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!

April 3, 2009

Sheetz of Friday afternoon fun

Some exciting news here at Rick's Food Critique: Next week I'll be launching a brand-new bi-weekly feature packed with the cheapest foods you can find. You may ask how that's different from my normal blogs, and the answer is simple. Normally I try to take price into account and stick to a relatively low budget. The new Friday feature will solely feature foods under $1.

Now that the promotional paragraph is out of the way, let's move on to today's topic: Sheetz. If you haven't spent time in a handful of states around Pennsylvania you might not have heard of the gas station with a special-order fast food restaurant in the back, and that's a shame. I've always enjoyed Sheetz, although I hadn't visited it recently. It's time to check up on the place.

A few years ago when I frequented Sheetz, the food was cheap and plentiful. Some of it, like the macaroni and cheese, was closer to plastic than food, yet it was still somehow satisfying. And more often than not the touchscreen menus offered generous quantities of decent quality food.

I'd heard a rumor the food has been going downhill lately, though. So I stopped by and ordered a Mad-To-Order pretzel melt, an old favorite. Four years ago my turkey pretzel melt would have come with any sauces I wanted upon piles and piles of hot sliced lunch meat.

The more things change, it seems, the less the stay the same. To say my pretzel melt had less meat than it would have four years ago is an understatement. The sauces (barbecue, honey mustard, ranch) were still available, but they all seemed like watered-down imitations of their former selves.

Maybe the recession took its toll and forced Sheetz to cut the quality of their food. Maybe my unscientific one food at one location sample of their menu isn't properly representative of the food quality as a whole. But this was the same location I previously frequented, and something was askew.

It's still a decently priced option, but my pretzel melt cost nearly five bucks. This drops Sheetz as a whole from a four spork joint to a three spork or even two and a half spork eatery.

Unfortunately, checking up on Sheetz turned out to be checking it down.