“Whatever you do,” warns the chef at Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap in Chicago, “don’t touch yourself in the men’s room.” To the uninformed, the statement would seem—at best—very odd advice. But the implications have me thinking of emergency-room visits, not one-line retorts.
I’m in the Windy City, shooting a television special on the Corner Tap’s XXX Wings Challenge, an extreme food-eating challenge featuring Bhut Jolokia—better known as the infamous ghost pepper. But after only five minutes of chopping ghosts in the kitchen, we have to stop filming. The capsaicin in the peppers has gone airborne and essentially become weaponized. Our entire cast and crew is now a collective of coughing, wheezing, gagging adults.
And don’t think I’m throwing around the term weapon as hyperbole. Just ask the Corner Tap’s chef. “Two years ago, I couldn’t find any ghost peppers on the open market to make our wings,” he says. “Turns out the government bought them all to make into weapons.”
So, yes, ghost peppers are destructive—about five times as spicy as a habanero. Most restaurants use them for eating challenges, with waivers to sign and plastic firefighter hats to wear; and YouTube has effectively documented the excruciating pain of men and women who have tried to eat them raw—click here to watch one example. As it turns out, the peppers can be just as destructive, even if you’re not brave—or stupid—enough to ingest them.
“You serious about the men’s room?” I ask the chef, thinking maybe he was testing my gullibility. “We’re wearing two sets of gloves.”
He points to a pair of gloves on the counter that have pretty much disintegrated. “Those are from yesterday.”
Fortunately, it’s not all Man v. Food extremism when it comes to these infamous peppers; some restaurants incorporate them into dishes that don’t require waivers or belittling hats. Here are a few places across the United States to try them out.
At Dolce Amore in lower Pacific Heights, the ghost is often incorporated into jams, where the sweetness tempers some of the heat. This little art gallery, which doubles as a café, serves an herb-roasted turkey panino with Parmigiano-Reggiano and ghost pepper–accented peach preserves.
At Sobou, a modern cocktail haven created by the hospitality group that owns the city’s famed Commander’s Palace, the shrimp-and-tasso pinchos pack a punch. Skewers of shrimp and peppery tasso ham sit atop pieces of grilled pineapple and are slathered with ghost-pepper jelly.
Ghost peppers have a natural home in salsas, where the tomatoes offset the burn of 1 million Scoville units. At Takito Kitchen, a contemporary taco joint, you can turn ordinary tortilla chips into an aggressive appetizer by dipping them in the kitchen’s salsa of tomato, hibiscus, and ghost pepper.
Alternatively, spice rubs can introduce you to the ghost pepper without a waiver getting involved. At Butcher and the Burger, a build-your-own burger restaurant, you can choose between five different buns (okay, four and a lettuce wrap), eight different patties (you can’t go wrong with the American bison), and a plethora of toppings—everything from Amish duck eggs to barbecue pork belly. You also get your choice of nine unique spice rubs: If you want to feel the heat, make sure you ask for the ghost pepper–infused “Burger Meets Sun.”