Photo courtesy of Dinos Grottos Grotto
Photo courtesy of Dinos Grottos Grotto

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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: Dino’s Grotto, 1914 9th St. NW; (202) 686-2966;

Vision: Chef and restaurateur Dean Gold fancied himself a trailblazer when he decided to embellish crispy fried soft-soft shell crabs with multiple heat sources at his neighborhood eatery.

It was only after he enrobed the seasonal spoils in extra strength cayenne pepper (three times hotter than retail offerings, per Gold), smoked paprika, and an earthy house-made za’atar blend that the pasta enthusiast says he discovered The Salt Line in Navy Yard had reeled in seafood lovers with a similar tongue-teaser last summer. “I had not heard of anyone doing them,” he says of the weekly special that’s joined the rotation at his subterranean lounge.

The more the merrier.

Execution: “You here for the soft-shell?” a barkeep instinctively asks the guy who slides onto a nearby stool on a Wednesday night. It’s a pretty safe bet because the sandwich is only available as a special on Wednesdays in the downstairs bar.

The Shaw watering hole began serving the Nashville hot sandwich in May. Gold’s version features a spice-caked specimen tossed in seasoned flour, but no egg batter. “Friends don’t let friends batter soft-shells or squash blossoms,” he asserts.

Once fried, the kitchen parks the regional delicacy atop spongy ciabatta bread slathered with an “Italian tartar sauce” composed of olive oil, anchovy, cayenne, shallots, capers, and green habanero sauce. It’s also layered with briny pickles Gold supercharges with crushed red pepper flakes, garlic, and ginger.

The finger-licking-good finished product is messy enough that it should come with disposable bib. Every aioli-coated bite is packed with spicy-savory bliss. And while the intensity is striking, the heat level is easily tempered by a swig of cold beer.

Fear not, vegetarians: Your chance to partake in the oral fireworks is nigh.

Gold says Nashville hot fried tomatoes are in the works. “We are at the very end of asparagus [season], so we need another antipasto,” he shares.

Intensity (out of five): Three sirens