REVIEW: Starbucks Spiced Root Beer Fizzio Hand-Crafted Soda

Starbucks Spiced Root Beer Fizzio Hand-Crafted Soda

I am fascinated by transformations. From The Wolf Man to Teen Wolf, I love to watch things slowly take on new forms. Especially if it involves becoming a wolf. I’m highly interested in one steady conversion in particular.

Over the past five years, Starbucks has undergone a metamorphosis from a somewhat upscale coffee bar into your run-of-the-mill fast food chain. Granted, it’s a “high-end” version of a fast food chain, but they cover all the basics. Instead of cheeseburgers, they prepare paninis. Instead of milkshakes, they offer a plethora of creamy iced beverages and Frappuccinos. Instead of Egg McMuffins, they hawk wraps and sandwiches with slow-roasted ham and Fontiago cheese. Instead of donuts, they sell scones and Mallorca sweet bread. I’m waiting for some hoity-toity French fries – maybe fingerling potatoes with rosemary and garlic?

The latest Starbucks item to fulfill their fast food roots initiative is the Fizzio™ Hand-Crafted Soda. Starbucks has introduced three new carbonated drinks — Spiced Root Beer, Golden Ginger Ale, and Lemon Ale.

I suppose the Golden Ginger Ale is for later when you’re puking your guts out after having whatever the hell Lemon Ale is supposed to be. (NOTE: The Starbucks press release says that Lemon Ale is “a refreshing, citrus-forward blend of real lemon juice with hints of apricot and ginger.” That ridiculous phrase “citrus-forward” sounds like a marketing term dreamed up by someone who doesn’t understand words anymore.) Anyway, I decided to go with the Spiced Root Beer. Frankly, to me, that flavor seemed to be the one closest to its origins as a diner staple.

After ordering the new drink, I watched a barista pull a carton labeled “Root Beer” from the mini-fridge and pour a small amount into my 12-ounce cup. Then she added ice. So… about that “hand-crafted” business… I don’t know what constitutes hand-crafting except for the fact that the barista had to pour the root beer base into a pitcher in order to make my drink. I wasn’t expecting much, but the phrase “hand-crafted” creates the image of careful measurements, stirring, and taste-testing. Or at least shaking something. Nah. In this case, hand-crafting just means pouring into a blender.

I have no idea what the barista did next, outside of pulling out a magic wand and hollering “Expecto Bubbletronum,” but my drink arrived appropriately sparkling. Apparently, the bubbles were created using a new Starbucks-trademarked contraption called The Fizzio™ machine. Basically, the machine carbonates any drink, so you can walk in and ask for a cold, fizzy whatever for an extra 50 cents.

Unfortunately, bubbles couldn’t save the Fizzio™ Spiced Root Beer from being a mostly bland and underwhelming beverage experience. According to the Starbucks website, the Spiced Root Beer flavor presents “the nostalgic taste of classic root beer with a deliciously unexpected twist – cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and star anise add a flavorful kick to this soda.”

Besides the fact that Star Anise sounds like the latest discovery in the Andromeda Galaxy, the use of these interesting spices is your proof that it’s the hoity-toity version of a regular old root beer. In reality, instead of a flavorful kick, it tastes more like a feeble nudge with an outstretched toe. The Fizzio™ Spiced Root Beer tastes like a watered-down version of regular old root beer, but that could be because it’s not full of high fructose corn syrup.

It was certainly spicy, but the flavor was more reminiscent of cinnamon gum — Kind of a delicate spiciness with just a hint of sweetness to balance it. It was an okay drink, but nothing I’d run back to Starbucks to get. I suppose that this is part of the transformation process. When you begin to change into something else, part of you dies forever. I would hope that if I began a metamorphosis, I would change into something that might go well with rum.

(Nutrition Facts – 12 fl oz. – 80 calories, 0 calories from fat, 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 10 milligrams of sodium, 23 grams of carbohydrates, 22 grams of sugar, 2% Calcium.).)

Item: Starbucks Spiced Root Beer Fizzio™ Hand-Crafted Soda
Purchased Price: $2.55
Size: 12 fl oz.
Purchased at: Starbucks
Rating: 5 out of 10
Pros: Spiced with interesting spices. Bubbly. One of three new flavors. Lycanthropy.
Cons: A bland experience™. Hand-crafted = pouring into a blender. Getting nudged with a toe. “Citrus-forward.”

REVIEW: McDonald’s McCafé Pumpkin Spice Latte

McDonald’s McCafe? Pumpkin Spice Latte

I love Halloween, but it stresses me out. Most people get apprehensive about Thanksgiving and all the year-end religious holidays because they often involve family and gift-giving.

I get stressed out by Halloween because it ushers in that massive three-month-long wave of seasonal goodies that are only available FOR A LIMITED TIME – so already I’m rushing around frantically trying to grab them before they’re gone.

To make matters worse, October and November specialize in one particular ingredient that can be found in just about everything you can buy: Cookies, crackers, potato chips, drinks, ice cream, nuts, pastries, popcorn, waffles, yogurt, condiments, bread, hand soap, and even air freshener. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except instead of pod people, it’s pumpkin spice! I call it THE PUMPKINING. And as a sucker for seasonal gourds, I fall for it every time. (Get it? Fall? Thanks, I’ll be here all week. Tip your servers!)

McDonald’s is no stranger to THE PUMPKINING, having already introduced a most reasonable pumpkin pie a few years ago. But it never offered the second most reasonable pumpkin venture to go along with that pastry –- a pumpkin-flavored hot drink.

So that’s why I got really excited when I saw McDonald’s had introduced its own pumpkin-flavored coffee for the season — the McCafé Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Wondering what exactly constitutes “pumpkin spice?” Nutmeg? Vanilla? Cinnamon? All of the above?

In the case of McDonalds’ new McCafé Pumpkin Spice Latte, it seems to be 1) cinnamon, 2) vanilla, and 3) a metric shit-ton of sweet flavored powder. Seriously, it’s like 70 percent sugar, 20 percent milk, and 10 percent espresso. It was like getting punched in the mouth by a “pumpkin.” And yes, I used those quotation marks on purpose. This isn’t how real pumpkin tastes… and having been a connoisseur of pumpkin pie for decades, I also feel this isn’t how real pumpkin pie tastes, either.

I was unable to verify whether this latte came straight from a powder mix, but it reminded me of the flavored instant coffee I would buy from QuikTrip back in the ‘90s. And that stuff was so full of sugar it might as well have come with a free blood sugar meter and a warning label with Wilfred Brimley’s face on it.

The McCafé Pumpkin Spice Latte was so sweet that you didn’t need to add sweetener. That’s probably why it doesn’t come with whipped cream. If there had been, I’d surely be writing this review with the help of an intelligent machine transcribing my subconscious thoughts from deep within my diabetic coma.

McDonald’s McCafe? Pumpkin Spice Latte Iced

I tried both the hot and iced versions, mostly by accident. During my first visit to my local McDonald’s, I was forced to order my McCafé Pumpkin Spice Latte with ice because (quote) “The hot machine [was] out of order.” No biggie. Here in Southern California, it’s still 80 degrees and may quite possibly stay that way until January, so a frosty drink is A-OK.

Later, I got the hot version, and my taste buds were met by the familiar creamy sweetness and a thick, slightly grainy texture that was vaguely reminiscent of hot chocolate mix. It was all right. While, I can’t exactly say I hated my iced Pumpkin Spice Latte in comparison to the hot one, I would say it wasn’t really refreshing. The iced Pumpkin Spice Latte was creamy and cold and full of sweetness, but after a few minutes, the milk, the sugar, and the caffeine starting swirling together into a maelstrom of nausea, and I began to seriously reconsider my life choices.

Was all this barfy agita worth it? Well, the price is good, especially when compared to the $3.95 price tag of a 12-ounce Starbucks Pumpkin Latte. With the change I’d spare, I could afford to go full-throttle and load up on all the pumpkin English muffins, pumpkin yogurt, and pumpkin-scented shampoo that will hang around until Thanksgiving only to be swiftly replaced by Peppermint- and Snowman-flavored everything.

I’ll call that THE DECEMBERING.

(Nutrition Facts – Small size (12 fluid ounces) – With Whole Milk – 270 calories, 9 grams of fat, 5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 25 milligrams of cholesterol, 130 milligrams of sodium, 41 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, 39 grams of sugar, and 10 grams of protein. With Nonfat Milk – 200 calories, 0 grams of fat, 0 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 5 milligrams of cholesterol, 125 milligrams of sodium, 41 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, 39 grams of sugar, and 10 grams of protein.)

Item: McDonald’s McCafé Pumpkin Spice Latte
Purchased Price: $2.39
Size: Small (12 oz.)
Purchased at: McDonald’s
Rating: 5 out of 10
Pros: THE PUMPKINING. Does not skimp on sweetness. Competitive price. Seasonal gourds.
Cons: Getting punched in the mouth. Diabeetus. Slightly grainy mixed powder texture. “Pumpkin” flavor.

REVIEW: Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pockets

Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pockets

Being from the Midwest, I didn’t know anything about Cuban sandwiches until I moved to California. You read that correctly. It took a move 1,600 miles in the wrong direction for me to finally experience the warm, toasty delights of the Mixto — roasted pork, sliced ham, swiss cheese, pickles and yellow mustard on fresh Cuban bread pressed with a plancha (iron) and cut diagonally across the center. ¡Delicioso! So far be it from me to shy away from sampling the newest addition to the Hot Pockets line-up, the Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pocket.

Much like the East Coast/West Coast hip hop feud of yore, there’s a rivalry between Tampa and Miami regarding ownership of the Cuban sandwich. Tampa appears to be the original home of the Mixto (a.k.a the Cubano), which was introduced there in the 1890s by hungry Cuban cigar factory workers in the Ybor City neighborhood. They did, however, add salami to the sandwich — a highly controversial move, especially considering how Miami’s sandwich artists have adhered to the traditional recipe. I suppose this would be the “Who Shot Ya?” event of the sandwich war because things really popped off after that.

Suffice it to say, the salami-free Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pockets seem to welcome me to the city where the heat is on, all night on the beach ‘til the break of dawn. Bienvenido a Miami

These Hot Pockets are demanding that I get Pitbull on the phone and tell him to meet us in the V.I.P. at LIV for some bottle service after the Heat game and then afterwards, crank up the salsa as we speed to the Ritz-Carlton South Beach in our yellow Lambo for the after party.

Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pockets Whole

But before I book that plane ticket, let’s pause for a moment and talk about Cuban bread. It’s delicious and airy with that necessary touch of fat that makes Cuban bread Cuban and almost all other bread crap. I can’t be sure that the Hot Pockets people have injected lard into their crust, but the Cuban Style Hot Pocket is soft and delicious. True, the crust isn’t crispy since these Hot Pockets are heated in the microwave and don’t come with a crisping sleeve, but it isn’t soggy either. It manages to maintain a perfectly bread-like exterior with the right amount of give and softness without becoming a mushy mess.

Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pockets Innards

When it comes to the innards of the Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pockets, they closely approximate the makeup of authentic Cuban sandwiches. They are full of pickle flavor, but I’m at a loss trying to explain where the intense pickle-y taste actually comes from. How did they manage to get so much flavor out of these itsy bitsy chunks of pickle? The meat portion of this Hot Pocket consists of diced ham and sliced pork — two delicious meats that come from the same magically delicious animal. There is a hint of mustard in the Hot Pocket, but it definitely takes a backseat to the pickle flavor.

Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pockets Sliced

The Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pocket is a winner with a pleasantly soft crust, savory pork bits, gooey Swiss cheese, tangy pickles, and no salami. Though it lacks the crispy, toasted texture one can only get from using a sandwich press instead of a microwave, I am positive that anyone looking for some Cubano goodness won’t be disappointed. Just don’t tell Tampa.

(Nutrition Facts – 1 sandwich – 260 calories, 90 fat calories, 10 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 30 milligrams of cholesterol, 680 milligrams of sodium, 32 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, 3 grams of sugar, 10 grams of protein, 15% Calcium, 10%Iron, 0% Vitamin C, 2% Vitamin A.)

Item: Limited Edition Cuban Style Hot Pockets
Purchased Price: $2.00 (on sale)
Size: 2 sandwiches
Purchased at: Ralphs
Rating: 8 out of 10
Pros: Pickles, pork & cheese. Thick, soft bread. Lard injections. Pitbull.
Cons: Teensy mystery pickles. Sandwich feuds. Definitely not plancha crispy. Only around for a short time.

REVIEW: Lean Pockets Limited Edition Chicken Carbonara

Lean Pockets Limited Edition Chicken Carbonara

New year, new Limited Edition Lean Pocket.

I’ve reviewed a lot of Hot Pockets and Lean Pockets on this site… and I’ve realized that there comes a point when every Hot Pocket starts to taste the same. It could be because I’ve burned my mouth so many times eating these things that I’ve lost my sense of taste, but I think it goes deeper than that.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear that Lean Pockets and Hot Pockets come in a wide variety of flavors, and Hot/Lean Pocket connoisseurs would argue that each Hot/Lean Pocket is its own unique creation, like a snowflake… or a TSA patdown.

But let’s get real here.

There’s very little you can do to mess this thing up (see my previous entry on the Limited Edition Four Cheese Garlic Pasta Bake Hot Pocket for examples of how this could be done) – it’s a toasted crust stuffed with meat, sauce, cheese and/or veggies. Culinary Rocket Science, it’s not. The result is that there’s never much to explore or even to improve upon with this fairly simple microwaveable sandwich, and the new Limited Edition Chicken Carbonara Lean Pocket does little to dissuade me of this notion.

The Limited Edition Chicken Carbonara Lean Pocket has a decent flavor but has little to distinguish itself from all the other Lean Pockets in the freezer aisle. It’s crispy, gooey, savory and piping hot just like a Lean Pocket should be. But the only thing making this Limited Edition Lean Pocket different from its toasty brethren is the inclusion of those tiny mushy globules we call peas. Did you know that carbonara sauce is a mixture of eggs, cheese, bacon and black pepper… and has nothing to do with peas?

Peas may populate carbonara dishes the world over now, but back in the day when carbonara was created (like in WWII or something), it was all about the eggs and bacon. Lean Pockets don’t care. Lean Pockets is all, “We’ve got your cured bacon, your Italian spices, and your parmesan cream sauce with peas, so dig in, you crazy carbonara lovers!” I don’t hate peas or anything, but you can’t depend on peas. We learned that in WWII.

Lean Pockets Limited Edition Chicken Carbonara (Inside)

Anyway, this thing also has mozzarella and grilled white meat chicken to accompany the bacon, peas and parmesan cream sauce. The chicken is okay, but the bacon is really the major selling point here. I don’t think that anyone can argue against the presence of bacon in this Lean Pocket. What’s better is that the bacon chunks seem to be evenly spread throughout the sandwich along with the parmesan cream sauce, creating a delicious mélange of savory flavors from end to end. As for the Italian style herb crust, it’s warm and crispy and good. No complaints here.

Lean Pockets Limited Edition Chicken Carbonara Outside

The Limited Edition Chicken Carbonara Lean Pockets aren’t all that different from some of the other Lean Pockets out there, especially those from the Culinary Creations line, which seem to specialize in seasoned crusts. If someone who hasn’t eaten nearly EVERY SINGLE Lean Pocket or Hot Pocket on the planet were to sample this new Chicken Carbonara Lean Pocket, they would probably delight in what they’d think is its amazingly unique flavor and composition.

I can’t, however.

My enthusiasm for this Lean Pocket is as dead as the skin on the roof of my mouth now.

(Nutrition Facts – 1 sandwich – 260 calories, 7 grams of fat, 3.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 25 milligrams of cholesterol, 540 milligrams of sodium, 38 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, 4 grams of sugar, 9 grams of protein, 4% vitamin A, 15% calcium, and 10% iron.)

Item: Lean Pockets Limited Edition Chicken Carbonara
Purchased Price: $2.99
Size: 2 sandwiches
Purchased at: Vons
Rating: 6 out of 10
Pros: Eternally hot. Creamy sauce. Delicious chunks of cured bacon. Crispy seasoned crust.
Cons: You can’t depend on peas. Mouth burns. Mid-century global conflicts. Lean Pockets don’t care.

REVIEW: Taco Bell A.M. Crunchwrap (Bacon & Sausage)

Taco Bell A.M. Crunchwrap

There are many terrible things I am more likely to do before I ever again eat the latest addition to Taco Bell’s signature FirstMeal menu:

Walk barefoot in an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day.

Get some fillings when I don’t really have cavities, “just for the heck of it.”

Watch Paranormal Activity by myself in an empty house and then leave the bedroom door open when I go to bed.

Steal my boss’s corporate card to buy myself an expensive lunch and defiantly say it’s because “they owe me.”

Accidentally swallow a goldfish.

That is how little I enjoyed these pudgy little artery-cloggers they call the Taco Bell A.M. Crunchwraps. Speaking of which, let’s break down the title of this new breakfast item: “Taco Bell” – OK, so we know where we can buy this. “A.M.” – Only available in the morning. Check. “Crunchwrap” – Woah, now… slow your roll. There wasn’t anything crunchy inside these wraps. Just chewy, oily, and rubbery things.

The A.M. Crunchwrap comes in two inexpensive, standard breakfast varieties, Bacon or Sausage. I tried both, and let me tell you that while the grilled flour tortilla is warm, toasty and crisp around the edges, the insides do not crunch. Both A.M. Crunchwraps come with the meat on top of a layer of scrambled eggs and cheese paired with a once-crispy hash brown. Unfortunately the hash brown patties inside of the two A.M. Crunchwraps I got were soggy with grease and excess moisture from being trapped in between a jacket of melted cheese and a flour tortilla, so what had probably been a nice, hot golden exterior was now golden mush. They get some points for even thinking of including hash browns though. It’s the idea of hash browns that counts.

Taco Bell Bacon A.M. Crunchwrap

That still isn’t the worst of it. Let’s talk specifically about the Bacon A.M. Crunchwrap. Contrary to my preconceived notions, there were no crisp, savory strips of bacon in this breakfast contraption, just bacon bits — the kind you’d probably find in a pre-packaged Cobb salad sold for $10.95 at the airport sandwich express counter right next to the case of SoBe and Evian. If Taco Bell were being really honest, they would’ve named this thing the “Bacon Bits A.M. Crunchwrap.” And if Taco Bell were being really, really honest, they would call it the “Chunks of Rubber A.M. Gushwrap.”

The hash brown made everything excessively oily. The bacon bits were tough. I imagine ground-up eraser tips from #2 pencils would taste like those bacon bits. Furthermore, they were stuffed inside one corner of the wrap instead of sprinkled throughout, so when I sliced it in half, all the bacon bits spilled out onto the plate. I can’t imagine what would’ve happened if I had been eating this straight out of the wrapper. Best case scenario, I would’ve ended up with a final bite filled with nothing but bacon bits. Worst case, a shower of bacon bits on my lap. The decent flavor of the scrambled egg and cheese was the only factor that kept the Bacon A.M. Crunchwrap from being 100 percent garbage.

Taco Bell Sausage A.M. Crunchwrap

The good news is that the Sausage A.M. Crunchwrap is better. Not excellent, but better. The Sausage A.M. Crunchwrap is sufficiently savory. Ironically, it wasn’t dripping with grease like the Bacon one. I’d think that a thick sausage patty would be oozing with the slick stuff, but alas, no. The sausage patty inside the Sausage A.M. Crunchwrap was of a decent diameter, too, and it was thick — a nice meaty counterpart to the egg, cheese and fried potato inside the tortilla. It also had some heft and felt like more of a substantial meal than the Bacon A.M. Crunchwrap.

The Sausage A.M. Crunchwrap seems like the final draft while the Bacon A.M. Crunchwrap was the shitty rough draft Taco Bell churned out in 30 minutes because they were working under deadline and hadn’t slept a wink after watching Paranormal Activity by themselves the night before.

If you’re in the mood for something relatively cheap and quick that’s not the worst fast food breakfast you’ll ever eat, then the Sausage A.M. Crunchwrap is for you. But if you’re interested in flavor, texture and experiencing complete satisfaction with your breakfast, then why are you eating at Taco Bell?

(Nutrition Facts – Bacon – 680 calories. Sausage – 720 calories.)

Item: Taco Bell A.M. Crunchwrap (Bacon & Sausage)
Purchased Price: $2.50
Size: N/A
Purchased at: Taco Bell
Rating: 2 out of 10 (Bacon)
Rating: 5 out of 10 (Sausage)
Pros: Tortilla is warm and crisp around the edges. Sausage A.M. Crunchwrap has nice heft to it. Sausage patty is savory and thick. The idea of hash browns.
Cons: Greasy. Bacon tastes like #2 pencil erasers. Something totally slamming that bedroom door shut in the middle of the night. Soggy hash browns.