The Capitol Hill restaurant Barrio is promoting its upcoming jalapeño-eating contest with the tagline "Can you handle the heat?" But it might be more accurate to ask "Can you handle the subdued heat?"
Breaking with competitive chile-eating tradition, Barrio is serving grilled peppers at its June 9 event. Jalapeños are typically presented pickled or raw: At the Deming-Luna County (N.M.) Chamber of Commerce annual Cinco de Mayo jalapeño contest, each contestant receives a two-pound pile of pickled peppers and two minutes to polish off as many as possible. "There's no cooking involved," Chamber office manager Julie Mendez says. "They're right out of the can."
David Yusen, director of marketing for Barrio's parent company, Heavy Restaurant Group, concedes that cooked jalapeños are likely to be easier on the palate than fresh peppers. "Raw jalapeños are going to be hotter, but we wanted to find that balance of still delivering heat while at the same time not simply putting out a plate of raw jalapeños," Yusen says. "We wanted to dress them up a bit. That being said, they will simply have a nice, quick char on them, and we are confident they will still be able to pack a punch."
According to Autumn Martinez of New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute, grilling peppers shouldn't chemically alter the capsaicin that registers as heat on the human tongue. But cooking peppers activates flavors that help dilute the painful sensation of ingesting pure capsaicin. "Raw probably would be hotter," she says.
Martinez advises prospective competitors to practice beforehand. "That way they're not surprised or blistered," she says. She also reminds pepper eaters not to hurt their chances by drinking water between bites, which only spreads the burn. But Mendez says her organization issues a bottle of water to every contestant. "I believe they needed the water," Mendez says. "They were really hot."
Barrio's contest is staged in conjunction with the restaurant's fifth "Heat Week," which also features a spicy menu and a cocktail made with ghost chile tequila and Hellfire bitters. Chile fans interested in entering the jalapeño-eating contest should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org by June 2; the winner will receive a tequila-paired dinner for four.