Original 650 illustration by Kaz Palladino / Awkward Affection

Spicy bullfrog, Devil’s Chicken, XXX Burger…..live spicy or die trying.

At first, I thought the waivers were funny, almost a gimmick.

I mostly skimmed them, signing my bodily rights away without much thought at two restaurants that required them before serving me the hottest dishes their kitchens can muster. I just wanted to get to the spicy part.

Then I found myself at the bar of The Swingin’ Door in San Mateo ordering the “Habanero Burger XXX,” which the British pub claims is “the hottest burger in the nation.” It was featured on the Cooking Channel show Heat Seekers and had its own heralded 30-day challenge: Whoever could eat the most burgers in a 30-day period would win bragging rights for that year. The mere mention of our order elicited a reaction from the man standing in line behind us, who gleefully recounted the digestive havoc the burger had wreaked on a coworker.

The OG, infamous habanero XXX burger at The Swingin’ Door. (Image via Yelp)

While the XXX burger remains listed on the menu, the kitchen no longer makes it — due to the fact The Swingin’ Door was sued in 2017 by a man who alleged the burger tore a hole in his esophagus and left him in a two-week coma.

Suddenly, the waivers weren’t so amusing.

Gladly, our search for the spiciest local dishes did not end in any hospital visits nor legal action. But it did test the boundaries of our heat tolerances — all in the name of good investigative journalism, of course — in a seriously fun, if not sometimes painful journey through the abundance of heat-centric cuisines available on the Peninsula. We sampled our way through the ferociously, absurdly spicy, like ghost chili pepper sauces and a hell-raising Devil’s Chicken (yes, that’s what it’s called), to the downright delicious.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and we hope you contribute to it by sharing your own tips on where to find the spiciest food on the Peninsula.

Hottest dish on the Peninsula? Steins’ ghost-basco sauce (above with fork) is definitely a contender. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Ghost-basco sauce at Steins Beer Garden, Mountain View

Before you sacrifice your physical and emotional wellbeing to indulge in Steins’ ghost-basco sauce — a burning, blood-red concoction of Carolina Reaper, Trinidad scorpion and ghost chili peppers — you must sign a waiver acknowledging that it can cause “bodily injury, damage to internal organs, emotional distress, or even death.” The sauce has sent two people to the hospital, which prompted the restaurant to implement the waiver.

Even the tiniest serving, tasted on the corner of a single fork prong, sets your mouth on fire. One dining companion alternatively described it as: “It felt like my tongue was laying on top of a hot stove,” and “I feel like I’m dying right now.” (Hours later, she was still struggling.)

In small doses, you can actually taste and appreciate the flavor profile of the sauce — smoky, dry, seductive.

Steins serves the ghost-basco with two other hot sauces and juicy, buttermilk-marinated chicken strips. Also ask for a side of fries; their saltiness balances out the intensity of the peppers’ capsaicinoids, the chemical responsible for their spiciness. The peppers in the ghost-basco range from 500,000 to over 2 million on the Scoville heat scale.

Steins Beer Garden // 895 Villa St., Mountain View; 650-963-9568

Aappakadai’s naatukozhi kolumbu (top) is the epitome of ugly delicious — and quite spicy. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Naatukozhi kolumbu at Aappakadai, Sunnyvale & Santa Clara

When Aappakadai opens for lunch, every single table in the massive restaurant is set with a full pitcher of water. It’s there for a reason. Aappakadai specializes in Chettinad cuisine from the Tamil Nadu state in Southern India, food that is synonymous with spice and heat.

When we told our waiter we wanted the spiciest thing the restaurant makes, he suggested naatukozhi kolumbu, chicken in a thick, spicy gravy only available Friday through Sunday. The dark-brown, stew-like dish looks menacing — and it is quite spicy — but it embodies the definition of ugly delicious. It’s the kind of heat that makes your eyes water and nose run but is layered with flavor.

Make sure you order a side of rice or Aappakadai’s specialty aappam, an Indian pancake made from fermented rice flour, for some relief in between bites.

Aappakadai // 1105 W. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale; 408-732-2244

3075 El Camino Real, Santa Clara; 408-243-2778

You must sign a lengthy waiver before indulging in Red Hot Chilli Pepper’s “Devil’s Chicken,” made with ghost peppers. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Devil’s Chicken at Red Hot Chilli Pepper, San Carlos

We had to check this one out for its name alone, but it turned out to be one of the most intense dishes we tried. Perhaps not even the devil himself could finish a full serving. Pieces of chicken, bell peppers, tomatoes and onion come swimming in a thin but fiery ghost pepper sauce.

The only menu item with an alarming three red chili pepper markers, the restaurant makes sure you’re aware of the potential side effects of ghost chili peppers with its lengthy waiver, which warns potential side effects include severe stomach ache, irritated stomach lining, stomach bleeding, high blood pressure, headaches and even hallucination.

Red Hot Chilli Pepper // 1125 San Carlos Ave., San Carlos; 650-453-3055

After a lawsuit, The Swingin’ Door in San Mateo decided to serve this toned down version of its habanero XXX burger. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Habanero burger at The Swingin’ Door, San Mateo

When you try to order the Habanero Burger XXX at The Swingin’ Door, you’ll instead be served a defanged, post-coma controversy version. A lackluster patty comes with an orange habanero pepper spread — still with plenty of heat but apparently not the kind that pre-lawsuit would have won you a “Habanero Burger XXX survivor” bumper sticker and your photo on the restaurant’s honorary “Wall of Flame,” still prominently displayed in the front entrance.

The Swingin’ Door // 106 E. 25th Ave., San Mateo; 650-522-9800

Play at your own risk: One of these takoyaki is hiding a super-spicy sauce. (Image via Yelp)

Takoyaki roulette at Izakaya Ginji, San Mateo

This downtown San Mateo izakaya serves a non-lethal form of Russian roulette. Order the takoyaki, a plate of six snack-sized, fried balls stuffed with octopus and other fillings; one conceals within a super-spicy sauce. One Yelp reviewer described the hot sauce as “military-grade painful.” We see you.

Izakaya Ginji //301 East 4th Ave., San Mateo; 650-348-1110

Rasa’s dosa with ghost chili chutney (in the center, smaller bowl). (Image via Yelp)

Dosa with ghost chili chutney at Rasa, Burlingame

Burlingame’s upscale Rasa boasts a Michelin star and one of the spicier chutneys we sampled, but it’s not so unbearable you can’t enjoy the delicious spiced potato masala dosa and sambar it comes with.

Still need to cool down? Belly up to the bar for the aptly named Indian Air Conditioning cocktail (Hendrick’s gin, lemon and basil) or double up on heat with the Cobra Fang (scotch, mango, ginger, habanero tincture and caramelized green apple).

Rasa // 209 Park Road, Burlingame; 650–340–7272

Soul-warming beef in spicy hot oil at Chef Zhao Bistro in San Mateo. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Boiled beef in spicy hot oil at Chef Zhao Bistro, San Mateo

This dish is the kind that warms you to your core. You can ladle out manageable portions into small bowls — watch out for the whole chilis — but the enticing combination of heat, chewy noodles and rich, tender beef will have you coming back for more.

(Plus, it’s a short walk from The Swingin’ Door if you want to go on a sweat-inducing spicy crawl.)

Chef Zhao Bistro //2450 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo; 650-262-9728

Could you finish these spicy wings in 10 minutes, sans drinks or napkins? (Image via Yelp)

World-famous wings at Smoke Eaters, Santa Clara & San Jose

For the masochists out there, the Peninsula is home to Smoke Eaters’ notorious Hellfire Challenge. Competitors get 10 minutes to finish 12 wings smothered with the restaurant’s hottest hot sauce, no drinks or napkins allowed. A five-minute waiting period commences after the last wing has been consumed.

Adam Richman of Man v. Food fame — who once said “A good spicy challenge strikes a balance between flavor and fear.” — barely finished, with snot and tears on his face, on a 2014 visit.

Smoke Eaters // 3175 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara; 408-970-3300

29 S. 3rd St., San Jose; 408-293-9976

5018 Almaden Expressway, San Jose; 408-267-1430

Easterly’s sinus-clearing poached fish fillet in sour soup. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Poached fish fillet in soup at Easterly Hunan, Santa Clara

Our sinuses were cleared within minutes of slurping down spoonfuls of this numbing fish soup, which comes brimming with garlic, whole peppercorns, chilis, Enoki mushrooms and chunks of tender white fish. The heat blooms in your stomach, lingering well after you’re done eating. Look for other spicy dishes at Easterly marked with a flaming red chili on the menu.

Easterly Hunan // 3927 Rivermark Plaza, Santa Clara; 650–345–6288

Any taco is amped up with Taco Ranchero’s habanero sauce, left. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

Habanero salsa at Taco Ranchero, Mountain View

Handmade tortillas stuffed with juicy al pastor sliced off a spinning trompo and all the fixings are crying out for a touch of spice. You can create your own heat adventure at this parking lot taco truck, where a few fresh salsas, including the hottest habanero salsa, are always available on a counter outside.

Taco Ranchero // 2485 Charleston Road, Mountain View; 650-471-3868

Don’t judge a spicy dish by its cover: This chicken looked menacing but did not require an ambulance. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

‘Call 911 Chicken’ at Da Sichuan Bistro, Palo Alto

You should have seen our waitress’ face when we asked to order Da Sichuan Bistro’s ‘Call 911 Chicken’ plus two other dishes she claimed to be the restaurant’s spiciest. Her jaw dropped, maybe in mock shock, and she asked if we would also like some spicy beer or spicy water with our meal before disappearing into the kitchen.

Da Sichuan Bistro calls the ‘Call 911 Chicken’ its signature dish: deep-fried chicken blanketed in roasted chili peppers, Szechuan peppercorns, garlic and ginger. While quite tasty, we were disappointed that it barely had any kick. Our waitress returned, equally disappointed that she didn’t have to actually call 911 on our behalf.

Which brings me to a caveat for this entire list: At some restaurants where we expected dishes to scorch our taste buds, we couldn’t be sure if the kitchen was truly giving us the full heat treatment or dialing it down based on the wait staff’s quick tableside assessment of how much we could handle. That seemed to be the case here.

Da Sichuan Bistro // 3781 El Camino Real, Palo Alto; 650-849-2000

650 Spicy List honorable mentions:

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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