spicy bowls on the menu, but for sinus-cleaning, sweat-staining, honey-can-you-sleep-outside-tonight heat, Special #2 is the witch goddess of Orochon.
Special #2 is not soy-sauce brown or miso gold like the other ramen bowls. It's blood red from 10 scoops of chile powder and jalapeño slices. Upon first bite, it's unexpectedly tasty, and full of mushrooms and hearty noodles that mute its potency.
Then you're left with the question of how to finish the broth. The only reasonable way: lift the bowl and chug. Doing so is the culinary equivalent of walking up to a riot cop and begging for a full-face macing. Your eyes go blurry and you begin to double over from the sheer volume of it. Twenty minutes in, the problem becomes less about the spiciness on your lips than the roiling evil inside you. And there's still half a bowl to drink.
Special #2 got the best of this reporter, and caused him to miss several deadlines while sucking on ice cubes and eating crackers to dull the burn. But like an ex-lover, over time the memories of Special #2 grow less painful, possibly even enticing. Someday, I'll ask for more noodles, please. But that day is not today.
Orochon Ramen, 123 Onizuka St., No. 303, L.A., (213) 617-1766. Price: $6.45 to $6.95 a bowl, depending on your broth.
-- August Brown
Insects, insects, eat 'em up, yum!
Chowing on insects while watching single-engine planes cruise by is the kind of casually exotic dining experience L.A. does best. Typhoon, a laid-back but sleek pan-Asian restaurant overlooking a patch of junior tarmac at the Santa Monica Airport, has five insect dishes on its diverse, otherwise debugged menu, ranging in difficulty from the mild Chambi ants served on potato shoestrings to the hard-core Thai water bugs stuffed with chicken. I tried them all.
Liquor helped undo a lifetime of avoiding things that crawl over garbage. Potato slivers topped with a few dozen ants, which come from tonic herbalist Ron Teeguarden's Dragon Herbs store on Wilshire, look like a picnic gone wrong. But a scoop was tasty -- salty with citrusy sparks.
Next, dried sea worms with a tamarind dipping sauce. Crunchy, briny and alarmingly similar to maggots in size, the worms taste like eating the crust out of the corner of a fish's eye.
The Chinese believe crickets bring good luck, but judging from the cooked critters in front of me, that luck doesn't apply to their own lives. Nestled in a stir fry with garlic, chiles and basil, they have the textured snap of grassy, buggy potato chips. "It's popular in Taiwan to sit up on a hot night in a beer garden, drink and eat roasted crickets," Typhoon owner Brian Vidor says. In fact, we're in the minority in not eating bugs: Much of Asia, Mexico and Africa includes them in their cuisine.
As in the two scorpions I find before me, perched perkily on shrimp toast. The cooking renders the stinger harmless, but its thumbnail-sized body still tastes like sun-boiled danger: alkaline and burnt.
Finally, the chicken-stuffed water bugs, popular with the schoolchildren who visit Typhoon on field trips. Flavor-wise, they weren't so different from crickets, but the texture was a little tough, i.e., thready wings that wouldn't surrender to the usual bout of mastication. (My otherwise attentive server forgot to advise taking the wings off.)
Just when I thought I'd gotten it under control, I bit into one of its beady eyeballs and some vile, far-too-organic taste shot through my mouth. Check, please!
Typhoon, 3221 Donald Douglas Loop South, Santa Monica Airport, (310) 390-6565. Price: Insect dishes range from $8 to $10.
-- Margaret Wappler