Reporter’s Notebook: Spicy assignment too much to stomach
I’m willing to try anything once, especially when it comes to food.
Being Filipino, I’ve naturally tried balut, a common Philippines dish consisting of a duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell.
I’ve had fermented, or stinky, tofu, a popular dish at the 626 Night Market in Arcadia.
If that weren’t enough, I’ve had a jalapeno stuffed with a Baby Ruth bar at the Orange County Fair.
I’ve subjected my stomach to many things, but the one thing it doesn’t like is spicy food. I don’t avoid it at all costs. I just don’t actively seek the feeling of having lava poured down my throat.
However, my editors stumbled on an email from Henry Carey, co-owner of Bomburger at 200 Main St. in downtown Huntington Beach. In his message, Carey invited anyone from our staff to try the Nuke Burger, which the restaurant claims is the spiciest burger in Orange County.
Carey, 30, of Newport Beach, said the Nuke Burger is covered with a mash of fermented Carolina reaper peppers, pickled jalapenos and habaneros, ghost pepper chili jack cheese and a spicy Thousand Island sauce. More spices are dusted onto the meat patty as it is cooked.
“I tried Slater’s 50/50’s 50 Alarm burger and it was hot, but I wanted to make something hotter,” said Carey, a self-proclaimed chili head.
My editors suggested I try the burger and write a story about it. I quickly accepted, but the more I thought about it, the more scared I became.
Just hearing about what was on the burger didn’t sit well with me. I was concerned about what the peppers and spices would do to my insides. Would I get ulcers? Would I pass out from the intense heat?
I called UCI Medical Center in hopes of finding a physician who could explain any potential dangers I was facing. The media relations manager was nice, chuckled at my request and told me he would ask around for anyone willing to chat.
I never heard back, and my concerns grew.
Turning up the heat
I headed to Carey’s burger shop on a Thursday afternoon with my colleague Brittany Woolsey. I was feeling calm, like I could actually finish the burger.
Carey asked if I wanted to try the new Nuke Wings, which Bomburger claims are as hot, maybe hotter, than the burger.
Feeling cocky, I said would try eating three wings along with the burger.
As I would find out later, I made a huge mistake.
As a cook made the burger and wings, Carey and I talked about the dozens of other people who have tried the Nuke Burger. The youngest to finish it was a 7-year-old boy, he said. The fastest to finish it did so in one minute and 15 seconds.
My plan was to power through the burger, no matter how much it burned my lips and mouth.
I can do this. I know I can do this.
However, my confidence began to wane when Carey brought over a paper thimble with a sample of the Carolina reaper mash. The aroma was reminiscent of sriracha hot sauce, but much stronger and more acidic. I knew it was going to burn. Really burn.
Can I do this? Should I do this?
But it was too late to run. I had to go through with it.
Carey set my double-patty Nuke Burger and wings in front of me. My stomach started to turn, and any remaining confidence was quickly snuffed out. He said he usually delivers the burger wearing a gas mask but said he’d spare me the theatrics.
Slightly trembling with fear, I locked my eyes on the burger and thought about a quote my girlfriend had sent me by “Parks and Recreation” TV character Ron Swanson: “When I eat, it is the food that is scared.”
I was ready. I thanked Carey, grabbed the burger, peeled back some of the wrapper and took a big bite.
I was hit by a barrage of spicy punches. The reaper mash hit me with a hook, the ghost pepper chili jack cheese followed with an uppercut, and then I was bombarded by a salvo of jabs from the seasoned patties and sauce.
The first two or three bites were fine, but the heat quickly built up. I couldn’t feel my lips or tongue, and every tissue in my mouth seemed to be on fire. I was sweating profusely, and tears flowed from my eyes to the burger. Nothing eased the pain.
I threw my glasses off my face and continued to take bites, but every one felt like I was shoving pins into my mouth.
I got about halfway through the burger before calling it quits.
Carey gave me a cup of the most heavenly vanilla ice cream I’ve ever eaten. But as I was shoveling it down, Carey reminded me of the wings.
How could I forget about the wings? Why did I order wings?
So I put the ice cream down, picked up a wing, took a bite, swallowed, threw the wing back in the basket and began jumping around from the pain in my mouth.
My stomach hurt, and I left work early. That night, my girlfriend laughed at the video Brittany had taken of me at the restaurant.
We went to an outdoor screening of “E.T.” and I sat in my camping chair watching the little alien heal Elliott’s cut finger.
I wish E.T. had been there to heal the “ouch” in my stomach.