Take Shelter! It’s Nuclear Tacos at SXSW

The infamous Nuclear Tacos event is an annual occurrence at SXSW Interactive that has gone on for seven years running. I knew very little about the event other than that it involved free tacos. Plus, I had already eaten tacos for two meals that day, so having a chance to make it a full count at no additional cost? Definitely a hard deal to pass up.

Unfortunately, I didn’t really consider the “nuclear” end of that free taco bargain. Let me quickly break down what Nuclear Tacos is all about:

The idea: Everyone at SXSW can enjoy spicy tacos together in a nice big bonding experience.
The hook: The tacos are completely free, as are two cups of beer or a couple of shots of whiskey.
The kicker: The tacos are blitzingly hot.
The reality: Friendly social gathering? No, try hazing ritual.

Granted, I was blissfully unaware of these last two items. As the sun began to set, a crowd gathered around the Brush Square Park, a grass lot across the street from the Austin Convention Center. My new acquaintance and I were stuck in a line that stretched half a block around the where the taco insanity waited. As we approached, we spied a large tent housing volunteer chefs standing around the vats of ground meat. They looked almost non-plussed, staring the rapidly gathering crowd of techies. Live folk music and a pungent odor mingled in the hot spring air. Near the main gate of the park, the famed Ice Cream Man gave out free Creamsicles and Nutty Buddies to the masses. “You’re going to need them real soon!” said the smiling ice cream philanthropist, Matt Allen, from the window of his truck.

By the time we reached the front of the line, several people had already partaken of the tacos and were struggling to hold their composure. The meat is served in two heat levels: two out of five and four out of five. In the background, I heard a convention-goer beg for a cup of beer. “That rank two’s no joke!” he gasped. I thought nothing of the warnings and, as per buffet protocol, gave myself a heaping portion of the rank four meat atop a hard corn taco shell.

“Oh wow,” a server said, pointing at my plate. “You’d better get lots of lettuce and sour cream to counter that.”

“I think I’ll be okay,” I responded as I built a taco out of a spoonful of rank two. The server grinned and told me to try a bit of the meat before deciding. I shrugged and popped a bit of beef into my mouth.

Piercing pain. That’s how my tongue felt after touching a mixture of beef, taco powder, cumin and – most importantly – a mixture of scotch bonnet, red savina and other habanero peppers. I doubled over. My new friend dashed over to the free beer table and grabbed a couple of cups. “We’d better sit down and wolf these tacos down as quickly as possible,” he declared, clearly smarter than I. The pain was beginning to spread around my mouth. We rushed for an empty table where an already-suffering lady with an expensive camera sat alone. We asked if we could sit and she barely acknowledged us.

A SXSW Interactive staffer skipped up to us and asked if we were diving in for the first time. “You guys need to do it at the same time!” she exclaimed. At her count of three, my friend and I took a big bite of our tacos. The piercing pain I experienced before blossomed into a fount of delicious flavor. “Hey, this tastes pretty good,” he said, sucking in air. Then the pain hit on the side of our heads and it was all downhill from there.

As we began enduring the burn, the unofficial third member of our party – yes, that photographer I mentioned earlier – began to open up to us. She was a freelance photographer from New York City, there to take pictures of the SXSW Music Festival. She had been suffering from an ear infection. Post-nuclear taco, she could suddenly hear clearly. “I hope the burning goes away because I have a concert to photograph in two hours,” she moaned.

Thankfully the burning lasted a mere one and a half hours. The heat came in stages and affected a different part of the head in five to 10 minute stages. The first thing that hit me was my lips, because the arid Austin air had sucked a lot of moisture out of them. After 10 minutes of burning, it shifted to my temples and began pounding on my head. Later, different parts of the mouth burned – the sides, the tip of the tongue, the rear of the tongue, the roof of the mouth. As we began to return to the taco tables to gather plates of lettuce-and-sour-cream salad, the sun set over the park and a cool spring air wafted over us. The night felt just a little more pleasant as our senses began to numb.

I won’t go into the aftermath, but suffice to say the digestion was almost as bad as the eating, which made enduring a flight back to Washington, D.C., no fun with my intestines in such a state. All in all, the Nuclear Taco motto holds great truth: the tacos are free, but you pay for it in the end.

Side note: Three very courageous individuals engaged in a nuclear taco eating contest. Spurred by the enthusiastic crowd, the winner set a new record for number of tacos eaten. Keep in mind that the tacos come in waves. The last plate included rank FIVE heat tacos, hotter than the ones I ate. Video below!

Video: Nuclear Tacos at SXSW
video by Yuan-Kwan Chan / Meniscus Magazine