REVIEW: Cap’n Crunch’s Caramel Popcorn Crunch Cereal

Cap’n Crunch’s Caramel Popcorn Crunch Cereal

Despite its popularity in everything from Chips Ahoy cookies to Hostess Cupcakes, caramel remains something of a third rail flavor when it comes to this unbalanced side of a complete breakfast.

We’re all fine with it mixed into our frappes and covering an ooey-gooey sticky bun, but we’re only moderately interested should it show up in our cereal bowls. Sales history speaks for itself; Kellogg’s Caramel Nut Crunch and Crunchy Nut Caramel Nut were both short-lived, while Dulce de Leche Cheerios is as elusive on supermarket shelves as Barry Sanders was in the open field of the Pontiac Silverdome.

There’s really only one conclusion to support this: cereal companies have been thinking of caramel all wrong.

Instead of trying to pair caramel with chocolate, apples, or nut flavors like past cereals, Cap’n Crunch’s Caramel Popcorn Crunch looks to the snack aisle for inspiration and gets caramel right.

Popcorn for breakfast?

Actually it’s less crazy than it sounds, and certainly on more solid footing than rainbow sherbet-flavored Fruity Pebbles. Aside from the fact most sugary cereals are made from corn, there’s actually some precedence for eating actual popcorn at the breakfast table. Even though old-timey Americans who would eventually found cereal empires ate popcorn with milk to jumpstart their day, I’d recommend keeping this latest flavor solely in the realm of a dry snack.

Oh sure it’s not bad in milk—actually the end-milk has a delicious dulce de leche sort of flavor—but the light and airy spheres don’t hold their texture as well as other Cap’n Crunch flavors. Also, the salty-sweet flavor and the molasses backnotes are, literally, drowned out.

Cap’n Crunch’s Caramel Popcorn Crunch Cereal 2

Those flavors are much more prevalent when eaten dry, where an intriguing salty-sweet flavor comes together in a flavor rarely encountered in cereal form. There’s the usual brown sugar and coconut oil aftertaste of Cap’n Crunch, but an extra burnt sugar sweetness is balanced by a salty and airy crisp that’s really enjoyable. It’s not perfect in replicating caramel popcorn—there’s something to be said for sticky hands and partially melted corn syrup to lick from your fingers—but it’s pretty accurate for what it is, and, what’s more, comes with the benefit of not having any annoying unpopped kernels. And if you’re into the whole “Chicago Mix” thing, I have great news. It pairs wonderfully with an extra salty cheesy crunch from a snack like Cheese Nips, which everyone knows is far superior to Cheez-Its.

I’m not going to endorse Caramel Popcorn Crunch as a part of a complete breakfast because I don’t want the First Lady coming after good old Cap’n Horatio again, but I will definitely give it a thumbs up as a snacking cereal with excellent mixability with other salty snacks.

Will it stick around for more than a couple of years? Probably not, but such is the lifespan of caramel-flavored cereals. If you don’t like it too, then tough. But at least we’ll have twenty million other caramel or salted caramel-flavored products to fall back on.

(Nutrition Facts – 31 grams – 120 calories, 10 calories from fat, 1 grams of fat, 0.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 150 milligrams of sodium, 60 milligrams of potassium, 27 grams of carbohydrates, 1 grams of dietary fiber, 14 grams of sugars, 1 grams of protein, and if you’re getting the majority of vitamins and minerals from cereal you really need to rethink your dietary choices.)

Item: Cap’n Crunch’s Caramel Popcorn Crunch Cereal
Purchased Price: $3.00
Size: 16.2 oz. box
Purchased at: Walmart
Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Salty-sweet flavor makes for an addictive snack. Brown sugar and molasses depth. Delicious dulce de leche type end-milk flavor. Pairs exceptionally well with Cheese Nips.
Cons: Lacks the buttered richness of caramel popcorn. Absolutely no redeeming nutritional value. Tastes horrible mixed with Cocoa Puffs. Not as crunchy as the other Cap’n Crunch flavors, and still only the fourth tastiest version of Cap’n Crunch.

REVIEW: Burger King Grilled Dogs (Classic and Chili Cheese)

Burger King Grilled Dogs 1

As far as I’m concerned there needs to be a law about the proper way to prepare a hot dog. None of this boiling or deep-frying nonsense, and unless you’re under the age of eight you should never even contemplate sticking that Oscar Meyer wiener in a microwave.

No, hot dogs were created for the grill. Whether beef or pork, skinless or natural casing, hardwood smoked or cheese stuffed; the only way I want to eat a tubular shaped piece of processed meat is hot off a grill.

Unfortunately I live far too distant from the world’s greatest char-grilled hot dog chain to get a regular taste of char-grilled dogs, and my own lack of hardware leaves me pathetically incapable of replicating the smokey, meaty, crackling taste and texture of one.

Thankfully—and I seriously never thought I’d say this—Burger King has come to the rescue in my little corner of suburbia. Currently testing in Maryland, Burger King’s Grilled Dogs were offered in two varieties at the location I stopped by — Classic and Chili Cheese.

Because I’m a complete glutton for punishment (actually just because I really like hot dogs and was really freaking hungry) I also decided to stop by my local Sonic to get their versions of the hot dogs to compare. Now, I realize Sonic may not exactly make any specialty magazine’s list of the greatest hot dog destinations in the country, but for a chain they do a solid dog which is both beefy and affordable. If Burger King wants to be the top dog when it comes to fast food hot dogs, then the chain is going to have to dethrone Sonic first. And yes, I did just drop two absolutely forced puns in the same sentence.

Burger King Grilled Dog Classic

First up is the Classic Dog. It comes with the assortment of ketchup, mustard, sweet relish, and chopped onions. The Burger King dog comes neatly dressed, a little heavy on the chopped onions, but thankfully not drowned in ketchup and mustard. Actually, when it comes to the toppings there is very good balance, so much so that none of the toppings overpower the others, and more importantly don’t overpower the hot dog itself.

Burger King Grilled Dog Grill Marks

The dog, which has grill marks and a split texture, has excellent snap for a fast food dog, with more blackening than Sonic’s All-American dog. The flavor is moderately smokey and definitely beefy, although to be honest it’s not as beefy as Sonic’s dog. I liked it…a lot. But it felt small and not quite substantial enough. The bun was a bit stale, but it did have a decent buttery-sweet flavor. The meat to bun ratio felt right; I tasted a combination of sharp and sweet toppings, the bun, and most importantly the meaty depth of the hot dog.

BK Left, Sonic right hot Dogs

Burger King (Left), Sonic (Right)

I probably favor Sonic’s dog a little more, mostly because theirs has beefier taste and the bun had a really enjoyable, pillowy quality that I happen to be a sucker for. But I’m splitting hairs here, because Burger King clearly wins for the hot dog’s texture.

Burger King Grilled Dogs Chili Cheese

The Burger King Chili Cheese Dog is definitely for you if you’re the kind person who doesn’t mind getting more chili cheese flavor than beef flavor in your dog. Here the toppings do somewhat obscure the grilled taste and the beefy dog, although it’s a tasty hot dog in its own right. Burger King actually does a nice job at presenting the perennial slobberfest, at least compared to Sonic, which just sort of steams a gooey hunk of processed cheddar over the hot dog. Here the extra support of the stiffer bun gives Burger King an edge.

Burger King Grilled Dogs Chili Cheese 2

The chili flavor is par for the course; a thick tomato paste and bean mixture fortified with beef fat, it has strong accents of garlic and cumin beneath a layer of nicely melted three cheeses. It’s the kind of stuff you’ll find out of a can, although a can that’s been doctored up by some B-List Food Network star like Sandra Lee who specializes in making you think it’s semi-homemade. I especially liked the three cheese blend, which had a milky flavor. I thought Burger King’s Chili Cheese dog was a winner over Sonic despite costing 39 cents more, if only because it’s much more presentable and a bit more complex in its use of the three cheeses.

Burger King Grilled Dogs 2

Burger King’s new Grilled Dogs aren’t exactly hot dog royalty, but they’re very good for a fast food restaurant and definitely captured that char-grilled taste and texture that comes with putting a wiener on an open flame. While they seem to lack some of the inherent beefiness that Sonic’s hot dogs have, their smokey taste and crisp texture are big step above the spinning wieners on heating trays at convenience stores, and definitely an approved substitute if your iconic hot dog dive isn’t on your daily commute.

(Nutrition Facts – Unavailable.)

Item: Burger King Grilled Dogs
Purchased Price: $1.99 (Classic)
Purchased Price: $2.39 (Chili Cheese)
Size: N/A
Purchased at: Burger King
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Classic)
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Chili Cheese)
Pros: Solid char-grilled taste and snappy texture. Beefy and meaty flavor of a premium hot dog. Well constructed with toppings evenly distributed, with none overpowering the others. Cheese has a nice milky note that plays well with the earthy flavors of the chili.
Cons: Not as beefy tasting as Sonic’s hot dogs. Small and not quite satisfying when compared to specialty hot dog restaurants. Slightly stale bun. Sandra Lee chili sauce.

REVIEW: McDonald’s Steakhouse Sirloin Third Pound Burger

McDonald’s Steakhouse Sirloin Third Pound Burger

I distinctly remember the day McDonald’s Angus burgers were rolled out.

Actually, I don’t, but I vaguely recall the hoopla surrounding them. This was 2009, mind you, when doing something as simple as giving a cow a Scottish name was considered particularly epicurean in food culture. It was also a day and age when a good many people actually went to McDonald’s for hamburgers, which, in case you haven’t heard, is totally not cool anymore.

I had a few Angus burgers in my day and they were decent, but they never seemed to live up to the hype. So when the Angus burgers went out with a whimper and not a defiant mooooooo in 2013, I didn’t see reason to mourn.

Still, something has been missing. You can talk my ear off all you’d like about streamlined menus and classic sandwiches, but have you eaten a Big Mac lately? If I wanted to ingest three hamburger buns and a bunch of lettuce, I would have gone to a vegan cookout. No, every once and a while—ok, every day—a guy like me just wants to eat an oversized and juicy patty of dead and delicious cow. Something like the the new Steakhouse Sirloin Third Pound Burger.

There’s no use beating around the bush when it comes to the Steakhouse Sirloin Burger: I am shocked by how much I liked this cheeseburger. From McDonald’s. Wait, did I really just say that?

Yes, I did, and I don’t say this lightly. I’ve spent the better half of the last decade building burger connoisseur status amidst friends and family. In other words, I know that by admitting I not only tolerated, but enjoyed, a McDonald’s burger, I risk bringing my credibility down to a notch just above Tom Brady.

But like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. So let me try to break this down. For starters, the sirloin burgers live up to the hype when it comes to size. Heck, I even received mine in one of those big brown bags and not the dopy white ones they use for Dollar Menu items. The five minute ride home from McDonald’s was unbearable; seriously, the aroma of the burger alone conjured primordial petroglyphs of scantly clad stick figures throwing spears at wild cattle. The carnivore in me knew something good was coming.

McDonald’s Steakhouse Sirloin Third Pound Burger 3

Dare I say it, the meat was juicy. Yes, juicy. I know because I squeezed the patty and juice ran out of it (and no, it wasn’t water.) The taste was beefy and meaty and cheesy and altogether very savory, with just the right sweet and sour relief from those incredible grilled onions to make each bite satisfying and complete. The surface of the patty wasn’t flabby and broken up by “tenderization” marks as I remember from the Angus burgers, and while the grind was very tightly packed, there was enough surface browning to lend a slightly sweet and complex flavor to the beef.

McDonald’s Steakhouse Sirloin Third Pound Burger 4

Every other component came together nicely. The two slices of cheese were positioned and melted for optimal gooeyness, but unlike the standard American cheese salt-bomb one expects (and sorta likes) from a fast food burger, there was a mellow but savory flavor from the cheese. Don’t get me wrong, this burger is still salty, but unless you’re oversensitive to those kinds of things I don’t think you’ll walk away from it with that sentiment.

Instead you’ll be trying to pin down the je ne sais quoi of whatever is in the creamy peppercorn sauce. Like an exceptionally thick steak sauce with a little black pepper kick and a fruity tang, it might just be my favorite sauce at McDoanld’s. No, really, as in, “Can I get this to dip McNuggets?”

McDonald’s Steakhouse Sirloin Third Pound Burger 2

Oh yes, and the mushrooms.

I’ve deliberately withheld comment on them to this point, but I have to say, they are not bad at all. Slightly overkill and a bit messy? Well yes, but I’m not exactly a sauteed mushroom on burger guy, but in this case they add just another level of umami flavor and help round out the toppings.

I’ve been hard on anything over a buck at McDonald’s in the past, but this is without a doubt a real step in the right direction and the best burger from the Golden Arches since, for me anyways, ever.

At $4.99 for the Steakhouse version it’s also an exceptional value for its hefty size. I’m not saying its going to surpass your favorite fast casual burger, but when it comes to the similarly sized fast food burgers, the new Sirloin Steakhouse Burger proves McDonald’s can still craft a very good and meaty cheeseburger at a price which isn’t going to break the bank.

(Nutrition Facts – 730 calories, 320 calories from fat, 36 grams of fat, 16 grams saturated fat, 2 grams trans fat, 135 milligrams of cholesterol, 1560 milligrams of sodium, 62 grams of carbohydrates, 05 grams of sugar, 4 grams of fiber, and 39 grams of protein.)

Item: McDonald’s Steakhouse Sirloin Third Pound Burger
Purchased Price: $4.99
Size: N/A
Purchased at: McDonald’s
Rating: 8 out of 10
Pros: Beefiest tasting burger yet from the Golden Arches. Pretty solid browning and juiciness from the sirloin patty. Cheese was nicely gooey and intermingled with other components. Sweet and sour grilled onions are outstanding. Sauce is complex and savory. Sesame seed bun has a pleasant and classic taste that’s just the right size.
Cons: Most expensive tasting burger yet from the Golden Arches. Pretty uniform and tightly packed grind. Awesome source of trans fat and sodium. Risking my burger expert credibility by declaring how much I enjoyed a McDonald’s hamburger.

REVIEW: Arby’s Garlic Parmesan Housemade Chips

Arby’s Garlic Parmesan Housemade Chips

There have been very few things fast food companies have done to make me upset in the nearly three decades I’ve been alive. Sure, there have been lots of occasions warranting mild annoyance, like when the price of the McDouble inevitably went above a buck or when the guy at Domino’s refused to bake a Twinkie inside of my pizza for scientific inquiry. But those times when I’ve had my heart broken over price fluctuations or menu discontinuations? Only a handful.

The debut of Arby’s delicious housemade chips in May 2013, followed by their cancellation only a few months later, was one of those times.

Like a teenage summer romance, those chips transfixed me that spring; enamoring me with their crunchy ridges and zesty seasoning, tempting my taste buds by showing a little skin, and holding my undivided attention from a myriad of suitors like Mozzarella Sticks and Onion Rings. And then, nothing.

Not even an “it’s not you, it’s me and the proliferation of limited time only menu items across the fast food marketplace” line. One day they were gone, and since then I’ve bounced around from side to side, never quite content amidst short-lived flings with pretzel bites and hushpuppies.

Arby’s Garlic Parmesan Housemade Chips 2

I know I should have more self-control now that the chips have returned. I should have the perfect cover story about having moved on and fallen for a sweet potato fry or something. But I don’t, and even though the chips have changed their outward appearance-adopting a Garlic Parmesan seasoning and now coming pre-bagged—their taste is just like I remember.

Arby’s Garlic Parmesan Housemade Chips 3

The potato flavor is deep and meaty, as if some chuck wagon Idaho cowboy (do they have cowboys in Idaho?) just pulled the potato from the ground and fried it. The exterior isn’t overly crunchy like store-bagged chips; instead it’s got a smooth and slightly oily mouthfeel, but in a good way which allows you to appreciate the subtle flavors developed during the frying process.

Arby’s Garlic Parmesan Housemade Chips 4

I was worried at first when I didn’t see much in the way of seasoning powder on the chips, but each spud has a pronounced roasted garlic flavor. The parmesan might have been the only flavor lacking, although there’s a part of me which appreciates the subtleness of its taste. Too often anything with “parmesan” in the label is weighed down with buttermilk solids and a generic ranch flavor. But these chips deliver a more sophisticated parmesan flavor which accentuates and doesn’t stand in the way of the natural potato flavor.

If you are anything like me and were a fan of the first iteration of Arby’s Housemade Chips, then you’re going to love the new Garlic Parmesan look. The deep and rich potato flavor is just as I remember, and while the chips aren’t quite as crunchy and the whole size and bagging issues are going to make our relationship a bit more complicated, the roasted garlic flavor definitely makes up for the changes. Will I get burned again when Arby’s yanks them from stores? Of course. Is it going to stop me from loving these now? Hells no.

(Nutrition Facts – 290 calories, 14 grams of fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 370 milligrams of sodium, 36 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of sugar, 1 grams of fiber, and 4 grams of protein.)

Item: Arby’s Garlic Parmesan Housemade Chips
Purchased Price: $1.79
Size: 2 oz.
Purchased at: Arby’s
Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Robust potato flavor puts French fries to shame. Enjoyable crunch but still enough give to make for an enjoyable texture. Deep and meaty roasted garlic flavor tastes fried into the chips. Far better than any bagged chip.
Cons: Less chips for the same price of the chips marketed in 2013. Pre-bagged chips begs the question of just how “fresh” they are. Subtle parmesan flavor might not be for everyone. Slightly undersalted. Inevitable heartbreak when discontinued.

REVIEW: Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter and Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt

Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter and Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt

The Muffaletta.

The Bánh mì.

The Fat Darrell.

What do all three of these sandwiches have in common, aside from being excellent examples in regional specialties with cult-like followings?

They’re all, unequivocally, the three least desirable sandwiches on the planet earth to make a yogurt flavor out of.

Of course, this begs the question of why in God’s good name would you want to make yogurt that tastes like a sandwich? Granted, I think of a lot of weird shit when I’m standing at an open fridge thinking “geez what’s for lunch?” But to tell you the truth this has never really crossed my mind until Trader Joe’s debuted their Peanut Butter and Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt.

That’s correct — with nonfat Greek yogurt, as if Greek yogurt has been reduced to some third-rate opening act. Ok by me, if Trader Joe can pull it off. Let’s be real though, putting peanut butter and jelly into a yogurt isn’t like putting peanut butter and jelly into a Pop-Tart. No, this is something only a man in a Hawaiian shirt would be capable of pulling off.

Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter and Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt 2

For something produced by a company that supports such an eclectic sense of style, the look and feel of the yogurt leaves much to be desired. It’s more viscous than Greek yogurt ever should be, with a texture reminiscent of nonfat light yogurt that’s been sitting on the counter for too long. The color is, in its most flattering sense, a somewhat stained shade of beige that might adorn a dilapidated beach house. In less flattering terms, the color of your dog’s throw-up.

Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter and Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt 3

Moving right along, I’m struck by the presence of small strawberry seeds in the yogurt, a welcomed sign given my uncompromising position in the highly contentious issue of grape vs. strawberry jelly (no offense to you grape jelly loving heathens out there). Yet when I dip my spoon into the gloptuously gloopy mélange of peanut butter and jelly with yogurt, I’m just not getting that burst of unpretentious strawberry jelly I expect. It’s there, certainly, but the prevailing taste is peanut butter. Like real, seriously roasted and even stick-to-your-throat, peanut butter.

This is both supremely exciting and altogether disconcerting.

Let me explain. If it hasn’t occurred to you before now, the bread component is of unquestionable value to the heart and soul of peanut butter and jelly. Not just the sandwich, but peanut butter and jelly. Its glutinous texture and non-offensive taste serve as the perfect medium for the flavors to come together, a perfect balance of salty and sweet to mingle in unison to a Strauss Waltz. Get rid of the bread, or at least something functioning as bread (as with a Pop-Tart) and you remove that which allows the flavors to register in the familiar sense to the taste buds. Not being a taste bud I can’t speak with absolute certainty, but I’m pretty sure each spoonful caused those little guys to send a WTF meme to my brain.

Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter and Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt 4

There are a few other minor issues which add to this quandary; a slightly noticeable taste of peanut butter extract (which can be bitter), while the tartness standard in regular Greek yogurt isn’t quite offset by the strawberry sweetness. Probably the most noticeable, though, is the absence of a salty component. A salty peanut butter is the jam to my perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but the saltiness hardly registers with only 40 milligrams of sodium per container.

Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter and Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt captures the peanut butter taste we all know and love, but it does so in such an unfamiliar medium that even longtime PB&J fiends will find something  disconcerting about taking the plunge with their spoon. Coupled with a tart aftertaste which just has no place with the PB&J flavor profile, it makes for a novelty snack and proof that iconic sandwich flavors aren’t complexly off limits to being shoved into yogurt. But seriously, it’s weird, and one can only handle so much weird at a time from Trader Joe.

(Nutrition Facts – 170 calories, 6 grams of fat, 1 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, less than 5 milligrams of cholesterol, 40 milligrams of sodium, 17 grams of total carbohydrates, 0 grams of dietary fiber, 14 grams of sugar, 14 grams of protein, 10 % calcium, and 4% iron.)

Item: Trader Joe’s Peanut Butter and Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt
Purchased Price: 99 cents
Size: 5.3 oz.
Purchased at: Trader Joe’s
Rating: 5 out of 10
Pros: Nails the peanut butter and jelly flavor with uncanny accuracy. Real bits of strawberry. Natural ingredients. No crusts. Probably much better than a cheesesteak flavored yogurt.
Cons: Missing the bread. Peanut butter lacks salty component to add to salty-sweet synergy. Strawberry isn’t as sweet as it should be. Tart aftertaste is just weird. The single most aesthetically displeasing product ever manufactured by a man in a Hawaiian shirt.