REVIEW: Cheez-It Extra Toasty Crackers

Cheez-It Extra Toasty Crackers

Cheez-It and I have been on bad terms lately.

I recently tried their Crunch’d cheese puffs and they were a 3 out of 10 at best. Horrendous. They tasted like cheese flavored Cap’n Crunch. No bueno. It’s time for Cheez-It to win me back.

Sunshine, the maker of Cheez-It, have apparently been getting bombarded with requests for an “extra toasty” flavor of their flagship cracker. Now look, I’m not saying Sunshine is lying about the claim, but I would have never considered “extra toasty” a “flavor.” Maybe I should have.

I realized as I was eating these Cheez-Its that I love toasty and burnt snacks. This notion never dawned on me until that very moment. I love extra dark pretzels. I like that one over-browned Saltine in the sleeve, burnt chocolate chip cookies, and that one extra crispy French fry at the bottom of the bag. I even order my pizza “well done” so the crust is burnt and crispy. The people who were requesting extra toasty Cheez-Its were definitely on to something, and Sunshine delivered.

Extra Toasty Cheez-Its are friggin’ delicious. These are one of the most satisfying salty snacks I’ve had in a long time. In my opinion, they’ve improved on the regular ones in just about every way possible. I’m not positive the difference will blow everyone away, but I don’t see any reason to ever go back to the regular variety. If Cheez-Its were a Hollywood movie, these would be the ever-so-popular dark, gritty reboot of the outdated original that didn’t quite hold up over the years. These extra toasty ones are just flat better. Get with the times.

Cheez-It Extra Toasty Crackers 3

Cheez-Its always did the cheddar flavor right. It doesn’t overpowering you with the artificial stuff that other brands go overboard with, and these keep that family tradition alive with 100% real cheese. That being said, the “cheez” flavor wasn’t even really the star of the show for me, it was the flakey crunch of the extra toasty cracker itself. Add the perfectly complementing salt element on each piece, and they really hit a home run here. There’s a perfect balance happening. After every bite I wanted to yell “Toastttty” like that random dude who used to pop his head into Mortal Kombat levels…too obscure?

The aftertaste is pleasant as well. The flavor doesn’t dilute at all after you swallow. In fact, that might be a problem to some because it’s addictive, and you’ll want to just keep shoveling more of these down for the crunch factor.

As much as I wanted to give these a perfect ten, there is a bit of a grease factor. These would fall somewhere between Goldfish and potato chips on the grease scale. I noticed the paper plate I was eating off of was almost translucent once I finished.

I guess I should also warn you that the salt was pretty excessive here. That was not even remotely a problem for me, but I could understand it being a turnoff for some.

Cheez-It Extra Toasty Crackers 4

So, basically, my one complaint about the Extra Toasty Cheez-Its is that I wanted to finish the box in one sitting, but couldn’t thanks to a bit of heartburn. But I probably could have powered through it if I wanted to, so that’s not even a strong complaint.

If I learned one thing from eating these, it’s that “toasty” should absolutely be the new trendy “flavor.” More brands need to embrace this. I want burnt Ritz. Burnt potato and tortilla chips. Burnt Goldfish. Take your recipe and add an addition 5-10 minutes of baking time, slap a new name on the box and you’ve got yourself a sale. I have become a food pyro.

My hat goes off to Cheez-It for changing the cracker game, and for making the decision to put the hyphen in their name after the “Z.” No matter how good these tasted, I would have never bought a snack called “Chee-Zit.”

(Nutrition Facts – 27 crackers – 150 calories, 70 calories from fat, 8 grams of fat, 2 grams of saturated fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 230 milligrams of sodium, 17 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, 0 grams of sugar, and 3 grams of protein.)

Item: Cheez-It Extra Toasty Crackers
Purchased Price: $2.50
Size: 12.4 oz. box
Purchased at: Stop & Shop
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Toasty is the new Orange is the New Black. Perfect flavor harmony. Flakey crunch. Crazy addictive. Proper hyphen usage. Fan requests. Mortal Kombat’s “Toasty” guy.
Cons: Greasy. Might need a Tums handy. Food pyros. Cheese flavored Cap’n Crunch.

REVIEW: Hostess Limited Edition Banana Split Twinkies

Hostess Limited Edition Banana Split Twinkies

As the great poetic lyricist Gwen Stefani once soulfully crooned: “This s*** is bananas: B-A-N-A-N-A-S.”

And if any one song lyric best encapsulates the essence of these new Hostess Banana Split Twinkies, it’s that one. Because even though their appearance is remarkably fecal, beneath that waxy brown exterior is a surprisingly delightful banana treat. In fact, perhaps “Bananaphone” by the legendary symphonist Raffi is a more fitting track, because once you try these, you’ll want to get on the phone and tell your friends.

Sporting a blinding yellow box, a product photo that hypnotically radiates a white aura, and a guest appearance by those seemingly omnipresent Minions (we get it: they like bananas), Hostess is firing on all sensory cylinders in order to make you buy this product.

Hostess Limited Edition Banana Split Twinkies 2

The box describes the Twinkies as “frosted cake with artificially flavored strawberry topping and banana creme filling.” The idea of Banana Creme Twinkies and Chocodiles having a sugary love-child is enough to draw me in, but the unique strawberry kicker makes these even more interesting. To paraphrase DiCaprio: “Hostess, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention.”

Since these are Banana Split Twinkies, there was no better way for me to eat one than to cleave it in twain vertically and observe its many layers like a spongy version of one of those Star Wars cross-section books.

Hostess Limited Edition Banana Split Twinkies 3

Beneath the chocolate crust of Planet Twinkie lies a thin jam layer with a few sporadically spaced, strangely square strawberry land mines. After these is a sponge cake mantle which guards the tempting pale yellow creme core. Ready your best Brendan Fraser impression, kids; we’re journeying to the center of the Twinkie.

The fragile chocolate coating’s flavor is far from distinct: heavy on the generic, cloying sugar taste and light on any real cocoa richness. Yet, I find myself okay with this because the chocolate simply isn’t meant to be the star of the show. The same goes for the rare strawberry clusters, which provide little more than a slight fruity burst and an interesting textural contrast. The golden cake section is doughy and dense, yet tame; like the vanilla ice cream it is meant to imitate, it exists only to provide a springboard for the creme center to perform its tasty alley-oop.

Because, as with many of Hostess’ new products, the creme makes the cake. Despite the artificial flavorings, it’s impressive how authentic the banana taste was. If I were to score the realism of the creme on my patented “Bananometer” (try spelling that, Gwen), which ranges from “Banana Laffy Taffy” to “uhh, that’s an actual banana,” it would land closer to the latter.

Hostess Limited Edition Banana Split Twinkies 4

Eaten all together, I can earnestly say this cake does taste like a banana split. Like a good glass of wine with cheese or an Exodia deck in Yu-Gi-Oh, the parts work together to unlock each other’s true potential. With the banana flavor rightfully dominating, the strawberry nodules explode and support it with an appreciated bit of tartness, while the chocolate and sponge cake compliment the fruity sweetness with a buttery one. If you’re in the mood for a banana split, but not the work that comes with it, just pop one of these in the freezer, and you won’t be disappointed.

Somewhere, deep within a Hostess laboratory, is a team of flavor scientists who labored endlessly to perfect this flavor balance, and I give them praise. Bravo to you, certified “Bananologists.”

(My apologies again to Ms. Stefani.)

(Nutrition Facts – 1 cake – 170 calories, 70 calories from fat, 8 grams of total fat, 5 grams of saturated fat, 10 milligrams of cholesterol, 135 milligrams of sodium, 24 grams of carbohydrates, 17 grams of sugar, and 1 gram of protein.)

Item: Hostess Limited Edition Banana Split Twinkies
Purchased Price: $2.50
Size: 9 cakes
Purchased at: Walmart
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Tastes like a banana split. Balanced hierarchy of flavors. Satisfactory Bananometer results. Illegitimate snack cake children. Raffi.
Cons: Sporadic strawberry usage. Probably won’t win over banana haters. “Crappy” first impressions. Market over-saturation of Minions. Banana Laffy Taffy.

REVIEW: McDonald’s I’m Greek-ing Out Salad Bowl with Grilled Chicken (Canada)

McDonald's I'm Greek-ing Out Salad Bowl with Grilled Chicken 3

There’s something inherently wrong about a salad at McDonald’s, isn’t there? I mean, it’s McDonald’s — their whole M.O. is supposed to be serving burgers and fries and other tasty junk that might just kill you if you eat them too regularly.

If you told the ten-year-old version of me that McDonald’s would one day be serving salads with kale in them, I’m going to guess that he’d angrily call you a liar. He’d also probably wonder who you are and why you’re giving him useless factoids about 2015. Oh and also, while you’re there? Could you tell him to major in something a bit more useful than political science? What’s that? This is just a rhetorical device? You’re not actually a time-traveller out to blow the minds of ten-year-olds with news from the future? Darn.

Of course, salads aren’t anything particularly new at McDonald’s, but this Kale-fueled relaunch does have an air of desperation about it. This feeling is especially pronounced when combined with the recent high-profile launch of the 21st century take on the Hamburglar; the once-cute cartoon character has been transformed into a generically handsome fashion model (who was almost instantly dubbed the “hipster Hamburglar” by the media).

Clearly, McDonald’s has lost whatever cache they once had (along with loads and loads of money), and it’s easy to think that they’re just throwing random things at the wall to see what sticks.

All that being said? I loved this salad.

It feels weird to even type that. It’s a salad… at McDonald’s… and I loved it.

I know that even mentioning that I love a salad probably means I have to turn in my junk-food-lover’s gun and badge to the junk food angry captain, but hey, if it’s tasty it’s tasty.

McDonald's I'm Greek-ing Out Salad Bowl with Grilled Chicken 2

There’s a lot going on in this salad. There’s the lettuce blend (a whopping eight different types of lettuce, as per their website), kale, sliced cucumber and red peppers, crumbled feta, a couscous blend (which has stuff like sun-dried tomato and olives), chicken, a packet of pita chips, and the creamy Greek feta dressing.

It seems like it should be too much stuff, but it all works together surprisingly well.

The kale is actually baby kale; this is a good thing, as regular kale is a bit impenetrably fibrous and can be tough to love. The lettuce mix otherwise tastes like any number of ready-to-eat mixes you’ll find in a plastic box or bag at the supermarket.

All the other stuff works together quite nicely: the creamy dressing, the fresh veggies, the salty pop of the cheese, the hearty quinoa…

Wait, I think I’m going to have to call a Zack Morris-style time out: I never in a million years thought I’d be applauding quinoa and “fresh veggies” when I signed on to write for this site. Seriously, what’s happening right now??

Okay, time in: the pita chips — essentially this salad’s take on croutons — are a little heavy on the garlic powder, but otherwise work pretty well.

McDonald's I'm Greek-ing Out Salad Bowl with Grilled Chicken

The weak point is probably the chicken. You have the choice of grilled or crispy chicken, but since their promotional shots showed grilled, that’s what I went with. It’s not bad, and it does give the salad much of its substance, but it’s a little dry and stringy.

The salad costs seven bucks, which on the surface seems a bit pricey — but I could imagine paying double (at least) for this exact same salad at a restaurant with waiters and menus, so it’s not as bad as it seems.

When all is said and done, however, is this salad even that healthy? I mean, it’s got a bunch of healthy stuff in it, so yeah, probably?

But McDonald’s is sneaky with the way they present the nutritional information on their website; if you look up this salad, the info neglects to include the dressing. In fact, the dressing doesn’t even come up when you click on salads — you have to specifically search for it.

When you add up the creamy Greek dressing and the salad, you’re looking at 420 calories and 26 grams of fat, which is a 110 calories less than a Big Mac, and only three less grams of fat. It’s still much healthier than a burger, I’m sure, but more calorie and fat-laden than you might expect. So maybe I can keep my gun and badge?

(Nutrition Facts – Greek Salad with Grilled Chicken – 280 calories, 12 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 0.2 grams of trans fat, 80 milligrams of cholesterol, 770 milligrams of sodium, 17 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of fibre, 3 grams of sugar, and 27 grams of protein. Greek Feta Dressing – 40 grams – 140 calories, 14 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 310 milligrams of sodium, 3 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of sugar, and 1 gram of protein.)

Item: McDonald’s I’m Greek-ing Out Salad Bowl with Grilled Chicken
Purchased Price: $6.99 (CAN)
Size: N/A
Purchased at: McDonald’s Canada
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Fresh-tasting ingredients. Tasty combination of flavours. Good value for the quality of food. Healthy?
Cons: Stringy chicken. The embarrassment of praising a salad on a junk food site. Bastardization of beloved mascots. Scientific impossibility of time travel.

REVIEW: Edy’s (Dreyer’s) Old Fashioned Vanilla Frozen Custard

Edy’s Old Fashioned Vanilla Frozen Custard

With the notable exception of some four months Rob Van Winkle’s To The Extreme spent at the top of the Billboard charts during 1990, there have been few, if any, reasons to get excited about anything “vanilla.”

I get it. Vanilla is boring.

Perhaps not as boring as three yards and a cloud of dust Big 10 football boring, but it certainly surpasses C-SPAN2 on a Friday night. But you might not realize vanilla is America’s favorite ice cream flavor.

And after trying Edy’s new Old Fashioned Vanilla Frozen Custard, it’s really not too hard to see why.

If you’re familiar with frozen custard, you’ve been fortunate. Well, at least in one sense of the word. Forgetting for a moment that those of you who are familiar most likely have to suffer through horribly oppressive winters and have a potentially high proportion of cows to people in your local community, you and your Midwestern specialty of at least 1.4 percent egg yolks have remained one of the last great frozen treats to avoid being mass produced and shipped to every megamart in America.

Excuse me, had remained, because Edy’s/Dreyer’s has taken the rich, egg-infused dairy dessert and taken it to supermarket shelves everywhere.

On one hand, this is clearly a good thing. For us East Coasters it means not having to stand in ridiculous lines at Shake Shack or putting ourselves at the mercy of unnecessary commutes. But on the other hand it also could mean the inevitable bastardization (or as I like to say, “gelatofication”) that comes with trying to recreate an incredibly fickle product for retail.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. With flavors like Snickerdoodle, Peanut Butter Pie, and Salted Caramel Pretzel, why on Earth would anyone buy Old Fashioned Vanilla?

Because old fashioned vanilla is classic, and if there’s ever going to be a litmus test for whether or not something mass produced truly lives up to the hype of a regional specialty, it’ll be the most pure and unadulterated form of that product. I can get pretzels and cookie bites stuffed into any factory made ice cream or frozen dairy dessert, but if the dairy base is what sets it apart, and if the egg yolks are noticeably present, then custard of even plain vanilla should stand out as the most sophisticated of desserts. In other words: this is where ingredients matter.

Edy’s Old Fashioned Vanilla Frozen Custard Closeup 3

The custard is thick and packed tight with little to no overrun and a noticeable yellow shade common with egg-infused dairy products. Two modest scoops weighed in at over 130 grams (about a serving and a half), meaning there’s little manufactured air. It’s a welcomed change from all the frozen dairy desserts on shelves these days.

You can taste it, too.

The texture registers all the common ice cream buzzwords; not only is it extremely creamy and rich, but it holds its texture when licked and scooped. It’s definitely indulgent, but the flavor isn’t heavy or overwhelming. Instead it’s floral and somehow light, with a sophisticated and multilayered sweetness and bold vanilla flavor which stays with you long after that first scoop.

The smooth nature of the custard makes it exceptional and keeps it from becoming too hard, while the vanilla flavor is something of a revelation. I’ve had plenty of vanilla styled ice cream before — Vanilla Bean, Homestyle Vanilla, and French Vanilla — but, with the exception of maybe some premium brands, nothing has come close to the intensity of the flavor. Even Rita’s, a frozen custard chain I once worked at as a teenager, doesn’t compare when matching the authenticity of the flavor.

Edy’s Old Fashioned Vanilla Frozen Custard Closeup 2

Knowing I’d probably never choose an unadorned vanilla ice cream when confronted with plenty of other flavor choices, you might say I had my doubts when choosing the Edy’s Old Fashioned Vanilla Frozen Custard. But those doubts were accompanied by the hope that if this really was genuine custard then I’d be in for a rich and flavorful treat even without all the bells and whistles.

Thankfully this flavor lives up to the reputation of authentic frozen custard, and more than makes an acceptable and affordable substitute for when standing in line at Shake Shack just isn’t an option.

(Nutrition Facts – 1/2 cup – 210 calories, 90 calories from fat, 10 grams of total fat, 6 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 65 milligrams of cholesterol, 60 milligrams of sodium, 25 grams of total carbohydrates, 1 gram of dietary fiber, 17 grams of sugar, 4 grams of protein, and 8% calcium.)

Item: Edy’s Old Fashioned Vanilla Frozen Custard
Purchased Price: $3.97
Size: 1 Quart
Purchased at: Walmart
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Exceptionally smooth and creamy texture. Bold sweetness and rich flavor. Floral and distinct vanilla flavor. Rivals premium ice cream price but comes in a slightly larger (weight) container. Not having to travel far for authentic frozen custard.
Cons: Completely unrealistic serving size in terms of actual scoopage. The inevitable backlash of Midwesterners everywhere.

REVIEW: Jack in the Box Buttery Jack (Classic and Bacon & Swiss)

Jack in the Box Classic Buttery Jack

A Buttery Jack sounds like one of those things you shouldn’t look up on Urban Dictionary, but they are also burgers you should look up whenever you’re near a Jack in the Box.

Jack in the Box’s Buttery Jack comes in two varieties — Classic and Bacon & Swiss.

Both feature a new signature 1/4 lb beef patty that’s topped with melted garlic herb butter and a new toasted gourmet bun. The Classic is also topped with provolone cheese, a creamy tomato sauce, green leaf lettuce, and tomato slices. The Bacon & Swiss also has strips of hickory-smoked bacon, Swiss cheese, and a creamy bacon mayo.

If you’re trying to decide which one to try first, go with the Classic.

The beef patty in my Classic Buttery Jack had, I swear, a homemade beef patty flavor to them. It was slightly peppery with a strong beefy flavor. The garlic herb butter sounds like it could overwhelm the entire burger, but it didn’t. It’s mild enough that it enhances the flavor of the beef patty.

Jack in the Box Classic Buttery Jack Closeup

But the ingredient I believe makes the burger stand out is the creamy tomato sauce. It’s sweet, tangy, and tastes somewhat like French dressing. And just like the garlic herb butter, it doesn’t overwhelm the burger.

I also liked the new gourmet bun. It’s dense with a little sweetness, and, even with all the smashing I did while handling it, it ended up being quite sturdy. The provolone, which has been used in Jack’s deli sandwiches, didn’t do much in this burger, except keep the tomato slices from falling out. And the green leaf lettuce was more like yellow-green leaf lettuce. Although, to be fair, yellow-green is better than Jack’s usual white-green lettuce.

The Classic Buttery Jack has a lot of flavor and it’s the best burger I’ve ever had from Jack in the Box.

Jack in the Box Bacon & Swiss Buttery Jack

While I think the Classic is great, the Bacon & Swiss is a step down, but it’s still good.

The creamy bacon mayo has tiny bits of bacon, which help accentuate the six strips of bacon under the bun. Yes, SIX strips. I don’t know if I received bonus bacon by accident, because six seems like a lot, but they gave the burger a bold salty, porky flavor. I do enjoy Jack in the Box’s bacon (it’s definitely better than the bacon they used to have), but in the big chain fast food world, I do prefer McDonald’s Applewood-smoked bacon which is thick and usually crispy on the edges.

Jack in the Box Bacon & Swiss Buttery Jack Closeup

The beef patty in my Bacon & Swiss didn’t taste as good as the one in the Classic. It was a bit overcooked, but the garlic herb butter helped cover the patty’s dryness. The melted Swiss cheese does give the burger a little creaminess and cheesy goodness, but it’s really the bacon, beef, and butter show. With all of that said, even with the garlic herb butter, it doesn’t taste vastly different than other bacon cheeseburgers.

The Buttery Jacks come wrapped in paper and I highly recommend you keep them on while eating the burger…unless you want to slide down poles faster, because the melted garlic herb butter will get all over your hands.

You don’t want that garlic herb butter on your hands. You want to keep it on these Buttery Jacks because it makes them taste really good.

(Nutrition Facts – Classic – 816 calories, 52 grams of fat, 23 grams of saturated fat, 2 grams of trans fat, 128 milligrams of cholesterol, 1148 milligrams of sodium, 50 grams of carbohydrates, 4 grams of fiber, 12 grams of sugar, and 37 grams of protein. Bacon & Swiss – 887 calories, 59 grams of fat, 25 grams of saturated fat, 2 grams of trans fat, 1346 milligrams of sodium, 48 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of fiber, 11 grams of sugar, and 42 grams of protein.)

Item: Jack in the Box Buttery Jack (Classic and Bacon & Swiss)
Purchased Price: $4.99* (Classic)
Purchased Price: $5.39* (Bacon & Swiss)
Size: N/A
Purchased at: Jack in the Box
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Classic)
Rating: 7 out of 10 (Bacon & Swiss)
Pros: Classic is the best Jack in the Box burger I’ve ever had. Garlic herb butter and creamy tomato sauce. Nice sturdy bun with little sweetness. Bacon & Swiss came with SIX bacon strips. Bacon mayo has tiny bits of bacon in it.
Cons: Expect to get garlic herb butter on your hands if you take it out of its paper wrapper. Provolone didn’t provide much flavor in the Classic Buttery Jack. Bacon & Swiss doesn’t taste vastly different than other bacon cheeseburgers.

*Because I live on a rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, things are a bit pricier here. You’ll probably pay less than I did.