Originally posted 27th August 2012
Like many people I know in London, I have a restaurant ‘hit list’ which exists both mentally and as an actual document on my iPhone. Well – as I frequently impart at work – “Write your goals down”.
My restaurant list is long and distinguished; getting more so with every additional week I spend in this fantastic city. I’m no food snob; and as such I am yearning try as disparate restaurants as Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester (to add another three Michelin Stars to my collection) all the way to the cheap and cheerful Tinseltown (forget about Kelis; their milkshakes bring all the boys to the yard…)
So a few weeks ago my housemate kindly added yet another place to my list; Red Dog Saloon on Hoxton Square. This barbeque joint firmly sits within the ‘cheap and cheerful section’ of the hit list and had a deserving place there, as my roomie went on to explain;
“…so there is this burger, right. It’s called the Devastator and if you eat it in 10 minutes it comes free!”
And so in one sentence Red Dog was on the list; after all, there are not that many places in London which dare to play host to ‘Man Vs. Food’-esque eating challenges; perceived by many to be the last festering bastion of needless excess, decadent gluttony and other things that – to be honest – are very, very cool. A perusal of the menu in greater detail got me foaming at the mouth; Philly Cheesesteak Sandwiches, chicken wings, pulled pork, Reuben Burgers (oh yes) and cans of milkshake or pitchers of – wait for it – Guinness to wash everything down. I love, love, love a menu where there is not a thing on there I wouldn’t eat or drink.
As the menu unfolded in its unbridled BBQ majesty, my eyes flicked towards the little red box in the lower right, entitled ‘Devastator Challenge’.
“Ask server for details”
Bugger that. This kind of thing is exactly what Google was invented for. A quick bit of James Bond-style investigation on the challenge confirmed the worst; that it wasn’t just the burger that needed to be consumed in 10 minutes; but a generous side of fries, slaw and a whacking great milkshake as well. Given that the Devastator burger consists of three 6oz patties, cheese, bacon, smothered with pulled pork and BBQ sauce, this looked like a tall order. A YouTube video of three men (men who looked like they could handle food) attempting the challenge and failing – quite spectacularly – corroborated our own misgivings.
We booked Red Dog to celebrate my housemate completing a financial services exam and headed over to Hoxton one very rainy Saturday evening. Surely the saloon would warm us up! Closer examination of the menu (studied over a pitcher of Beverley Hills Iced Tea*) presented a compelling discovery over on the starters page; another little red box. Clearly, red box is the international symbol for ‘Eating Challenge’. This one read;
‘Hot Wings Challenge’
One of those then, served alongside the slightly more tame chicken wings platter, followed by three Devastators.
Our cheerful waiter went for the upsell;
“Is that going to be the challenge, gents?”
A bold question. We philosophised two schools of thought on the matter; it is a big burger; looks tasty, well made and will surely offer indulgent soul food. Why rush it? Food is meant to be enjoyed, not scoffed and forgotten. The second approach was simply put forward as “Go big or go home”.
In the end we figured we already had a Hot Wings Challenge on the way so politely declined the waiter’s offer. I had ordered the Devastator to come with fries and slaw anyway so had a plan to ‘test’ the challenge anyway…
The wings arrived suspiciously quickly. I still reckon the sniggering chefs have the Hot Wings ready for the schmucks like us who peel in through the door, giving it all that; “Yeah, we can do the Hot Wings, whatever. I get through a bottle of Tabasco a week”.
To be honest, I should spent more time on Google finding out what exactly makes Red Dog’s hot wings, um, hot.
Turns out they are basted and marinated in a searing hot chilli paste which – amongst many unspecified but blatantly ‘peppery’ ingredients – contains Naga Viper chilli peppers.
Naga Vipers are one of the hottest chilli peppers in the world. Described as an ‘unstable three-way hybrid’ of the whimsically-named Bhut Jolokia, Naga Morich and Trinidad Scorpion, the Naga Viper packs over one 1.3 million Scoville Units (the universal measure of chilli piquance). In comparison, a jalapeño is about five thousand SHU. Interestingly, Naga Vipers hail from that famous chilli-growing region called Cumbria, UK. How about that then? Turns out chilli cultivation is pretty serious business in England’s Green and Pleasant Land. Danny Boyle sure dropped the ball on that one.
Anyway, hindsight is a wonderful thing. Not so wonderful as milk though, as I soon realised twenty seconds after stuffing the first hot wing into my under-prepared, foolish mouth.
After a short turbo lag, the chilli pain started to burn, slowly at first. I put on a little face-show to my mates across the table but this quickly gave way to a genuine look of fear and confusion as the capsicum heat built and layered like no other chilli I have ever tried before. I am no chilli connoisseur but I can handle heat – and know the difference between a hot chilli sauce and one that use capsicum extract. This is the latter; extract is pure capsicum chemical; the bare bones of chilli power.
The heat intensified to the level that I couldn’t even remember chewing on the chicken wing; just swallowing and gulping with my mouth wide open, streams of sweat pouring into my eyes and my nose running like I had high fever. I couldn’t wipe either one of them; my fingers were more covered with this devil paste than the wings themselves. My tongue was bad but my lips were worse; the pain built the level where I dived into the pitcher of cocktail and grabbed an ice cube and just bit on it. The waiter – grinning from ear to ear – smelled our pain (it must have smelt stronger than the wings) and came over.
(Does it look like everything is OK?)
“Can we get water please?”
Bloody hell, water. In our Scovilled-out stupor I think that we all forget that when it comes to extinguishing the chilli endorphin-high, water is about as useless as, hmm- ordering regular chicken wings as well as the hot ones? I could hardly taste them.
Why we didn’t order milk, I’ll never know. The regular chicken wings came with a ramekin of blue cheese dressing. After half a wing each, we were spooning this stuff into our mouths like it was chocolate mousse.
The heat plateaued at an unbearable high; at which point my eyes were streaming, one of my mates had his head in his hands and the other was banging the table with his fist. We had gone silent. After about ten to fifteen minutes the heat started to slide away. Between us, we had devoured three of the six wings.
Two of us dived in for seconds. Damn that addictive endorphin rush. The second wing had no lag; one bite and the pain instantly kicked in like a radged up Chav. The heat stuck with me again for ten to fifteen. My mate had eaten his second with a knife and fork. This was officially the poshest way anyone has eaten a chicken wing but my god he was onto something. He fared way better than me in round two. The whole sorry half hour – the most stressful starters I have ever eaten – left me with very sore lips and sticky fingers. Sticky, dangerous fingers. A quick wipe down with a tauntingly small, single wet wipe and I went to the loo to survey the damage. My mouth was red; whether this was from pain or the colouring from the sauce is still up for deliberation. I looked like a disaster; sweaty, diluted eyes – and like a loser. I cleaned up and headed back to the table.
It’s funny but with all the japery surrounding the starters I had completely forget that there was still rather substantial burger to come. And sure enough, when I returned to the table, still tingly and a little numb; there it was.
The Devastator simply went beyond. It went beyond what I thought it would look like and taste like, went beyond what constitutes a sensible portion of food and went beyond in terms of majesty and impact. The chefs must have been banging these out all night but whenever one was shifted through the restaurant by the (sometimes overly) efficient waiting staff, it was like everyone in the room was looking at it.
Looks of envy, pity or disappointment?
Each of us had a Devastator in front of us; fries and slaw at the ready. A mini photoshoot with the iPhones signalled that a) the burger looked like the Red mutt’s nuts and b) that we didn’t want to start eating it; the sooner you eat it, the sooner it’s gone.
Temptation got the better of us and we all dived in. It tasted so good. Now if this was simply off the back of Satan’s hot wings or if the burger was good in its own right will always be a massive grey area but all I will say is that the Devastator ticked all the right boxes. The burgers themselves were well-cooked (though medium rare which is fine for me, but not to everyone’s taste) and the pulled pork was proper melt-in-the-mouth stuff. Even the garnishes of bacon and cheese were of a superior quality to comparable burger joints like TGIs or GBK. The whole dish was moist; bound together with BBQ sauce and a variation of Thousand Island, not too dissimilar to Big Mac sauce.
As we sat there, eating and smiling in communal appreciative silence, we couldn’t help but notice that we were each checking our watches. Ten minutes slipped away into the distance. Fifteen, then twenty. I wasn’t even halfway there.
I finished the whole thing in the end, purely out of stubbornness. It must have been going on half an hour. I have since discovered that stubbornness kills – or at least maims – as within five minutes of devouring the mighty Devastator it felt like the remnants of the burger was using the walls of my stomach as a bongo drum. Our enthusiastic waiter came over to clear down. He had that smug grin; he knew what was happening; three ever-expanding stomachs, still searing with Viper heat.
“You guys going to have a look at the dessert menu?”
We were smart this time.
“Can we have a few minutes please?”
Two minutes later…
“How you getting on folks? Having anything else?”
“Yeah, we’ll take a look at the dessert menu”.
Bloody hell. I am so predictable.
We did order desserts; a selection of ice cream, a sumptuous chunk of chocolate brownie and a peanut butter and banana milkshake but although all three were nice, they were nothing to write home about. Maybe it was because that quite frankly, there wasn’t any room to put them. My pal just sat there staring at his vanilla ice cream.
“I ordered it- and I don’t even want it”.
We settled up soon after that and decided that the best course of action was to attempt a cool, refreshing walk away from Hoxtonvegas, through Shoreditch towards some kind of bar; although what transpired was less of a walk and more of a waddle; resembling three embattled war veterans with a mixture of thousand yard stares and labour pains.
We reached the bar (a bar with the view; a story for another day) and toasted our experience at the Red Dog Saloon. It was a hollow victory; the Devastator was conquered – in our own time – and the Hot Wings were at least tried. Does it pave the way for a re-attempt? Definitely so – the Red Dog Saloon is pretty awesome – but in that very special bar I was in more pain than when I walked the Three Peaks; therefore methinks the return to the Dog will be later rather than sooner. But right here, right now, I think what sums up the whole evening was what my mate said as we looked out over London:
“I’m glad I did that. Because right now, I can do anything.”
*Essentially a Long Island Iced Tea with a little extra Grapefruit Juice. Turns out a proper Beverley Hills Iced Tea subs Cola with Champagne, so I won’t ordering one at Red Dog again.