Black Sheep Burrito & Brews manager Kevin Madison can hardly wait for Saturday’s inaugural Charleston Taco Fest at Davis Park.
The first of its kind in Charleston, Charleston Taco Fest will have 21 different kinds of tacos for people to buy, as well as craft beer and margaritas.
“We’re the first to do that with the margaritas, since the laws changed,” Madison said.
Along with the street tacos, gourmet tacos and just plain, stick-to-your-ribs regular tacos, there will be live entertainment all afternoon, a costume contest for dogs, a taco eating contest and a hot pepper eating contest.
It’s all in fun, Madison said, and the festival is a fundraiser for several local nonprofits including Mountain Mission, the Alzheimer’s Association and the West Virginia Breast Initiative. There are prizes for each competition, but Madison said the hot pepper eating contest is serious.
“You’re going to have to be 18 to compete,” he said. “And you’re going to have to sign a waiver.”
As a way of previewing the contest, Madison put out five plates with five peppers for me to try.
“This is kind of a sample,” he said. “There will probably be a few more, but this is a good sample.”
We moved from right to left, beginning with a red finger chili pepper and ending with the feared Carolina Reaper.
To help me get through the taste test, Black Sheep provided me with a plate of saltines, some chips and a tall glass of milk.
You don’t drink water when you’re eating hot peppers. It doesn’t put out the fire and tends to spread the pain.
Experts don’t recommend beer, wine or soda either, which are all about as good as water.
In fact, chips and salsa are better. The two can help absorb and breakup some of the oils in pepper, while dairy products like sour cream and melted cheese help neutralize the heat.
Nachos, it turns out, aren’t just an appetizer, but a festive antidote to overpowering spiciness.
Black Sheep Burrito’s manager and I sat down and began going through the sample of peppers, while a few members of the restaurant’s staff watched us.
Pepper eating isn’t just a competition. It’s a spectator sport.
As expected, the red finger chili wasn’t hot. There was a whisper of heat, which was scarcely louder than what is found in a green bell pepper.
But it would be expected that the first couple of peppers might not be all that challenging.
The second pepper Madison offered was a tiny, Thai green chili. The Scoville units, a scale for measuring heat and spiciness, for this particular chili range from somewhere around 30,000 to 50,000.
It’s supposed to have a little bite, but I must have caught a dud.
It tasted a little like a green bean.
The next step up was a light green Scotch Bonnet, which was rated to have four times the Scoville units. I took a bite.
Nothing much from this Caribbean pepper. I’d thought the red finger pepper was hotter, though again, I must have taken a bad bite.
Madison, meanwhile, fanned his mouth. Beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. He’d gotten a good one.
The habanero pepper that followed was rated 50 percent hotter and there we hit pay dirt. The first bite of the lightly sweet pepper didn’t net much, but then it began to build.
The habanero burned slowly and steadily. I felt it in my nose and down the back of my throat. It was hot, but not unbearable.
But I still took a sip of the milk.
Finally, we got to the Carolina Reaper.
The Carolina Reaper has the reputation of being one of the hottest peppers in the world, hotter than the Bhut jalokia, or ghost pepper, which is reportedly used in rural India villages to make smoke bombs that drive off elephants.
The habanero comes with 300,000 Scoville units. The Ghost pepper has 885,000 Scoville units.
The Carolina Reaper has 1.5 million units.
Black Sheep Burrito had to special order these. They’re typically not available at your local grocery store, though I’ve seen Carolina Reaper plants for sale outside at the Capitol Market.
I’m not sure what you’d do with them if you grew them.
The peppers arrived at the restaurant sealed in plastic. They had to be cut free and handled with rubber gloves. A juicy Carolina Reaper can leave a welt on bare skin, they say.
These peppers looked pretty juicy.
With gloved hands, Madison carefully placed the pepper on the plate, handling it like it was nuclear material.
I put on a glove to pick it up and bring it to my mouth, careful not to let any part of it touch my lips.
I bit in, chewed and swallowed.
The effect was almost immediate. The heat spread from my tongue and covered the inside of my entire mouth, then I felt it in my sinuses and going down my throat.
I felt my vocal cords burning and, for a second, I wondered if I could still talk. I was sweating.
I took a couple of gulps of the milk and then had a few chips and some crackers.
My lips felt numb, but the effect began to fade.
Madison said the pepper eating contest isn’t a speed contest but is just about endurance. Not everybody who comes to Charleston Taco Fest is going to want to give it a try, but he figured it would attract a certain type of daredevil.
There are always bragging rights to be won.
For everybody else, there would be tacos, plenty of tacos. Local vendors will be selling tacos and donating 50 percent of their sales to area nonprofits, while some of the area nonprofits will also have stations set up and will be selling tacos.
“And, of course, people can watch the pepper eating,” he said.
The festival opens at 11 a.m. but the pepper eating contest begins at 3:10 p.m.
For more information about Taco Fest, including the schedule of entertainment and activities, visit tacofestwv.com.