Phil Vettel recommends restaurants with spicy dishes

Baby it's cold outside, so we offer some hot spots to dial up the heat on the inside

When it's cold outside, you want to be warm inside, and one way to accomplish that is with a nice jolt of spice in your food. Here are a few dishes, some of them in surprising places, that have gotten our tonsils' attention lately.

The Pump Room Two stars 1301 N. State Parkway, 312-787-3700. The venerable Pump Room is back, with a bright contemporary look and a seasonally driven menu emphasizing affordability and value. The menu, designed by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, borrows heavily from his acclaimed ABC Kitchen in New York, and evidence of the chef's Thai-fusion leanings are present in the chili peppers that brighten many dishes — though a section of "simply prepared" items accommodates the spice-intolerant. Service is a strong point. Spicy dishes: Fried chicken with habanero-grapefruit butter, crispy walleye with habaneros and mint, pork chop with green-chili butter. Open: Breakfast, lunch, dinner Monday-Sunday. Entree prices: $19-$38. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Strongly recommended. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.

BLT American Brasserie Two stars 500 W. Superior St.; 312-948-8744. NYC chef Laurent Tourondel makes a pretty impressive Chicago debut with this sprawling restaurant, which includes a few dishes reminiscent of Tourondel's work in various other BLT restaurants (with which he is no longer involved). The wide-ranging menu embraces sushi, pizza and a lot of what you might consider American bistro food, but the execution is far more sophisticated than the modest-to-a-fault menu might suggest. Jordan Mozer's opulent but warm design makes spending time in here an absolute delight. Spicy dishes: Spicy tuna roll, tuna tataki roll, BLT sandwich "deluxe" (with jalapenos). Open: Dinner Monday-Sunday. Entree prices: $22-$27. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Recommended. Noise: Conversation-friendly. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking.

Heaven on Seven (not recently rated) 600 N. Michigan Ave., 312-280-7774. One of the first Chicago restaurants to specialize in Cajun/Creole cooking, and still the best, Heaven on Seven (and its Naperville counterpart) offers many dishes for the timid of palate, but as the wall of hot-sauce bottles attests, this is a kitchen that enjoys spicing things up. There even are dedicated "Hot as a Mutha" nights two or three times a year here. Spicy dishes: Anything "voodoo," anything in "angry sauce," Hot as a Mutha pasta. Open: Dinner and lunch Monday-Sunday, brunch Saturday-Sunday. Entree prices: $9.95-$21.95. Credit cards: A, DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Recommended. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible, validated self-parking.

Mercadito One star 108 W. Kinzie St., 312-329-9555. If you like lively Mexican cuisine with a nightclub vibe, grab some friends and fight your way into this snazzy NYC import. Crowds can occasionally overwhelm the kitchen and front-room staff, but there's a reason there are so many people here. Dishes as a rule are not especially spicy here, but a side order of habanero salsa ($3) will kick any plate into lip-numbing status. Spicy dishes: Shrimp tacos with chipotle mojo, pollo enchilado (chili-crusted chicken). Dinner Monday-Sunday, lunch Monday-Friday, brunch Saturday-Sunday. Prices: Tacos (four) $15.50, entrees $18.50-$28.50. Credit cards: A, M, V. Reservations: Strongly recommended. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible; valet parking..

Xni-Pec One star 3755 Grand Blvd., Brookfield; 708-290-0082. This Yucatecan restaurant moved from Cicero to Brookfield in early 2010 to get closer to its west suburban customer base. It did so on a shoestring budget, so don't come expecting elaborate creature comforts. Do expect interesting, cliche-free Mexican food at very low prices. There is the occasional jolt of spice (the name comes from the Mayan term for "dog nose," a reference to some folks' reaction to hot peppers), but in general the food is gentle on the tonsils. Spicy dishes: Habanero salsa, guajillo-pasilla salsa, Xni-Pec camarones. Open: Dinner Monday-Saturday. Entree prices: $11-$18. Credit cards: DC, DS, M, V. Reservations: Recommended weekends. Noise: Conversation-challenged. Other: Wheelchair accessible.

Ratings key:
Four Stars: Outstanding
Three Stars: Excellent
Two Stars: Very good
One Star: Good
No stars: Unsatisfactory

Reviews are based on no fewer than two visits. The reviewer makes every effort to remain anonymous. Meals are paid for by the Tribune.

pvettel@tribune.com

Twitter @philvettel
CHICAGO

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