The Habanero Hamburger is shrouded in legend, touted as the "New Century's Hottest" by the bumper stickers you see on co-workers' desks. The bumper stickers also claim that their owner "survived" the Habanero Hamburger. Tell me about the Habanero Hamburger, you ask. And who am I to deny?

You can avail yourself of the Hamburger by visiting the Prince of Wales pub in San Mateo, CA. The pub has lots of food selections -- standard pub fare, hamburgers, beer, chili, beer... you get the point. However, as an intern on his Initiation Outing with "the guys," the choice is not for you. Your friendly manager orders for you and the other interns: four habaneros, please. The release form is real and totally serious: you indemnify the Prince of Wales pub for personal injury from eating the burger. You eye it suspiciously, but sign it anyway, a bit nervously.

The heavy-set barkeep asks you what to drink. You've heard that soda exacerbates the pain, so you just ask for a glass of water. He hands it to you, you tell him your name, and then you go and sit down and wait. The inside of the pub is small, and you have a lot of people, so you all sit outside. There are about six large picnic tables packed together inside an enclosed patio.

You don't drink your water because you want to save it up for the event, when one of the "veterans" asks you what the glass of water is for. He says water is pretty bad too, because it just washes the spicy around in your mouth and makes it worse. Now, you don't know how much of this is just folklore, but you take his word for it and promise not to drink it. Somebody else chimes in that it doesn't matter much because it will make you so thirsty. Someone else advises me to "eat it fast," and just as you're trying to internalize all this, you hear a voice on the loudspeaker, calling your name... "It's HABANERO TIME!"

Anxiously you approach the bar and he hands you the plate. The burger is about six ounces, well-done, sitting on a big bun with a piece of lettuce beneath the patty. Drizzled over the patty is a thick, arrestingly-red sauce -- the fabled "habanero paste." There are chopped onions sprinkled over the paste, and the top bun sits aside the burger. You bring it to the table with your fellow interns and stare at it for a bit. It doesn't look that big... but the sauce is so brightly colored and you know exactly what it forebodes.

Your intern friend was smart and got a beer along with his burger, and somebody says that that's a really good idea. Someone offers to get you a beer and you gladly accept. But your friend is starting to eat, so you lift the burger and take a big bite. Oh, man, it's gonna be spicy, but you can deal with this. Take another big bite. Ouch, ten times worse. Another bite, ten times worse again, mouth and throat burning, and you wonder how it can keep growing at this rate. The beer arrives and you take a swig -- instantly the pain subsides to a low murmur, so you quickly take a bite. Pain. Beer. Bite. Pain. Beer. Bite. You can feel your face getting flush, tears rolling, sweat pouring.

You put the burger down and dab a napkin over your forehead. Somebody takes a picture, and somebody else cuts in sharply with, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" Then you realize you had your hand near your eyes, which is a really bad idea, as eyes don't much like capsaicin! Take a swig of beer and realize you're halfway through. Instead of trying to work up the courage to pick up the burger, you force yourself to pick it up quickly, knowing that speed is of the essence, and you just plow forward: take a bite, drink some beer. You're quickly understanding that that last-minute beer you got is actually the key to the whole endeavor, because it gives you about a five second respite from the pain for each swig you take.

Someone with foresight goes to get ice cream sandwiches, but you're totally focused inward on the burger in your hand and the pain in your mouth and throat, so you don't acknowledge. Instead you bite, beer, bite, beer, and you've got only a tiny bit left so you stuff it in your mouth and choke it down without chewing and you cough and swallow, and it's down your throat and everybody's clapping, and you feel so relieved that you forget to take a sip of beer and the pain hits you hard. Somebody hands you an ice cream sandwich and you're trying to unwrap it, but the pain keeps you from making much progress between sips of beer. Eventually you get it open and you just hope the beer and ice cream can last you the ten minutes it takes for the pain to clear out of your mouth.

Well, this story ends well, because with the rest of my pint plus an ice cream sandwich and a half, I was able to make it to the point where it wasn't inordinately painful. After that I was golden, until, fo course, my stomach started acting up. I had expected this and there's not much to do about it, so I just got through the rest of the day with an odd queasy feeling for basically the whole rest of the day. I'm writing this in the evening, so it's possible that I'll wake up with it tomorrow, but I'm hoping I don't.

Anyway, I now have a bumper sticker, as well as the respect and admiration from my fellows for being the fastest in our group of initiates to finish the burger (I ate it in about four minutes, they claim). Here's the habanero hamburger fan site if you're interested.