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.