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We tried WP24 by Wolfgang Puck’s new chili-pepper challenge and prayed for death

Chili Pepper Spicy Menu Challenge at WP24 by Wolfgang Puck Chinese food restaurant in Downtown LA DTLA
Photograph: Courtesy WP24 by Wolfgang Puck

We’ve never been poisoned, but thanks to a new limited-run menu, we’ve experienced what happens to a human body that’s ingested too much of something it shouldn’t and we had a hell of a time doing it.

Now through Labor Day, Wolfgang Puck’s dim sum restaurant in Downtown’s Ritz Carlton is exactly where you should head if you are A.) a spice fiend, B.) a masochist and/or C.) someone with a death wish, because WP24 chef de cuisine John Lechleidner and his $29 six-course “Bring the Heat” menu will do just that, and then it’ll bring you closer to God.

You could say it took the full half-dozen tongue-scorching plates of contemporary Asian food injected with more capsaicin than a pepper contest at the state fair before we learned our lesson. (Actually, we learned a few of them: Don’t trust Lechleidner; the bottomless milk won’t really help you; if you eat enough spice, the pressure in your head fluctuates enough to make your ears pop—that was a fun one.) We don’t recommend our lessons for just anyone, but if you’re up for a challenge and a good time and also a world of hurt, take the elevator up to the 24th floor.

“You get lured in with the first two [dishes],” the chef says, “and then you just get kicked in the face.”

Take that as your “caveat emptor,” because there’s nothing on the printed menu that fully warns you of the horrors and wonders of a Lechleidner-led trip up and down the Scoville scale. The chef consulted that famous ranking of peppers’ heat to steadily build spice with every level of the special menu, focusing primarily on one kind of pepper for each plate: The meal begins with dan dan noodles heavily featuring Fresno chilies (a Scoville rating of, on average, 6,000 Scoville Heat Units), ending finally with, haha, a harmless-looking peach cobbler sporting Carolina reapers (a Scoville rating of, oh, 2.2 million SHU). 

Guests have cried, wheezed, sneezed, blown noses, coughed and even excused themselves to go vomit during the challenge, which, regarding that last one, is a real shame: Lechleidner’s menu tastes fantastic, if you can take the heat. It’s also some of the most fun you can have while dining with a group: The brain releases dopamine and endorphins in response to too much spice, and it’s hard not to laugh as your entire table sneezes and tears up in tandem.

Don’t be surprised to get taunted tableside by the chef himself, a spice enthusiast who likes “seeing people cry” and will even whip up new dishes for repeat customers. Just don’t try and escape the heat.

“We’ve had people come in and ask for it non-spicy, and I say, ‘Sure you can, for double the price,’” he says. “You’re going to pay the price one way or another.”

Here’s how Lechleidner built his menu, course by course, and just how much each dish will destroy you.

Photograph: Courtesy WP24 by Wolfgang Puck

First course (mild): dan dan noodles with Fresno chilies

There’s always dan dan on the WP24 menu, but those are dumplings. Here, you get the traditional noodles—in the traditionally spicy dish—but the heat’s turned up slightly. (Though to be honest, we’ve had spicier.)

Some of the special menu’s dishes incorporate other peppers: Throughout the courses there are 10 to 15 varieties involved, but the chef focuses on the six listed, and to start, it’s all about the Fresnos. Lechleidner makes his usual dan dan sauce—a blend of Szechuan peppercorn, pork, fermented cabbage and other textural, flavorful elements—but adds the moderately mild chilies both in the sauce and atop the tunnel of noodles. 

It’s bright and nutty and rich with pork, and it carries a little heat, but not enough to alert you to what’s ahead.

Photograph: Courtesy WP24 by Wolfgang Puck

Second course (medium): salt-and-pepper shrimp with arbol chilies

If served with steamed rice, this would be a perfect meal all by its lonesome.

The rice, of course, would help quell the spice, and Lechleidner refuses to give you any sort of lifeline beyond bottomless glasses of ice-cold, cooling milk (your choice of whole, skim, 2%, almond or soy, for those keeping score at home).

Meaty, massive, steaming shrimp give off garlicky, peppery aroma on a piled-high bed of sautéed arbol chilies, onions and green onions—and when you tackle that bedding head-on, with no carbs to calm your tongue, it’s then that you wonder whether you’ve made a good decision in signing up for this menu. It’s hot, but it’s not unbearable.

Photograph: Courtesy WP24 by Wolfgang Puck

Third course (hot): Vietnamese summer rolls with Thai bird chilies

These are the wildcards of the menu: Depending on how sadistic the kitchen wants to get, the chef estimates there are anywhere from four to six Thai bird chilies sliced thinly and threaded throughout each classic Vietnamese rice-paper roll. It’s refreshing and herbal, studded with bell pepper and rice noodles and carrots and sprigs of cilantro, and miraculously, we got lucky and barely felt the heat.

You probably won’t be so lucky. (Don’t worry, at least the dipping sauce is mild.)

Photograph: Courtesy WP24 by Wolfgang Puck

Fourth course (really hot): hamachi ceviche with habaneros

Lechleidner is a mad man, and here is how we know this to be a universal truth: Sure, his house-made leche de tigre is traditional and fairly mild, but he ramps up the spice by making a roasted-habanero sambal, and mixes that into the marinade. There’s habanero oil, too, plus habanero citrus salt and a whole hellish mountain of habaneros sitting atop the raw amberjack. Habaneros, by the way, weigh in at around 300,000 SHUs. Great, very cool.

You’re lulled into a false sense of security with the brightness and cool temperature of this dish, but it’s a slow burn—and if you don’t tackle that mound of straight-up pepper, chef might mock you for it. And if you wolf it all down and declare it isn’t too hot for you, well, you’ll be encouraged to lift the bowl to your lips and straight-up drink habanero broth. And because you’re lifting a large bowl to your lips, your mouth—inside and out—is a goner wherever it’s touched you. 

Your nose is running, you’re desperately trying not to touch your eyes as you wipe away the first few tears and you’ve started to curse yourself and God. And you’re only just approaching the worst of it.

Photograph: Courtesy WP24 by Wolfgang Puck

Fifth course (over-the-top): chicken chow fun with ghost peppers

Imagine your mouth’s been set on fire, and instead of grabbing literally anything that will help, you reach for rice noodles coated in gasoline. Meet your main course.

When your body ingests too much spice, the chemical compound capsaicin alerts your brain in an attempt to get you to stop. If you push through these warnings, that dopamine releases and, with your mouth on fire, you’re having a great time. You can keep going after a few minutes, right? Do this and it’s a horror show. 

“We make the regular chow fun, and then we make the deathly chow fun,” Lechleidner says. Ghost peppers, with a rating of around 1 million SHUs, are everywhere. Welcome to hell, baby. There are four or five dried ghost peppers in each order of this dish: First, the chef makes a ghost-chili sambal, then he makes a ghost-chili oil with toasted ground peppers, and finally—because he is Satan—he makes another ghost-chili sauce with the peppers rehydrated and joined by garlic and vinegar.

This is the course where the pressure in your head tightens and loosens and your ears pop and you’re delirious and you can’t fully understand why anyone would do this to themselves or why you can’t put down your chopsticks. You reach for milk. You reach for water. You reach for beer. Nothing helps. Foolish mortal, you taste nothing but death and hubris. You only have yourself to blame.

Photograph: Courtesy WP24 by Wolfgang Puck

Sixth course (not even rated): peach cobbler with Carolina reapers

If you thought dessert would be your savior, abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Something so sweet and charming and Southern could never hurt you, could it? Well this ain’t your grandma’s peach cobbler. Each skillet of the gooey, sugary, buttery dessert contains between two and four peppers in the baked good itself. Peaches get tossed in vanilla sugar and ginger sugar, as well as chopped, dried Carolina reaper peppers, and then that whole mixture sits while the chilies with a rating of 2.2 million SHU begin to break down and seep into the fruit.

If the dish tastes warm and buttery, that’s because there’s a lot of butter, and it’s been poisoned with even more Carolina reapers. They put the fruit mixture in the butter. Then they make the crumble, which involves even more chopped Carolina reapers and even more of the devil butter, then layer the crumble atop the peaches and bake it.

It’s all topped by a scoop of completely regular and blessedly soothing condensed-milk ice cream that would honestly be your savior, were it not for Lechleidner, who leans over your plate with one horrifying flourish: crumbling a whole dried Carolina reaper right onto the only cooling element to the entire dish. Nothing is sacred and you might’ve already thrown up by this point.

Off-menu treat (not rated, but BEWARE): strawberry macaron with whatever is in the kitchen

This isn’t technically a menu item, so know that if you’re offered an off-menu cookie, just leave. Just pay the bill and leave. Get up, walk out, never look back. If the cobbler didn’t teach you how dangerous dessert can be, imagine seeing a cookie, maybe, say, a tiny harmless macaron.

The chef’s surprise treats depends on what’s in the kitchen and how receptive you’ve been to the menu. If he offers you a strawberry macaron stuffed with dried peppers so hot they haven’t even been heat-rated yet and you accept the cookie and devour it in one bite, as we did, then you’re just as foolish as we are and we wish you all the best of luck in your hours of pain for the next, oh, four to 16 hours.

The inside of your lips will somehow burn, along with everything else, and you will need to steady yourself although you’re already seated, and you will question every decision that led you to this point in life. (And word to the wise: If it is a macaron, do not attempt to remove any bits of chewy almond dough from your gum line with your tongue: It will only make the pain unbearable.)

In closing, John Lechleidner is a sensory terrorist and someone should arrest him. Go try his menu before it disappears on Labor Day.

WP24 by Wolfgang Puck is located within the Ritz Carlton hotel in DTLA, at 900 W Olympic Blvd.

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