Overheating with Sama Zama’s and Ramen Bowls’ taste-bud-killing challenges

When I called Sama Zama in Westport to see if I needed to make a reservation before attempting the restaurant’s spicy-ramen challenge, the woman who answered said six words: “You need to sign a waiver.” Then she hung up.

Later that evening, as I sat in the small, brightly colored Japanese restaurant with the actual legal document in front of me, I understood why she had been curt over the phone. The items on the waiver were shocking — nearly enough to make me want to order something less threatening. A glass of milk and some Rolaids, maybe, shared with a decent litigator.

Alongside warnings of “temporary and possibly permanent” gastrointestinal distress — the usual — were specters I’d never considered. If I puked in the restroom or in the dining area, I would be charged a $65 cleaning fee — jacked to $150 if, in my fiery desparation, I somehow broke the toilet.

According to my server, some of these things had, you know, happened at some point. Which makes sense when you imagine slurping down a colander-sized bowl of five-alarm ramen in less than seven minutes. But over the years I’ve developed considerable intestinal fortitude, honed through excessive consumption of well whiskey, gas-station coffee and ghost-pepper salsa. I signed on the dotted line.

Ten minutes later, the familiar tang of Asian spices filled my nostrils, like a ghost (pepper) trying to get my attention. My eyes began to burn, and I felt a tickle at the back of my throat. I looked around, expecting to see nearby diners suddenly distracted by this new threat in the air.

“I’m nervous,” I confessed to my boyfriend.

“Don’t overdo it,” he said. “Do I need to remind you of the time you ate those wings at Grinders?”

Readers of this space will recall what I’ve tried to forget: the night I ate the infamous death wings at Grinders in the Crossroads and became so intensely hot on the ride home that I took off my jacket and shoes and ran out into the snow at a stop sign. And let’s not rehash the morning after.

I distracted myself by looking at the photos of the six brave men who had completed the challenge since Sama Zama opened, in 2012. In one of them, a man held up his empty bowl and grinned crazily. Another survivor appeared on the verge of tears, his pale forehead dotted with sweat. Maybe I would be the first woman to complete the challenge, I thought, my confidence somewhat restored.

I took a moment to marvel at the medley of ingredients in the deadly bowl now in front of me: noodles, bean sprouts, bamboo, scallions, pork, a seaweed paper garnish, a brownish-looking hardboiled egg that floated on top like a decommissioned rubber ball. Not that I was going to have enough time to explore the nuances of these flavors — or enough unscathed taste buds. I stared down at the rust-colored bouquet of top-secret spices overlaying the basic ramen ingredients, an array even our server claimed not to know, though she’d worked here more than a year.

I can report that I could taste the tender slices of pork and that I found the meat rather delicious. I can tell you that the bean sprouts provided fine texture. “I’m enjoying this,” I said to my boyfriend after the first bite. “This is pretty good.”

Then came the numbness.

Certainly the horrible mental picture of rushing to the restroom, shadowed by a snail trail of regurgitated ramen, affected my performance. So I’ll never know for sure if the challenge could have been mine had I not been obliged to legally acknolwedge its peril.

Then again, maybe I was holding too much in reserve, ahead of the other challenge I’d set out to undertake: the one at Ramen Bowls, in Lawrence.

One more chance to get it right. One more phone call first, though.

“When can I come in to do the ramen challenge?” I asked when I dialed the restaurant, wanting to ensure that my 40-mile trip would be worthwhile.

The man who answered put me on hold to check with a co-worker, who I’m almost certain told him to say, “Whenever you feel like throwing up.”

The next day, I rolled into Ramen Bowls solo, just before the lunchtime rush. My friendly server smiled knowingly when I asked her about the challenge — but she agreed that I probably shouldn’t attempt it on a day when I had no designated driver to shuttle my soon-to-be-whimpering ass back to Kansas City.

So I ordered the regular portion of ghost ramen, which is half the size of the challenge and can be eaten without the 30-minute time limit. Loaded with noodles, napa cabbage, corn, fried leeks, onions and other veggies, the gorgeous dish at first seemed rather tame. Soon, though, I was carried away to watery-eyed, snot-faced euphoria, that sweet spot known to all spicy-food aficionados where your body tells you to stop but your brain demands one more bite — and then another.

Given twice the amount of food, I could see how the ghost ramen challenge would stretch tolerance to its limit. Perhaps another day, I’ll see if I have what it takes. In the meantime, instead of taking up meditation, I think I’ll eat Ramen Bowls’ ghost sauce once a week — and continue to heed well-intended warnings. 

Categories: Dining, Food & Drink