Pyrrhic victory in the throes of taco warfare

by Jeff Laughlin

The craziest part of an eating challenge is the focus: ignoring the clock, ignoring the people around you. At one point, your body and mind become singularly intent on forcing the food into a crowded spot. By taco No. 5, I still brimmed with confidence, but the fear mounted quickly.

Jake’s Billiards’ simple premise — eat 15 tacos in 30 minutes — gave me a mission and I intended to complete it. They explained the rules: eat taco on the tray, in order, and ring the bell when you are finished.

Complete the impossible and you win $100 and the respect of anyone who tried this monstrosity of a challenge. Obviously, Jake’s Billiards likes to reserve their payouts for food, drinks and occasional repairs for their gaming accessories, so this challenge would not be easy. I knew that, but I readied myself by remembering the dozens of times I’d gorged myself for pleasure. I teemed with confidence.

Then the food came out. The tray daunted me — these were no ordinary tacos. They packed these things with meat. One cook estimated more than two pounds of shredded chicken ,without counting the amount of toppings and large, soft tortillas.

I had made a fatal miscalculation.

These were like no tacos I’d eaten before.

The first of three rows had simple chicken tacos with a medium-hot sauce and they were easy enough to plow through. Among the friends and wellwishers, I sensed a palpable excitement.

“I don’t think anyone can actually do it, but that was fairly impressive,” Chris McSween said.

The second row flooded my system.

Though Jake’s may not admit it, the tacos seemed to get larger as I progressed. The shredded chicken swam in a sea of avocado aioli, hotter-than-necessary sauce and chunks of cabbage. Also, I did not want any more shredded chicken. Normally I love chicken in any form, but the consistency reminded me a little too much of soggy shredded wheat while nearly a pound of it packed down in my stomach.

The design of that second row taught me something. Becoming a champion eater has little to do with persistence. Maybe a sportsman or a captain of industry — some arena where trial and error play a part in the process — might involve persistence. Eating large tacos? You either have it or you do not. Once my body figured out my plan, it began rejecting the idea. Turns out I do not have it.

On taco No. 7, the aioli had its revenge.

Aioli, by semantic definition only, is not mayonnaise, though the ingredients tell a different story. If they coated the tacos in mayo, people might not buy them. A slight change in mayo’s DNA over a few tacos still makes them pretty unbearable.

“I’ve never seen someone so physically adverse to eating,” Emily Gardner said.

She walked into Jake’s to cheer me on, but, like everyone watching, saw me crumble by taco No. 8. I had not looked at the clock in a long time. Eleven minutes remained, but my pace has slowed to a crawl. Each bite, now accompanied with a small sip of water to break up the taste and aid digestion, came with great labor.

I wretched when I swallowed. Without any more room for food, my body refused what I gave it. I excreted fluid from just about every pore, my eyes watered and my heart pumped what felt like gallons of blood per minute. My nose ran. I flooded the engine further. My entire being functioned only to create more room, my only task to shovel in more meat and cabbage.

The weight of the contest had shifted from obliviousness to knowing exactly what happened throughout the digestion process. They should force kids to do this challenge to show them exactly how the body works.

With around six minutes left, the waitstaff informed me that vomiting ended the competition. With a massive trashcan on my right side, I knew I had failed. With Vangelis blaring from the jukebox, I made a pact with my body:

Finish this 30 minutes and I’ll take the sweetest, sweatiest nap in the whole damn history of naps.

When the alarm sounded, with seven tacos remaining, my friends patted me on the back. I looked broken, tired and, likely, disgusting. But I’d eaten hard for the time limit. Though I failed, I felt satiated by my efforts.

Shamefully, no one has ever completed Jake’s’ taco challenge. The most anyone at the joint had ever seen was “12, maybe 13.”

The third row would define a man’s will.

Stuffed larger than the last two rows, the final two tacos contained a ghost-pepper sauce that made James Stallings, an admitted spicy-food fan, cringe on one small taste.

Swilling water, he said, “Those things are insane.”

My thankfulness for not having to suffer through them swelled greater than what I believed my pride would. I made it more than halfway. While that may not impress the internet, my editor or anyone who has never seen the size of these things, I drank a compensatory beer with my chin up. My body persevered and I kept my promise. I may never have napped harder or felt worse, but I earned it.


Jake’s Billiards 1712 Spring Garden St., Greensboro; 336.373.1303