Best way to eat the heat

The Wall of Flame, Ass Fire salsa and other stomach-popping culinary dares

illustration by don button

Neil Young was once asked if he and Crazy Horse were the world’s greatest garage band. “We’re third,” Young said. “The Stones are No. 1, and there’s got to be someone somewhere we don’t know about who’s better than us.” With that caveat, grab some flame retardant and let’s burn down the ranks of Sacramento’s spiciest food.

While not exactly straddling the equator, Sacramento offers a bunch of fiery options. Credit for that goes to our many transplants from those countries where life’s spice is spice—India, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Vietnam, Mexico, Indonesia—and locals who love to eat their cuisine. The capital’s sushi chefs also lay out some wickedly fired-up fare.

There are health benefits to capsaicin—the thing in chilies that burns lips, mouth and throat. It’s an antioxidant and wails on disease-causing toxins. But while the War Sauce Challenge at My BBQ Spot, located at 2502 J Street, might improve health, the experience feels more like death.

Few are called and fewer chosen to be enshrined on the restaurant’s Wall of Flame. To date, there are no fatalities and no hospitalizations. There are only 10 victors—if that’s the right word. They’re all males who have successfully consumed, within 30 minutes, a sandwich blanketed with the fiercely vehement War Sauce—a satanic combination of habaneros, cayenne and extracts of other peppers boiled and then allowed to age until they reach a heat level roughly that of walking barefoot on the sun.

Ian Dixon, BBQ Spot’s proprietor, requires those who take the War Sauce Challenge to sign a waiver. YouTube memorializes the harrowing ordeal of several who have shelled out $25 to suffer through a sauce so severe the primary focus is to prevent the sandwich from affecting a hasty escape from the stomach. A pot, comprised of the coin forfeited by those who did not master the challenge, goes to the “winner.”

Dixon said it’s mental: If someone wants to finish the sandwich, they will. Then it gets physical. The glorious feat of downing the sandwich is usually capped with a victory yack—or worse. Dixon recalled a female contestant who returned to the scene of her gustatory self-flagellation the following day sporting two black eyes created by the severity of her weeping.

Samples are no longer given. A War Sauce warrior enters the ring blind. And dumb.

On a recent visit, Dixon dotted a clear plastic lid with a drop the size of a small fingernail. Remarkably, it did not sizzle through the plastic. An employee gasped as I swiftly swept the drop into my mouth. Then employees started grinning when my face blossomed crimson. My eyebrows arched as the conflagration erupted at the back of my throat. The weeping and runny nose was in high gear as a glass of ice water was pressed into my sweaty hands.

Dixon recalled one contender, halfway through the challenge, describing it as though there were “100 daggers in my throat.” All too true. Over the next 25 minutes the heat migrated up from throat to tongue, marking all territory in between. Finally, it pulsed into nonexistence. And this was only a drop.

Equally unquenchable is Mulvaney’s Building and Loan’s aptly named “Ass Fire” salsa. According to Margo Raine of the Mulvaney’s catering crew, the chefs dare each other to sample the incendiary concoction of orange habaneros, salt, garlic, oregano and vinegar. Seasoned oak chips imbue it with a smoky flavor during the six weeks it ratchets up its temperature before being pureed and placed in front of the fearless or foolish. Patrick Mulvaney said potential imbibers are warned of the potency. But it’s clear there is a certain delight gleaned from serving those braggadocios who loudly proclaim, “I love hot sauce,” dig deep and then hurriedly repair to a corner, retching violently.

The moral here is that spiciness is a personal question of taste and degree. My sister’s husband, who gulps habaneros like Chiclets, considers “Thai spicy”—the stuff that melts tungsten—to be a nice starting point. For me, there’s a balance point which, when exceeded, obliterates the flavor and pleasure of a dish.

Mulvaney has sampled northern India’s bhut jolokia—at two or three times the heat of a habanero, it’s the world’s most blistering chili. It was grown here by Suzanne Ashworth at Del Rio Botanical. The apricot-sized pepper was “enough for everyone in the restaurant [about 30 people] to have too much,” Mulvaney recalled.

That would define falling off the balance point. Bloody Marys at the Limelight Bar on Alhambra Boulevard gracefully ride that fine line. You could add a dash of Tabasco for a little louder lip smack but, as served, they’re pretty much perfection.

Tokyo Fro’s, located at 2224 Fair Oaks Boulevard, engages in a spice-fueled Darwinian survival of the fittest. Fro’s allows any sushi roll to be prepared “Damn Hot” with several drops of habanero oil. The waiter must ask diners how hot on a scale of one to 10. Typically, males trying to impress dates boldly start at a minimum of eight. The chef’s view is that those hubris-hobbled enough to select 10 deserve multiple drops. Hence, the test.

Mikuni sushi restaurants offer a bit more advance warning. Its spicy tuna roll is called 911. Segregated in a different section of the menu is the 1822 roll—911 doubled. Chili sauce and jalapeños are the prominent ingredients. “EXTREMELY SPICY,” potential diners are warned. My redoubtable dining partner, Shelly, volunteered for 1822 duty and felt guilty that seven jalapeño circles remained on the plate after the roll was gone. We wolfed down four so the waiter wouldn’t think we’re wussies.

The 1822 packs a healthy kick, but it pales compared to Ass Fire and War Sauce. The Pepperfin at Nishiki at 1501 16th Street—albacore floating in a ponzu-esque sauce blanketed in jalapeños—kicks open a sinus passage almost as fast.

Elsewhere on the heat continuum, most Thai joints allow diners to set their own level of flame. Amarin Thai Cuisine, located at 900 12th Street, is a favorite because they’re so darn solicitous: “Are you sure? Thai spicy very hot. No money back if you don’t like it.” Thai spicy leaves lips tingling, tongue scalded and mouth throbbing for a fair chunk of time. Good, though.

Similarly, Indian restaurants around town are willing to conjure curries or vindaloo like back home. Even if a waiter at the venerable Kaveri Madras, located at 1148 Fulton Avenue, is told to make the order “spicy hot,” the dishes always manage to ride the balance point.

With all these incendiary options, the fundamental question remains. Why do we punish ourselves by intentionally eating stuff that causes our foreheads to bead, our mouths to burn, our tears to cascade and our stomachs to lurch? Simple. Because it hurts so good.