When asked to review The Carlsbad Tavern, in Scottsdale, Arizona for The Hot Zone Online I was ecstatic. The restaurant is known for purporting a reputation of a burger so spicy that it “may cause temporary blindness or loss of hearing.” This burger goes by simply, the Habanero Cheeseburger. I was excited I had the opportunity to try this fabled burger.
The restaurant is located off of the 101 freeway just north of the 60, so it’s in a prime location for anyone in the Phoenix area. When driving up to the restaurant the first time I missed the turn, as I was expecting it to be part of a large shopping division also I’m a speedy driver, but made a U-turn at the next light and got to the restaurant fine. It is located at about the halfway point of Hayden road and has its own parking lot. My first impression of the restaurant was that it looked less impressive than I would think. Its exterior was the same terra-cotta tans and browns that are so common in the Phoenix area and the only lights were of the entrance: two flanking lights on each pillar and the name CARLSBAD TAVERN on the archway as well as a sign under the arch that stated “New Mexican Grub”.
When entering Carlsbad Tavern you walk under the arch and across a short bridge. On the left side as you walk in you can see the dining patio area, a man-made waterfall and an artificial river. It looked nice, I thought. When the hostess asked where me and my girlfriend wanted to sit I said outside, hoping we would be seated somewhere on the patio. We were taken to the outdoor deck. The outdoor deck is a series of 6 or so tables lined up on the perimeter of the building, a transition area before heading down the steps into the large patio area. There is not much walk room on the deck, as our waitress tripped on the chairs a few times so I could see how it could become problematic if there was a full family dining there. However, considering it was just the two of us, we had plenty of room. Regardless, I wanted to sit next to the waterfall so I asked if we could sit in the patio area, unfortunately we arrived at a very busy time (around 7 or so on Sunday night) and all the tables in the patio were full. This did not seem like a consistent problem though, as throughout the night the tables cleared up. Reservations were not needed.
At the table were little newspapers called the “Carlsbad Daily Guano.”
These papers acted as a menu and also some before dinner entertainment. On the front was some history about the real Carlsbad Tavern that is supposedly haunted and upon which the restaurant is based. I skipped over all that though after my girlfriend, who used to live in New Mexico told me that she’s been to the actual place. On back of the newspaper were horoscopes, mine read “Sensitivity to your mate is important. If possible, either ignore or praise his/her choice of a cobweb motif for the forehead tattoo. Spicy Crab Cakes will underscore your understanding during this difficult period.”
This ominous message brought thoughts of my girlfriend telling me about how she was getting a tattoo soon but didn’t know what she was going to get. I decided to take the route of praise and encouraged her to get a cobweb forehead tattoo. I did not get a chance to order the crab cakes.
Now, for the food. I had decided before hand what we would order. The Habanero Cheeseburger was a definite pick. Next, I was sure to try the Crab-Stuffed Poblanos. And since neither my girl nor I like pork, we passed by the Osso Bucco and the pork chops and got the ½ Rotisserie Spicy Citrus Chicken.
First the Poblanos.
These things were amazing. The plate consisted of two Poblano peppers stuffed with crab, peppers, onions, and cilantro with sides of rice and black beans. The first bite of the pepper instantly my mouth was flooded with savory flavor. This is definitely something you have to eat slowly and chew for a long time to get the full expression of flavor. As you chew, you can taste the different layers of flavor literally melting in your mouth. Each bite consists of the creamy yellow sauce hitting your tongue, preparing your taste buds, followed by the crunchy poblano pepper that is sweet and savory, followed by the crab filling mix that is incredibly flavorful and zesty. And those beans on the side were probably the best flavored black beans I have ever eaten in my life, and they were spicy too but not too spicy. They left my mouth roasting but at a comfortable heat. The poblanos, although good, were not very spicy and if I was to rate the dish on a heat scale 10 being the hottest, I would rate the poblanos as 3, but the beans at 5.5.
Next up the ½ Rotisserie Chicken.
I thought this item was really bland. It was grilled, purportedly to be “Spicy Citrus” but fell behind in both categories. It came with mac and cheese that wasn’t anything out of the ordinary and a salad that was less than impressive. Overall, I was not satisfied with this item and would not order again.
As the finale, I ordered the Habanero Cheeseburger.
Now, this was the reason I came to this place so I had high expectations. Before I started to dig into the burger I carefully plucked the habanero pepper from the top and put it to the side, saving it for later. Then I cut the burger in halves to check how long it was cooked, I had ordered medium-rare and it came out at about medium. All good, I thought. Then I lifted the burger toward my mouth which was burning not yet from the heat but from the anticipation. The first bite was incredibly flavorful as the juices soaked into my mouth and as I began to chew the crunch of the lettuce and onions was pleasant. At first, I did not think the burger was so spicy. I would rate the initial heat at around a 6 or so. As I continued to devour the burger, however, the heat began to build up turning my mouth into a convection oven. Now the burger did not cause me to turn blind, or for my ears to bleed, but it did peak at around an 8.5 and plateaued around a 7.5 or 7.8 on my own personal heat scale. So it was a pretty spicy burger.
The burger was hot, but it left me wanting. It was a completely manageable heat. I came to Carlsbad Tavern to be completely rocked out of my mind by the intensity of the heat and the burger just didn’t cut it. Dejected, I looked down at my plate and began picking at the fries to quench the residual burning that started to become a nuisance and constant reminder of my dissatisfaction. I picked up one fry and then another and then another and then I saw something orange inside my pile of fries. Inside of my pile of fries was the forgotten Habanero reflecting powerfully like an orange gem. I moved aside the fries and excavated this little orange pepper that appeared so small and sweet yet I knew was so menacing.
Spurned by my dissatisfaction and egged on by a desire to impress my girlfriend I committed myself to something that under normal circumstances I would not have tried. I lifted the orange pepper up to eye level as if I was about to perform a feat of majestic intent, opened my mouth wide like a lion’s yawn, and in one fatal bite the pepper was gone. Instantly I began to experience something I can only relate to a mild drug in its proprieties to alter me physically. I started to steam up and found myself taking short, panting breaths in a futile attempt to dispel the heat from my weak taste buds. My eyes began to turn red. My whole face began to turn red. I removed my glasses to try to pat down the rising wave of tears that would soon pour down my face. I drank gulp upon gulp of water letting it sit in my mouth for seconds before swallowing hoping it would douse the fire but knowing that it was already too late. The waitress came to the table, but I shooed her off in I think was something close to a pathetic yelp as it was the only sound I could make in my fiery state. In desperation I shoveled fries in my mouth and even dreaded ketchup because my girlfriend told me it would help. Nothing helped. I persisted in this way, with watery eyes and panting mouth, for a good five minutes before it started to welter off. The pepper peaked at an 11. It plateaued at a 10. It made me cry, yelp, pant, banter, and beg for it to stop. I was wholly satisfied.
My sober opinion of Carlsbad Tavern:
- The food was inconsistent. I thought the Crab-stuffed Poblanos were delicious and would be well worth ordering again if I was in the area. And those black beans on the side were divine. The Spicy-Citrus Chicken was bland. The Habanero Cheeseburger was flavorful and spicy, although still barely touching at a comfortable heat level.
- Considering quantity the portions were large and are definitely filling.
- The service was a bit off. It took us a while to initially get drinks and then the waitress would be around randomly but always seemed to be gone at times we needed her. (Like asking for another set of silverware, refilling our drinks, and then asking for the check.) It may have been difficult for her to keep track of us as we were seated on the deck and not in the lower dining area where she also had a few tables. I’m not one to get hung up on service so this did not particularly bother but I do note it could have been better.
- The atmosphere is pleasant. Outside there is a waterfall and running water. Also, I’m pretty sure they allow you to smoke down there as I saw one of the owners smoking a cigarette.
I acknowledge this may be a positive or negative subjectively.
- Considering the Habanero Burger: It was definitely a good burger. It was spicy but definitely manageable. Not incredulously hot. Worth it? I would say yes if you’re in town for a good spicy burger. Doesn’t warrant a cross-country road-trip to try, however.
Carlsbad Tavern Restaurant
3313 North Hayden Road
Scottsdale, Arizona 85251
Phone: (480) 970-8164