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Is the restaurant responsible?

A group of us ate at one of our favorite hole-in-wall Mexican restaurants over the weekend. I ordered something a little different, a pork dish I had to point to on the menu. Food comes, my dish contains shredded pork, red onions, red pepper strips, rice, tortillas. I make a tortilla, add one red pepper strip and begin to consume.

Pain, insufferable pain......... mouth burning, lips on fire, awful

Turns out those red pepper strips were habanero. For those of you who are unaware, they are some of the hottest peppers in the world. 100,000 - 350,000 scovilles. In comparison your average jalapeno is 2,500-8,000 scovilles.

There was no mention of it on the menu , by the server I ordered it from, or from the person who dropped off the food. Now I didnt make a big deal about it. We paid for my meal, even though I didnt eat another bite of it. Afterwards, however, i was a little upset that my evening had been ruined by both the pain and embarrassment. So here is the question. Should the restaurant/staff make the customer aware of such an ingredient?

To clarify, I would have never ordered it if they had told me of this ingredient, I am not looking to sue anyone, and yes I am not a fan of spicy food.

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  1. I think the resto and you are both at fault. If you are not a fan of spicy food, and you are eating at a "hole in the wall" Mexican restaurant, then you should have asked about the ingredients in the dish, especially if you had to point to it to order it. But if the resto is Mexican staffed, and in a neighborhood where Mexican Americans live, and you are obviously not their average customer, then perhaps something about the habaneros should have been mentioned.

    But are Habanero peppers usually used in Mexican restaurants? I thought Habanero peppers were more Caribbean. Someone here will know, I'm sure.

    I have to ask about carbs, and make substitutions all the time. I have learned not to be shy about ingredients, and not to make assumptions. If you can't eat spicy food, it is up to you to ASK!

    I hope your mouth feels better today. I like spicy food, but I wouldn't eat a Habanero!

    12 Replies
    1. re: sueatmo

      Thats why I didnt make a big deal about it.

      I made an ASSumption that they would make note of it on the menu in some way, lesson learned. So much for being adventureous....I joked afterwards I was never ordering anything but fajitas!

      1. re: joe777cool

        I really don't think fault has to be assigned to you or the restaurant. It's just one of those things you chalk up to experience and I would hope both parties has learned from it.Habs are widely used in both Mexican and Caribbean cusine. Joe. where is this place? I would love to try that dish.

        1. re: Duppie

          El Rancho Grande; Providence, Rhode Island

          Some of the best Mexican in the state, I still have no problem recommending them despite this past "minor inconvenience."

          1. re: joe777cool

            Off topic. Joe I lived in Providence for more than 25 years and could never get decent Mexican food unless I cooked it myself. Glad to hear things have changed.

            1. re: escondido123

              I am glad to report that there are now many mexican/carribean restaurants in the Providence area that are quite good. 25 years ago you probably had to go to Casa Lupita!

              1. re: joe777cool

                off topic, buy my childhood dog was named Lupita, after Casa Lupita. We loved the food as kids and would go there for birthdays, I remember always getting some kind of shredded beef chimichanga or taco, so much better than ground beef. Later I spent many years in California, so I have a love for authentic Mexican, that I can't really get (unless I cook it myself) in Asheville, NC, where I live now.

                1. re: MissMechante

                  Warwick! I remember when it first opened. It was the only "Mexican" restaurant and I loved the chimichangas and fried ice cream. I loved it back then-was it the late 70's, iirc?

            2. re: joe777cool

              Is it worth a side trip on my way to Montreal?

              1. re: Duppie

                We have pretty good mexican food in mtl...

                1. re: kpaxonite

                  It quite frankly never occurred to me, I visit Montreal perhaps every 2 months and love the small off the beaten path places but never considered Mexican. Can you give me some hints? and I promise not to bitch about the prep.... Oops... there's that word again.

                2. re: Duppie

                  Its worth a 30 minute drive, not much more. Its good Mexican food, and much more authentic than most places, but nothing I would go out of my way for

          2. re: sueatmo

            Habaneros appear in Yucatecan regional cooking. Otherwise, I've seen taquerias create a kind of slaw with habaneros, onions, and probably some vinegar to add spice to tacos and such. I won't eat the habaneros directly, but I like the vinegared onions with the spice from soaking with the habaneros.

          3. The menu did not say anything about habaneros? Yikes.

            I like 'em and would have enjoyed it, but no mention on the menu or by the waiter doesn't seem right.

            1. If you know your peppers, habaneros would be very difficult to confuse with red bell peppers, being much smaller and thinner-walled. It sounds like the peppers were not mixed into the dish, so you could have eaten the rest of it and avoided further chile pain.

              If you are not a fan of spice, in the future it may be wise to inquire if something is spicy when ordering something new in a restaurant featuring a typically spicy cuisine.

              Why did you have to point to the dish on the menu? If it was due to a language barrier - you not reading spanish or the server not speaking english - would the restaurant have been able to adequately warn you in English?

              13 Replies
              1. re: babette feasts

                I took 5 years of spanish, but that was 10+ years ago. It was a very long name that I didnt want to butcher.

                Lesson learned about asking about spice level.....plus we do go in there with some regularity so I am sure next time I go in there they will remember to steer me clear of anything remotely spicey!

                1. re: joe777cool

                  Now I'm super curious as to the name of the dish!

                    1. re: E Eto

                      That was my guess also. I asked my husband (mexican) if it was typical to use habaneros in Mexican food, and he said only in cochinita pibil, and the habaneros are typically on the side.

                      It seems that it would be pretty sensible for the restaurant to make that clear for its non-Mexican clientele, since few would know that it's typical for this dish.

                      1. re: E Eto

                        from what i can remember from the menu descriptions......pork marinated in achiote and citrus.....plus it was served on a banana leaf with red onions and the peppers on top. I feel like the name was a bit different but im 95% sure this is what I "tried" to eat.

                        1. re: joe777cool

                          you just described a typical cochinita pibil. Is the restaurant Yucatecan?

                          1. re: E Eto

                            The owners are from Puebla, and claim their cooking is cocina poblana.....if that answers your question

                  1. re: babette feasts

                    Disagree. Who would assume that any Joe can tell a red bell pepper from a habanero, particularly since they're chopped up?
                    Easy to confuse and I'm betting that almost nobody would see a habanero and know what it is let alone how high it ranks on the Scoville scale.
                    Servers should have servicable English. Don't be willing to take my money but not willing to learn my language.
                    (is that harsh?! it's a peeve of mine ;-0

                      1. re: DPGood

                        It was more of a rhetorical question, actually, but I do have my opinions (and apparently so do you!).

                        1. re: DPGood

                          Harsh...perhaps. But not all that unreasonable. My grandparents came here from another country and the first order of business was to learn at least enough English to get by.

                        2. re: monavano

                          My standards for serviceable English drops a lot lower for hole in a wall family run places. Could be the server is a relative new to the country and trying to find their way. If the place caters mainly to their own ethnicity, there's not a lot of opportunity to practice English.

                          My feeling is if the food is good and the people are genuinely helpful, I'm fine with language issues and any misunderstandings. I just shrug it off.

                          1. re: Jase

                            I agree, as long as there is some basic communication. My local, favorite Chinese place is owned and staffed by Chinese immigrants, but I know that they understand my request to make my House Shrimp extra spicy!

                      2. As a courtesy, I think the server should have asked if you wanted habaneros.

                        1. While I can understand your disappointment and sympathize with your suffering, I generally think we're responsible to guard ourselves against food sensitivities or allergies. But I can see your side of it too. Restaurants rarely serve habaneros without warning.

                          I think a lot of it depends on the demographic of the owners and regular customers. If they cater primarily to Mexican (or other folk) whose baseline for heat is relatively high, they might not think it an issue.

                          5 Replies
                          1. re: inaplasticcup

                            While the baseline may be higher for Mexicans, they're too hot for many, if not most Mexicans, too. Server should ask anyone ordering that dish.

                            1. re: DPGood

                              Point taken. But there are other variables at play here. If the server didn't ask, and the server wasn't new or inexperienced, it might be because people order that dish all the time, knowing what it is, and eat it without trouble.

                              Is it up to the restaurant to assume that people don't know what they're ordering, or is it up to us as consumers to know what we're ordering?

                              1. re: inaplasticcup

                                I worked for a beachside restaurant that served only steamed seafood. The specialty of the house was "U Peel-um" Steamed Shrimp - 1/4 lb or 1/2 lb. (I worked there - I didn't write the menu :) ) A guy came in between lunch and supper and I was the only employee in the place. He ordered a 1/4 lb steamed shrimp, I delivered it and returned to the kitchen to do supper prep. When I returned to check on him and asked how he liked the shrimp, he replied, "Very tasty. Never had them like that before. Really have to be careful with the tails - those things are sharp!" I looked down at his plate and it was empty. No tails. No shells. No legs. He ate the whole thing, unpeeled. I've just never met anyone before who didn't know that the tails come off shrimp and they're peeled before eating ("U Peel-um").

                                1. re: GritsGuru

                                  Be glad he didn't order a steamed artichoke to go with the shrimp. You might have had to practice your hemlock maneuver.

                          2. You should have been warned. The idea that you could tell by looking at them, cooked, exactly what they were is not reasonable or even likely.

                            8 Replies
                            1. re: escondido123

                              I don't know.. When I patronize any "Hole in the wall" joint, I don't have the expectation that every ingredient that has a potential to hurt,offend or otherwise will be explained to me.In my experience most of the servers in these types of places wear many hats and may not have the time or language skills to elaborate on a particular preparation to our satisfaction. In the same vein, I don't find it necessary for some one to tell me in a Chinese Restaurant they fry in potentially lethal peanut oil. I still don't think blame has to be assigned here, sounds like just the place that so many Chow Hounders bitch and moan they can't seem to find.

                              1. re: Duppie

                                I don't think we're talking about "every ingredient." If I go to an Indian restaurant, they always warn me if I order Vindaloo. If I go to an Asian place, I'm always warned to not eat the little red chiles. So I don't think it was unreasonable to expect to be told if very hot chiles were used in a dish. And do you really need to say things like "bitch and moan"?

                                1. re: escondido123

                                  I'm sorry but the hole in the wall places I tend to visit do not feel the need to advise me of the particulars of their cuisine, I guess they figure that if I took the effort to find them I would be at least a little familiar with their offerings and potential pitfalls, Your restaurant choices perhaps are a little more user friendly?
                                  As for my rather tame curse... I assumed we were all adults here and not easily offended, but I do apologize to you.

                                  1. re: escondido123

                                    From a different perspective, I've yet to go to a good hole in a wall Indian restaurant that warns me about the heat level. They just assume I know what I want when I order it.

                                    1. re: Jase

                                      I would agree,if a server takes it upon him/her self to warn me not to eat the little red chili's ,or that Vindaloo is "Hot" it usually means it's not as hole in the wall as I would like to believe and perhaps they have already....shall we say "adjusted"the preparation to suit a clientele unfamiliar with that cuisine.

                                      1. re: Duppie

                                        Fell free to go to your holes in the wall and I'll got to mine. Since you don't know where I've gone, maybe you shouldn't be making assumptions about what is "adjusted" or not.

                                        1. re: escondido123

                                          Forgive me please. I didn't mean to imply that your restaurant choices weren't authentic, just that depending on your geographical location you may or may not have access to as many authentic "Holes in the wall" places as others. Again forgive me.

                                          1. re: Duppie

                                            Apology accepted. I never said all the places I went were holes in the wall. Maybe because I'm an Anglo woman of a certain age, I get treated with a little deference that may or may not be warranted.

                              2. The menu should indicate that the dish is hot/spicy, similar to a Chinese menu. It's never pleasant to blow out your taste buds on the first bite! Ouch.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: monavano

                                  Don't know about you but just about every time I order from a menu that has those little red peppers or red highlighting designating a spicy dish, I am inevitably disappointed not only by the heat factor but also that I was reduced to actually dine in an establishment that found it necessary to flag a dish as such.

                                  1. re: Duppie

                                    I love the peppers! My eyes go directly to them when deciding on a dish. For Chinese, I always tell them to turn up the heat. For my Thai place, well, those peppers really do mean HOT!! No dumbing it down there. DH and I enjoy the pain (sort of) of eating their Larb.

                                    1. re: monavano

                                      As do I but not at the expense of flavor or tradition.

                                      1. re: Duppie

                                        I'm not all that familiar with authentic Asian cuisines, so the annotations help me greatly. I know I like spicy though.
                                        I take it you probably order from the "real" menu at Chinese places! I'll get there some day.

                                        1. re: monavano

                                          I'm part Asian, first wife Chinese, second, Malay and was fortunate to travel through Asia,Caribbean and Europe extensively in my youth, however still learning about good food everyday as we all are.That's why I still believe the OP and/or the restaurant is not to blame.

                                2. One part that I forgot to mention - after the whole episode, the server did mention that she "usually warns people who order it how spicey it is." Unsure why I was the "lucky" one who she didnt warn!

                                  8 Replies
                                  1. re: joe777cool

                                    LOL. You must have a very robust look about you.

                                    1. re: inaplasticcup

                                      Or looks like you have a teflon tongue!

                                      1. re: monavano

                                        I was thinking more along the lines of "lets all laugh at the gringo eating the fire peppers!"

                                          1. re: joe777cool

                                            If indeed it was "our favorite hole in the wall Mexican restaurants"do you think they would and risk any future patronage? I could see where a customer in past visits might have mentioned a lack of heat or seasoning and the kitchen adjusted or reverted to a standard prep, but to risk a good customer in these hard times?

                                      2. re: joe777cool

                                        Since it seems like you're a regular there, maybe they assumed you'd know what the food was like? I've seen people who were pretty insulted and felt like the restaurant was being condescending when they're told something they think is obvious. It seems counter for a restaurant staff to have a paying customer, especially a regular, burn his mouth just so they could make fun of him.

                                        1. re: chowser

                                          the gringo comment was meant in jest

                                        2. re: joe777cool

                                          Sounds to me like you both made bad assumptions. Perhaps since you frequent the restaurant she assumed you realized it was spicy or assumed you liked spicy and didn't want to offend a regular by warning them of the spice level. Some people are a little wierd about their "pride" (for lack of a better word) on the amount of heat their palates can take.

                                          In this case I think it's not the restaurants fault since you say you go often, I think both sides made improper assumptions. But on a whole, I do think it's the restaurant's responsibility to alert guests to ingredients that may be a bit out of the norm, in this case out of the normal range of general spicy. Whether marked on the menu or confirmation it's understood when order is taken.

                                        3. It is uncommon for habaneros to be included in dishes in the form of strips, or rajas, but couldn't the others have been picked out when you found the first one disagreeable? Habaneros are ubiquitous in the Yucatan, generally used in home made salsa picante which is a thin green sauce, often with finely diced onion, served in a small dish. Numerous street carts in Mexico will include habanero salsa on a torta de lechon (suckling pig sandwich) unless one asks that it be left off. I see no fault with the restaurant in the OP's experience.

                                          13 Replies
                                            1. re: Veggo

                                              My lips, mouth, and tongue didnt stop burning for a good 3-4 hours. The peppers were right on top and easily picked off but I was in no mood to eat. On top of that I did get a little bit in my eyes (from picking them off) so I just wanted to go home! My fiancee did eat the food the next day for lunch.......sans peppers.......I was too scard to even attempt a bite.

                                              1. re: joe777cool

                                                I never got "chili heads" who see just how hot they can eat. At a certain point, I taste NOTHING. Where's the fun in that?
                                                I do have to say that I love watching Adam Richman (Man vs. Food) take on a heat challenge. I just sit there and cringe! One time, you could actually see the burn on his poor face- all red and irritated. I can not imagine how it feels coming out the other end.

                                                  1. re: Chowrin

                                                    I'll take lemonade and air conditioning, thank you!!

                                                1. re: joe777cool

                                                  I had the same kind of experience in an Italian place here in Canada. It had chopped up hunan peppers on top of a pasta dish. No warning, no mention on the menu. I could hardly catch my breath and felt like my mouth and tongue were on fire. I couldn't talk for 2 minutes. It as the worst restaurant experience I ever had. Who expects hunan peppers on a pasta dish!?! I complained greatly and never paid for my dish. I feel restaurants have a duty to mention unusual ingredients or heat warnings. IMHO.
                                                  I am sorry you went through that Joe.

                                                  1. re: Godslamb

                                                    I can see eating and breathing in that heat prompting an asthma attack, so yeah, it would be helpful to mention.
                                                    Hunan peppers on Italian. Weird!

                                                  2. re: joe777cool

                                                    Chilies affect people differently; you are sensitive to them more than most and it's too bad for your experience. I once ordered phad thai "hot" at a place where I had done the same many times, but through what I considered an innocent mistake, when I got it home it was inedibly hot, and I was starved.

                                                    And then there's Java Joe who ran a fun coffee shop in Playa del Carmen for 14 years, who used to carry a dozen habaneros he bought every morning in his fanny pack, and eat them during the day like candy. Astounding.

                                                    1. re: Veggo

                                                      I find this very interesting. I love hot and spicy foods from all cultures and frequently order such items in restaurants. In fact, I often ask servers to inform the chef that I like very spicy food, so that they don't try to dumb it down for whatever reason. I can't think of a single time that I've ordered a spicy dish in a restaurant when the server didn't confirm that I a) know it's a spicy dish and b) I actually want the full spice blast, assuming he or she possessed those communication skills. The exception to this is in restaurants that I frequent often enough that the servers know me and my penchant for spice well. They won't double check, won't warn me that a dish is spicy, and occasionally ask ME if I want it spicier than the standard heat level. I love those places and their servers, because they know their regulars.

                                                      My guess in your situation is that it was a total oversight by the server not to mention the spice level. Either that, or she figured that as a regular you knew what you were doing when ordering, gave you the benefit of the doubt, and only after realizing that you were unable to eat the dish, chalked up the incident as her mistake in not mentioning the habaneros. I don't think it was a cruel joke, but rather, a mistake or oversight.

                                                      1. re: 1sweetpea

                                                        +++1
                                                        DH and I order take out from our favorite Chinese place. We are actually very lucky to live 5-10 minutes away from the best Chinese in our region. I order their "House Shrimp" which is spicy, but I tell them to really sock it to me! And they do.
                                                        Or so I thought!
                                                        DH and I stopped in one night to order take out and wait for it. In person (vs. phone order) I told the Chinese woman (at the service bar) that I wanted this dish *spicy*, I mean, kick my ass spicy. She smiled and said, "OK...spicy!", wrote it down in Chinese and whoooooooooo boy, that was the spiciest House Shrimp ever.
                                                        I loved it, but am ok with the regular spice level on an ongoing basis.
                                                        I don't think my system could take that ass-kicking on a regular basis.

                                                    2. re: joe777cool

                                                      I've seldom had to do this, but if the burn is really bad, you can ask for some milk. Drinking water does not help, but milk helps at least a little. Getting the hot stuff in the eyes is the final indignity! I've done that inadvertently after food prep. But never with Habaneros.

                                                      1. re: sueatmo

                                                        they brought milk right over.......practically sprinted over with it.

                                                        first time since my childhood that I drank a whole glass of milk!

                                                        1. re: joe777cool

                                                          So they could see you were in distress. Perhaps they will not put Habaneros willy nilly on their entree again. Or perhaps ask before they do.

                                                          Someday this will become a story you tell your kids.

                                                  3. If it really is a hole in a wall type place, I'd just chalk it up to one of those things. No one's fault really. If they are genuinely friendly and are familiar with you, they probably don't even think about mentioning.

                                                    Also depends on how the dish is served I think. If all the items are served in the individual piles for you to assemble a taco, I wouldn't expect a hole in a wall place to explain everything to me unless I asked. If I had a doubt as to each ingredient, I'd stop the server and ask. To me, there's more leeway there than if everything came all mixed up together.

                                                    4 Replies
                                                    1. re: Jase

                                                      This place (if this is indeed the one referred to in the OP) has a very nice, pretty sophisticated website with an impressively complete menu: http://www.elranchogranderestaurant.com/ and I note that the home page says the staff speaks both Spanish and English.

                                                      1. re: Servorg

                                                        If this is really the place the OP visited, then they don't look very hole in the wall to me. At least not by my definition. With this sophisticated of a website and explanations on the menu, I would expect the server to give a heads up on any habanero strips.

                                                        The menu is descriptive enough that people unfamiliar with a huarache or torta would be able to tell without questioning the server too much. Yeah, I would definitely expect more of a warning based on the menu and website presentation.

                                                        1. re: Jase

                                                          I agree. Just very unusual for any place to have actual strips of habanero chili's without some sort of printed heads-up. I mean, seeing that much habanero in a dish is pretty rare, in and of itself (warning or no).

                                                          1. re: Jase

                                                            I've actually been there and wouldn't think to classify it as a hole in the wall. However, I'm from Kansas City where we have many Hispanic meat markets that serve food in the back and very little English is spoken, so my definition of hole in the wall might be a little different from PVD.