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.