For this week's Feast of Fury, my faithful fellow food fighter Todd and I are at Chik-a-Rib's (1830 W. Glendale Ave., 602-759-8521), a tiny shack in north Phoenix serving up soul food faves like macaroni and cheese, glazed racks of ribs, and fried chicken and waffles. But the murals of cartoon chickens dancing among flames on the walls reveal the restaurant's main draw: the Lava Jumbo Buffalo Wings Challenge.
Until recently, the Lava Wings were a work in progress. "There used to be a 17-year-old girl who would come in here and do the challenge every week," says Jonathan, Chik-a-Rib's giant cook. "We kept tweaking the recipe to make it hotter and hotter. When she finally couldn't do it, that's when we knew we had it." Only four people have finished the challenge in its current incarnation.
The wings themselves are deep fried and coated in a gooey sauce made with four different types of peppers, one of which -- the main ingredient, in fact -- is the dreaded ghost chili.
About a century ago, the chemist Wilbur Scoville spent the bulk of his career developing a completely necessary system for measuring the spicy heat of a chili pepper. Your average jalapeno has a Scoville rating of 2,500-8,000; cayenne has, at most, 50,000. The bhut jolokia, or ghost chili, is rated at over one million Scoville units. It's a pepper so hot the Indian military recently approved its use in hand grenades. Seriously.
We place our orders, and 20 minutes later Jonathan comes out of the kitchen wearing two digital stopwatches around his neck. He lays the angry-looking wings before us and explains the rules: all 10 have to be completely finished -- meaning picked clean to the bone -- in 10 minutes. You can't have any water during the challenge, so if you finish early you'll have to wait until the ten minutes are up before you can take a drink. If you finish within the time limit, you win a free meal, your picture on the wall of fame, and an almost certain case of the lava shits.
I dive in, employing the same method I used during my previous wing challenge, rending off chunks of chicken meat in great big bites. My strategy is to eat as quickly as I can and finish most of the wings before my brain fully registers how hot these bastards are. I'm not successful. Here's a snapshot of my thought process as I eat the first wing:
Phase I: Hey, this isn't so hot. These actually taste kind of good. I don't know what I was so worried about.
Phase 2: Ow. This is spicy! I could really use some milk right about now.
Phase 3: OH DEAR GOD, IT'S LIKE LICKING LAVA! I CAN'T FEEL MY FACE! AAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!
The transition from Phase One to Three takes all of about 10 seconds. After that, I'm dealing with the full brunt of a fiery, pepper-driven onslaught. And there are still nine more wings to go.
After downing the second wing, I experience something I've never before encountered in a challenge: I get the hiccups. Every few seconds my lungs spasm uncontrollably, which is hard to deal with while stuffing one's face.
Before I'm halfway finished, I lose control of most of my facial functions. My nose is running, sweat pours off my forehead, my eyes well up like I'm watching the final scene of The Notebook. Todd looks equally distressed. He takes a momentary break from eating to say how much he hates me. I have to agree.
I slowly down a few more wings, but it's getting more difficult because my hands are shaking like I have Parkinson's in the winter. I can't see through my own tears. This is not fun.
But determined I am, and I slog my way through the final, fiery wing with 1:30 still left on the clock. Deprived of water until the buzzer beeps, I cheer Todd on through my boogers and abject pain. He takes his sweet time, but finishes his plate with three seconds left, then sprints out the door the neighboring gas station to pick up some chocolate milk. I, slightly more dignified, order a glass from Chik-a-Rib's, then down it like a tequila shot.
Was it worth it, you ask? Though we suffered for it, Todd and I each won a free meal and the glory of saying we conquered the hottest food challenge in Phoenix -- no small prize. But as I sit upon my toilet the next day, trying to ignore the apocalypse happening below, I'm not so sure. Take me now, lord!