Stein’s ghost-basco sauce punched our mouths in the face.

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

“I feel like I’m dying right now. I need to swallow an iceberg.”

The text arrived in my inbox four hours after we had dipped, first, tentatively, the corner of one prong of a fork, then more bravely, the tip of a single French fry, into the blood-red abyss of Stein’s Beer Garden and Restaurant’s ghost-basco sauce.

Our fearless photographer goes big. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Our photographer had dared the largest fry dip of us all, and she was struggling.

“I don’t think anyone can die from ingesting hot peppers, do you?” she asked. I could almost feel her heat-induced terror through my phone.

Hours before, we had signed away our bodily rights in a waiver before being allowed to taste the Mountain View restaurant’s hottest hot sauce, made from a burning mix of Carolina Reaper, Trinidad scorpion and ghost chili peppers. Their ratings on the Scoville heat scale — which measures the intensity of capsaicinoids, the chemical responsible for peppers’ spiciness — range from 500,000 to over 2 million.

“I understand that my participation and anyone in my party at my table’s participation and involvement in eating the Ghost-Basco hot sauce carries with it the potential for certain risks, some of which may not be reasonably foreseeable,” the waiver reads. “I further acknowledge that these risks could cause me, or others around me, harm, including, but not limited to, bodily injury, damage to internal organs, emotional distress, or even death.”

Stein’s chef Pako Guzman described the experience of eating ghost-basco as akin to the feeling of something “literally gripping” his tongue.

“It’s bad,” he said.

He’s only purposefully tasted it twice (and once got it on his face by accident).

Intern(al) strife: Sarah the intern reacts to a drop of Stein’s ghost-basco. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

Guzman and the former Stein’s chef created the hot sauce several years ago in response to requests from customers who liked their Chupacabra’s Revenge hot sauce, made from habaneros and garlic, but wanted something even hotter. The two chefs found a website where they could order extracts of some of the world’s hottest peppers and went to work, mixing them with vinegar, garlic and sugar.

Their creation has sent at least two people to the hospital. One diner accidentally dunked their French fry into what they thought was a container of ketchup and was very unpleasantly surprised. On another occasion, someone who knowingly indulged needed medical attention.

“They were trying to be brave,” Guzman said of the second diner.

High-stakes sauces require waivers. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

After the hospital trips, the waiver was born. Guzman said they get about two to three orders for the sauce every day. A two-quart batch — made carefully by the kitchen staff, always with gloves to protect their skin — lasts about two weeks. They have to soak the bowls the sauce is mixed in for hours in cold, soapy water.

Our waiter looked at us with a mix of disdain and fear when we asked if she had ever tried the sauce.

“I don’t try stuff like that,” she said, unamused by our pre-basco jitters.

Stein’s ghost-basco sauce (top, $2 extra) is served with buttermilk-marinated chicken thighs. (Photo by Elena Kadvany)

The ghost-basco arrived in a small, one-ounce plastic container along with two other housemade hot sauces (the “Rhode Island Red” and “Wings of Fire”), a cabbage slaw and juicy, buttermilk-marinated chicken strips. I recommend also ordering French fries, whose saltiness tapers the intensity of the ghost-basco.

“It looks carnage-like,” another coworker said, peering with trepidation at the tiny serving of ghost-basco.

We agreed to all go down at the same time, together, dipping just the corner of our forks into the sauce.

Forked-up: The 650 staff offers up a collective (nervous) cheers before trying Stein’s ghost-basco sauce. (Photo by Veronica Weber)

The second it hit my tongue, heat bloomed instantly and relentlessly, like an unruly wildfire. I went back for more, this time with a fry. No thunderclap headaches ensued but the smoky spice grew in the back of my throat and lingered in pins and needles, uncomfortably, like that one guest at the party who stays later than anyone else when all you want to do is go to bed. Our intrepid, spice-loving photographer had gone full fry dip and was still enjoying herself at this point.

Much-needed milk shots arrived at our table without asking. (Photo by Charles Russo)

A waiter, looking concerned, arrived with shots of milk that we didn’t ask for. He told us we were brave.

I went back for more with a fry, which was easier than trying the sauce on its own. In small doses, you can actually taste and appreciate the flavor profile of the sauce — smoky, dry, seductive. But I can only imagine the pain of a mistaken-for-ketchup dip or a wing smothered in the stuff.

I asked Guzman what the ideal combination for surviving the ghost-basco is — cold milk or beer, or both? Pepto Bismol and donuts, a la Gordon Ramsey on Hot Ones?

“The ideal combination is if you’re 100 years old and you just want to die,” he said, chortling.

We’re on the hunt for the Peninsula’s spiciest foods. Wish us luck (no trips to the hospital — yet) and look out for our heat list at in the coming weeks. Got a suggestion? Send to [email protected]

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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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