June 22, 2013

Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter Pounder

It's all about the bun. And the habanero.
It pains me to tell you this, but McDonald's just finished a "buy one give one" promotion for some uber-fancy Quarter Pounders.

The pain, of course, is that I didn't tell you while the promotion was still going on. My apologies. It was for three days only, and I barely had the chance to slip in and take advantage of the deal myself. If there's a silver lining in all of this, it's that I have the chance to write about the new burgers.

This "buy one give one" idea is an interesting one. I'm not sure how to look at it. Was it an attempt to introduce more people to the new McDonald's food? An effort to combat overeating while still giving away free food?

If so, it wasn't effective. Because the recipient of my Quarter Pounder to give was ... me.

Technically, I purchased a Bacon and Cheese Quarter Pounder and gave myself a Bacon Habanero Ranch Quarter Pounder. We're going to spill our pixels on the latter today. The Bacon and Cheese version was fine -- red onion slices, American cheese, the now-ubiquitous applewood bacon. It was just nothing to blog home about. I've had burgers that taste exactly the same from half a dozen fast food joints.

That Bacon Habanero Ranch, though. That burger's something new. Something I don't remember seeing before. Habanero on a burger!

The searing and sweet taste of habanero seems to have been generally considered too bold for the popular American palette. While jalapenos have found their way into seemingly every restaurant on earth, their more intense orange brethren have been largely eschewed. It's been a shame, a shame I'm happy to see end.

I am, however, a little surprised to see McDonald's ending it. The house that Ronald built has never stood out to me as a risk-taker in the food wars. I guess they introduced apples in Happy Meals a few years back, but I don't think tossing in the most popular fruit in the country can be considered daring.

Habanero on a burger is a whole new story. Unsurprisingly, Mickey D's hedged its bets, watering down the intense spiciness of habaneros with a cooler ranch flavor. It's a tasty sauce, and I'm willing to forgive the timidity in light of the big step that is putting this pepper into fast food.

Outside of the habanero sauce, there's really only one thing worth talking about. Not the bacon. Not the white cheddar cheese. The bun.

At some point, McDonald's invested a great deal into upgrading the Quarter Pounder bun.

Remember when it had the approximate consistency of cotton candy? When it looked like it would dissolve when it got wet? Those days are over. The bun is larger, heartier and more satisfying. I haven't had the chance to check if classic Quarter Pounders wear their tried-and-true buns, but this one is magnificent in comparison.

This is a burger worth four sporks out of five. I'd buy it even if it wasn't free.

June 14, 2013

It's a nice day for a wide-ranging post-wedding post

Today we'll talk about some eateries in the state of the Golden Bear.
Jetting and driving across the country have their downsides.

The main one being that I haven't had a chance to post a new food review in weeks. I went through a minor life change -- marriage -- that had me first flying from Indiana to Syracuse for the ceremony. Then the new wife and I winged from Syracuse to San Francisco for a week that involved driving up to beautiful coastal Mendocino California. We flew back to Syracuse before proceeding to drive across Upstate New York, Ohio and Indiana in order to make it back to Bloomington, where we keep our home.

After that? Rest. Lots of rest.

If it sounds like a whirlwind way to end May and start June, it was. It was also a period of time that wasn't exactly conducive to taking my normally arduous food critiquing notes.

Fortunately I still have enough gray matter left to give a rundown of our trip's high culinary points. They're not going to be as detailed as my usual super-in-depth reviews, but they should be sufficient to give you a flavor of the last few weeks.

I should also mention that we hit restaurants that were all over the map, literally and figuratively. There was fast food. There was haute cuisine. There was a grocery store.

The details of the rehearsal dinner and wedding won't be making it into this post. I either wouldn't do them justice or would bore any of you who were there with too much detail. So we'll just hit the other high points of the last few weeks.

Final meal at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
A few hours before the wedding, my groomsmen and I convened in downtown Syracuse for a last supper at the famous barbecue joint. We sat at the bar and ordered a combination meal that included ribs, beef brisket, chicken, baked beans, cornbread and mac and cheese. We passed plates and bowls around for a real communal setting that was delicious. You couldn't ask for a better end to single life.

HRD Coffee Shop welcomes us to San Francisco
Acting on my best man's recommendation, my new wife and I stopped by HRD Coffee Shop on the morning of our first full day in California. They have coffee, but they also have some of the best-smelling Korean food I've encountered. We ended up getting a spicy pork Kimchi burrito. I won't spill too many pixels on the place, because it's been featured on Food Network and in a few other publications. Just know to get that burrito. It was the best thing I've eaten this year.

21st Amendment Brewery
We grabbed a lunch at this brewpub, which isn't too far from HRD Coffee Shop. Everything was good. The french fries rose above all else with an exceptional balance between crisp outside and soft inside.

Albion River Inn Restaurant
We did both breakfasts and dinner at the restaurant for this inn that hangs on the craggy shoreline of the Mendocino coast. The view while eating was spectacular, even when fog was rolling in off the ocean. The dinner matched it -- I had a piece of salmon cooked to perfection. Where I was really blown away was the breakfast, however. One day the breakfast special was a shrimp and cream cheese omelet, a concoction that sounds strange and tastes outstanding. The Thanksgiving Coffee Company, located up the coast in Fort Bragg, makes an Albion River Inn Blend. It's subtle and smooth and everything you want on vacation.

Whole Foods
On our way back down to San Francisco we stopped to grab coffee at Whole Foods. I gaped at the prices. I felt bad for a kid who knocked over a bottle of wine. It was OK.

In-N-Out Burger
This place was hopping, even though I got there at 9 p.m. to pick up a late dinner before retreating to our pre-flight hotel room. Sorry In-N-Out Burger, but that's my biggest impression of you. It was the end of my trip, I was tired, and I was blown away by how busy you were.

May 21, 2013

Doritos Locos Tacos chips

Here's the second of my two promised posts on freebies I received at the grocery store last week. It's not going to be too long, though, because typing the name of today's food is absolutely exhausting.

It's Doritos Locos Tacos Nacho Cheese and Crunchy Taco Flavored Corn Chips, according to the official Frito-Lay website. What a mouthful.

The name is enough to drive you loco.
I do understand why the chips have such a massive name. For starters, they're piggybacking off of the Taco Bell Doritos Locos Tacos. They're chips inspired by tacos inspired by chips. How meta. It's as if reality is pretzeling around these things.

Second, each bag contains two different types of chips. And those two types each need to be spelled out in the name -- because there are two distinct pairings of Locos Tacos chips. Nacho Cheese and taco is one. Cool Ranch and taco is the other.

I received Nacho Cheese and taco for free, so those were the ones I tried. As for my verdict ... they're Doritos. They all kind of taste the same.

Technically there was a slight difference between the cheese-flavored and taco-flavored chips. If we're splitting hairs, I liked the taco ones better, as they had a somewhat savory undertone.

But realistically, you have to work extremely hard to tell the difference between two different types of Doritos. It's even harder to discern them when they're in the same bag, allowing the flavors to meld in their glue-and-foil-sealed confines.

If you're trying to tell the difference, you're missing the point of Doritos, anyway. They're meant to be shoveled in by the mouthful.

Mouthful. Just like the name Doritos Locos Tacos Nacho Cheese and Crunchy Taco Flavored Corn Chips. Three sporks out of five and we'll leave it at that. My fingers are exhausted.

May 18, 2013

Pepsi Next: Good for the right price

I know Saturday evening isn't the most conventional time to post a new food review -- or the most convenient one.

Most of you readers normally on the other side of the vast network of tubes known as the Internet are probably off doing your weekend things like movies, barbecues, baseball games or shopping. Some of you have already made your run to the grocery store for the week. That would make a late-breaking food review especially heartbreaking, as you won't be able to use it to decide whether to buy today's featured item.

Before you lash out at your computers in rage, remember one thing: This blog is free. And free makes everything better.

Next they should work on the taste.
Coincidentally, the merits of free wrap nicely into today's review. I'm writing about Pepsi Next, a bubbly cola drink I guzzled only because it was on offer for free.

That's right. Free. My grocery trip to Kroger yesterday ended with a surprise announcement that the powers that be in food distribution were giving customers free cans of Pepsi Next and bags of Doritos Locos Tacos chips. Which, to your cash-strapped critiquer, sounds like two separate food reviews for the price of none!

Yes, I'll have a review of the chips up shortly. Stay tuned. Today you'll just have to sip on the Pepsi.

Sip on it or chug it, for all I care. Get it down the hatch. It's not the worst thing I've ever tasted, but it's definitely not what I'd call an ideal soda experience.

See, Pepsi Next is supposed to be "a true cola experience with 60% less sugar," according to Pepsi's website. The missing sugar has been replaced by -- you guessed it -- fake sweeteners.

Sucralose is the sweetener of choice in this case. And mark my words, that's the last time I'll ever use "sucralose" and "of choice" in the same sentence. Sucralose flat out doesn't taste good.

It's OK at the beginning of a swallow but quickly leaves a nasty imitation aftertaste. Said aftertaste forces you to take another drink to cover it up, starting a cycle that's likely to have you consuming 60 percent more soda by the end of the day.

The aftertaste gets covered slightly in Pepsi Next, which still has a decent dose of real sugar. It doesn't get covered all the way, though. So here we have a drink that tastes bad and still has a fair number of calories. It's the worst of both worlds, if you will.

I'd rather have the full sugar content. Unless you're giving me a Pepsi Next for free, in which case I'll manage to drink one and enjoy it.

This beverage would be two sporks out of five if I had paid anything for it. It's lowest-possible cost gives it a little bump to three sporks, however.

So grab a can, as long as the price is right.

May 11, 2013

Live-blogging Liberte yogurt!

It's nearly 10:30 a.m. and I haven't eaten breakfast yet. Worse, the reason is sloth.

Yep. I just woke up.

In my juvenile years, this wouldn't have been uncommon. Such a wake-up time would have been both a badge of honor and a weekly occurrence.  Today, though, it's a source of embarrassment and shame. I've been edging my rising time earlier and earlier as I age, a testament to both better bedtimes and my drive to get more done before noon so I can start winding down after lunch.

That won't be happening today, apparently because my body decided it was time to sleep in. I want to make the best of things, though, so lets try something different.

I'll write my review as I eat. Today we'll have none of my patented days and weeks to reflect. It will just be pure, unadulterated stream of consciousness. Since my blog doesn't usually have enough of that.

The shape of that cup makes Liberte worth it. It's circular AND squared!

At 10:29 a.m. I'm pulling breakfast out of the fridge. No time for cooking today, folks. It's a new type of Greek yogurt I have yet to try, Liberte, with a little accent mark over the last "e" that I won't bother to duplicate here (I'm live-blogging, people). The flavor is peach and passion fruit, because it sounded interesting and I haven't seen it in any of the other dozens of Greek yogurt brands that have been multiplying on shelves like Hellenistic bunnies since Chobani had its breakthrough in the U.S. market.

The top comes off at 10:31, and the scent of peach washes over me. It's a good thing we have positives in the smell department, because the looks aint so good. There's a little separation between moisture and solids going on here, a classic yogurt problem that's bothered me since the beginning of civilization. My favorite Greek yogurts, Muller and Fage (Muller has its own umlauts over the "u" that I'm not transcribing in my rush), don't do this. They have a much drier, almost spongy consistency. Oh well.

All this typing means I'm eating slowly. At 10:34 I've finished stirring and I take my first bite. Things are a little lighter and sweeter here than on some other Greek Yogurts. The pear and passion fruit chunks are impossible to tell apart, if they're different at all. It all reminds me of another Greek yogurt I ate at some point ... perhaps Chobani mango. It's hard to run down your roster of Greek yogurts eaten when adding to it. Sensory memory doesn't function well when the senses are being used for more important things like eating.

By 10:37, I've reached the bottom of the cup, which is giving me a little trouble. It's not the same shape as the top of the container. The top is round, then tapers gradually into a square base. It makes for a visually interesting shape on the shelf, and a spoonfully interesting one when eating. You have to change the trajectory of your scoops to get all of the food.

With 10:39 rolling around, I've finished eating and decided I liked the shape of the cup. At first, revising my spoon sweeps was a source of frustration. In the end, though, I did it, I did it well, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment -- kind of like figuring out a puzzle while chowing down.

Now that things have wrapped up, I can tell you Liberte makes a good Greek yogurt that's nothing particularly special when you compare it against its brethren. Which is OK, because Greek yogurt is absolutely delicious. Throw in the special cup and I'm willing to give it a four sporks out of five rating.

May 3, 2013

Lay's Chicken and Waffles Potato Chips

Ever wonder how Lay's decided to pluralize things and call these chips "Chicken and Waffles" instead of "Chicken and Waffle?"
There's really only one thing to say about Lay's Chicken and Waffle Potato Chips. One word, actually.

We won't get to it just yet, though. It's important to set the tone before revealing this one word to rule them all. Otherwise it won't have as much impact. Plus, the analytics sites would massacre me for a mono-term post pushing readers away after mere seconds

Look, I know I'm late to the game writing about these chips. They've been around for a while, part of one of those obnoxious "vote for the flavor you like" competitions that food producers keep propping up on the Internet. This one pits Chicken and Waffle Potato Chips against Sriracha and Cheesy Garlic Bread under the clever headline of "Do Us A Flavor."

You can only vote on Facebook or by texting, even though the competition is the headline at the URL http://www.fritolay.com/lays. Something's wrong with the Internet or your marketing when you're shoving people from your brand's home page to Facebook, but I digress.

The whole "vote for your favorite option" trend in food was fun a few years ago. Really, it was. Now, though, I'm just ready to know that the snacks I see on the shelves will be around for more than a month or two. Otherwise, I'm loathe to try them. It's too hard to fall in love only to see something delicious washed away on a wave of popular opinion.

In some sort of meaningless protest, I stayed away from the chicken and waffles chips' competitors, sampling my target in a vacuum. Several vacuums, actually -- because I tried them, bought them again, and continued to try them.

Through it all, I weighed flavor against my predisposition to smile upon audacious takes on potato chips. I considered the balance of chicken against waffles, the strange looks I received while carrying the bag and the fact that I couldn't put them down. All to reach one word.


Yes, the word for these potato chips is "finally." Finally we in America have a potato chip flavor as outrageous as everything else we do. We're the country that put a Hummer in front of every McMansion, only to scrap the Hummers and replace them with Toyota Priuses (Priui?) in order to be less wasteful. We're the people who fell in love with Mr. T, saw Arnold Schwarzenegger become a governor and who currently wear sunglasses six sizes too big for our faces. We're the nation that produced the KFC Double Down, for goodness sake!

And now, we've finally caught up with outlandish potato chip flavors in the rest of the world. In Britain, you can get prawn-flavored potato chips. So it was a travesty when choices here were limited to such mundanity as "barbecue" and "sea salt."

None of this is to say Lay's Chicken and Waffles Potato Chips are a spitting flavor image of real chicken and waffles. They emulate a version of chicken and waffles using syrup, rather than the far-superior one that employs gravy. And that syrup largely overpowers any semblance of poultry on the potatoes.

Still, they're nothing to spit out, either. In fact, I quite like them. The syrup flavor makes for a nice sweet-and-salty chip with just enough of a chicken-fried hint to keep it interesting. I couldn't put the things down on a recent car trip, finishing a whole bag in two days.

Therefore, when it comes to our five-spork scale, there's really only one number to assign. Four.

April 24, 2013

Hardee's Jim Beam Bourbon Thickburger

The hardiest readers of this blog have something to cheer about tonight. I'm tapping out a quick write-up of a recent trip to Hardee's.

Specifically, I made a run to pick up a Jim Beam Bourbon Thickburger. Aside from its somewhat clunky name, the burger is packed with enough good stuff that I had to try it. A third of a pound of ground beef. Bacon. Pepper jack cheese. Garlic onion straws. Jim Beam bourbon sauce.

Although the bourbon sauce gets the love in this Thickburger's title, the onion straws proved to be the real star of the meal. They were crispy. Let me repeat that. They were actually crispy.

That might not seem like a big deal, considering how many of the burger joints of the world advertise their crispy onion straws. But it is, sadly, an aberration. Hardee's is the only peddler of fast food I can remember that got onion straws completely right.

The crispy straws came with a downside, though: wait time. I spent twice as long waiting for my food to be put together at Hardee's as I typically do at Burger King or McDonald's. I'm giving the restaurant the benefit of the doubt in this matter. Whether it cooks its burger components fresh while I wait or merely keeps them separated in a manner that slows assembly, I don't want them to change anything. It's working.

I could tell you about the sweet bourbon sauce and tangy cheese and deliciously juicy burger. Actually, I just did. Spilling any more pixels on them would overshadow those amazing onion straws.

Five sporks out of five. No matter how far a Hardee's is from you, you should be hardy enough to make the trip.

April 12, 2013

The food critique goes to White Castle

So what does a trip to White Castle offer, besides the chance to use the most obvious headline in food critique history?

Sadly for the comedy buffs, I've never seen the film documenting Harold and Kumar's trip to the slider-serving fast-food joint. Therefore, my trip didn't open up the door to any movie references. Nor did I ever purchase White Castle-branded eat-at-home fair available in the frozen-food aisle. So comparisons are out, too.

Sounds like I have only one choice after traveling to White Castle: review the food.
You didn't want an actual photo of the food, did you? Once I reached into the White Castle bag, I was too busy eating to snap pictures.

For any of you not in the know, White Castle makes a big deal out of its sliders. And I'm pretty picky when it comes to sliders. Serve up some high-class mini burgers and I'll love them forever. But ship out a half-baked product -- or half cut, as Burger King did a few years ago -- and I'll take you to task.

There will be no task taking when it comes to White Castle, though. Its sliders are the best I've ever received through a drive-through window. They're thick with onion scent and perfectly sized. The bun-to-meat ratio is borderline high, but not so high as to be offensive. And if you order cheese, you'll receive melted yellow wonder that unites ground beef and gluten as only fast-food American can!

White Castle even serves its sliders in individual boxes. It's wasteful from a packing standpoint and brilliant from an assembly standpoint. Each burger stays together, nestled tightly in its cardboard carrying container. Bravo!

I have just a single harp when it comes to the sliders, and it was as much my own fault as White Castle's. When I ordered, I was not expecting pickles. Don't ask me why -- all of the chain's promotional materials clearly show green little gherkins peeking out from the mini burgers. No matter the cause, I was surprised to find them on top of each slider, glued down by yellow cheese.

With the pickles swimming in all of that American, it would have been quite the tall task to pull them out of my sliders. So I ate them and pretended they were large versions of the diced white onions sprinkled on the burgers. It wasn't too bad, even for a picklephobe like me.

To White Castle, I ask: Why not put the pickles below the meat, where they won't get mixed up in the cheese? To everyone else, I say: Be careful to ask for no pickles if that's your slider of choice.

It may seem like there's nothing left to say after all the pixels I've spilled on sliders. Yet I haven't even gotten to my favorite part of my White Castle experience. To my surprise, I was blown away by the french fries.

It's probably because White Castle serves crinkle-cut fries. I'm a sucker for crinkle cuts. Sure, you can claim they're a little dry or lack the consistent texture of more uniformly shaped fries. Still, something about the nooks and ridges teases my taste buds into joy like nothing else can.

This journey nets five sporks out of five. For once, I can't even dock points for a misplaced pickle. Slide yourself over to a White Castle next time you see one!

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April 3, 2013

McDonald's Steak and Egg Burrito

Although it risks repetitiveness, today's food under the microscope is from McDonald's.

It's unfortunate, because the last time I reviewed anything from an honest-to-goodness restaurant with a drive-thru, it was sourced at the golden arches. This blog hit up a threesome of McFare in February. The last thing I want is for anyone to think I only frequent McDonald's, because nothing could be less true.

Since that last McDonald's trip, I've stopped at Steak 'n Shake, Moe's and Tim Horton's. I even picked up a box from Pizza Hut. In almost every case, I tried a new food. When it came to Steak 'n Shake, I sampled an entirely new place.

So why fall back on Mickey D's? Why tease my readers with mention of new and exciting foods from far-off places down the strip mall?

The answer is simple: safety first.

Yes, I have an important safety announcement about today's McDonald's food, which is the Steak and Egg Burrito. Be careful. It can be hot.

I don't expect this information will flabbergast many. Ronald's house loves to remind us that its coffee is served steaming and ready to burn. The warnings are all over the cups, at least for those of us who still order genuine hot coffee instead of some steamed milk wannabe.

Still, you need to be careful biting into a Steak and Egg Burrito. For some reason, it seems to keep its heat better than your run-of-the-mill McMuffin. Maybe it's the density of the steak. More likely, it's the fact that it's all wrapped up snugger than a cow in a blanket. Whatever the cause, the burrito has the capacity to be hot.

Mine was two or three times warmer than any food I've ever received from McDonald's. I can't be more precise than that, because the burrito scorched my ever-so-sensitive critiquer's tongue. The steam rising from the inside would have been bad enough, but the geyser of molten cheese shooting out from inside was more than any mortal mouth could handle.

None of this is to say you shouldn't try the Steak and Egg Burrito, because you should. Those of my taste buds that were still functioning picked up a pleasant blend of beef, egg and cheese topped off with a nice bit of salsa. Aside from the thermostat-shattering heat, the only complaint I have is that the tortilla can be a bit dry at the end.

I see no need to burn McDonald's because of a slight issue with degrees. As long as you're prepared, you'll find the Steak and Egg Burrito to be worth four sporks out of five.

March 29, 2013

Watch out for Wheat Thins during March Madness

Those of you who follow my Twitter feed received a special sneak peek of today's review a week ago. It came in the form of the following picture, which I blasted into the cybersphere from the NCAA Tournament site of Dayton, Ohio.

We visited a stop on that so-called road to the Final Four. The box may say Atlanta, but we were in Dayton, Ohio.
It was my first time taking in tournament games -- Deb, the official fiancee of Rick's Food Critique, and I watched as Temple beat North Carolina State and Indiana topped James Madison -- and I was pleasantly surprised with the venue, University of Dayton Arena. Also pleasantly surprising was the concession stand. It dished out free samples of Wheat Thins.

As you can see from my washed-out photography, one of the flavors offered was Chili Cheese. The other, which is obscured in my picture, was Honey Mustard. You've probably seen them on grocery store shelves yourself, at this point.

If you were to pick up just one of the flavors from said grocery store shelf, I'd recommend going with Honey Mustard. It's much more in-your-face than its Chili Cheese counterpart, and it probably leans closer to the "honey" component than the "mustard." Still, it was hard to leave Deb her share of the Honey Mustard crackers by refraining from reaching for more. They have that elusive eatability factor that leaves you digging in for more before your mouth is even done chewing.

Chili Cheese proved to be tasty, too. I just didn't find it to be as flavorful as its partner in trial packaging. The chili's not a hot chili, and the cheese isn't a smelly one. Together, they create a taste that's pleasant, if a little generic. Personally, I look for more heat from my chili, though. I like it to be able to melt the hair off a yeti.

I'd say the Chili Cheese Wheat Thins merit a solid three sporks out of five. Their Honey Mustard brethren, on the other hand, must have a higher rating, a very solid four sporks.

You could do much worse when looking for something to snack on during this weekend's games.

March 21, 2013

Mountain Dew Kickstart

Is Mountain Dew Kickstart a better way to wake up than Mike and Mike?
A recent trip to the grocery store left me with no question about what my next food review would be. There I was, backing up slowly while innocently inspecting an aisle display, when Mike and Mike in the Morning assaulted me.

Well, their cardboard cutout assaulted me. And when I say they "assaulted me," I mean they made me jump out of my skin because, for one split second, I thought they were real people who I'd almost tripped over.

Most of the time, when I nearly walk into someone, I'm embarrassed and apologize. It happens more than you'd think in the grocery store -- the plethora of food is so overpowering, I'm usually out of my wits. A couple weeks ago I even took some poor lady's cart from in front of her, mistaking it as my own. She had to block my path before I walked away and buried her own selections with my meals.

When I almost walked into Mike and Mike, I wasn't embarrassed. Just unhappy. I make a point of avoiding their show in the morning, as I find it to have as much depth as their cardboard cutout. So I was far from pleased to find them infringing upon my sacred salivating space. Fortunately for them, their flat selves were hawking Mountain Dew Kickstart, which I've been meaning to try.

Kickstart, for those of you who don't suffer through its back-to-back-to-back commercials while watching college basketball on the Internet, is a blend of Mountain Dew and 5 percent fruit juice. And sucralose noncaloric sweetener. And caffeine.

It comes in tall cans of two types: orange citrus and fruit punch. I chose to sample the orange citrus, as it's the one appearing in commercials. The base flavor, if you will.
Kickstart isn't neon enough! It can't be real Mountain Dew!
A few days later I swapped the Kickstart in for my morning coffee. It has a surprisingly natural color, one that doesn't evoke thoughts of the highlighter hues of Mountain Dew at all. The flavor's pretty decent to go along with it. There's a hint of that artificial sweetener, but for once it didn't bother me too much. Maybe I just wasn't awake enough.

Speaking of waking up, Kickstart cans proudly proclaim at their top that they have caffeine. Which they do. They just don't have enough to jolt you into alertness. A 16-ounce can of Kickstart contains 92 mg of caffeine. For comparison, 16 ounces of Starbucks Pike Place Roast has about 330 mg.

A mere 92 mg is apparently no longer enough to kick me awake in the morning. I think I'd rather have coffee. Or, if I'm avoiding java for the day, I'd rather have real, honest-to-goodness, 100 percent fruit juice.

Two cardboard sporks out of five. Maybe I'm just not cut out for Mountain Dew in the morning.

March 13, 2013

Moose Munch

I meant to write this review at the beginning of February.

My intent was to post it sometime after Groundhog Day, when Punxsutawney Phil inevitably sees his shadow, predicts more winter, then scampers back into his hole, leaving us mortals to face the prospect of suffering through the longest 28-day month on the calendar. February can be a brutal time, and I had just the thing to cheer everyone up.

Moose Munch. A little piece of Christmas, held over.

I had to position the Moose Munch far away, out of arm's reach, in order to make it last long enough for photographing.
As you can all see, that plan never came to fruition. A new job came calling -- I haven't figured out how to pay the bills as a full-time food critic yet -- and I had to throw my efforts into moving to a fresh state in an unfamiliar region of the country. Hello, Midwest! Hello, Indiana!

The move is going to be good for reviews, methinks. It's opened a whole new world of Steak'n Shakes, White Castles, and Krogers. Before we get to all of that, though, I have a holdover to write about: the Moose Munch.

Moose Munch, in case you're unfamiliar, is a caramel corn/chocolate/nut mix from the mail-gift company Harry & David. Harold and his buddy Dave pack it in a bunch of gift baskets along with pears, crackers and whatever other foods you can imagine the postman bringing. I associate it with Christmas, because, honestly, when else do you get gift baskets?

Truth be told, you can order from Harry & David year-round. Right now they're pushing Easter gifts on their website. But only in the Christmas season do you see Moose Munch cropping up in grocery stores.

Which is where and when I picked up my small package of Moose Munch. Small packages are my recommended way to buy it, as it's impossible to stop eating once you start. If you bring home a large package, you'll find yourself sitting in a pile of crumbs, wondering where the last hour went and where it took the snack you'd planned to nibble upon all week.

Yes, Moose Munch is that good. It's primarily caramel corn, with some chocolate-coated popped kernels mixed in. Plus, a handful of nuts swim around to change things up. Take care when first opening your package, and don't dig in right away. The different components will have settled into layers. You'll want to mix it all up for the most intense enjoyment.

When mixing, watch out for the "freshness packet." My Moose Munch contained one of those moisture-absorbing packs that carry warnings against consumption. Biting into one might not kill you, but I bet it kills your snack.

After that, I have little to say. If you can't imagine the limitless goodness presented by caramel corn and chocolate-coated popcorn, you need more help than I can give you. Your life must be one long, dark February.

Five sporks out of five for Moose Munch.

February 18, 2013

A wintertime threefer: McDonald's Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger, McFish Bites and Shamrock Shake

Quite the McBundle sits on our plate today, foodies. A road trip this weekend had me pulling into the golden arches with an empty stomach and driving out with an interesting haul in my bag.

Needless to say, it wasn't your boring old run-of-the-mill Happy Meal. I pick my food a la carte, and did I ever go a la carting! My order consisted of a Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger, Fish McBites and my favorite seasonal ice cream, a Shamrock Shake. Two of these foods are new to me, while the third needs some revisiting.

Yes, you read that right. Two of the foods are new to me. The fish and the beef.

I can hear you shouting at your computer screens now: How can this be true? How can this cheese-onion-beef contraption be new when the food critique tackled it just a few months ago? It received high marks for taste and low ones for name!

Please don't send nasty emails. At least, don't send them to me. McDonald's has two burgers that prominently feature onionage in their name. There's the Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger I'm reviewing today. And then there's the much pricier Cheddar, Bacon, Onion, or CBO, which I reviewed in November.

The Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger costs a buck. The CBO will leave you out of the better part of a $10 bill. So the moral of the nomenclature appears to be that acronyms are expensive.

Speaking of exes, today's lead-in is getting a bit expansive. Especially considering what I have planned -- I'm giving you a quick few paragraphs on each of the foods from my trip to the house that Ronald built. Let's cross to the critiquing now.

Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger
Nothing would please me more than to rave about this bargain-priced burger with a mouthful of a moniker and wave my applause in the face of the tasty but pricey and ill-named CBO. Unfortunately, the Grilled Onion Cheddar Burger is nowhere near as good to the mouth as its upmarket big brother.

For starters, the beef isn't up to snuff. The burger with the long name is basically a classic McDonald's hamburger with the ketchup, mustard and diced onions swapped out for a generous helping of grilled onions. Oh, the cheese gets a slight upgrade, too.

One upgrade that was missed is the moisture content. McDonald's drowns its classic burgers in condiments for a reason, and that reason is they're incredibly dry. Grilled onions don't fix this. In fact, their smoky flavor exacerbates the problem.

The saving grace is the price. Three sporks out of five. Just make sure you take some of that cash you saved and buy a drink.

Fish McBites
The little balls of fish known as Fish McBites provide an opportunity to continue my study of McDonald's naming techniques. The golden arches tags the "Mc" prefix onto sandwiches' meat, but when it comes to small chunks, the restaurant stitches it onto a shape descriptor.

Think about it. The McRib is a sandwich. Chicken McNuggets and Fish McBites are finger foods.

I'll be the first to admit that I didn't explain that particularly well. Perhaps some linguist somewhere can perform a study and publish an academic paper. In the mean time, I'll dock Fish McBites to two sporks out of five because I had trouble explaining my theory inspired by their name. Worse, they smelled far, far too fishy. And they looked like hush puppies without any of the soul-food goodness of hush puppies.

Shamrock Shake
I'm not backing down on giving this delicious green concoction poor ratings until it comes out of its ridiculously slippery plastic cup. McDonald's had the gall to serve me one with an absurd amount of whipped cream on top with an even more absurd cherry.

Bring back paper cups for milkshakes and get rid of that mess above the ice cream. McDonald's isn't a mid-century soda shop, and none of us want it to be. Zero sporks out of five.

February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day with a Milky Way heart

I love it when candy scrawls sweet nothings on its surface.
The evening may be barreling toward a close, but I wouldn't let Feb. 14 slip by without sending my loyal readers a valentine. A day inflated by big candy (for the record, I borrowed that sugary term from @SeinfeldToday on Twitter) shouldn't be passed up by any semi-serious food blogger.

Since I embody the term semi-serious, let's jump right in. This Valentine's Day has the critique taking a look at an interesting sweet tabbed the Milky Way Simply Caramel Heart. The 1.1 oz. yellow package caught my eye a few weeks ago, and I've been saving it for today.

Unwrapping reveals a molded piece of caramel-filled chocolate shaped like a two-heart tombstone with the words "Be Mine" emblazoned across the bottom. It's an attractive cocoa concoction, even if it raises an important question: Is this a Milky Way heart, as the wrapper claims, or is it Milky Way hearts?

Two distinct heart shapes are clearly visible. Yet the chocolate is a single molded smooth chunk with nary a seam to be found. Maybe we can call it a hybrid, consigning it in that hazy gray zone heretofore reserved for the age at which daughters can get their ears pierced. Maybe Milky Way should have just gone with a single-heart design, rendering this an academic discussion instead of the exceedingly practical one it's become.

Biting into the hearts -- or the "Be Mine" banner -- unleashes a river of caramel that's as free-flowing as caramel can be without causing frustrating deluges. It's sweet. It's sticky. It's a miniature version of a Milky Way Simply Caramel bar, which I called "one giant gravity well of caramel" in an April 2010 review.

That bit of self-valentining narcissistic quoting aside, I can tell you that I wasn't the biggest fan of the Milky Way Caramel bar. After about three bites the time of wine and roses ended, and the eating experience turned into a slog of sugar. It was just too much caramel.

Too much is a problem the heart version of the candy solves. Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps by design, it's about three bites. And they're an enjoyable burst of flavor.

A quick nit to pick before it's time to assign a very-special red construction-paper spork rating. The structural integrity of the Milky Way Simply Caramel Heart needs work. Upon my first bite, the entire top started caving in. My second bite tore off the remainder of that top, leaving an exposed boat filled with caramel. Things would have been better if we had more chocolate to balance it all out.

My love isn't blind to those problems, so I'll dock the heart by a spork and a half. Three-and-a-half sporks out of five.

February 10, 2013

Super Bowl rice-off

Can we call the Super Bowl rice-off the Rice Bowl? Has someone trademarked that?
Hard to believe it's been a week since the Super Bowl, isn't it? In many ways, the last seven days have been nothing but an extended blackout brought on by the overabundance of good eats on party platters for the NFL's championship game.

No matter how quickly things have gone, I find it's best to clean my plate of Super Bowl write-ups within 168 hours of the event itself. Already I fear this review is pushing the boundaries of timeliness -- the Grammys are under way as I type, for chef's sake!

As I recall, I owe you all a rice-off pitting Zatarain's against Rice-A-Roni. In my Super Bowl smorgasbord, Zatarain's represented the host city of New Orleans while Rice-A-Roni came from the corner of the eventual runner-up San Francisco 49ers. They weren't the teams competing in the big game. But that didn't stop me from seeing which one was superior.

First, let's talk about my Zatarain's. I opted for the New Orleans style jambalaya mix, as it seemed the most authentic. The box told me to add a meat of my choice, which I did with some spicy sausage.

On the Rice-A-Roni side, I chose the fried rice flavor. The San Francisco treat only suggested I add meat to make it a meal, something I declined to do. Not only did I already have a meaty Zatarain's, I wanted to compare the foods at their most basic suggested preparation.

Basically, neither of these two rices goes against the grain. Both boxed products smelled scintillatingly savory on the stove top. Both took a surprisingly long time to cook. And both were saltier than a Morton barge crashing in Utah's most famous lake.

Beyond that, you'll no doubt be surprised to hear that the Zatarain's with its added meat was more of a meal, while the Rice-A-Roni played side dish. The Zatarain's also had some little flecks of red and green that may have been intended to represent peppers of some sort. Meanwhile, the Rice-A-Roni took on a road-worker-yellow color that was no more befitting of food than it is basketball jerseys.

Flavor wise ... there's not much to say. The Zatarain's may have been a little spicier. Or that difference might have just come from the accompanying sausage. We'll just move along.

Neither of these boxes is going to bankrupt you. The Zatarain's cost a reasonable $1.49, not factoring in its accompanying meat. Depending on what you decide to throw in there with it, you could add anything form another $2 to upwards of $5 or $6, although I have no idea why you'd waste something that expensive on rice in a box. The Rice-A-Roni proved to be much more reasonable, costing just 42 cents.

Low prices will always buoy otherwise mediocre fare, no matter how unnatural its color. Rice-A-Roni nets three-and-a-half sporks out of five. Incidentally, that ties it with its Zatarain's competitor, which I'd also score at three-and-a-half sporks.

I suppose I told you I'd pick a winner, though. A slight edge goes to Rice-A-Roni owing to its lower price and recipe that doesn't think outside the box. Take heart, San Francisco! At least you won something this week! As for you, New Orleans, don't hang your head. Zatarain's had enough power to keep me coming back for more in the future.

February 7, 2013

Potato and scallion Super Bowl soup

The consistency of my potato and scallion soup wasn't bad for a guy without a blender.
We'll continue my Super Bowl recaps today with a bit of a "souper bowl" rundown of the potato and scallion soup that came out of the pot piping hot.

Remember this soup is a slightly modified version of a Food Network leek and potato soup discovered by the official fiancée of Rick's Food Critique. I didn't have leeks on hand, but I did have a fair share of extra scallions left over from my Baltimore imitation crab cakes. Those scallions had to go somewhere, and a soup seemed as good a place as any.

Preparation started out with no major hiccups. I sliced my scallions, started cooking them in butter, and turned away to finish chopping up potatoes. I'd already peeled the spuds, a time-consuming endeavor that left me feeling a little lazy, like Beetle Bailey.

Laziness can be deadly in the kitchen. In my case, it almost led to a scallion disaster. When I returned to my little green onions, I found brown butter that was starting to smoke and vegetables best described as "well done."

To put it mildly, this posed a problem. Since I used excess scallions for my soup, I didn't have any more available for starting over. Going to the store was an option, I suppose, but I didn't consider it an attractive one. Then I would have had extra scallions, saddling me with the very same issue that led me to attempt this soup in the first place.

After a moment of panicked stirring, frantic burner killing and thoughtful reading of my ingredient list, I made a decision: carry on. The scallions didn't seem too badly toasted, and there would hopefully be enough vegetable stock, cream and buttermilk to cover up any unpleasant flavors.

About 45 minutes later -- after I'd poured in the potatoes and stock and set it all to simmer -- another challenge presented itself. This time the recipe called for an immersion blender, a little piece of equipment with which I wasn't blessed. Somewhat embarrassingly, I didn't even have a regular blender handy. So I pulled out the potato masher and whisk and did all the blending manually. Fortunately it proved to be easier going than mashed potatoes, which I often make by hand.

With some dairy products and seasoning, the soup was complete. All that was left was tasting it. And what a taste!

My potato and scallion soup turned out to be roughly akin to a liquid baked potato. It had a substantial savoriness to it, which I'm attributing to the well-done scallions. My theory is that it wouldn't have tasted as good without that happy mistake.

Having said that, there are two potential improvements I'd like to try with this recipe in the future. The first is the introduction of bacon into the soup. The second is a dollop of sour cream and some shredded cheddar cheese on top. With those ingredients, it really would be a baked potato in a bowl. And that's something that could pick up some yardage in culinary circles.

February 4, 2013

Baltimore imitation crab cakes

If the day after Christmas is Boxing Day, the day after the Super Bowl needs to be Leftover Day. It could be the official date set aside for feasting on cold pizza, reheated chicken wings, stale chips and twice-grilled bratwurst.

Already, the 24 hours after the big game constitute the unrecognized day for recirculated goodies to make their trip down America's collective gullet. Take my experience: I opened the refrigerator to pull out something for dinner and found myself confronted with the culinary pleasure of day-old crab cakes.

Which reminds me ... I'm supposed to be sharing my experiences with said crab cakes. Well, there's no time like the present, is there?

Loyal readers will remember I planned to make Baltimore imitation crab cakes, Rice-A-Roni and  Zatarain's for the NFL's championship game, along with potato and scallion soup before it. Rundowns of the other foods will follow. Today I'm focused on the crab cakes.

I won't regurgitate the entire crab cake formula, as I trust my interested readers are smart enough to click on recipe hyperlinks like this one. Instead, I want to highlight one specific ingredient in yesterday's crab cakes, one that set them apart.

No, not the imitation crab. If you must know, the poser meat blended in fine. It didn't match the flavor or texture of genuine fresh crab, but I'm in landlocked Syracuse, so none of the crab I could get was going to be out-of-the-bay fresh. I stand by my decision to save $25.50 and go with the stand-in, thank you very much.

The most valuable ingredient in the Baltimore imitation crab cakes was the jalapeno pepper. It imparted a hearty crunch unmatched by the pushover chives and scallions that stand alone in lesser crab cakes. Oh, and you may have heard that jalapenos are spicy, too. So the pepper blessed the cakes with a blast of heat better than that behind the ball on a well-thrown slant route.

My recommendation is to eschew the measly half pepper called for in the linked recipe. Go with a full pepper, which is hardly overpowering. Anything less would just get lost amid the Old Bay seasoning and Dijon mustard.

Aside from the pepper and the imitation crab, I didn't deviate from the prescribed formula. Oh, I decided not to bother with the nonsense about lining a plate with lettuce, either. In retrospect, I wouldn't argue with anyone who did -- wrapping one of these bad boys in a lettuce leaf would have been a tasty take on a crab cake burrito.

To be honest, my crab cakes could have used a wrapper. They didn't reach the crumblage level of the 49ers first-half defense, but they didn't emerge from the frying pan with all their chunks intact, either. The recipe calls for chilling the cakes a minimum of 10 minutes, presumably to promote adhesion of the disparate parts. Take my word for it and double that. Actually, I doubled it and didn't exactly experience resounding success. Triple it. Quadruple it.

They don't look like much -- let's see you try to get a good golden finish on a cake falling apart like this -- but these Baltimore imitation crab cakes packed enough flavor to bring home a championship.
When I make these Baltimore imitation crab cakes in the future -- and I will -- I may also use more than one egg in an attempt to help hold the ingredients together. Or superglue. There has to be something out there that will work.

Even if there isn't, even if I'm doomed to a fate of fragmentation every time I make this recipe, I will turn to it time after time. The savory flavors mesh ever so well with the spicy pepper, and the meat/bread crumb balance is much better than the doughy messes restaurants try to serve to skimp on their imitation crab. I'll never order a restaurant crab cake again after these.

Unless, of course, the restaurant crab cake is made with genuine meat. Even though I won't be buying the stuff directly any time soon, it would be nice to try a Baltimore genuine crab cake someday.

February 2, 2013

Super Bowl XLVII preview

Super Bowl XLVII is tomorrow, and the unofficial American holiday that is the National Football League's championship weekend is in full swing. The Internet is awash with stories previewing the big game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens.

There are in-depth strategic and statistical previews. There are two-and-a-half-minute video previews that somehow say nothing. There are even stories written with second-grade sentence structure about drugged-up reporters at Super Bowl Media Day!

I won't be getting into any of that, though. Especially the drugs. This blog strives to be more family friendly than your average Super Bowl halftime show. And unlike the Super Bowl halftime show, this blog aims to be something you can pay attention to without wanting to vomit or put your head through a wall.

To that end, today's Super Bowl XLVII preview takes a hard look at the foods I'm planning to cook for Sunday night. My idea is a simple one: put together a meal representing the cities battling for the Lombardi Trophy.

Baltimore posed no problem for this quest. The city on the Chesapeake Bay is nearly synonymous with crab cakes. San Francisco, on the other hand, proved to be a bit more of a challenge. Maybe it's because I'm on the East Coast, but I never associated any food with the Bay Area except Rice-A-Roni. And I wanted something more challenging.

Eventually, I settled on bread called San Francisco sourdough. You probably guessed its basic formula. It's sourdough from San Francisco. So, armed with printed blueprints for bread and crab cakes, I set out for the grocery store last night to purchase the required ingredients.

As is often the case in this imperfect and unpredictable life, things did not go as planned. It was all sunshine and rainbows as I made my way through the produce section, successfully purchasing scallions, a jalapeno and chives for the crab cakes. I even picked up the panko -- Japanese bread crumbs -- without issue.

Then I came to the seafood section and the sticker shock it brings. Have you seen the price of crab lately? It's enough to make anyone crabby! I think something fishy is going on with the seafood industry, where the suppliers, fishermen and grocery stores are swimming together to scale up the price of crab meat.

Buying crab will put you in a financial pinch.

... Sorry about that last paragraph. It's just too hard to resist fish puns. The fact remains that I was faced with a serious problem, however. Crab meat came with a price tag of $28.99, which was awfully hard to swallow. And it was even harder to force down the gullet when I noticed the pack of imitation crab lurking a few shelves down for just $3.49.

If you don't know which option I went with, you haven't been reading this blog long enough. Into the cart went the fake stuff, and my plot for Baltimore crab cakes suddenly became one for Baltimore imitation crab cakes. The change probably won't be noticeable what with all the seasoning that goes into the recipe anyway, right?


Another problem popped up in the mustard section. I was 99 percent sure I had the Dijon mustard required for the crab cakes sitting in the refrigerator at home. Alas, that level of certainty wasn't good enough, and I had to pick up a whole new yellow bottle. (Returning home I would find Dijon mustard tucked safely in the door of the fridge, so if anyone has some good recipes that use it, I'm all ears.)

Ah, mustard! Present in the fridge, if not my memory.

Those crab cake issues were nothing compared to the challenges posed by San Francisco sourdough. I'd shrewdly used the Wegmans website to look up the location of yeast before I hit the store. It told me to search in the dairy section. Which I did. Unsuccessfully. After about five minutes of perusing, I gave up, resolving to circle back after locating the rest of the necessary baking goods.

Then I couldn't find any sourdough starter to save my life. After the yeast's refusal to rise into my field of view, this was too much. Like an overworked stay-at-home parent, I had to scrap my idea for homemade bread and turn to a box of Rice-A-Roni to save me.

Next to the Rice-A-Roni, I spied some Zatarain's, which claims to be a New Orleans tradition since 1889. New Orleans happens to be the city hosting the Super Bowl this year, so the Zatarain's went into the cart beside the San Francisco treat. A new plan came to mind, one pitting the prefabricated rice dishes against each other.

As I wrapped up my planned shopping, I realized I was going to have a lot of scallions left over from my crab cake cooking. Scallions, in case you were unawares, are similar to leeks. Therefore, I decided to do a riff on a potato and leek soup, too.
A quick phone-call assist from Deb, the official fiancée of Rick's Food Critique, gave me a list of the other ingredients I'd need. Yukon gold potatoes. Heavy cream. Buttermilk. Vegetable broth. Just like that, after 90 minutes, my pre-Super Bowl grocering was complete.

There's your preview of what I'll be eating on Super Bowl Sunday: Baltimore imitation crab cakes, Rice-A-Roni, Zatarain's and potato and scallion soup. A balanced meal it does not make, although I'd wager it will be tasty.

This is also a preview of the blog posts you can expect in the coming week. While time won't permit me to reflect upon my culinary successes and failures on this site tomorrow, you'll see new posts on each of the foods in the following days. Currently I plan one post covering the crab cakes, another swishing around the soup and a third declaring a winner between the two boxes of rice.

I hope you get a kick out of all of them. And enjoy the game!

January 29, 2013

An icy reception for Target Sparkling Chill

Sparkling Chill -- all the flavor of an ice cube.
I haven't been too hot to write today's food review.

That's not because it's going to be any sub-par piece of critiquing. Never would I do that to my everlastingly loyal readers. It's just, well, I don't want to think too much about today's subject.

Target Sparkling Chill* looks like it should be a pleasant drink. A substantial red color permeates the black raspberry version we're taste-testing today, and the beverage comes in an attractive tall, skinny bottle. Its minimalist label doesn't hurt the whole package, either. Simple. Sophisticated. Seemingly satisfying.

Too bad the drinking experience doesn't match the look. Unless you consider fizzy and flavorless to somehow stand in for simple, sophisticated and satisfying, you'll be disappointed upon first swig. And next swig. And every subsequent swig after that.

I've had tonic water with more flavor than Sparkling Chill. I've also had tonic water with roughly the same amount of flavor as this stuff -- and I hated it just as much.

If only "hate" were too strong a word for this beverage. But if anything, it's not strong enough. Fluids like Sparkling Chill merit everlasting disdain for the way they make drinking a torturous experience. They're so atrocious, I'll argue they pull off the impossibility of having two worst parts: The near-complete lack of flavor and the aftertaste that can only be described as nasty.

The lack of flavor wouldn't be as much of a problem if the black raspberry version of Sparkling Chill didn't present itself with that aforementioned healthy red flavor. There you sit, ready to enjoy a burst of fruit, only to be punished with a glorified combination of food coloring and sparkling water. What a letdown.

And then that aftertaste kicks in, puckering the throat and threatening to begin a vicious cycle. It's one of the few things worse on the tongue than actually drinking Sparkling Chill, so you'll want to drown it in another sip almost as soon as you finish swallowing your last one. Next you'll want another sip. And another. Perhaps Target plans to sell its Sparkling Chill by locking customers into this wretched loop. It would certainly be more effective than marketing the fluid based on its flavor.

Now it's time for the one moment I actually have been looking forward to in this review, the moment when I assign Sparkling Chill a spork rating. I seriously considered saddling this monstrosity with a negative number before deciding to reserve that territory for fare that physically sickens. Instead, I'm slapping on an icy zero out of five sporks and pushing everything about this train wreck as far from my mind as possible.

*Astute readers will note I'm not following Sparkling Chill's label presentation of all lowercase letters. This contrasts with previous vitaminwater reviews surrendering to that beverage's labels. The reason for the discrepancy is simple: Sparkling Chill didn't earn enough respect to merit conforming to its dubious.style.

January 24, 2013

Chipotle Chicken Chicken & Cheese shortages at Subway

This picture was supposed to show a Subway Chipotle Chicken & Cheese on flatbread. Read on to find out why it shows ham instead.
It was 7 degrees when I woke up this morning -- below zero. Seven below. Negative 7. That's positively frigid.

What with all of the arctic air freezing my beard the moment I step outside, I've been making a concerted effort to spend more time indoors. No winter birdwatching for me these days! No late-night jogging sessions, either. Worst of all, I've cut my winter beach volleyball sessions down to nil. Which is a shame, because you can't play winter beach volleyball in any other season.

All of the extra time that's been freed up has left me taking stock of my debts. And I believe I owe my loyal foodie followers a review of Subway's $5 Footlong of the month, the ampersanded Chipotle Chicken & Cheese.

I promised such a review a couple of weeks ago during my writeup of the centipede incident. After the multilegged paratrooper spoiled my prepared lunch, I fled to the open arms of America's favorite franchised sub shop, where I ordered the bargain sub du jour.

Only we had a slight problem. A couple slight problems actually. First, my local Subway had run out of prepared chipotle chicken, or at least that's what my sandwich artist claimed. To cover, she took some regular roast chicken and sprayed on a generous helping of chipotle sauce. I'm pretty sure the difference is minimal if it exists at all, but I make note of it out of respect for the scientific method, the principle of full disclosure, and my dedication to minutia.

Second, and more importantly, my local Subway's sandwich toaster was broken. Since it was a month with a $5 Footlong best served hot, I can only blame Murphy and his stupid law for this tragedy. He'd better watch out, because I will have my revenge, which, incidentally, is best served cold.

The Subway made a valiant effort at heating my sandwich using their microwave. It's just not the same, though. Microwaves promote sogginess where toasters promote crispiness. They also create a different flavor profile, running everything together.

Therefore, I attempted to sample a second Chipotle Chicken & Cheese last week. I did so in the Rochester airport after waiting in an enormously long line. When I finally reached the front, the sandwich artist kindly informed me that they were out of flatbread -- the suggested medium for CC&C.

Fine. I could live with white bread, I told him. Only to learn they were out of white bread.

OK, wheat bread will work, I said. Can I have a footlong Chipotle Chicken & Cheese on wheat bread?

You guessed it. They were out of Chipotle Chicken. They were out of regular chicken, for that matter. Meatballs, too.

Which is how I ended up with a 12-inch ham sub on wheat bread. I did try the honey mustard on ham for the first time, and I can report it's a very successful combination. Throw some red onions and tomatoes on there, and you have a sandwich that can almost cover for the tragic fact that Subway moved the Spicy Italian off of the $5 Footlong Menu.

Alas, none of you want to hear about ham. Who does, really? It's the most overrated of the meats. You want to hear about chipotle chicken, as you were promised! So I'm left to give my impressions of the microwaved sub from early in the month. Fortunately I took notes, so we don't have to rely on my Swiss-cheese memory.

My microwaved Chipotle Chicken & Cheese was ... pretty good, actually. It turns out that dousing everything in chipotle sauce and using radiation to blend the flavors is an excellent way to make a cheap flatbread sandwich. It even covered up for Subway's roast chicken, of which I've never been a fan -- something usually tastes off about it.

However, something could have tasted off about my Chipotle Chicken & Cheese, and I wouldn't know about it. I had no control group, no way to compare a standard toasted sandwich against its makeshift microwaved brother. This won't keep me from assigning a spork rating, though. Actually, the shortages factor pretty heavily into said rating.

Two sporks. If I were evaluating on taste alone, we'd probably be looking at something in the three- to four-spork range. To Subway's detriment, I'm not looking at taste alone.

What can I say? Shortages leave me coldhearted.

January 23, 2013

Taco Bell, basketball and shrink rays at the KFC Yum! Center

Photo courtesy of the only certified fiancée of Rick's Food Critique, Deb Oonk (@dloonk in the Twitterverse).
What would you eat upon first visiting a basketball arena named for the fast food formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken? KFC, right?

Wrong! Fried chicken doesn't go with sporting events. The correct answer is something a little more at home in the bleachers, like hot dogs, burgers or french fries. Or even nachos.

At least, that was my thinking during a trip this weekend to the curiously named and confusingly punctuated KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. I was there with my affianced to see our alma mater, Syracuse University, meet the University of Louisville in a college basketball game. But in an arena named for one of the food industry's major players, it seemed appropriate to set up a pregame session with some concessions.

A small problem: In a burst of poor planning, I snacked on a gas-station chicken sandwich during the drive to Louisville. And my better half had indulged in her own box of service-station nuggets. So we weren't ready to chomp down on any more chicken. It was a lack of foresight, I know. And it's one for which I apologize profusely to all of you reading out there in cyberspace.

Fortunately for us, the KFC Yum! Center isn't just named for Col. Sanders' favorite feeding fix. It also carries the banner of KFC's owner, Yum! Brands, which is a Louisville entity packing KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell in its portfolio. Logos for all three of those restaurants line the arena's exterior.

So my betrothed and I settled on splitting some Taco Bell Nachos BellGrande. After all, nothing says Kentucky like nachos.

Not much about the Nachos BellGrande I was handed spelled "grande" or "big." To be fair, I wasn't expecting much in the way of portion size. I've eaten at my fair share of professional, faux-amateur, Division I sporting events, so I wasn't surprised at the half-plate of nachos I received nestled in a little black plastic oval.

Congratulations, walkie-talkie dude. You've photobombed the food critique!
More surprising was the size of the nacho chips themselves. At which point did Taco Bell write its chips into the script of "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids?" The tiny triangles certainly weren't full-sized nachos, what with their longest sides measuring about an inch and a half (There's another of my failings on this trip -- I didn't expect to need my measuring tape). That's not a size designed for dipping.

The dipping lineup gave us pause as well. Our Nachos BellGrande came with ground beef, refried beans, diced tomatoes, nacho cheese and sour cream. It had no lettuce. Sure, Taco Bell's website tells me the sour cream was reduced-fat, but that will hardly satisfy the raging health nut in me that demands shredded iceberg on his imitation Mexican meals.

In years past, the included dipping slatherings would have overpowered Taco Bell's nacho chips. Tiny nachos seem to pack a powerful punch, however, as they held up well against the sog-inducing tandem of refried beans and nacho cheese. No fork was necessary to scoop up this snack until the very end, when it served to rodeo chip particles rather than scrape together limp corn sludge.

One final note on the arena Nachos BellGrande -- $8. Eight bucks. There's little else to say. Yes, sporting-event food is more expensive than its drive-thru counterpart. No, that doesn't make the hit on your wallet any less agonizing.

Overall, Nachos BellGrande net three sporks out of a possible five. The basketball, on the other hand, was top of the line. 'Cuse won by two in a game that went down to the wire. Let me also give a big thumbs-up to the Louisville fans who refrained from harassing those of us who were wearing Syracuse orange after the clock had struck zero. Several even came up to me to talk about what a great game it was. Southern hospitality, it seems lives on.

Now if only the Yum! Center prices were a bit more hospitable ...

Anyway, check check below for some cell-phone photography of our trip to Louisville.

The Yum! Center offers some nice views of the Ohio River.

Photos catch a giant milk-jug blimp flying around the arena before the game.

Contributor William Reinier (@SGTWillReinier) suggested a trip to Fourth Street.