Hamtown, USA: The Preferred Pizza Destination for Ghost Lovers

The ghost pepper pizza at Amar Pizza on 11608 Conant Street, Detroit, Michigan, was too much even for the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern. Though the Bizarre Foods host has admittedly eaten “60 or 70 types of animal penis and testicles,” he couldn’t wolf down the hottest pizza in Detroit. He gave up after maybe two bites.

He couldn’t handle a taste of real Detroit. Few can.

Located on the border of Detroit and Hamtramck on what’s been nicknamed Bangladeshi Avenue, Amar Pizza is an extension of the growing Bangladeshi culture in Hamtramck.  An old 1920s streetcar suburb, Hamtramck is surrounded by Detroit and is and always has been a tough, blue-collar, working class town, a true breeding ground for the American Dream. If you make it here, you can make it anywhere. It’s filled to the brim with duplexes (always a porch on the first floor, balcony on the second), corner stores, churches, bars, factories, and restaurants, all worn in like your favorite pair of jeans or a dog-eared book. I love it.

True to Hamtramck’s history as ethnic culinary hotspot, Amar Pizza‘s menu mixes Italian, Greek, Bangladeshi, Mexican, and other homegrown flavors, serving up pizzas with spicy tandoori chicken, salsa, gyro meat, grilled eggplant, and – yes, of course – ghost peppers. Once the epicenter of Polish culture in Metro Detroit back in the 1940s and 1950s, later generations of immigrants from countries like Yugoslavia, Albania, Syria, India and Bangladesh – along with blacks emigrating from Detroit – have turned Hamtramck into something of an international city. An “Asian Mart” with signs written in Arabic? You’ll only find that here, in Hamtramck, just a few stores down from Amar Pizza.

Inside, Amar Pizza itself is a bit cramped, with only two tables. It’s set up kind of like a Hungry Howie’s or Jet’s Pizza, with the idea being that you’ll pick up your pizza and take it home. Orders are taken from behind a solid wall of bullet-proof glass – common in this area – while  Zimmern smiles at you from a newspaper clipping.

Ghost pepper pizza comes with chicken, red onion, cilantro and (I quote, capitals and all) “GHOST sauce” on it, and also a warning to “EAT AT OWN RISK.”  Yet, surprisingly enough, the first bite isn’t that bad. The ghost pepper taste kind of like strong cayenne pepper and the herby, almost soapy taste of fresh cilantro is a good compliment.  You might even catch yourself thinking: hey, this isn’t such a big deal.

But then, somewhere around your third bite, all hell breaks loose. The diablo that is the ghost pepper reveals its true form. Your mouth starts to burn, hotter and hotter, until you’re on your knees begging for mercy, wishing you had a time machine so you could go back to before you paid for the pizza. You can drink water, eat ice cream, whatever – there’s no stopping the raging inferno in your mouth, no getting of this roller coaster once you’re strapped in. It’s a real white-knuckle eat.

Your average ghost pepper has a rating of over a million Scoville units, which measures how hot a pepper is. That’s about as powerful as the average pepper spray. Most tabasco sauces have a rating maybe five thousand Scoville units, and after you’ve tasted a ghost pepper, it might as well be ketchup. This pepper doesn’t play around.

However, there’s something strangely addicting – and delicious – about ghost pepper pizza. It’s like a button you’re not supposed to press. I always find myself taking another bite, enduring the pain, the sheer, utter torment, for one more taste.

The trick, you learn eventually, is to go slow, very slow. Ghost pepper pizza should be appreciated leisurely over an hour or two, like a fine wine or good cups of espresso. In small doses, the heat is your friend. Try to take it all in at once and you’ll lose perspective. Your senses, overwhelmed, will miss all the nuances, the subtleties of the sauce, the dough, and other ingredients. It’s kind of like a metaphor for life, isn’t it?

So if you ever get the chance, order yourself a ghost pepper pizza and eat it at the big counter in Amar Pizza that faces the street. What you’ll see is better than any painting. Sure, the city might have half the population it used to, but it has twice the heart. In Hamtramck, the hip-hop bass still rattles on in beat up cars, litter blows in the wind eternally, and crime is a ghost stalking you.

American splendor!


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