The Great American Saloon Series

Burning Ring of Fryer

Can our correspondent vanquish the Diablo Burger?

By From the June 2014 issue

The Will'O Pub Facebook Page

I , Jeremy Lott, being at least 18 years of age, and of sound mind, agree to waive any and all liability against the Will’O Pub & Café, its employees or owners after taking the Ring of Fire Challenge. I have agreed to take this challenge knowing that symptoms such as allergic reactions, nose bleeds, ulcers, vomiting, nausea, temporary or long term heartburn, thoughts of suicide, spontaneous combustion, crying, trouble breathing, soiling oneself, headaches, insanity, and profuse sweating, along with many other side effects during or long after this challenge ends, may occur.”

That’s part of the disclaimer one has to sign before the Will’O Pub in Birch Bay, Washington, will serve up the infamous Diablo Burger. The form prods, “Do you still want to go ahead with the Ring of Fire Challenge?? Are you sure?? Because if you are, I think we are pushing the ‘of sound mind’ bit now.”

Those who still sign will find the burger is hot at every level: The two patties have spices rubbed in, they’re topped with ghost pepper cheese, peppers are heaped up on it, and the mayo is even hotter. The challenge is to finish all of that off, plus chips or fries, in twenty minutes.

If you eat it all and hold it down for three minutes, you get a “I Beat the Heat…in the Will’O Pub’s Ring of Fire Challenge” T-shirt and your name and picture on the wall. In either event, the restaurant’s staff stands ready with a whole bowl full of vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup optional, to help cool you off and blunt the dual olfactory and masticative traumas before the digestive system starts to protest.

Of the fifty-seven people who have signed the waiver, six have finished the burger inside of twenty minutes. In the interest of…let’s call it science, I took the challenge one Saturday morning in April. I came in, walked past the dartboards and the Bobby hat over the fireplace and the red London telephone booth, sat down, and announced my intentions. Will’O owner and cook Andrew Weightman tried his best to talk me out of it.

“It will ruin your day,” Weightman warned. He seemed a little shocked that someone would try to do this challenge for a late breakfast. Despite his advice, my John Hancock found its way onto the form, so he threw up his hands and went to the kitchen. “If at any point this gets too much for you,” he said when he brought out the double burger, “just let us know and we’ll rush in the ice cream. And for God’s sake, don’t get any of this in your eyes.”

The next twenty minutes were a unique and eye-watering experience. And about the next day or so, the less said the better. One must eat a Diablo Burger with care. Best to use a knife and fork to avoid blistering around the mouth. You are going to sweat a lot, and the air that comes out of your mouth and nostrils will feel like it’s escaping from an oven.

In the end, your scientist failed, narrowly. There was a way but not a will. With a little over a minute left to go, I had eaten the chips, the burger patties, the cheese, the pickles, the peppers, and had gotten the top bun down. The only thing left was the assorted lettuce and the bottom bun, smothered in death mayo. I could force it down in time and I thought I could keep it down, with great effort. But it was going to hurt, a lot, for a T-shirt and my picture on the wall. Not worth it. So I screamed for the ice cream instead.

During the cool-down period, I talked with Weightman. He put the Ring of Fire Challenge together as an exercise in evil catharsis from dealing with bureaucracy, it turns out. He had smoldered enough. It was time to let others feel some of that burn.

Since Will’O opened last September, Weightman has been battling the local Planning Department for the right to serve fish and chips in his authentic British pub. He has been denied the right to install a vent anywhere on the premises to accommodate fryers or large ovens. All the usual alternatives are not appealing.

At this point, he explained in a follow-up e-mail, “We have been approved for a self-contained unit” that some bars use when they bump up against building restrictions. The problem is, “it prohibits us from using fresh fish and batter, as you have to put your product into a holding bucket that dispenses into the basket.” This makes an absolute “mess of the machine and grease.”

Weightman would heartily like to avoid using “a frozen fish product from another company,” because it would be expensive and inferior to the great pub fare he is trying to faithfully reproduce. The Will’O is new here, but in Britain it has a history. It was a Liverpool restaurant and nightclub started by his grandmother and run by his family, which hosted such famous acts as Gerry & the Peacemakers and the Beatles, until they shuttered it in the 1970s and migrated to America.

His complaints against the Planning Department have a whiff of “we crossed a whole ocean for this?” The Weightmans left the UK at a time when the country was the sick man of Europe. Taxes shuttered businesses and sent people into exile. Strikes literally left bodies piling up in the streets. But even at the height of all that—with the taxes, and the stagflation, and the rotting corpses—at least a bloke could still get some decent fish and chips.

Weightman is not willing to admit defeat by the Planning Department and settle for sub-par deep-fried fish just yet. To redress his grievances, he had cast his eyes Portland-ward, and he thinks he may have found a solution. “We are also looking into a food truck to help make this happen,” he explained. That’s right, he may soon park a bus out front and use it as the restaurant’s very own portable second kitchen.

Will’o’s fish-and-chipslessness doesn’t seem to be slowing the customers down. I returned on a Thursday afternoon in May and had a hard time finding a seat. It was pub trivia night (sample question: “On the show Cheers, Sam was a former pitcher for which team?”), which creates serious space issues. Weightman would spend the next few days throwing together a roped-off outdoor seating area to alleviate crowding.

The staff did manage to find a place for moi at the old wood-and-stained-glass bar in the back, bought and shipped over from a pub in Essex. The non-diabolical menu has a few concessions to local taste. Customers can order the Captain Vancouver salmon wrap and wash it down with Rolling Rock, if that’s how they roll. For the most part, however, the menu is genuine pan-UK food and drink: chicken dibley, bangers and mash, lamb curry, beans on toast, eggs and bacon butty, shepherd’s pie, on the food front, and a large selection of UK ales, bitters, and ciders.

In the interest of science, and hunger, I ordered the Irish beef stew, the potted shrimp, a Worthington’s Red Shield Blonde, a Wychwood King Goblin, and good old Sam Smith’s Extra Smooth Ale. For the stew, the menu promised “Irish sausage, sirloin beef and vegetables, slow cooked tender.” It didn’t disappoint, though the shrimp, herbs, and cheese on toast were better and cheaper. The King Goblin went down sweeter than expected, Sam Smith’s was smooth as advertised, and the Red Shield was not too hoppy. Total bill: just north of $30. A normal pub meal of the shrimp and a drink or two would run you $15 to 20.

It may be worth that price just to people-watch some of the locals on a busy night. Birch Bay is a weirdly wonderful place full of trailer parks and summer homes. You never know who you’re going to get. To wit, on that Thursday night I met one man with a Snidely Whiplash mustache, a cowboy hat, a vest, and a bolo tie, adorned with turquoise jewelry everywhere.

The food business can be a funny thing. Ideas that work in practice can sound perfectly loco on paper. “Let’s have a pizza place that doesn’t deliver and doesn’t have any ovens to cook the food,” might sound like a loser, but it’s Papa Murphy’s very successful model. So I had to ask Weightman why he thought Birch Bay, of all places, would be the right fit for a reincarnated Liverpool mainstay.

Short version: It just felt right. “Besides purchasing a home out here, I have been coming to the area since I was four-and-a-half years old. Plus it needed a good pub,” Weightman shrugged. He is determined to give it one. 

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About the Author

Jeremy Lott is managing editor of The American Spectator, a contributor to EconStats, and the author of several books and a haiku.