Life

I Survived The ‘Pasta From Hell’ And Other Insanely Spicy Dishes At ‘Hell Night’

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When the Boston Globe reported that East Coast Grill would be closing out its storied run in Cambridge with one final “Hell Night,” my fellow Bostonian and Uproxx colleague Dan Seitz quickly snagged a reservation. Since he didn’t particularly feel like suffering the heat of a thousand suns alone, he decided to ping me about it. Eating and writing as a duo, he argued, would be easier because if there’s anything guaranteed to appease an individual’s suffering, it’s the knowledge that someone else is suffering too.

{And laughing at them…and doing less of the writing. — Dan}

To push the idea forward, Dan and I pulled the editor of Uproxx Life, Steve Bramucci, into a brainstorm on Slack:

DAN: Hey, guys, I lucked out and got a reservation for Boston’s last Hell Night on January 21st. Husband, wanna be my spicy food date?  Steve, want a write up?

ANDREW: I am horrified and frightened by this. Steve, I don’t think —

STEVE: DO IT! SOOOOOOOO STOKED!!!!

ANDREW: Oh god dammit.

Yes, this was actually going to happen, and yes, I was terrified (but also game). It got worse when Dan found an older copy of the Hell Night menu and sent it to me. You know, because of “journalism.”

A little background:

East Coast Grill quickly developed a reputation as a literal hot spot soon after Chris Schlesinger opened the Cambridge joint in 1985. The staff soon noticed the customers were demanding spicier and spicier options from the kitchen, and they felt inspired to up the stakes.

“I was baited into a culinary dare by a small, sick sect of the dining public whose taunts of ‘that really wasn’t that hot’ finally got the better of me and my formal training,” the then-head chef wrote on the restaurant’s website. “I could not control the burning desire to silence at least a few.”

As Schlesinger, fellow chef Jason Heard, and line cook James Lozano remember it, “customers dropped like sweaty, panting, weak little flies” at the first Hell Night, while “the kitchen howled at their tormentor’s agony.” Once the smoke cleared, there were still a few diners standing and they made it abundantly clear to the kitchen that they’d be back for more.

Realizing the opportunity, the East Coast Grill crew turned Hell Night into a regular feature and a legend was born.

Schlesinger wasn’t always happy with Hell Night. He’d launched East Coast as a combination seafood and barbecue joint with aspirations to cook what he described to the Boston Herald as “equatorial food.” As the semi-regular event grew in fame, the former head chef felt that the restaurant’s original mission was lost. In 2012, he sold the restaurant to Heard and Lozano.

“The Hell Nights grew so popular that they kind of overshadowed the essence of the restaurant,” he explained to the Herald. He went on to say that the “pasta from hell” was “basically inedible. We told people not to order it. Of course, they ordered it.”

So there it is: Dan had dragged me into a territory policed by people who initially didn’t want the Hell Night to succeed — so they made it worse for the attendees. Sounds fun!

When our big night came around, the restaurant was absolutely packed. This was no surprise — everyone who’d ever wanted to make it to one of these dinners had scrambled to snatch up tickets. At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking it was just another busy night at a popular neighborhood restaurant. People were chatting, stuffing their faces and — aside from a few pained expressions — nothing seemed amiss.

Except for one thing. There was chili in the air. Lots of it.

I arrived with some advice from a former East Coast victim. He’d suggested I order the meatballs first. Why? Because they consisted of jerk pork and whole ghost peppers, and were supposedly the hottest things on the menu. The idea was to get them out of the way. Then everything else would be downhill.

Another little note about these meatballs: they were part of a dangerous game of “spice roulette” —  one of them would be far hotter, and there was no way to tell which was which. I cringed as I brought my fork to my mouth.

For a moment — a beautiful but painfully brief moment — the jerk pork was delicious. Then the heat set upon me. It rocketed across my palate and ricocheted off the roof of my mouth. This is the part of the cartoon where steam comes out of the animated villain’s nose — and I swear that’s exactly what happened. Maybe it was snot.

At this point, I lost track of Dan for awhile. Spice induced hell is a dark and lonesome place, friends. Two plates of Carolina reaper-covered beef and pineapple skewers arrived at the table next.

“This is a stupid thing to do,” I said with a mouthful of ice cubes. “Stupid, stupid.”

I bit one of the skewers (why do humans, men especially, submit to this sort of torture? It’s impossible to say) and I think I might have liked it under different circumstances. Sadly, my palate was ruined by the meatball and I was hiccuping violently.

Through the blur of tears, Dan reappeared. He had won meatball roulette and the skewer hadn’t bothered him much. He was alive… and smiling at me. His arm reached forward and he ate a raw forkful of the skewer sauce.

It was then that I realized: “Dan is a sociopath.”

Justice was swift and sweet. Almost immediately, my newfound nemesis howled and poured a full glass of water down his throat.

Third up was the blue crab mac and cheese doused in something called “Scorpion Buffalo Sauce.” How hot could elbow noodles drowned in melted cheese possibly be? Very f*cking hot, it turns out, because everything in the bowl was covered in piri piri — otherwise known as African bird’s eye chili.

Piri piri sits smack dab in the middle of the Scoville scale, which isn’t that bad — but, well… it was. The chilis had a cumulative effect and by this point I could feel my heart beating in my swollen tongue. It was as if I had eaten one of the stones from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (Which is almost as bad as watching it.)

{If I’d been able to talk, I wouldn’t have let this heathen badmouth Indy. – Dan}

Dan with Dr. Pepper

It was at this point that our host for the evening entered the room — a man known by East Coast regulars as “Dr. Pepper.” He strolled from table to table, posing for pictures, commenting on customers’ choices, and sympathizing with the looks of pain on their faces. Dr. Pepper knew from personal experience what a task it is to get through any of the dishes on the menu. By the time he reached us, our table was awash with spilled water, the beers were gone, and sweat was running down our faces.

Dr. Pepper cracked a few jokes and posed for a picture with Dan, but he turned serious when the “pasta from hell”  arrived at the table. The dish featured Schlesinger’s “Inner Beauty Hot Sauce,” made of scotch bonnet peppers (rated between 100,000 and 350,000 on the Scoville scale).

“Oh sh*t,” Dr Pepper said with a laugh. He started for the door. “Good luck, you poor bastards.”

I stalled on eating the pasta by forcing down a few more bites of mac and cheese. Dan, meanwhile, just stared into the bowl.

“I’m ready,” he said after a long silence. Without missing a beat, he drove his fork into the bowl and took a big bite. And while Dan was still chewing, I abandoned my mac and cheese, grabbed a fork and followed his lead.

{I’d like to cut in for a moment. The cruel thing about the Pasta From Hell is that there’s so much more to it than just spice. It’s got a nice mix of textures, the pasta is perfect, there’s a nice herbaceous crunch that compliments the creamy sauce. You want to keep eating. And yet, everything — from your prickling tongue to your beleaguered stomach — is begging you to stop. -Dan}

Putting down my fork and paying the bill is a blur. Dan and I rushed from the restaurant to Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream, a local joint located in the same building as East Coast. We staggered through the door to find a line of other Hell Night attendees and a smiling, well tipped team of scoopers.

The ice cream definitely helped, but it was late and we both had work in the morning, so our second order of business was getting home. Dan lived in the area, so his commute would be a short one. Mine, however, involved two train rides and a half-mile walk.

Normally, I don’t mind either of these, but the moment I sat down on the second train, my body indicated that a catastrophe was afoot. My digestive system was in a state of full rebellion. Screaming at me, with this level of untempered rage:

And there I will leave you, dear reader. Because the rest of the story is no fun to hear and even less fun to re-live. Did I weep? I won’t say. Did I commit to never trying these sorts of culinary stunts ever again? Most certainly.

{Around 4 a.m. that night, I woke up and went to the bathroom. And then at 5 a.m. And then at 6 a.m. I have never made my wife regret marrying me more than I did that night. That said, I’d totally eat those skewers again. — Dan}

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