Burn It Clean
So when I sat down with Mark DeVito at his pub, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, I wasn't sure how to recalibrate my expectations. Mark's joint serves hot wings, but they’re the kind that come with a waiver requiring a witness in case you develop some sort of medical complication due to the heat. Mark got a bead on the legendary bhut jolokia peppers, otherwise known as ghost peppers, from a source in India. These suckers make the backbone of one flame-throwing marinade.
How hot are we talking? The
Scoville scale is the rough measurement of capsaicin, the compound that
lights up your mouth in spicy food. Original Tabasco sauce comes in
at about 4,000 Scovilles. The ghost pepper typically comes in at a million.
A week prior, a food writer had been in to Dr. Teeth's and sat down for wings coated in the Death Sauce, as they call it. Mark said the guy perspired through his shirt and was frightened by his haggard reflection in the mirror.At this story, my own palms get a tad clammy. I can take spice. I make my own pepper flakes and salsa. I order "extra hot" for a burrito. I've eaten – enjoyed, even – the street food of Bangkok. But the thought of a fellow human, experienced with food, turning into a helpless sweaty mess because of a wing marinade has me on edge.
"So, you want to try a couple?" Mark asks, yet his grin seems to say, "Ready for school, pal?"
"Sure," I answer, already perspiring a little.
He goes to the kitchen to put in the order and I glance around Dr. Teeth.
The décor pays homage to the "Electric Mayhem" portion of the name (which, for all you non-Muppet fans, is what the rock band was called, and it’s the original namesake of the bar). Designed by Michael Brennan – who also did SOMA's Zero Zero, among many other joints – the room has pipes with stylish-but-utilitarian lights snaking down from the high ceilings. Tiny mirrors on the walls accentuate the soft incandescent bulbs. Mannequins with wild fixtures replacing the heads are nestled into the corners of the bar. This intricate artistry is punctuated by flat-screen TVs playing soccer and Monday Night Football.
contrast makes its way into Dr. Teeth's menu too. Spice is far from
the only option available. It has little sliders and a hearty steak.
There are beers for $2, alongside cocktails for $10. Mark is also the
head bartender, and when he comes back from the kitchen (I envision
the cook preparing my wings with one of those suits used to handle nuclear
waste), we go through a few of his prized spirit concoctions.
The space for Dr. Teeth actually came to Mark and his business partner by way of a Craigslist ad. When they took over the joint, the previous owner left behind a bunch of liquor – a somewhat common practice when a bar changes hands. Within that treasure trove was a stock of calvados, an apple-flavored brandy.
After a little tinkering, and adding in Bulleit Rye and Fernet, The Mayhem was born, Dr. Teeth's numero uno cocktail. It lands in the neighborhood of a sweet and elegant Manhattan. (Note: Do not describe Dr. Teeth's cocktails as "sexy." Mark hates that.)
The summer before opening Dr. Teeth, Mark bartended a friend's wedding where the ceremony was held in a sprawling meadow. Inspired by the summertime fun, he created an effervescent hybrid, drawing on the lightness of a mojito and the kick of a Moscow mule – except using gin instead of vodka. He calls this one the Manchester Mule.
Mark informs me that all of Dr. Teeth’s cocktails are designed with no added sugar. "It's easy to put in a shitload of simple syrup and call it a day," he says. "But then here comes your hangover."
When Dr. Teeth finally opened and proudly displayed the long list of cocktails, uppity folks would still come in and give the ol' "Come up with your most creative cocktail," leaving the bartenders looking longingly at the menu and thinking, "Just read."
But those moments of forced inspiration spawned the Agave Azul. It’s basil, blueberry, lemon, and fresh jalapeño muddled together with tequila to make this upright, sweet, and capsaicin-kicking beauty.
As if my hot wings heard us discussing jalapeños and got angry, the kitchen doors fly open and two of them arrive at my table, lathered in Death Sauce. They steam on a wilting piece of lettuce like undetonated warheads.
"The one trick I'll give you is eat quickly if you want to finish," Mark suggests.
"I'm going to use one hand. Keep the other clean and try to take notes as I eat," I say.
"Just be sure you don't use the dirty hand to go to the bathroom later."
I grimace. And reach for a wing.
With most spicy foods, the smell kicks you in the olfactory bulbs before you make it to the first bite, yet as I raise the drumstick I find I'm not wincing at the harbinger. That at least seems like the sign of a good marinade. I sink my teeth in and am careful to keep my lips high – the less sauce on my face, the better.
To start, the spice hits with a smoldering warning shot, but not enough to slow me down. I'm clinging to Mark’s advice, and in less than 20 seconds, the first wing is down. I begin to picture a deep crimson cloud billowing in my mouth. I reach for the second wing. It's a thigh, so it needs careful maneuvering to avoid smearing the sauce. This isn't my first rodeo, however, and after another 30 seconds, it's down with minimal residue everywhere except on my fingers.
And just as I'm about to be proud of myself, that crimson cloud opens up and rains hot magma.
The lips go up in flames. The nose uncorks. Then the throat begins to smoke. I glance at my notes and see that my handwriting has melted into an array of doodles.
Mark sits quietly but intently as I channel my inner athlete and yogi at the same time: anything to reclaim motor functions. My jaw won't stop twitching and my lips curl inward. I'm worried that if I exhale too deeply my napkin will burst into flames. Sweat forms on my brow – but not that much, certainly not a drenching.
And then, after about eight minutes, it passes.
The heat doesn't go away, but the magma cools. And I am left with what I will honestly say was a pleasant taste. It was hot – do not get me wrong – but it wasn't painful. It actually never was painful. Just intense. A spicy exhaustion fueled by adrenaline, then soothed by endorphins.
Mark assures me he didn't tell the chefs to take it easy on me and dilute the marinade.
That's impressive. Not my ability to withstand heat, but Dr. Teeth's ability to take one of the world's hottest peppers (look up YouTube clips of people eating ghost peppers fresh off the branch – not pretty) and turn it into an explosive but delicious marinade.
Dr. Teeth, you have passed my hot wings litmus test.
I'll be back.
Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem is located on Mission just south of 19th. Head over for beers 'n' sports, cocktails, or a quick bite. The staff will accommodate any social gathering. Even if you go solo and want to try the Death Sauce wings, a bartender can cosign the waiver as a witness.