Salsa Supermen

The Herald Journal - 7.19.03
By David Nelson

As soon as they sit down at an outdoor table at Caf/ Sabor in Logan, it's obvious this isn't a typical lunch crowd.

In addition to the small bowl of tomato-based salsa every table receives, another four bowls of salsa, including two light-green concoctions and two large bowls of jalapeno peppers -- one with slices and one with whole peppers fried in oil -- are delivered without request.

"It must be Thursday again," a nearby waitress says with a smile, recognizing the seven men. "Are you going to eat all of that salsa?"

Yes, thank you, they are.

Three years ago, a group of employees from the city of Logan shared a small bottle of sweet and hot jalapeno peppers. The snack was a hit, and city Safety Director Scott Douglass, Manager of Water and Wastewater Bob Laursen and Landfill Manager Richard Albiston didn't let it end there. They started a lunch group, later dubbed "The Dark Side" for attracting and then repelling some dining partners by scorching taste buds and stomachs during meals. They have since taken the tradition to a higher, and hotter, level.

"Trust me," says Douglass, the wise and wise-cracking ringleader, offering a yellow Chilean pepper from a collection in his office to a newcomer.

It's a line Douglass has obviously used before, given the smile on his face watching the newcomer's reaction after eating the potent snack in one bite.

"Trust no one," counters Laursen. "The new person always gets led astray by the older ones."

After sharing the original peppers, the veterans of the group began meeting for lunch at local restaurants every Thursday during warm months, and potlucking at the Logan Service Center during the winter. The lunches began at El Toro Viejo Mexican Restaurant, said Douglass, until a reputation of being gluttons for spicy punishment led to a contest between their wills and the restaurant's kitchen.

"We were in the phase of seeing just how hot we could take it," said Douglass. He said the El Toro staff happily obliged them and soon, "Every one of us was waving a white napkin, saying 'Uncle, uncle.'"

The potlucks -- where chili, ham sandwiches, enchiladas, chicken wings, and corned beef and cabbage are served -- haven't been much different. Plenty of spice is a part of the get-togethers, thanks to some of Albiston's homemade creations and a collection of hot sauce and jalapenos that would make a Southwestern supermarket jealous.

"Toxic Waste." "After Death Sauce." "Arizona Gunslinger." "Hot Sauce from Hell: Devil's Revenge." "Tabasco Habanero."

As each bottle is removed from the yellow refrigerator with a red and white 'Flammable' sign on the door, the comments and stories grow.

"There some stuff in there I won't touch. There's no taste, it hurts," said Laursen as a bottle marked "100% Pain" is pulled out. "No one will touch them but Richard."

But even Albiston has his limits, especially when the name "Dave's Insanity" is brought up.

He pauses, bringing back the memory, and admits, "That'll take the chrome off a ball hitch."

Albiston speaks as the expert, being the chef of the group. His specialty sits in the refrigerator. It's a Mason jar of red liquid, the tomato moonshine marked by a handwritten "Good and Snappy" on the lid. The drink is made by draining the juice from his homemade salsa and, like all food in which the group is interested, comes with a kick.

"The quality control isn't too good on that," warns Douglass with a laugh, although the 80 quarts of the stuff that have been consumed in the Service Center this year might be evidence to the contrary.

Douglass said the gatherings are open to all, but many who accept the invite quickly decide they'd prefer a tamer lunch. The men have not forgotten the fallen companions, and in fact relish telling stories about the stomachs that couldn't keep company with the dark-siders.

By 12:30 p.m. at Cafe Sabor, 10 salsa bowls at different stages of empty sit on the table as the group concludes lunch. Although everyone looks satisfied, it's Douglass who has to make sure the salsa and peppers that were added to the meal don't cross the line. Not that the line hasn't been crossed before, Douglass remembers with a sense of humor.

"I've had my system whisper back to me, 'Thanks, but that shouldn't be in here.'"


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