Until 2012, the Indian bhut jolokia (or ghost chile) was the hottest pepper in the world. With about 300 times as much heat as the humble jalapeño, the pepper grows naturally in the town of Tezpur, in Northeastern India. It's not widely used as a flavoring agent for food in that part of the world, however. Instead, mashed bhut jolokia is smeared on village fences as a deterrent for wild elephants, or used as a chemical agent in hand grenades and pepper sprays used by Indian authorities to control mobs and riots. It's not food. It's a toxin.
It makes perfect sense, then, that Jack in the Box would choose it to top a chicken sandwich.
We confess to sometimes not giving the Jack in the Box chain the attention it deserves; maybe it's lingering prejudices after the widespread E. coli outbreak in the early 1990s that killed a few children and hospitalized, well, everyone else. Or maybe it's just that we don't seem to share other people's enthusiasm for 50-cent soy-protein-and-American-cheese tacos from a drive-thru that doesn't specifically focus on drive-thru tacos.
No matter the reason, when we see that generic Jack in the Box logo, we feel very little urge to pull over. Until now. With the release of the new Blazin' Chicken Sandwich, we've had to reconsider everything.
Name: Jack in the Box Blazin' Chicken Sandwich
The Pitch: “Spicy chicken fillet topped with Ghost Pepper Ranch sauce, grilled onions, spicy jalapeños, Swiss-style cheese, lettuce and tomatoes all on a jumbo bun.”
Available: Now, for a limited time.
The first thing that you notice about this sandwich is the absurd amount of flavorless white iceberg lettuce that is piled high above the chicken, cheese and onion layer. It's a truly staggering quantity of a vegetable that no one has ever been happy to see, and its overabundance here is puzzling. Our only guess about the reason for its inclusion is that it must be needed to counteract the insane heat of the ghost chile sauce – that by biting through a dozen leaves of iceberg, the watery crunch will firehose out the insides of your mouth, cutting hopelessly through the layer of spice coating your tongue and tonsils. A double layer of mealy tomatoes almost inevitably serves the same function.
Worthless vegetables aside, the other components of the sandwich are very good. The chicken is breaded nicely, with lots of satisfyingly crunchy craggy bits. The Swiss (?) cheese layer acts as all fast food cheese seems to, providing a layer of creamy texture, rather than flavor.
We were a little puzzled by the inclusion of the griddled onions, which would make sense on a cheeseburger, but seemed totally out of place on a chicken sandwich. Fortunately, this sandwich has so much going on in terms of flavor, that the onions get totally lost and aren't a factor in overall flavor. The pickled jalapeños bring additional heat and briny crunch to the sandwich, and are a welcome addition.
What about that ghost chile ranch, then, that game-changing new condiment that marks the first time ghost chiles have been brought to the fast food market, changing the landscape forever with its seizure-inducing levels of heat and spice?
It's good stuff. It's not, perhaps, going to provide the nuclear option that chileheads may be looking for (after all, if high concentrations of bhut jolokia were used on this sandwich, you wouldn't taste the chicken, or probably anything else, ever again). Instead, it brings a slow burning heat that grows cumulatively as you work your way through the sandwich, combining with the jalapeños and the spicy breading on the chicken to bring just the faintest bit of sweat to your brow.
It's just enough spice to make you realize you're dealing with something a little different than the usual fast food heat, with enough fruity flavor from the ghost chile to make it more interesting than the usual cayenne overload found at other chains.
It may not be the spiciest chicken sandwich on the market, in spite of the much-celebrated ghost chile. In fact, McDonald's Spicy Habanero Ranch is a little spicier. But there is something undeniably craveable about this sandwich, something about the combination of different layers and levels of heat from the chicken, ghost chile ranch and jalapeños, with the cooling cheese and lettuce layers, that combine to get your endorphins doing a merry dance in your spinal column, making you talk a little faster and a little more loudly as the fight-or-flight response kicks in.
It may not deliver perfectly on the utopian promise of a weapons-grade ghost chile ranch dressing, but the finished product is still exciting, interesting, and as good a way as any to spend your fast food dollar. More importantly, it puts Jack in the Box back in the game, where “in the game” means “something we might eat while negotiating a blackout.”
Malcolm Bedell blogs about cooking and food weirdness at From Away and Spork & Barrel, and is the co-author of “Eating in Maine: At Home, On the Town, and On the Road.” Follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.