If you see an unusually large menu item at a San Diego restaurant, it could be offered as a food challenge. These gigantic plates of food are luring competitive eaters to America's Finest City and tempting patrons to test how quickly they can take down tasty yet massive sandwiches, gigantic burgers and more within a certain time limit.
On a whim, food blogger Josh Hockett ordered The Broken Yolk Cafe's 12-egg omelet smothered in chili and cheese - and came within minutes of defeating it.
It's called the Iron Man or Iron Woman Challenge and is served on a 15-inch pizza pan with two biscuits and a heap of home fries.
Impressed by his appetite, Hockett's friends next rooted him on as he succeeded in the barbecue challenge that Bull's Smokin' BBQ used to offer. This victory prompted a friendly wager that Hockett could collect should he conquer every formal food challenge available in San Diego County that met his personal requirements: a time limit of 30 minutes or more, as well as no cheese-based or spicy challenges.
Game on. He completed a different challenge every two to three weeks over the course of about 10 months - 11 in total - with a few more than once. Not one to accept defeat, during this time frame he returned to The Broken Yolk Cafe and became the first person ever to triumph over the Iron Man at the Mission Valley location.
And then there are people who do this for sport. When it comes to the Great White Whale (a 2-pound fillet of battered cod, two pounds of "proper chips" and a side of peas) at Shakespeare Pub and Grille, Assistant General Manager Nikki McEwan-Beatty said: "The record is held by a professional eater who flew in from the East Coast and ate his first challenge in 12 minutes." Apparently, the guy even ate a second and then finished with dessert.
Joey Chestnut, whom you may have seen on TV competing in the annual Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on the Fourth of July, held Lucha Libre's record of 26 fully loaded TJ dogs for a few years, though the current record is 29. Chestnut holds multiple world records, including most deep fried asparagus eaten in 10 minutes (12.8 pounds) and most hard boiled eggs (141 in eight minutes).
Timed food challenges based on the number of items eaten aren't Hockett's thing, though. He prefers eating at his own pace. As a fitness professional, too, he's well aware of his limits and doesn't exceed them.
"I knew that after the first [food challenge] right where my breaking point was, in which any more eating at all would not be good ... for me or anyone," he said. "In most cases I felt very full, sure ... never like painfully, OMG stuffed, however."
Preparation for each challenge included a strict day-of regimen (what works for him may not work for you) beginning with a 5-pound breakfast (a head of lettuce, grapefruit, tomato, eight large strawberries and two cups of cottage cheese, washed down with 20 ounces of water). After digesting, Hockett powered through a high-intensity spin class (which, coincidentally, he leads for work). Three to four hours later, he'd strength train and then drink a small protein shake along with 24 ounces of water. "Go time" happened usually two hours later and after a double serving of digestive enzymes, usually around 6 or 7 p.m.
"This way, I could sleep (like a baby) through the aftermath, in most cases," he said.
In reality, the majority of people who try these food challenges fail. Only three (professional eaters) out of about 100 have defeated the Big Fat Fatty sandwich at Fat Sal's Deli, a gluttonous mish-mosh of cheesesteak, mozzarella sticks, jalapeño poppers, bacon, chili, cheeseburgers and much more on a 27-inch garlic hero roll.
Sometimes a food challenge reservation is required. Give Lucha Libre notice and they'll prepare the Champs Booth (Mission Hills) or the Champs Ring (North Park) with water and as many fully loaded TJ dogs as contestants are willing to eat within 20 minutes. At Brian's 24, no advance notice is needed for the Pancake Monster (five gigantic buttermilk pancakes layered with four strips of bacon, two sausage patties, an 8-ounce ham steak, an 8-ounce country fried steak, topped with three eggs and placed on a pile of home fries).
Read more: San Diego's food challenges
"We also have families who order it for sharing. It is a regular menu item," said Andrea Epstein, co-owner and general manager.
Food challenges have been great for getting people in the door. Groups often go to Lumberyard Tavern to watch friends try the 4x4 Challenge (four half-pound patties, four slices of cheese, four pieces of bacon, lettuce, tomato, red onions, pickles and a fried egg on a pretzel roll with a pound side of fries). The Encinitas tavern recently had a guy come in with his own bottle of hot sauce and complete the challenge in 11 minutes before promptly leaving.
What you win, other than bragging rights, depends on the place. T-shirts are common as is recognition on the restaurant's wall. Sometimes, the meal is even free although everywhere, you gotta pay if you fail. Lucha Libre throws in one TJ dog a day for life for victors, and Fat Sal's Deli lets winners name a sandwich.
It is also worth noting that restaurants keep the playing field even by disallowing any substitutions whatsoever. If you're keen to attempt a food challenge, it's always wise to call the restaurant before heading over to see if it's still on the menu and what the conditions of winning might be.
As for Hockett, he's retired from food challenges but you can find him talking about food, local restaurants and fitness on his blog A Better Bite SD. Props to the popular Eating and Drinking San Diego Facebook group for introducing us to him.
Katie Dillon is a lifestyle and travel writer who believes that one of the best ways to explore a city is through its food and drinks. Follow her adventures on social media at @lajollamom and send any tasty ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.