REVIEW: Papa John’s Epic Stuffed Crust Pizza

Papa John s Epic Stuffed Crust Pizza Whole

The year is 1995. Coolio is busy living in a gangsta’s paradise. Alicia Silverstone — as Cher Horowitz or Hamilton (they accidentally gave her two last names) — was falling in love with her stepbrother, but no one cared because hey, it was Paul Rudd. And, an innovation that would change the junk food world forever, Pizza Hut was stuffing cheese in its crust. The chain also attempted to convince the American people that “eating your pizza backwards” was a thing everyone would start doing.

(Spoiler alert: no one actually did this.)

Fast forward 25 years. Coolio is living…man, who knows where Coolio is living these days. Paul Rudd has eclipsed his stepsister’s fame by a wide margin. Pizza Hut is still slinging cheese-stuffed crusts, and has even been known to occasionally put other things in there, too. (Hot dogs, bacon, shrimp and mayo, Marmite.)

Meanwhile, competitor, Papa John’s? In all these years, they’ve never stuffed anything into a crust.

So, if you were in Product Development for Papa John’s, what would you do? Why you’d introduce your own version of the stuffed crust pizza to capitalize on an idea Pizza Hut begat a quarter-century ago.

It’s 2020, so sure, why not?

Here’s the absolutely bizarre thing about this pizza: the pizza body is no different than a normal Papa John’s body, but the hat? Tastes exactly like Pizza Hut’s Stuffed Crust. It’s almost like a Frankensteinian operation that involves surgically grafting the two pizzas together.

Papa John s Epic Stuffed Crust Pizza Slice

From the slice’s point up to the crust, it is distinctly Papa — the sweet sauce, the cheese that doesn’t do much stretching (and sadly, wasn’t even melted uniformly on mine), and whatever toppings you choose to make it your own. (For the sake of the review, I went with pepperoni.) The point being, you’ve had this pizza. And you are either fine with it or don’t like it; this particular incarnation won’t do anything to change that.

Papa John s Epic Stuffed Crust Pizza Cheese

Then you get to the crust. And, like I said, you’ve probably had this, too, just not from Papa John’s. The thing I find most unusual is that the dough used to make this crust is probably Papa’s regular hand-tossed, or “original” dough, just, you know, stretched. It’s the same way Pizza Hut does it. But Pizza Hut’s hand-tossed dough is decidedly different than Papa John’s, wouldn’t you agree? They’re distinct until they’re stretched and stuffed with cheese around the perimeter! Something about that act makes the two crusts indiscernible.

Papa John s Epic Stuffed Crust Pizza Flyover

Overall the cheese in the crust is warm and appropriately stretchy and a nice way to end a slice. With Pizza Hut’s version, you can add some flavor to the crust, like a garlic buttery blend or toasted parmesan, which elevates things. Papa John’s crust didn’t have butter, but it would’ve added a little something. Not to be a broken record, but if you like Hut’s stuffed crust, you’ll like this, too.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go see if I can find out how Coolio is doing.

Purchased Price: $12
Size: Large
Rating: 6 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: Unavailable at time of publication.

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REVIEW: DiGiorno Meatless Monday Meatless Sausage Supreme Pizza

DiGiorno Meatless Monday Meatless Sausage Supreme Pizza Box

What is the DiGiorno Meatless Monday Meatless Sausage Supreme Pizza

Well, for starters, it’s a bunch of words. So going forward, I’ll probably refer to this as DMMMSSP, or “dimsup” if I’m saying it aloud. This is the frozen pizza maker monolith’s ode to fake meat, which has been quite the rage for the better part of recent history.

DiGiorno Meatless Monday Meatless Sausage Supreme Pizza Whole

How is it?

It feels as though this review should be split between “how’s the fake sausage” and “how’s the product, overall?”

DiGiorno Meatless Monday Meatless Sausage Supreme Pizza Closeup

So, to answer the first one — it’s great! Made with pea protein, you’d be hard-pressed to discern these crumbles from the real deal. (At least in terms of, you know, frozen pizza sausage.) There is a very convincing chew and real sausage-like seasoning. It’s peppery without being spicy.

DiGiorno Meatless Monday Meatless Sausage Supreme Pizza Slice

The pizza, however, is just okay. If you’ve had DiGiorno, you’re familiar with the bland, muted veggies (in this case, red and green bell peppers and onions), the overly sweet sauce that gets applied with a sauce cannon, and the crust which is thick and uncompromisingly bread-y.

Anything else you need to know?

“Meatless Monday” was started in 2003 by Sid Lerner, who advocated that people give up meat one day a week for both their health and the health of the planet. Is it weird that this was the first time I’ve ever heard of it? And I say this as someone who’s been a vegetarian for brief spurts in the past and regularly consumes meat-alternatives.

Conclusion:

While I used to think DiGiorno was tops in terms of the frozen pizza empire, it feels as though they have recently been passed on all fronts by multiple competitors. But while brands such as Urban Pie and Screamin’ Sicilian may best DiGiorno in most ways*, their meat-alternative options are, for now, nonexistent. Kudos to DiGiorno for taking the leap; hopefully, we’ll soon see more brands do the same.

*The best option, if you have it in your area, is Brew Pub Lotzza Motzza frozen pizzas, by the way.

Purchased Price: $6.99
Size: 20.8 oz
Purchased at: Target
Rating: 7 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: (1/4 pizza) 300 calories, 10 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 gram of trans fat, 15 milligrams of cholesterol, 750 milligrams of sodium, 39 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of dietary fiber, 4 grams of sugar, and 14 grams of protein.

REVIEW: Taco Bell Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa

Taco Bell Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa Whole

“Vegetarians rejoice: now you too can join your meat-eating brethren by stuffing your gullet with Taco Bellian deliciousness!” feels like the kind of thing Taco Bell’s marketing department might want me to write with the release of its “new” vegetarian-friendly menu item, the Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa.

I won’t do it, though.

Why?

Because, despite what the taco chain wants you to believe, non-meat eaters have always been able to clog their arteries right along with everyone else. Its refried beans, in fact, are vegan. Its black beans have been around for years and, in this modern era of customization, can be subbed for just about any other protein on its menu.

Furthermore, the toasted cheddar chalupa shell isn’t a “new” item, either. When it was first introduced in September of 2019, Taco Bell proclaimed it “the biggest food innovation of the year,” which, sure, why not. I can’t disprove this statement, nor am I sure why I’d want to.

So, here we are a year later, and Taco Bell is cramming the aforementioned black beans into the reintroduced cheesy chalupa shell. Perhaps it’s hoping it’ll placate vegetarians enough to not riot over the fact that it recently did away with one of the other things they could eat: the fried potatoes.

And so, does it work? Maybe!

As one might expect, the chalupa shell (which Taco Bell suggests is ensconced in cheddar that has been aged for six months) does the heavy lifting. This was my first experience with the Toasted Cheddar Chalupa — with any kind of filling — and I was very pleased. Texturally, the cheese adds a nice crunch that then yields to the pillowed, buttery chew of the traditional chalupa shell. Could I tell the cheese had been aged six months? No. Was it a little like when shredded cheese falls out of the omelet you’re making, and it gets all crispy in the pan, and you eat it and think, “now this is allllll right”? Yes.

I could happily eat eight of these shells with nothing else in them and call it a day.

I didn’t, however, because that would make for a bizarre review. Also, the one I ordered was filled with black beans, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, and sour cream.

Taco Bell Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa Shell

You might be wondering how the shredded cheese plays with the toasted cheese on the shell, and the short answer is…indistinguishably? The longer, more ridiculous answer is that they harmoniously — though indifferently — coexist, like an old cat and old dog who live together but mostly just stay out of each other’s way. In other words, if they forgot to add your shredded cheese, it probably wouldn’t detract from the experience.

Which leaves the seasoned beans. And the verdict? I mean, they’re black beans, and by default, not very jazzy in nature. They are also a bit soupier than say, Chipotle’s black beans, but they have about the same amount of flavor. (It is also very possible the sour cream adds to this soupiness; that said, it provides a much needed tang to the proceedings, and I’d be hesitant to leave it off.)

While the Black Bean Toasted Cheddar Chalupa probably won’t convince anyone to give up their meat-eating ways, it does provide existing vegetarians with a nice alternative to the regular bean burrito or whatever that thing is with pinto beans and cheese in a cup. At least until this heavenly shell is once again banished to fast food purgatory. Then it’s back to subbing in black beans to a normal chalupa like a common street rat.

Purchased Price: $3.39
Size: N/A
Rating: 7 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: 470 calories, 29 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, 20 milligrams of cholesterol, 450 milligrams of sodium, 37 grams of carbohydrates, 6 gram of dietary fiber, 3 grams of sugar, and 15 grams of protein.

REVIEW: Popeyes Twisty Wicked Shrimp

Popeyes Twisty Wicked Shrimp Closeup

What are Popeyes Twisty Wicked Shrimp and Smoky Garlic Tartar Sauce

According to the webs, this takes the Cajun chicken chain’s shrimp (seasoned with a blend of salt, pepper, onion, garlic, cayenne pepper, and bay leaf) and jazzes things up by marinating the little buggers in sriracha. You know, for the promised wickedness. These caustic crustaceans are paired with a new Smoky Garlic Tartar Sauce, which is, well, smokier and more garlicky than any tartar sauce that came before it.

How is it?

NOT HOT. If you’re an avid capsaicinophile hoping that this new offering will set your mouth on fire, you’ll likely be let down. I can handle (and enjoy) a decent amount of heat, but perhaps more importantly to this review, I am sensitive to spice, and I can tell you, without fear of killing the weakest among you, that you will be able to eat this shrimp comfortably.

I was disappointed with the lack of heat, but not with the shrimp itself. The pieces were large, the seasoning familiar in its Popeyesicity (not sure I can detect the bay leaf buried deep in there, though), and the breading added the perfect amount of crunch.

Popeyes Twisty Wicked Shrimp Sauce

The real revelation was the Smoky Garlic Tartar sauce, which, oddly enough, seemed to pack a heat the shrimp did not. The dip was nuanced —- a light sweetness contrasted with a heavy dill-ness, imbued with the aforementioned punch that was… maybe the smokiness? I’m not sure. But in short, it provided a nice compliment to the straight-forward, not-that-wicked shrimp.

Anything else you need to know?

As you can see in the picture above, my sauce didn’t come in one of the pre-packaged sauce containers as shown in promo pics, and the first time I went, they didn’t have the sauce at all. So, I guess what I’m saying is: if you live far away from a Popeyes and you’re interested in this, maybe call ahead. Because, while the shrimp is decent, it’s the sauce that really completes the experience.

Conclusion:

If you’re an avid Popeye’s connoisseur, check it out. If you don’t get to Popeye’s all that often, get the chicken sandwich instead. Or the chicken. But seriously, the sandwich. Have you had that thing? Like Uncle Jesse always said, “have mercy.”

Purchased Price: $6.30
Size: N/A
Rating: 7 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: Unavailable on Popeyes’ website

REVIEW: Smartfood Snickerdoodle Popcorn

Smartfood Snickerdoodle Popcorn Bag

What is Smartfood Snickerdoodle Popcorn

From the pre-popped popcorn giant Smartfood comes Snickerdoodle, a “limited holiday flavor” meant to capture the magical, Home Ec essence of buttery cinnamon-sugar cookies. It is not Smartfood’s only sweet popcorn offering. Its regular lineup includes kettle corn and a caramel/cheddar combo. But it ties with this year’s earlier offerings of Caramel & Cinnamon Apple Mix and Cap’n Crunch Berries Popcorn Mix in terms of ambitiousness.

How is it?

Perfectly mediocre, I’m afraid. While the concept is a wonderful one — soft, warm, cinnamon blasted cookies in popcorn form! — the execution is lackluster. There is no uniformity, really, with about every tenth piece achieving a perfect nirvana of true Snickerdoodle bliss.

Smartfood Snickerdoodle Popcorn Seasoning

The pieces that escape the cinnamon-sugar bath are bland and unseasoned, small, chewy bits of lightly salted styrofoam. Also disappointing is the lack of a discernible butter profile, a key component of the cookie experience.

Anything else you need to know?

Smartfood White Cheddar is wonderful, so I had high hopes for this. Alas, my heart was broken. Additionally, I had no idea that the brand also has Hot Buffalo and Sour Cream & Onion versions. Are these any good? I guess that’s more of a “anything else *I* need to know.”

Conclusion:

Lots of moderately sized cities seem to have “gourmet” popcorn shops these days, and, in my experience, most of these have some riff on the “cinnamon toast” popcorn variety. So do yourself a favor and get a bag of that, instead. Chances are, you’ll be much happier.

If you don’t have a gourmet popcorn shop, you should open one. And if you don’t want to do that, maybe go with a bag of Pop Secret and hit it with some of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cinnadust we recently reviewed. I feel like that would still beat this.

Purchased Price: $3.99
Size: 6.25 oz bag
Purchased at: Hy-Vee
Rating: 5 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: (2.5 cups) 150 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1 grams of saturated fat, 0 gram of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 140 milligrams of sodium, 17 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of dietary fiber, 4 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of protein.

REVIEW: Sonic Espresso Shake

Sonic Espresso Shake Cup

I consider myself a late adopter of “hot, caffeinated beverages.” I didn’t become a regular coffee drinker until my early 30s, and never had an espresso until a couple of years later.

This is probably why I’m not generally one to opt for coffee, mocha, or espresso-flavored inclusions to my other foods or beverages. Mocha turkey sandwich? Pass. Coffee-rubbed pepperoni on my pizza? No thank you.

One exception to the “dear coffee, please do not mate with my other food” rule are sweets. Coffee — and its coffee-adjacent friends — lend themselves quite naturally to things like cakes, pies, and ice creams. And because a milkshake is but ice cream and milk, it only makes sense that one might infuse it with a caffeinated beverage.

Sonic Espresso Shake Top

Enter Sonic’s new Espresso Shake. According to Sonic’s website, its shake blends vanilla ice cream with “original cold brew iced coffee,” which, okay, I know I’ve established I’m a novice when it comes to hot go-go juice, but aren’t “coffee” and “espresso” two different things? I mean, espresso is coffee, but it’s generally made in a different way and is a far more concentrated substance. But I guess like me, maybe Sonic doesn’t have an espresso machine, and so here we are.

Sonic Espresso Shake Straw

Sonic’s shakes, for the uninitiated, are usually pretty consistent with their viscosity. They’re somewhere between “sucking this hard on the straw hurts my cheeks” and “this is a bit too runny to warrant a spoon.” In other words, optimal milkshake consistency. What is also consistently good is Sonic’s ice cream, which is perfectly creamy and perfectly sweet.

Now that brings us to the flavoring. If Sonic has an issue with frozen drink construction, this is it. With my first taste, my thought was, “Oh, hey, I like this.” The espresso flavor was much milder than I’d been anticipating, though certainly present. (And after reading on the website how they make it, I guess maybe now I know why it was so muted.) My second and third sips were fairly similar, but the fourth left me wondering, “Wait, what happened to the slight coffee taste?” It had disappeared, and I was left with nothing more than a creamy vanilla milkshake.

This went on for a few more sips from the straw, and then, boom, another coffee pocket. Now, I understand that I might not get a blob of banana in every drink of a banana shake, but how Sonic can make a liquid add-in so hit or miss is perplexing. It would have been almost impressive, really, had it not been so disappointing. I wanted more coffee taste, not less.

Perhaps making the milkshake with coffee ice cream would have upped the wow factor. (Or, for that matter, given it a wow factor.) Maybe I should have gone with the Oreo Espresso Shake because don’t Oreo pieces make most things more palatable? As it stands, I’m not sure I’d order the Espresso Shake again — not with so many other Sonic shake options at my disposal.

Purchased Price: $3.19
Size: Small
Rating: 5 out of 10
Nutrition Facts: Unavailable on Sonic’s website

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