December 31, 2008

A year in reviews: The best and worst foods of 2008

As the year draws to a close it's time to glance in the mirror at the tastiest and most abominable foods of 2008. I've selected eight foods I reviewed to make a bottom four worst foods and top four best foods from the year.

Just remember, this isn't supposed to be a commentary on my actual reviews. It's about the food itself, so don't skip my scathingly clever roast of the Christmas ham because you think I'm insulting my own writing.

The bottom foods are headed for the newly created "Put a spork in them" wall of shame. The top foods receive the equally new "Golden Spork Award." Enjoy!

Put a spork in them: The bottom four worst foods reviewed in 2008

4. McDonald's Southern Style Chicken Sandwich A perfect example of asking people to pay too much for a product that fails to deliver. Pickled by its own lack of exceptionalism.

3. Taco Bell's Cheesy Beefy Melt Proof that you can't just package the same three ingredients differently and claim to have a new and better offering. They should have added bacon or something.

2. The Christmas ham The poster child for traditions that need to go the way of the passenger pidgin.

1. Sweet and Salty Caramel Bugles A loud trumpet to product development labs everywhere: Test your food before selling it!

Golden Spork Award winners: The top four best foods reviewed in 2008

4. Reese's Whipps The right way to rethink a classic candy -- make it good.

3. Taco Bell's Bacon Cheddar Gordita Crunch Responsible for the breakthrough in food science proving that yes, bacon can improve Mexican food.

2. Starbuck's Christmas Blend It will make a coffee drinker out of you. Grab some if you can still find it.

1. Taco Bell's Cheesy Double Beef Burrito Simply the best deal in fast food today, and one of the few things that could dull the pain of the loss of my beloved Beef and Potato Burrito from Taco Bell's value menu.

December 30, 2008

Redundancy and the Red Robin Chili Chili Cheeseburger and redundancy

The bigwigs who come up with dishes at chain restaurants have about five words to describe a meal and sell it to an audience. They can choose to be descriptive, like T.G.I. Friday's did with its Cedar-Seared Salmon Pasta. They can choose to be quirky, like Burger King did with its infamous chicken fries. But they rarely choose to be repetitive, like Red Robin did with its Chili Chili Cheeseburger.

Maybe the double "chili" is meant to imply a larger size, the way the "XX" does in extra-extra large clothing. Perhaps it's meant to denote a greater flavor, like in double-chocolate chunk cookies. Or maybe it's there for cadence, as in "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang."

Whatever the reason, I think another adjective could have been swapped in for the first chili. It would have made the menu more descriptive and spared me from coming up with an adequate description of the meal. But after some thought I've managed to decide "heaping or jumbo" would have worked well.

Once you get past the name, the "Heaping" Chili Chili Cheeseburger is pretty tasty. Red Robin takes their typical cheeseburger and dumps a boatload of chili on it, then serves it on a plate next to some parmigiana fries. There's so much chili sitting on the burger that it runs over the sides -- all of them. The top of the bun is served on the side of the burger, and the menu recommends you eat it with a knife and fork.

I recommend taking its advice on this one. The chili has a good consistency that's not too runny, but it's just too bountiful to pick up. Your hands are going to end up looking like you killed someone by the time you finish the burger.

Plus, the knife-and-fork experience isn't too bad, once you get over the insulting fact that you're eating a burger with utensils. The chili itself could use some more spice, or any spice for that matter, to satisfy those of us who like more zing in our food, but it tops off the burger well. Plus, its lack of spice let me eat it at at 9:30 p.m. without suffering any heartburn later in the night.

And those parmigiana fries are absolutely delectable. They aren't choked by a heavy dose of sauce the way Red Robin's garlic fries are, but they still pack plenty of flavor. The plate doesn't pack many of them, though. The number of fries doesn't share the burger name's penchant for redundancy.

The price does. It's $9.99. Too bad the accountants couldn't have tossed in an 8 or 3 somewhere in there just to spice things up.

A lack of spice just sums up the Chili Chili Cheeseburger. No spice in the name. None in the chili. None in the price.

It must all be drizzled on those fries. A solid three sporks out of five.

December 28, 2008

All dressed up: The Bacon Cheddar Gordita Crunch

As you might know, I'm a big fan of the Cheesy Gordita Crunch from Taco Bell. But the chain had virtually pulled them from the menu -- it was no longer listed on the big board, although you could usually get one if you asked for it.

Last night I was delighted to find it back in a prominent place on the menu. There was just one twist. The Cheesy Gordita Crunch listed isn't your father's Cheesy Gordita Crunch.

It was the new Bacon Cheddar Gordita Crunch.

The basic idea is still the same. It's a beef taco wrapped in a gordita with a liberal amount of melted and shredded cheese. But now there are bacon bits between the taco shell and the gordita, and some new cheddar sauce is slathered on top of Taco Bell's ground beef.

The Bell has always served an "Americanized Mexican" food. The old 1/2 Pound Beef and Potato Burrito was a good example of that -- the potato chunks gave it a lot of stateside flavor. But the bacon takes that to a whole new level.

It takes the Cheesy Gordita Crunch to a new level, too. I wasn't expecting the bacon to taste as good as it did since its quality isn't the highest. In fact, it's a little soggy. But those bacon bits managed to blend seamlessly with that cheap beef and salty cheddar.

The combination was so good that I didn't feel too bad spending a whopping $2.49 for a Taco Bell item. Typically there's no reason to stray from the "Why Pay More" value menu, but this is an exception. The regular Cheesy Gordita Crunch was always reason enough to shell out a little more, but the dressed up version is absolutely worth it.

Of course, it would be better off if it was on the value menu. But I guess you can't get a newly renovated item at the prices your father remembers. Four sporks out of five.

December 26, 2008

The quandary of leftover Christmas cookies

I have a confession to make. I've been eating leftover Christmas cookies all day. If I cared about such things, I'm sure I could feel the lipids pooling in my thighs.

Fortunately for me, I don't care about it at this point in my young life. But that doesn't change the fact that many of you out there do. Therefore I've come up with a countdown of the top five ways you can get rid of leftover Christmas cookies.

They all conform to two important principles: The cookies must be gone by New Year's Day because nobody wants to eat food from last year, and you must be involved in the eating of your own cookies. After all, you can't keep your New Year's resolution of losing 15 pounds if those stale sugar cookies keep confronting you when you get home from the gym. And justice dictates you should be stuck with what you bake.

Without further ado, here's the list!

5. Eat them. Slogging through leftovers is more fun with someone else! So sit down with a pal and have a snack. Better yet, invite some friends or family over and have a cookie-eliminating party. You can even disguise it as wanting to see them for the holidays. Even if you don't have anything to say, you can just shove a cookie in your mouth, wash it down with milk, and repeat -- you won't have to speak to the people you've invited. That way, you'll actually get rid of the cookies faster if you don't have anything to say.

4. Eat them. Nobody said you aren't allowed to eat alone. Many of us have the week between Christmas and New Year's off this year. (In my case, I may have longer than that off, depending on how my job hunt goes.) So we'll be around the house eying up the tins of leftover cookies all day. Just give in to temptation whenever it strikes.

3. Eat them. Make sure you have at least two cookies after every meal. Yes, that includes breakfast. Nothing tops off eggs and bacon like a nice chocolate chip cookie! Two cookies after every meal equals six fewer cookies sitting in the tin per day.

2. Eat them. If you ever find yourself tempted to give the cookies to the birds or a next door neighbor, stop immediately. You made the cookies, now you're stuck with them. Your neighbor probably has her own cookies, and the birds don't want to get fat any more than you do. Eat a cookie every time you're tempted to give some away.

1. Eat them. If all else fails, suspend all other snacks and meals and start a cookie-only diet. You're dealing with a short term-deadline here -- Those cookies have to be gone by the new year. Buckle down and motor through those 10 remaining ginger snaps. They have enough calories to count as a lunch, anyway.

Granted, these strategies all look a little similar. They might even leave you wishing you never see another Christmas cookie again, or at least wishing you didn't have quite so much arterial plaque. But I promise they'll whittle down your leftovers in no time flat.

So enjoy! And remember, you mixed the batter for your own grave. Now you have to bake in it.

December 25, 2008

The Christmas ham: Overrated

Having finished a scrumptious turkey dinner earlier this evening, I'm in quite the mood to discuss Christmas meals. And while I'd love to lump praises on sugarplums and figgy pudding, it's important to address the meat of the issue.

The Christmas ham is a sham.

Plenty of different meats can claim to take center stage for dinner on the big night. Christmas isn't like Thanksgiving, when turkey is consensus main course. Instead goose, ham, turkey and even duck shuffle around for space at the table.

All of the fowls are okay. Their meat is succulent enough to merit a feast fit for the holiday. But ham ... Unlike the birds, ham is too foul.

In fact, it's hard to view ham as anything but imperfect pork. It's been cured with too much salt, which overpowers the true flavor of the meat, which isn't all that good anyway. It's hard to find a piece of ham that won't leave you chewing through gristle halfway through.

Those characteristics translate fine to lunch meat. In fact, Italian subs, which have ham in them, are one of my favorites. But you wouldn't serve up a platter of thick-sliced hard salami and expect it to satisfy as a hot dinner at a big family gathering.

So unless you're feeding your relatives cold cuts -- which is perfectly acceptable, and even recommended if you don't want to spend the day in the kitchen while they unwrap presents -- stay away from ham for Christmas dinner. I know it's too late to plan this year's dinner, but keep it in mind for the future.

Pick your favorite between duck, goose and turkey. Because ham is for the birds.

December 24, 2008

An Appeal for Eggnog

Every year I'm shocked at the number of people who recoil in disgust at the mention of eggnog only to admit later they've never tried it. Apparently, the name is enough to cause stomachs to rumble in protest.

True, there are plenty of things people consume with names that make me want to never try them. Chocolate-covered ants and live cockroaches, ala "Survivor," come to mind. But eggnog doesn't even approach the levels on the disgust-o-meter that merit a scrunched up nose at its mere nomenclature.

Sure, it's more like drinking pudding than drinking a beverage. And yes, it is exceedingly rich. But those two traits shouldn't disqualify it from consumption consideration. defines eggnog as "a drink consisting of eggs beaten with sugar, milk or cream, and often alcoholic liquor." I'll be waxing philosophical about the non-alcoholic eggnog because I find it delicious on its own. (Although, if your relatives get too annoying over the holidays, it is a traditional drink that could reinvigorate some missing yuletide cheer.)

What, exactly, is in eggnog that is objectionable? Is it the sugar? The milk? The cream?

I suspect the name eggnog is actually what turns people off to the drink. But the eggs only add to its richness. In reality the beverage just tastes sweet and filling, typically with a strong nutmeg flavor.

Therefore, I'm calling on all of you festive fools to try some eggnog this season! It's one of the few beverages that's only available once a year, and while its name might conjure up images of egg on your head, drinking it is a wonderful experience.

If it makes you feel better about giving eggnog a try, call it puree of white chocolate-covered ants. But do test a sip. If you're too timid to try it, I think you might as well have egg on your face.

December 23, 2008

Desperate for one more last-minute gift?

Most of us have that one present we've yet to buy. It's for Great Aunt Edna or First Cousin Once Removed What's-His-Name. And as much as we'd love to buy it, there's one big problem: We have no idea what to get.

So if you're off to the mall tomorrow to aimlessly wander the stores before grabbing some random "Make Your Own Fruitcake" kit in a last-second the-stores-are-closing panic, let me save you some trouble. Just buy one of those fancy meat-and-cheese gift sets.

I know, I know. Nothing screams "I don't know you well enough to get a gift that's tailored to your interests" like a meat-and-cheese basket. Actually, nothing says "I don't even feel like putting any effort into trying to figure out what you want" like a meat-and-cheese basket.

But take a step back. Almost any gift you get is going to scream "I don't know you." Even if you get lucky and buy your cousin's fanboy boyfriend a Marvel Comics Dictionary, chances are he already has it and publicly consults it every day. And it's more likely that you'll end up getting your step-uncle a Ford belt buckle when he's owned a Chevy truck for 25 years.

Just bite the bullet, own up, and admit you don't know your family. Then you can go ahead and give the gift everyone enjoys -- food.

I would even venture to say that the meat-and-cheese gift basket is unfairly ranked next to fruitcake as a terrible holiday gift. That should not be the case. The basket has a slew of delicious things in it: cured meat, tasty cheese, fancy crackers and, often, nuts. Even if your gift recipient doesn't like something in the basket, the portions aren't that big. Chances are they can find someone to eat it.

If you suspect that I'm covertly lobbying for a meat-and-cheese basket, you're right. I even usually get great gifts -- but I still want one. You just can't beat seasonal food as a present.

December 22, 2008

Hot McChocolate

Before taking you down the culinary journey that is today's food review, I would like to take a not-so-brief paragraph to mention that I've recently finished my undergraduate degree at Syracuse University. Not that I'm bragging, mind you. I only want to point out that in addition to my lifelong love of flavor and everyman eye toward food, I can now add a real-life college education to the list of traits that qualify me as a food critic. So read on, secure in the knowledge that this reviewer has received the stamp of approval from a fully accredited post-secondary institution! (That stamp didn't have anything to do with my food reviews, but we need not mind that.)

I've spent my last two blog posts reviewing coffee. But what about all of you out there whose palates reject java? What about those of you shivering in the bitter cold who just don't like bitter drinks -- those of you who need something sweet, like hot chocolate?

There is a big bad world of hot chocolate out there, and you need guidance. Well, fear not. I'm going to tackle the issue by taking on one of the newest and most perplexing hot chocolates: McDonald's.

And it is perplexing. McDonald's hot chocolate has some sort of a "McCafe" branding. It includes cappuccino, mocha and other fancy coffee-and-milk drinks that you usually buy in Starbucks. Plus it comes in a fancy dressed-up paper cup with a robust lid.

We'll come back to that lid in a bit. First, let's describe the hot chocolate that's inside the cup. It's sweet. Really sweet. So sweet that it leaves you wanting a bottle of water to alternate with sips of the hot cocoa. So sweet that I'm just going to say it again: it's sweet.

On top of that super-sweet hot chocolate is a big layer of whipped cream topped with drizzles of chocolate syrup. And here's where the lid comes in. Why are there chocolate syrup drizzles on a beverage that's served with a lid? The drizzles are used to improve the presentation of a drink or dessert, not to add any real flavor. This drink is already on sweet overload, so they're doubly superfluous.

Plus, there is far too much whipped cream for a lidded drink. The fun of whipped cream on hot chocolate is leaving it on top while you burrow your lips down to sip the beverage, thereby leaving you with a whipped cream mustache. But with a lid, you don't get that chance. It filters out all the whipped cream, leaving you wishing you could look like Santa with a whipped-cream Burt Reynolds-inspired mustache.

On top of those problems, the hot chocolate is apparently only available in medium. At least that's what the worker who waited on me said: "It's only in medium, I guess."

She was staring at her touchscreen looking surprised that there is no large hot chocolate. Just like I'm staring at my computer screen now, perplexed at the thought. Maybe a large cup of hot McChocolate is enough sweetness and sugar to blast you immediately into type II diabetes.

The drink might be sweet, but I'm not sweet on it. One spork out of five. McDonald's hot chocolate isn't big, but it is bad.

December 19, 2008

A doubleshot of coffee

As a follow-up to my recent worship of Starbucks Christmas Blend I thought I'd do a quick rundown of the java at Dunkin' Donuts. It's not a comparison, mind you. While I reviewed a seasonal blend from Starbucks, this is a look at the coffee Dunkin' Donuts brews up every day of the year.

It's a good thing it isn't a comparison, because Dunkin' Donuts coffee falls short in every category where the Starbucks Christmas Blend excels. It starts with a largely bitter flavor and doesn't get much better. The flavor doesn't gain any depth after it hits your tongue, and it finishes with another bitter aftertaste.

Perhaps worse, it's watery throughout the whole drinking experience. It's almost as if someone put an ice cube in it in order to cool it down, diluting the flavor. But I've found the coffee is typically served too hot, so I doubt there were any ice cubes in it.

What's that, you say? Coffee can't be too hot? I beg to differ. Yes, I want some nice, hot coffee to warm me up in the winter months. But I also want to be able to drink it within a half hour of being served. It doesn't do any good if it blisters my lips and tongue every time I try to take a sip.

I don't mean to be too hard on the coffee -- I genuinely like Dunkin' Donuts. I just happen to like the chain for its donuts and cookies instead of its coffee. The chain makes a decent iced coffee, as my loyal blog readers surely remember.

Still, it only gets one spork out of five. Even though I may not claim to know much about coffee, I can still criticize it.

December 17, 2008

Starbucks Christmas Blend: Holiday Magic

Right now you can fill your red Starbucks cup with something pretty special. It doesn't even have foam on the top -- it's just good coffee. So go pick up a cup of the Starbucks Christmas Blend.

Now, I don't pretend to be an expert in coffee. I've been drinking the stuff for just ten months, and then only when I'm cold, tired or have a donut. So you coffee connoisseurs who rely on my expertise in fried food may have to take this post with a grain of salt.

But for those of you who are like me -- those of you who grab a cup from whatever coffee shop is at the rest stop when you're driving through the night, or those of you who order a cup to go along with your pie at the diner -- take this to heart. The Christmas Blend is the perfect seasonal treat for the amateur coffee drinker.

It starts with a relatively mellow taste as the explosion of bitterness that often comes with coffee is smoothed out to a pleasant spark. Then the flavor grows to an astonishingly deep richness and surprising sweet undertone. Every sip leaves the mouth with little bitterness. If anything, those sweet currents are the final flavors that linger on the tongue.

For a coffee that starts out as lightly as this one, there is an incredible depth to the flavor. A tall cup of this Joe gives me that "I've-just-had-too-many-desserts" feeling in my stomach. And most of the time, that's a good thing. It feels as if it's nourishing.

And you don't even need all of that fancy milk foam and froth to get that feeling. That can save a few pennies, too. A tall cup cost me $1.78, which is well below the price for a frappemochacappelattechino. That sounds like four sporks out of five to me.