While driving to the Little Bitty Burger Barn one late Friday afternoon, I cranked up a Spotify playlist of 1980s “heavy medal” songs—epic synthesizer and guitar rockers about achieving your goals by using the fire inside you. “Eye of the Tiger” blared. My blood raced and muscles tightened. I felt like Rocky Balboa racing to a Siberian summit, ready to scream “DRAGO!” Or in my case: “PEPPER!”

The Little Bitty Burger Barn, which recently moved from its little bitty red barn on Pinemont Drive in Oak Forest to a strip mall around the corner, has this ridiculous thing called Charlie’s Five-Alarm Fire Burger Challenge. Customers have seven minutes to eat the burger, which, oh by the way, happens to be covered in raw jalapeños, grilled habaneros, and a house “nitro sauce”— a mix of hot sauces, including some made with ghost peppers and Carolina reapers, among the hottest peppers known. In return they get a T-shirt and their name on the wall. The Burger Barn alleges the heat altogether would register 10 million on the Scoville scale, which I could be wrong but might be dangerous? Just a man and his will to survive, the lead singer of Survivor seemed to caution as I pulled in the parking lot. I shut off the car and awaited my fate. 

You get a drink when you order the Five-Alarm Fire Burger Challenge. I went for pink lemonade, knowing that the acid would at least fight the heat, since it helps to neutralize capsaicin’s potency. You also get a side of fries. This was important; my strategy was to stuff a handful in my mouth right away so there was a starchy landing spot for all that fire. After that, I’d take a good first bite and let the peppers take over for a few seconds. If I felt it was okay to carry on, I’d give seven minutes a shot. Was I kidding myself? Absolutely.

Soon the kitchen doors swung open, and three Burger Barn employees marched toward me. The one in front carried the burger: one grilled-to-medium patty with melted white American cheese, and both habaneros and a blinding, crimson red sauce spilling from atop the meat. A lightly grilled potato bun humorously laid on top like an ill-fitting hat. A man behind him carried two more necessities for the challenge: a pair of disposable rubber gloves and a red, plastic fireman’s hat. If you’re to take the Five-Alarm Fire Burger Challenge, you’re to wear your decision.

The third employee brought out his phone timer. My eyes bulged. The grilled habaneros, still traffic cone orange but with a neat char, taunted me, hanging off the edge of the beef patty. I reconsidered everything. I had two kids and a loving wife. I had a future. Was this all really worth it?

The employee started his timer. I grabbed a few fries and shoved them down my throat. I let them settle, breathed, and then grabbed the burger. I opened wide and took a bite—there’s not so much a flavor to this thing as a sting of chiles rushing down the esophagus.

I felt the fire growing seconds later. My skin burned as my face flushed. The heat was real—this was hotter than anything I’d experienced in Houston. I wondered how many Scoville units I’d just swallowed—900,000? There was so much burger left.

But I was … okay. I took a second bite and then a third.

Toward the end, the employees handed me a glass of milk. I drank about half. I also laughed for no reason, waved my arms fanatically—also for no reason—and talked about a mile a minute. But you can ask the witnesses with me—I demolished that burger in less than five minutes.

I want you to know about the feeling that came over me as I stepped into my car upon leaving the Little Bitty Burger Barn. After a year of pandemic-fueled anxiety, my head had never been so clear. The sky had never been bluer. The sun had never shone so brightly. In that moment I felt as if I could soar above Oak Forest, ghost pepper and reaper residue coating the edges of my lips and insulating the inside of my mouth.

That all subsided by the time I started driving, and later that night, as my insides rumbled and shouted. A small price to pay, I suppose, for risin’ up to the challenge. 

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