December 4, 2009

Five Guys, five sporks



This may be the only time you ever see me tell you to pay ten bucks for a burger and fries.

Until the far away day when the rising tide of inflation picks up candy bar prices to $5, you won't see me endorse many meals this pricey. I could be rich enough to eat a surf and turf of manatee and polar bear every night, but I would still shudder at the thought of handing over ten Washingtons for the traditionally inexpensive American meal.

But oh what a burger and fries Five Guys cooks.

The Virginia-based chain makes a big deal about the fact that it offers no frozen ingredients and uses only peanut oil on its fries. Normally I'd ignore all that woofing, but something makes a difference at Five Guys. And it may well be the no-frozen all-peanut formula.

Five Guys' burgers are truly hot off the grill. They drip taste (grease) and have ground beef that tastes closer to "off the farm" than "out of the food processor." Five Guys fries are the closest thing to fresh cut potatoes that I've seen outside of sliced-in-front-of-you fair fries. They aren't too salty and have an actual potato flavor -- a rarity in fast food fries.

A real selling point on the burgers is their customizability. Toppings are free -- provided you're willing to pay the already premium price of a burger -- and give you plenty of chances to mix and match. I counted sixteen different toppings, including green peppers, hot sauce and grilled onions.

... And then there's my favorite topping, jalapeno peppers. Five Guys has taken the high road and offers actual fresh jalapenos. As in not the pickled peppers you see at so many other fast food restaurants. While I love pickled jalapenos, the fresh ones provide a much longer-lasting heat that builds upon itself, simultaneously building deliciousness.

But enough about the peppers. You're probably wondering how it all adds up to a $10 meal. And in truth you could order a burger and fries for less than that. But you'd have to order a single burger, which Five Guys mockingly calls a "Little Burger." I say don't go little, stay beefy!

Or you could leave out the drink. My bacon cheeseburger cost $5.49, my fries cost $2.39 and my drink cost $1.79. Toss in some tax, and you have a $10.26 meal -- that was worth it.

Five Guys is getting the same number of sporks as it has guys. Five. Each full dollar I paid for my burger was worth a spork.

Plus I'm ready to go back to spend another ten bucks. I have an awfully inflated opinion of this place.

November 29, 2009

Wendy's Applewood smoked bacon


Wendy's sure has been making a big deal out of its Applewood smoked bacon lately.

Commercials have been telling us it's way better than fast food. They've shown cubicle wars over the hog slices, complete with dramatic shots of leaping old women.

My suggestion, though, is that you look before bringing home the bacon.

It's not that you won't have a tasty meal. Wendy's burgers are good on their own and bacon generally adds some scrumptiousness. So tossing bacon onto an Wendy's burger is a recipe for something yummy.

Unfortunately it isn't a recipe that lives up to all the hype.

I ordered a "Deluxe Double" with smoked Applewood strips and was surprised by how average the bacon tasted. The overwhelming flavor of the burger is ... burger. No bacon flavor jumped out and grabbed my by the throat.

After all the talk, I halfway expected a pig to climb out of the burger, wring my neck and scream "Eat more bacon!" I at least expected smokey bacon flavor to tempt me to order another burger.

Instead I picked up a complimentary bacon flavor -- that was pleasantly smokey -- and a slightly rubbery texture. It may have simply been the Wendy's franchise I ordered from, but my bacon was dry and a bit overdone.

It should have been way better than three sporks out of five. Yet that's the rating it earned.

November 21, 2009

KFC Grilled Chicken




Oh my loyal foodie followers, how I've neglected you these past few weeks! Just as the winter months set in, limiting your time outside and giving you more time to eat, I've been head-spinningly busy and unable to give you the palatory guidance you so deserve!

Let me apologize. Let me also make it up to you with what today's review. I promise it's juicy.

It's juicy because it's reviewing a juicy food. KFC's Grilled Chicken.

Actually, "juicy" doesn't do justice to KFC's latest attempt at non-fried yet appetizing bird chunks. "Saturated" is more like it. My memories of the chicken will forever drip with the moisture that was soaked into the bird.

See, one of the problems with grilled chicken is that it's not as juicy as fried chicken. The grill can extract moisture from the meat where deep frying adds oil to it. KFC, deriving its namesake from Kentucky (deep)Fried Chicken, couldn't put out a dry offering and expect anyone to eat it.

And Kentucky Grilled Chicken, henceforth referred to as KGC, certainly isn't dry. And if you could ever get around to focusing on the chicken's flavor, you'd find it's actually pretty good.

The problem is that you never can focus on the flavor for more than three seconds because biting into KGC is like gnawing on a sponge. Juiciness floods your mouth. It drips down your hands and forms a small puddle at your feet.

Picture the puddle of drool at Odie's feet in "Garfield" comics. That's what you look like after eating KGC.

Worse, that puddle is in large part grease. And a portion of it made it into your mouth and sits in your tummy like a lead weight pulling you desperately into bed to sleep off the calorie-hangover. But when you get to bed it keeps you awake with cramps.

It is cheap at the register, though. I got two pieces of the grilled chicken, (I chose a breast and a drumstick), mac and cheese, a biscuit and a drink for $5 ... plus the future cost of the balloon angioplasty I'll no doubt need after ingesting all that grease -- 110 milligrams of cholesterol in the breast!

KGC could be worse. It could be dry and a hazard to your health. But if you're going to eat badly, you might as well enjoy something that's deep fried.

Two sporks out of five. They should serve this with a shop towel and that a packet of auto mechanic soap that's specially formulated to cut through motor oil.

November 2, 2009

Taco Bell Black Jack Taco

Taco Bell's Black Jack Taco isn't much of a gamble. Sure its black shell gives it spades full of style, but the Bell hasn't exactly thrown a new set of cards into the deck with this one.

See, it tastes a lot like a regular Taco Bell Taco. Because it largely is a regular Taco Bell Taco. A taco shell, seasoned beef, lettuce and shredded cheese all play out the way you expect. Even the black shell is nothing but a bluff. It tastes just like a regular taco shell.

Taco Bell does have an ace in the hole, however -- pepper jack sauce, which gives it a little smack and tells your taste buds this is not a regular taco. The pepper jack sauce is fit for a king.

Unfortunately the Bell fails to slather enough on there. Some more sauce would have left this a delicacy flush with flavor. As it stands the Black Jack Taco is a trap hand that looks pretty then fails to deliver anything special.

Which is really the problem in an otherwise solid meal. The taco costs 89 cents, so you aren't pushing your wallet all in to buy one. And anyone who likes regular Taco Bell Tacos will find this a pleasant take on a long-successful formula.

It's just a shame the Bell couldn't have bet a little more here. Make this a truly black meal by adding black beans and black rice and pour on more sauce, and I'd be spilling some ink in favor of this thing. Even if the flavor turned out to be a little too much it would be better to go bust than play too close to the vest.

As it is the Bell folds in a mediocre three sporks out of five.

October 29, 2009

Cheesy Bacon BK WRAPPER at Burger King


Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, they say.

If that's true, I've largely been ignoring that most important meal. Before today I've only written about breakfast in this critique three other times -- not nearly enough for you bacon-and-egg-craving goblins who like to rise early.

So never mind that I'm posting this past 9 p.m. Breakfast writing makes good food for the eyes whether it's dark because it's early or dark because it's late. Plus, eggs always make a good midnight snack.

Eggs also make a good wrap. Burger King stuffed some eggs, hash brown nuggets, bacon and "smoky cheese sauce" into a tortilla to make a concoction it calls the "Cheesy Bacon BK WRAPPER."

Note the all-caps on "WRAPPER." They're a bit misplaced.

You see, the eggs and hash browns carry the flavor more than the tortilla. (And more than the bacon, for that matter.) Calling this the "EGG and HASH BROWN BK Wrapper" would be more accurate.

That's not to say it isn't tasty. Fried potatoes and eggs make a wonderful marriage in most applications, and this one is no different. The taters give just enough break in texture to keep the egg from being tedious.

The single strip of bacon in the middle of the wrap isn't lost, either. Far from overpowering, it still adds some much-needed meat.

Unfortunately I don't know where the "cheese" in the name comes from. BK's description of "smoky" is a little more accurate, but that's not a powerful flavor either. Two strikes on the cheese sauce.

It's a shame this wrap is labeled with such misnomers because they cost it a spork or two in the ratings. Sometimes you just can't get past a name, though.

You see, a name is the first thing you know about a fast food. You use it to pick your meal from the big board. You speak it when you order. Saying those words prime your mouth for certain flavors. It's kind of like it's the most important part of fast food.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day ... the name is the most important part of a food. At least in this case.

Three sporks out of five. Misled taste buds are not the best way to start the day.

October 22, 2009

Arby's Roast Beef Patty Melt for $5.01 ... kind of


I picked up a $5.01 Arby's Roast Beef Patty Melt meal Tuesday, and while the sandwich is tasty, I have to say the pricing isn't worth a red cent.

Hopefully you've seen Arby's "Worth Every Penny" marketing blitz, or that statement didn't make much sense to you. Basically the hot lunchmeat chain rolled out combos with five different sandwiches and decided to charge $5.01 for each one.

You can get a "Regular Roast Beef" sandwich, a Roast Beef Gyro, a Roast Beef Patty Melt, French Dip & Swiss or a Roast Chicken Ranch. Each comes with your standard drink and curly fries accompaniments. Each is curiously priced a penny over $5.01.

Except if you live in a state that charges tax on restaurants, it's going to cost more. In Pennsylvania it costs 30 cents more, which was a huge disappointment to me as I approached the counter with $5.01 in hand. My five dollar bill and shiny copper coin left me 30 Abe Lincolns short! Fortunately the cashier was patient enough to wait for me to sheepishly dig out my wallet and yank out a $10 bill.

Yes, it was foolish of me to not read the fine print in the advertisements about tax or remember that my $5 Subway Footlong actually costs $5.30. But wouldn't it be nice if the franchises worked out a pricing system that would make the meal cost $5.01 after tax? I'm no math whiz, but I think such pricing would be possible a day locked in the manager's office with a slide rule and the help of a few employees counting on their fingers and toes.

Fortunately eating the sandwich wasn't as upsetting as paying for it.

Even saddled with post-$10-bill coin-filled pockets and the blues of my checkout embarrassment, I enjoyed my meal. Roast beef, toasted sourdough bread, red onions, Thousand Island Dressing -- what's not to like? It is a good thing Arby's doesn't advertise "crispy toasted sourdough bread," though, because it was more on the chewy side. Still, chewiness is not a bad thing when it comes to sourdough, as long as your not expecting to hear a crunch when you bite in.

And those red onions complimented the meal. I've droned on before about how they put that extra "oomph" into fast food flavors, so I won't bore you now. Just know the onions do it again.

The Thousand Island Dressing was a nice touch, too. It wasn't overpowering yet offered the perfect compliment of creaminess and just a hint of spice -- the flavor glue keeping the tastes of the sandwich together. Unfortunately it wasn't a physical glue, and served lubricated surfaces where roast beef met sourdough. You need big hands to keep this sandwich together.

The sandwich is worth trying, even if it does require a little more chump change than expected. Pricing issues and a slight lack of originality keep it from pulling down a perfect score, but it nets a very good four sporks out of five.

It seems coincidence has left me reviewing a lot of foods that deserve four spork ratings lately. Penny for your thoughts on that.

October 13, 2009

Snickers Fudge


All you foodie followers must be hungry for a new critique.

It's been more than a month since the global financial crisis combined with a lack of new fast-food products to force your intrepid reviewer into a De facto vacation that left you cutting back on your favorite blog cold turkey. But fear, not, for your eyes no longer have to diet! All the days off left me recharged and ready to cook up some food critiquing goodness.

Let's start by satisfying the hunger with some Snickers. But not just any old Snickers -- Snickers Fudge.

This is the kind of thing that makes you stop and stare in the checkout line at the grocery store. You're waiting for the person in front of you to finish up at the self-scanner while you tap your foot with that half-sleepy half-annoyed feeling that only comes from watching someone try to feed a $10 bill in the credit card swiper. You're looking around at candy bar displays you've seen dozens of times.

Then you do a double take. The wrapper looks like a common Snickers Almond, but the words don't match. Did that just say Snickers Fudge?

By the time you confirm that it did indeed say Snickers Fudge the person in front of you has finished fighting with the self-checker and headed out, leaving the crazed mom behind you sighing in exasperation and running over the back of your feet with a cart instead of saying, "The machine is open, sir." So you have to grab a bar quickly and get out of the store with your prize.

... At least that's how I found out about Snickers Fudge earlier today.

Regardless, it's a tasty little treat. Just don't expect it to scream "Snickers" at you.

See, normal Snickers have peanuts wrapped in a familiar comfort blanket of caramel. This Snickers has no caramel. Instead it has a peanut butter nougat topped in peanuts that are doused in chocolate. The chocolate is similar to chocolate in truffles, only much lower in quality.

It's a very good taste -- think a Hershey chocolate bar surgically implanted with peanuts and then bred with a Reese's Fast Break, only siphon off a good bit of the peanut butter flavor. A complex flavor tree, yes, but one that's pleasing.

Pleasing enough, in fact, that I'm willing to give it a pass on the fact that its taste is more of a cheap chocolate thrill than an expensive fudge splurge. And on the fact that it is missing the signature Snickers flavor.

So we'll just fudge the score a little to come up with a score of four sporks out of five. And welcome back, everyone!

September 1, 2009

In case you needed a food fix ...

I have a quick link for you to check out.

This week my wallet is trying to recover from a slew of unhealthy foods eaten on vacation, so I'm taking a few days off from new critiques, too. But in the event you were counting on me for something that's interesting to both the mind and the taste buds, I'd like to direct you to a recent post on the mental_floss Blog, "The Quick 10: 10 Secret Menu Items."

It's 10 bullets of little-known menu items at fast food restaurants. If that doesn't tie you over until the critique's vacation is over, nothing will.

August 26, 2009

McDonald's Angus Third Pounders

For years I've needed a burger slotting between McDonald's Quarter Pounder with Cheese and Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese. All those times when I'm too hungry for the single and not hungry enough for the double have left me calling for something else ... something like a "Third Pounder with Cheese."

OK, not really.

In fact the first time I saw an ad for a Angus Third Pounder I thought it was the answer to a question no eater asked. Between the Big Mac, Big N' Tasty, Quarter Pounder variants, McDouble and original cheeseburger offerings, I thought the golden arches had stretched all-beef patties to their sesame seed bunned limits.

The house that Ronald built disagrees, it seems. And so we have the Angus Third Pounders, with seem to target a higher class of burger eaters who prefer mushrooms, crisp onions or high quality buns. While I don't like mushrooms, I do like a bolstered bun, so I reached out for the Bacon and Cheese Angus Third Pounder.


Actually, in the interest of "thirds" I reached out for it three times at three different franchises, giving us a little more in-depth look at the item.

My first impression was that the burger is very good but the bun is lacking. All those promotional materials had me ready for a chewy bun that would soak up all the burger grease and still leave me gnawing after each bite. Instead I got a slightly higher class bun that's still overall low in quality.

The meat might be of a slightly higher grade than regular Micky D's, although I have no doubt it isn't actually certified Angus quality. And the bacon is a step up from what I usually expect at the arches.

The red onion garnishing it all is where this burger earns its keep, however. The rings are crispy and full of flavor that will leave you burping for hours after eating -- just what you want out of an onion!

My second Bacon and Cheese Third Pounder was essentially the same, but with a brutally disappointing onion. I don't know if the second McDonald's ran out of onions or if they mistakenly cooked the red onion, but it was neither crisp nor flavorful. Nor was it good, for that matter. A few limp pink strands sat on top of the burger. They might as well have not been there.

Even so, the rest of the burger was still decent, if a little expensive.

My third third pounder was back to the level of the first one, giving me the belief that the poor onion showing was an aberration. I ate just before noon and burped onion until about 7 p.m. Perfect.

If not for price, these would be a quintessential McDonald's food. Unfortunately, though, $3.99 is just a tad too high for an imitation high-class burger that's completely greasy and has a bun that's better to look at than it is to eat. I might accept $3.49 in a pinch if the onion continues to be high class, but for $3.99 I at least want lettuce on my bacon cheeseburger. So it will have to settle for four sporks out of five.

Which is still a pretty good showing considering I wasn't convinced the burger had cause to exist until I'd eaten it. Maybe McDonald's will start rolling out all sorts of fractional burgers to capture market niches I didn't know exist. If that's the case, next year at this time I'll probably be trumpeting the virtues of the "Eight Twenty Sevenths with Cheese."

August 21, 2009

Furlough Friday: Nothing

Welcome young and old the the final of our 10-part bi-weekly money-saving series, Furlough Friday. Hopefully you've learned a little about eating out on a budget this summer. Hopefully you've also learned to laugh a little, even if times are tough. Now, live from Pennsylvania ... it's Furlough Friday!

Today is the final installment of Furlough Friday, and I'm going to change things up a bit. There will be no potshots at the financial industry. No self-depreciating humor. No food, actually.

That's right, nothing is the featured meal of the final Furlough Friday. Because if times are really tough for you, you might be eating nothing.

Maybe it's a few days without food because you're laid off and trying to save enough to make a house payment. Maybe it's a suddenly closed soup kitchen for someone who has no home left. Either way, life is horrible when you have nothing at all to eat.

Have you ever gone a day without eating anything? A few years ago I did to see what it's like. The hunger doesn't stay in your stomach. Every limb on your body has this throbbing yearning for food by the end of the day, weakening you.

Imagine feeling like that day after day.

Far too many people in the world have too little to eat. Keep that in mind if you have a job, or have been laid off and get one. A donation to the local food bank, even if it's just a few cans of Spam, is one of the most simply altruistic things you can do.

It doesn't devolve into the politics of "where's my money going." If you give someone food, they have it to eat. Organizations aren't out there spending food on lobbying or salaries.

Whether or not you've had a bad hunger in your belly because of job troubles, remember that everyone should have something to eat, and try to help people who are down on their luck with a meal.

August 15, 2009

Chipotle!




Recently I headed to Chipotle Mexican Grill, which recently made its way into the Harrisburg area with a new restaurant. A few friends talked it up to me and I was psyched to try it.

My love for Mexican food is well-chronicled, as is my appreciation for order-your-own-burritos-in-a-cafeteria-style-line Mexican restaurants. (Moe's anyone?) So going to Chipotle, a Mexican restaurant of the aforementioned style that emphasizes natural, organic ingredients, was a no-brainier.

Ordering didn't take much of a brain, either. I wanted a burrito, the signature dish of the customizable Mexican food genre. It got a little more complicated when I had to choose between chicken, beef, pork or vegetarian and decide between black and pinto beans, but it's nothing I haven't done at other restaurants -- chicken and pinto beans for me.

To say Chipotle stuffed my burrito is a massive understatement. It was about to burst, there was such a slew of rice, beans and meat packed in there. And it was all delicious.

The white rice was great, the chicken had a nice juicy flavor and a spoonful of sour cream topped things off. Defining the whole burrito experience was the salsa, though.

I chose Chipotle's hottest salsa in my burrito, and it had a good bit of kick to it. Saying it was very hot would be a stretch, but it rose above the heat in most restaurant burritos I've had.

That hot salsa also worked out well on my side of tortilla chips. Working out less well was the fact that chips weren't included in my meal. They were extra. By the time all was said and done, I paid a little over $10 for a drink, massive burrito, chips and salsa.

In reality that isn't too terrible of a price, considering the overwhelming amount of food it bought. I could have easily done without the chips and still walked away full. But who wants to eat just a burrito? No, you have to have chips to go along with your main course.

Price was the main drawback to my Chipotle experience. That and the bursting feeling in my overloaded stomach as I walked away. They combine to pull down what would be an overloaded five spork score.

Instead I talked myself down and Chipotle will have to settle for a less-than massive four sporks out of five.

August 11, 2009

Taco Bell's Volcano Nachos


Taco Bell should pepper all of its meals with jalapenos.

As a general rule, the zesty peppers make everything better. I've been privately extolling their value on subs for a while now (They're particularly good on Subway's Spicy Italian) but have never witnessed them on a Taco Bell creation.

That changed with the Volcano Nachos. They have a bunch of jalapenos, and it's to their benefit.

Loyal readers will remember the lukewarm reception I gave the disappointingly bland Volcano Taco last year. You'll also remember the thrust of my Furlough Friday feature highlighting Triple Layer Nachos -- good, but not overwhelmingly filling or shockingly tasty. Nothing in my experiences with those dishes led me to believe that combining them would result in anything more than continued mediocrity.

That's because they didn't have jalapenos. The Volcano Nachos, which Taco Bell claims have some sort of "lava sauce" on them, wouldn't be spicy without the peppers. Yet because of the peppers, they pack a decent amount of zing. Not enough to force you to take a drink, but enough to make you do a double take and check to make sure you really are eating Taco Bell.

Aside from the peppers, the nachos are also very filling. They have a bit of seasoned beef, some nacho cheese, tortilla strips, a dollop of sour cream and a liberal amount of refried beans. Plus there are plenty of them in Taco Bell's little plastic tray.

My only real criticism of them is that they don't possess the constitution to be buried under so many layers of saturating food. By the time I'd reached the bottom layers of my nachos they were flat out soggy. Let me tell you, it's impossible to dip up any refried beans with a limp nacho chip.

So grab a fork and enjoy all the soggy heat Volcano Nachos have to offer. Four sporks out of five and chalk the good rating up to the peppers.

August 7, 2009

Furlough Friday: Recycling Taco Bell's Grilled Chicken Burrito

Welcome all to Furlough Friday, the biweekly money saving sensation. Today's edition is the second to last in the summer series, so enjoy! Live from Pennsylvania ... it's Furlough Friday!

Here at Furlough Friday we're all about stretching your money as far as it can go. We're also about stretching every other resource as far as it can go. In light of that, it's time for a re-review of Taco Bell's Grilled Chicken Burrito.

You may recall June's review of the burrito and its avocado ranch sauce. The burrito I ate, which was made with plain white rice, snatched four sporks out of five. With some research I've learned Grilled Chicken Burritos typically have Taco Bell's tried-and-true seasoned rice, so it seems I rated a one-off.

On my return visit I was served a normal Grilled Chicken Burrito complete with avocado ranch sauce, some chicken strips and the seasoned rice. And it costs just 89 cents, making it perfect for Furlough Friday and saving me the extra dollar I would have had to spend reviewing another item for this feature. (Whew!)

Sadly, the burrito is just not as good with seasoned rice. The extra flavoring covers up the avocado ranch sauce, which only adds a trace of zest in this iteration. It also makes the burrito less unique among Taco Bell's lineup -- it starts to blend in to the tune of three sporks out of five.

It blends in because The Bell recombines a bunch of its ingredients to form seemingly new products. You get the same rice in all burritos, and the beans in some burritos are the same as the ones on your nachos.

And so the re-usal goes on and on, which brings us back to the point of this Furlough Friday: recycling. Because when you're out of work, you have to use everything you can as many ways as you can.

July 27, 2009

Green tea frozen yogurt? Yogen Früz says yes!


Let me admit I had a hard time with this review. Self-proclaimed food critics are rarely at a loss for words, but I had a rough time coming up with a description for Yogen Früz's matcha green tea frozen yogurt.

A definition of Yogen Früz isn't quite as hard. It is a frozen yogurt chain originating in Toronto that fancies itself a "health experience." You can choose from all sorts of tasty-looking fruits to blend into a creamy mix with frozen yogurt for a supposedly healthy eating experience.

Think the frozen treat fresh fruit version of Vitamin Water -- Steve Nash isn't there to stuff a second banana into every cup, but it's the next closest thing.

The fruit, which sits diced in little bins at the Yogen Früz counter, looks almost too good to be real. It has a shiny juicy-looking sheen to it that makes you want nothing more than to munch on a little cube of pineapple or mango or kiwi. Each order is blended in front of your eyes with your choice of fruit.

All that fruit wasn't what I went for, though. No, I was hooked by the green tea blended yogurt. I've seen mint flavored ice cream and neon green flavored sherbet, but this is the first time I've ever seen a frozen treat that tastes like green tea. As a big green tea fan, I couldn't resist that.

I probably won't be resisting it much when I see it in the future, either. The two flavors of frozen yogurt and green tea are such a bizarre amalgamation that they actually work.

The taste skews a little closer to vanilla frozen yogurt than matcha, although the green tea tones are definitely there. No one who drinks green tea and knows its hallmark light flavor will be surprised by that, though.

What's astonishing is the texture. It's also where this frozen blend really shines. I don't know if ground up tea leaves or something else causes it, but every spoonful manages to maintain creamy frozen yogertuness while also being rough.

Rough isn't quite the right word -- it's more like grainy. Not rabbit ears ma-I-can't-see-my-Saturday-morning-cartoons bad grainy. A good kind of grainy.

I know it's not the easiest description to wrap your tongue around. Yet grainy is the closest word my stretched mind can find.

So Yogen Früz matcha green tea frozen yogurt is deliciously grainy. Eating it is a totally unique sensory experience. Try it if you see it.

Now that we've run ragged over connotations in the English language, there's only one thing left to do -- rate this frozen yogurt at five sporks out of five.

July 24, 2009

Furlough Friday: McDonald's Dollar Drinks

Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, eaters and unemployed: It's time for Furlough Friday, the biweekly feature that keeps you at the restaurant, ballin' for a buck or less. Live from Pennsylvania, it's Furlough Friday!

Tap water sure can get boring.

When you're trying to save money drinking good old city water is a sure way to keep your wallet padded. But all that H2O can leave your tongue screaming for a little more liquid flavor every once in awhile.

Enter a McDonald's promotion you may have heard about: The dollar drinks. This summer the golden arches is letting you pick up a drink of any size for just $1. (I've heard reports this deal varies from restaurant to restaurant and sometimes limits you to iced tea or imposes other such sanctions, but I've yet to find a franchise that actually restricts it.)

It's a deal that's good enough to force me to string posts on McDonald's back-to-back. Actually, it's going a step further and making me post consecutively on McDonald's drinks. For a food critic who prides himself on sampling a wide variety of the vast fast food world, this is a big deal.

It would be a bigger deal if McDonald's had a more interesting drink selection. They have your typical Coca-Cola sodas along with some Powerade and the bane of my existence, Light Lemonade. But I can't complain too much when I'm getting to fill a cup the size of my head with something other than water for $1.

And best of all, this promotion isn't limited to Mondays. So you can bookend your week with McDonald's deals. Free mocha on Monday, dollar drinks on Friday.

Mondays and Fridays that mean something -- it's enough to make you think you're working!

July 21, 2009

Mondays mean more McDonald's free mocha

Ronald McDonald was apparently not content with his first round of free mocha giveaways on Mondays this spring. He's brought back the promotion through August 3.

Always wanting to give free stuff a second chance, I decided to revisit the McCafe creation to see if my previous scathingly sugary review was off base. Only this time I decided to size up the more seasonally appropriate iced mocha.

Only it was more like sizing the down the iced mocha. My immediate impression had nothing to do with its taste. The free iced mochas are 7 oz. cups, a full ounce less than the free hot mochas. Since they lose girth because they're plastic instead of foam, they look downright microscopic.

I wish my camera could have captured the size of the cup in reference to something, because it was barely big enough to pick up without tweezers. I felt like a the Incredible Hulk walking his toy poodle as I carried the dinky drink out of the golden arches.

Size wouldn't normally be a valid complaint since we're talking about something that's free. But McDonald's would be wise to increase the size of its free iced mocha to give potential customers an actual taste of the drink. With the ice in there you barely get four sips of coffee.

Plus, I don't quite understand the rationale for iced coffee that's smaller than its warm counterpart. Are refrigeration expenses that much higher than heating costs? Is the price of ice, which fills a substantial portion of the cold mocha, that much steeper than that of coffee, which fills a substantial portion of the hot one?

Portions aside, McDonald's iced mocha is far superior to its warm brother. Cold typically mutes flavors, a blessing in McCafe's overly sweet and sometimes poorly mixed lineup. None of the sips come off sickeningly sweet or breathtakingly bitter like they do in the hot mocha.

In fact, the flavors were blended much better than in the hot drink, making the iced mocha the clear winner of the family. Some of the feedback I've received has indicated the quality of McDonald's mocha blending is largely dependent on branch location, who makes the drink, the time of day and the spot in the lunar cycle, so this is by no means a comprehensive observation. Still, it's worth noting that my iced mocha was far more uniform than my hot one.

So McDonald's iced mocha earns three and a half sporks out of five. How about that -- the smaller drink snatched a bigger score.

July 18, 2009

Wendy's Sweet and Spicy Asian Boneless Wings

My apologies for the long period between reviews. The doldrums of July have seized even your intrepid food critic, who is having a hard time believing it's already been more than a week since Furlough Friday. As lazy summer drifts along it's easy to let your duties slip.

What I needed was something to zap me back into action. Something with a little zest that would wake me up. Some spice to match the heat of the weather. Of course I looked to Wendy's.



Not only does Wendy's have the hot lil' Spicy Chicken Sandwich, the chain is parading its Sweet and Spicy Asian Boneless Wings throughout the telosphere. Perfect.

At least perfect in concept. In execution the wings fall a little short of five-spork territory.

Actually, execution was a big part of my qualms with the chicken. It tasted good, with a surprisingly balanced blend of the advertised sweet and spiciness, although it was a little heavy on salt. The wings aren't going to set your tongue on fire, but it's a decent amount of heat for a mainstream fast food joint.

The problem is that I could watch the worker fill my order. And the preparation wasn't too fancy. Basically she took some fried tenders, put them in a container, poured some sweet and spicy sauce on them, plopped a lid on the container and shook.

No long-term marinating. No tender brushing on of the sauce. Just a deep "fry 'n shake" preparation, which doesn't even have the catchiness of "Shake 'n Bake." If I had ordered the buffalo or honey barbecue wings they would have just swapped in another sauce.

Even so the flavor did penetrate surprisingly deep into the chicken. That probably had something to do with the fact that I ordered to go and drove about 10 minutes home before digging in. My guess is that was important steeping time, and I'd recommend you do the same.

These wings aren't going to set the world on fire (or even your tongue), especially if you watch the preparation. But they were enough to kick me out of the summer blahs of ice cream bars and grilled hot dogs. Four sporks out of five.

July 10, 2009

Furlough Friday: Dig your way out with plastic

Fear not, all ye without optimal work situations. Furlough Friday returns with money saving tips for the most depraved of the jobless. Life from Pennsylvania ... it's Furlough Friday!

As worklessness drags on and bills pile up, trips to the pawn shop and scrapyard can take a bite out of the best-stocked home. Goodbye fine china, so long artwork and farewell, silverware.

The only problem is that eating a steaming bowl of furlough-fine 50-cent macaroni and cheese with your hands is a painful, sloppy proposition. Even if you were forced to sell every last salad fork, you need some sort of utensil for eating. And if you're chronically unable to use chopsticks like me, whittling down some twigs from the front yard isn't going to help much.

Fortunately fast food restaurants stock plastic silverware. When you get a Toffee Coffee Twisted Frosty on your furlough day, make sure to keep the frosty spoon. Slipping an extra plastic fork from the tray whenever possible isn't a bad idea either. Pretty soon you can build up an impressive stock of plastic silverware for home use, wash, and reuse.

Try not to think about the strange chemicals from the plastic seeping out after a few washes. The way things are going, we might not have enough cash to feed ourselves, so we won't be living long enough to worry about poking our livers over the edge with little synthetic fork prongs.

There are also nice packages of plastic silverware that claim to be "dishwasher safe." I bought one the other day while in a pinch for utensils. Dishwasher capability wasn't actually one of my prerequisites when buying the pack, but I take every bonus I can find right now.

Those of you who are too honest to pocket an extra spork from Taco Bell might want to take the store-bough plastic silverware route. A box of 24 spoons cost 69 cents and could last me years. Sure, they sometimes break when digging in the bottom of a big peanut butter jar, but nothing's perfect. They're a lot more useful than the plastic in my wallet right now.

Plastic silverware is the only way to eat while laid off. It's cheap, reusable, and has that barely-made-my-mortgage feel that's so chic these days.

Plus, it serves as a visual reminder that you weren't born with a silver spoon in your mouth.

July 1, 2009

How do you eat your chocolate coated ice cream bars?

As far as I know there are two basic ways to eat a chocolate coated ice cream bar. You can just bite it, taking pieces of chocolate and chunks of ice cream in one motion of your jaw. Or you can painstakingly pick the slim chocolate outside off and then eat the ice cream.

I suppose you could also lick the chocolate outside, but that would probably take too long. By the time you got through the chocolate, all the ice cream would have already melted and run down the stick onto your hand where it would be sticky and leave you unhappy.

So that leaves the two main ways to eat these bars of goodness on a stick. But before I break down each one, I'd like to indulge in a brief aside about the name of ice cream bars.

They should be called popsicles.

You see, they're on a stick. Anything you eat off a wooden stick should be a popsicle. But it seems the boxes of ice cream coated in a hard chocolate shell on a stick label them as ice cream bars. (Erroneously in my opinion.)

Trademark law might have something to do with that. But in my world ice cream bars should be things you pick up to eat with your hands, like Klondike Bars and ice cream sandwiches. For the purpose of clarity in this piece, I've compromised and decided to call them ice cream bars, though.

Now, without further ado, let's break down the two methods of eating a so-called ice cream bar.

Chomp them: You get the perfect mix of chocolate and vanilla ice cream. The textures of the fluffy ice cream and thick chocolate meld perfectly. You don't get too much chocolate conforming to your teeth because the ice cream is there to wash it away. Plus, if you have sensitive teeth, that chocolate coating shields them from the cold as you bite in.


Strip them: This is the option for people who only eat one thing off their dinner plate at a time. If you can't eat your steak until you finish the potatoes, this is your route. The problem is that it's not easy to get the coating off -- by the time you do half the ice cream is gone along with it. Plus, the ice cream that's on the bar isn't the highest quality to begin with. That's why it's buried underneath chocolate on an ice cream bar instead of in some vat at Cold Stone.

I bet you can tell which technique I prefer -- chomping. So how do you eat your chocolate covered ice cream bar? If you have your own unique style, feel free to share.

June 26, 2009

Furlough Friday: Free chocolate

It's time again for the jobless sensation that's sweeping the nation, offering money-saving tips for the out of work and low on luck. Live from Pennsylvania, it's Furlough Friday!

Chocolate can pick you up.

No matter whether you have a broken leg, totaled car or jobless day ahead of you, sweet cocoa butter will make it all feel better for a few minutes. The age-old remedy applied by grandmothers everywhere is truly useful if you're sitting at home, wishing you had some money to buy paint so you can watch it dry, and waiting for work.

The problem is that if you don't have money for paint, you might not have money for chocolate, either. Fear not, my cash-strapped foodies! Mars has you covered.

They have this little marketing campaign going on called The Real Chocolate Relief Act. It's a fun play off the bazillion-dollar American Recovery and Reinvestment Act the U.S. government passed earlier this year that gives you a free chocolate bar. (Don't panic, fiscal conservatives. I don't think this is funded by the stimulus, just inspired by it.)


Milky Way, Twix, M&M's -- they're all at your fingertips once you go to RealChocolate.com fill out a mailing address and wait a week or two for a coupon to arrive in the mail. You can do this every Friday through September, as long as you're one of the first 250,000 people to get there. I got a coupon, and I can tell you that free chocolate just tastes sweeter.

You do have to wait a little while to get your coupons, so this isn't a remedy for immediate food requirements. It would be prudent to plan in advance for chocolate-needing funks and pre-order a coupon, though. I also recommend ordering if you think your job is on thin ice. You'll need the free food as a pick-me-up.

Lest I sound like an advertisement for M&M's, let me recommend scouring life for giveaways, freebies and discounts during your forced time off from work. Two days ago I managed to get up to $14 off of two tickets to see the new "Transformers" movie from Kmart. There must be other deals like that out there!

If you don't have Internet access, this will be a harder task. But if you don't have Internet access you probably aren't reading this, either. (Shame on you!) So head down to the library and look for some deals!

Maybe you'll even find a deal for free paint so you can slap it on the wall and stare at it as it dries while you eat your free 3 Musketeers. Now that's Furlough Friday excitement!

June 20, 2009

Sonic top confusion

A week after my first visit to Sonic, I'm still puzzled by all the little bubble buttons the lids of their drinks.


Most restaurants have three or four -- little convex bulges stenciled with words like "cola," "diet" and "tea" to help servers tell similarly colored drinks apart so patrons don't end up snorting root beer foam out their noses when they expected to be sipping on a soothing iced tea. Sonic has a few extra ones on their drink lids.

Eight extras to be exact: rb, cr, a, pa, c, dr, diet, and mther. A few of them are easy to figure out. Root beer is rb. Cola is c. Dr. Pepper is dr and, well, diet is diet.

That still leaves cr, a, pa and most confusingly mther. I have no idea what any of those are. They could be Sonic-specific drinks, in which case my confusion stems from an admittedly low institutional knowledge of the drive-in. Or they could be something else, something guess-able.

For a week I've pondered these strange markings to no avail. Yet I don't want to find the answer by scouring the Internet or doing other research, as that would feel like cheating at this point. This is a brain teaser to me, and if I solve it at all I'll solve it with my brain.

Maybe Sonic just added a few extra buttons so patrons could have the fun of pressing them. Who could blame them for that commendable action?

But if that's the case, Sonic labeled the extra buttons with confusing jumbles of letters solely so I would go around in circles guessing what they mean. Who could forgive them for such sadism?

Here's another brain teaser for you. Why do fast food joints still put those little bubble buttons on drink lids? I don't remember the last time a server actually pressed one down for me. Usually I end up having to guess which is cola and which is diet when I'm eating with a friend. The buttons sit there, unpressed, taunting me as I make a desperate guess to hopefully avoid sipping that abominable diet aftertaste.

My conclusion is that there would be an enormous outpouring of outrage if the buttons were eliminated. People would have no interactive interface with their drinks without the bubbles.

Having an answer for that riddle doesn't make me feel any better about being unable to discern the meaning of "mther" though.

June 16, 2009

So I found a Sonic

A trip to Wilkes-Barre this weekend netted more excitement than I expected when I discovered a Sonic Drive-In.

I'll admit this wouldn't have been as exciting were it not for the absolute blitz of advertising I've been subjected to while watching sports over the past few years. As much as I hate to admit it, these snarky fun ads always made me want to eat at Sonic. The only problem was that I didn't know of any around me -- I've lived in Syracuse and Albany New York as well as Carlisle Pennsylvania while Sonic revved its advertising engine, and there are no Sonics in those places.

Judging from the line of cars in Wilkes-Barre, Sonic's ads managed to drive people to attend its newest location. Yes, I said line of cars. People were sitting in their vehicles, idling the engines while waiting for a slot in the drive-in to open up. The Sonic even deployed folks in reflective vests to direct traffic.

I just walked up to the picnic tables, but if I had to wait in line for a spot, I would have promptly headed down the road to grab food somewhere else. The food critique spins its wheels for no man or restaurant, after all.

Honestly, it wasn't even as if the food was that great. I had a Bacon Cheeseburger Toaster meal and later came back for an Orange Creamslush.

The toaster was okay -- it was a burger with some barbecue sauce stuck between two slices of buttered Texas toast bread slices. Ironically the bread wasn't toasted -- a touch that would have helped the meal live up to its name and bumped it up a spork. As it was I'd give it three and a half sporks out of five.

The drink was a big bonus. You can add all sorts of flavors to your soda. I chose to fill'er up with some cranberry in a Sprite, and it was delicious. Four sporks.

But those tots ... To paraphrase one of those aforementioned Sonic commercials, they should not have brought that weak tot action! No texture, little flavor ... a very disappointing one and a half sporks out of five. That's a huge letdown for an item I was eagerly anticipating.

When I returned for my Orange Creamslush I was more satisfied. It tasted like a mushed-up orangecicle, which is to say absolutely perfect. My only complaint about it was that it was gone too quickly. That's five spork material, folks.

In the end, I can't say I would have wasted gas waiting in line for the Sonic. That leaves me to ponder why everyone was running their engines to wait in line. Are people so lazy that they'll wait forever just to avoid having to get out of their cars to eat? Was it the novelty factor of a new eatery? Successful advertising?

Whatever the case, it would have been a long time to sit in a voluntary traffic jam to eat in a place that only pulled an average of 3.75 sporks in my tests. People would be more satisfied if they were waiting for drinks than if they were waiting for food, but who wants to sit in the car for 10 minutes so they can sit in the car for five more minutes and slurp a drink?

Here's my advice: Folks, wait until the crowds shift into a lower gear and you can drive right up. Sonic, don't you dare bring that weak food action again. It's time to kick off a drive to make your food better, or else you'll be running on empty.

June 12, 2009

Furlough Friday: Wendy's Toffee Coffee Twisted Frosty

Once again it's time for the biweekly feature designed especially for all of you who've been unceremoniously dumped from the working world. Live from Pennsylvania ... it's Furlough Friday!

As the sweltering summer months roll in and your unemployment makes air conditioning too expensive to fund, ice cream breaks can be all that separate a spirited but hopeless job hunt coordinated from your parent's sweltering second floor from going completely insane.

This biweek I recommend trying Wendy's Coffee Toffee Twisted Frosty. That is, if you can muster up the courage to try to spit out this tongue twister to the person behind the counter. Don't bother with the drive-through -- the poor audio quality means drive-through folks can't get "cheeseburger with no pickles" right, so Coffee Toffee Twisted Frosty will no doubt turn into some sort of salad by the time you cruise around to the next window.


Coffee Toffee Twisted Frostys are pretty robust. Toffee. Is. Everywhere. And not in small chiclets. We're talking enormous chunks of flavor.

Plus the soquid (remember those commercials?) doesn't skimp on the coffee flavor. It's not packed into every bite, as it seems Wendy's uses the base chocolate Frosty and squirts coffee in before a halfhearted attempt at blending. But coffee comes out in well over half the bites, and it builds into a strong taste by the end of the Frosty.

All the flavors combine into a symphony of rich coffee, sweet toffee and milky chocolaty Frosty. It sounds like it should be too much, yet somehow the wacky combination works.

It works for a price, though. The smallest one costs $2.49.

Hold your outrage. I can hear your angry questions now.

"How can he review something over 99 cents on Furlough Friday?"

"Couldn't he find anything to fit Furlough Friday's 99 cent criteria?"

"Is he such a dunderhead that he forgot his own rules for Furlough Friday? Everything is supposed to cost 99 cents or less!"

The Toffee Coffee Twisted Frosty is such a perfect furlough food that I worked out a way to get one for 99 cents. You just have to bring two friends and split a small. Then the three of you will only pay 87 cents each for a third of the cup.

It's perfect for Furlough Friday because you get to spend hours practicing the name before ordering one. That will fill up those long hours not holding your breath for those elusive phone calls to set up job interviews.

And when you bring friends, you can sit around and discuss the name while you eat it. As you get tongue tied, you'll no doubt forget about the fact that you don't have jobs because the fools running Wall Street and overseeing the United States' financial policy forgot to bring along a tenth grade understanding of economics.

June 10, 2009

SoBe Lifewater

For the record, I considered writing this review with all lowercase letters in honor of the packaging on the holistic water genre, but decided it was too difficult to read. Ironically, unlike product designers I'm concerned about function over form.

Vitamin Water elicits a pretty wide range of reactions from people. Some really like it, others dislike it. But what's interesting about Vitamin Water is that there is a whole group of people whose opinion of the stuff is best summed up with a shrug.

"Eh. It's kind of bland."

Well, that's probably where the "water" part comes from. See, if it was all fruit flavor, Vitamin Water would be just Vitamins and fruit juice -- and there are other products out there that have been delivering that combination a lot longer than Vitamin Water.

Today we're not here to spend an entire review talking about Vitamin Water and its ability to elicit underwhelmed feelings, though. We're here to review Vitamin Water's less popular brother from another corporate mother, SoBe Lifewater.

Lifewater is the same basic premise as Vitamin Water -- watered-down-fruit-juice-tasting water loaded with healthy stuff. Vitamin D, herbal extracts, whatever. They all have something dissolved in them that supposedly helps your body function.

For the most part the taste is the same, too. I find Lifewater to be a little sweeter than Vitamin Water. Most recently I drank the blackberry grape variety, dubbed "enlighten" (that's right, no capitals on the bottle here!) and found it to be surprisingly sweet.

The bottle is a different story. Lifewater's bottle has a fascinating shape to it, full of curves and creases. If a sculptor designed one mass-produced beverage bottle, this is it. Unfortunately that sculptor wasn't matched with a very good cover artist, because the label is a little busy.

You're asking whether I really just included the label as a criteria in my food review. My answer is yes. Once you get past the fact that Lifewater is a little sweeter than Vitamin Water, there isn't a whole lot to talk about.

If you like the holistic water genre, you'll probably like it, unless you're averse to sugar. If you don't you won't. Other than that, there really isn't a lot to talk about here ... it makes me want to shrug.

Apathy seems to be the trademark of these drinks. Three sporks out of five.

June 6, 2009

Taco Bell's Chicken burrito with avocado ranch sauce

Avocado ranch sauce.

What could be more representative of Taco Bell? The Americanized-Mexican food is perfectly reflected in a sauce that blends the main ingredient in guacamole with good ‘ol ranch dressing.

So in concept the Bell’s new chicken burrito, which features this avocado ranch sauce, should be a microcosm of the restaurant. You’d expect it to be cheap, filling, relatively low-quality and largely satisfying.

You’d be right in all of those respects. And yet I can guarantee this burrito isn’t anything like you expected.

No, it’s not because of the avocado ranch sauce. We’ll come to that later, but it’s not really surprising in flavor or quantity.

No, it’s not the chicken. It’s low on cluckin’ flavor but soars above imitation-chicken-tofu texture – letting it be rewarding.

And no, it’s not the burrito. The grilled chicken burrito is wrapped in the same thing as every other burrito on the menu.

The difference is the rice.

Think of Taco Bell rice. It’s that reddish/brownish seasoned stuff that tastes pretty good going down but still leaves you with a stomach cramp an hour later. You won’t get any of that here.

Instead the Bell served me a heap of white rice. Read that again: Taco Bell has placed plain white rice in a burrito. And it’s great.

Well, the quality of the rice isn’t great. But there’s nothing quite like white rice to mix well with other flavors. It provides an important backdrop and unique texture that just seems to play well off of meats and sauces. This chicken is no exception.

Neither is the avocado ranch sauce. It leans more toward the ranch side of things (sorry guacamole lovers, but you should have known better and just shelled out for Moe’s) which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At very least it keeps the grilled chicken burrito a uniform pallid color.

And for 89 cents, you can’t beg too much from your sauces. Especially when the rice doesn’t look like it came out of a can.

The slightly misleading nature of the sauce does keep us from approaching five spork territory. But the grilled chicken burrito with avocado ranch sauce does net four sporks out of five – and that’s pretty rice territory, if you ask me.

Note: After eating the burrito and taking detailed notes on it, I noticed the chicken burritos pictured on Tacobell.com clearly contain seasoned rice. I've continued with the review of the meal as I ate it, but will make a follow-up visit in the near future to determine whether my sample was a freak of Taco Bell nature or the norm.

May 29, 2009

Furlough Friday: Fire up the grill!

After a hiccup in its biweekly schedule, Furlough Friday is back! So come ye unemployed and laid off, come job seekers and unwilling early retirees. We have the tips you need to bite down on a budget. Live from Pennsylvania … it’s Furlough Friday!

Wireless Internet works in mysterious ways. Mine, for instance, decided to prevent me from accessing all Google services. Anything Google owns – Gmail, YouTube, Blogger – I get an error message when trying to access it. Other Web sites are fine. It’s just Google.

You can no doubt see how being unable to access Blogger can put a hiccup in blogging. You can also no doubt see how hard it could be to fix a problem with Google while being unable to access Google. Fortunately I've managed to determine it’s a problem with the D-Link router that threads the Web through the air in my home, and learned to circumvent the problem with good old-fashioned CAT-5 until a more permanent fix can be discovered.

But enough excuses. You came for Furlough Friday, and Furlough Friday you shall have!

With summer arriving in full force, the gray days of winter are gone. But the hopelessness you used to blame on those overcast days are still around, even when the sun shines. So it goes when you have job problems.

There’s nothing better to cheer you up in the summer than a cookout, though. A little meat you salvaged from the “Must Sell By Today!” section of the grocery store, some veggies you borrowed from your neighbor’s garden, and you’re in business. Throw in some lemonade you snatched from the little girls’ stand down the street when they weren’t looking, and you’re in business! (Figuratively, not literally. I wouldn't call this a job.)

Still, all of that is worthless if you spend lots of money fueling the fire. Don’t let your dwindling reserve of dollar bills go up in smoke by spending a bundle on store-bought charcoal.

No, scout local streams for driftwood. Check for late spring clean-up days, which will let you salvage unwanted wood furniture.

Kindling to start your fire should be no problem. That notice of termination from your boss should be a good start, as should the stubs from your unemployment checks. And if you’re a recent college graduate, the program from your commencement ceremony is worth a lot more going up in smoke than it is in some scrapbook

And judging from the job market for a bunch of recent college grads, (Did you really spend four years in school to get an unpaid internship? That's exploitation.) your diploma might be worth more in the middle of a barbecue pit than on your resume.

May 17, 2009

Yes, yes I did get a 'Star Trek' glass at Burger King

So I bought into a shameless and stupid promotion yesterday. I purchased a value meal at Burger King (The Angry Whopper, which upheld my three sporks out of five review) and then threw down an extra two bucks to buy a "Star Trek" drinking glass tied in to the new movie.

Now, I've never been shy about being a "Star Trek" fan. I can quote many of the movies and TV shows at will and have no problem assembling a general timeline that places the events of movies and shows in proper order. And yes, if pressed I can probably name all the crew members from each series along with most of the actors who played them.

But I've never been the biggest geek about it, either. When I was a kid I had some "Star Trek" action figures, but that was about as far as my merchandising buy-in went. I didn't attend that crazy auction at Christie's and I've never been much for any of the seemingly-endless number of "Star Trek" paperbacks out there. Heck, I don't even own a season from any off the series on DVD.

Yet I did ask for a "Star Trek" glass at Burger King. And I might even go back to get one or two (or three, which would complete my set) more.

Why? It's not like $2 on top of a value meal is a great deal for a glass, and it's not that I even eat at BK a lot.

Have I entered a new phase in life where collecting becomes fun? Will I start snatching up action figures that will in turn gather dust on my mantel as I wait for the day when they're worth money? I am living at my parents house for awhile after college graduation ... Maybe I should just drag all my stuff to the basement now and get it over with.

... Or maybe I just wasn't blown away by any of the other fast food options I had yesterday. Maybe I made an impulse buy to go get the glass and will consider getting one or two more in the back of my head over the next few weeks.

Either way, I can tell you it's a pretty neat glass. Captain Nero's spaceship looks great on it. No shame in taking part in a shameless promotion, I suppose.

May 13, 2009

Mountain Dew Throwback


Sometimes anticipation is all the fun.

I really wanted to like Mountain Dew Throwback. Pepsi Throwback was very good, and the idea of replacing highly refined high-fructose corn syrup with less highly refined cane sugar is extremely appealing.

Unfortunately the fact is Mountain Dew Throwback just isn't as good as it's cola brother. Where Pepsi benefits from a more complex and richer flavor, Mountain Dew just tastes cloudy. The additional aftertaste is less like appealing end notes and more like, well, an aftertaste.

The overall drinking experience is also just not as crisp as Mountain Dew. In fact, it tastes less carbonated. While that's usually a good thing, limpid Mountain Dew just isn't as appealing as flat Pepsi. Which is unfortunate because I didn't note any such carbonation difference between Pepsi and Pepsi Throwback.

Mountain Dew Throwback isn't bad. It just isn't that great. The idea of trying it was a lot more exciting than actually taking a sip. A mediocre three out of five stars.

May 8, 2009

Furlough Friday: Reese's Dark

Since forced days off can make long weekends that are perfect for traveling, Furlough Friday is taking to the road this week. A trip to Syracuse resulted in a quick perusal of the candy aisle in a gas station and a startling revelation. So without further ado, live from New York, it's Furlough Friday!


Nothing is darker than a day spent unemployed. When you're unsuccessfully looking for work the sun seems to shine a little less and the clouds seem to swoop in faster. Crows take on a deeper shade of black and always seem to perch nearby.

Comfort food is pretty important during those desperate hours. Unhealthy eating makes frustrations disappear for a moment -- only a moment since they end up bloating your body, thereby contributing to frustrations. But I'm not here to tell you how to break out of a slump. I'm here to tell you how to dull the pain of tough times.

You need dark comfort food to match dark times. Chocolate with a sense of the gallows. M&M's won't do with their cheerful colors. Neither will Pop Rocks with their bubbly personality.

Reese's seems to know this. They offer their classic peanut butter cup in a dark variety.

It's the same Reese's peanut butter wrapped in the same chocolate shape. The only difference is the kind of chocolate. Gone is that chipper, sweet milk chocolate, replaced by the bitter undertones of dark chocolate.

You'll get that burst of comfort from the flavor, too. Dark chocolate works even better than milk chocolate in peanut butter cups. The flavor is more complex and holds the tongue's interest far longer.

If you can spend a longer time on each peanut butter cup, maybe you won't have to eat as many, which will lead to less weight gain and ... oh, who am I kidding? While the price varies, you should be able to find packs of these things for around 80 cents.

Reese's Dark won't mean anyone eats any less. It just means we can enjoy deeper flavors while we stuff our face and stare all day at the crows perched outside the window.

May 5, 2009

Pepsi Throwback


Everyone's heard "Spoonful of Sugar" from "Mary Poppins." If you haven't I suggest confronting your parents and demanding to know what they did with your childhood. Then go to Netflix and order the DVD so you'll have some semblance of common experience to share with the world.

Fortunately you don't need to do those things to understand Pepsi throwback. Having seen Mary Poppins will likely aid your comprehension of the drink, but it isn't a prerequisite.

The reason "Spoonful of Sugar" is so important to Pepsi Throwback is it likely encouraged you to ask your mother for a spoonful of sugar at some point. You were probably sick and had to take some nasty cough syrup or evil pink liquid penicillin and asked for a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Your mother, exasperated at your incessant whining and out of ways to coerce you to take the medicine, likely complied and handed you a spoon heaped with white granulated sugar.

Remember what it tasted like? Cross that with a Pepsi and you have Pepsi Throwback.

That should come as no surprise. After all, Pepsi replaced the high-fructose corn syrup it typically uses to sweeten the drink with natural sugar.

It's still definitely Pepsi. It's just Pepsi with an aftertaste similar to the one you got after swallowing your spoonful of sugar. Which is to say it's Pepsi with an aftertaste that's much better than a diet aftertaste. (Only without the lower calorie count.)

I even think it adds an interesting depth to Pepsi's sweetness. By the end of a 20 oz. bottle it's a little too rich, but I would prefer a glass of Pepsi Throwback to a glass of regular Pepsi.

Not everyone shares that view -- I've heard quite a bit of grumbling about the altered taste. Still, I think it's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and am giving it four sporks out of five.

Check back soon for a review of Mountain Dew Throwback. The Dew's clearer flavor might be altered to a greater extent by the natural sugar. We'll see.

May 2, 2009

Swine Flu!

This could save you some cash, so I thought about saving it for Furlough Friday. But if the hubbub over swine flu blows over this week, I don't want you to miss out.

Swine flu's been all the rage in the media this week. Good luck turning on a television or radio or logging on to the Internet and not hearing something about it. Maybe you're scared, maybe you're laughing it off -- time will tell which is the wiser course of action. But whether you think it's been exaggerated or expect a pandemic to sweep the globe, I have a recommendation for you.

Watch the price of pork.

Never the most expensive meat, this fuss will probably send its stock into the basement. Who wants to buy pig when swine flu is being hyped as a potential end of days?

You should. Pork should always be prepared with proper hygiene and cooked thoroughly, so you shouldn't have to worry about catching anything from eating it. And I bet you'll get a great deal at the supermarket.

The other white meat could turn into the right meat for your wallet this week.

April 28, 2009

Hot Buffalo Wing pretzel pieces get better billing

A quick trip to the second floor vending machine row (I typically stick to the single machine on the third floor since I work there) yielded some exciting results today: Hot Buffalo Wing Pieces by Snyder's of Hanover.


You've likely seen some sort of pretzel pieces by Snyder's -- in my experience their honey mustard flavored pieces are the most abundant on store shelves. This was the first time I'd seen Buffalo Wing pieces, though, and they were wholly satisfying. They would have been better served replacing some of their saltiness with extra spice and I detected no hint of "wing" flavor. Still, you can't expect a pretzels to replicate a plate of wings from your favorite restaurant, so they merit four sporks out of five.

More importantly, the vending machine that served them to me deserves its own five spork rating for the way it handles money. You see, I ventured down to the second floor because my old faithful third floor machine only accepts dollar bills and my wallet was entirely filled with fivers. The second floor machines will happily eat $1, $5, $10 or $20 bills.

That's a nice bonus in itself, but the real kudos come for the way it dispenses change. It spits out golden dollars.

Yep, those wonderful dollar coins. The ones I used to make special trips to the stamp machines in Post Offices just to get some until the Postal Service started pulling those machines from its floors.

Dollar coins are great. You don't have to crack your wallet to get to them and they don't get all balled up when they're free in your pocket. Imagine not having to flatten out a bill to get something out of a vending machine! Plus, the United States Mint is releasing presidential dollar coins similar to the state quarters -- in 2009 you can collect William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor.

That spices up spending money. I know I'm going to enjoy spending my dollar coins on Buffalo wing pretzel pieces.

April 24, 2009

Furlough Friday: Triple Layer Nachos

Welcome back to the biweekly feature for those of you seeking to hand out resumes but not cash! Live from Pennsylvania, it's Furlough Friday!

Seventy-nine cents. That's smaller than pocket change. It's under-one-cushion-of-the-couch change. It's one cupholder-in-the-car-as-I-approach-the-toll-booth change.

I can't even buy a Twix at work without adding six pennies to 79 cents. (On Furlough Friday I can't buy a Twix at work at all, actually. Or anything at work, for that matter.) In spite of all that, Taco Bell is offering a generous portion of nachos for your three quarters and four pennies.

By "generous" I mean generous considering the price. The CD-sized heap of nachos won't last you through the first five minutes of, say, the baseball game you smuggled them into with a fake pregnant belly, but they will take the edge off your hunger.

And when you're furloughed or unemployed or seeking full-time employment instead of your current part-time work, taking the edge off your hunger is all you really hope for. Hunger never really goes away, even when you just ate a carton of ice cream while staring hopelessly at "General Hospital" in the middle of the afternoon, does it?

So take your stack of nachos that Taco Bell layered with refried beans, cheese and hot sauce and appreciate this novel fact: Hot sauce has apparently become a nacho layer in our stumbling employment market. Meaning you can treat it as a side dish.

In other words 79 cent Triple Layer Nachos legitimize a dinner consisting of lettuce and hot sauce. Perfect for Furlough Friday or staying out of a Hooverville.

April 23, 2009

Hunger Torpedoed

Stuck at work one evening after a long day that had already exhausted my lunch, I needed a cheap way to satiate my stomach. I also needed to circumvent my sensitive wallet, which only had $6 inside its folds.

Those criteria left me with a few options nearby: My usual standby -- Taco Bell -- an old favorite -- McDonald's McChicken -- or something new. Something that lay submerged beneath the surface of affordable food. Something that was ready to explode onto my food critique.

I speak of Quiznos' Toasty Torpedo, a narrow footlong "subette." It slots in at $4, so it wasn't going to sink my bank account. Additionally, it's slightly more than a foot long, so I anticipated it resulting in my hunger quotient taking a steep dive.


For the most part, I was right. The Toasty Torpedo is pretty filling, and it's a wholly satisfying package. The bread was just wide enough that it was easy to take a full bite off the end without having to nibble on alternating corners, which allowed me to eat the bread evenly. Some of us like to do that, after all.

The torpedo dropped its payload right on my hunger, too. It didn't leave me feeling like I'd overeaten, but I wasn't craving more after finishing it, either. While I could have had four McChickens for the same price, that would have left me feeling greasy and flabby, something Quizno's did not do with its higher-quality ingredients.

And yet I didn't crack a smile after I put my torpedo away. Something was missing. Something, I believe, that was related more to the type of Torpedo I ordered than any design flaw.

Surprisingly, it wasn't a lack of meat. My Toasty Torpedo was a little light on turkey, but I can handle a slightly unbalanced meat/bread ratio for four bucks.

It wasn't even the odd wrapping, which had the Quizno's worker roll the sub in paper and then slip it into a baguette bag that was obviously designed to leave several inches of the sub exposed so that I could eat it. Question: If I'm supposed to eat the sub from the paper bag, why wrap it in paper? Am I supposed to eat the paper too?

No, the problem with my Toasty Torpedo was that it was a Pesto Turkey Torpedo. It may sound like a terrific combination, but the pesto was completely off-base. Cheese and basil flavors were largely absent, replaced by an overpowering saltiness that dominated even the mozzarella slices on the Torpedo.

The flaw wasn't big enough to send the Tasty Torpedo to Davy Jones' Locker. But it did hold the subette to a mediocre 3 out of four sporks. Quizno's needs to scope out some better pesto.

April 18, 2009

Loveable lemonade

You may remember my aside about proper lemonade during my review of Arby's Roastburger. I ended up giving Arby's props for offering something other than soda and diet lemonade.

That something was unfortunately not tasty lemonade, though. It was a SoBe beverage. And as delicious as it was, it left part of me still searching for decent lemonade at a fat food restaurant.

Today I'm proud to announce my search is over.

Chik-Fil-A, which I've already treated to a deservedly glowing review, has tubs of supposedly fresh-brewed lemonade sitting behind the counter. And it's good.

You can actually get regular lemonade, which is a step up from certain chains that despicably only offer diet (coughWendy'scough). So it's free of that sickeningly sweet artificial twang.

Still, it's got it's own tang. Like any good lemonade, there's a decent amount of sourness that hits the tongue and balances out its loads of sugar. The flavor's actually approach complex -- which is unheard of in fast food beverages.

So Chick-Fil-A has another notch in its belt. Not only does it have delicious chicken sandwiches and waffle fries that are to die for (especially if loaded with delicious mayonnaise), it has a great drink to go along with it.

Worth remembering, if you ask me.

April 10, 2009

Furlough Friday: Cadbury Creme Egg

Welcome to the first Furlough Friday! As a service to all of you who may be seeking employment and as a nod to my colleagues (and to myself) who are struggling through coerced unpaid days off the job, I'm introducing Furlough Fridays as a way to check out the cheapest food you can find. You won't find anything over a dollar featured here on Furlough Friday. So ... Live from Pennsylvania, it's Furlough Friday!


With Easter just two days away, those of us reclined on the couch watching Billy Mays sell Mighty Putty from under a thin layer of Cheeto dust should be abandoning the typical non-working man diet of boxed macaroni and cheese and Jell-O for something a little more seasonable. That will be easier after the holiday when all the Easter candy is on sale.

Waiting for Monday doesn't do our spirits much good right now, though, so our choices are limited if we want to keep to a budget of a buck. There's the Reese's Peanut Butter Egg,. but that's too close to a peanut butter cup to truly embody a holiday spirit. There are marshmallow Peeps, but some of us are a bit sick of them after staging a massive Peep photo shoot and subsequently eating the participants.

So how about the famous Cadbury Creme Egg? You can typically pick one up for about 80 cents, and it's packed with milk chocolate shell goodness and creamy yolk-colored filling. The egg shrunk a couple of tenths of a gram from past years, yet its still an Easter bargain. The bigger ones were a recipe for a stomach ache anyway.

Why not use the Cadbury Creme Egg as a replacement for that retirement nest egg you aren't accumulating because you're spending the day unemployed? A batch of Cadbury Eggs, as cheap as they are, are probably worth more than your stock portfolio at this point anyway. Plus, even if they do cause a little indigestion, it will pale in comparison to how sick you feel as you take the penalty and withdraw funds early from your 401(k).

Forget investment bankers! Trust the Cadbury Bunny.

April 7, 2009

Easter Candy Showdown: Peeps vs. Bunnies


Welcome to a showdown of miniature proportions, where fluffy sugar-coated marshmallows face off for the Peeps Lightweight Title! With Easter fast approaching, its time to look at the two major contenders for the ultimate marshmallow candy in this year's Easter Candy Showdown.

Those two contenders are the classic "Peeps" marshmallow chicks and the newer-age "Peeps" marshmallow bunnies. I'll be scoring them on a host of categories, from taste to bang for your buck. But rather than simply have them face off in the ring of my opinion, they'll be taking each other on with tiny lightsaber toothpicks! Thanks to these wonderful illustrations, you'll know which animal caricature has the last peep in this match.

Color While you can have both bunnies and chicks in any unnatural hue your tinted tongue desires, Peeps are most common in yellow. That's closer to the tint of a real-life chick, and it's more flattering on them. Chicks win!




Flavor Each color tastes slightly different thanks to the natural variation in food coloring flavor. Chicks and bunnies can be had in any bizarre hue, so that zesty orange can be had on any animal. Draw.




Texture Chicks have a slightly low surface-to-mallow ratio, leaving them with a little too much white fluff and much too little sugar granule coating. Bunnies have that ratio down much better, distancing them from simply being a multi-season marshmallow. Plus, there's nothing as satisfying as biting the ears off a candy bunny during the Easter season. Bunnies win!

Bang for your buck A pack of chicks is stuffed with five peeps and brags a 1 1/2 oz. net weight. A pack of bunnies carries four rabbits and only 1 1/8 ounces. Since the packs typically cost the same, under $1, it's pretty simple. Chicks win!



Cuteness I've always thought chicks look a bit odd, like they just got smacked in the back of the head and their eyes are still rolling around. Bunnies, on the other hand, are just plain adorable. Bunnies win!




Exclusivity It's a little harder to find bunnies -- normally a bad thing in the candy world. But surplus peeps become leftovers that linger on shelves for weeks, growing stale and hard and making you wish you'd never bought them. Bunnies win!



Originality We all know bunnies are just an attempt to spin off the Peeps brand. And while they're better than the Halloween or Christmas impostor Peeps, they still don't hold up to the original in the category. Chicks win!



And we're tied after seven rounds at a score of 3-3 with one draw! That means we go down to the tiebreaker, intangibles:


Intangibles Which would you rather have in your Easter basket, a chocolate bunny surrounded by little marshmallow bunnies or the variety of a chocolate bunny and some chicks? Unfortunately for bunnies, marshmallow chicks are just a more traditional pillar of Easter candy. Bunnies are crowded out by their chocolate brethren. Chicks win!

Congratulations to Chicks, the winner of the 2009 Easter Candy Showdown!