Eating the Habañero

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Submitted by first-year Teddy Kent

In Little Village, the city's second most popular commercial strip, an unassuming restaurant is deceptively bold. A goat's skull sitting on top of their oven was just the start.

You eat the pepper. There's no question about it. In territory unknown to us, with a food unfamiliar to us, you eat the habanero. I grabbed it, sized it up, and let it hang from my fingertips as all the possible disadvantages of eating it rushed through my mind. I took a decent sized bite off the end, and tore off a piece of tortilla and grasped the table with my other hand in anticipation...

Birreria La Barca would not cause many people to take a second look--its unassuming taqueria-like storefront, combined with a woefully misspelled entry in Google (Bereara?) would further throw people off the culinary trail. But once inside, it is clear that La Barca asserts itself. If the goat head sitting above some of the kitchen equipment was any indication, La Barca was going to offer up a unique experience.

The waitresses were warm and patient, and my CSLTC buds Alice and Juan and I split a plate of birria. This is roasted goat at its full-flavored best. Accompanied by handmade tortillas and two housemade salsas on the table, the goat along with the accompanying juicy consommé was delicious. The goat's varying texture only made each bite like trying a new batch. The flavors were made even more powerful by the addition of dried peppers, whose innards opened to add another dark and deep level of roasted, mellow heat. The little, pinky-like green peppers which also adorned the table, however, packed a wallop of a punch. The waitresses enjoyed watching Juan and I add these to our tacos and see the moments where we were hit with the spice. We gladly sopped up the birria until there were neither juices nor tortillas to have anymore.

But our waitress had a different idea--she was having too much fun to let us leave on just the birria. Watching us eat the peppers gave her an idea. She coolly walked back to the kitchen area and brought out a wooden bowl, far too big to carry what was in it. A bright orange habanero, waxy in its phosphorescence, sat. Now it was understood exactly where we stood in the restaurant. We were no longer customers and they no longer servers, but they were the courteous people to take us into their restaurant, and we were the gringo guests, obliged to try whatever they put in front of us. She calmly brought out a glass of water and a tortilla without prompting, and leaned on the counter as Juan, Alice and I looked at one another.

This isn't so bad," you think to yourself. "It's starting to get a little worse," you declare a few seconds later. And goodness knows, those are the last words of some brave souls. Because what hits you not seconds, after realizing the pepper is going to be pretty spicy, is the most full-fledged spice one will likely ever experience.

Gnawing on the tortilla does not help quell the spice, but instead eliminates the space in one's mouth that the spice permeates. Water helps more than one would expect--not only for its illusionary respite, but for its temporary distraction from the taste bud inflammation. "My mouth is on fire" is an oft-repeated phrase in today's society, but if you can actually imagine dousing your tongue in gasoline and lighting it up, this probably would best approximate the feeling.

The waitresses goaded Juan to take a bite of the habanero, too. Juan, partly out of solidarity, partly out of the dumb curiosity that I also shared, and partly at the pressure of the waitresses, joined the pepper eating. He took a small bit off the outside. He smiled, knowing that the heat was not there yet, but would soon come. But nothing. Shockingly, Juan seemed immune to the heat. He asserted it wasn't even a little hot. Then, Juan came to a conclusion that surely explained things--he hadn't eaten any of the middle, where the seeds lie in waiting. Juan mustered up some courage and took another bite. The same smile crept onto his face. And it didn't go away. He started to move his hands in a circular motion, signaling to us that the heat was coming. And through the smile on his face, Alice and I both knew that there was pain behind it.

Five minutes later. I am rationing out the sips of my water, strategically trying to figure out when this heat would leave. I turn around, and Juan is pacing outside the door of the restaurant. He catches the attention of everyone, who sees him, coatless, trying to douse the spice with the brisk, crisp air. Juan comes back in, convinced that it at least helped a little. We spent the next fifteen minutes laughing, laughing in pity, laughing in pain, laughing in our stupidity, laughing at our laughing. Of course, laughing only made the pain worse. The waitresses hid smirks on their faces; we were clearly their entertainment today.

An old Hispanic man sitting in a booth behind us had been watching the whole ordeal. He asked the waitress for a fresh tortilla, and stood up, with his leather cowboy-like hat looming over everything. Grabbing the remainder of the pepper (about a third, including the stem), he was handed the tortilla by the waitress, went back behind the counter to slather on some refried beans onto the tortilla, and plopped the rest of the pepper on the tortilla to create a taco. Tacitly acknowledging us, he took a bite. Poker face or not, I was convinced the heat wasn't getting to him. Another bite, and no reaction. Eventually, he cracked a little smile and took off his hat and fanned his face. But he didn't truly mean it. It was clear by the theatrics and timing that he was just trying to make us laugh a little. That grizzly old veteran of a man must have had his fair share of peppers in his life.

We had conquered a little of the unfamiliar this day. Hubris had gotten the better of us--I will be the first to admit this. Pride and swagger, I learned, as exhibited by the old man, can only be gained through experience. This was my first habanero pepper, and I don't know if it'll be my last. But what is clear is the neighborhood dubbed "Little Village" might just have big pride.



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