Most of the time, when I share tales with you about food, it’s about of my own adventure. I do a lot of solo traveling, that’s just the way it is. But when the experience is shared… it can make for some really great stories.
My traveling companion this trip was photographer Grav Weldon. We were in Fort Smith working on a couple of different articles and were looking for a certain breakfast place mentioned to me by Eat Arkansas fans. That place is Lewis’ Family Restaurant.
I have no idea about the placement of that apostrophe, honestly enough. The lowslung little brown building sits at the corner of Zero and Highway 71 in the southern part of the city, at a rather busy intersection across from the local Wal-Mart. We dropped by late one Friday morning for breakfast. Well, at least, I was planning to have breakfast. See, Grav had been hearing about this place and he’d actually been -- and he’d seen this thing on the menu. I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Lewis’ used to be a cafeteria located over by Creekmore Park. It relocated a while back to its current location -- which, way back in the day was a 24 hour truck stop. Lewis’ is not 24-hour. That’s an important distinction to make, considering that’s what we were told and why we’d actually first met there on Thursday. Anyway….
On entering the building, we saw the day’s special on a rather obnoxious looking sandwich board. I was actually kinda interested in the breakfast special, peering out under signs that stated “You have two choices -- take it or leave it!“ and a labeled mousetrap that said “Complaint Department, Press Button for Service.“ My interest was piqued with something that ooked seriously dangerous: The I-540 Pile-Up -- corned beef hash topped with two eggs, Cheddar cheese and gravy served with toast or a biscuit. Piqued, but not startled into actually ordering the thing.
We found a booth along the east wall, under a specials board. Our waitress came over and dropped off menus and took our drink orders. The menu’s of decent size. It didn’t take me long to figure out I really wanted a pecan waffle, and I got mine “combo’d up” with a couple of over-medium eggs and a couple of rounds of turkey sausage.
Grav knew what he wanted from the start, though he did cursorily flip through the menu. He was in it for this burger. It was listed on an insert page in the menu: INFERNO BURGER: 1/3 lb. seasoned burger topped with spicy bacon, Pepper Jack cheese, jalapenos and onions. All this on a hamburger bun smothered in Lewis' own HOT chipotle mayo. This burger is not for wimps! $6.99 with (1) side.
He ordered his with Cajun fries. I guess that made a lot of sense.
“I got your order in just in time,” she told us.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s the Inferno club guys. There’s a lot of them and it’s going to take a while to get their orders out. Yours should be ready in no time.”
I looked at Grav, and we both looked over at the table. The guys that were filing in were greeting each other affectionately. They came from all walks of life -- gentlemen in golf shirts, a guy in fatigues, some in t-shirts and a couple of boys, too. You could hear their greetings over the loud and persistent hum of conversation throughout the place. Our waitress swung back by to refill our drinks.
“Excuse me, ma’am, did you say a club?” Grav asked.
“It’s a club for people who have finished the Inferno Burger. We were just offering it for a short time, but they keep coming back and we keep leaving it on the menu.”
“You have to finish the burger?” I asked.
“If you finish it, you can sit at their table. They have a Facebook page.”
Now, there was a story. I raised my eyebrows at Grav. “You may not know what you’re in for.”
“I can take it,” he confidently told me. He told me about an experience at an Indian restaurant in London, where he’d managed to eat the hottest thing they brought out of the kitchen. I smiled. This was going to make a good story.
It was loud in the restaurant, and warm, too. With the temperature pushing 100 already and all the people coming through the door, it was no wonder.
I heard a younger man over at the Inferno Club table talking about why he was there to eat the burger. He told the guys he was getting married soon, and that he needed to eat the burger to prove himself. There was some chortling among other guys at the table.
“You know, I’d give it a shot, just for the hell of it, if I wasn’t having this waffle this morning,” I told Grav.
“You know it has bacon on it.”
“Does it? Well, damn.”
I looked up and saw our waitress making her way between the tables with our order. She plunked down my waffle and a separate plate with eggs and turkey sausage, then spun around the plate with the famed burger on it right in front of Grav.
“You sure about this, hon? Need any ketchup?”
“I’ll take barbecue sauce if you have it,” he told her, picking up his camera. She looked at us a little funny, but that wasn’t going to stop us. We both started to shoot the food. Hey, it’s what we do.
The waffle was hot and it smelled nutty and sweet and I really just wanted to put down the camera and eat it. I did. But there’s this whole sense of purpose I get when I get that camera up.
“Is that the burger?”
“I think so.”
“Wow. Do you want to shoot the waffle?”
“Yes… yes, I do.” We traded plates. I noticed how the bun was hunched over the contents of the burger, so I just barely brushed it back before I started to shoot. The scent of strong peppers and onions was close to overwhelming. But it looked like a really great thing to eat. I looked back at my waffle and sighed a little. I had to get that waffle. It was part of my own assignment.
We traded back plates and I shot some of the eggs. I was startled by Grav’s sudden exclamation.
“You haven’t eaten it yet,” I said.
“I just took a bite.” He took a big gulp of his Mountain Dew. “It’s really hard to handle.” I turned my camera back on and pointed it his way. He tackled the burger with fork and knife. “Look at this bacon. This is nothing but spice.”
“Hotter than you thought?”
I started to cut a little piece of my waffle, but before I could get it to my lips I saw him fork up a chunk of burger. I put down my fork and took a shot of him. Then I watched as he ate it.
My waffle was all but forgotten. I was just astounded by what I was seeing before me, this transformation of willpower into pain, and I had to capture each moment of it. I started scribbling his utterances in my notebook. This was going to be good.
He cut another bite. “Aw! One of the hottest things I’ve ever eaten,” he told me. He stopped, looked at me, and asked me “what have I done to myself?”
I looked over at the guys at the other table. No one had an Inferno Burger yet. I looked back and just grinned. He continued his monologue as I scribbled. “I like hot food, but that being said, I can feel it coming out of my sinuses.” He picked up and ate a Cajun spiced fry with no visual change. Then back to the burger. I noticed he was taking smaller and smaller bites.
“So, what’s in it?”
“The stuff they call mayo is the source of the heat. There’s spice in the meat, too.” He coughed hard. “Ooh, spice up the nose, wild.”
“Do you want us to add it to the check?” she asked me. I waved my hand and nodded.
“Whole milk if you got it!” he hollered as best as he could, trying not to choke up.
“Yes! I need it!”
His plummet into deeper shades of red hadn’t stopped when he stopped taking in bites of burger. In fact, the heat had stirred up a fountain within his skin, dampening his shirt one degree after another, as if to attempt to save him from the inferno by drowning him.
“This is on par with ‘we can make it hotter.’ This is insane hot.”
Our waitress brought the milk, and Grav took it and took a long drink. He leaned over for a moment, trying for a little air I think. I took the opportunity to put down my camera and try my breakfast.
It wasn’t cold, which means it was pretty hot when I got it. The eggs were perfectly cooked, but I was disappointed with the turkey sausage. It didn’t have a whole lot of flavor to it, more like ground turkey instead of sausage. I ended up leaving most of it.
The waffle, on the other hand, was excellent, a big Belgian with pecans throughout. Light yet golden and crispy and a sponge for butter and syrup.
“I’m usually not a milk drinker,” Grav gasped, finally able to speak. “It just keeps building and building.” He fiddled with his fork but didn’t progress on to the next bite.
“You all right?”
“I think I must have touched your burger. Wow. That’s some spice.” I wiped my hands against the napkin and made a note that I needed to go wash as soon as I was done eating.
The guys at the next table were getting their food. I could hear some general fun being poked at one of the guys who’d ordered a big salad instead of the burger. He good-naturedly took the chiding.
Grav put down his napkin. “I’m done. I swear, I taste ghost chilies in there.”
“Are you sure? You haven’t even made it halfway through.”
“I could eat the whole thing if I tried, but I have a shoot today and I don’t want to miss it. I could take some Pepsid and make it work…”
I was enjoying the waffle, and watching the entertainment in front of me. I really did feel for Grav as far as the heat was concerned, but he had put himself through it.
“I’m feeling a mild to moderate amount of miserable,” he continued, taking another drink from his large tumbler of milk. “I want to take another bite… it tastes good, but it’s so hot not just in my mouth but my lips and the inside of my nose.”
When I got home, I checked Facebook for the page I’d heard about. It’s a private page, and when I requested membership I got a message from Brad Lewis asking if I’d actually eaten the burger. I explained the situation, and he sent me this reply:
“We were wondering who that was taking pictures of us! The Inferno Club started when I was telling one guy at my church about the burger. Another guy overheard, then another. So we decided to meet at Lewis' to eat it. We enjoyed the food and the fellowship so much we decided to make it a monthly get-together and invite anyone to down the burger. They've made a special "Inferno" menu for us now. A person has to eat the entire burger to join the club, but doesn't have to eat it every time we meet. I've eaten seven of them and two members have eaten the Towering Inferno (double all) and have decided to retire from Inferno anything.”
Grav and I both posted photos on our Facebook pages after his ordeal, and we got a lot of comments. In fact, there are several of our friends who are being very macho about it, who want to try it and see if they can manage it. One’s my husband, Paul, who eats things that would make goats cry. We’re thinking we’ll get a whole crew to hit the road one day and head up to Lewis’ and see who can take the whole burger. I know I’m going to laugh. I also know I’m probably going to try the homemade meatloaf and the fried corn on the cob. I am going nowhere near that burger -- except to capture my friends’ agony as they attempt to eat it.
Lewis’ Family Restaurant is open every day from six in the morning until three in the afternoon. You can get breakfast any time. I bet if you asked nice you could probably get that Inferno Burger whenever you wanted it, too, but that’d be just masochistic. If you get lost, call them and ask where they’re at. (479) 646-4309.