A painful tour of the hottest peppers at Pepper Palace
Sometimes people do stupid things just for the sake of saying they did them. YouTube is rife with idiotic decision-making, with videos of people doing everything from jumping off rooftops to lighting firecrackers off in their butt cracks. In 2007, the ghost pepper was named the world's hottest pepper by the Guinness Book of World Records and quickly gained notoriety when online "daredevils" began filming themselves taking the ghost pepper challenge (a.k.a. eating whole dried ghost peppers).
Though the ghost pepper has since been unseated by the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga and, more recently, the Carolina Reaper, the ghost pepper continues to lure adrenaline junkies to the Mall of America's Pepper Palace, a one-stop shop for pepper everything.
"What's your hottest hot sauce?" The question is asked at 10-minute intervals by pepper-heads and the heat sensitive alike. But not everyone gets the pleasure of subjecting themselves to a blazing, internal bonfire -- customers have to be 18 to work through Pepper Palace's wide array of samples, including everything from hot sauces, barbecue sauces, salsas pickles, ghost pepper peanuts, horseradish, and wasabi peas. And if you really want to try their hottest hot sauce, the "Hottest Sauce in the Universe, Second Dimension," you have to sign a waiver.
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Last Thursday, Hot Dish decided to sample as much of Pepper Palace's inventory as we could handle in a single sitting. And yes, it was pretty dumb.
Tanya Bloxham, the manager of Pepper Palace, advised us to start on the mild end of the hot sauces with Lime Cilantro, Garlic Fusion (garlic and cayenne), Choot 'Em (cayenne), and Minnesota (jalapeno), and work our way down the line. Though based out of Tennessee, Pepper Palace offers four Minnesota-themed hot sauces -- Minnesota, Minnesota Fisherman, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and America, named after the Mall of America.
In one foreboding bite, we found that even the mildest sauce seemed pretty hot to us. We sucked it up and worked down the line, moving from jalapenos and Serranos to cayenne and habaneros. In the middle of hot sauce tasting, we popped a few "ghost nuts" to prepare for the ghost pepper hot sauce. The peanuts, prepared with ghost pepper powder, were tolerable. The hot sauce was on another level. Ghost peppers have a similar effect on the mouth as -20 weather has on the body. It's hot to the point that you can barely register its heat.
The scorpion, however, isn't as kind. In the time it takes to think, "Hey this isn't too bad," the scorpion kicks into overdrive, sending the heat down your tongue, toward the back of your throat, then straight to your gut where it transforms your innards into a blazing inferno.
Let's talk Scoville for a second. The Scoville scale measures a pepper's heat in terms of capsaicin (the compound that gives peppers their heat) concentration. Bell peppers rank 0 on the Scoville scale, meaning they contain no detectable heat, whereas habaneros have anywhere from 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville units, which is pretty damn hot. Now consider this: The bhut jolokia (ghost pepper) is up to 10 times hotter than a habanero, with anywhere from 800,000 to 1,500,000 Scoville units.
And then there's the scorpion.
"There's two different types of scorpion peppers," Bloxham said. "There's the Butch T scorpion and that one's rated at 1.4 million Scoville units, and then there's the Trinidad Moruga scorpion, which is 2 million Scoville units." The difference between them was made clear by the large chunk of Trinidad Moruga we chewed into while tasting the aptly named Trinidad Moruga Scorpion hot sauce.
When we'd successfully made it through the hot sauces and fruity barbecue sauces (which would have been delicious if our mouths weren't on fire), we decided it was time to sign the waiver and try the "Hottest Sauce in the Universe, Second Dimension," which is 700 times hotter than Tabasco at 3.5 million Scoville units. Sampling this sauce might have been an okay idea if we hadn't already worked our way through a myriad of ghost pepper and scorpion sauces, but apparently common sense burned up with our taste buds.
Like the ghost pepper and scorpion sauces before it, the "Hottest Sauce in the Universe" is a creeper. It starts mildly enough, but its heat increases by the second, reaching a peak at the two-minute mark. Boxham said she's seen customers pass out after trying the hot sauce and once had to call an ambulance for a man who thought he was having a heart attack. We could see why. At the minute mark, we were sweating. At the two-minute mark, we were crying. Hours later, we were lying on a couch, moaning and groaning as burps of fire unleashed themselves from our twisted stomachs. Don't even get us started on the day after.
Before leaving, we noticed an assortment of dried bugs and exotic animal jerkies on a shelf by the register. Bloxham opened a package of dried grasshoppers and offered us a sample. "They taste like sunflower seeds," she said. She was right, except instead of getting pieces of shell stuck in your teeth, you're left with little grasshopper limbs. In addition to dried scorpion peppers, we bought a package of nacho meal worms and kangaroo, ostrich, and alligator jerkies.
Since we didn't want to deal with meal worms twice and couldn't bring ourselves to throw them away, we ate the whole package in one go, throwing our heads back and pouring them toward our throats. They weren't good, but they definitely weren't bad. Texture-wise, it was a lot like eating the red skin around a peanut. The only distinguishing feature was the aftertaste, which reminded us that we were, in fact, eating bugs. The jerkies, on the other hand, mostly tasted like beef, with alligator being the only exception because of its rough texture and Cajun flavor. If you're looking to cross alligator and kangaroo-eating off your bucket list, jerky is a good way to go.
But you don't have to be a glutton for punishment to enjoy Pepper Palace. Besides absurdly hot sauces, they offer a wide range of mild, medium, and even sweet products like apple, cherry, and pumpkin butters, as well as pepper jellies. Our favorite product of all was probably the nacho cheese-scented candle, which stays excessively true to its name. You'll have to smell it to believe it.