"I'm ready to start eating," muttered a nervous-looking John McIntyre, a senior linebacker for the University of Houston, as he waited for the 22-inch Zombie banh mi to land in front of him at Cafe TH on Saturday night. "I'm sick of waiting," he sighed.
In the crowd, a friend of his who had just returned from tasting the banh mi's topping of Zombie hot sauce -- after which the 4.75-pound sandwich was named -- had a light sheen of sweat on his forehead.
"Someone's gonna die," he announced with a broad grin. McIntyre moaned softly at his end of the table.
Lined up along with the college athlete was an array of impressive stomachs: Fellow UH football player Ameen Behbahani, super heavyweight bodybuilding champion John Fish, the Chronicle's Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, Nick Anderson, The Rice Box Truck's John Peterson, and Jose Reyna from the Houston Zombie Walk, which was sponsoring the evening's event.
That event was a new competitive-eating challenge for Houston: the Zombie banh mi, in which the contestants had 30 minutes to eat their way through the entire sandwich, topped with super-spicy Zombie sauce and filled with all of the toppings Cafe TH offers -- including six eggs and roughly four pounds of pork.
Cafe TH's owner, Minh Nguyen, had long wanted to have a "competition" menu item, like the Five-Alarm Fire Burger at Little Bitty Burger Barn. And he wanted to kick it off with a competitive eating event.
"But there's already a pho competition," Nguyen said. So he turned to the banh mi. Unfortunately, his baker had recently stopped selling 36-inch banh mi buns, which is what Nguyen had hoped would be the base of his mega-banh mi. Instead, he took their next largest size -- nearly two feet -- and decided that it would be a "competition of spice and volume."
Into the banh mi went every topping he had, along with a bright-red pour of Zombie sauce: ten tablespoons of Sri Racha, a habanero, two jalapeños and three-quarters of a bottle of Lethal Ingestion hot sauce, which is almost pure capsaicin. Both the hot sauce and the amount of toppings make this banh mi worthy of its Zombie moniker: It's tough to kill.
Halfway through the competition that evening, all of the contestants began to take on the look of men undergoing a profound vision quest in the wilderness. All except for Anderson, the cartoonist, who had a zen-like calm to him and no visible beads of sweat across his brow.
"Well, honestly, he hasn't eaten that much of his sandwich," joked his girlfriend from the audience.
McIntyre, meanwhile, was looking worse for the wear. "Real spicy is an understatement," he gasped between bites of the hot sauce-laden sandwich.
On the other end of the table, his teammate laughed in commiseration. "Right now I can't feel my upper lip!" Behbahani chortled.
Only one man was making his way through the banh mi with any real speed: Peterson, proprietor of The Rice Box and of a huge appetite. In the audience, a friend of his told me about the time Peterson had once made his way through nearly an entire gallon of milk in one sitting.
Peterson's initial strategy of eating the "innards" out of his sandwich paid off: At the end of the 30 minutes, he was declared the winner despite not finishing the entire banh mi. But all that remained inside of Peterson's sandwich bread was one lonely pork meatball while the other competitor's sandwiches were still -- at most -- half-eaten.
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Nguyen is going to offer the Zombie banh mi as a regular menu item, starting today. If you can make it all the way through your Zombie banh mi in 30 minutes -- alone, and with no dipping the bread into water to soften it like Kobayashi -- you'll get your name and picture on Cafe TH's Wall of Fame.
Peterson, for his part, only wanted one thing after the competition was over. While McIntyre had retreated to the restroom, Peterson stood telling his friends: "Let's go get some beer."