It is March, 2011. I am driving down Highway 99 in Oregon, on my way to meet a girl. Somebody I’ve known for a long time, but have never met in person. She’s pretty cool – has a great sense of humor, likes the same music as I do, and never met a cocktail she didn’t like. In a parallel universe, she and I would make a great couple, I think. But in this one, we are destined to be nothing more than friends. Circumstances more than desire dictate this: we are both in relationships, and live three states apart.
Still, I am nervous as I drive to her aunt’s house in Tigard. Meeting somebody in person for the first time, no matter how long you have known them, is always a little bit frightening. What if you don’t click in real life? Maybe there will be awkward silences, stolen glances at your watch, glaring differences of opinion that you never noticed before when your friendship existed solely in the confines of a rectangular electronic box.
It’s the middle of the week, and I am in no hurry; I’m five months into an unemployment stint that will stretch another year and beyond. Fortunately, I do not know this at the time. I am also six months away from beginning a relationship with this girl, another fact that I am unaware of, and that’s probably a good thing. Half a year is an interminably long time to wait, considering how well she and I end up hitting it off.
Our lunch together lasts for hours, and we linger over every last morsel of food and conversation, our appetites barely satiated. When we part I want to kiss her, but settle for a hug instead. I had a dream about her once, in which we had fallen in love and were ravenously happy together, but dreams are just that, right? They don’t really ever come true.
Except when they do.
This is why Tara and I found ourselves Back Where It All Began on Saturday evening: Salvador Molly’s, an eclectic little restaurant in Southwest Portland whose motto is “a world of flavors.” Trust me, they aren’t kidding. Their menu spans the globe, with dishes native to the southern U.S., Hawaii, Mexico, Korea, Africa, Vietnam, and beyond. How they manage to pull this all off is beyond me…but they do. I first stumbled upon them when I tried an artichoke heart and cotija cheese tamale from their booth at the Portland farmer’s market. And then I saw them on TV: Adam Richman attempted (and conquered) their “Great Balls of Fire” food challenge on Man v. Food. Five habanero cheese fritters; eat ’em all and get your photo on their Wall of Flame. Stuff like that intrigues me. And Tara, too. So when I suggested we meet there for lunch two years ago, she was game. Though we didn’t walk out of there boyfriend-and-girlfriend, it set the stage for what would happen half a year later. So we’ve always had fond memories of the place.
We went back on Saturday for a celebratory dinner, two years later. Shared a Double Mojo Walkin’ Zombie, a tropical concoction of rum, pineapple, and coconut juices that was served in a fish bowl.
And then had another. Ahem.
Now, I was curious about those habanero fritters. I like spicy food, and can handle some pretty hot stuff. I was under no delusion that I could actually complete the challenge, though, and when our waitress said she could bring me a single fritter to try, I decided to take her up on that. That way I figured I would satisfy my curiosity while sparing myself a great deal of internal pain.
Boy, was I naive.
The fritter arrived at the table looking rather forlorn and innocent. Nice, golden brown crust. A pleasant yellowish-orange sauce that reminded me of a sunset. It resembled a hush puppy, and hey, I like hush puppies! Without hesitation, I took a bite. It was chewy and tasty. A little bit of heat, but nothing too intense. Bite number two was considerably hotter; I could feel the heat spreading from my lips to my tongue and down my throat. I decided to hurry up and finish the damn thing, so I gobbled down a third and final bite.
And for the next fifteen minutes, suffered through a pain worse than death.
It felt like my insides were on fire; a burning sensation extended from my ear canals through my lungs and all the way to my stomach. I have never felt anything like that before. My face was red, tears streamed from my eyes, and my nose dripped furiously. I was quite the sight. Tried to play cool when the waitress checked up on me, but I’m sure one glance was all she needed to realize I was in the midst of a personal three-alarm nightmare. Water didn’t help. Sips of Double Mojo Walkin’ Zombie didn’t help. I had no choice but to wait it out. Finally, a quarter-hour later, the fire inside cooled off and my taste buds returned to normal. We were able to enjoy the rest of our dinner without incident. I enjoyed an Ethiopian lamb-and-vegetable stew called Cush Cush, and Tara had some amazing Vietnamese fish tacos. I have newfound respect for the people who successfully complete this challenge now (and judging by how many other patrons were attempting it – we saw one guy finish while his date quickly gave up, and at least one other table was attempting it – there are probably quite a few). Hats off to them. Their stomachs must be made of iron, because our waitress told us the full order of five contains twenty habenero peppers. Yowza.
I felt fine at home, but Tara warned me the worst was yet to come.
“What do you mean?” I naively asked.
“You think the fire inside was bad,” she said. “Just wait for the fire down below.”
Now, both “The Fire Inside” and “The Fire Down Below” happen to be Bob Seger songs, and we are going to see him in concert this weekend (woo-hoo!), so I assumed she was referring to the upcoming show. No such luck. When we turned off the lights to go to bed, my stomach was beginning to ache. I tried to ignore it and go to sleep, but the pain became more and more intense. Finally, I made a bolt for salvation.
Let’s just say, the intense pain that had burned my mouth and throat earlier had now migrated to regions farther south.
Oh, I realized, sitting there. The fire down below. Now I get it.
This morning I was skimming through Yelp reviews, and every single person who had attempted the Great Balls of Fire challenge reported the same exact thing. Some of them had symptoms that lasted a full twenty-four hours. I guess I’m lucky that mine were over and done with relatively quickly. Those must be the poor suckers who ate all five fritters.
Next time I’m sticking with the fish tacos…
Oh, and another pitcher of these, of course.
- Give Me Food! Who Does Not Love The “Man vs. Food” Show? (theconservativehillbilly.wordpress.com)