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.

January 13, 2013

A very special set of Golden Spork Awards: The best foods of 2011 and 2012

Two years is a long time to wait for flatware, even the most prestigious gold-plated utensils in the blogosphere.

Foodies and devotees to my writing know the history of the Golden Spork Awards. First held at the end of 2008, they honor the best foods featured on this critique over a 365-day period. Awards range from the always-affordable "Short Payment" category for the best food under $1 to the penultimate honor in commoners' culinary circles, the "Best Picnic," which goes to the top taste of the year.

The latest set of Golden Spork Awards, or "Sporkies," as they're affectionately referred to among diners everywhere, doesn't encompass a single 365-day period, however. It covers two years, a move made necessary by the 15-month gap in food reviews this critiquer experienced between July of 2011 and November of 2012. We won't go into the details about that dark time at this moment, but we must mention it in order to acknowledge the fact that some of the foods honored here today have been waiting for far too long to receive their congratulatory hardware.

That wait, I'm pleased to tell you, ends now. Without further ado, I bring you the 2011/2012 Golden Spork Awards!

Put a Spork in Them: Foods to forget from 2011 and 2012

We start out with our regular wall of shame, foods to be avoided at all cost. These items leave a sour taste in the mouth to this day.

McDonald's Shamrock Shake
Major boos and hisses for the plastic packaging McDonald's Shamrock Shakes started wearing under the ill-conceived McCafe brand. It left hands cold and, worse, sweat like a pig on New Year's Eve. All that water had the shake seriously slippery, making it all too easy to spend more energy handling the cup than enjoying the masterfully minty tones of the seasonal shake. Worse, the option of ordering the shake with whipped cream and a cherry appeared, an abomination that must have left St. Patrick wishing he'd driven those snakes from Ireland all the way to Mickey D's corporate offices.

McDonald's CBO
The golden arches pull off a rare twofer on the Sporkies' worst foods list with the CBO -- short for Cheddar, Bacon, Onion. Interestingly, McDonald's earns scorn in both cases not for its food, but for the decisions it made surrounding that food. The CBO is a fine sandwich saddled with a mind-numbing name more evocative of federal bureaucracy than a burger worth eating. Which is a shame, because the CBO is actually a pretty tasty treat.

Golden Spork Awards: The top foods reviewed in 2011/2012

Free Food:
This pick is so obvious it's almost painful. From the ferocious first-bite crunch to the sweet sugar dissolving in your mouth a moment later, Biscoff remains one of the most satisfying things you can eat without first having to reach for your wallet. It's an included snack option on most Delta flights, and while plane tickets aren't free, Biscoff remains one of the few things you can get mid-air without additional charge. That's enough to qualify it for this category, which in turn makes it a hands-down winner.

Short Payment (best food under $1):
Snickers Egg
The Snickers Egg wins this category almost by default, owing to a distressingly short list of candidates at the required price point. The egg is good, and it's an even better change-up from the gamut of traditional Easter Candy. But something tells me we'll hear more about the lack of affordable food later in these awards ...

Seasonal Food:
Subway Double Bacon, Egg & Cheese
A surprise winner owing its Seasonal Food candidacy to an April 2011 appearance as Subway's $5 Footlong of the month, the Double Bacon, Egg & Cheese made breakfast work for lunch and dinner. It's a shame this sandwich isn't available for afternoon meals when it isn't the $5 Footlong of the month, because it flattens the competition when ordered on flatbread. Can double bacon ever go wrong?

Goldfish Grahams S'mores
Perhaps the strongest food to ever win this title, Goldfish Grahams S'mores qualify under both the "snack" and "candy" category. They take home the 24-carat spork thanks to an amazingly close approximation of the s'more-eating experience. These fishes really are so delicious that you'll want to bring them to work, school, or your next camping trip.

Best Supporting Beverage:
vitaminwater stur-D
Whether it's washing down breakfast or coming at any other time of the day, stur-D's combination of blue agave, passion fruit and citrus pleases. It's fun to drink and a horror to write about, thanks to vitaminwater's constant violation of traditional capitalization rules. And slotting it in for this award gives me reason to re-publish the following line from my March 2011 review, which is one of my favorites. "If you can get past the fact that it looks like you're about to guzzle a liquefied Smurf, stur-D makes a tasty beverage."

Best Dessert in a Leading Role:
Not awarded
Let the controversy ensue. There will be no award winner in this category, owing to a troubling trend in dessert that developed over the last two years: the rising price of chocolate. In early 2011, many candy bars could be had for 50 cents, while larger options were often on sale for 75 cents. By the end of 2012, those prices had swelled to at least 69 cents and $1.25, respectively. This inflation is absurd. No one should have to tack a dollar onto their supermarket order because they want a chocolate fix. This lack of an award represents a protest, plain and simple.

Best Picnic
Chocolate-Dipped Peeps
Let the controversy continue. As I looked over my 2011 and 2012 reviews, I couldn't believe the early returns. Only two foods, Chocolate-Dipped Peeps and Biscoff, qualified for Best Picnic, which requires a full five-spork review rating. Of those, the Peeps were clearly superior. But Peeps seem like a bird-brained choice for the years' top honor.

Look deeper, though, and you'll see that Chocolate-Dipped Peeps outclassed everything else appearing on the critique over the last two years. They strike a delicate balance between a chocolate base and that sugary traditional Peep coating we all know and love. And they're groundbreaking in that most Peeps aren't remotely good enough to merit consideration for Best Picnic.

These Peeps have your intrepid critiquer eagerly awaiting this year's Easter season. This pick isn't as feather-brained as it first seems.

Kudos to all of the Golden Spork recipients. As always, the real winners aren't the foods themselves, but those of us eating them. Here's to a tasty 2013!

January 12, 2013

A centipede paratrooper drops in for lunch

This might qualify as a lunchtime horror story, so if you're the squeamish type, you might want to look away. I hate to drive traffic away from the food critique, though, so why don't you re-read some of your favorite posts from 2012? Or social mediatize all of your friends about how much you enjoy these food reviews. It can be your good deed for the day, helping me achieve new heights of metrics.

Speaking of heights, I had the most harrowing run-in with an airborne arthropod the other day. I was sitting at my desk at work, enjoying a mid-day rustic grill made up of kielbasa, potatoes and peppers, when I felt a plink upon my head.

Please excuse this brief aside on rustic grills. I've become quite enthusiastic about them lately. They're quick to prepare and can generally assimilate anything you have lying around the house. Potatoes? Check. Meat -- of any sort? Check. Peppers? Onions? Brussels sprouts? Check, check and check. Slice it, dice it and fry it up.

I like to give my rustic grills a good accompaniment of ketchup, although I fear this is a subconscious effort to cover up for one consistent shortcoming on my part. Very often, I misjudge the amount of food I'm going to be rustically grilling and consequently choose too small of a frying pan. There's no better way to come out with unbrowned potatoes, unless you forgo turning the burner on at all.

Fortunately I've come to enjoy less-than-crispy potatoes, provided they've been properly ketchuped. So there I was, having just raked in two forkfuls of steaming hot rustic grill, when this plink touches the front of the top of my head. My hair moved as if it had been struck by a large raindrop.

Only it wasn't a raindrop. It was something that bounced off my cranium and made an even larger plink in my lunch.

There, sitting in front of me, ruining my perfectly caramelized polish sausage, sat a stunned centipede.
My research tells me I had a run-in with a common house centipede. Wikimedia had the foresight to maintain a public-domain picture of an example, which is good, because those of us surprised by one falling from the sky don't always have the quick reflexes necessary to whip out our cameras before the arthropod scurries into some dank, dark hole.

Now, I have no idea if it was a male or female. I don't know how many legs it had or whether it was some middle-aged man-centipede skydiving to try to prove how young and cool he was. All I know is the thing was about two inches long and that it grows every time I tell this story.

But if I had to guess, I'd postulate that this centipede was not known in centipede circles for being a connoisseur of the culinary. Because after a second shaking off his fall, he scrambled out of my food, across my desk and out of sight.

I just sat there the whole time, processing the experience. I didn't push back my chair, I didn't scream, I didn't stab the little paratrooper with my fork.

Eventually I came up with a question: Should I tell my coworkers about this incident?

The answer, I decided after some thought, was a definite "no." The little bugger was off hiding in some shadowy corner where we'd never find him, so ratting on his existence wasn't going to accomplish anything. Centipedes don't like light, if my tenth-grade biology lessons are still accurate in my mind, so we don't have to worry about it coming out of hiding and scampering across anyone else's desk -- unless it decided it liked its free-fall experience, which I seriously doubt. Therefore, all I would achieve by telling others about my harrowing lunch would be to scare them about eating their own food at their desks.

They needed no warning that this sort of thing might happen to them. Believe me, they'll know as soon as it does. The risk of unknowingly getting a forkful of Chilopoda is slim to none. Health risks were minimal as well -- these house centipedes don't generally bite humans, and they aren't poisonous to us. As a bonus, they prey upon peskier forms of arthropods, nasty things like insects and spiders.

Once I'd decided this, another question came to mind: Can I finish my rustic grill?

Listen. I only considered this because the grill was very, very good before my skydiving friend plopped himself in the middle of the meal. The potatoes were tender, the kielbasa wasn't too greasy and the peppers were spicy without being so hot as to overshadow the whole thing. Plus, reheating through microwaving hadn't completely wrecked the ingredients, for once.

I tried not to waste this food. I really did. But when  push came to shove, I just couldn't bring fork to mouth. The meal was ruined for me.

In the end, I made a quick trip to Subway, where I tried this month's $5 Footlong. Keep your eyes out for a post on that in the near future. And of course I'll be delivering the promised Golden Spork Awards later this weekend.

Right now, I just had to release this centipede onto the page. I couldn't keep it crawling around in my head forever.

January 9, 2013

Hanging out with dried pineapple

I'm pleased to report the long-awaited 2011/2012 Golden Spork awards look to be everything everyone expected. Ever. Anywhere in the universe.

You'll laugh. You'll cry. You might even rush out to buy foods that haven't been available for 24 months. One thing you won't do, however, is read the awards today.

See, electroplating utensils isn't exactly the easiest thing to do. So we'll all just have to wait a few more days until the sporks are ready to feed public demand. I'm targeting a post this weekend -- is Sunday good for everyone? Awards ceremonies are best on non-workdays, anyway.

If you need a snack to tie you over, I've got just the thing. It's what I've been munching as I prepare the Sporkies. It might even be one of the reasons they're late: dried pineapple.

I know it's not sexy. All those wrinkles. That pale yellow color. The dried-fruit stigma. Who wants to be seen in public with dried pineapple? People might start randomly playing guitars at you and asking if you make your own candles.

No one needs to be spotted with dried pineapple in polite company, fortunately. It's so sweet, you'll be tempted to gobble it up before you can ever take it out of the house. Try to have just a few pieces. I bet you can't. Before you know it, all of your dehydrated fruit will be gone.

That's what happened to me. I ate a 12 oz. bag -- that's nine servings -- in three nights. And most of it was gone after the first two. Only a few pieces were left tonight, just enough to start me pining for more.

You can see the damage below. I didn't even have the restraint to save enough pineapple for a photo shoot. Sorry, but we'll all have to do with a picture of the empty bag. Clear plastic isn't photogenic, but it proves my point that dried pineapple is irresistible.

The problem with photographing dried pineapple is you have to take a break from eating it long enough to get out the camera.

The pieces almost, almost disintegrate in your mouth. They require just enough tooth-pressure to give you a sense of chewing, which is, of course, always rewarding. As for flavor, you'll have a good sense of things if you take the juice in which canned pineapple swims and crystallize it.

Moving on to drawbacks, dried fruit isn't always cheap. My bag was $2.99, and that's the lowest price per pound I've been able to find. The sugar content is, unsurprisingly, pretty high, too. Plus, I'm a little worried about consuming mass quantities of the little yellow morsels. How much can you eat before succumbing to some form of gastrointestinal distress?

 A price tag below $3 and high saccharide content is hardly reason to dock sporks in a snack this good. Five out of five. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go plate more sporks.

January 7, 2013

My own riff on the McRib

My hand model and better half, Deb, displays a fresh McRib during its latest return to McDonald's menu.
You hear about the McRib a lot.

Which is not the same, understand, as hearing a lot about the McRib. Hearing about the McRib a lot has to do with the number of times someone shouts about how McDonald's piece of pork is back for yet another limited-time stint on the menu. Hearing a lot about the McRib concerns learning about the sandwich's contents, taste, and properties.

Come to think about it, you hear about the McRib a lot and you hear a lot about the McRib. I know I've seen my fair share of exposés on the thing's ingredients. Such articles are more popular than the McRib at a barbecue-lovers' convention. Here's Mickey D's list of the sandwich's ingredients for you to review yourself, if you so choose. Just click the little plus sign by "Nutrition" and scroll down.

What you don't hear much about when it comes to the McRib is its taste. Maybe that's because the sandwich has been introduced and reintroduced more times than a speed-dating amnesiac. It's the pig who cried wolf, and no one wants to review it anymore.

No one but me, anyway.

I'd never eaten a McRib before 2013. I silently protested its on-the-menu off-the-menu existence and nonexistence by never ordering one. Until this year, when I decided I'd heard about it long enough. Let's see what the hype is about.

The hype, I can report, is mostly just that. Hype. The McRib is a giant unbreaded chicken nugget made from pork products and stuffed in a bun. Oh, it's dunked in barbecue sauce and dressed with onions and pickles, too. Still, it's no shining example of southern-style cooking.

Nothing about the McRib's flavor is offensive, but nothing impresses, either. The meat could be pork or dark chicken. The onions are sweet but unnecessary. The bun doesn't dissolve, yet manages to be dry and insubstantial.

The barbecue sauce is a bit of an enigma. Not for its taste, which is about as close to the textbook definition of barbecue for the masses as you'll find. No, the sauce is noteworthy for its recalcitrance to drip off the sandwich.

It will smear on your fingers. It will smear on your face. It might even splatter around a bit if you shake the sandwich hard enough. I don't know, as I make no habit of playing Bop It with my lunch. Bottom line, this sauce is viscous even by motor oil standards.

By all other standards -- barbecue and otherwise -- the McRib is but smoke and mirrors. McDonald's spends too much time yanking it on and off the menu and not enough perfecting it. Two sporks out of five. Let's hope next time we hear about the McRib, we're getting word of its new recipe.