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Fire in the belly at restaurant's Hell Night

CAMBRIDGE -- We can read the writing on the wall, and it says ''DIE." The letters, created with strips of masking tape, look like the handiwork of a horror movie psycho. They loom ominously over our table. The food in front of us, replete with habaneros, hot sauce, and jalapenos, tastes like the handiwork of a horror movie psycho. A psycho who favors Latin, Caribbean, and Asian flavors and knows his way around a kitchen -- Hannibal Lecter's hipper younger brother.

Despite the words ''Welcome to Hell. Enter at your own risk" spray-painted in orange on the windows, despite the festoons of caution tape, despite the decorative plastic skulls topped with mini firefighter's helmets, here we are. It's East Coast Grill's Hell Night, a cult three-day gathering hosted three times a year in celebration of what the restaurant calls ''pure atomic cuisine."

The event, first held in the mid-'80s, has become so popular that reservations now start pouring in weeks in advance. We don't think of New Englanders as being fans of spicy cuisine, but then we are talking about people whose winter doesn't end till May and who worship a baseball team that was, until recently, cursed. Eating food so fiery it's rated on the menu with little bomb icons? Right up New England's alley.

Still, the nine-bomb ''Infamous Pasta From HELL," which one must sign a release form to obtain, is a bit further than we're willing to go. (A friend did try it once; he says he took one bite and couldn't taste anything else for the rest of the night.) So we've ordered appetizers of ceviche and carnitas tacos, both ranked at four bombs.

At first bite, the ceviche -- made with shrimp, snapper, mango, and avocado -- doesn't seem that spicy. At second bite, our tongues go completely numb. The combination of ingredients is addictive, and we want more. Yet eating more makes us want to cry for our mommies.

We love spicy food. We crave it. But we don't ever want to eat anything spicier than this. Maybe we should order some milk. It's on the menu, at $10 a glass. (Also on the menu: a mysterious item called ''The Antidote," available for a $2 ''wimp charge.")

The native Texan at our table is thirsty for something a bit stronger: a habanero tequila shot with a beer chaser. He knocks it back. A minute later, he looks a little green. ''I think I need some food," he says.

A waitress delivers our tacos. Again, they are delicious. Again, our lips are numb. The Texan polishes them off, his eyes tearing.

The fire extinguisher on the wall is starting to look like breath spray.

The room is crowded; people smile grimly as they eat. In the open kitchen, the chefs wear gas masks. Billy Idol's ''Hot in the City" blares from the speakers. We're tipsy from margaritas and woozy from too many chili peppers. Hell Night is completely overstimulating, like riding a roller coaster.

And it's time for the next big loop: a four-bomb rotisserie chicken. We dig in with trepidation. But what's this? It's actually edible, moist inside and rubbed with (relatively) mild Sichuan spices, served with tender, gingery spinach and grilled eggplant. It could appear as a spicy item on a regular restaurant menu. (Though the presentation would have to be prettied up; with food this hot, niceties such as attractive plating tend to fall by the wayside.)

Then comes the five-bomber, grilled skirt steak, redolent with Moroccan spices and served with couscous and a cooling yogurt sauce. It's not exactly tame, but it doesn't tip the Scoville scale, either. The entrees, it seems, aren't nearly as scary as the appetizers.

Dessert, however, heads right back to spicy, with a giant dish of rocky road ice cream spiked with chilies. Maybe it's time for . . .

''The Antidote, please," we say to a passing waitress.

Suddenly, whistles are blowing. The entire staff is chanting ''Wimp! Wimp! Wimp!" And a man with tongs through his head, a la Steve Martin's arrow, appears at our table. He is wearing a flame-patterned shirt and a belt with the word ''HOT" traveling across its LED-display buckle. In his hand is a plate, at its center a glowing orange jewel.

It's a Creamsicle. ''I saved another soul!" bellows Tong Head.

None of us will be able to sleep later, and we may not return to Hell Night in the future. But for now, salvation is sweet.

East Coast Grill, 1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-491-6568. The next Hell Night will be held around Halloween; check for updates. Entrees $16.50-$25.50.

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