Credit: Warren Rojas

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Welcome to Spice Route, in which food writer Warren Rojas connects diners to the most fiery and flavorful dishes in area restaurants.

Location: Matchbox, multiple locations; matchboxrestaurants.com

Vision:Modern pizza lovers who are also heat seekers have it pretty good. The era of having to make do with randomly scattered jalapeño rings or scrounging around for unclaimed pepperoncinis is mostly gone. Nowadays local pizzaiolos embellish bubbly, leopard-spotted creations with gourmet firestarters such as chile-spiked honey or olive oil sparked with imported Calabrian chili peppers. 

One taste sensation that helped bridge the gap between yesteryear’s yawners and 2019’s mouthwatering marvels is the twin pepper-fueled fire + smoke pizza homegrown chain Matchbox sprung on local diners nearly two decades ago. The signature offering remains a solid performer for the new(ish) company owner Thompson Hospitality. 

Execution:Matchbox culinary director Jim Drost says no one has tampered with the brilliance of the iconic pie, noting that the fire + smoke “has been on the menu since day one!” 

Whereas Matchbox pies are typically layered with tomato sauce goosed by red pepper flakes steeped in garlic oil, the fire + smoke boasts something extra—dried smoked jalapeños pureed in tangy-sweet adobo sauce. That double whammy of reductions is complemented by roasted garlic, onions, and blistered bell peppers. Gooey smoked Gouda cheese and ribbons of fragrant basil round out a crusty, lightly scorched delight Drost says appeals to vegetarian guests. 

Care to up the ante? Have the kitchen throw some “spicy meatballs” into the mix. The herb-speckled orbs feature ground beef, pork, and veal doctored with garlicky Cholula hot sauce and crushed red pepper flakes.  

Intensity (out of five): Three sirens