Hell Nights at the East Coast Grill
This may require an HSB roadtrip the next time around!
This food induces pain. Real pain, like someone just shoveled hot coals into your mouth, then doused your tongue with lighter fluid. The kind of pain that makes your head sweat, brings tears to your eyes, makes you gag and scream and beg for anyone, anything to make it stop.
At least until you’re ready to take another bite of pain all over again.
People – and I mean lots of people – actually pay good money to be tortured by the crazy-spicy food dished out during Hotter than Hell Nights at the East Coast Grill in Cambridge.
Make a reservation and check it out – if you dare – Monday through Wednesday, Jan. 23-25 starting at 5:30 p.m.
East Coast Grill chef/owner Chris Schlesinger, who changes the Hell Menu each time, serves his heat-seeking customers a variety of spicy foods
sure to set a 10-alarm blaze in anyone’s mouth. Everything is rated by one to six bombs – such as the jerk duck, a six-bomb appetizer, or the cajun-blackened wild salmon, a five-bomb entree. Then there’s the ‘‘real f@#!ing hot dog’’ at five bombs.
Even the drinks threaten to make you spit blood: ‘‘The Hurler from Hell,’’ a raw oyster and a shot of ‘‘Hell vodka’’ or the ‘‘Cold Fusion Martini from Hell, transported from MIT in a plutonium vacuum canister.’’
But nothing promises to induce more pain than the infamous Pasta from Hell, an off-the-charts bomb dish that’s so frightfully hot it’s not even on the menu – you have to ask for it. And when you do, your server will try to talk you out of ordering it (No, really.).
If you insist on going for it anyway, you will be asked to sign a consent form (Yes, seriously.). You are warned that it could cause sweats, hot flashes, headaches … and even ‘‘disruption of the ozone layer or loss of vital top soils.’’
Ask anyone who has sampled this pasta, and you will know that the staff is only half-kidding.
‘‘It truly is the extreme,’’ said customer Francis J. Veale, 53, of South Easton, who has been going to Hotter than Hell Night for 15 years but can still stomach only one or two tiny bites of the pasta. ‘‘It’s like jumping off a 100-foot cliff.’’
At one recent Hell Night, a large man ate a bunch of the pasta all at once, then within seconds threw it right back up onto his plate. He wouldn’t be the first to lose his lunch – er, dinner – over the devilish dish.
Waitress Tina Woolbert has seen plenty of the hot stuff come back up.
‘‘You just hope they make it to the bathroom,’’ said Woolbert, a self-confessed spice wimp who has worked there 20 years but hasn’t had the nerve to try the Pasta from Hell.
‘‘Only the real freaks do that dish,’’ she said. ‘‘It’s real crying, sweating, throwing-up material.’’
Yet not everyone begs for mercy.
Fred McDermott, 50, of Brockton is one of the few patrons who claims he can polish off a whole bowl of Pasta from Hell. It’s not an easy feat, he admits. He sweats, his face gets red, he might shed a tear or two.
‘‘It’s painful to the point where you don’t want to eat; you want to rest,’’ he said. ‘‘Then the pain dies down a little after 15 minutes and you can start again.’’
But Hell Nights are about more than hot food. East Coast creates a crazed atmosphere: The white light bulbs are replaced by red and black. The music of Iron Maiden and AC/DC is blaring. The wait staff is wearing leather and chains, and the chefs in the open kitchen put on gas masks.
And longtime customer George Greenidge, known as ‘‘Dr. Pepper,’’ dons a devil’s costume complete with mask and cape, and makes a big stink when someone orders the Pasta from Hell.
‘Out of control’
The customers are loud and raucous. The food makes some people slap-happy and others stunned. It isn’t unusual to find a guy writhing on the restaurant floor, trying to recover.
‘‘It’s crazy. It’s out of control,’’ Schlesinger said. ‘‘It’s kind of like Frankenstein; we’ve created a monster. There are junkies out there who are addicted to this stuff and need their fix.’’
Hell Night was born 15 years ago after a customer told Schlesinger that a dish marked ‘‘very spicy’’ on his menu was no big deal. Schlesinger, hoping to silence a few spice diehards, one day made the hottest dish he could possibly concoct: the Pasta from Hell. It’s prepared with the restaurant’s Real Inner Beauty Hot Sauce, made with Scotch bonnet chili peppers, acknowledged by many as the hottest around.
‘‘So we decided to do a night where all we served was hot food, and it sold out right away,’’ he said.
Now the restaurant holds Hotter than Hell Nights three times a year for three nights in a row, and the place is always packed. (Earlier this week there were still a few reservations left for this year’s event.)
Schlesinger’s own romance with spicy food started on a surfing trip to Barbados when he was 20.
‘‘At the time, I didn’t like spicy food at all. But we ran out of money and couldn’t eat hamburgers anymore,’’ he said. ‘‘So we got into the fish chili.’’
Schlesinger became quickly addicted. He recalls going to Thai restaurants and ordering dishes as knock-down spicy as they came.
‘‘I’d be so obnoxious that the chef would put in so much chili, he’d be looking out the door to see how I was doing,’’ he said.
Schlesinger travels to plenty of highly spiced countries, bringing home the taste of places like Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia and adding them to his own entrees. His restaurant takes in shipments of as many as three dozen kinds of chili peppers – all with varying levels of heat – from a farmer in Pennsylvania. (Although the daily menu doesn’t approach the kind of hurtful heat you’ll find on Hell Night, most of the offerings – everything from blackened bluefish to barbecue pork – do have a kick to them.)
‘‘Some people say you make food spicy to cover up food that’s spoiling,’’ Schlesinger said. ‘‘But that’s not true. It’s not just heat. We’re using lime, herbs, ginger and chilies all together to bring out the flavor in food.’’
Even when people are in obvious discomfort, they come back for more.
‘‘His spicy food is extremely hot, but the most important thing is that it’s also flavorful,’’ Veale said. ‘‘Somehow it doesn’t kill your taste buds.’’
Besides, super-spicy food provides a rush. Some say the body reacts to chilies the same way it does to other thrills, with a boost of endorphins, like the high provided by a roller coaster.
McDermott explains the yearning for pain this way: ‘‘Once you’ve tried spicy food, you always want something hotter and hotter. It’s like when you drink good wine, you want a better and better wine.’’
Um, OK. I guess an amateur like me just couldn’t understand. Some mild salsas have a little too much bite for my blood, and although I love Buffalo wings as much as the next gal, you can usually find me scraping off the hot sauce onto a napkin and cutting what little spice is left with as much blue cheese dressing as I can find.
Still, I’m – ahem – a serious reporter here, and I felt the need to sample this Pasta from Hell for the good of the story. (I can tell you, however, that I was more scared of eating this dish than I was as a rookie reporter years ago, driving alone at midnight through sketchy South Florida neighborhoods ravaged by a string of race-related shootings. I’m not kidding; this seemed worse.)
So you can imagine my relief when Schlesinger apologized for not being able to offer me a bite. Turns out Pasta from Hell isn’t on the daily menu and his place wasn’t stocked with all the evil ingredients the night I was there.
So instead, the kitchen served up a sirloin skewer – that night’s special – a two-bomb dish. I took a little nibble off the end. Hey, no problem, I thought. But after diving in for a bigger bite, my tongue got hold of the kumquat relish, and the burn was intense.
For folks like me, the restaurant does offer a ‘‘wimp menu’’ on Hell Nights. But if you order something mild, expect to be taunted.
‘‘One of our guests last year ordered from the wimp menu,’’ said Paul Chapple of Milton. ‘‘They’re coming again this year and they’ve been warned that it can’t happen again.’’
If the heat gets to be too much, the menu does offer a secret ‘‘antidote’’ for $2. (Oh, what the hell, we’ll spoil the surprise: It’s a Creamsicle in a champagne glass.) But beware, the Creamsicle comes with a greater cost: humiliation.
‘‘Dr. Pepper’’ screams ‘‘antidote!’’ and then the whole restaurant chants ‘‘Wimp!’’ over and over.
When your mouth is on fire, spice experts say water won’t kill the pain. Some say ice cream, cornbread, milk, chocolate or sugar will help, although it’s unclear if anything truly works.
‘‘They say nothing really cures it. It takes five to seven minutes for (the active ingredient in chili peppers) to dissipate,’’ Schlesinger said.
Or sometimes longer.
Here’s one important tip: If you get the hot sauce on your hands, wash before touching your eyes or any other … well, sensitive spots. At one Hell Night, Veale’s brother ate some hot food and drank some beer and then went to relieve himself, only to return to the table in obvious agony.
‘‘He was absolutely pale,’’ Veale said. ‘‘If you get the food on your fingers, don’t touch any membranes. He basically just suffered through it.’’
Even when the fire in your mouth simmers down, the pain is not over.
‘‘Everyone who eats hot food knows when it burns going in, it burns going out,’’ Woolbert said. ‘‘The next day is agony.’’
Head chef Eric Gburski said some people take the next day off work because they know they will be in major discomfort. ‘‘It takes eight hours for the pepper to start its reign of terror on the digestive tract,’’ he said. ‘‘There’s some serious cramps and some hours in the john, where they’ll be cursing my name.’’
Schlesinger said there’s no evidence – despite the consent form – that the spices cause any long-lasting problems (although Hell Night was suspended one year during the 1990s while the restaurant was defending itself against a customer who claimed to suffer permanent damage from the food, something Schlesinger called a ‘‘nuisance suit’’ that was later dropped).
Lisa Fiore said she and her husband Steve, who have been attending Hotter than Hell Night for about 10 years, seem to have built up a tolerance. The food used to disable them the day after, but now they regularly make reservations for all three nights in a row.
While Lisa sticks with items in the five-bomb range, Steve always goes for the hottest dish (and on a Hell Night in 1997 after Steve signed the consent form, Lisa was asked to sign a separate form of her own – a mock-legal document in which Steve had proposed marriage).
Steve can usually handle the heat, but one time the food was so strong, it made him woozy. ‘‘He said it was like hallucinating, where he got tunnel vision and things got blurry,’’ Lisa said.
She said the couple, who lives in Belmont, goes as much for the hell-raising fun as they do for the food.
‘‘It’s a way to celebrate spicy food with other people who love it,’’ she said. ‘‘You walk in the door and you smell the chili peppers, and they make you cough and sneeze right away. It’s such a weird phenomenon to go to a place where everyone is psyched about pain.’’
If you go…
—Hotter than Hell Nights, Jan. 22-25, at the East Coast Grill, 1271 Cambridge St., Inman Square, Cambridge. For more information, see eastcoastgrill.net or call 617-491-6568.