December 31, 2012

The Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper costs a lot of green

New content can be hard to find as the old year draws down and the new one approaches. 'Tis the season for list after recycled list -- it seems like over the past two weeks, I've seen everything from the top 10 sports moments of 2012 to the five best-drying paints released this year. In the past, the food critique has participated in this list-o-mania with the Golden Spork Awards, some of the most prestigious seldom-heard-of honors to ever grace the realm of food blogging.

This year, though, we're bringing you a fresh review for the holidays.

It's not that the Golden Spork Awards have been melted down and slagged forever. It's just that, given the 15-month gap we experienced between new food reviews over the last two years, I thought it wise to cram as many critiques into 2012 as possible. Fear not, trophy trackers, your intrepid blogger will be back early next year with a 2011/2012 Golden Spork Award post. The 24-carat utensils will be back before you know it.

For now, we get to tackle a new take on an old favorite from Burger King. I speak of the Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper, a burger that's going to give us quite the ... well ... quite the whopper of a review.
Burger King has just the thing for those of you who can't decide whether you'd like paper or a box to package your Whopper: both!

I tried the White Cheddar Whopper a few weeks ago, when BK was running an anniversary promotion giving customers the chance to purchase a classic Whopper for 55 cents when they picked up any other Whopper sandwich at full price. This proved to be a great opportunity, one that allowed me to compare the Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper against its ancestor without having to apply to the National Science Foundation for a grant.

The NSF might have balked at that grant application, as taking home a Wisconsinite Whopper requires quite the investment. The burger alone listed at $4.99, tough to swallow for a quarter pound of red meat. Yeah, it came dressed with some generous slices of bacon, but we need more beef for our buck!

Things didn't improve immediately after paying. BK served my burger in a white cardboard box that seemed to have been rubbed with animal fat before passage across the counter. I hope that's actually what happened, because if the glossy white box sucked up that much lard from the restaurant's air, I must have inhaled enough cholesterol to fell a small town during my short visit.

Opening the greasy box brought another oddity: My whopper was half wrapped in paper. Paper wrappers can be charming when carried out carefully, ala Red Robin, which nestles a partially wrapped burger in a basket of fries. They're not so endearing when they serve only as redundant packaging. Are we really that hard pressed for ways to top up empty landfills?

Getting down to the business of eating, the Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper packs some strengths, strengths that are best reveled in contrast with the standard Whopper I ate. Most importantly, you can actually taste the cheese on the Wisconsin version of the burger. It's slightly sharp if a bit waxy, giving each bite a level of interest not always found in fast food. And the Wisconsin burger has red onions instead of the bland white ones on the classic. They stand up to the strength of the cheese, making for good balance.

Two oddities marred my experience with the White Cheddar Whopper, both of them the apparent result of an overly enthusiastic burger assembler. First, I found six pickles on a single sandwich, a glut that would be overkill even for the Vlasic Stork. Somewhat less offensively, every ingredient seemed to be swimming in a gallon of mayonnaise. Restraint would have been greatly appreciated.

For the most part, those are nits to pick with the Wisconsin White Cheddar Whopper, and I found it to be a much tastier alternative to the traditional version. The burger's big drawback is price. And what a drawback it is.

It's a continuation of troubling attempts in fast food to market expensive, higher-margin meals. I'm not against quality, but this move merely results in the consumer getting moderately better-quality ingredients while paying over-inflated dollar amounts. My total BK bill exceeded $7. I can nearly get a full-service meal elsewhere at those prices. So what am I paying for? Convenience that the supermarket can match? A paper wrapper paired with a box?

I just can't get past paying $4.99 for a burger before I've even shelled out for fries and a drink. That's a two-spork deduction right there, and it would be more if the approaching new year didn't have me in a forgiving mood. Let's tally this Whopper worth three sporks out of five and call it a year before I change my mind and decide the King dropped the ball even more with its pricing.

December 13, 2012

Goldfish Grahams S'mores are good to the gills

S'mores-inspired Goldfish are pretty sweet.
Let me guess: You've been camped out in front of your computers since last week, waiting for a new food critique. That last post I wrote didn't have any spork ratings or original pictures, and now you're feeling deprived.

On the one hand, you should thank me. I spared you the agony of viewing my food photography which, despite all these years of practice, would probably be better off shuttered away somewhere. On the other hand, I understand where you're coming from. I've been itching to break out the plastic utensils myself.

Fortunately I'm not floundering for critique ideas. This week I have just the thing for those of you staking out the Internet and fishing for food insight. That thing comes from the grocery store. It lives in the snack aisle. It has chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows.

It is, of course, a form of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. More specifically, it's the form known as "Grahams S'mores."

Before we go any further, I have to admit a slight bias against the generic Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Well, "bias" might not be the right word, but the fact is I don't like them very much. The baked cheese flavor does the same thing to me as Cheez-Its, which is to say leaves me thirsty and unsatisfied. The only reason I can find to eat them is the nostalgia of being a kid, and that's not very compelling. If it was, we'd all pop open jars of mashed carrots once or twice a year as a form of foodie fetal positioning.

(If you do take comfort in baby food, do yourself a favor. Buy a big tub of ice cream and eat the whole thing next time you need a hug. I absolve you of caloric responsibility so that you can gobble cookies and cream guilt free. It'll be more dignified than chugging a jug of Gerber.)

Now that I've provided full disclosure on my feelings toward run-of-the-mill Goldfish, it's time to flip through the Grahams S'mores version. Dive right in and you'll find three types of fish swimming around in the foil packaging: graham cracker, chocolate cracker, and marshmallow.

We could bait the comments section and debate which of the three fish tastes best (hint: it's the graham cracker). I don't think that's fully understanding the the way these are meant to be consumed, though. The crackers aren't to be eaten in a small-scale, one-at-a-time manner. They're supposed to be strung one after another down the gullet, as if there's a line between the bag and your mouth.

Eating that way causes the flavors to run together, resulting in a surprisingly good approximation of s'mores. The gooey texture and sticky fingers aren't there, of course. But that's not such a bad thing. You could eat these in front of the computer without having to worry about gumming up your keyboard for all eternity, for instance.

There is one shortcoming I feel compelled to note, however. The size of the marshmallow fish is simply too small. If the graham crackers and chocolate crackers are goldfish, the marshmallows are sardines. This seems to be nothing more than cost-cutting gone wild, and it bothers me a bit.

Still, the flavor impact is minimal, thanks mostly to the fact that marshmallows are overpoweringly sweet. So Pepperidge Farm is off the hook for that particular infraction. I'm going to have to give Grahams S'mores Goldfish four-and-a-half sporks out of five. They'd make excellent provisions for any camping trip.

December 7, 2012

Humbug to Subway's December deals

The pictured sandwich isn't any of the numerous options that are great deals at Subway this December. Too many choices left your food critique's decision-making skills paralyzed, making a sandwich-shop visit impossible and forcing the blog to go with this public-domain photo from Wikimedia.

Ah, December! A time of cookies, eggnog, meat-and-cheese baskets, and chocolate Advent calendars! A time, in other words, when “too much of a good thing” gives way to “too many of multiple good things.”

Subway decided to jump into the over-the-top boat this month by offering not just its usual $5 Footlong deal -- my love for which I’ve previously documented -- but by throwing in a pair of even better sub steals. The ubiquitous sandwich shops are selling 6-inch Meatball Marinara subs and 6-inch Cold Cut Combos for just $2 apiece as part of “Customer Appreciation Month.”

This isn’t the first time Subway’s done 6-inch sandwiches for $2. But it is the first time I have a complaint about it: I'm overwhelmed.

See, the Meatball Marinara and Cold Cut Combo are good sandwiches. Unfortunately for those of us who order based on price, so is this month’s $5 Footlong, the Western Egg & Cheese. Throw some Chipotle Southwest Sauce on that thing and you’ve got yourself a real winner.

You could argue that we don’t have a problem. The $2 subs are cheaper, since you can order a pair for $4 -- which is, after all, less expensive than the $5 you’d shell out for the 12-incher of the month. That argument doesn't take into account the timing of your orders, however.

Egg-based subs aren't normally available at Subway past breakfast hours. That restriction comes off when one of them is the month’s $5 Footlong. Meaning this month, we’re forced to choose between taking advantage of special extended ordering hours and frugality.

Subway could have avoided this whole mess by simply offering its $2 subs during a month that had a less-appetizing $5 Footlong. Might I suggest a month with the Chimera-esque Oven Roasted Chicken with Spinach? Perhaps the Jalapeno Tuna?

I’m sorry to Scrooge over this. I’d just rather have a December holiday from hard choices.

November 29, 2012

Ritz Bits Kickin' Cheddar sandwiches are afoot

Kickin' Cheddar could use more heat to boot.
Do you know what I love about supermarkets? The sense of discovery.

It doesn't matter whether you're in the largest Wegmans or the smallest mom-and-pop grocery store in the wilderness on the way to your favorite camping site, you'll almost always stumble on something unexpected at the supermarket. Well, you will if you keep your eyes sweeping over the shelves instead of locking them on the front of the store while barreling toward the express checkout lane in an attempt to get in and out as quickly as possible. Grocery shopping is one of the most important things you can do, folks. It's bringing bread home for you and your family. Cherish it.

In case you couldn't tell, I had a recent brush with discovery in the supermarket. I stumbled across a food that was at once new and familiar to me. Familiar because it was a snack of which (wich) I've always been fond. New because it was a fresh permutation of said snack.

The treat which (wich) I discovered, as you've no doubt discerned from the title of this post, was Ritz Bits Kickin' Cheddar sandwiches. And if you hadn't figured it out yet, we need to have a serious discussion about reading comprehension. I shudder to think about your ability to follow baking instructions.

Ritz Bits sandwiches are an old friend of mine. They were probably responsible for a fair amount of my body mass as a youth, as I'm certain I consumed more of them than I did fruits and vegetables combined over my first dozen-odd years of life. They have two main varieties, cheese and peanut butter, with cheese being superior. Some other variations have appeared and disappeared from shelves over the years. The best of the non-stalwarts was the s'mores sandwiches, which (wich) I sadly haven't seen lately.

Not that I've been paying enough attention to the Ritz Bits section of the grocery store, apparently. This week was the first time I've ever seen Kickin' Cheddar 'wiches, yet a quick Google search tells me they've been around for quite some time. Perhaps I'm the one who needs to do a little less staring at the express lane.

Regardless of whether I'm late to this kickin' party, we're going to jump right into the review. The recipe is pretty much what you'd expect: two tiny Ritz crackers flank a shot of blatantly fake cheddar cheese. Only unlike the standard Ritz cheese sandwiches, this cheese substitute comes with what the box calls a "mild spicy kick."

"Mild" is an understatement, to put it, well, mildly. And "kick" is an equal overstatement, as long as we're kicking the tires on this promotional language. The cheesy filling does have a quality that resembles spiciness, but it's more olfactory than anything else. The sensation of eating these is roughly analogous to taking a whiff of green Tabasco sauce and then stuffing a few Ritz Bits cheese crackers in your mouth.

Strangely, that makes for a snack that's fairly pleasant. I could eat these all day without a problem. To be honest with you, I very nearly did -- I finished the box over the course of two evenings.

Unfortunately for Ritz, I had higher hopes than "fairly pleasant." I wanted my old favorite cheese cracker sandwiches to be bolstered with a blast of heat that would play to my adult love for spicy food. Instead I got crackers that couldn't deliver on their smell.

There's also the issue of the green specks in the cheesy filling. I guess they're supposed to evoke thoughts of hot peppers, but they remind me more of mold.

I very much want to give these sandwiches a high score. In fact, I'll probably buy them again in the future, because they're a decent change-up from the cheese sandwiches of my adolescence. But I can't get past the fact that they need more fire.

So I'll give them a middling rating of three sporks out of five. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the supermarket to see if I can discover some Ritz Bits Fiery Cheddar sandwiches, or something along that line.

November 21, 2012

Flying high with Biscoff on Boeings

These cookies didn't last long enough to photograph, so a picture of the wrapper will have to suffice.
You may have heard something about today being one of the biggest travel days of the year. I have no idea whether that's true or not -- I refuse to gamble my Thanksgiving meal on avoiding a traffic jam or overbooked airplane -- but this seems like the perfect time to share a flight-themed food review for all you hungry passengers awaiting a frisk in TSA security lines. Fortunately, I've been hanging on to just the thing since I last participated in terminal hopping a month ago.

Just the thing, in this case, is Delta Air Lines' "Gourmet Center" Biscoff. That's what its label calls it, anyway. Its probably better known as the cookies on offer when the flight attendant stops by your seat to ask if you want peanuts, pretzels or cookies.

The correct answer, obviously, is cookies.  I'll tell you why in just a moment, after we pause for some Biscoff background. The cookies actually come from Lotus Bakeries, and their wrappers identify them as a product of Belgium. You can buy them in relative bulk online here. There's even a Biscoff spread available, though I've yet to experience it.

Back to that in-flight quiz: peanuts, pretzels or cookies? It's an easy choice on Delta flights, and not only because the pretzels possess a salt deficiency and the peanuts lack quantity. Biscoff cookies would be good enough to merit selection over more rigid snack-time competition.

They're just sweet enough to impart a sugar thrill without crossing over into cloying territory. And they finish with a cinnamon flair that manages to cover up the fact that butteriness isn't present.

While the flavor's good, the cookies' real strength rests in their texture. First bite brings a crunchy, crumbly sensation begging for second and third mouthfuls. Everything seems so solid when you first sink your teeth into a cookie, yet a moment later it's dissolving to avoid scratching the throat. So impressive is the texture, it scarcely matters if the attendant sheepishly serves up a pulverized pack of Biscoff. Shoveling the cookie crumbs into one's mouth rivals funneling graham-cracker crumbles for sheer enjoyment.

I report only two incidental shortcomings to Biscoff on Boeings (or Airbuses, for that matter). The first is pack size. Two cookies seems scarcely enough to whet an appetite when we're talking about a food this fine. But two cookies is all you'll get in your airline pack.

More glaring, Biscoff doesn't always make the list of options for in-flight snacks. I always ask, and sometimes attendants simply don't have cookies available. This, to understate things, is a travesty. Jettison some luggage, downsize the navigational equipment, vent some fuel, do something, anything, to make room for backup Biscoff!

Maybe you're flying Delta today. If so, I wish you well in your bid for Biscoff. If you're not flying Delta, I apologize for making your mouth water with no satisfaction in sight. Maybe you can find something to rival the cookies on your airline of choice or in an airport canteen. Because they net five sporks out of five.

It seems those of us who avoid travel around Thanksgiving have reason to rethink our stance.

November 16, 2012

Does McDonald's CBO add up?

The critique's undercover camera caught the CBO nestling down in its packaging as if hiding from its dullard name.
Since I place a high priority on finances, I have no doubt my readers do, too. After all, if you like to read the musings of a guy who pinches pennies until they scream for mercy, you’re surely the type who would melt the copper-colored coins down and sell them as scrap if they still contained any reasonable quantity of the valuable metal.

Actually, I’m a big proponent of eliminating the penny from circulation entirely -- mostly because I hate carrying them in my pocket. I never end up spending them, then they end up spilling from my pockets in a grandiose shower when I pull out my wallet at a restaurant, leaving me feeling like I'm wasting money. But that’s an aside.

We were talking about how much my loyal foodie followers love finances. Which means everyone will be thrilled to learn I’m writing about the CBO today!

CBO, you ask? The Congressional Budget Office? The nonpartisan budgetary wing of the U.S. Congress?

Calm your heart palpitations. I’m not actually talking about that CBO. I just pulled a bait-and-switch at the beginning of this post to capture your attention. It’s an old journalistic trick, right up there in cleverness with spelling lede l-e-d-e.

The real topic of my review today is McDonald’s CBO, its Cheddar, Bacon, Onion. Why the golden arches chose to take those three delicious words and compress them into a bullion of alphabet soup is beyond me. Maybe Ronald McDonald is secretly a budget hawk.

Regardless of the name, I ordered myself a CBO recently and came away with mixed feelings. The sandwich comes in two different varieties: ⅓ pound Angus beef and chicken. I picked beef because I’ve had good experiences with McDonald’s Angus third-pounders in the past. Perhaps we’ll look at chicken another day if you, my loyal readers, demand it.

The Angus CBO’s blueprint will probably shock you. It takes a beef burger, lays on sliced white cheddar cheese, adds bacon and slathers it all with grilled onions. Oh, it also drops a dollop of something called creamy mustard sauce on top. There’s a bun, too, one that’s so inoffensively dull that I won’t mention it again.

The beef is juicy and tasty. I don’t know if McDonald’s injects its Angus thirders with special juices or just uses higher-quality meat, but they’re in a whole different herd than the chain’s regular red meat. The arch factory also excels in the bacon department. Its pork strippings are reliably crispy where other chains’ offerings vacillate between rock-hard, overcooked castoffs and limp strands of unrendered fat.

We’d be on pace for a stellar spork rating, but the CBO has one massive flaw: its onions. They might as well not be there. I have a recurring complaint about grilled onions on burgers, namely that they tend to have no flavor and add very little texture. If they’re noticeable at all, they generally just serve as a reminder that a meal lacks the satisfying crunch and bitter twang of an honest-to-goodness raw onion. The CBO's onions aren’t noticeable, yet the burger’s inclusion of “onion” (or “O,” at least) in its name meant I was left longing for them to show up.

Fortunately, the CBO has an ace up its sleeve. The oddly named creamy mustard sauce defies its nomenclature by delivering a cool yet flavorful burst with every bite. It makes the onions completely superfluous and forces you to actively wonder why they didn't just name the burger the CBCMS.

OK, not really. But I still haven't figured out why they'd call it the CBO.

One more major downside to the CBO is its price. This thing was obviously constructed to raise revenue, because Mickey D’s charges well over six bucks for a meal with it. It's nearly enough to push you to your own personal fiscal cliff.

The thought of shelling out that many pennies for fast food makes me want to beg for mercy. And that’s holding this burger back from a four spork out of five rating. As it is, the CBO gets a downgrade to three sporks. I just can’t overlook its impact on my treasury.

November 11, 2012

Flying back into the swing of things with Wendy's Monterey Ranch Crispy Chicken Sandwich

Surveillance footage captured this Monterey Ranch Crispy Chicken Sandwich before it disappeared.
Breathe deeply, folks. This may be the first new food critique  since the dog days of July 2011, but that’s no reason to forget about inhaling. Zero readers should be asphyxiated during the consumption of this post.

It's advice I needed several times as I put together this review. I’m excited to be back, I’m excited to be eating, and I’m even more excited about the subject of today’s review: Wendy’s Monterey Ranch Crispy Chicken Sandwich.

Some may take issue with this. Chicken, they say, is not exciting. Chicken, they say, is bland. Chicken, they say, isn’t worth eating unless it’s prefaced by the word “spicy.” And chicken, they say, certainly isn’t fitting for my return to the blogosphere.

This sentiment, of course, runs afoul of the truth.

Wendy’s chicken is typically very much worth eating. It’s juicy and tender and filled with flavor. If not for the grandeur of the redhead’s square hamburgers, there would be no reason to order anything but chicken in her restaurants.

But Wendy’s chicken isn’t without its own faults, namely expense. It’s right up there with the burgers when it comes to impacting your wallet, and it never seems quite right to me to shell out as much for a hunk of white meat as you would for good, iron-filled beef. That, my friends, is where the Monterey Ranch Crispy Chicken Sandwich comes in.

You see, the sandwich resides on our dear old friend the value menu. Or, as it’s known at Wendy’s, the “Everyday Value Menu.” There’s nothing wrong with adding an adjective to make yourself seem more unassuming, after all.

Everyday Value Menu tenancy means the sandwich typically costs 99 cents, in this case. That’s one feather in its cap. Another is its ranch sauce and inclusion of cheese. You can eat upscale without breaking a buck!

The sandwich is more snack-sized than meal-sized, though. You aren’t going to confuse its ability to fill your stomach with that of, say, a KFC Double Down. What you might do is confuse its messiness with the Double Down. The Monterey Ranch Crispy Chicken Sandwich bleeds ranch everywhere. You’ll come away from it looking like you went psycho on a bottle of Hidden Valley.

Fortunately Wendy’s has heard of the napkin. And the size shortfall is made up for by the fact that, at 99 cents, you can buy more than one sandwich without maxing out your credit cards.

Add it all up and you’re looking at four sporks out of five. The sandwich makes up for a size deficiency by oozing ranchy goodness. Try one next time you’re near a Wendy’s. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief that you did.

November 8, 2012

I bet you're all famished

Hello again, foodies.

Be honest, how many of you thought you'd ever hear from your favorite cafeteria critiquer again? It's been fifteen months since I last offered a morsel of insight, during which time supermarket prices seemed to swell, value menus appeared to shrink and chain restaurants launched more dishes than a rocket full of dinnerware. We've missed free food giveaways, ill-fated culinary movie tie-ins and, no doubt, a fare share of tasty treats.

But today I tell you that your gastronomical deprivation is over. The great barren period, the long winter without taste, has ended. I'm back to grace the Internet with my infamous down-to-earth looks at meals that won't break the bank.

Some of you may question my absence. How, pray tell, could I keep the oven door slammed on your hungry faces for so long? I can offer no satisfying explanation. Let's simply chalk it up to labor issues and move on. The critique is resuming after the NFL and NBA resolved their lockouts, but at least it isn't waiting for the NHL to start skating again. I couldn't bear to keep you all on ice for that long.

You may have noticed that I've been doing some housecleaning in preparation for our return. You can't invite guests over to a dinner party without tidying up, after all. It's nothing fancy -- a new blog template, a clean color scheme, the removal of that cluttered old header. Hopefully you like the changes and find they let you focus all of your energies on the foods at hand … or mouth.

So keep your eyes peeled over the coming weeks for some fresh new content. I've been hitting the drive-thru, the grocery store and even an airline to bring you some of the best critiques you've ever laid eyes upon.