“Lowcountry food isn’t really spicy,” says Josh Walker, owner and chef of Xiao Bao Biscuit. Although peppers thrive in lowcountry soil, and hot sauce has long been a standard condiment in local kitchens, area residents have traditionally preferred to wring flavor from salt, onions, butter and cream.
Walker and his crew didn’t set out to spice up the Charleston diet. But an unintended consequence of the young restaurant’s extraordinary popularity may be an increased collective tolerance for heat.
“When we say spicy, we mean spicy,” Walker says of dishes accentuated with chili oil and Sichuan peppercorns. Walker rues the promiscuous use of the word “spicy,” which is now blithely affixed to fast food tacos and mass-produced potato chips. As he points out, a dusting of industrial red powder can’t prepare the palate for the level of heat which is integral to certain Asian cuisines.
But the palate can be trained: Walker’s witnessed the phenomenon behind-the-scenes at Xiao Bao.
“My partner couldn’t really handle spicy food, and now he’s a glutton for it,” he says.
“All the servers slowly built up a tolerance,” he adds. At staff meals, they now slather most everything with a housemade sriracha, “sometimes to my dismay.”
Xiao Bao doesn’t aim to exactly replicate the flavors of Asian cooking: “You don’t want to be a museum,” Walker says. The restaurant’s dishes are tailored to staunch the nostalgia of immigrants from American urban areas, not newcomers from China. The mapo dofou, for example, is intentionally short on ma, the numbing sensation that Sichuan natives seek. But it has plenty of la, the spicy heat which comes from peppers.
For that reason, it’s the one dish on the menu that servers are coached to preface with a disclaimer: “Have you had it before?,” my server asked worriedly when I ordered it.
“We didn’t want to be so aggressive that we were blowing people away,” Walker explains. “We get a lot of people who are experiencing it for the first time.”
Xiao Bao may be leading the charge toward greater spice acceptance, but it’s not fighting the battle alone: Brown Court Bakery serves sriracha croissants, and The Green Door makes generous use of curry and Thai chiles.
According to Walker, science shows that eaters acclimate to spicy diets. Although it takes six days for the palate to reset after a burnout, each spicy food experience enhances an eater’s ability to handle heat. The taste buds are sometimes compared to muscles, since temporary suffering results in permanent strength. And in Charleston, Xiao Bao may provide the perfect workout venue.