REVIEW: Wendy’s Taco Salad

Wendy's Taco Salad

I am firmly a child of the 90’s. If you don’t believe me, take a walk around my childhood home, where you’ll see way too many Lifetouch grade school portraits of me with hair moussed up to the heavens (thanks Mom).

Don’t get me wrong, though – the 90’s were a blast. I fondly remember spending weekends developing recipes with my younger sister’s Fisher Price plastic kitchen to feed to my collection of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers action figures (the Megazord was a picky eater).

And now, it seems like the 90’s nostalgia has caught on with everyone else, because there’s been no shortage of remakes over the past couple of years. From Fuller House to French Toast Crunch, everyone wants a piece of the action, no matter how horrible the reboot may be.

Take Wendy’s Taco Salad, for example. America’s second-favorite redhead (after Ronald, of course), has apparently caved into the demands of their “loyal taco salad fans” (their words, not mine), and brought back this classic dish for millennial mouths to try.

Now, before I get any angry letters from fast food historians, yes, Wendy’s did originally release the Taco Salad in the 80’s, but since they’re solely marketing this from a 90’s perspective, I thought it appropriate to lace up my L.A. Lights to head on over and sample it for myself.

Like any other fast food salad, Wendy’s Taco Salad is built on a bed of iceberg and romaine lettuce. The bed in this example is clearly a California King, because this salad is overwhelmed with lettuce. It’s as if Wendy’s forgot that there were supposed to be other toppings on this salad and went crazy with the bags of salad mix.

Wendy's Taco Salad 2

On top of the lettuce extravaganza, Wendy’s has placed a smattering of diced tomatoes and shredded cheddar cheese. I must have visited on the cook’s first day, because the pieces of tomato I received were all from the edges, and lacked any juice or flavor. Similarly disappointing, the cheese was heavily processed, and had a firm mouthfeel.

Along with the aforementioned mattress o’ lettuce, Wendy’s provides a selection of toppings to accompany the salad. These toppings – chili, tortilla chips, “signature salsa,” and light sour cream – come on the side, a sort of “taco kit” to allow you to garnish your salad as you please.

In true TIB fashion, I went all in on the toppings. While I appreciate the customization opportunity, the minuscule bowl Wendy’s provided made it difficult to mix everything together. The tortilla chips were humorously oversized for the salad, and lacked a distinctive salty kick. Their partner in crime, Wendy’s “signature salsa,” was equally as upsetting, as its sour notes overwhelmed any discernible tomato flavor.

Wendy's Taco Salad 3

The standout here was the chili – while suspect in origin, its strong tomato and cumin flavor brought some much needed zest to the salad. In fact, the chili really brings the only semblance of flavor to the salad, as it’s not served with any dressing. If you don’t conserve your chili wisely, the salad turns into a real slog to eat.

While I appreciate their play for nostalgia, Wendy’s Taco Salad should go the way of Hammer Pants. You shouldn’t touch this.

(Nutrition Facts – 660 calories, 290 calories from fat, 32 grams of fat, 13 grams of saturated fat, 1 grams of trans fat, 85 milligrams of cholesterol, 1820 milligrams of sodium, 63 grams of carbohydrates, 18 grams of sugar, and 32 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $5.99
Size: Full-size salad
Rating: 2 out of 10
Pros: Having an excuse to break out my Pogs. Flavorful chili. Jamming out to fast food training videos.
Cons: Reminding my mom that mousse exists. Ridiculous amounts of roughage. Sour salsa.

REVIEW: Taco Bell Steakhouse Queso Nachos

Taco Bell Steakhouse Nachos

In 2012, Taco Bell offered XXL Steak Nachos that featured steak, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo, a three-cheese blend, refried beans, and nacho cheese sauce on tortilla chips.

In 2015, the chain sold their BOSS Nachos that featured steak, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo, a three-cheese blend, refried beans, and nacho cheese sauce on tortilla chips.

This year, Taco Bell has, for a limited time, Steakhouse Queso Nachos that come with — say it with me now — steak, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo, a three-cheese blend, refried beans, and…not nacho cheese sauce on tortilla chips.

This time it’s queso.

I’ve always liked Taco Bell’s limited time only nachos because they come in a container large enough that I can imagine I’m eating nachos from a trough. I just put my hands behind my back, like I’m bobbing for apples or throwing up into a toilet, and then just dig in.

The nachos’ highlight was the queso. It’s such a simple ingredient, but it added a nice creamy, cheesy, and spicy kick to everything. Okay, not everything. While the queso itself was great, the amount on the chips wasn’t. Maybe a third of them were topped with it, and that’s disappointing because it’s a step up from the nacho cheese sauce.

If I had to pick a lowlight it would be the tortilla chips. Under sections that had lots of toppings, the chips sucked whatever moisture they could and quickly got soggy. About half of the chips were in this condition by the time I got to eat them after a five minute car ride home. But I shouldn’t be surprised since that is the nature of nachos.

Taco Bell Steakhouse Nachos 2

As for the steak, sour cream, pico de gallo, three-cheese blend, and refried beans, all of which I’ve had (and you’ve had) in other menu items, my only complaints about them are not having enough of the tender, marinated steak to justify the high price, not having as much refried beans as the other toppings, and how unnecessary the three-cheese blend is because it doesn’t stand out at all with the other ingredients.

Overall, if you liked the previous steak nachos, I think these are a slight improvement thanks to the queso. And I’m sure you’ll like the future version of these nachos in 2017 or 2018 when they’re called Doubledilla Nachos or Great Steak Nachos.

(Nutrition Facts – 1130 calories, 500 calories from fat, 56 grams of fat, 13 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 85 milligrams of cholesterol, 2210 milligrams of sodium, 116 grams of carbohydrates, 18 grams of fiber, 8 grams of sugar, and 40 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $7.99*
Size: N/A
Rating: 6 out of 10
Pros: Queso is a step up from the nacho cheese sauce. Large serving. Being able to pretend I’m eating nachos from a trough. Tender steak. Not exactly like the previous limited time only nachos.
Cons: Would’ve like more queso. The nature of nachos. Not having the food science that allows chips to remain crunchy longer than the flavor of Fruit Stripe gum. Not enough steak to justify price. Needs more refried beans. Useless three-cheese blend.

*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.

REVIEW: Subway Corned Beef Reuben Sandwich

Subway Corned Beef Reuben Sandwich

I don’t care what the textbooks say. I don’t care about the debates over the Reuben sandwich’s origins: whether it originated from a Nebraskan grocer’s weekly poker ritual or from a New York delicatessen’s signature “Reuben Special.”

In my eyes—and taste buds—the Reuben was obviously invented by Ruben Studdard. I mean, what else could Ruben have been up to after winning American Idol Season 2, while the more famous runner-up Clay Aiken became a Christmas album mainstay in my grandma’s CD player for years?

And before you ask how Ruben could invent the Reuben when the sandwich first appeared in the 1920s, the answer’s time travel. Duh. Next question.

Okay, that explanation may be more impractical than a Reuben Goldberg machine, but I needed a slipshod introduction for a sandwich as slipshod as Subway’s new Corned Beef Reuben. Because as I soon found out, expecting a fast food joint to do justice to the Reuben’s nearly 100-year legacy was a bit unrealistic.

Subway Corned Beef Reuben Sandwich 2

But let’s start with the rye highs. The popularity of Subway’s Italian Herbs & Cheese and Honey Oat breads suggests that consumers like their bread studded with enough stuff to make a BeDazzler blush, and Subway’s new Rye bread fulfills that desire by baking lightly crunchy caraway seeds into every sub.

The bread itself is dense, earthy, and spiced, while the seeds pop with a sweet anise bite. The taste may be slightly too sour for Hawaiian roll or Wonder Bread veterans, but fans of aged, yeasty bread will appreciate its subtleties.

My only gripe is that the rye isn’t marbled, though that kind of doughy swirl might’ve looked too much like a rolled yoga mat for Subway’s liking.

Meat and cheese are this Reuben’s other strongest elements. While the corned beef isn’t particularly juicy, potently peppered, or too different from Subway roast beef, it’s still thick, tender, and salty enough to give the sandwich a savory, meaty twang.

By which I mean you’ll want to twang an acoustic guitar string after each bite.

The Swiss cheese is an underrated, binding force in Subway’s Reuben. It may have all the complexity of a melted Kraft Single, but it still brings creamy dairy balance to the bread and sauerkraut’s sourness.

Speaking of the sauerkraut: it’s bad, and that’s coming from someone who adores sauerkraut enough to give it an honorary seat at his wedding. Subway’s sauerkraut is far too wet, mushy, and flavorlessly acidic, lacking the light crispness and pickled intricacies of good sauerkraut. But I suppose if I were mashed into a cube and left under Subway’s sneeze guard all day, I’d feel sad and squishy, too.

And the Thousand Island Dressing? It’s barely there, providing a light, underlying fatty flavor with faint mayo and tomato notes. I’d say I only tasted three islands at most, and one of those was Rhode Island, whose authentic island status is questionable at best.

Subway Corned Beef Reuben Sandwich 3

Eating the sandwich together, I mostly taste a sour-sweet war between sauerkraut and bread, while the Reuben’s less flavorful, meaty and creamy children beg their parents to stop fighting. It’s far from authentic, and your limited Reuben enjoyment will hinge on your ingredient balance: I recommend going light on ‘kraut, doubling up on cheese, and getting dressing on the side to add at your discretion.

Better yet, take the $5.25 you could’ve spent on a 6” Subway Reuben to Walmart deli and buy enough loose ingredients to assemble a much tastier haphazard Reuben in the parking lot. Just don’t forget to play Clay Aiken’s Merry Christmas with Love in the car while you do it.

(Nutrition Facts – 6” sandwich, no vegetables – 450 calories, 15 grams of fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 85 milligrams of cholesterol, 1770 milligrams of sodium, 42 grams of carbohydrates, 6 grams of fiber, 10 grams of sugar, and 38 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $5.25
Size: N/A
Rating: 4 out of 10
Pros: BeDazzlingly good rye bread. Guitar strummingly decent corned beef. The complimentarily congealing properties of a Swiss Kraft Single. Parking lot deli sandwiches. Sending my warmest regards to Ruben Studdard, wherever he may be.
Cons: Not authentically Reuben-esque (Reubenic?) enough to justify the cost. Sauerkraut that leaves me sour. Thousand Island Dressing that’s 997 islands short. Not being able to make a “Why? Bread” joke because the bread was actually good.

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: Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.’s All-Natural Budweiser Beer Cheese Bacon Burger

Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.’s All-Natural Budweiser Beer Cheese Bacon Burger

From the same folks who gave you sandwiches doused in bourbon and moonshine infused sauce comes Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr.’s latest alco-hamburger, the All-Natural Budweiser Beer Cheese Bacon Burger.

From the get-go, it’s a much less ambitious burger than we’re used to from the chain – lest we forget, this is the same brand that once sold us a sandwich topped with a split weenie and a handful of potato chips.

Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.’s All-Natural Budweiser Beer Cheese Bacon Burger 2

The non-deluxe versions come with a charbroiled beef patty topped with a sliver of Swiss cheese and a hearty dollop of caramelized onions and thick coating of the eponymous Bud cheese, which I’d describe as a sweet nacho cheddar blend with a sugary hops and barley aftertaste (and before you ask, no, you can’t get loaded eating a small mountain of burgers). On top of that you’ve got your customary lettuce and tomato slices, with a cameo appearance by two fairly salty strips of bacon. The whole shebang is shoved into a brioche bun, which has a distinct honey-kissed flavor that gels incredibly well with the Cheese-weiser sauce.

Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.’s All-Natural Budweiser Beer Cheese Bacon Burger 3

As you’d imagine, it’s a pretty messy meal. Just removing the top bun guarantees at least a splash of cheese sauce is going to spatter on the table, but the impromptu Gallagher performance is easily forgiven considering how filling the burger is. The solo patty version pretty much immobilized me for a good half hour, so I can only imagine the severity – and satisfaction – of the after-effects of the double patty permutation or the 1/3-pounder Black Angus Thickburger.

Your mileage will vary on the saccharine nature of the burger dressings, though. An hour after eating my burger I still had a pronounced honey wheat hangover in the back of my throat, and be forewarned, when the beer cheese fully congeals, it becomes almost as sweet as cake frosting.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed the chain’s latest brew-burger. It strikes a very nice balance of savory, smoky and sugary without any one flavor becoming too dominant. As long as you can handle a little umami with your ale – and you’re not averse to a strong sucrose sensation from time to time – I’d say this Bud’s definitely for you.

(Nutrition Facts – Single Patty Burger – 710 calories, 340 calories from fat, 38 grams of fat, 16 grams of saturated fat, 85 milligrams of cholesterol, 1430 milligrams of sodium, 51 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of fiber, 11 grams of sugar, and 40 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $5.59 (single patty)
Size: N/A
Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Very filling. A nice medley of flavors that are surprisingly harmonious. Being able to literally chew Budweiser.
Cons: An unexpectedly prolonged sugar rush; being forced to eat it with a fork to keep cheese from glomping to your fingers. Still having to wait for a Heineken-flavored chicken sandwich.