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.