At Strings Ramen on Frances Street, jigoku, also known as Hell Ramen, is an amalgam of seriously spicy shoyu broth with asari, ground pork, crispy pork skin, and various chilis.
It’s available in spice levels 1 ($13.95) through 5 ($23.95). Level 5 is the centerpiece for the Monster Hell Ramen Challenge: Those who finish an entire bowl earn a $50 gift certificate, a commemorative T-shirt, and a refund.
Judging from the ominous warnings on the menu and the copious amounts of chili listed alongside Level 5, I figured there hadn’t been many with tastebuds brave enough to attempt the challenge in the six months since the opening of the Frances Street Strings.
Assistant general manager Giles Hietpas corrected me.
“My estimate is between 150 (and) 175 (people) have tried the challenge, and we’ve had two winners,” Hietpas said.
That ratio of attempts to wins says it all.
“We’re not screwing around with spice,” he added. “Level 1 is probably about as spicy as Sriracha or Tabasco. Level 2 we use twice as much of the spice, so it’s about twice as hot.”
Level 3 jumps up about a quarter in magnitude because of a sauce with ghost peppers, found in larger quantity in Level 4. Level 5 throws in a mixture of ghost peppers, but also habaneros and Carolina Reapers, the world’s hottest pepper. Wasabi oil and oil extracts of the hottest peppers push the challenge into painful territory.
The challenge comes with strict rules and a liability waiver. Each participant gets 20 minutes in which they must eat all the food and drink all the broth, with just one 8-ounce glass of water for relief.
They take the pitcher away, just to be sure.
“We go over rules twice with everyone, once when they order and once when they get their food and the timer begins,” Hietpas said. “You cannot add anything to the bowl. You cannot leave the table. If you get a little overzealous and spill all over the place, that’s it. I’ve had two people disqualify themselves because they got up.”
Most people “tap out” between five and eight minutes into their allotted 20.
“The question I get a lot is, ‘Have you tried the challenge?’” Hietpas said, laughing. “And I always say ‘No, I’m not crazy!’” ￼