December 11, 2007

Candy Wrap-up

As my time in London Comes to a close, I give you a rapid-fire list-and-review in no particular order of some candy bars I’ve eaten here. Nothing tells you about an area like the candy bars you can find there.

Double Decker
As the first candy bar I ate here, it will always hold a special place in my heart. As the name implies it is two tiered, with a layer of chocolate nougat and one of crispy rice, all covered in the obligatory layer of milk chocolate. It’s fluffy and crunchy at the same time, a rare combinations toward which more bars should strive.
4 Sporks

Your basic Milky Way with a new wrapper. Being a fan of Milky Ways, I’m a big fan, but the only real advantage this bar has over its American counterpart is its black wrapper with red writing and fun television commercials with lights turning on as a man eating a Mars Bar passes them.
3 Sporks

Fruit Pastilles
These little round gummy pieces of fruit are a real paradox. At first bite, they are revolting and sickeningly sweet. By the fifth pastille, you are somehow dreading the end of the roll. They definitely don’t taste like real fruit, but somehow that doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem.
3 Sporks

This is a very solid candy bar. Puffed hard toffee draped in a coat of milk chocolate. The toffee is “crunchie,” just like the name implies. Truth in naming and advertising is always worth some brownie points.
4 Sporks

This is a granola bar masquerading as candy. The wrapper seems to imply the fun of a candy bar, but the inside is the mundane dryness of granola.
1 Spork

From their ad campaign, I’ve deduced these were around in the 80’s, left store shelves, and are just now returning. They should have stayed gone. There is are sort of “blown chocolate” innards that are more air than filling. As a result, it is decidedly unsatisfying.
1 Spork

Coconut covered in milk chocolate, or, if you prefer dark chocolate. It doesn’t resonate with me because I’m not a big coconut fan, but the little palm trees and “bounty” stenciled into the bottom of the bar gets brownie, er, Bounty points.
2 Sporks

These are both “double” bars, following the two side-by-side bars in a single package of Twix. One is quite similar to a Twix, the other is “blown chocolate” covered in chocolate. “Blown chocolate” is not good; Twix is. Unfortunately for them, both bars have a purple wrapper and yellow writing, making it hard to differentiate between the two. Bad labeling + bad brand identity = inferior product.
1 Spork

Just like its namesake is king of the jungle, the Lion is king of the candy bars. A wafer sits in the middle draped in caramel and a thick outer chocolate shell. That thick shell also has puffed rice sprinkledin, making for a sensational mixture of tastes and textures unheard of in other bars.
5 Sporks

Boost wrappers claim the product is “Charged with Glucose!” It’s true. A creamy chocolate center has pieces of crushed biscuit in it and is surrounded by caramel. It’s all encased in milk chocolate. This is a flavor on level with the Lion, but is hurt by the fact that its shiny foil wrapper and high charge of glucose might give little children or older eaters a bit more than they can handle.
4 Sporks

It’s just Starburst in less colorful wrappers. This version of everyone’s favorite childhood candy are even more mundane because the flavors are grouped together in the wrapper, not interspersed like a proper candy.
2 Sporks

Wine Gums
Colorful little gummies that give your jaw a workout and have fun labels like “port” or “Chardonnay” on them. They don’t taste anything like wine, and really don’t taste like anything but Wine Gums for that matter. Still, they’re quirky and appealing.
3 Sporks.

Recognizable brands like Kit Kat, Snickers and Milky Way are also on the shelves. But if you get the chance, try something different. Candy is a lot less adventurous then Toad in the Hole, but it provides fresh new flavors and combinations just the same.

December 7, 2007

Lebanese Food is no Bologna

For over three months, I've lived in a Lebanese area of London; Edgware Road. I've walked by newsstands with Newspapers from the Persian Gulf. I've passed The Islamic Bank of Britain almost daily. I've looked up to read the names of restaurants that are written in both English and Arabic.

Somehow, I never went in to those restaurants to eat.

With my time in London drawing ever more quickly to a close, I had to atone for that sin as quickly as possible. The easiest way to do so was to eat lunch in an establishment called "Maroush" two doors down from my flat.

Maroush actually has 11 locations in London, according to the information on their menu. The chain was started in 1975, and now has diagram/phrase "We [heart] Maroush" stenciled on the windows. Inside, its pretty classy, not the usual change-in-your-pocket cuisine you're used to reading about in this blog.

For London, though, Maroush isn't expensive, even though its Web site says "a taste of Lebanese luxury in London." After my meal, no doubts twitter in my mind about the high quality of the cousine. It just doesn't come at the same price as luxuries in the Celebrity stomping grounds of Marlybone or Mayfair.

For just under £10 I got a plate of Falafel and a bowl of rice with lamb. Falafel is one of those funny things that some people hate and others simply adore. The quality of Falafel also plays a part, though. I hated the falafel in Syracuse University's dining halls. I loved it at Maroush.

Trying to describe falafel isn't easy. Calling it ground chickpeas and beans that are deep fried just doesn't do it justice. For that matter, it might not even be accurate. Just try it sometime, chances are you'll find it quite good.

The rice and lamb had much less uncertainty. It was, well, rice with chunks of lamb meat. Because of the way it was cooked, the rice became infused with lamb flavor. It might not sound good, but any doubters will be feeling sheepish after they try it.

Sheepish is how I feel for not trying Lebanese cosine earlier. I [heart] Maroush too.

November 20, 2007

Miracle Whip Makes Miracle Chips

Remember when the White House renamed “French Fries” to “Freedom Fries?” It was quite a strike at the hearts of the French, who were opposed to invading Iraq in 2003. Never mind that they would actually be quite pleased to be disassociated with fried strips of potato forever.

In England, French Fries aren’t called French Fries anyway. They’re called chips. And these fries/chips have one huge difference from their misnomerly American counterparts.

Pulp Fiction fans know the difference, since it exists to a greater extent in the Netherlands. It’s a substance that tastes “butter” than lard on sandwiches. It shouldn’t take a miracle to whip the answer out of your head.

Yes, it’s time to talk about putting mayonnaise on fries/chips. This might happen by accident when munching on fish and chips if the mayonnaise for your fish runs onto your fries. When ordering fries/chips in Amsterdam, it won’t be an accident. After asking if you want mayonnaise, the person behind the counter will douse your fries/chips with the stuff. It would probably be more accurate to ask whether you want fries/chips with your mayonnaise, not the other way around.

It sounds distinctly unappealing if you’re used to eating in the United States and getting ketchup on your fries/chips. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Something about the combination works. Maybe the fat in the mayonnaise binds with the grease in the fries. Perhaps the salt from the fries brings out some normally-buried flavor in the mayo.

Above all, it is oddly reminiscent of the classic combination of baked potato and sour cream. A smooth, cream on a starchy potato product, but with a bit more salt. When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it? And it’s actually wonderfully delicious.

Wonderfully delicious, and wonderfully unhealthy. Remove the only remotely fruit product (or non-starchy vegetable product, depending on your personal beliefs) from fries/chips, ketchup, and replace it with collagen. Eat mayo on your fries/chips too often, and you’ll end up in the clinic named after it, not smacking your lips in enjoyment.

Just be careful. The snack can be pretty messy. Usually it is served with a small two-pronged wooden fork to help keep your fingers clean. Unfortunately, it doesn’t to anything to scrape our your arteries.

But for a delicious treat every once in awhile, mayonnaise on fries/chips is a wonderful combination. Take my advice, and don’t worry about being in Europe while eating it. Try it at home. Four (wooden) sporks out of five.

November 14, 2007

Lambasting the Mint Condition

Pretend you don’t know anything about lamb or how to eat it. For one moment, picture it as a new meat that has been discovered by mankind, and a team of scientist and chefs are fast at work to discover the best way to eat this new “lamb.”

Now, imagine that they declare lamb and mint to be one of the best ways to eat this new and mysterious meat. Chances are, you’re a little put off by this declaration. Meat and mint? Isn’t that like having beef flavored Altoids?

Of course, lamb and mint isn’t a new discovery. It’s actually a quite old and traditional pair. Put it in a pasty, and chances are you’re in England.

And if you happen to be in England, you really should try a lamb and mint pasty. Whether you get it from some old-fashioned bakery in the country or a commercial “Cornish Bakehouse” in London (like I did) it is an excellent piece of grub. Pasties, for starters, are nice flaky pastries typically containing potatoes, onions, and some form of meat, though you can find vegetarian versions. They’re kind of like the stepbrother of steak and kidney pie.

Inside a lamb and mint pasty lies a plethora of potatoes, some onions and lamb meat. If you’re lucky, the cubed potatoes and diced onions will be so soft from cooking that you can’t tell the difference between the two. You’ll also get a little more meat than I did. The only real bite of lamb I got was in the very center of the pasty.

There wasn’t much mint to speak of, either. Whether it just blended in to the pasty experience so seamlessly that it wasn’t noticeable or whether the folks at the Cornish Bakehouse are too cheap to include a man’s portion of mint sauce is debatable, but the fact that you can’t taste much in the way of mint isn’t.

Which is a shame, because as someone who has never tried lamb and mint before, I was really wondering what kind of mint is best with your slice of sheep. Is it peppermint? Spearmint? Some form of mystery mint?

That will have to be a question for a rainy day. In the meantime, the Cornish Bakehouse is serving up some pretty good food that overcomes its flaws. For £2.95, you can’t get much more artery-clogging, brick-in-the-bottom-of-your-stomach food than the brick-sized pasties they are serving up. The potatoes and onions are so good, you probably won’t mind that there’s barely enough meat to constitute a carnivorous meal.

Hey, the cheese and onion pasties are even cheaper. Why not save your lamb experience for another venue and just try a cheap and tasty pasty? The lack of meat and mint forces me to rate my Cornish Bakehouse pasty at just 3 out of five sporks, but a cheese and onion pasty would probably get higher marks for its more accurate nomenclature and lower price.
Now, “wool”dn’t you like that?

October 28, 2007

Haggling over Haggis

Ask someone you know if he or she wants haggis for dinner. You’re more likely to get a blank stare and a “what’s haggis?” than a “yes” or “no.”

You wouldn’t be alone. Even in Scotland, the home of this dish, the policy on haggis seems to be to eat it without thinking much about its contents.

Unfortunately, my self-imposed job is to ask the tough questions like “what is haggis?” After spending a research-filled day in Edinburgh, I can safely report back that haggis is made of … well … it depends.

That’s right, haggis is a lot like a hot dog in that pinning down a set of ingredients can be both difficult and stomach-churning. Canned haggis in the grocery store informed me it contained beef-filler. “Haggis” statues in a souvenir shop look like bloated sausage links, and might represent a stomach or lung. Grill a few Scots, and they’ll likely give you different opinions. The only definitive answer is to say that haggis is minced.

I think the waiter in the pub where I eventually sampled the flagship Scottish food put it best after I asked him whether it contained beef.

“No,” he answered. “It’s lamb.”

He paused a minute and bit his lip in concentration.

Then, to reassure himself, he repeated: “Haggis is lamb.”

Don’t press any further. Accept that it is pieces of lamb you don’t want to know about – probably containing large portions of lung meat. Bear it, grin and dig in.

Of course, if your haggis is traditional you’ll be eating it with tatties and neeps, also known as potatoes and turnips. Yum, turnips. Not the most appetizing of ideas, but it’s another tradition you must indulge.

Surprisingly, tradition knows what’s cooking. Haggis, tatties and neeps is a great combination. My haggis had a sweetness to it that I couldn’t quite place and certainly wasn’t expecting. Maybe (mostly) lamb lung is naturally sweet. Maybe it was soaked in brown sugar to cover up the flavor of something like ground aorta. Maybe turnip juice ran into the meat. Whatever the case, it worked.

The tatties and neeps were good, too. They were each mashed up a bit, but not to the point that there were no solid particles. Tatties are always good, whether they are called tatties, taters, potatoes, fires, spuds or chips. But the turnips were unexpectedly good, with a taste not unlike sweet potatoes. The whole collection was smothered in a slightly peppery gravy that contrasted nicely with the meal’s sweetness.

My meal didn’t just surprise my tongue, it surprised my eyes. I was expecting lumps of meat and starch on a plate. I got a layered cylinder that resembled the candle I made in elementary school by melting crayons and pouring a layer of hot wax on top of a layer of cool wax from a different color crayon. Throw in the garnish and fancy square plate, and it was like the cook was trying out for Iron Chef: Scotland.

Though it was a point of curiosity, the presentation certainly didn’t hurt the meal. If anything, the layered design allowed me to scoop up haggis, tatties, neeps and gravy in one forkful, letting the different tastes compliment each other.

The only drawback here is the same drawback that all traditional foods seem to have in pubs: price. The cheapest haggis I could find was £7.95 – a little pricey for a meal of mystery meat.

But, really, there are foods that are worth shelling out a few extra quid. And if paying extra means you are getting the best of the leftovers of what is probably lamb meat, you should be willing to crack the wallet in no time.

Get me a set of bagpipes and a kilt. I’m a believer in Scottish cuisine. Aside from the price and the minor fact that you really have no idea what you’re eating, there is no downside. Four tartan-patterned sporks out of five!

October 1, 2007

Of Money and Meatballs

“Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch.”

That was me paying for food in Stockholm. You would think that traveling from London, where the dollar-to-pound ratio is roughly 2/1 to Sweden, where the dollar to Kronor ratio is 1/6, would be a little cheaper.

You’d be wrong. If you want to sit down in Stockholm and enjoy some native Swedish meatballs, expect to shell out close to 200 Kronor – 30 bucks.

Fortunately for the meatballs, they are simply scrumptious. I never knew a meatball could be so good until I stepped into a bar and restaurant just north of Gamla stan and ordered the Swedish meatballs. Imagine, if you can, a perfectly seasoned meatball that is neither overcooked nor undercooked. That means they’re moist on the inside without being hard on the outside. From what I understand, the meatballs actually contain mashed potatoes, which might explain their propensity for perfection.

But the thing that makes these orbs of meat most desirable is their sauce. They’re doused in a cream sauce that is somewhere between brown and yellow and carries the flavor that makes the meatballs so distinctive. You’ll probably like this stuff even if you’re foolish enough to not like gravy like substances, so make sure your meatballs are thoroughly covered.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this dish is that the cream sauce is not used to cover up for inconsistent cooking. Often, when I eat at restaurants, I think the food is doused in gravy or sauces to cover for the fact that it’s only the chef’s second day on the job. But with Swedish meatballs, the gravy adds more than a little moisture, it adds its own distinct flavor. The meatballs would be plenty moist on their own anyway, so you know the gravy has to be there for another reason.

Any self-respecting restaurant will serve you your meatballs with boiled potatoes and Lingon berries. My potatoes were the only potatoes of their type that I’ve ever eaten that were boiled to perfection. It’s quite difficult to get them just right so that they are fully cooked but don’t fall apart. I can now say that getting them just right is quite the reward.

Lingon berries would probably deserve their own post if I had eaten more of them. Those that were served with Swedish meatballs were mashed and had one of the best sweet flavors I’ve tried. It was sweet enough that it should have been sickening, but somehow it wasn’t. I chalk that up to the fact that they had a natural sugar, rather than the processed sugar that usually creates such a strong sweetness.

The only real regret I had after finishing my meatballs was that they were so expensive. If you judge the meal against other sit-down meals in Stockholm, the price was actually good. If you judge it against meals in other countries, it will make your skin crawl.

But if you judge it on flavor alone, you’ll want to crawl back to the restaurant and order another plate.

Thank goodness I’m not spending the semester in Stockholm. I might be broke.
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September 23, 2007

Tarting to like English Bakeries

Friday we made a trip to Salisbury, which is a little less hectic than London. In Salisbury, we made a trip to a bakery, which smells much better than London. In the bakery, my mouth made a visit to heaven while it enjoyed a delectable apple tart.

Not that the tart was necessarily better than London food – it was just cheaper and, for the most part, fresher. It was also the first time I’ve really “popped in” to a traditional English bakery, and I can now say it probably won’t be the last.

For 85 pence I got a miniature apple pie. Don’t think apple pie like American apple pie, think apple pie with a richer, more buttery crust that makes your mouth drip with passion. It was just about perfect.

In fact, the only real problem with the whole bakery experience was choosing what I wanted. It was one of those problems that you like to have: having too many cheap and yummy looking options.

All of the pastries were on display in a giant window that wrapped around half of the bakery, and the list of goodies reads like a Harry Potter book. Treacle tarts, cheese and leak pasties, chocolate buns, you name it, you could buy it. For a single treat, you could pay between 50p and 85p, making it very tempting to get more than one thing.

I knew I wanted a tart. I’m not sure why, mind you, but I was sure I wanted a tart. I guess they just seem English to me. Even eliminating eccles and cookies didn’t help much, because I still had lots of choices ahead of me. In the end, I narrowed it down to a lemon tart, a custard tart, an apple tart and a treacle tart.

The treacle tart was my first choice, but they only had those in larger form. It actually was a great deal, because the amount of treacle tart they were selling for £1.65 would have lasted me a week. Still, I didn’t want to gain too many extra chins, so I stayed true to my intention of buying one portion, and one portion only.

Next I eliminated the lemon tart on the simple basis that I wasn’t in the mood for lemon. That left me with apple and custard.

In the end, I wimped out. There was a lot of custard in the custard tart, and I was afraid I might not like it. In a move that was a little reprehensible, I decided that my immediate enjoyment was a little more important than my duties sampling different foods for this blog, which I should consider of paramount importance.

I would apologize, but that apple tart was so good that my apology wouldn’t be anywhere near heartfelt. Why risk my now-fond feelings toward English bakeries by trying something semi-new and slightly dangerous when I could solidify my love for them?

That means I have to give the whole bakery experience a full five sporks. Good smells, good selection, good taste… There isn’t much to say on the “bad” side of things.

Well, there isn’t much bad to say unless you want to talk about health. I already want to go back to the bakery. I want to try everything they had, because I bet I’ll enjoy almost all of it. But things that taste that good don’t come without a price, and that price is surely cholesterol.

Well, cholesterol and the insane amount of time I spent trying to decide what to buy. When you’re standing in front of one of these bakeries, healthy eating isn’t an option, it’s a fallacy.

September 19, 2007

Fish free-for-all

Now that I’ve had some time to sample a few kinds of fish & chips here in London, it’s time to report on the true state of the meal in England and compare it to my experience at Arthur Treacher’s last spring.

First, it’s important to lay down my sampling of fish & chips both in the UK and in the states. In the states, I’ve eaten the meal from Arthur Treacher’s of course, and from a delicious Irish pub in Syracuse called Kitty Hoynes. Here in London, I’ve had it on three occasions: once sitting down at a restaurant that advertised it and cooked it to order, once as take-away from a walk-in restaurant that scooped up a piece of fried fish and some chips from under a heat lamp, and once from a stand beside the Tower of London.

You probably know the prices to expect to pay in the US: About four or 5 bucks at Arthur Treacher’s or $8-9 at a pub. Here in London, you might as well replace the dollar sign with a pound symbol. That would all be fair and well, except for the fact that the dollar is currently worth a little less than half a pound. For those of you who aren’t too good with money (and judging from the current credit-crisis in the US, there are a lot of you) that can mean paying close to 18 bucks for one meal!

In fact, that’s almost what I paid in the sit-down restaurant. Fish, chips and mushy peas were something like £8.95. In the first shop I ate them at, my fish & chips came rolled in a piece of brown paper and cost about £5. In a strange twist, the stand next to the tourist trap Tower of London was a bargain of £2.50. That is the lowest I have seen fish & chips, and is actually cheaper than eating out nearly anywhere I’ve found in London. Even stranger, that price included a can of soda! Go figure.

Here in London, the presentation of your fish & chips will vary depending on where you eat. That’s a little disappointing, given the traditional image of a fried piece of cod and greasy fries nestled in a roll of newsprint is unfulfilled. In fact, you really can’t get fish & chips in newspaper anymore. The closest I came was a brownish paper that was probably a lot cleaner than newsprint, but definitely lacked in character. But if your chips aren’t rolled in paper, which happens more often than it should, they will be on a plate if you order in a pub or sit-down restaurant, or can be in a Styrofoam container, as were mine from beside the Tower of London.

The actual quality of the food will obviously also vary. When I ate sitting down, the fish was very good but could not have been eaten while walking. It simply would have fallen apart because it was too flakey. The other two times I ate the meal, I got a nice solid piece of fish that was fried together in a very solid way. Those suckers weren’t going to fall apart if I dropped it back into the ocean.

Oddly enough, the best overall fish & chips I had were the cheapest, and not just because of their bargain price. The fish, while it wasn’t as good as at the sit-down restaurant, was still very good, and the chips were piping hot. That price didn’t hurt, either. That basically goes to show that getting food fish & chips here is hit-or-miss. The second place I got them from, which is also the middle price range, was not of high quality. It couldn’t beat Arthur Treacher’s.

So the conclusion is that depending on where you go, you can get either great fish & chips or you can get mediocre fish & chips here in London – just like you can get either great fish & chips or mediocre fish & chips in the states, depending on where you go.

The real difference lies in the price, and in the condiments, which I have previously not mentioned. The British eat a lot of mayonnaise and vinegar. That isn’t a stereotype, and it isn’t over exaggerated in American’s minds. They eat the stuff on everything. It is also delicious on fish & chips. I’ve even found a new love for fries with mayonnaise on them.

In the end, your actual food will probably be more expensive than it would be in the US, and it might not even be as good. Despite all the evidence that shows fish & chips in London isn’t significantly better than fish & chips in the US, I have to say I enjoy fish & chips here a little more. There is some feeling to eating the meal while walking down a windy street in central London that you just don’t get from eating it in the United States.

It really doesn’t boil down to price, and it really doesn’t boil down to quality. I suppose it just fries down to tradition. Just like a cheese steak at a Phillies game seems better because it is renowned in the region, fish & chips in London just seem better.

Next post, I’ll try to address the strange issue of mushy peas. We won’t talk history or anything like that – even I’m not crazy enough to look up the history of mushy peas. Still, there’s something to be said about this odd British companion to fish & chips. As soon as I figure out what it is, I’ll type it up and let you know.

August 31, 2007

Tastes Plane

Ah, airline food. No one can resist the smell of microwaved, pre-packaged delicacies in the dry air of a Boeing 747.

At least, I couldn't on Monday night on my flight from Newark to London. Virgin Airlines supplied the food, seat, and entertainment. I provided the money and red eyes. With a scheduled departure of 9:25, I needed to provide plenty of cash and ended up with a good amount of red in the eyes.

There's not much point discussing the surroundings or costs of the flight as they effect the enjoyment of your meal. The flight boarded late and took off even later. The seat was extraordinarily cramped. The food was incredibly expensive given the ticket price. I did get to watch a television program or movie of my choice during the meal thanks to Virgin's incredible personal LCD television.

Once we were in the air, my hungry belly turned at the scent warm food. Unfortunately, I had to wait about 30 minutes for my food until first class was served. Eventually, the stewardess came around and passed me my food. A main dish, roll, water, wine, crackers, cheese and Oreo cheesecake were loaded onto my tiny tray table.

The main dish was a combination of beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, and broccoli. The potatoes were watery and managed to mingle with the gravy to make a sort of "grashed potatoes" that didn't taste too bad on the beef. I had to debate eating the beef, as I was a little worried that the U.K. company would have imported British beef, which still evokes uncomfortable images of angry cattle. I decided the USDA probably had my back and let my churning stomach guide my fork.

The cheese and crackers were pretty low-quality, but that was okay, because they matched the wine. I'm no connoisseur, but the wine tasted like the grapes had been grown by the light that filtered through the tiny windows of the plane.

Fortunately, the cheesecake was surprisingly satisfying. Whether because it was good while the rest of the food was mediocre or because it really was delicious, I was undeniably happy while wolfing down the piece from the pie-sliced-shaped plastic container. It even made the episode of Futurama that I was watching taste better.

Several hours later, after everyone on the plane but me had fallen asleep and woken back up, "breakfast service" was delivered. Apparently Virgin thinks breakfast is a choice between a roll or a "Strabury breakfast bar." That meant I got to wolf down a granola bar while marveling at the way the British pronounce the world "strabury."

In the end, the food wasn't anything worth calling home about on the air phone. It was pretty good for airline food, but that only merits 2.5 sporks out of five. The airline didn't even use sporks! The would have saved a little space in the premium real estate of my tray table. As it stood, my spoon spent much of its time jammed between my water cup and cheesecake tray -- space that would have been better served holding the tubes of salt and pepper, which were pushed under the cheese where they were unavailable to hold season by beef and gratatoes.

But my mediocre food met my mediocre expectations. Check back for the real food reviews from the United Kingdom. I can just taste the fish & chips now.

August 17, 2007

Spice up your Life, Spice up your Cheetos

It's a given that Frito Lay makes a spicy variety of their ever-popular cheetah-branded puffs. But you can expect those to be Cheetos with a little hot sauce mixed in, amounting to little more than an overpowering blast of brute spiciness. But the slightly more complex taste of Jalapeño has always melded well with cheese, and it has always melded well with chips. Logic would follow that it would meld well with cheesy puffs, which are almost a mutated hybrid of cheese and chips.

Logic is correct. If you like Cheetos and if you also like the flavor of Jalapeño, chances are you'll be smitten with Cheddar Jalapeño Cheetos as a quality junk food. I actually ate the whole bag, in a period of two hours -- a course of action that should be thoroughly discouraged.

In fact, the only real flaw of this variety of Cheetos might be that it is too easy to eat too many of them. That's a flaw shared by all Cheetos, so if you expect to face it when you open the bag, there shouldn't be too much of a problem. Of course, they stick to your fingers. Of course their overabundance of salty cheese flavoring makes you thirsty. Of course you feel like a bloated cow after eating them. It's part of the Cheetos experience.

Just be careful not to take that experience too far. The whole bag gave me something which I can only describe as the dreaded junk-food hangover. I awoke the next day with a bit of a headache and a pain in the stomach to match none. These symptoms persisted all day.

The body will punish you for putting too much of anything in it. That can be beer, milk or fiber, it doesn't matter. But the human anatomy seems to reserve a special type of pain for the junk food hangover that involves an excruciating tearing sensation in the gastro-intestinal tract and a need to burp incessantly.

The fact that Jalapeño was involved in the cheese snacks probably didn't help the junk food hangover, either. Long the enemy of stomachs and intestines, Jalapeño flavoring can join with greasy food to tag team even the strongest digestive juices into painful submission. Keep that in mind when you start your bag of Cheddar Jalapeño Cheetos. Also keep in mind the slightly intoxicating effect of eating a few of the twisted cheesy sticks -- your cravings will only grow stronger the longer you eat them. In fact, your cravings will likely mirror the Jalapeño flavor, which also grows stronger the longer you eat them.

As it stands, Cheddar and Jalapeño Cheetos earn 3 sporks out of a possible five. If not for the painful morning after, their tasty nature would almost certainly give them a higher ranking. Unfortunately, they should bear a Surgeon General's Warning advising of the painful side effects of consuming too many cheese puffs. Cheetos should also consider an advertising campaign urging eaters to "enjoy responsibly."

A little more responsibility certainly would have helped me.

August 3, 2007

Horay for Mole!

What will you like at Qdoba?

That question is plastered all over the cups, wrappers, and napkins at the Mexican chain. I managed to answer that question the first time I ate there. At Qdoba, I like the Chicken Mole Burrito.

This savory slice of the Southwest is basically, an exceptionally large burrito stuffed with rice, chicken, Mole sauce, sour cream, and black beans or pinto beans. Personally, I chose to skip the beans because I was stalked out from walking around Washington D.C. for several hours before dropping into Qdoba.

The eatery desecribes Mole (pronounced Moh-lay) as a "rich and slightly spicy" sauce, and it's pretty accurate. While the brownish sauce didn't set my mouth on fire, it did have a little zing, and it was rich enough to fill my stomach relatively quickly.

I know that I liked something at Qdoba, but I really have to take exception to the slogan plastered all over their paper products. At first read, it appears to be relatively simple: "What will you like at Qdoba" seems to suggest plentiful offerings coupled with the certainty that you will like something. But, change the emphasis on the sentence, and the appeal of that phrase evaporates.

"What will you like at Qdoba?" Say it out loud. Now you're wondering whether you will like anything.

"What will you like at Qdoba?" Now the phrase is skeptical.

"What will you like at Qdoba?" With this emphasis, you know you'll feel strongly about something, but you might just end up hating it.

Hopefully nobody will read the slogan with anything but the intended emphasis. It would be a shame if anyone skipped out on a tasty meal because of a reading error. I found the Chicken Mole Burrito to be just too tasty to ignore -- four sporks out of five. Just remember to keep the question "What will you like at Qdoba?" in your head.

June 29, 2007

The Vending Machine: Friend or Foe?

Two days ago, on June 27, the Automated Teller Machine celebrated its 40th anniversary, prompting consideration of other machines that stand on streets, sit in halls and nestle in the corners of public buildings in order to make modern life a little easier and a lot more enjoyable. In the world of food, that means it's time to give the vending machine some thought.

Vending machines come in many different shapes and sizes. There is the soda machine, which now includes different variations covered in glass or large pictures of cola cans. There is the infamous vending machine with a series of small doors that lead to compartments arranged around a spinning wheel. This variation usually holds microwaveable "food" such as cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches. There is, of course, the famous snack vending machine, which holds everything from Pringles to Polar Ice gum to Pop Tarts. It is this snack vending machine which merits the most discussion.

The contraption is reviled by the health-conscious, practically worshiped by the college student and passed with indifference by millions of travelers hurrying worriedly to the bathroom in rest stops. What is the vending machine? Is it the work of Satan, inflating the young's waistlines and sending Americans to the graveyard early? Is it the savior of the hotel guest who wakes at 2 a.m. with a deadly hunger? Or is it the aggravating temptress who takes a dollar but fails to properly dispense a back of M&M's, leaving the buyer 100 pennies poorer and angrily watching their purchase dangle from the end of a silver metal spiral?

The machine can be the handyist of contraptions in many circumstances. When it is late at night, and there is no convenience store open to satisfy your craving for chips, it seems like a wonderful invention. It can serve you when there would be no way you could drop in on a store. Shops couldn't sit in the break rooms of America's businesses, ready to serve hungry employees, but vending machines can. And, depending on the machine, there can be a pretty solid variety of food available. Everything from cookies to candy bars can be in a vending machine, and while you can't compare it to the selection at Sheetz, it is better than that stale pack of crackers that has been in the glove compartment of your car for two years.

Of course, the machine has many downsides, the aforementioned affinity for stealing dollars and failing to dispense food being only one. Machines' stinginess toward certain dollar bills is also an aggravating problem. This has gotten better in recent years, but failing to accept wrinkled Washingtons amounts to age discrimination toward older Georges. Another big issue is with the frequency workers stock certain machines. Nobody likes to stare at rows of empty slots while their blood sugar drops.

But the biggest problem with the vending machine might be health related. This might seem like a bit of a dead horse, but the food in those things is really terrible for you. Everyone knows that, of course. It might even seem a little odd to denounce something for it's negative impact on health in a forum devoted to fast food restaurants.

The real problem is the low ratio of enjoyment to negative health impact in vending machine food. In all honesty, how many times have you gobbled down a snack to find yourself still hungry and maybe even a little uncomfortable? The food from these things doesn't usually quench hunger, although it often tastes pretty good in the mouth. Once it's in the stomach, it sits like a giant lump of Splenda, impossible to digest and (possibly) terrible for your kidneys.

Of course, the caloric value of this food is higher than most realize. Everyone knows it is bad, but I recently ate a vending machine honey bun that was 587 calories and tasted like it was mostly made of air. I wasn't satisfied, and I felt all that trans-fat go right to my hips.

In the end, the vending machine purchase usually isn't worth it. The dollar is gone from your wallet, and your stomach feels just as hungry as before. Worse, it often feels a little upset, as if it is screaming at you for feeding it such cheap garbage. These machines will do in a pinch, but no one in their right mind would choose a packet of Twinkies over a McDonald's cheeseburger. At least the cheeseburger is hot and fills your stomach a little before you feel sick.

June 10, 2007

Taco Bell: Driving Beef into Quesadillas

The Quesadilla is a tremendous concept. Toss assorted cheeses in a soft tortilla and add some meat if it suits your fancy. After a few minutes on a hot metal surface you have a gooey, cheesy source of taste-bud pleasure. Taco Bell has been advertising a new Extreme Cheese and Beef Quesadilla, so I swung through the drive-thru of my local franchise in hopes of tickling their fancy.

The Quesadilla itself is as sloppy and tasty as you would expect from Taco Bell's latest invention. The beef is the messy variety that can be found in every beef taco, gordita, and nacho salad at The Bell. There is a slew of cheeses -- I thought I detected some of The Bell's standard shredded yellow cheese along with some of the creamy Velveeta-style, although it was all melted together in an indistinguishable colloid-like mass.

This concoction is pretty large, and dirt cheap -- $1.29 to be exact. Every item on the Taco Bell value menu is a great deal, but the addition of this much beef and cheese slushed together for this low price is something special. Rest assured, although I compared the price to dirt, the actual meal did nothing to invoke thoughts of Taco Bell's recent flirtations with violations of the health code. I didn't see any evidence of chives or e.coli. In fact, the flavors blend well, and I was spared the stomach-ache that I always anticipate as penance for eating at The Bell.

There are a few drawbacks to this particular Quesadilla. The aforementioned melted cheese mixes with ground beef to become a virtual torrent of mess. Even though I ordered at the drive-thru window, I chose to wait until I arrived home to unwrap my meal. If I had tried to eat while driving, I probably would have ended up shampooing the carpet of my car all weekend in order to keep myself from thinking of the annoying Taco Bell jingle every time I stepped into my car and caught the scent of the cheese/beef mixture that would have splashed everywhere. Eat this at a table. It is not automobile food.

Actually, my entire drive-thru experience seemed determined to persuade me that Taco Bell and cars do not mix. I pulled into a line that was several cars long at 9:10 p.m. on a Friday night, just after I finished work. I pulled out of the drive-thru window with two items at 9:23.

That is quite a bit of time to spend sitting in line. The cars ahead of me had substantially larger orders than my own, but I was under the distinct impression that the staff at The Bell was in no rush to prepare my meal in a timely fashion. While I waited, my car idled, wasting both time and gas.

I don't typically use the drive-thru because going into the restaurant is just as fast, if not faster. Burning $3-a-gallon gas and playing "guess-what-this-is-doing-to-the-Ford-F-15o-sitting-in-front-of-me" did not hold my attention for long. I was left to wonder if I was so lazy that I did not mind effectively increasing the price of a Quesadilla by burning gas while I waited for my order to be filled.

That kind of thought doesn't sit well on an empty stomach, especially when you realize the meal you are ordering is too sloppy to eat in the car, thereby extending the amount of time you have to wait before eating. I ended up swearing off drive-thrus while swearing at myself for wasting time and money. It really hurt a very solid Quesadilla.

And solid is a good way to describe the Extreme Cheese and Beef Quesidilla. Solid use of cheese and solid use of beef makes for nothing less than a solid flavor combination. Taco Bell's nomenclature of "Extreme Cheese and Beef Quesidalla" had me geared up for something a little more colorful, but I ended up finding familiar ingredients mixed in a slightly unfamiliar way. The meal's lack of originality and inherent messiness are its weakest points, but those get outweighed by good taste and a splendid price. It earned four sporks out of five, so I recommend trying one next time you want to eat at The Bell.

Just do yourself a favor, and skip the drive-thru.

March 24, 2007

Chipping in on Something Fishy

I received confirmation that I will by studying in London next semester (Fall 2007) from Syracuse University's study abroad program a few weeks ago. Naturally, I wanted to begin my adaptation to the British lifestyle immediately. I have yet to start calling the hood of my car the bonnet, but I have been making a concerted effort to eat more fish and chips. In this case, I stopped at the Carousel Mall in Syracuse and bought the fish and chips dinner combo at Arthur Treacher's.

It is important to note that I have an unparalleled love for fish. The kind of love in those classic romance tales "West Side Story" and "You've Got Mail." I don't need much of an excuse to rush out and eat fish and chips. In fact, the night before I ate at Treacher's, my girlfriend and I ate at an Irish pub in downtown Syracuse, Kitty Hoynes, and I ate fish and chips
The two meals of fish and chips in less than 20 hours gave me a great chance to compare Treacher's to a more expensive restaurant. In brief, the food at Kitty Hoynes was divine. The beer battered fish essentially melted in my mouth and the chips (known as french fries in less civilized countries) were quite good. It was steaming hot, the atmosphere was filled with Celtic wonder, and it was the day before St. Patrick's day.

Needless to say, Arthur Treacher's in the food court of Carousel Mall at noon on March 17 did not quite live up to the Irish precedent set by Kitty Hoynes. Somehow the Atrium of the mall's food court was not jumping with celtic flutes and art or Guinness. I don't necessarily have a problem with that, considering one of my original goal in eating at Treacher's was not to soak up Irish life, but to bask in the glory of British Cuisine. Confusing the Irish and the British is not a silly mistake I wish to make. Still, I don't think the most British Fish and Chips spots have small birds flying between Wendy's and Taco Bell because they somehow got trapped in the huge glass monstrosity that is the mall.

Regardless, Treacher's food was not too bad, considering the amazing standard that had been set by my meal the previous night. For a little over six bucks I got two pieces of fried fish, chips (large crinkle cut fries) and two hush puppies. The fish was piping hot and pretty tasty, albeit the batter did not melt in my mouth. The chips were a little on the cool side by the time I finished them, and that led to a little stiffness and sogginess, depending on the particular piece of potato. The hush puppies were as good as any I have eaten. That might not be saying much since the only time I ever eat hush puppies is at Arthur Treacher's.

Speaking of the hush puppies, I don't quite know why they are included in Treacher's meal. I was always under the impression that hush puppies originated in the Southern United States, not the shores of the United Kingdom. Since the Union Jack adorns both sides of the banner that proclaims "Fish & Chips" in Treacher's logo, there might be some discontinuity here. Either I am mistaken, or the head chef at Treacher's is. Either way, it seems like a fishy synergy of foods.

For those of you keeping count, Treacher's meal also gives you a medium fountain drink for your six Washington's. There isn't much to say about it, though. The most notable thing is that they have pink lemonade, which I find to be awfully sweet but somehow appealing.

My biggest disappointment at Treacher's is the way the food is served -- cafeteria style. Grab a tray, slap a styrofoam plate on it and fill with fish, chips, and hush puppies. I would like something a little more British -- wrap mine in newspaper please. Oh well, if you eat in a food court, you shouldn't expect to feel like you're grabbing a quick bite before taking the Tube to work.

In the end, the Arthur Treacher's fish and chips meal is a pretty tasty low price alternative to a more expensive joint. I applaud any fast food joint that serves fish of better quality than McDonald's, and Treacher's was serving me some aquatic food that was at least the quality the Gordon's Fisherman would bring home. I could have used better chips, and perhaps a third piece of fish instead of this hush puppies, but that is a minor complaint. I actually ate one hush puppy first because I was quite hungry and waiting for my fountain drink to be filled. It isn't right to complain about the inclusion of the food you eat first. (This is also why there is only one hush puppy in the picture -- I was so ravenous that I scarfed it down before breaking out the camera.)

All of this adds up to give the fish and chips at Arthur Treacher's a solid four out of five sporks. A newspaper, some better batter, and hotter chips would probably bump this meal into the rarefied air of five-spork territory, but you can't overlook a few of the disappointments in the meal. As long as you aren't expecting to feel like you're in Europe, this is a pretty good meal for a fast food joint. Now, in six months I'll let you know how much better fish and chips are in the U.K.
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January 11, 2007

Snickering at Picasa and the New York State Fair

Browsing the different software Google recommends can be dangerous, and this post is evidence of the peril it can cause. Today I downloaded Picasa, the photo-managing software, and felt the need to experiment with its "Blog This" button. The click of a mouse can place your picture in your blog without your having to dictate the messy steps involved in more traditional uploading! My lack of computer savvy-ness has finally paid off!

I found it necessary to upload a picture of myself eating in the food critique blog, and I had surprisingly few shots of this important act. Fortunately, my past endeavors saved me, and Picasa dug up this beautiful image of my trip to the 2006 New York State Fare in Syracuse at the end of August.

Sadly, it has been nearly five months and I cannot recall the exact date or price of my meal that day. Fear not, though, because I know with certainty that I tried one of the most exquisite delicacies to ever escape the confines of a deep fryer. I speak not of french fries, onion rings, or even special Thanksgiving Turkey. No, I had the delight of delights, a fried Snickers bar!

My sensory knowledge is also unblemished by the trials of time, and I can tell you with fair certainty that this hard-to-find caloric bomb costs the better part of five dollars. More importantly, I can tell you that it is pretty darned good. A fried outer shell is a surprisingly fitting wrap around your standard snickers bar.

Of course, the whole thing comes out of the fryer piping hot. Therefore, fried Snickers are impaled on a stick. This fact can make the biting process somewhat difficult. Tearing off a piece of the Snickers is also complicated by the fact that the bar is frozen when dropped in the deep fryer so that the chocolate portion does not melt. The sensation is otherworldly, as the outside is hot and the innards of the concoction are quite cold. It doesn't hurt the flavor, either. But frozen Snickers are notorious for being difficult to bite, and I had problems with the deep fried outside sliding off the candy bar.

The two temperatures also wrought havoc on my sensitive front teeth. Eating this thing was like competing in an oral pain marathon, but the sensations coming from my tongue were enough to keep me chomping down.

Of course, anyone considering eating the fried Snickers should not consider the health implications of ingesting such food. A deep fried candy bar -- take that, trans-fat bans and fitness gurus! In case the snickers and deep frying weren't enough, the kind people at the fried snicker's booth topped off my prize with some chocolate syrup and powdered sugar. I suppose those hundred calories were justs a drop in the bucket compared to the rest of the bar-on-a-stick.

Caution: eating a fried snickers will almost surely result in a serious case of stomach cramps. The thing lays there like you just swallowed a bar of solid iron. Between my soaring risk of heart attack and twisting tummy, I was happy the state fair only offers these things once a year.

But, for all of it's caloric overindulgence and swinely charm, the fried Snicker's falls a little short of the stardom achieved by my personal favorite unhealthy-fried-treat, the fried Oreo. The whole hot/cold situation is interesting, but it can hamper the eating experience between tooth pain and disintegrating food. Fried Oreos are just a bite or two, with little temperate variation. My stomach never goes to bed angry at me for eating fried Oreos, either.

Still I must say the Snickers was an overall positive experience. The chocolate and caramel are surprisingly suited to be engulfed in more fat, and I now have the (dubious) ability to proudly claim that I have eaten a fried Snickers. In the end, cholesterol and logistics combined to clog this fair-specialty's ability to rate highly. It receives a solid but somewhat-disappointing three out of five sporks. At least I can use its picture to test new software. Posted by Picasa