On a recent weekend in South Beach, two Russian tourists visited Lime Fresh Mexican Grill on 15th Street and Alton Road. They ordered burritos and tacos, scooped some of the house-made salsa labeled "very hot" into a plastic container, and sat outside in a shaded booth. A few minutes later, they called waiter Yamil Cabrera over to the table. "They told me: Listen, we tried your spiciest house-made sauce, and it's just not doing it for us," the server remembers. So Cabrera took rare action: He fished some Dave's Gourmet ghost pepper sauce from among the more than 40 bottles of hot sauces on display and handed it to the customers. "A few minutes later... I kid you not: They were crying, red, tears streaming down their faces," he recalls.
The server is telling me this story as a cautionary tale as I sit at the same booth, burrito in hand. I've heard the local chain carries a sauce made with ghost pepper, or bhut jolokia, the world's spiciest commercially available pepper. And I've come to try it.
Bhut jolokia held the title of world's spiciest pepper in the Guinness Book of World Records until a year ago, when a hybrid mixed with other peppers took its place (as far as I know, that one isn't available in a sauce). On the Scoville Scale, the scientific measurement of a pepper's spiciness, bhut jolokias rate 855,000 to 1,463,700 units. In comparison, a jalapeño rates between 2,500 to 5,000 and Tabasco sauce falls in the 30,000 to 50,000 range. It's said the "ghost peppers" can strip paint and scare off elephants. And in India, scientists are developing them into grenade bombs.
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I know all this, and yet, I'm assuring Cabrera I can handle the heat. I live for culinary adventures and I love spicy food more than anything. I mean, I once at an habanero pepper straight off a bush in Mexico. That has to count for something.
But here's where I make the mistake: Instead of taking a tiny drop of the sauce and mixing it in with the entire contents of my burrito, I decide to dip a tortilla chip so that I can get a real taste of the flavor. Well... turns out it's not that kind of sauce. There's no chipotle smokiness or Tabasco vinegar-iness. It's straight fiery heat that rushes to the back of my throat and up my nasal cavity. My sinuses clear, I start to sweat, and my tongue goes completely numb within seconds. I take gulp after gulp of water, and eat a glob of chili-less guacamole, and still... nothing. My tongue remains numb for the remainder of the meal and my hands, which accidentally touch some of the sauce, burn for hours.
Of course, I'm a masochist, so I take some of it home. The next day, I try the sauce the correct way -- a tiny drop on a large amount of food -- and discover that it still scorches down my throat and activates my tear ducts but is actually delicious. Cabrera wasn't kidding, though: Bhut jolokia sauce is "insane."