jaime

Meet ‘Big G’s’ Spicy Pizza Pioneer Jaime Gamez

By Harrison Liao
Medill Reports

Picture your dream pizza.

Whether it’s monstrous Chicago deep dish or a bright, red Naples style pie, you can envision a few common savory traits — cheese stretching at the seams with the physics-defying grace of an Olympic gymnast, steam rolling off of shimmering tomato sauce and crust decorated with deeply blackened blisters.

But one feature that might not come to mind for most pizza lovers? Sizzling spiciness.

That’s one thing Jaime Gamez, 38, hangs his hat on at his Chicago pizzeria, Big G’s in Wrigleyville at 3716 N Clark St.

Gamez believes, “without a doubt,” that he has the spiciest pizza in Chicago. He calls it the “Dance with El Diablo.”

One bite into a wide, thin slice — more closely resembling New York style pizza than protoypical Chicago deep-dish — and it’s obvious why Gamez went with the name.

A trail of orange habanero sauce cascades up the jabanero-speckled surface like jagged, spicy bluffs on the face of a mountain. And there is a not-so-secret sauce involved, which Gamez says must be applied one drop at a time with a toothpick, so as not to overload the senses.

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The spicy Dance with El Diablo pizza from Big G’s. (cred: Harrison Liao)

Gamez, 38, grew up in north suburban Highland Park and started his pizza career while in college. How did he launch his own pizzeria? What’s the story behind the “Diablo” pizza?

I sat down and shared a slice with him to find out.

What about your beginnings?

I started this place May 7, 2012. I got my start working in the pizza industry when I was 19 years old up in University of Wisconsin-Madison. I worked for Ian’s Pizza, a really well-known pizza place in that area, learned everything from the bottom up.

I was a cashier for a while. After a few years, I decided I wanted to take it a little more seriously, this was closer to my graduation, and an opportunity for ownership opened up.

I stepped into a different role: learning how to cook pizzas, about prep work and the financial side.

After I graduated from UW, I stuck with Ian’s for a while, but a lot of horrible things started to happen within the company with the other leaders that turned me off. There was a big fallout, so after close to 10 years, I walked away, came to Chicago and opened Big G’s.

Tell us about opening a restaurant.

When we opened up Ian’s in Chicago, which no longer exists, we signed a lease in February of 2008, about a month or two before the economic crisis.

The timing was kind of crazy, because as we were about to open our restaurant, it took until July to get the doors open. A lot of people were losing their jobs, making less income. But the pizza industry was one of the only restaurant concepts that was actually growing during the economic crisis.

Where does the name “Dance with El Diablo” hail from?

The pizza you’re eating is called “Dance with El Diablo,” which translates to “Dance with The Devil.” Essentially, that’s what you’re doing when you’re biting into this pizza.

It’s kind of a funny story. Someone I know told me about this time they were in the South. They were trying to drive down to Florida or something, and they had an altercation at a bar. My buddy was with an Italian guy who had mob ties, allegedly.

And the people who were at the bar, which was a local bar, a small bar, very rural area, they didn’t like my buddy and his friend being there. They could tell my buddy was an out-of-towner. Maybe there was some racial stuff going on there. They started to bully my buddy into leaving, and when his Italian friend came out of the bathroom — he missed the whole altercation — but he went and told the townies, “If you want to dance with the devil, we can take care of this outside.”

And that line really stood out to me, like, that would be such a great name for a pizza. Obviously, I changed an English line to having a little Spanish, just to incorporate my roots, being from Guatemala.

Is spicy food popular in Guatemalan dishes?

No, spicy food is actually not popular at all in Guatemalan food.

How did you develop “Dance with El Diablo?”

As soon as I got this idea for the “El Diablo” pizza, I started thinking about what would be on it, and I happened to be dating this girl from Mexico at the time, and she got me into eating spicy food.

I was never a fan before. It took me a long time to even try to eat spicy food. This wasn’t even that long ago, it was 9 years ago, and I’m 38 now. So, I was 29 years old, and at the time I was just getting comfortable eating Jalapenos and Valentina’s hot sauce, which I’m a huge fan of. We also carry it in stock at Big G’s, so I knew right away we would be incorporating Valentina’s into the chicken marinade and the marinara sauce.

I went out exploring different cheese options, trying to find if there’s any spicy cheeses out there. And there are! We found a Jalapeno Havarti cheese, and we incorporated that onto the pizza.

Lastly, we made the decision on what hot peppers to combine. I wanted the pizza to be hot and spicy, something that lived up to the name, up to the expectation.

But it still has flavor, though.

Right, and that was the biggest thing. I had heard people that are into the spicy eating world express disappointment and say, “Yeah, it was really hot but it had no flavor.” And I didn’t want that on my menu. I didn’t want that for my restaurant. I wanted it to taste good.

But since I wasn’t a very spice-proficient guy, I needed to find people that were willing to try it. I asked a few friends who were big on spicy food to help, and they loved it.

I personally think we made a really good slice.

Would you say this is the spiciest pizza in Chicago?

That’s 100%. For sure it is. Hands down.

I always go out to explore and see what other people are doing. If they have spicy pizza, I’ll try it, but I haven’t found anything on this level. It might be “buffalo chicken pizza,” or it might be a gourmet place that incorporates more Jalapenos in it, but that’s about the extent of what I’ve seen.

We’ve actually been able to take this slice up another notch. About a year after we opened our second location in Little Italy, we were told by an employee of ours at the time that there’s something called “The Devil’s Blood” hot sauce, and I had never heard of it. He was a big spicy guy, and he said we should think about possibly putting it on the “Diablo” pizza, but maybe as a special because it’s too hot for people to eat all the time.

We bought a bottle and experimented before releasing it to the public. It came in this little genie bottle, and it had a ton of warnings like, “Don’t use your hands. Use gloves.” So, I’m thinking, “Is this a gimmicky thing?”

I ended up using a toothpick to dab a couple drops onto the end of a pizza slice. Just cheese pizza. I didn’t even mess with the “Diablo” yet. When I had the staff try it, they immediately said, “It’s hot, and then it gets hotter and keeps getting hotter.” That lasts for five minutes and just doesn’t stop.

I realized that we can use this “Devil’s Blood” sauce, but it’s got to be applied with a toothpick. Just three or four drops per slice, otherwise you’re just going to cause some major situation. We’re going to have to call a hospital, it’s just not going to be an enjoyable situation.

For me, this is definitely the hottest slice in Chicago.

Why create spicy food? Was there a demand for spicy stuff?

One of the things we had to think about when we were opening up this location was how we were going to differentiate ourselves from the Ian’s Pizza location, because it was still around when we opened this place up.

Ian’s was an established brand. When we opened Ian’s in Chicago in 2008, it was already seven years old in Madison. So you have UW students that moved to Chicago, or anyone who went to a Big Ten school like Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, they would all come to Wisconsin for games, and they’d hear about Ian’s and the “Mac-and-Cheese pizza.”

That’s seven years’ worth of a customer base that’s been established and still growing. So, when we opened up Ian’s in Chicago, we were very successful off the bat. We didn’t have to make much effort to get people in the door. When we opened Big G’s in 2012, we knew we were going to be going up against Ian’s, which was only a mile away.

We wanted to come up with pizzas on our menus that were going to be different. “Mac-and- Cheese” was a big staple from Ian’s, so we wanted to keep that on the menu, but we also wanted to make something that was our own. One of the things that came up and helped distinguish us was “Dance with El Diablo.”

Does Chicago have a spicy-food community?

Definitely. When we took this pizza to the next level with the “Devil’s Blood” hot sauce, that’s when I really got a sense of the spicy-food community you’re talking about.

Today I made a full pie of it and, to my disbelief, we’re almost sold out of it. That pie is hard to sell because most people don’t eat spicy food on that level.

We had a very negative experience when we opened up where someone came in and was like, “I like spicy food, I want to try the “Diablo,” but the guy became very upset saying, “I don’t know why you would sell something like that on the menu, that was not even pleasurable. I didn’t like that at all.” I’m like, “I’m really sorry, here’s your money back. We’re not trying to offend anyone or give anyone a bad experience.”

That was in our first month of operation, and from that moment I made sure to tell everyone on staff, “You have to be very emphatic about the fact that this is a very hot slice.” People have different tolerance levels for spicy foods.

So everyone that asks me, I say, “Yo. It’s a 20 out of 10. It’s really hot.” So, they think in their head, “This guy just said it’s a 20 out of 10. Do I even want to mess with that?” And then I tell them what’s in it, so they can decide for themselves. Then, I tell them one more time, “Yo. It’s really hot.” At that point, they can decide for themselves. It’s on them. They’ve been forewarned.

Tell us about the attention spicy pizza has generated.

When we made the “Devil’s Blood Dance with El Diablo,” we had a lot of people reach out to us. Food Paradise, which is a program on the Travel channel, they sought us out because they were doing a show about spicy food across America, and they wanted us to represent their Chicago episode.

And a good handful of customers came in specifically looking for spicy pizza. People from out of town, people that lived in Chicago. I really began to get a sense of this community of die-hard spicy food fans. It’s not just something they eat all the time, it’s something they seek out.

I had this one guy, when we first opened up, probably week 1. He was an Indian guy, born and raised here I think, and over the years we became good buddies. When he came in, he was tipsy with his buddies on a Friday night, and he was like, “What is that? That looks awesome!” pointing at the “Diablo” pizza, and this was after the guy who hated it, so I warned him, “It’s really hot. Like, really hot.” But he’s like, “I’m Indian, dude! I eat hot food for breakfast. Don’t worry.” So, I gave him a slice, and I came back and he’s like, “Dude, it’s really, really good. But you were not kidding. I need water. I was not expecting it to be that hot.”

Does the “Danger Warning”attract more people to the slice?

It depends on the person.

Everyone today is really receptive to it. So, this theory or idea holds water today. 100%.

I say it, but not to say it as a gimmick. I’m being genuine, and most people, by the tone of my voice, are turned off by it. They just default to what they know they can handle. But on a day like today, everybody was like, “Yup, I’m gonna give it a shot.”

Still, most of the time I give a warning, some people do walk away.

What does spicy-food culture mean to you personally?

Spicy food culture is really interesting to me. As I said, I didn’t start eating anything spicy until about nine years ago. I used to think Big Red’s bubble gum, with those cinnamon flavor crystals, was too spicy.

I went from that to one day I was drunk in college, and I told my buddy to get any slice, and he came back with the Spicy Chicken Burrito slice. I felt like a dragon eating this pizza that had Frank’s Buffalo Sauce, which is not that hot, but I’ll never forget that. I got sober real quick. I was sweating, my nostrils were clearing up, and it was tasting good.

So then, after that, I was like, “Alright, I didn’t die.” And once I started dating this girl, she would literally eat Jalapenos with everything. Valentinas on everything. She was always joking with me like, “You’re such a wuss.” I remember getting tired of it after a while, like “I can eat hot food. Is that gonna prove to you that I’m a man?”

She was like, “Well, then do it then.”

So, one day, me and her were grilling. I grilled a jalapeno and put the whole thing in my mouth. I was just staring her down the whole time. She was shocked, she couldn’t believe it. That took me to the next level, being able to eat that with the seeds and everything.

Now, I put hot sauce on a lot of stuff, eggs in the morning. And I can see how people who really, really love spicy food. They salivate at the smell of spicy food. And that for me was so cool to experience in my own way. I don’t know if I ever want to get to that level, but I’m happy where I’m at.

I’m happy to be able to put Sriracha on my eggs in the morning, and it’s not hot.

Photo at top: Jaime Gamez, founder of Big G’s Pizza. (Harrison Liao/MEDILL)