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By Sherri Richards, Published January 08 2003

Too hot to handle

There is a fiery, hellish underworld of hot sauces on the market that put anything manufactured by Pace or Taco Bell to shame.

Fire and brimstone don't begin to describe their effects on the palate.

The tiny bottles of TNT are found in specialty stores and are a little pricey, but you'll never need more than a tiny bottle in your lifetime.

Just lick a little off the tip of your finger and your tongue won't forgive you for weeks.

With names like Acid Rain, Death Sauce, Colon Cleaner, Ass Kickin', Pain Is Good and Sudden Death, you know you're playing with culinary fire.

Grandma's Saloon and Grill in Fargo has a wall of sauces that Vicki Jo Flick keeps stocked.

She says super hot sauces, most priced at $4 to $6, sell quickly.

"I've done really good business around Christmas time," Flick says. She says customers buy the sauces to make their own gift baskets.

Flick has regular customers who are fans of the liquid fire. A Winnipeg man drives down regularly to add to his collection.

The sauces are popular for chili and rib recipes, as one drop goes a long way.

Flick says she had a 10-year-old boy who wanted to buy some to take care of a bully at school.

But, Flick says, most people buy the sauces as gag gifts, especially wives for their husbands.

"They do it a lot as a joke," Flick says. "I warn people they're not a joke.

"It will burn their eyes; it can burn the inside of their mouth."

Mike Heitland of Fargo, who has always liked hot foods, favors vinegar-based and hot sauces made from the extract of peppers.

"I've grown into it. I pretty much eat hot sauce on most of my foods now," he says.

Heitland started eating lava-like sauces a couple years ago when he encountered Dave's Gourmet Insanity Sauce at the Mall of America.

"It's pretty sick. It's a little too rough," Heitland says.

The Insanity Sauce's label even cautions those with heart or respiratory problems to stay away.

Dave's Gourmet Insanity Sauce is currently rated No. 1 at Grandma's, but Flick says Da' Bomb Ground Zero is actually hotter. One bottle costs $16.

"It should last you about six years," Flick says.

To give you an idea of how hot Ground Zero is, the heat from chili peppers is measured in Scoville units, a measurement of the capsaicin level in parts per million. Capsaicin is the compound that gives chilies their heat. Applied topically, capsaicin can help relieve joint pain associated with arthritis, diabetes or shingles.

A jalapeƱo pepper has about 4,000 Scoville units. Ground Zero has 234,000, hotter than most habanero peppers.

But Da' Bomb line doesn't stop there. The Final Answer has 1.5 million Scoville units, and The Source, which was created in a laboratory, has 7.1 million.

"I wouldn't even bring them in," Flick says of the more intense Da' Bomb products. "People just get a little crazy then."

In fact, when ordering The Source online, a waiver must be filled out. A 1-ounce bottle costs $90.

Happy Harry's Bottle Shop on 45th Street carries 40 to 50 brands of fiery sauces.

"We're constantly ordering in new product," employee Melanie Foley says.

The Da' Bomb line is the store's most popular seller and its most expensive bottle is the Final Answer, which goes for $30 for a 2-ounce bottle.

As far as restaurants go, Buffalo Wild Wings corners the market on sauces with 12 different sauces ranging from serene to scorching.

Buffalo Wild Wings classifies its sauces as mild, medium or hot, arranging them on a spectrum of intensity. Fargo manager Kai Catudio says the restaurant offers five wing sauces that are really hot, starting with Caribbean Jerk, Hot BBQ and Hot.

"If Hot is the hot at most places, Wild would be twice that and Blazin' would be twice Wild," Catudio says.

He says most people don't finish an order of Blazin wings, but the restaurant's hottest sauce does have its fans.

"We have people who order Blazin, that's all they eat," Catudio says. "Some people come in just for the thrill."

But keep in mind, the wing sauces are meant to be edible, even enjoyable. A teaspoon of Blazin can be tolerated, unlike the deadlier sauces Flick sells."Don't take a teaspoon, just drops," Flick says. "You've got to be careful with this stuff."

When the sauces make contact with the tongue, cold water won't help extinguish the inferno. The oily capsaicin will instead be spread throughout the mouth. Milk or yogurt can put out the fire. Some claim beer dissolves the capsaicin.

Eventually, people build up a tolerance to the pepper-produced pain, but Heitland suggests starting small.

"Start with something mild that's vinegar-based," Heitland recommends. "Those who start with pepper-based sauces don't often want to try more."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525