In the town of Chapel Hill, it often seems the sun touches every bit of ground. Even through the tapestry of leafy branches in parts of densely-wooded areas, the land is often so bright and the air so light that it looks like it could be fabricated by Pixar.
And then there’s Bandido’s Mexican Cafe.
Tucked away in the heart of Chapel Hill’s cozy and lively downtown, the restaurant is almost hidden. And unlike the rest of the charming college town, no natural light ever finds its way down the stairs in the Franklin Street alley that Bandido’s calls home.
During my descent down the short flight of stairs, I couldn’t have been more thankful for the shroud of darkness that would engulf me during one of my most foolhardy decisions. I was about to attempt to increase my weight by five percent in one fell swoop by trying to eat El Gigante, the locally-famous burrito challenge at Bandido’s.
El Gigante weighs in at 4.5 pounds and, until recently, was available for anyone to order with the reward of a free t-shirt and a photo on a wall upon completion. But recently a high school kid tried to eat El Gigante and fell ill. After the parents threatened to sue Bandido’s, owner Tony Sustaita decided the restaurant would now require parental consent for minors to undertake the endeavor. Intrigued by the attraction of such a challenge and interested in understanding the physical implications of attempting such a feat, I decided it required a firsthand experience.
Emerging from the alley and walking into Bandido’s feels nearly like being transported to an indistinctive limbo between anywhere and nowhere. Frankly, it’s just a basement with brick walls painted with palm trees and crude island scenery and some traditional Mexican-American style decorations. No location feels so distant and separated from the rest of the town like Bandido’s does. And yet, that was just what I hoped for in a location where I was to embarrassingly engorge myself way past my normal eating habits.
After the waitress sent my order to the kitchen, my mind swirled, enraptured in speculation of the size of the burrito. The thought had crossed my mind before, but it wasn’t until after the point of no return that I realized I couldn’t actually fathom an estimate of the burrito’s physical size. My confidence upon entering Bandido’s may have been at the level of a competitive eater, but doubt was now beginning to creep in.
Days after my attempt, Takeru Kobayashi, the six-time Nathan’s Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest champion, gave me his advice that he would give a normal person trying to take down an unusually-large order of food. The world record-holding competitive eater broke it down into two parts: preparation and eating strategy.
“First understand your own condition and any possible strengths you may have,” Kobayashi said. “And then safely begin stretching the capacity of your stomach with different techniques. I drink water. Lots of it, in different volumes over a certain period of time.”
I did none of this.
As for mid-meal strategy, he emphasized understanding your prey: the ingredients, the texture, and what would be the easiest way to eat it and advance it to your stomach. “I believe it is first important to be able to understand how to break down that particular food into a size where I can physically hold it in my hands,” Kobayashi added. “Not necessarily so small it fits easily into my mouth, but at least a size where I can hold and maneuver it.”
I also did minimal amounts of this, and none of what he suggested about being able to hold it.
In hindsight, it is clear that doom had followed my every step from the beginning. And Kobayashi certainly had words of warning for trying to eat something like this with no preparation. “All the risks imaginable are there: any physical discomfort or dangers of the stomach, jaw, throat and certainly a lot of heartburn.”
I was undoubtedly unprepared. But such risks are the price to pay for journalistic integrity.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry too much about possible insult being added to injury. Despite the magnitude and size of the order, the staff neglected to make the extraordinary dinner into the spectacle it could have been. El Gigante arrived like any other meal. The couple next to me was clearly amused and somewhat bemused by the thin, 115-pound college kid being served a dish the size of a small infant.
Truth be told, El Gigante is not so much a burrito as it is a tortilla calzone with the ingredients within a thick folded tortilla. The burrito completely covers the plate upon which it is served. Ten ingredients come inside the tortilla: rice, black beans, onions, tomatoes, cheese, salsa verde, steak and chicken fajitas with sautéed onions and bell peppers. But wait, there’s more! The tortilla is topped with salsa roja, more shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and guacamole.
In spite of that intimidating list of ingredients, El Gigante doesn’t seem unconquerable, though. For a minute, I let it cool and analyzed it, trying to form a strategy. I spread out the sour cream and guacamole and just began to cut it and eat it with a fork and knife, piece by piece.
It began easily enough, but after clearing the toppings and getting into the center, trouble began. The steak was tough and tiring, slowing me down and hurting my chances to fool my brain into letting me eat more than my body normally permitted before it received the signal from my stomach that I was full.
At midway, my stomach began to tighten and contract, a telltale sign my brain was telling my body it could not hold much more. But I convinced myself that it would just be all downhill if I could reach the three-quarters mark.
I never did.
At one point my fork accidentally shoveled pure guacamole into my gullet. I held back immediate urges to purge, but with that I recognized hope was futile. I wouldn’t last much longer, even with unbuckling my belt and unbuttoning my pants.
Within minutes, I admitted defeat. Man vs. food – winner: food, by technical knockout.
After paying the bill, I returned to the rest of the world in a bloated stupor with a hefty to-go box of leftovers. I hadn’t gotten sick and my shame stayed within the dark hidden corridor. I took those as reasonable moral victories.
But the challenge still perplexed me. With the risk of shame, intense discomfort and vomiting, why do people want to attempt something where the reward is just a t-shirt and a photograph?
Much like George Mallory and Mt. Everest, the answer seems to be “Because it’s there.” Sustaita says he thinks the main attraction is simply the challenge. UNC-Chapel Hill student Dylan D’Joseph, who ate El Gigante in 20 minutes, did it on the spur of the moment for the sake of the challenge during a casual dinner with friends.
Though I hadn’t been successful, more than a handful have defeated El Gigante. In fact, rumors say one man has done it so easily and so often that he’s become a legend of sorts. Sean Ryall is now currently somewhere in Brazil on a Mormon mission and cannot be contacted, but he was known among his friends to take down El Gigante in unimaginable ways. A competitive swimmer that regularly ate calorie-intensive meals, he supposedly racked up nearly $200 in restaurant vouchers for eating the massive burrito so many times, two of his acquaintances said. Further, I was told he holds the El Gigante record for fastest time, somewhere in the neighborhood of three minutes. Sustaita denies both of these claims. The mystery lives on.
At the same time, El Gigante has tallied close to three times as many defeats as victors, crushing 70 to 75 percent of wannabe conquerors, says Sustaita. This list of casualties includes Sustaita, who has failed to best El Gigante in three attempts. This can be dangerous because of the health risks involved in eating an abnormally large burrito.
Matt Paolillo experienced these dangers firsthand when he tried a similar burrito challenge this past March at Pico Taco in Washington, D.C. Though he regularly eats a lot of food, he could not escape cruel fate. This included “sweating, nausea, discomfort, a sense that I had let down my parents and everyone I care about because I couldn’t eat a really big burrito,” Paolillo said.
And then he threw up immediately after the event and didn’t eat for about 36 hours, he recalled.
But perhaps the risk isn’t just for the competitors.
Jeffrey Mervosh, a witness to Paolillo’s endeavor at Pico Taco, saw the lone champion in their group await his prize, a free t-shirt and photo.
“The girl who took the picture asked if he wanted to see if it turned out OK before they printed it on the wall,” Mervosh said. “He just said ‘I really don’t care. I’m never eating here again.’”