REVIEW: Arby’s Venison Sandwich

Arby’s Venison Sandwich

Note: This guest review was written by our internet buddy Russ Shelly from What’s Good at Trader Joe’s.

Tension and anticipation filled the cool early morning, day after Thanksgiving air. The nervous glances and small talk only added to the edge. The crowd was gathering, just moments before opening, and we all knew what we there for. The only question was, who would be first, and who would be left empty-handed. There were just limited quantities, after all. We all knew it.

Slowly, the manager approached. The door was going to be unlocked. This was the moment. We all pressed in, just waiting for that click…

The kindly manager opened the door, nervously smiled and cheerfully said, ”Welcome to Arby’s!”

What, you thought we were lining up at Macy’s on Black Friday for $50 off an at-home hair removal kit? Don’t be ridiculous, this was all about the Arby’s Venison Sandwich being testmarketed at select stores only.

Gotta say it: For this sandwich, Bambi’s mom has got it going on. It’s a very simple construct: A 5.5-ounce slab of marinated deer steak, a semi-generous splash of juniper sauce, and onion straws all held by the typical Arby’s star cut bun used in their other specialty sandwiches.

Arby’s Venison Sandwich 3

Let’s break it down, starting with the obvious star: the venison. Apparently from farm-raised deer in New Zealand, the meat is marinated in a simple spice blend of garlic, salt and pepper, with the pepper being the strongest element. The steak is slow cooked, sous-vide style, for several hours resulting in a tender, medium-well cooked steak that is lean without any elements of stringiness or chewiness. If you’re not familiar with venison as an edible meat, think high quality beef, and that’s a decent enough approximation for the uninitiated. There’s not a lot of inherent gamey flavor, which some will see as a plus.

Arby’s Venison Sandwich 2

The sauce and straw sidekicks really add to the overall appeal. It’s a sweet-style barbecue flavor for the sauce, with juniper berries adding a unique, slightly sweet yet tart tinge. Maybe the berries were my deer’s last meal. That’s…perhaps morbid. But it’s a good thing, as the berry flavor adds a “wild” dimension that a typical BBQ sauce wouldn’t. The onion straws put in a clean, crispy bite, with a little grease, with the onion flavor helping bridge the gap between the garlic and pepper of the deer and the sweetness of the sauce. In a lot of ways, the onion straws are like Lebowski’s rug: easy to overlook, but they really tie it all together. No cheese or lettuce or tomato here, and none are needed.

If there’s a weak spot for the sandwich, it’s the bun. Not that it’s bad bread – it isn’t. But it’s much bigger than the deer steak, and while it’s up to the task of holding it all together without getting overwhelmed, the overall feel of the sandwich is that it’s a tad too bready. Where the steak was a little thinner, or there wasn’t as much onions or sauce, the bread really took over and dampened the much more flavorful elements.

The Arby’s Venison Sandwich was rolled out in a testing phase in only 17 Arby’s locations nationwide, most of them in popular hunting areas. Gathering by the amount of camo in the crowd, and the fact that I had only about the fourth most impressive beard (male division), it’s a hit. Within twenty minutes, the store I was at (Bellevue, PA) had sold out of at least 75 percent of its allocated inventory…and that is slow sales compared to other restaurant sites. But then, again, it was 10:20 a.m. on the day after Thanksgiving, so much of the nation was either a) shopping for $5 off electronic toothbrushes or b) recovering from riding the turkey-and-gravy train from the day before.

I’ll admit I wasn’t even hungry when I sat down to eat the sandwich, but when my first was polished off, it was good enough for me to consider having my second right then and there. I settled for taking it home and reheating for dinner, which worked better than one would expect.

Gauging by the enthusiasm of the rest of the dining room as well as the friendly Arby’s managers roving around asking for input, there seems to be a good shot of the venison sandwich catching on as a much wider release. It’s superb meatcraft, and I already can’t wait for the commercials with that deep gravelly booming voice.

Here’s to hoping that in 2017 the venison will be coming to an Arby’s near you.

(Nutrition Facts – Not available.)

Purchased Price: $5 (test market price)
Size: N/A
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Expertly made venison. Awesome sauce. Being lucky enough to eat not one but two of these before any of you even had a chance.
Cons: A bit too bready at points. Reliving the death of Bambi’s mom.

REVIEW: Pepperidge Farm Limited Edition Brussels Mint Cookies

Pepperidge Farm Limited Edition Brussels Mint Cookies

Pepperidge Farm has a whole line of lesser known cookies that most of you probably can’t name. To see if I’m right, I made a list of four possible Pepperidge Farm cookies below. One is real. Guess which one it is without using the internet.

  • Madagascar
  • Rochester
  • Verona
  • Montenegro

Okay, now you can use the internet to check your answer.

While you may have had trouble determining which one is a real Pepperidge Farm cookie name, the one everyone can name is the Milano. It has to be the most popular of all gazillion PeFa cookies (I’m trying to make PeFa a thing because I’m tired of typing Pepperidge Farm). But right now, I’m about to say something that might be blasphemous. It’s not their best cookie. That, my friends, goes to the Brussels.

For those of you not familiar with the original Brussels, the Pepperidge Farm website describes them as “lace-thin, crisp cookies embrace a layer of smooth, luxurious, dark chocolate.” Perhaps a better description, using fewer adjectives, would be calling it a thin sandwich cookie.

Granted, the first time I’ve ever tried a Brussels was when I tasted these Limited Edition Brussels Mint Cookies. But it took just one cookie to know they’re better. Sure, they look like Milano cookies that got run over by a steamroller before being baked, but they have a satisfying crunch that makes the crispiness of the Milano seem quaint.

Pepperidge Farm Limited Edition Brussels Mint Cookies 2

The mint version out for the holidays has the same thin crunchy wafers and layer of dark chocolate as the original, but it also has a blanket of mint creme. At this point, with the combination of chocolate and mint, you’re probably thinking these might taste like Girl Scouts Thin Mints, and they do. They don’t make my mouth as minty, but, dare I say, because of that thunderous crunch, they’re better than Thin Mints.

Yup, I said it. These are awesome and kick Thin Mints butt!

You don’t control my wallet anymore, Girl Scouts.

Oh wait. These are limited edition.

I’m sorry, Girl Scouts. I’ll take four boxes of Thin Mints.

(Nutrition Facts – 3 cookies – 190 calories, 90 calories from fat, 10 grams of fat, 5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 100 milligrams of sodium, 22 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, 13 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $2.50
Size: 6.25 oz
Purchased at: Target
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: I think they’re better than Thin Mints. I think Brussels are better than Milano cookies. Wonderful crunch. Supporting Girl Scouts even though the prices for the cookies seem to be increasing while the size seems to be shrinking.
Cons: Limited Edition. Trying to make PeFa a thing. Not supporting Girl Scouts.

REVIEW: Snickers & Hazelnut Bar

Snickers & Hazelnut Bar

When you think of chocolate and hazelnut, I’m sure Nutella immediately comes to mind. If not that, then surely everyone’s favorite re-gifted Christmas candy, Ferrero Rocher. But if I asked you to name something beyond that, what would you even say?

I mean sure there are fancy chocolates everywhere that feature hazelnut, but you can’t just grab one off a convenience store candy rack. That’s why I think Mars is smart to offer their Snickers & Hazelnut bar, as it fills a hole in the market you probably didn’t even realize was open. Rocher aren’t exactly sold next to the Kit Kat and Starburst at your local 7-Eleven.

That reminds me, I think I still have a rack of re-gifted Ferrero Rocher from last year that I’ll probably three-gift™ this Christmas. Nothing says “we’re not really all that close” like a plastic crate of Ferrero Rocher.

I had a fun sized regular Snickers (or nine) lying around, so I decided to stack them against the Snickers & Hazelnut Bar.

Snickers & Hazelnut Bar 3

The new bar has a different flavor profile. It’s not super different, you still know it’s a Snickers, but there are definitely some dissimilarities. In regular Snickers, the peanut is probably the flavor you taste least. It provides the crunch, but can you really pinpoint peanut flavor? The hazelnut shines most here. Even mixed with the usual peanuts, it overpowers each bite. I’d go as far to say that if they went with just hazelnuts and no peanuts, the flavor might have been over the top.

Hazelnuts are pretty distinct and I tasted them more than the chocolate and caramel, which I imagine could be undesirable to some, but I quite enjoyed it. It also marries perfectly with the nougat, which I felt was more pronounced. It could have just been the bars I had, but I also thought the texture was softer than a regular Snickers.

I refuse to say it’s better than the original version, but it’s certainly not far off. Snickers are perfection. They are right up there with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as candies that will forever rule the world. You simply can’t improve Snickers, but Mars certainly found a way to toss an almost equally delicious alternative at you.

Snickers & Hazelnut Bar 2

If you are a candy purist who loves the chocolate and caramel in Snickers, you may not like the hazelnut version as much, but I still think you’ll enjoy it immensely.

Seriously, Snickers are so good, they are the only candy bar that can get away with releases where they simply add bits of another type of nut. Snickers with almond were good. Snickers with mixed nuts were better. I’m anxiously awaiting the Snickers & Macadamia Bar. Snickers & Cashew would probably be great. What about Snickers & Pecan? Snickers & Filbert? I’m not sure I even know what a filbert is, but bring it on.

And in case you’re wondering, Snickers & Hazelnut tastes better than a crispy Ferrero Rocher. Give me a few of these for Christmas instead and I won’t have to feign my appreciation. You won’t have to shell out as much cash for the “decadence” of fancy gold foil.

So if you’re hungry, why wait? You probably shouldn’t wait.

(Nutrition Facts – 1 bar – 240 calories, 100 calories from fat, 11 grams of fat, 4 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 5 milligrams of cholesterol, 115 milligrams of sodium, 31 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of dietary fiber, 26 grams of sugar, and 4 grams of protein..)

Purchased Price: 78 cents
Size: 1.76 oz
Purchased at: Walmart
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Hazelnut is the star of the show. Nougat tastes more pronounced. Slightly softer texture than regular Snickers. Snickers branching out with more nut varieties. Three-gifting™.
Cons: Chocolate and caramel flavors not quite as strong. The lack of “easy” chocolate and hazelnut candy bars. Lazy Ferrero Rocher gifters. Why aren’t Nutella candy bars in every store?

REVIEW: Trader Joe’s Quasar Bar

Trader Joe's Quasar Bar

Each Halloween, we are given an invitation to be That Place.

You know. The one at the top of the hill with the full-sized Take 5’s and Reese’s Pumpkins that’s decked out with trap doors, creaky porch stairs, and an abandoned basement that’s haunted by Captain Windemere, the one-eyed Disc Jockey who refused to play special requests.

That Place? Is the coolest place in town.

And you and me? We could be That Place. But first, we gotta find, taste, and stock up on the best full-sized candy out there.

So it is that, in a spot of convenient timing, Trader Joe’s gives us not one, but TWO full-sized candy bars to consider for the occasion: the Quasar and the Boffo, here to compete with Milky Way Midnight and Snickers. The Milky Way-ish Quasar is the first runner up for consideration. Let’s see how it goes.

Trader Joe's Quasar Bar 2

In a shape that may or may not look like the CTA-102 qausi-stellar object, this bar sports an impressively smooth coating that tastes of fudge, coffee, and Dove semisweet chocolate while the nougat provides an earthy fluffiness that reminds me of a malted milkshake. The caramel rounds things off with a hefty dose of stretchy toasted sugar. Taken together, there’s fluff, snap, and stretch, which sounds like it came straight from Richard Simmons’ 1995 classic, “Sweatin’ to the Oldies 2: An Aerobic Concert.”

And while that’s all well and good, it’s time for the true test: Milky Way Midnight v. Quasar.

FIGHT!

Trader Joe's Quasar Bar 3

First off, who needs carbon dioxide and stardust? If I’m reading this right, our universe is made of chocolate, caramel, and nougat, which makes me want to quit my job and hop on-board the next spaceship. Look out NASA! Here I come!

Confectionary-driven occupational transitions aside, let us put our science cap on and compare the differences.

Biting in, the Milky Way is softer and fluffier than our Trader Joe’s compatriot. The caramel is thin, but powerful in its toasted-sugar-and-vanilla way. The dark chocolate, on the other hand, serves as little more than a crispy shell that tastes of air, wood shavings, and disappointment. The center nougat works double-time in hopes to make up for the chocolate by giving us a double punch of bright vanilla, but it can’t quite edge out what’s been lost in the chocolate.

On a second chomp of the Quasar, the nuances are front and center. Alongside the malt, sugar, and chocolate, there are hints of brown sugar and toffee in the caramel while the milk chocoltiness of the nougat and the semi-sweetiness of the coating balance off each other in a way that would make Count Chocula jealous. The nougat takes a little more jaw work than its competition, but the chocolate is richer and the caramel is stretchier. Without a doubt, Quasar, you are my new Milky Way.

Trader Joe's Quasar Bar 4

Everything I know about Quasars I learned from Professor Higgins, Power Rangers, and these bars, and, while spatial distortions of gravity, magical swords, and chocolate bars seem dissimilar, they are connected by their capacity for their sheer, unlimited awesomeness. This bar reinforces that: the chocolate is just sweet enough, the caramel is stretchy, and the nougat is fluffy and light. In flavor, texture, and sheer “I want to eat that again,” the Quasar gobbles up the Milky Way Midnight, not even looking back as it cleans its teeth with a toothpick.

But are they good enough to make me That Place this year? I have hope.

Now I just need to find the ghost of a one-eyed Disc Jockey…

(Nutrition Facts – 1 bar – 220 calories, 40 calories from fat, 4 grams of fat, 2.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, less than 5 milligrams of cholesterol, 140 milligrams of sodium, 44 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of dietary fiber, 30 grams of sugar, and 1 gram of protein.)

Purchased Price: 99 cents
Size: 1.8 oz
Purchased at: Trader Joe’s
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Balance of milk and dark chocolate flavors. Thick, stretchy caramel. My new Milky Way. Quasar CTA-102. “Sweatin’ to the Oldies 2: An Aerobic Concert.”
Cons: Nougat takes some jaw work. Making Count Chocula jealous. The ghosts of Disc Jockeys who refuse to play special requests.

REVIEW: Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Cheerios Cereal

Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Cheerios Cereal

Pumpkin spice presents an existential crisis for the creative writer.

There is only so much that can said about it. What there is to say has been said before, said again, and then said in a different way. Chances are the same trite expression about pushing autumn in August, or the long litany of pumpkin spice products now available to us, is currently being wrestled onto the page of another food blog. We, the pumpkin spice addicts of America, have long since typed our love affair with the orange gourd and its seminal flavors into a monotony of clichés.

This is a damn shame, because when done right, pumpkin spice should not be reduced to a cliché.

Take the new Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Cheerios.

This is limited edition cereal to end all limited edition cereals; the kind of product that’s worth stocking up on from the beginning of August and then rationing out through the polar onslaught of December and humid days of July.

To be fair, we should have expected this much. Pumpkin Spice Cheerios were announced back in the spring when Strawberry Cheerios came out, and given the success of the spring flavor, Cheerios let us know they’re not doing this LTO thing half-ass.

Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Cheerios Cereal 2

Case in point, Pumpkin Spice Cheerios don’t taste like cinnamon. The flavor isn’t the cheap heavy note of cassia, nor is it the honey or brown sugar sweetness that often comes along for the pumpkin spice ride. Likewise, this is not the repackaged taste of Honey Nut Cheerios or Apple Cinnamon Cheerios. Pumpkin Spice Cheerios are pumpkin spice Cheerios. There’s the sweet fragrant note of nutmeg, the aromatic warmth of clove, and, yes, the flavors of cinnamon and ginger.

Lest you think this is just a pumpkin spice flavor, there is some serious sweet pumpkin flavor going on in each of those oat rings. The addition of real pumpkin in the ingredients makes a world of difference when eating the cereal in milk, where the sublime essence of pumpkin desserts comes to life.

Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Cheerios Cereal 3

Yes, sublime essence. Think of it as that moment when crust component, pumpkin component, and dairy meet. Here the warming and exotic notes of spices co-mingle with the sweetened taste of pumpkin and the richness of milk. A hearty crunch filled with sweetened dairy and a bit of milkfat greets eats spoonful, and in that moment the eater relives everything that is right about the cool breeze of October and the multicolored leaves that drift to the ground.

I may have chomped down on my first bite on a 95-degree day in west Texas, but if I would have closed my eyes and blasted a fan in my face then I’m pretty sure I could have fooled myself into believing it was autumn. It sure tasted that way.

Based on the rapidly growing list of pumpkin spice cereals entering the market, we’ll soon have the proverbial cornucopia to choose from. I don’t doubt many of these cereals will be good, but few, I’m willing to bet, will be able to match the appeal of Pumpkin Spice Cheerios.

(Nutrition Facts – 28 grams – 110 calories, 1 gram of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, 0 mg of cholesterol, 120 mg of sodium, 22 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of dietary fiber, 8 grams of sugars, and 2 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $3.98
Size: 21 oz box
Purchased at: Walmart
Rating: 9 out of 10
Pros: Outstanding representation of the complexity of pumpkin spices that exceeds the dull and heavy cinnamon flavor sometimes assigned to pumpkin spice. Sweet, hearty taste of oat base. Wonderful rich flavor in milk that tastes like the edge of a pumpkin pie or bar.
Cons: Could be a tad sweeter and have a “glaze” like Honey Nut Cheerios. The creative struggle to explain the appeal of pumpkin spice.