I love spicy food. I also love chili. What I tend to sidestep, however, is anything specifically labeled “vegan.”
Now, I eat plenty of vegan fruit; every time I cut open an avocado and dig in with a spoon, I’m essentially eating vegan. But I don’t post on Facebook that I just ate a “vegan avocado.”
I got off track, sorry.
When I sat down for lunch at Against the Grain brewery with friends recently, I couldn’t decide what to order, mostly because it was Sunday brunch rather than the full menu. My eyes kept locking on the kettle-cooked vegan chili, but releasing again each time they read the word “vegan.”
Then we noticed that for just two bucks, you can add your choice of smoked meat to the chili to un-vegan it. So I thought, “Why not?” It was a warm day, not a hot one, but I figured a couple of Against the Grain’s delicious craft pints would help wash down some warm chili.
When my chili came out, it was bright red and tomato-heavy, with a delicious-looking slice of brisket on top as a sort of meat garnish. My first thought was that it will be more like a stew or a mild goulash, and when I took a bite, I found it to be medium-thick and predictably tomato-y with a hint of a kick I wasn’t expecting.
Strangely, however, the heat factor kept intensifying with each bite, yet there wasn’t any visible evidence as to why. No noticeable abundance of black pepper or the dark tinge of powdered chilies or even any slices of jalapenos. Just … heat.
“This chili is hotter than I expected it to be,” I mumbled.
“It looked pretty hot to me when they brought it out,” was my girlfriend Cynthia’s response.
Meanwhile, she and our friends Rob and Shannon munched away and chatted as sweat beads formed on my temples.
Along the way, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of added brisket. Vegan? Bah! But then I came across something I thought was another piece of meat, but wasn’t. It was dark, almost black, and when I tried to cut through it, it resisted.
What the heck? I poked at it a bit, managed to cut into it, and a seed emerged. It was a pepper — perhaps a large jalapeno? It was too big to be a Serrano. Perhaps it was a pepper that had been smoked (which is sometimes referred to as a “chipotal” pepper) — but either way, I was at first afraid to eat it, worried it was a key source of the chili’s heat.
But I ultimately did take a bite, and it wasn’t. It was tasty, and it did bite back, but clearly this slow-cooked bowl of chili was simply made to be hot, with sources unknown to the end user. I later dubbed my lunch the Accidental Endorphin Incident, because normally when I dine on spicy food, I know going in that I’m about to get an endorphin rush. This one took me completely by surprise.
As I dug further, I found a whole clove of garlic. The heck? I’ve always been one to chop up garlic cloves when I make chili, but whole cloves? I never even thought of that. (And yes, it was just as delicious as you’d think.)
By this point, I was intrigued while also being full-on sweating from the heat. How could this bright red tomato stew be kicking my taste buds’ asses like this?
When our server brought me another pint of Slippery When Tett, I noted, “This chili has some heat.”
She casually said, “Yeah, it’s hotter than people usually expect it to be.”
Shouldn’t it mention the heat on the menu? If Cynthia had ordered that stuff, she would have been in tears. Maybe even had a nosebleed.
I’m almost ashamed to admit I couldn’t finish it all. Maybe I just had an off-day, but I’m a guy who eats habanero-based hot sauces constantly, on everything from tacos to eggs. Hell, I put hot sauce on my popcorn.
Luckily, I’d ordered a side of smoked pork, which helped balance things in my mouth somewhat. Yes, that’s right, at Against the Grain, at least on the Sunday brunch menu, you can actually get meat “samples” on the side. For $3.50, you basically get a small bowl of meat, from a choice of four.
Even though I lost the war with the Accidental Endorphin Incident, I still won the battle with the vegan label.