Credit: Warren Rojas

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Welcome to Spice Route, in which food writer Warren Rojas connects diners to the most fiery and flavorful dishes in area restaurants.

Location: Hops N Shine, 3410 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; (703) 566-1509; hopsnshine.com 

Vision: Hops N Shine managing partner C.J. Cross says he became a hot pepper head over a decade ago while working at a restaurant in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. 

The rite of passage among servers was to put a single drop of Mad Dog 357 hot sauce—named for its 357,000 rating on the Scoville scale measuring the intensity of chilis—on a cracker and attempt to eat the whole thing. For context, jalapeños max out at around 10,000 Scoville heat units. Cross says that the bonding activity served as a “lesson learned” for those burned by the experience. “I took it upon myself to start making sauces with it,” he says.

While he still uses Mad Dog to turbocharge select dishes, Cross has also developed a dry rub featuring one of the world’s hottest peppers, the Carolina Reaper. 

Execution:The heat comes from chilis Cross buys from Pleitez Produce Farm in Virginia’s Northern Neck region. Pleitez supplies him with fresh Carolina Reaper peppers, Trinidad scorpion peppers, ghost peppers, and habañeros. Cross dehydrates the cadre of scorchers in-house. 

The Carolina Reaper-rubbed wings emerge from the fryer sporting spice-crusted skin. Cross builds the spice mix out of brown sugar, salt, pepper, garlic, and onion. The menu dubs the end product “very spicy.”

Lips start to tingle after the first bite. Then a tangy sweetness shimmies across the tongue as one crunches away. By the time the prolonged burn kicks in (three wings, give or take), stopping is no longer an option. Plunging each remaining wing into a chilled blue cheese sauce cools things off enough to power through every morsel of the sweet-hot meal.   

Next, Cross will expand to the ShipGarten dining hub forming in Tysons Corner. He hopes Chalkboard BBQ will open in late spring, giving more local diners the opportunity to try his signature spice rubs. 

Intensity (out of five): Four sirens