How I wish I was clever enough to have come up with the word Hellidays all by myself. Sadly, that is not the case. It is the brainchild of Chris Schlesinger, chef-owner of the East Coast Grill in Inman Square. The East Coast Grill (let it be ECG) is a fantastic restaurant on any night. The menu is half barbeque, half seafood with a large raw bar. I have never made it past the seafood to the barbeque and so cannot speak for it. The fish, however… Blackened tuna tacos sound odd and taste amazing, with pickled jicama and avocado. The fish is super fresh as are the accompaniments, all prepared with respect for the ingredients, which is to say nothing is drowning in an unidentifiable sauce.
Well, the ECG is hard enough to get into on any old night. Now imagine a once in a year event in which the chefs try to come up with the hottest, scariest, most searingly spicy dishes and put them all on one menu. That, ladies and gentlemen, is Hell Night. Or three Hell Nights to be precise. I have been trying to get a reservation for months. Months (!) without success. Finally, the people at ECG realized that I really needed to get in on the Hell Night action and, in an unprecedented move, added another three nights. So the Hellidays were born.
The items on the Hell Night menu are rated for spice level in bombs. Ten bombs is the highest and belongs to the Pasta From Hell. This dish requires a signed waiver prior to consumption. Puking is not unheard of. Of course should you be a total loser you can order off the bright pink (to signify weak and girly? If girly is to be considered weak and derogatory, that is. Regardless...) wimp menu but be warned that you will be laughed at and humiliated by the entire staff. Should you bite off more than your stomach lining can take, you can order the Antidote, again knowing full well that you will be ridiculed for it. Now, I don’t know this from personal experience, not being a loser and all, but the antidote is in fact a creamsicle in a champagne glass. How debasing!
So, what do non-losers, hardcore spice-eaters such as myself order on Hell Night? Well, first up were mussels swimming in a green sauce of pulverized jalapenos in a green curry type of sauce. The mussels were giant and creamy and remarkably, not at all overpowered by the jalapenos. They were flavored with subtle coconut milk and curry.
Moving on, next up were Hell fries – self explanatory, good, and somewhat curry-tasting, fried noodles with shrimp and duck, and a baked stuffed crab. Much beer was needed as accompaniment. I am proud to say that nothing overwhelmed me (then again, nothing was over 4 bombs…) but was all very flavorful and good. And then I met my match. Or came close to it.
I always wondered when it would happen, when would I reach my spice threshold. Well, it happened yesterday. Almost. (Not admitting weakness here, mind you). Carnitas tacos with jalapeno sour cream, guacamole and red salsa: five bombs. Tender meat, crispy vegetables, fresh tortilla, and a delayed, slow-rising, and painful burning sensation all about the mouth area: priceless. It came on so slowly! I thought I was in the clear, munching happily away very proud of the fact that I was eating what my dining companions (of markedly weaker constitutions) had to put aside.
Then the spice came. It wasn’t enough for tears, certainly nowhere near puking territory but it was some of the most intense heat I have ever experienced (and I have been around the spicy block). Burning, prickling, and imagined swelling aside, I do find it remarkable how the taste of the tacos was in no way obscured by the heat. It was almost magic. That’s something I noticed with everything I tried that night – no matter how burning hot it was, the spice never overwhelmed the taste of what I was eating. A wonderful balance was struck between trying to make you cry and actually letting you taste your food (which was seriously good). With the tacos specifically, you taste something totally awesome, count to 20 (really, it was that slow) then start drinking a lot of beer under the pretense of being really thirsty. Yeah.
Wisely, the starters were far spicier than the entrees… I suppose because you would be eating a lot more of the entree, volume-wise. I had the Vietnamese Big Bowl of Seafood, which at four bombs was frankly not spicy at all, and I don’t think it was due to loss of sensation on my part. There were baby fennel bulbs, giant shrimp and scallops swimming about in a lemongrass-flavored broth. Good, but not close to the genius of the tacos.
And then there was dessert. Jalapeno rocky road ice cream. OMG. That’s really all I can say. OMG. Sweet and chocolaty with a slightly delayed kick. My mouth alternated between cold and hot. It was brilliant and addicitve. I could eat it every day.
There was a lesson to be learned from all this. Spicy doesn’t mean flavorless. Intense spice does not have to overwhelm what you’re eating. The balance struck between the food and the heat was awesome, and dare I say? masterful (I think I just earned another pretension point). I am so going back to the next Hell Night, provided I can get a table. I can push myself further. I don’t think I reached my limit with the heat. I can do better. [I didn’t actually finish the taco, but don’t tell. That’s one taco for three people. Small taco. Potent taco.]
P.S. Did I mention that the hell-like environment was established by blasting Motley Crue and Satan Claws (get it? Satan Claws? Ha!) parading about the room festooned with wreaths of chili peppers and, occasionally, a truly unappetizing scary mask while yelling no, not HO HO HO, but HOT HOT HOT. Creative: no, effective: yes.