REVIEW: Crystal Pepsi (2016)

Crystal Pepsi (2016)

Full disclosure: I’m a Coke person. But I like Pepsi.

The sweetness of a cherry Pepsi contrasts particularly well with the sodium bomb of an extra crispy two-piece KFC meal, flanked with a side of comfortingly bland mac and cheese. And on Friday nights before I knew anyone with a car, Pizza Hut would deliver a meat-lovers pizza to the house, accompanied by bulbous onyx two-liter tanks of soda—always Pepsi.

I just like gross, adult stuff now: Bitter, sour, spicy, stuff that tastes like medicine, Coca-Cola. I like the harsh carbonation of Coca-Cola. If we’re picking teams, I’m Team Coke. But Pepsi is fine. And I definitely got my mother to buy me Crystal Pepsi multiple times the twenty-or-so odd years ago it was available.

Crystal Pepsi is back. It’s visually striking, the label’s bold blue and red logo against a foggy clear backdrop. The nostalgia factor is enough to get one buy out of me, but even on pure aesthetics, it’s compelling. A 20-ounce bottle of regular Pepsi looks like a familiar product. A 20-ounce bottle of Crystal Pepsi looks like the absence of Pepsi. It looks naked, vulnerable, honest even. It looks like it’s missing something. And it is.

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What Crystal Pepsi lacks is the almost-metallic taste that hits the back of the throat that regular Pepsi has. It’s hard to tell if the subtraction of the caramel coloring is the reason for this, but without the light medicinal quality, it kicks the balance of the drink into being really sweet. I would say too sweet. If you took a poll of what people thought of OG Pepsi, I think a lot of the answers would be “sweet,” especially in comparison to Coke. So this is even more than that.

At first taste it has the same sugary hit of Pepsi regular. Without the complexity of the rest of Pepsi regular, though, it seems like the soda boosts into maple syrup, lip-curling sweetness territory. I would have assumed a taste test between Crystal and regular would have been at least interesting, but it’s really not difficult to tell them apart. It’s an entirely different beast. It carries the lightness of a ginger ale with the sugary ceiling of an apple juice.

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Crystal Pepsi also has a smoother finish, and the carbonation is less harsh than most other sodas, so the texture in the mouth is also not compensating for the added perceived boost in sweetness. The sugar contents compare to regular Pepsi, however, and the ingredient differences are “gum arabic” and “sodium citrate.” Sure. Who knows what that means. Crystal Pepsi does now contain caffeine, which it didn’t have in the 90’s. So for people looking for a weird ass coffee replacement, that’s good information. “Nothing better in the morning than a cheese Danish and a mug of hot Crystal Pepsi.”

With 90’s nostalgia in full swing, Pepsi is surfing the trend wave. I mean, look at that label. I can’t remember if this is how Crystal Pepsi tasted like this in the 90’s but if it did, it was too sweet then. I probably just didn’t care. I was too busy playing pogs at Taco Bell while listening to Dookie. Now I sit in my breakfast nook and do my taxes and listen to a self-made Train’s Greatest Hits. And I drink Coke. Diet Coke. You got me to buy one, Crystal Pepsi. But I think that’s all you’re gonna get.

(Nutrition Facts – 20 oz – 250 calories, 0 grams of fat, 90 milligrams of sodium, 69 grams of carbohydrates, 69 grams of sugar, 0 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $1.89
Size: 20 fl oz
Purchased at: Walgreens
Rating: 3 out of 10
Pros: Nostalgia factor. Nice looking label.
Cons: Too sweet.

REVIEW: Trader Joe’s Uncured Bacon Jam

Trader Joe's Uncured Bacon Jam

There has to be some mandate from Trader Joe’s corporate that gives talking points to the Hawaiian-shirted cashiers flanking the stores. The bespectacled, olive-skinned gentleman scanned all my groceries and stopped at the new-ish item, Trader Joe’s Uncured Bacon Jam.

“Have you tried this before?” he asked. This is a popular question I get when I’m not just, like, buying six handfuls of dried pasta and a gallon of Charles Shaw wine. I have also gotten “I like your shirt,” and “Why did you stare at that box of Joe Joe’s for fifteen minutes, grunt really loud, and then drop kick that bunch of bananas onto the conveyer belt?” The answer to that one is actually something reasonable about trying to look good for girls, but I have to shop at the other Trader Joe’s now.

I hadn’t tried the Uncured Bacon Jam. The man recommended toasting a sliced baguette and drizzling olive oil on it, then spreading a bit of jam on each piece during a dinner party, with a tinkling piano playing in the background, I’m sure. That sounds really nice. I went home and slathered it on some white bread with peanut butter. It was good.

I was fully prepared to hold up the container and point, declaring, “But it says ‘jam’ on the jar! Like peanut butter and jam!” in a dumb voice, but the sandwich was good. The ingredients complemented each other. In fact, I would say it’s a suitable substitute for any fruit jam use, for better or worse.

Trader Joe's Uncured Bacon Jam 2

The jam itself is spreadable meat immersed in liquid. So, that seems kinda gross. It looks a little like the contents of a sink’s garbage disposal. At first taste, it’s sweet, like any fruit jam would be. It has a baby food-texture that ends in little chewy bits of meat. The sweetness subsides and opens up a smoky, savory roundness that eventually lands on a tart aftertaste.

I ate it off a knife (and only cut my tongue a tiny bit… ladies) and it proved too sweet to eat alone. Even with some bread, anything more than a dollop was too sweet to bear. Like any other jam, a little goes a long way. One thing I did notice is that one of the main ingredients is “dark brown sugar,” which makes this more of a faux-maple bacon food item. The jam definitely needs to pair with something bold to counteract the cloying element.

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The jar itself says to add it to pizzas, burgers, sandwiches and appetizers, but I only had it in a peanut butter sandwich and with a grilled cheese. If you use a sharp cheddar/muenster combo, it helps balance the flavor profile nicely, if you don’t use too much. I can’t really think of too many other times I’m putting jam on things, though. With the bacon trend in the rearview mirror, the usefulness of this is a little in question.

Perhaps the jam is not as versatile as the jar would have you believe, but I can see how a tiny spot of this stuff would work at a dinner party with all your Trader Joe’s cashiers in attendance. They’re all sitting around the table wearing Hawaiian shirts, serving tiny paper cups of coffee and commenting on each other’s groceries. Man, I want an invite. Do you think they serve that half-popped popcorn there? And cookie butter? Oh, rainbow carrots and hummus! That’s it. I’m going to march back there and compliment them on their shirts.

(Nutrition Facts – 1 tablespoon – 45 calories, 2 grams of fat, 1 grams of saturated fat, 5 milligrams of cholesterol, 75 milligrams of sodium, 5 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of sugar, 1 gram of protein.)

Purchased Price: $4.49
Size: 8.5 oz jar
Purchased at: Trader Joe’s
Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Goes well with a peanut butter sandwich and a grilled cheese. Can be used to substitute any jam.
Cons: When do you put jam on anything? Can be a little too sweet.

REVIEW: Wendy’s Crispy Chicken BLT

Wendy's Crispy Chicken BLT

“What if I want to buy it by itself?” I asked.

She responded, “You can buy it by itself but it’s from over here and doesn’t have bacon on it.” The cashier gestured at the value menu, at their value chicken sandwich. At least at this Wendy’s, they do not sell the Crispy Chicken BLT alone. I was being railroaded into buying a meal.

In a true “Mom, don’t tell me what to do” moment, I grimaced. Yes, Wendy’s is offering a “4 for $4” deal that is basically Frankenstein-ed value menu options, and is kicking it off with a new item, the Crispy Chicken BLT.

Here’s the thing: I have piecemealed together feasts from Wendy’s in the past. This is one of my favorite places to do it. But if you’re saying I have to buy a soda and I have to buy some fries, I’m going to push back a bit. No Frosty? No baked potato? As the combinations dwindle, it feels like Dave Thomas’ ghost hand is holding my head under a vat of Wendy’s chili as he mumbles something about how ground beef should have right-angled corners.

The meal comes with a sandwich, four nuggets, a soda and fries. And once the sandwich is unwrapped, it’s clear why it comes with friends. It’s pretty tiny. Turns out, it’s a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger but with a fried white chicken patty replacing the beef.

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The Crispy Chicken BLT boasts a two slices of bacon, a slice of American cheese, mayo, lettuce, and tomato on top of the patty. The bacon is crispier than I’m used to on other Wendy’s items, but it and the lettuce add a nice texture to the entire bite. The bun is soft but dry, and combined with the mild hum of the American cheese and mayonnaise, can get a little overbearing at times.

The chicken itself is fine—the white meat is free of soft bones (unlike a McChicken, sometimes) and contrasts nicely to the sodium boost the pork adds. The patty is nothing particularly special, similar to most other sandwiches on the value menu, but this seems to complement the other ingredients a tad better than the beef counterpart.

How was the rest of the meal? I would have liked a Frosty, to be honest. The fries seemed like overkill, but were fine. And surprisingly, I did not get sick of chicken, as I gulped down four nuggets no problem (didn’t they use to have five nuggets?).

I’m not a fan of the “4 for $4” promotion. It looks too much like 4-4-4, which gives off Illuminati vibes, and the entire situation definitely feels like paying for a cable package when all I need is Warriors basketball, the Property Brothers and the People v. OJ Simpson. “Kar-dash-i-an! Kar-dash-i-an!”

The sandwich is a decent value menu item, and four bucks is a pretty good price for a meal. Just lemme pick my own stuff, Wendy’s.

(Nutrition Facts – 440 calories, 24 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 55 milligrams of cholesterol, 950 milligrams of sodium, 37 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of sugar, 1 gram of fiber, and 20 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $4 (includes meal)
Size: N/A
Purchased at: Wendy’s
Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Serviceable value menu item. Better than the Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger. Chicken and bacon go together well, lettuce adds a nice crisp.
Cons: Cheese and bread can overwhelm. You need to buy four things at once.

REVIEW: Taco Bell Quesalupa

Taco Bell Quesalupa

This country is always trying to pit us against each other. In politics, it’s a two party system that radicalizes the masses, the haves versus the have-nots. In sports, the blowout celebration is one final matchup that stretches narratives into ideologies and forces us to choose sides, the dabs versus the dab-nots.

Taco Bell tries the opposite, joining things together with varying success. They integrate other products such as Cinnabon and Doritos into their own items and display countless permutations of existing creations, rearranging-Titanic-deck-chairs style.

Taco Bell’s latest attempt is the much-ballyhooed Quesalupa, a combination of the quesadilla and a Chalupa. A quesadilla is kind of like a grilled soft taco with lots of cheese on it and a Chalupa is kind of like a deep fried soft taco. If menu items were human beings, I would examine the family tree pretty meticulously before letting these two get married.

Taco Bell Quesalupa 4

Ostensibly, the Quesalupa is a Chalupa shell with pepper jack cheese inside then filled with sour cream, lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese and a protein. This, however, is no Chalupa shell. I’m sure they had to make adjustments to accommodate the pocket of melty cheese that spills out of the center, but the near-perfect crispy-chewy Chalupa armor has been depleted to a weak facsimile.

Taco Bell Quesalupa 3

The entire Quesalupa sags in the middle, buckling to the sogginess of the cheese, without a textural counterbalance to save it. There is plenty of cheese to go around, to the point where the warm stew-like blend of ingredients exhibits the comforting consistency of a shepherd’s pie. But without the fluffy-crispy promise that a Chalupa provides, the Quesalupa falls short of expectations.

Taco Bell Quesalupa 2

I tried the beef and chicken options and the beef comes up on top, with the salty, ground meat lending better flavor to the entire item. The chicken is bland and definitely needs outside help of a hot sauce to feel complete. The produce is typical of Taco Bell and serves to fill out the item—space-wise and color-wise—and maybe to place a pebble on top of a food pyramid quota.

Perhaps it’s a testament to the Quesalupa that the cheese blends well together. It’s a gooey affair that absorbs all the qualities of both types of cheeses offered (and the sour cream as well) to make a dairy bomb that flattens out any nuance. The center of a Quesalupa is at the same time satisfying and a bit icky, melding together like a cream of Taco Bell soup. Whether that sounds good to you or not will be the deal breaker here.

For my buck, the best Taco Bell items play with texture in a unique way and dance on the crunchy-soft line: the Crunchwrap Supreme, the Double Decker Taco, and the Chalupa.

Unfortunately for the Quesalupa, while it features the warm qualities of a steaming quesadilla, it does not take the best parts of a Chalupa, which makes it a pretty average Taco Bell item. And maybe that’s the point? People hate Trump. People love Trump. People hate Cam. People love Cam. Quesalupa? “Ehh.” On this, I think, we can all agree.

(Nutrition Facts – Beef – 460 calories, 26 grams of fat, 11 grams of saturated fat, 50 milligrams of cholesterol, 890 milligrams of sodium, 38 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of sugar, 4 grams of fiber, 19 grams of protein. Chicken – 440 calories, 23 grams of fat, 10 grams of saturated fat, 60 milligrams of cholesterol, 840 milligrams of sodium, 37 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of sugar, 3 grams of fiber, 22 grams of protein.)

Item: Taco Bell Quesalupa
Purchased Price: $2.99 (beef) $3.79 (chicken)
Size: N/A
Purchased at: Taco Bell
Rating: 5 out of 10 (beef)
Rating: 4 out of 10 (chicken)
Pros: Comforting consistency, gooey cheese center.
Cons: Soggy in the middle. Maybe too much cheese. Texturally boring.

REVIEW: KFC Nashville Hot Chicken

KFC Nashville Hot Chicken

What I know about Nashville: Mrs. Coach from Friday Night Lights has a show about it and something called “hot chicken” was invented there.

A handful of Food Network shows have signal-boosted the wet-looking fried bird in the past decade and, based on the various hosts’ reactions, it’s amazing. If my hazy memory is correct, most of the purveyors of the Music City specialty are tight lipped about the recipe, but a cursory bit of internet sleuthing reveals some sort of cayenne pepper paste mix as the secret.

Enter KFC. Never mind that Nashville is in Tennessee and the “K” in KFC stands for a state that geographically stifles Tennessee like a big brother sitting on top of you trying to squeeze out a fart.

The Yum! Brands conglomerate will have your local delicacy and good luck trying to trademark something with two words as simple as “hot” and “chicken.” They have the balls to put an exclamation point in the name of their company. They have the balls to do anything. Anyway, KFC serves Nashville Hot Chicken. And it’s okay, if not for the typical KFC pitfalls.

The advertisements for Nashville Hot Chicken promise a good amount of heat, one that builds, based on a “secret” recipe that includes cayenne and smoked paprika. On this, it delivers. I had the two-piece basket, which includes a biscuit, a sprinkling of pickles and a side of cole slaw.

KFC Nashville Hot Chicken 2

The breading on the chicken was nice and chunky, crispy. The initial heat factor was low but as the meal went on it chugged into a nice hum. It’s a dull, pleasant spice that is never overwhelming and contrasts well with the smoother tastes of the buttermilk breading and dark meat.

Since it’s being sold with sides as a package, I’ll go into those. The cole slaw is KFC cole slaw. It’s a bit too sweet but the coolness really acts well against the chicken, and basically serves as a palate cleanser whenever you need a respite from the spice.

The flimsy pickles, which are thrown onto the chicken, are an afterthought and do not possess any value whatsoever. They have no bite or any flavor and have wilted onto the greasy bird.

The biscuit touches the chicken and, through magical biscuit powers, absorbs some of the hot chicken oil, which makes an awesome hot oil-dipped biscuit, improving the already-great side.

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This does, however, bring up the oil situation. KFC calls the entire thing a “two-piece basket” but it came in a plastic container. It traps in all the oil that was on the chicken, KFC-style, but this is hella oil. Hot chicken already looks wet and saturated, but this is for real the most oily chicken I have ever had. Two dozen napkins later, I had dripped the red-colored oil on my sleeves and my notepad, which was on an adjacent table.

Sure, chalk it up to me being a disaster, but this stuff got everywhere. I quit eating the thigh three-fourths the way through because it got too gross. The breading was slipping off like a cummerbund after prom and it was making a gigantic mess.

I had hot chicken once before (in Los Angeles, go figure). It was served on a slice of white bread, to soak up all the oil. Nothing was done like this here, and it was unbearable. The previous experience also had nice homemade vinegar to go along with the chicken, which made me lament the pickle situation even more.

The taste is fine, but the oil is harsh. Yum! Brands, what hast thou wrought?

(Nutrition Facts – Not available on website.)

Item: KFC Nashville Hot Chicken
Purchased Price: $5.49 (includes cole slaw and biscuit)
Size: 2 pieces basket
Purchased at: KFC
Rating: 6 out of 10
Pros: Nice amount of heat, a low simmer of spice. Good breading.
Cons: Unbearably oily. Pickles were flimsy, not bright.

REVIEW: Ben & Jerry’s Limited Batch Cake My Day Ice Cream

Ben & Jerry's Limited Batch Cake My Day Ice Cream

Okay. Ben and Jerry’s has an ice cream name that includes number six on AFI’s 100 movie quotes, Dirty Harry’s “Go ahead, make my day.” Let’s see how I fare with the rest of the top six:

“Frankly, My Dear, I Don’t Give a Graham” — Ground up graham crackers, pieces of Clark bars in a vanilla Confederate base.

“An Offer He Can’t Re-fudge” – Orange ice cream swirled with fudge and bits of cannoli.

“I Coulda Been a Gum-tender” – Bubble gum-flavored bits for chewing scenery in a Terry-misu ice cream.

“Not in Kumquat Anymore” — Technicolor swirl of various fruit flavors in a lollipop candy base, conspicuously no kumquat (we’re not in kumquat).

“Here’s Looking at You, Squid” — Squid-flavored ice cream, with squid ink core.

Good job, Kevin. No, great job. So how’s Cake My Day? It’s vanilla cake batter ice cream with vanilla cake pieces, buttercream frosting and raspberry swirl. And did it “cake” my day? “Pie” will “tart” you — and “donut” “streusel” — but it’s a “lemon meringue” “babka” so when there’s “muffin” left, it’s “flan.”

Oh gosh. Sorry about that. Clears throat.

“I will tell you — and do not stress — but it’s a limited batch so when there’s nothing left, it’s gone.”

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The cake is in tiny off-white balls, scattered amongst the creamy, soft ice cream. The buttercream frosting gives it a rich kick and makes the entire thing smell like a frozen cream puff. The raspberry swirl surfs on a wave of cake-y undertones. It features that unmistakable raspberry-in-form-other-than-whole-fruit taste. Is there a word for that phenomenon, like in German?

Anyway, some people might not like that pseudo-pungent, nose-twisty taste, but I think it gives it a decent personality. In fact, it is the only personality in this ice cream. The cake bits give it a good counterbalance of flavor but ultimately the raspberry is the prevailing taste. It’s swirled in there nice for a great visual and is also present in every bite, which gets a tiny bit repetitive as the plainness of the cake batter plateaus out into normal.

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It’s a solid, if not sweet, bite of ice cream though. You ever have a birthday cake for an aunt who collects spoons from around the world? She watches Supernatural. She roots for Tom Brady. Her favorite movie is The Notebook and her jeans ride high on her waist. Well, that birthday cake is mashed into an ice cream and it’s this ice cream right here.

Come to think of it, maybe Ben and Jerry aren’t into movie quotes. “Ben and Jerry” rhymes with “Dirty Harry.” Maybe they’re into Clint Eastwood, and will continue Clint Eastwood-related flavor names. I just really hope one of his movies rhymes with “squid.”

(Nutrition Facts – 1/2 cup – 280 calories, 16 grams of fat, 8 grams of saturated fat, 55 grams of cholesterol, 65 milligrams of sodium, 29 grams of carbohydrates, 23 grams of sugar, and 4 grams of protein.)

Item: Ben & Jerry’s Limited Batch Cake My Day Ice Cream
Purchased Price: $3.49
Size: 1 pint
Purchased at: Target
Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Ice cream balances raspberry flavor well with buttercream base. Tasty and evokes a cake well.
Cons: One note.