Transcendental experience at the Red Iguana

Eating serrano peppers at the Red Iguana

Absinthe Drinkers by Edgar Degas

My life is so much better now that the Red Iguana has opened a second location. To eat there used to always be an ordeal. It involved either planning to eat at off peak times to avoid the standard 45 to 90 minute wait, or finding someone willing to go early and do the waiting for the group. But even going for lunch on a tuesday at 11:30am would often land you waiting in a long line, under the heat lamps yet freezing next to the whizzing traffic of North Temple Street.

Finally, the Red Iguana has tripled their capacity. Show up at a regular meal time and you’ll still be waiting in line, but now there are two glorious work-arounds: you can make reservations, or you can just show up and eat at the bar. !Brilliante!

So today, without hesitation, we decided to go to the Red Iguana after a last minute decision. I went with mi compañero del trabajo, who also is a huge fan of the Iguana, and a fellow culinary adventurer.

I was starving. I wanted everything on the menu. We ordered. Our plates arrived, oddly within a minute, but in our current state of hunger and thirst, this was no problemo.

One of the many things that sets the Red Iguana apart from other Mexican restaurants is the small salad that comes with the plates. At other restaurants, these salads usually consist of pale tomatoes and limp shredded lettuce that taste more of stale tap water than anything refreshing.

At the Iguana, these little salads are always something different, something interesting, and typically more authentic. Today it was purple curly endive with pickled carrots and onions, fresh radish and tomato chunks, a pickled jalapeño, and above it all, laid a crinkled, boiled serrano. Laying there like icing on a cake, the innocent serrano achieved the impossible by looking simultaneously like both the gates of heaven and the gates of hell…

Our plated lunches were delicioso. But about a third of the way into the meal there came a distinct moment in time when our palates wanted more. I put my fork down. Cautiously, my hand went for the serrano. I noticed my compañero was doing the same. One of us, I can’t remember which, muttered, “it’s time”.

We each grabbed a chile by the stem, gravely nodded to each other, and bit off a third of the pepper. The taste was subtle, extremely delicate, like a fresh french bouillon. There was only a hint of bright pepper flavor. There was plenty of time to mull over the taste, to be surprised that maybe this pepper wasn’t going to be so hot after all…

Of course, that’s when the pain started. Pain that felt like my tongue was surrounded by battery acid and someone was slowly starting to charge it up for a long ride. At this point, I mentally prepared myself for the pain to go off the charts. As if preparing to be burned alive was possible.

But this time was different. The pain in my mouth seemed a planet away as my mind slowly began to reel in a euphoric state of expanded awareness. A wave of energy pulsed through the roof of my mouth, rushed through my brain, and finally, beaded up on my forehead as my hair began to stand on end.

I looked at mi amigo. He looked at me.

“Wow! Did you feel that?” I said.

“Yeah. That was intense.” He said.

“Not too hot, actually.” I said, as suddenly the heat began to ramp up, the pain, bursting through the roof of our euphoric state.

As anyone who’s ever eaten an excruciatingly hot pepper knows; the pain will end, eventually. Never as quickly as you want it to, but it will surely end.

The pain did taper. It became downright manageable. So it wasn’t too long before our fascination with the pepper induced rush returned. Again, our hands found their way to the peppers. This portion thick and loaded with pepper flesh and seeds. What were we thinking? As my hand brought the pepper to my mouth I debated biting off another third verses eating the whole thing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle a third bite so I decided to go big. I bit down on the juicy pepper and it squirted all over the inside of my mouth. For some reason I chewed slowly, wanting to taste it all over my tongue, savoring every sublime taste and texture until the heady wave came back, this time with tsunami force.

I stopped doing everything, and anything. I just sat, letting the sensation wash over me.

I looked over at mi amigo as he sat there too, eyes blank. Open, but seeing nothing. Nothing left to do but feel: the burn of the tongue, the expanding awareness. I thought of the painting by Degas called “The Absinthe Drinkers” where the female patron is obviously on another, mind numbing plane. That’s how we looked. That’s how we felt. Frozen in place. Like the push of a jet leaving the runway or your mind searching for balance during an earthquake.

In slow motion, with the voice of a lizard, I unconvincingly said, “I think I’m going to make it.”

The room had gone quiet, still. After a long pause I asked, “Are you going to make it?”

I’m not sure if he responded because all I could think about was if I should get up and run for my life now or in a couple seconds? And if I did choose to get up and run, where would I run too? Was there a tub filled with milk and honey anywhere nearby that I could dive into and drown myself?

I looked at my hands. Why did they do this to me? Slowly I wiped my forehead, where transcendental serrano juice was beading up after it had voyaged from my tongue, through my brain, skull, and skin again. I looked across the table at my friend. He hadn’t moved an inch or touched his plate of food in the last 5 minutes. I hadn’t either.

“I… I think I’m gonna make it.” He said.

Finally, I was beginning to believe that I might make it too.


If you like this story ask me about what happened the time Helmüt ate 5 boiled jalapeños at a taco stand on Main street…

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