December 31, 2010

Third Annual Golden Spork Awards: The best foods of 2010

Button up your tux or zip up the back of your fanciest gown! It's time to hand out some of the most highly sought-after awards in affordable food: the 2010 Golden Spork Awards.

All you historians out there have no doubt noticed that this year's ceremonies have been moved back to their original date of New Year's Eve after 2009's festivities were experimentally held in early March 2010 to piggyback off the popularity of the Oscars. That scheduling, really just a shameless attempt to gain some cheap traction on search engines, never really panned out. Apparently readers searching the web for movie awards don't eat.

The jostling schedule for the Golden Sporks leaves list fans in luck. You get two food critique awards in the same calendar year! Mazel tov!

In a desperate attempt to keep some continuity, the awards handed out this year will feature the same categories as in 2009. To be eligible, a food had to be reviewed during the 2010 calendar year. Anyone who wishes to look through the candidates can do so by following this link. Those of you looking for previous Golden Spork Awards can find them here.

A quick rundown of the awards: We start with the worst of 2010, the "Put a Spork in Them" list, before moving on to the Best Free Food, Best Sub-$1 Food and Best Seasonal Food. Things start to heat up with the prestigious Best Snack/Candy award and Best Supporting Beverage honors, then turn into an all-out food fight as contenders duke it out for Best Dessert in a Leading Role. Finally, we wrap it up with the honor of all honors, the top food of 2010, the Best Picnic trophy. To contend for Best Picnic, a food had to have received five sporks out of five in its initial review.

In an effort to cover as much ground as possible, foods aren't eligible for more than one award. So if a 99-cent burrito wins Best Picnic, it cannot win Best Sub-$1 food.

2010 was a year dominated by high-profile food news: The KFC Double Down grabbed headlines while Mountain Dew and Vitamin Water waged crowd-sourced competitions for new flavors. But the low profile flavors were just as noteworthy, as Chocolate Pop Rocks and new Taco Bell sauces, Verde and Fire Roasted Border Salsa, deserve their fare share of attention.

Which foods take the cake as the best of 2010? Without further ado, let's find out!

Put a Spork in Them: 2010's foods to forget

Cinnabon Cereal More sugar than a grocery store's baking aisle and a flavor that could have been taken straight from Post Waffle Crisp made this cereal a blemish on breakfast. Parents, don't let your children try this Molotov cocktail in a breakfast bowl, lest they become sugar junkies like the title character in Calvin and Hobbes.

Vitamin Water Connect Facebook may have inspired a successful movie this year with "The Social Network," but the site's Vitamin Water stepchild fell far short of expectations. Touted as a combination of black cherry and lime, this drink was the pits with an overpowering citrus flavor. If ever there was a reason to call for a "Dislike" button, this is it.

Golden Spork Awards: The top foods reviewed in 2010

Free Food: Burger King Seattle's Best Coffee The King rolled out a partnership with Seattle's Best Coffee this year and celebrated by handing out free coffee every Friday in November. While Seattle's best isn't the most bewitching brew, no other handout came close to matching four straight weeks of something-for-nothing bliss.

Short Payment (Best Sub-$1 Food): Taco Bell's $5 Box Sure to be a controversial pick, the $5 Box managed to win a category for which it didn't even appear to be eligible. Worse, it received a paltry two spork rating on initial review! That low rating stemmed largely from the fact that the $5 Box was handed to me in a bag, but it didn't reflect the value of the meal, which packed a Cheesy Gordita Crunch (to munch), a Burrito Supreme, a Crunchy Taco, Cinnamon Twists and a drink. That's a ton of food for $5, and it was enough to propel the $5 Box to an oxymoronic victory in a category for foods priced less than $1.

Seasonal Food: Starbuck's Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha The next best thing to dipping a white-chocolate-coated candy cane in espresso, this rich drink packed enough Christmas flavor to have even the biggest Scrooge singing "Jingle Bells."

Snack/Candy: Pretzel M&M's A near-perfect take on the classic combination of chocolate and pretzels. You'll be tongue twisted as you try to come up with adjectives to describe these delectable nuggets.

Best Supporting Beverage: Mountain Dew White Out A tasty citrus soda should always find room on the shelf, and an online vote affirmed the supremacy of this flavor. While the opinion of the interweb masses was way off when it came to Vitamin Water Connect, Mountain Dew White Out is evidence that democracy really can work.

Best Dessert in a Leading Role: KFC Double Down The Double Down defies convention, and we're defying convention today by awarding it the title of best dessert of 2010. While it's served as a main course and has none of the traditional sweetness of dessert, the Double Down qualifies for this category because it truly is the icing on the cake of a memorable year in food -- not to mention the fact that it didn't fit any other category but definitely deserved some sort of award. As excessive as some of the most over-the-top desserts, this chicken concoction will live forever in our memories as one of the most brazen dishes to ever hit a fast food menu.

Best Picnic: Milky Way Midnight Only two foods pulled down the five-spork rating necessary to qualify for this year's Best Picnic Award: Wheaties Fuel and Milky Way Midnight. While both stars of this year waged war as worthy contenders, the Milky Way just edges out Wheaties Fuel with a stellar combination of dark chocolate, vanilla nougat and caramel working together with enough force to topple empires. This is what candy bars were meant to be, and eating one will pull anyone over to the dark side.

Congratulations to all of this year's award recipients. The real winners, of course, were those of us eating these delicious foods. We'll see you in 2011!

December 24, 2010

Wendy's Natural-Cut Fries with Sea Salt

Ah, Christmastime. The season of eggnog, cinnamon peppermint bark and ... French fries?

Well, it might not be the most timely of reviews, but I recently tried out Wendy's revamped fries. You may have seen the commercials. "At Wendy's, we start with a whole russet potato. Naturally, we slice it. Then sprinkle it with sea salt and serve it hot and crispy."

I'm not quite sure how you slice a potato naturally -- they don't cleave themselves in the wild, after all -- but the real change here is the fact that the new fries still have their skin. This is a great sign, as it brings them closer to my all-time favorite skin-on fare fries.

Unfortunately, the skin isn't the feature that pops out when you bite into one of the new fries. Instead, the sea salt comes out in full force. It's definitely different from the salt on Wendy's old fries, and adds a distinctive oceanic flavor.

Nearly lost in the sea of salt is the aforementioned skin, which adds little of the distinctive texture you'd expect. A little extra chewiness lurks on the peripheral pieces that have skin running the whole way down the edge, but most slices have the composition of your standard fast-food fry. Bummer.

Before I reach a final conclusion on the new Wendy's fries, I'll compare them to the version they replace. Those now-defunct fries were my favorite in the world of fast food, so the evolved spuds face a stiff test.

The sea salt is a definite upgrade. Sodium was the previous iteration's weakest point, as it tasted harsh and bordered on overpowering. I still find the sea salt a little strong, but it blends much better with the flavors of the potato.

Moving on to texture, though, these fries fall surprisingly short. Wendy's old fries were melt-in-your mouth delicious but still maintained a satisfying crunch upon the initial bite. Rather than improve on this crunch-and-melt combination, the skin-on fries tended toward chewy. It's by no means unappetizing, mind you. It's just not as good as version 1.0.

Overall, I'd say Wendy's regressed slightly with these fries. I'm hoping I received a bum batch, that maybe my next order will be much better. And maybe that hope will keep me from sounding like too much of a scrooge when I announce my rating: three and a half sporks out of five.

December 19, 2010

Chocolate Pop Rocks

Greetings, foodies! I'm making a triumphant return to the interwebs with the review of Chocolate Pop Rocks I promised so many weeks ago. You'll have to overlook my absence -- an unfortunate run-in with a hot bowl of lentil soup rendered my taste buds out of action for a short time.

No doubt your anticipation has been building, and you wondered why the review was so long coming. I could practically hear the questions resonating through the foodosphere as they burst into your heads: Were the Pop Rocks so bad they drove our intrepid reviewer out of the business forever? Did they make his head explode? Why haven't I heard about Chocolate Pop Rocks making anyone's head explode on the news?

Rest assured, the Chocolate Pop Rocks did not make my head explode. In fact I've never heard of any version of the candy having that unfortunate side effect. Wondering about bursting craniums is an integral part of eating Pop Rocks, though, so it's where I'll start my review today.

You've no doubt eaten Pop Rocks and are aware of the way they fizz and bubble in your mouth. Part of the fun of the rocks is wondering how much of a pop they're going to deliver on your palate -- "Will it be enough to make my head explode?" You know it isn't, but you can't keep the thought from crossing your mind the moment the rocks tickle your tongue.

I doubted how much pop the Chocolate Pop Rocks would actually deliver. In fact, I was sure it wouldn't be enough to stoke questions of exploding heads. See, the rocks are familiar sugar Pop Rocks coated in chocolate, which seems like a recipe for dousing their bubbly nature.

And when you first put them in your mouth, they don't pop. They don't do anything but sit there and taste creamy while the chocolate slowly melts. Then, just when you've been lulled to sleep, POP, there they go! It turns out guessing when the rocks will start crackling is a ton of fun.

It's no way to eat the whole bag, however, and I found myself biting into the Chocolate Pop Rocks with surprising regularity. That's something I never do with normal Pop Rocks, and it was quite the experience. They provided an extremely satisfying burst with each fall of my molars, and continued to sizzle on my tongue afterwards.

In fact, they kept popping long after I expected to hear from them. Chewing on the rocks must have led to some of them wedging between my teeth, because I was surprised by bonus pops when I took a drink about ten minutes after finishing the pack. My immediate thought was -- you guessed it -- "Will my head explode?"

I found Chocolate Pop Rocks to be a great way to spend Sunday afternoon. They're tasty entertainment, and they even have more substance than your run-of-the-mill rocks. However, I wouldn't call them hearty, and you can't count on them for any nourishment. They remain a novelty whose sole purpose is to disappear in your mouth.

That means a rating of four sporks out of five. Hopefully it won't make your head explode.

November 28, 2010

Starbucks Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha

I know I said in my last post that I'd be back soon with a non-coffee review, but the Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks is too interesting to ignore. My first experience with this fusion of white chocolate, coffee and espresso came last weekend during the two-for-one holiday beverage deal at Starbucks. I held off on a full review until we made it past Turkey Day, but I feel comfortable taking on this Santa-riffic drink now that Black Friday has come and gone.

Those of you groaning at the thought of another coffee-based post need not worry, though. This drink may contain espresso, but its presence is hardly detectable. The flavor is more milk based than anything.

Milk based and delicious, that is. While I'm not the biggest fan of calorie-laden steamed milk concoctions, the Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha is a real treat.

Here's the recipe: Espresso, steamed milk and white chocolate are mixed with peppermint and some flavor syrups. Your local barista tops it off with whipped cream and some dark chocolate curls. If you think it sounds rich and sugary, you're right.

Fortunately, the sweetness doesn't overpower the peppermint flavor, which is present from first sip to last. It's astounding how seamlessly it all blends. White chocolate is the first taste on the tongue, followed by a milky, creamy middle and a peppermint finish. You won't mistake it for sucking on a candy cane -- the flavor is much more balanced.

My only complaint is the bottom of the cup. Flavored syrups tend to sink to the bottom, and the Peppermint White Chocolate Mocha follows this rule. As a result, the bottom of the cup tasted distinctly of salt. This is a little surprising -- I expected mint at the dregs , not sodium.

If you're a gung-ho fan of the sweet and salty flavor combination, you might find the bottom enjoyable. It was a little overpower for my taste, however. I'd recommend sticking to the top 3/4 of the cup.

Most of this drink was delicious, so it's certainly worthy of a high rating. Unfortunately I'm going to have to dock a point for the sub-par finish. Four sporks out of five.

And anti-coffee folks, I promise the next review will be in a different field. I'll even give you a hint of what we're tackling next: It starts with "chocolate" and ends with "pop rocks." If that doesn't have you coming back for a refill, I don't know what will.

November 20, 2010

2-for-1 Starbucks this weekend

Foodies, it's time for another friendly neighborhood free-food-and-drink service announcement. Today and tomorrow you can stop by Starbucks between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.and pick up two holiday-themed drinks for the price of one.

The deal is only advertised for the fancy mixed drinks -- sorry straight coffee lovers, you'll have to pay full price for your cup of delicious Christmas blend. Even so, it's probably worth taking a friend and cashing in on the beverage opportunity.

Those of you visiting the above link will no doubt note that this promotion has been going on since Nov. 18. My apologies for bringing it to you late. I can only share what I know, and I only knew about this yesterday. Better late than never.

I'm also sorry to those of you who don't like coffee. The blog's been on a real java kick lately, although I assure you it's pure coincidence and not part of a larger scheme to drive you off. For whatever reason, it seems like these free deals are always about coffee. So drink this bitter swill and rest assured that I'll be back soon with a fresh review in a different culinary pasture.

November 14, 2010

Two javas for me, none for you

Chocolate and coffee: a match made in heaven. Coffee-flavored ice cream, chocolate-covered coffee beans and the ever-popular mocha are evidence of that. But how does the combination work when the food in question is not quite so ... upscale?

Thanks to the folks at Twix, we have a chance -- well, two chances -- to find out. Twix Java bars follow the tried-and-true formula of two cookie, caramel and chocolate bars per pack. In this incarnation the cookie is chocolate, the caramel is infused with java flavor and standard milk chocolate coats it all.

My hope for Twix Java was that the bars would be perfect for those days when you need a Twix that doesn't pack the super-sweet punch of the standard bars. A little bitter coffee flavor would go a long way toward creating the ultimate afternoon snack for disillusioned sweet tooths.

Had this hope been fulfilled, Twix would have been catapulted beyond its current title of best workplace candy bar into the discussion for greatest candy bar on the market. As I've said before, the pairing of two bars per pack gives Twix an edge over any other candy at the office. It means your snack lasts longer and is twice as effective at distracting you from an angry boss or a pile of paperwork. What Twix usually lacks, however, is a depth of flavor. Standard Twix bars are satisfyingly sweet and crunchy but don't draw quite enough oral interest to land in the elite tier of candy.

Sadly, we'll have to wait another day for Twix to take the next step in candy bar evolution. Twix Java provides the same sugar rush as before without much discernible coffee flavor.

Some Java tones do linger after you've chewed and swallowed, but they don't land on your tongue. Instead they lurk at the edge of your perception, hovering at the back of your throat like the ghost of Starbucks past. It's as if you drank a cup of coffee an hour ago and recently ate a candy bar. Everything in your mouth still tastes like chocolate and caramel..

The closest food to which I can compare Twix Java is McDonald's Mocha. You may recall that I spent most of my time complaining that Micky D's went too heavy on the chocolate and ludicrously light on the coffee. Those same problems exist in our candy subject of today.

Those problems aren't a recipe for legendary status, or even four sporks. Unfulfilled dreams weigh heavily on Twix Java, and the bars come up short: three sporks out of five.Rather than making a name for itself, Twix Java is just an ordinary Joe.

November 6, 2010

Free Coffee, the Burger King version

Burger King and Seattle's Best Coffee sure seem like strange bedfellows.

A coffee I associate most with the cafes in Borders just doesn't seem to fit behind the counter of a fast food restaurant. The two brands mesh even less when you consider the fact that Seattle's Best is also served at Subway, a chain whose healthy food marketing doesn't exactly correspond with Burger King's ... heavy fare.

Regardless of whether it's a match made in heaven or an odd coupling, the King is trumpeting the partnership this month with free coffee Fridays. Never one to turn down a drink on the house, I picked up my 12 oz. cup on the way to work yesterday.

Calm down, lawyers. I moved the coffee from my dashboard to my cup holder before driving away.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was a big fan of Burger King's old Cup of Joe. I wouldn't describe myself as miffed that it's gone, but I will miss it.

I should also tell you that Seattle's Best doesn't brew my favorite cup of coffee. The company was acquired by Starbucks a few years back, and its coffee has always struck me as Starbucks' lower-quality entry-level offering. It's not bad, it's just not great.

With that out of the way, I can say that my free coffee upped my opinion of Seattle's Best. The coffee starts out way too strong -- the first sip is a blast of bitterness and overpowering richness. It gets better as the coffee cools, which mutes the flavors a bit.  Roughly 10 minutes after serving time, everything settles into a pleasant balance of tastes.

Another thing that grew on me as I sipped was Burger King's coffee cup. When I was first served, the graphics simply did not work for me. The crisp lines of the Seattle's Best shield looked like they were about to be buried by a mudslide of flowing coffee and coffee beans. It appeared to be a very unhappy marriage.

The cup sat on my desk at work all day, and by the time I threw it out and headed home, it had grown on me. The tidal wave of coffee and that Seattle's Best logo must have gone to counseling at some point in the day, because I saw plenty of fun in their relationship. Time appears to be the salve that heals all graphical wounds.

At the end of the day, this wasn't my favorite coffee. In fact, I probably wouldn't pick it over Burger King's extinct Cup of Joe. Yet it was enjoyable, and the price was right. Three sporks out of five. I hope you pick up your own cup next Friday.

November 4, 2010

Free Coffee from the King

Foodies, Friday morning is just around the corner, and that means many of you will need a little pick-me-up to help start the final day of the work week. Fortunately there's a king of a giveaway going on every Friday in November.

Burger King is giving away free cups of Seattle's Best coffee. That's one of the best reasons I've heard for getting out of bed in the morning.

I'll be back soon with a review to get to the bottom of this giveaway. In the mean time, I thought you'd like a heads-up so you can partake in the deal.

October 23, 2010

Cinnabon Cereal sugar high

Forgive me if I jump around in today's review, foodies. I just downed a bowl of Kellogg's Cinnabon Cereal, and the sugar content is making me jumpy.

Speaking of which, today's review is actually looking at Kellogg's Cinnabon Cereal. I picked up a box on sale for $2 Sunday, and it's been more or less fueling my workweek -- although I had to pair it with yogurt and a sliced banana every morning to prevent hunger from paralyzing me before lunch.

As you can tell -- and would have guessed without my breakfast menu -- Cinnabon Cereal is less than substantial. Though the box says multi-grain, each piece melts in your mouth without much help from your molars. They aren't newspaper-in-a-puddle limpid, and they keep their crunch in a bowl of milk, but you won't confuse them with a filling cereal like Wheaties Fuel.

Within a few minutes of eating you'll also be noticing a massive sugar rush. Cinnabon Cereal packs a walloping 12 grams of sugar into a 1-cup serving. That's roughly on par with Lucky Charms, which have 11 grams of sugar in a 1-cup serving.

Those of you who don't like numbers: skip the following paragraph. I'm going to do some quick arithmetic to properly compare Cinnabon Cereal and Lucky Charms, and I'd hate to bore you with the details that my math-teacher paternal heritage forces me to find ever-so-interesting.

We'll use Cinnabon Cereal's 12 grams of sugar per 30 gram (1 cup) serving size as the beginning ratio -- a sugar to weight ratio of 12/30. Lucky Charms have 11 grams of sugar for every 27 grams of weight -- a ratio of 11/27. We need a common denominator, which is most easily found by multiplying the serving sizes by one another -- giving us 810 (30 x 27). We also need to multiply the numerator of each fraction by the same number that we used on their respective denominators (11 x 30 and 12 x 27). In the end we find that Cinnabon Cereal has a sugar-to-weight ratio of 324/810 (we can write it as 324:810 for those of you who like your ratios with colons) and Lucky Charms have a sugar-to-weight ratio of 330/810 (or 330:810).

In other words, the cereals' sugar contents remain virtually identical when you run the math to compare the same portion size. But Cinnabon Cereal doesn't have pure-sugar marshmallows upping it's sugar factor -- every miniature Cinnabon is just loaded with the sweet stuff.

The cereal carries a few vitamins, so I guess technically it can be part of a healthy breakfast. If you balance it out with six bowls of oatmeal, 12 grapefruits, a half-gallon of skim milk and a fiber supplement, that is.

Let me add a quick disclaimer before we move on: Middle schoolers with upcoming fraction tests in math class cannot use this review's "math paragraph" as a means to cheat. Don't leave a printout of this blog on your desk when you take your quiz in an attempt to fool your teacher into thinking it's harmless after-I-finish reading material in an unrelated subject. Your teacher will catch you, then we'll both be in trouble.

Back to Cinnabon Cereal: Now that we have the nutritional info out of the way, let's talk about taste. The minute I spooned some of these mini-Cinnabons into my mouth, I had the feeling I'd eaten them before. They taste almost identical to Post Waffle Crisp. The consistency is the same, and the flavor is similar, only with more cinnamon. It's kind of like Waffle Crisp and Cinnamon Toast Crunch had a child.

The resulting offspring is a reasonable approximation of the flavor of a Cinnabon, although you're not going to confuse it for the real thing. Personally, I'd like to see some kind of frosting on the top, which would add an air of authenticity to the cereal. That would probably break the sugar bank and send breakfasters into diabetic shock, though.

Let's sum it all up. Cinnabon Cereal tastes similar to a Cinnabon, packs enough sugar to send a sweet tooth to the dentist and will leave you hungry a few hours after breakfast. But it does stay crunchy in milk.

Once you add the pros and cons, I'd say that works out to 2 sporks out of five. If I were you, I'd run from those numbers.

October 19, 2010

Two new sauces at Taco Bell

My most recent trip to Taco Bell was packed with more surprises than a Cracker Jack box. You've all no doubt read Sunday's review of the XXL Chalupa, which shocked with its scale-tipping mass and misplaced low-fat sour cream.

What I didn't include in that post was a noteworthy piece of condiment news creeping onto a Taco Bell counter near you. The Bell recently rolled out two new "Border Salsa" sauces: Fire Roasted and Verde.

The new ketchup-packeted sauces join the faithful standbys of Mild, Hot and Fire to bump Taco Bell's salsa selection to five. And they stand out from their more seasoned brethren in that they're not merely different levels of hot sauce.

No, Verde and Fire Roasted Border Salsas squirt out their own unique flavors. Here's a rundown:

Fire Roasted largely lives up to its name, although I'd have named it "Campfire" or something to tip foodies off to the fact that it tastes more like smoke and less like sun-dried tomato. The sauce adds a surprisingly rich tone to Taco Bell fare and lingers on the tongue long after a bite. You're not going to confuse Fire Roasted sauce with the taste of painstakingly smoked salmon fresh off wood chips -- but you shouldn't expect that from Taco Bell anyway.

My biggest problem with the Fire Roasted sauce is that a little bit goes a long way. It has the same injected-with-smoke-flavor quality as certain brands of beef jerky, and that can be overpowering in anything but single-pack quantities.

Verde, on the other hand, is not aptly named. It hardly resembles its green chili sauce namesake and reminded me of a watery sweet and sour sauce.

That's not an entirely bad thing, mind you. While sweet and sour sauce and Taco Bell might not be the most obvious pairing, they marry fairly well in an odd-couple sort of way. Sweet and sour affectionados won't be casting aside chicken nuggets any time soon, but it's an interesting change-up that's odd enough to work. I'd say the Verde sauce is so wide left of the mark that it successfully hits an entirely different target.

The real question today is whether you're going to stuff your to-go bag with either of these two new sauces in lieu of the classic Mild, Hot and Fire packets. And the answer is: probably not.

Instead the sauces should be used to play off the pedestrian hot-sauce world of Taco Bell salsa. Fire Roasted screams for limited-application use to add richness to food. Verde is the obvious choice when you're feeling a little wacky.

In other words, the new sauces offer variety -- the spice of life.

October 17, 2010

Living large with Taco Bell's XXL Chalupa

It's been a while since the critique has sampled anything from Taco Bell -- a restaurant that is typically a mainstay of my culinary considerations. Other foods distracted with peppers, all-you-can-eat promotions and chocolaty coatings, leading this blog away from its most stalwart subject.

The return to The Bell had to be big. Extra big. Extra, extra big. You could say I wanted it to be XXL.

And wouldn't you know it? Taco Bell rolled out just the concoction to mark the occasion. They're calling it the XXL Chalupa. It's a jumbo shell nestling lettuce, salsa, cheeses and sour cream on top of your choice of meat.

When ordering I was pleasantly surprised to find I could choose between ground beef, chicken and steak. Taco Bell's promotional material has focused only on the ground beef option. Naturally I chose to go with chicken -- I recommend avoiding taco beef whenever possible. You never know exactly what's in there.

One other noteworthy ingredient in the XXL Chalupa is low-fat sour cream. I'll pause for a moment to let you absorb the fact that the restaurant is including low-fat sour cream on a dish whose calling card is over-the-top size. The chalupa is 650 calories, for Jillean Michaels' sake! Putting on low-fat sour cream is like skipping the 10-spoke alloy wheels on your $185,300 Mercedes SLS AMG because you don't want to spend the extra $2,400. When you're that far in the hole, why not finish digging the last couple of shovelfuls and complete the job?

Plus, I watched as the Taco Bell workers built my Chalupa behind the counter. The low-fat sour cream was shot out of a dispenser that looked like a jumbo caulk cannon. The dispenser was the size of a small boar, and probably contained enough fat to give Shiva Rea's entire yoga class a heart attack.

All that aside, I have to admit I'm impressed with the size of the XXL Chalupa. Taco Bell usually gives you pretty decent bang for your buck -- the $5 Box comes to mind -- but even so the XXL Chalupa is shockingly large. I needed both hands to hold it.

The high point of the dish is by far its shell, which is soft, moist and holds its shape so the Chalupa doesn't fall to pieces if you have to set it down. That's a good thing, because you'd practically have to be Mr. Universe to not get tired while holding this load of a meal.

The chicken is tasty, as are all the rest of the fixins', which are piled on so high that I wished I had an extra hinge on my jaw to take bites. I found it was helpful to eat from the top of the chalupa down, which minimized spilled lettuce and cheese.

I can tell you the chalupa weighed down my stomach with all that food. It also left my wallet a little lighter than I'd like. I paid more than $3 -- over a buck for every letter in the "XXL."

That price is really the only downside to the XXL Chalupa. And while I find it very hard to justify spending more than $2.00 on any one item from Taco Bell, this is the item to buy if you're going to do it. Therefore I can give the chalupa four sporks out of five.

Actually, you might want to think about bringing four sporks to eat it. The chalupa is that big. That extra, extra big.

September 25, 2010

Beating the heat with Subway's Turkey Jalapeño Fiery Footlong

I don't know what the weather was like where you live yesterday, but I can tell you it was unseasonably warm here in Syracuse. On just the third day of fall, the temperature reached a new record of 90 degrees.

That's not appropriate for the start of a weekend in which the area hosts its Oktoberfest. I didn't go to the big festival last night, but it must have been sweltering in the biergarten.

The temperatures were much more fitting, however, for my own culinary exploits yesterday. I sampled Subway's Turkey Jalapeño Melt.

The melt is one of two "Fiery Footlongs" Subway is pushing right now. The other is a Buffalo Chicken sub, which I haven't chanced to try yet. The Turkey Jalapeño Melt has a simple blueprint: turkey, pickled jalapeños and cheese stuffed in the toaster oven. It's nothing you couldn't have ordered on your own in the past by picking and choosing a custom sub.

It is something you might not have thought to order, though. And while I can't say it has me burning my list of favorite foods, the melt is definitely worth a try.

The melt's calling card is the fact that the jalapeños are toasted along with the turkey and cheese -- Subways I've visited wait until post-toast to place vegetables on your sub. The result in this order of operations change is that much more flavor leaks from the pickled peppers. I was pleasantly surprised at the level of heat the sub delivered.

My Subway fallback meal is a Spicy Italian with jalapeños, and the heat doesn't approach the level delivered by the Turkey Jalapeno Melt. I chalk that up in large part to the fact that the melt's jalapeños were warm, which stirred up the flavors.

Those of you who are science-minded will want to note that the lower fat content of my turkey versus the Spicy Italian's Genoa salami and pepperoni probably played a part in the turkey melt's fierier nature. Capsaicin, the chemical that gives jalapeños their kick, is fat soluble. Therefore pairing the peppers with higher-fat foods like those in the Spicy Italian will wash away some of that delicious heat.

Unfortunately the Jalapeño Turkey Melt delivered no surprises other than the heightened jalapeño. A special spicy bread would have been nice, as would a unique hotter version of Subway's stalwart pepper jack cheese. Alas, t'was not to be. In the end I received a typical turkey sub that had been dressed up by a trip to the oven. You can put lipstick on a pig, and it's still a pig -- or you can put a heating element on turkey, and it's still turkey.

It's still pleasant turkey, that is. And it's a sub I award three sporks out of five. I won't hesitate to order it any time I want a spiced-up lunch for six bucks. It's just a little too pedestrian to receive any higher accolades.

The silver lining of the sub's plebeian nature is that you'll still be able to order it long after Subway's special-sub promotional machine has moved on to promote the next footlong. So when you find yourself strolling past a sub shop on some future 90-degree late-September day, you'll know what to order to match the unexpected heat.

September 20, 2010

Burger King Funnel Cake Sticks

September is barely half over and already I miss summertime fair season. The cotton candy. The fried Oreos. The bloomin' onions. The funnel cake.
Well, Burger King has something to ease funnel fans' pain. I speak of funnel cake sticks, pencil-thin rods of fried dough paired with the convenience of the drive-through.

The sticks are accompanied by a tiny tub of icing -- a curious choice, considering the best funnel cakes are simply dusted with sugar. Sure, there are chocolate eclair funnel cakes and the like, but the goo in those applications does less to dress up the cake than it does to mask the flavor of the batter. Burger King's icing works the same way. Its sucrose sweetness covers up the taste of the dough.

Not that you'll be able to keep much icing on the sticks. It's runnier than the New York Marathon and trickles down off the rods in a virtual torrent of down-the-drain sweetness. The path from the icing tub to your mouth will be a treacherous one, and I recommend putting down a tarp before eating the sticks so you're floor isn't covered in dribbles.

The King should have left out the icing, because the sticks are already sprinkled in powdered sugar. It's more granular than the stuff you get at the fair but is actually pretty good. Sadly there was a severe dearth of powdered sugar on my sticks, and I was forced to supplement it with some stopgap icing.

You're probably wondering why I've yet to address the funnel cake sticks themselves. The reason is simple: they're nothing special. Burger King should have funneled some more flavor into them, because they're dry and bland. They lack the simmering melt-in-your-mouth goodness of real fair funnel cake.

Alas, you'll have to look elsewhere to satisfy your need for a taste of summer fairs. Burger King funnel cake sticks only receive two sporks out of five.

Maybe you can run around in circles in the parking lot to simulate the tea cups at your local fair. It would be a more realistic experience than the King's take on funnel cake.

September 4, 2010

Back in the saddle at CiCi's Pizza

Welcome back, foodies! I'm delighted to report that after nearly two months of impromptu summer vacation, the food critique is back with new reviews. I spent time away from the blog to recharge my chewing muscles and empty my stomach, so I'm once again ready to shoulder the heavy burden of eating for your enlightenment.

My hollow stomach didn't last long -- the first of our new reviews focuses on CiCi's Pizza, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of pizza, pasta, soup and salad. I visited the restaurant for the first time last night, and as of this moment I still feel full.

You may have heard of CiCi's. The chain, which currently has branches in 35 states, frequented television airwaves for a while with advertisements claiming endless pizza, pasta, salad and dessert for "under five bucks."

Inflation seems to have reared its head since that ad barrage first reached the East Coast, because CiCi's now promotes itself as a buffet for "five bucks and change." I paid a still-bargain-priced $5.49 for the buffet at CiCi's Syracuse location, plus an additional $1.49 for a drink.

You can chip in a few extra cents for a jumbo-sized drink if you'd like, but that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. The beverage fountain was self-serve, and no visible signs prohibited refills. Therefore, the only reason to buy the bigger cup is to avoid walking to refill your drink. And since you're probably getting up for return trips to the buffet, an aversion to walking at CiCi's is oxymoronic.

The buffet itself covers an impressive variety of pizza: Cheese, pepperoni, Alfredo, spinach Alfredo, sausage, pepperoni jalapeno, Mexican, Hawaiian, buffalo chicken, barbecue and veggie pizzas all made appearances during my time at the restaurant. There's also pasta in tomato sauce, soup, salad, bread sticks, dessert pizza and brownies.

All the variety aside, CiCi's is worth visiting for the bread sticks and brownies alone. The bread sticks, while not of gourmet quality, were wonderfully pliant and avoided the nefarious pitfall of gnaw-till-exhaustion chewiness. They were topped with a tasty Parmesan cheese and had a nice, moist consistency -- although I don't want to think about how much oil was doused on them.

Speaking of moist, the gooey brownies stole the show. This came as a bit of a surprise, considering I only bit into a brownie after several gut-busting trips to the buffet for main-course items. Even so my first bite of brownie made me want to hollow out some space in my leg for an extra round of dessert.

The center of the brownie was delightfully gooey and contained that sweet-but-not-too-rich chocolate flavor that best ends a good buffet dinner. Powdered sugar smothered the top, serving more to provide a textural balance to the moist innards than to add any actual flavor.

Oh yeah, there was pizza, too. As I mentioned, the range of pizzas is laudable. Unfortunately, CiCi's much-ballyhooed macaroni-and-cheese pizza didn't make an appearance on the buffet. Some patrons were special-ordering it by the slice, which is a nice option, but I'd like to have seen it under the heat lamps.

The buffet pizzas were of the 12-inch variety, which produced small slices perfect for sampling. CiCi's got it right. Buffet pizza shouldn't have giant, belly-filling slices, which make it too hard to jump between different varieties.

For the vegetable eaters out there, the salad bar was basic but workable. Iceberg lettuce, red onions, banana peppers, croutons, bacon bits, carrots and a standard array of dressings were all offered. It's really just a nice way to accompany your bread sticks, though.

The strength of the bread sticks and brownies help propel CiCi's to a rating of four sporks out of five. The restaurant's strengths are easy to spot: good variety, great dessert and spectacular pricing. You'd be hard-pressed to find a similar array of food for seven bucks.

Still, there's room for improvement. More accessible macaroni-and-cheese pizza and a pumped-up salad bar would be the icing on CiCi's cake -- or the powdered sugar on the brownies.

July 15, 2010

My candy bar could have survived the zombie apocalypse

Post-apocalyptic zombie movies always seem to have survivors scrounging through dusty canned goods at deserted gas stations or desolate supermarkets. Usually it's a good excuse for directors to give the audience a run-in with a bloodthirsty member of the undead. Yet I'm not thinking about brains for lunch when I watch these films. My mind wanders to the prepacked food on the shelves.

What kind of variety can you get after the end of the world as we know it? Have picky survivors taken all the good items, leaving the slower, less-fortunate souls with the canned salmon and Cup Noodles? Are those Cup Noodles even edible without a prolonged stint in the microwave to bombard them into submission?

When you think about it, having to eat Cup Noodles in a world without hot water is enough to make you sympathize with the zombies. It makes fresh brains sound positively appetizing. 

Anyway, I had my own run-in tonight with long-in-the-tooth prepacked food. I picked up a tasty looking Nestle Crunch Crisp bar at a drug store that shall remain unnamed and gobbled it down. Afterward I noticed some writing on the inside of the wrapper:

Sorry, this is not a winning game wrapper but you can to to for exclusive offers from Major League Baseball® 2K8, available now at retail for your Xbox 360®.
Not only is Major League Baseball 2K8 available now at retail, it's been available for over two years. I'd say that places the carbon date of the candy bar at about 2 years.

Now I'm not going to pretend this is the oldest candy bar I've ever eaten. I'm sure I've had my fare share of elderly snacks from vending machines at out-of-the-way rest stops and gas stations. I even make a point of hunting through the discount bin at truck stops in hope of finding chocolate bargains that have passed their expected shelf life.

What's so unique about this candy bar is that I didn't even notice it was old until looking at the inner foil after I finished eating. The critical among you are no doubt preparing to attack my fitness as a food critique, but I assure you the chocolate was moist and the wafers crispy

It wasn't at all like some of the geriatric Baby Ruth and Hershey Cookies 'n Cream bar's I've picked up in the past. You see, Baby Ruth chocolate tends to dry out as it ages, while the Cookies 'n Cream bars take on a denser, syrupy composition. The Crunch Crisp barely changed. In retrospect I'd say it was bit harder to bite into than its juvenile brethren, but that's about it.

In a few more hours we'll know for sure if this candy bar truly defied the clock. So far things look promising: I'm not dead yet.

And I received a small insight into meal time after the zombie apocalypse wipes out our food supply lines. I know I'll be placing the Nestle Crunch Crisp on top of my shopping list as I pick through long-abandoned convenience stores

June 26, 2010

The Ched 'R' Peppers SuperSonic Cheeseburger Combo: Sonic bounces back

Foodies, you may recall my less-than-stellar feelings toward the fare at Sonic drive-ins.

A year ago I drove away from my first Sonic experience profoundly disappointed in the quality of the food. The drinks were delicious, but anything you had to chew wasn't worth writing home about. My tots were bland, my Texas toast wasn't toasted and my burger hardly dripped with flavor.

Today I'm happy to tell you that a recent trip to Sonic left me with a much more satisfied stomach. I ordered a limited-time-only Ched 'R' Peppers SuperSonic Cheeseburger Combo and was delighted with the results.

The Ched 'R' Peppers burger boasts a more harmonious flavor than its disjointed name implies. Sonic takes a cheeseburger, adds two deep-fried peppers and ties it together with some chipotle mayo. It's zesty rather than spicy, so those of you with an aversion to habanero-style heat need not shy away.

You should avoid the burger if you dislike cheese, because cheddar is everywhere. It blends with the mayo and can overpower other flavors on some bites, leaving the tongue tasting more salt than spice. Fortunately this is drive-in fare, so cheesiness is to be expected, rather than loathed.

The burger's beef was of so-so quality. Most of the flavor came from the fixings, and I can't say the meat ever came through with any strength. At least it wasn't dry, which can sink a burger faster than BP's stock price.

In summary we're looking at a very tasty burger with a few flaws -- four sporks out of five. And Sonic has redeemed itself.

DEWmocracy update: White Out won

This morning I'm preparing to write a brand-new full-length review for all you foodies out there. First I wanted to post a follow-up snippet to my DEWmocracy post of a few weeks ago. I'll make it short and sweet: White Out won.

The Squirt-esque Dew took home the gold with 44% of the vote, edging out fruit-punch-flavored Typhoon, which netted 40%. If you need to know the numbers for third place, limey Distortion managed just 16% of votes.

You may recall I lavished my endorsement on White Out. I'm not saying turn elections, but it does sound a bit like the Colbert Bump, doesn't it? (If you don't know what the Colbert Bump is, you haven't been watching enough of the clever late-night show on Comedy Central. If you don't know what the Colbert Report is, you probably don't care about DEWmocracy anyway.)

June 16, 2010

M&M's meet pretzels

Remember Crispy M&M's? They were a little larger than the traditional variety and each chocolate morsel was stuffed with a piece of puffed rice. Biting into them elicited a satisfying crunch and a decent flavor.

They were introduced in blue bags just before the turn of the millennium, when I was but a wee middleschooler with a juvenile-esque eye for junk food. And they quickly became one of my favorite vending machine buys.

Sadly, they are no more on American shores. I haven't seen Crispy M&M's in the United States for years, although I could have sworn I ran across a bag or two when I was in the United Kingdom in the fall of 2007.

Because of this departure from the New World, my fancy M&M cravings have had to be satisfied by the always-stalwart peanut variety and the delectable-but-rare peanut butter style. While those are good, they lack a certain crunch.

Today I'm ecstatic to report that M&M's brought the crunch back, albeit not with puffed rice. Instead new Pretzel M&M's have hit the shelves, and they pack some serious munching satisfaction.

Pretzel M&M's are jumbo-sized, hovering somewhere near the girth of the gargantuan Wild Cherry M&M's I reviewed a few years back. They have a generous portion of pretzel wrapped in a thin layer of chocolate and topped with the traditional mouth-melting candy coating. It's an oh-so-satisfying package with a hint of pretzel salt that works amazingly well.

I am, however, a bit surprised by the pretzel-to-chocolate ratio. This candy is more like M&M-coated pretzels than pretzel M&M's. I'll admit more chocolate would probably bury the pretzel's flavors and textures, but it's still surprising to bite into M&M's with so little cocoa. It's a good change, though -- one that makes an exciting experience out of bagged candy, which is too-often dull.

Pretzel M&M's have one major drawback: thirst. I'm not sure a bag of candy has ever left me in need of a tall glass of milk quite as much as these nuggets did.

Eating chocolate always leaves you a little thirsty, a function of all the sugar. And pretzels are notorious for sponging all the saliva from your jaws. Combine them with a hard candy shell that leaves a sweet "quench me" undertone on the palate, and you have the makings of a severe drink shortage.

It's enough to bump Pretzel M&M's down to four sporks out of five. If they were packaged with a carton of milk, they'd be the perfect product. As they stand now, they're a very good candy that middleschoolers and adults should be able to recall fondly in ten years.

June 10, 2010

DEWmocracy: My Mountain Dew endorsement

You may have heard about Mountain Dew's "DEWmocracy" experiment where the brand introduced three experimental flavors. You can buy them at the store, try them, and log on to the DEWmocracy website to vote for your favorite. Supposedly the winner will be kept on as a regular Mountain Dew Flavor, ala Code Red.

Forget about the fact that this promotion is oddly timed to coincide with a midterm election, rather than the more popular presidential variety. We're down to just over four days left until voting ends, and it's time to endorse a flavor.

Here are the candidates:
  • Typhoon: Currently capturing 40% of the vote, Typhoon is described as "Dew with a punch of tropical flavor." In other words, its magenta-colored Mountain Dew Fruit Punch.
  • Distortion: Sitting in third place at 16%, Distortion is called "Dew with a blast of lime flavor." It's green and looks like regular Mountain Dew.
  • White Out: Self-described as "Dew with a smooth citrus flavor," White Out leads the polls at the moment with 44% of votes. Think Squirt or cloudy Sierra Mist, and you get the idea.
I'm throwing my weight solidly behind White Out. Simply put, it has the best balance of flavors. While it may be a knock-off of previously released sodas, it's crisp and refreshing. Plus it has the best label color scheme, and I'm always looking for visual variety as I walk down the beverage aisle.

Although it doesn't taste terrible, Typhoon is too sweet. In a competition of sugar-saturated Mountain Dew varieties, it manages to be the drink that goes just a little too far down the saccharine road. The fruit punch twist adds some nice flavor variety, but I wouldn't recommend drinking more than a shot of the stuff. Downing a 20 oz. bottle could result in diabetic shock, regardless of the state of your pancreas.

Distortion is in no shape to garner an endorsement. I can't say I've tasted it, but do we really need another green Mountain Dew?

So there you have it. Head over to the DEWmocracy website and send in your own vote, if you're so inclined. At very least I encourage you to check out the interactive map that gives you a county-by-county breakdown of voting. It might not seem as important as heading to the actual polls in November, but it's good practice.

June 6, 2010

Working with the Kit Kat Caramel

Good evening, foodies. Tonight I'm here to help you in the critical Sunday evening hours when you plan out your food for the upcoming workweek. Let's skip the sandwich fodder and head straight to the good stuff known as dessert.

Lunchbox desserts have to be two things: portable and quick to eat. The portability is a no-brainer. You can't take a meringue pie because of all the jostling it will encounter on your way to the office -- or because of the jostling at the office, if you happen to have excessively nosy coworkers. The quick-to-eat factor is important because you need something that can be scarfed down if you dawdled too long during the main course, leaving you with only minutes to finish your meal before punching back on the clock.

So tonight we'll talk about candy bars, one of my favorite subjects. Frequent readers know I love to review candy. You'll also note that I have a soft spot for looking at new twists on classic chocolate concoctions. Hence tonight's review of the Kit Kat Caramel.

Let me tell you up front that you won't have to give anyone a break of your Kit Kat Caramel. I've always shied away from bringing Kit Kats to work because of the old TV commercials that showed construction workers sharing their candy. It might be selfish of me, but I don't want to give coworkers my dessert. It's nothing personal -- I'll gladly lend part of my sandwich if someone forgot his or her own. I just think a person should be able to enjoy the entirety of his or her dessert without someone singing an admittedly catchy jingle as a means of begging for sugar.

Those of you who think like me will be glad to find out that the Kit Kat Caramel is one not-easily-broken jumbo-sized Kit Kat piece much like the "Big Kat" bar that graces many gas stations. It's easy to unwrap and easy to eat, but it does lack some of the piece-by-piece interactiveness of the original.

The new bar is essentially a magnified Kit Kat with one caveat: A layer of caramel sits in a chocolate-walled chamber above the ever-present crispy wafer. Graphics on the bar's wrapper show this caramel to be present in epic quantities. In reality it's more like a novella.

That's no bad thing, though. The sweet caramel could easily overpower the classic wafer crunch and creamy chocolate of the Kit Kat if it were more prevalent. The current level of caramel is just about right, adding a refreshing new twist to an old favorite.

One thing that bears mentioning about the "Big Kat" size versus the traditional Kit Kat is that the large version seems to contain extra milk chocolate. It doesn't upset the all-important flavor scales, but it is noticeable. I rather like it, in fact.

In the end I'd say the Kit Kat Caramel is aptly named -- the "caramel" definitely takes a back seat to the "Kit Kat." It doesn't alchemize an entirely new candy, instead adding a new spin to an old favorite. Four out of five sporks. It works for me.

Hopefully it will work for you this week while you're at work.

May 22, 2010

Iced Dunkin' Dark: Where's the heat?

Good morning foodies! I'm ready to start the weekend off right with a Van Winkle-waking review of Dunkin' Donuts Dark iced coffee. What say you?

If you're saying, "Pour me a nice hot cup," you're going to be disappointed. My bid to secure a steaming mug of dark java was flat-out denied by a local Dunkin' last week. They only had the dark roast on ice.

I appreciate iced coffee, and even prefer Dunkin's regular brew chilled to its less-than-ideal hot counterpart. But it's simply not acceptable to have a variety of iced coffee and not offer it hot. Don't you first brew hot coffee to make iced coffee? Would it be that hard to set half of the destined-for-ice pot on a heater and keep it warm?

So negative sporks for that development. I'll move on and review the iced dark coffee for what it was, rather than what it should have been. You know. Hot.

As a cool beverage the dark roast does pretty well. The flavor contains light bitter tones that are pleasant rather than off-putting, and the taste is fairly rich. We're talking Ken Jennings-rich, not Mikhail Prokhorov-rich, mind you. But plenty rich, nonethesame.

My advice is to forgo Dunkin's offer of sugar and cream and season the coffee yourself, if you must. While I prefer mine black, even those who like to load up on sweeteners can be blown away by the amount of C12H22O11 the stores will pack in a cup. It doesn't dissolve fully, leaving you crunching your drink rather than sipping it.

Of course, if you're looking for a wake-me-up the iced coffee is inferior to a hot brethren. There's nothing like a slightly scalded tongue and warm belly to snap you out of a morning funk. A cool mouth and throat certainly don't come close.

Overall, I would say Iced Dunkin' Dark is tasty but not outstanding -- three sporks out of five. I'd love to know what it's like hot, when flavors shine fully and aren't muted by the chill of ice. Shockingly, I wasn't afforded that chance.

May 18, 2010

Do Facebook friends connect to make good vitaminwater?

I've spent my fair share of words on this blog criticizing food product planners. Time and time again I'm at a loss to understand what they were thinking when they picked misfit ingredients and settled for strange seasonings. I envision product planners as bald-headed men in starchy lab coats who work in secret food silos and return home each night so out of touch with the world that they have to ask their kids to explain this newfangled Hannah Montana.

Tonight we have the unique opportunity to pit the product planners against normal people. Well, that's provided you consider Facebook users normal people. I'm a little doubtful, what with the prevalence of FarmVille and its ilk, but we'll pretend it's normal to care whether your friends fertilized some random imaginary field or found a lonely cow wandering through cyberspace.

Getting back to the point, vitaminwater recently released some new flavors. One of them, dubbed "connect" in the industry-standard all-lowercase letters, features black-cherry lime flavors and packaging claiming it was made "by fans, for fans on Facebook." The other one, "spark," with grape-blueberry flavor, seems to have flowed out of your typical product pipeline. So which one is more successful?

The black cherry-lime combination trends heavily toward the lime end of the equation. It's not as puckerworthy as the citrus flavors of vitaminwater's "energy,"  but it's surprisingly sour. It also falls a little flat on my tongue and could very much use some more black cherry notes for richness.

Spark, on the other hand, has a pleasant but not-overpowering sweetness that successfully wraps beginning and end tones of grape juice around a sweet burst of blueberry in the middle. As a result it's tastefully sweet without slapping you with an immediate avalanche of sugar. It also doesn't leave you with that annoying just-drank-too-much-corn-syrup thirsty tongue.

Throw in the fact that connect contains caffeine, and the crowd-sourced beverage comes in a distant second. Its flavors are merely OK, and if I wanted caffeine I would have picked up some coffee. Sorry, Facebookers. Connect earns just two sporks out of five.

It just isn't as good as spark, to which I award four sporks. Those balding men must get it right once in a blue moon.

Of course, this experiment has a severe lack of double blinds, control groups and scientific methods. In other words, I'm not ready to anoint product planners a better alternative to crowd-sourcing.

After all, even a blind cow finds her way out of the digital forest every once in a while.

May 15, 2010

Lunch-sized picklePak

Good evening, foodies.

Unfortunately I don't have a full review ready for you tonight -- I'm sorting through my thoughts on two new beverages: the new Dunkin' Donuts "Iced Dunkin' Dark Roast" iced coffee and the latest flavor from vitaminwater, a black cherry variety called Connect. Full posts on those will come later this week.

Tonight I'm writing to let you know that my girlfriend Deb is currently eating a lunch-sized picklePak filled with petite kosher dill pickles. Yes, you read that right. Picture the elementary-school-ubiquitous 7 oz. plastic cups of apple sauce, but filled with tiny pickles and brine. That sums up the picklePak, produced by Mt. Olive.

Deb won't let me take her picture eating the pickles, but I wanted to note the pack's existence somehow. Not being a pickle person myself, I don't feel able to review a picklePak objectively. For now I'll just tilt my head to the side and marvel at the fact that there are enough pickle lovers in the world to justify the existence of such a product.

May 13, 2010

Cow Tales still tell a good story

Those of you who follow my Twitter account know that last week while meandering through a gas station I stumbled upon nostalgia in a long, thin wrapper: Cow Tales.

I don't know how long it had been since I ate one of the caramel tubes wrapped around a cream center, but my guess is it was when Taco Bell still advertised with a Chihuahua and KFC was still Kentucky Fried Chicken. Just seeing the box of cylindrical candy on the shelf brought me back at least ten years to a day when Hershey bars were still wrapped in real foil and Milky Ways weren't available in dark chocolate or all-caramel varieties. For a few moments the world of sweets became innocent, simple and unhindered by worries about cavities and calories.

And I'm barely an adult. I'm sure if I were out of my 20s the sight of a Cow Tale could bring back a bigger drawer full of repressed memories. Even so, I grabbed a taste of the classic candy while the moment was right.

I almost opted for the Strawberry Cow Tales that sat next to the traditional variety, but something stopped me. While I can't claim to know the history of the bovine derriere, I don't remember a strawberry version gracing the shelves of the candy barn while I was a kid. Maybe I'll review one of those in a few weeks, I thought. This was about a trip down memory lane.

As a brief aside, the intertubes tell me Cow Tales are actually available in a number of varieties including chocolate and caramel apple. The world, it seems, is always spinning, and companies are constantly looking for a way to milk a successful product for new triumphs. Hopefully I'll be able to track down some of these newfangled versions and tell you whether they're successful.

For now I can tell you the classic Cow Tale is still successful. Chewy caramel spoons with the sugary cream center for a treat that's equal parts sinful indulgence and necessary soul food. I felt years younger after my mouth listened to the tastes of the Cow Tale. For a few precious moments I was a bite-sized person experiencing the pure bliss of a sugary childhood snack.

Since it's such a classic, I feel no need to give this candy a traditional rating. Instead, let this post serve as a special tribute to a candy that has done so much to lift so many people's spirits. Cow Tales, Rick's Food Critique salutes you!

May 5, 2010

Wheaties Fuel: You bet I'll eat my Wheaties

I'm not usually a big fan of foods that work harder to plug their celebrity endorsements than than they do to boast about their ingredients and flavor. It's usually a sign of blandness and lack of inspiration. So you can imagine I wasn't any too thrilled at the idea of Wheaties Fuel.

Being on the Wheaties box is one of the pinnacles of sports celebrityhood -- and a traditional way to endorse a bland, less-than-inspiring product. No offense to classic Wheaties, but they lack the zing I want in my breakfast bowl every morning.

Now Wheaties has a new product in an edgy carbon-colored box filled with the eerily disembodied faces of A-list of sports celebrities: Albert Pujols, Kevin Garnett, Peyton Manning, Bryan Clay and Hunter Kemper. The fresh box has a new set of insides, dubbed "Wheaties Fuel" and supposedly co-developed with the cover athletes and a nutrition expert. It sounds like an attempt to spruce up dull old Wheaties with a new skin-deep paint job, doesn't it?

Surprisingly, it's not.

Wheaties Fuel is a marvelous cereal, paralleled by few on the store shelves today. Fuel is comprised of puffed rice and dense Wheaties bunches, and manages to have a delicious flavor without being sugary. Even better, it is stout enough that you won't be left hungry an hour after downing a bowl. The Fuel website says that's because of a mix of complex carbohydrates and fiber -- and that would make sense, nutritionally. Think of it this way: Wheaties Fuel is flat-out more dense than other cereals.

For starters, Fuel feels heavier in your spoon and fills your stomach more completely. It also pours with an impact unlike your standard corn flakes. The way it hits the bowl is granola-like.

In case you don't believe me, lets look at the tale of the box. The fancy-duds Wheaties Fuel box is much smaller than most other cereal boxes, yet it packs a lot of weight. Compare it to a Chocolate Cheerios box, another smaller-than-average sized box that also happens to be on my breakfast shelf at the moment. The Chocolate Cheerios box, while diminutive, is still wider and thicker than the Wheaties fuel box. Even so, Fuel outweighs it 1 lb. 1.1 oz. to 11.25 oz.

I suppose the moral of the story is that good things come in small, dense packages. Wheaties Fuel starts the day with Five sporks out of five.

May 1, 2010

KFC Double Down: The verdict

Foodies, I'm pleased to announce that after a week of deliberation I've reached a verdict on my brush with meaterdom, also known as the KFC Double Down.

Long story short, I got a kick out of eating the two pieces of fried chicken sandwiched around bacon, cheese and "Colonel's sauce." But I don't plan on eating another.

The Double Down is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of meal -- and I mean that in more than one way. First of all, a creation this bold seldom hits the glowing plastic menu boards at fast food counters. Second, I'm not sure how many times you can eat one without permanently impacting your health.

While the sandwich isn't as calorically catastrophic as you might guess, I didn't feel any too perky after eating mine. Once the initial adrenaline of eating my Double Down wore off I was sluggish and tired. I can only attribute those side effects to the Double Down.

It was similar to a sleepiness I felt after wolfing down Kentucky Grilled Chicken in November. The chicken sat in my stomach and dragged my energy levels down like an anchor. It was all I could do to post my initial reactions to the Double Down -- and we all know how excited I was to talk about this bold chicken sandwich.

The aftereffects are a shame because the Double Down tasted very good heading down my gullet. The massive amount of chicken approached overwhelming proportions and had me pecking around for bread, yet it was strangely pleasing all the same. Fried chicken is wholesome American goodness, and your mouth feels really good when you're in the middle of a double down.

Let me also give kudos to the "Colonel's sauce." It tasted like Thousand Island dressing and matched the sandwich perfectly.

In the interest of science I should attempt to eat another Double Down to see if the health effects are as disastrous as I fear. I am not ready for that day, though.

The need to wait before eating another Double Down is enough to keep the sandwich from receiving a perfect rating. I'm assigning it a rating of four sporks out of five, with the provisions that you eat just one and schedule a nap for the hours immediately following consumption.

Eat Double Downs regularly, and I fear your doctor will be clucking his tongue.

April 24, 2010

Initial impressions of the KFC Double Down

I got my hands on KFC's new Double Down today, and although I need some more time to digest the most literal chicken sandwich out there before delivering a final verdict, I'm going to share my initial impressions. Consider this my version of a technoblog's first hands-on with the Apple iPad before they had time to mold their official opinion.
  • The Double Down is not as large as you may expect. It was closer to the size of my first than KFC's typical chihuahua-sized chunks of chicken.
  • Meat. Meat. Meat. You're probably not surprised to hear that replacing a sandwich's bread with two fried chicken breasts results in a ton of meat. But by the end of the meal I was begging for a biscuit.
  • Colonel's Sauce is tasty. Despite the ominous name and an uncanny similarity to Thousand Island dressing, the Colonel's sauce in the middle of all the chicken and bacon added a welcome zing to the Double Down.
  • AWOL bacon. Speaking of bacon, where was it? Every once in a long while some bacon texture would pop up in a bite, but it the thin slices of pork belly contributed almost no flavor in the face of the tsunami of chicken.
  • Cheap cheese. Not that this is necessarily a terrible thing, but I could have purchased better quality American cheese from the prepackaged food section at Wal-Mart.
  • Prepare to be judged. My girlfriend looked at me with a mixture of disgust and pity the entire time I ate. The Double Down is tougher to swallow in concept than in your mouth.
  • The Double Down is healthier than many fast foods. OK, OK, the term "healthier" should never, ever be applied to this sandwich. Still, the interwebs have pointed out that there are several salads that are worse than the Double Down, and that there are many similarly bad meals on the market. Plus, I can tell you that I feel much better a few hours after eating the Double Down than I did after eating KFC's grilled chicken.
  • Yum. There's no getting around the fact that the Double Down actually tasted pretty darned good, in a mortgaging-five-years-of-my-life kind of way.
So there's your first look. I'll spend the next couple of days evaluating the entirety of the Double Down and have a complete review up soon. Rest assured that you shouldn't be too chicken to try one in the mean time.

April 21, 2010

Preparing for the KFC Double Down with the Milky Way Dark

Boy am I ever excited to try KFC's new Double Down. Two pieces of chicken sandwiching bacon, cheese and Colonel's sauce is every fast food critic's dream -- it's brash, captivating and eye-catching. But it's not quite time to review the Double Down yet.

Something as in-your-face as fried chicken book-ending sow belly deserves at least a week of mental preparation before evaluation. I need to steel myself for the abundance of deep frying and distance my thoughts from the interweb buzz storming about the Colonel's creation. To do otherwise would not be fair to one of the most audacious creations to grace the drive-thru since I anointed myself a food critic.

While I tap my inner chicken-Zen and perform taste-bud yoga, let's run through a mini-review. I think a candy bar should keep us tied over until Double Down Doomsday, don't you?

Fortunately I have just the candy bar in mind: the Milky Way Midnight. When writing last week's review of the Milky Way Simply Caramel I realized I never wrote about the dark side of the candy bar's family. That's a shame because the Midnight is no rotten pumpkin.

It swaps dark chocolate for the standard Milky Way's milk chocolate and implements a unique vanilla nougat in the center. And it keeps the standard helping of caramel inside for all you sweet tooths out there.

The result is a candy bar with more distinct flavors than the standard Milky Way. The dark chocolate gives it a hint of bitterness, the vanilla nougat lightens everything and the caramel sweeps your mouth along on an all-encompassing ride of sweetness.

All of the flavors stand out yet work in symphony with each other. If the regular Milky Way is three flavor instruments playing the same tune in harmony, the Milky Way Midnight is three instruments playing a medley that resonates on the tongue.

The bell tolls a friendly melody for the Milky Way Midnight -- five sporks out of five. The candy bar put me in a good frame of mind as I prepare for the Double Down. I'll run through some gastrointestinal calisthenics and have a review up for you next week.

April 13, 2010

Milky Way Simply Caramel: A black hole of sweetness

How would you make a Milky Way bar better? The options aren't as plentiful as you might think.

One answer is to swap the milk chocolate coating for dark chocolate. The folks at Mars did that recently with the delicious Milky Way Midnight. Another train of thought says adding nuts would be helpful -- but that's called a Snicker's bar.

All nougat composition? 3 Musketeers has that ground covered. And changing to a peanut butter nougat starts to encroach on Reese's-dominated territory.

That leaves only one option as far as my candy-aisle telescope can see: all caramel.

Enter the Milky Way Simply Caramel Bar, which I recently found at the supermarket. It's shaped like a regular Milky Way bar on the outside but contains a whole different galaxy of ingredients and flavor on the inside. And by "different galaxy" I mean one giant gravity well of caramel. Bite into the bar and the chewy stuff spills forth like a gamma ray burst.

It's similar to a giant elongated Rolo with its ingredients all out of proportion. It even tastes a little out of proportion. Not bad, mind you, just unbalanced.

There's so much undiluted sweetness to contend with that eating an entire bar is borderline brutality. The first bite flows around your taste buds with a welcoming shock. Then the rest of the experience is like a black hole sucking all flavors but sugar from your pallet.

Honestly, it needs a peanut butter nougat, nuts or dark chocolate to dispel everything and give it a little "oomph." I was hungry 10 minutes after eating the bar, since all that sugar metabolizes quickly.

A gold star to Mars for trying to find a successful new variation of the Milky Way. Unfortunately this offering is worlds away from perfect. Two sporks out of five.

April 6, 2010

An alien idea: Planet Fitness Pizza Night

If you live in a region with a Planet Fitness, you might be aware of a peculiar perk at the gym chain: Pizza night.

On the first Monday of every month the gym is filled with more than treadmills and weights. Slices of pizza are laid out so you can exercise your jaw muscles as well as your biceps.

The idea always seemed self defeating to me. Why sweat it out for hours on end only to undo your hard work with artery-clogging grease and cheese? But being a member of a different gym, I only gave it passing curiosity -- an cock of the head through the telescope, if you will.

Well, I've re-relocated from Central Pennsylvania to Central New York and joined up with a new gym -- Planet Fitness. Yesterday was my first visit to Pizza night, forcing me to confront the peculiarity head-on.

I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised.

It certainly wasn't my initial impression that won me over. I forgot all about pizza night until I arrived at the door at 6:30, ready to work out some built-up energy from a day spent sitting behind a desk at work. Instead of being greeted by the gym's familiar "come hyperventilate with me" scent of exercise and sweat I was bowled over by the heavy smell of pizza crust. It wasn't appetizing at the time.

The juxtaposition of Italian food and my workout also failed to sway my opinion. Nothing about seeing fellow gym-mates milling about the entrance chewing on cheesy dough made me want to squeeze out an extra set of triceps extensions or finish another mile on the exercise bike. Here too my nose took the lead in the dissatisfaction. Exercise plus pizza smells equals the urge to vomit, not the desire to stuff your face.

The pizza quality didn't do much for me either. It also wasn't hot. I suppose lukewarm slices are to be expected since they're available all evening.

My opinion of pizza night only changed after a decent stint on an exercise bike. It was about 7:30 p.m. and I'd yet to eat dinner. My blood sugar was plummeting, and I needed a jolt. Pizza was there to save me, offering an unmitigated dash of sustenance when my body and brain were feeling fuzzy.

Sure, it probably set my waistline back a few days. And I'm still not completely behind the Pizza night idea. Yet having tried it, I'm much more at peace with the concept than I was before.

The verdict is still out. For right now Pizza Night gets an undecided two-and-a-half sporks out of five.

March 12, 2010

Shrimp at Taco Bell?

Never have I been so surprised at Taco Bell as the day I saw the words "Pacific Shrimp" on the menu.

Specifically, "Pacific Shrimp Taco." It's a soft tortilla bearing six shrimp, lettuce, salsa and the Bell's infamous "Avocado Ranch Sauce."

At first thought the shrimp taco seems downright dangerous. Eat a bottom-dwelling crustacean from a fast-food joint previously called out for its poor-quality beef? Sounds risky.

I can't evaluate any health concerns related to the marine decapods, but I can tell you the Pacific Shrimp Taco is more appetizing than expected. It's by no means the best bang for your buck on The Bell's menu, yet it could provide a fairly tasty change of pace for all you Lent-observing Friday Taco Bell frequenters.

The salsa, tortilla, lettuce and sauce are all pretty standard. Let's skip right to the shrimp, the heart of the meal. They're about as rubbery as you'd expect. Less so than chewing gum but more so than fresh crustaceans.

Our tiny aquatic meat is saved, fortunately, by a shockingly tasty flavor. Taco Bell says they're "marinated in a mix of spices," whatever that means. My translation is that the shrimp pack a low heat that builds steadily as you eat your taco.

They aren't overly fishy, either. Everyone's worst cheap-fish nightmare is that it will cause seafood-burps all day. I'm proud to report my afternoon was free of tuna-tasting belches.

The shrimp are a little pricey, however. I paid nearly $3 for my Pacific Shrimp Taco, a bit steep considering its five-bite size. Perhaps Taco Bell should consider a price-saving "Atlantic Shrimp Taco" for its East Coast patrons.

When it came time to sink or swim, the shrimp taco manages to stay afloat with three sporks out of five. Tenderize the shrimp a little and cut down on the amount folks have to shell out for one, and this shrimp/spice combination would be a winning cocktail.

March 8, 2010

Second Annual Golden Spork Awards: The best foods of 2009

Hot on the heels of last night's Academy Awards, I'm proud to present the Second Annual Golden Spork Awards. This year's Golden Sporks will honor the foods Rick's Food Critique reviewed in 2009.

Close foodie followers will notice several tweaks to this year's awards. First, the timing. We've moved the presentation from last year's New Year's Eve slot to March in order to align with the Oscars. Hopefully this will sate any hunger for flavorful prizes that lurks in your belly after last night's fawning over tasteless films.

More importantly, the awards themselves have been modified. The first Golden Sporks were handed out to the four best foods reviewed in 2008, while the four worst foods were also cited. This year's awards will recognize the best foods in seven distinct categories, including "Best Supporting Beverage" and "Best Dessert in a Leading Role." We'll wrap up with the prestigious "Best Picnic," which is the best overall food reviewed in 2009.

The worst foods list is not completely gone, though. We'll start out with a brief "Put a spork in them" dishonorable mention roll call.

Put a spork in them: 2009's foods to forget

Burger King's Burger Shots Outgunned in every category, these should have been put out of their misery before ever reaching a menu.

Nabisco bags Someone at the snack giant seems to think people should use scissors or have a hard time getting to their crackers. The bags are impossible to open sans-tools without ripping and spilling food everywhere.

Golden Spork Awards: The top foods reviewed in 2009

Free Food: Mars Real Chocolate Relief Act In the depths of the economic recession the chocolate maker implemented a plan to send free candy coupons to anyone filling out an online form. People and M&M's everywhere smiled joyously.

Short Payment (Best sub-$1 food): Taco Bell Triple Layer Nachos They may have been a bit small and a tad soggy, but for 79 cents you didn't care.

Seasonal Food: Cadbury Creme Egg An old-time Easter favorite that always brings back memories of tummy aches and clucking bunnies.

Snack/Candy: Reese's Dark The dark side can be a wonderful thing. A rare knock-off that works better than the original.

Best Supporting Beverage: Pepsi Throwback/Mountain Dew Throwback While not the most balanced drinks, the sweet nod to real cane sugar in soda is too meaningful to ignore.

Best Dessert in a Leading Role: Yogen Früz Green Tea Frozen Yogurt
Not the gimmick it first appears to be, this luscious blend of flavors and textures surprised everyone to upset Wendy's Toffee Coffee Twisted Frosty.

Best Picnic: Five Guys By far the best overall eating experience of the year. Free peanuts, great fries, a slew of burger toppings and flavor that will knock you on your back. This is what eating a burger was meant to be.