Bart Mendoza 5 a.m., Dec. 8
It’d been a long time since I saw that cheesy photo of me donning a sombrero and poncho, sporting a set of plumped purple lips. I don’t consider myself particularly photogenic and generally avoid pics of my mug. Despite that, I took a quick glance of my victory Polaroid from True North Tavern’s TNT Taco Challenge before heading out the door for my latest firefight, if for no other reason than to remind myself of my taste buds’ fortitude.
This time around, there would be no silly garb, no needling emcee taunting me over a PA playing to a crowd of half-enthused, half-mortified onlookers. Nope. This time it would be just me, myself, and I, seated in a corner and daring to take on a trio of sushi rolls comprising Sabuku Sushi’s (3027 Adams Avenue) Suicide Special.
I know that, to those who don’t crave spicy food, challenges like this seem either insane or just plain stupid. But for those who are, like me, in love with cuisine spiked with chili pepper heat, the allure is almost impossible not to succumb to. Yes, it can be painful, but that’s half the thrill. The other half? Chilies—when used correctly—can be both scorching and delicious. In the best cases, they act like salt and amplify all of the other ingredients in a dish.
All that said, taking on plates of food that sound as though they were forged in the depths of Beelzebub’s flame-ridden stronghold, has a lot to do with bragging rights and a feeling of accomplishment. It’s bizarre, indulgent, and impossible to describe, but for diners who love when chefs bring the heat, a fiery challenge is something worth seeking out and taking on. As soon as I heard about Sabuku’s, I charted a course for North Park, busting out my laptop and camera on arrival before promptly ordering up. If there’s ever been a case for writing an on-the-spot account of a meal, this was it.
I started off with the Naughty Nice and Everything Spice Roll, a spicy tuna roll topped with slices of yellowtail and avocado as well as a thin, sweet house-made “XXX Sauce” that brings some serious sting. About two slices in, after dipping the base of each slice in the condiment cup of sauce and mashing it down with my chopsticks to soak in as much as possible, I felt my heartbeat quicken and sweat beads push to the surface of my forehead and cheeks. I felt alive! Best part, the XXX sauce, which is made with ghost peppers and sugar, and left to ferment for 10 days before it’s served, had more going for it than just temperature—namely, some nice fruity flavors.
While that roll had the best trademark, sea-clean tastes one looks for in sushi, the Thai Won On Roll had the best overall flavor profile. Spicy crab and tuna proved (as they always do) a great duo. Nice crunch from panko fried Chilean sea bass and “crunchies” sprinkled on top provided a nice crispy counterpoint to a creamy aioli warmed by Thai chilies and ghost peppers. It actually allowed me a bit of a reprieve after the XXX sauce. But the bad boy of the bunch was still looming in the wings, ready to pummel me with fistfuls of Trinidad scorpion peppers.
Billed as the hottest chili on the planet, Trinidad scorpions were a new one on me. I’d heard of them, but never tasted them until Sabuku, where they use them to make a full-bodied tomato puree and ponzu-based “Suicide Sauce.” Honestly, I couldn’t taste anything but white hot capsaicin burn, but by then I’d probably consumed too much incendiary fare to be able to pick out any supplementary flavors.
What I was able to taste were the scrumptious ingredients of the On Death Roll the sauce was spooned on to. I’m a sucker for soft-shell crab and they fry that seasonal delicacy up right. Avocado plus albacore tuna dusted with Cajun spices and quick-seared round out the proteins, and make for a nice combo that manages to stand up to that blazing sauce. Honestly, it was so good, I was compelled by far more than my testosterone-charged ego to finish the roll. And finish it I did. Mission accomplished—time to beat feet for home and begin the process of recuperation.
So, with a scorching, irritated patch of skin to the right of my mouth where I’d inadvertently dragged my chopstick, I stood, got my bearings, and left this buzzy, charming sushi restaurant (one I will definitely be back to for less heated fare…the food was bold, balanced, and likeably untraditional), and headed outside where, even the hot summer night suddenly felt a great deal cooler.
The Suicide Special goes for $40 and includes enough food to make for a hearty sushi meal, provided you can make your way through it. Think you’ve got what it takes? By all means, give it a shot and, if you’re so inclined, share your account in the comments section below. If you come out on top, gloating is allowed. If not, consider it a therapeutic exercise; closure for your scorched taste buds and hurt pride.
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