SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - Looking at the Artemis Mediterranean Grill menu, one would never guess the eighth circle of Dante's Inferno sits unsuspectingly between the calimari and the Greek wings.
The words "ghost wings" don't immediately set off any alarms to the casual observer. The alarms start after the first few bites.
An order of ghost wings includes six chicken wings flavored with a sauce that counts dried Bhut Jolokia peppers among its primary ingredients.
More commonly known as a ghost pepper, the Indian export was recognized as the hottest pepper known to man until being outmatched by three recently developed varieties.
The Guinness Book of World Records currently recognizes Australia's Trinidad Scorpion "Butch T" pepper as the hottest in the world. The pepper is rated at 1,463,700 Scoville Heat Units, making it 46 percent hotter than the ghost pepper, rated at 1,001,304 Scoville units.
But you're unlikely to find anything hotter than the ghost pepper on your dinner plate. The pepper is more than three times hotter than the average habanero, which is certainly no slouch when it comes to spicy.
The ghost pepper "is absolutely the hottest thing anyone has ever had," said Brian Luke, the owner of Artemis and creator of the ghost wings.
The Honolulu native opened the restaurant about a year and a half ago after a lifetime in the food industry. He's been coming to Lake Tahoe since he was a kid and opened the restaurant after seeing a need for Mediterranean food at the South Shore.
The inspiration for the mind-numbingly hot wings came from a common request from spicy food lovers for ever-increasing levels of heat, Luke said, lamenting that there's only so much a chef can do with cayenne pepper.
Sweating, runny noses, chugging milk and bolting to the nearest water source are common reactions to eating the wings. The restaurant stopped serving the appetizer to children following more than one bout with a crying child who was unprepared for the ghost pepper's tenacity.
Those familiar with the offering have also been known to foist it upon unsuspecting friends for a laugh, Luke said.
"I thought you were joking," is a common response from people who ignore a casual warning about the wings and think they've already tasted the pinnacle of hotness.
Still, for some, even the ghost pepper isn't enough.
"A lot of people know what they are and come in for them," Luke said.
One woman regularly comes in, quietly eats a full order of the wings with a knife and fork and never breaks a sweat, Luke said.
The 30 year old wore a surgical glove to handle the peppers Friday. Staff at Artemis also need to be careful when it comes to handling dishes used for the wings.
Hitting a remnant of the wing sauce with a stream of high pressure water causes a ghost pepper aerosol-effect that, literally, pepper sprays the entire kitchen, Luke said.
Ghost peppers offer more than just heat though, Luke said, describing the spice as having a "smoky, really unique flavor."
The sought-after flavor and a trend towards ever-spicier foods has made the ghost pepper hard to come by, so much so that Luke declined to reveal his source for the peppers, saying only that they need to be special ordered.
He did reveal that, like many monsters, this creation has bested Dr. Frankenstein.
"I've never gotten through six," Luke said. "I get through three and I'm like 'what am I doing?'"