REVIEW: The Spotted Cheetah, A Restaurant By Cheetos

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I love a good gimmick. If it’s temporary or new and has a hook, I’m there. Super-long line? No problem. Thai Rolled Ice Cream. The Oreo Wonder Vault. Rainbow Bagels. The Hello Kitty Café Truck. Cronuts. I’ve done them all.

Some gimmicks turn out better than anticipated. Some fall short of the mark. Some defy your expectations altogether. That was the case with the Spotted Cheetah, a Cheetos-centric pop-up restaurant in Manhattan. I assumed it would be a garish publicity stunt with ridiculous “food.”

When I heard about this 3-night-only event, I wanted in. A menu of 4 appetizers, 4 entrees and 3 desserts, each made with Cheetos products. I like to repurpose foods into other forms, so this was right up my alley.

Any other week, The Spotted Cheetah is known as Distilled – an upscale but casual Tribeca restaurant that I’m only now realizing I’ve eaten in before. As I approached this night, I readied myself for typical NYC event line-waiting and passive-aggressive jockeying for position. Everyone here is important, after all, and we MUST get in ASAP.

To my delight, no one was corralled within the velvet ropes. Shocking considering how much media attention this place has gotten. After a quick chat with the clipboard guy, I glided into a seat at the bar.

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Crystal Pepsi – of course.

The menu was designed by Food Network chef Anne Burrell. All I know about her is: 1) her hair and 2) she hosted Worst Cooks in America – for which I once volunteered to test a challenge before shooting started, and failed miserably at everything.

I ordered the Cheetos Crusted Fried Pickles, Cheetos Mix-Ups Crusted Chicken Milanese, and the Cheetos Sweetos Crusted Cheesecake. Apparently I’m a glutton for crusting.

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While I waited for my food, I watched patrons talk to a live-animated Chester Cheetah on a TV screen near the entrance.

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Normally I despise things that aggressively interact with me, but I was fascinated by this technology. Chester’s mouth and body moved in real-time from a motion capture of the person speaking. I wondered where he was hiding out.

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The fried pickles arrived and I dove in, expecting a rubber-mallet-to-the-head of Cheetos flavor. What I got were lovely, tangy, crusty, greasy frickles in a slightly orangier (spellcheck tells me this isn’t a word, I disagree) than normal hue. They were delicious, but only whispered ‘Cheetos.’

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Next up – the Chicken Milanese. A beautifully-dressed salad and Cheetos piled atop a slab of extra-crunchy breaded chicken. I pushed the salad off and sliced into just the chicken. Again, it was a wonderful dish, I enjoyed every bite, but I didn’t taste the Cheetos in the breading.

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This could appear in any restaurant and no one would say “Excuse me – are there CHEETOS in this??” I started taking bits of Cheetos from on top with each mouthful and ended up with the flavor I expected.

An order of the Flamin’ Hot Limon Chicken Tacos arrived for the couple next to me and I was gripped with jealousy. They looked so tempting.

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The cheesecake came closest to capturing the product it was based on. The crust definitely had the churro-ish cinnamon flavor of the Sweetos. It was also a great dish – sweet and tangy cheese with a rich blueberry sauce.

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The décor was just subtle enough that it didn’t feel cheesy (pun intended), but there were cute touches all around.

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It wasn’t a crowded circus. The food was real. It was like a Friday night out at a nice restaurant, but with a wise-cracking animated cheetah.

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I do wish the Cheetos were a bit more present in the dishes I tried, since this was the point of all of this, but I had fun and walked away with a happy belly. I was given a printed book of the menu recipes on the way out – it’s also available on their site. If you’re trying the recipes at home, go a bit heavier on the Cheetos – I’m guessing as junk food fans, you’ll want to know they’re there.

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(Nutrition Facts – Oof. I couldn’t even begin to calculate this.)

Purchased Price: $8 (Fried Pickles), $22 (Chicken Milanese, and $8 (Cheesecake)
Rating: 8 out of 10
Pros: REALLY good food. High-tech cheetah. Thrill of experiencing something that makes half my friends say “Ew. That’s disgusting.”
Cons: Expected to leave covered in Cheetos dust inside & out, didn’t, hence slightly disappointed.

REVIEW: Doritos Mix Blazin’ Buffalo Explosion

Doritos Mix Blazin Buffalo Explosion

A good snack mix is like a finely tuned NFL offense. You’ve got a leading taste (quarterback), a solid foundation (that’s your offensive line), and a couple of dynamic flavors that actually make it worth eating (your wideouts and running backs).

Mess up those components and you’ll find yourself with a paper bag over your head in Cleveland. But nail them and you’ve got yourself a snack that has staying power for years to come.

At the very least, Doritos Mix Blazin’ Buffalo Explosion nails the eye test of a really good team. Aside from hitting us with some common football clichés in explosive and blazin’, there’s a lot going on beyond just Buffalo sauce flavor. Sure, you’ve got reliable veterans like Cool Ranch, but you’ve also got some intriguing flavors, like blue cheese and chipotle.

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And, for the most part, the flavors work really well together. Maybe it was because of the blue packaging, but I was expecting a pretty conservative playbook that added some cayenne spice to the ubiquitous Cool Ranch flavor. Instead, there’s a winning combination of textual and flavor variety that’s unique for even the over-saturated Doritos brand.

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The Blazin’ Buffalo & Ranch chips are definitely the quarterback here. Each chip has strong Buffalo sauce flavor and tingling back heat, followed by a buttermilk tang that gets some run after the catch action from the Cool Ranch triangles. Putting extra crunchy blue cheese and ranch pieces on the same team works surprisingly well.

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I like to think of the chipotle-flavored rolls as the offensive line in this metaphor. The unmistakable rising heat plays a role in every bite, and, even though the smoky aftertaste of a chipotle pepper never really comes through, the flavor hits you like a 300-pound offensive guard.

While the flavors and textures are very good — let’s call it Wild Card caliber good — there are some weak points. In fact, I’d go so far to say that Doritos Mix Blazin’ Buffalo Explosion can’t quite seal the deal, much like their namesake city’s team from the early 1990s. The explosive heat is more three yards and a cloud of dust than big-play catch and run, meaning you’re going to want to put some of Cole Beasley’s sauce on the chips to actually make them really spicy.

Also, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like the overly buttery aftertaste that certain brands of Buffalo sauce have, you probably won’t like the Blazin’ Buffalo & Ranch chips too much.

Flaws aside, Doritos Mix Blazin’ Buffalo Explosion is a serious cupboard space contender, and one I hope sticks around until the offseason.

(Nutrition Facts – 28 grams – 140 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 180 milligrams of sodium, 29 grams of carbohydrates, less than 1 gram of dietary fiber, 0 grams of sugar, and 2 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $1.98
Size: 9.5 oz. bag
Purchased at: Walmart
Rating: 7 out of 10
Pros: Good variety of flavors, with distinguishable notes of ranch, blue cheese, and chipotle. Genuine Buffalo sauce flavor. Chipotle pieces have a solid crunch.
Cons: Heat is mostly just back heat, with cayenne and chipotle blending into a single mild spiciness. Too much butter in the Buffalo sauce flavor. Aggressive use of football clichés not seen since the days of John Madden’s broadcasting career.

REVIEW: Lay’s Kettle Cooked Everything Bagel Potato Chips

Lay s Kettle Cooked Everything Bagel Potato Chips

I’m from the tri-state, so I think I’ve been exposed to good bagels in my lifetime. I’ve also been exposed to bad bagels parading themselves as good bagels. I like to think I’m a trustworthy voice when it comes to bagel quality. So, when I heard Lay’s had a new Everything Bagel with Cream Cheese chip, I had to review them.

Everything is arguably the best bagel, but they’re a mess to eat and the seeds get stuck in my teeth, so I appreciate Lay’s attempting to bring these great breakfast flavors together without the hassle.

Everything bagel chips already exist and if these taste anything like them, I’ll be more than satisfied. Also, just to let you know, I like my bagels soft and my bagel chips teeth shattering. When people ask me my favorite form of gambling, I tell them “eating bagel chips.”

Nothing about the bag’s smell screamed “everything bagel.” It just smelled like greasy kettle chips. When I buy a dozen bagels, those tend to be the dominant scent in the bag. There’s none of that here.

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They don’t look that special either. The only seasoning I could see were ACTUAL poppy seeds. Lay’s always puts flavor speckles on chips, why use actual poppy seeds? They’re the worst part of an everything bagel, and usually require floss.

As for the taste, there’s a small hint of cream cheese. Well, there’s a dairy taste at the very least, so they deliver in that department.

Beyond that, I didn’t distinguish the other elements of an everything bagel. There’s a tang at first, but it just tastes like a weak sour cream and onion. I’d let that go if the other flavors worked, but they really don’t.

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Did I taste sesame? Not really. Was there anything “bready” about these chips? Nope. “Bready” chips are probably easier said than done, but we’re talking about bagels here. These don’t taste like bagels. I stared at the bagel on the bag, and still couldn’t convince my brain.

The thing about regular kettle chips is that the main flavor is oil. The grease is overpowering unless the chip is coated in a strong flavor base, which these chips do not have. The other problem, like always, is the fact the texture is inconsistent. Some chips are perfectly crunchy while some seem like they’re five years old.

Unfortunately, these don’t deliver on the bagel promise. They remind me of really weak, stale sour cream and onion chips. There’s no chance these win the Do Us a Flavor contest.

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(Nutrition Facts – about 15 chips – 150 calories, 9 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 160 milligrams of sodium, 16 grams of carbohydrates, 0 grams of fiber, less than 1 gram of sugar, and 2 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $2.50
Size: 8 oz. bag
Purchased at: ShopRite
Rating: 4 out of 10
Pros: A strong contest choice. Cream cheese comes through. Onion and garlic are noticeable. Everything bagels are delicious. Wouldn’t necessarily be a bad chip if they weren’t falsely advertised. They taste better dipped in actual cream cheese.
Cons: Greasy kettle flavor. Weak smell. Boring looking chip. Misses on some major flavor elements. Poppy seeds.

REVIEW: Cheetos Crunchy Flamin’ Hot Chipotle Ranch

Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, which I refer to endearingly as OG Hot Cheetos, and I go way back. Almost three decades ago, its street cred and my love for them was established. They were basically the currency of my elementary school days – traded in snack-size Ziploc bags for durables like shakeable Dr. Grip mechanical pencils (very cool back then too).

Of course, my enterprising after-school institution caught on. They sold “individual packs” to us crazed hooligans for 25 cents. Adult me is pretty sure that those one-ounce packs were the kind you buy in a variety pack labeled “not for individual sale.” Point is – the OG trusty, just-enough-heat deliciousness has never failed me.

So when the new Cheetos Crunchy Flamin’ Hot Chipotle Ranch hit shelves, I thought, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” However, I went in with little to no expectations because I wasn’t quite sure what chipotle ranch was supposed to taste like dusted on a “cheese-flavored snack.” To me, it sounded more like a dipping sauce or something over-slathered on a sad sandwich.

There was no shock value when I opened the bag because they looked like the same ol’ same ol’. When examined closely, I saw more flecks of seasoning so it looked slightly redder, but that was about it. What did shock me was the BBQ-esque smell coming from the bag. I rationalized that chipotle was supposed to evoke a smokier connotation, which could be similar to BBQ. I also couldn’t un-smell Fritos Honey BBQ Flavor Twists.

Even as I took my first crunch, the more pronounced corn flavor totally reminded me of said Fritos. The initial corn note evolved into a whisper of ranch – thank goodness, the last thing I wanted was cool ranch-esque flavoring – that was rounded out by a slight smokiness from the chipotle, and ended with heat.

I will say that it wasn’t spicy as the OG. The ranch seems to dampen the heat, but I was okay with that because it didn’t completely kill the burn. The diminished heat actually allowed me to shovel them into my mouth at a quicker pace. There was definitely still an undeniable addictiveness. But it was a mind-trip the entire time like when I ate a deconstructed Caesar salad at some hoity-toity restaurant. It tasted like Caesar salad but the form looked nothing like it. But in this case, I was tasting Fritos Honey BBQ Flavor Twists but seeing Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

Just to make sure, I did a taste-off between the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Chipotle Ranch and Fritos Honey BBQ Flavor Twists. They definitely smelled similar, but said Fritos tasted way more pungently BBQ, sweeter from the honey, and weren’t spicy at all. So there’s definitely a difference.

If you put a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in front of me, I’m going to eat them no matter what flavor. But, if I had a choice, I’d stick to the OG.

(Nutrition Facts – about 21 pieces – 170 calories, 11 grams total fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 210 milligrams of sodium, 15 grams of carbohydrates, less than 1 gram of dietary fiber, less than 1 gram sugar, and 2 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $3.00
Size: 8.5 oz. bag
Purchased at: Target
Rating: 8 out of 10
Pros: Still have an addictive quality. Diminished heat allowed me to shovel Cheetos into my mouth at a quicker pace. Not exactly like Fritos Honey BBQ Flavor Twists. Complex flavor journey – giving R&D props!
Cons: OG Flamin’ Hot Cheetos still taste better. Tasting Fritos but seeing Cheetos. Lots of justification needed for the flavor nuances, like why it’s less spicy, etc.

REVIEW: Limited Time Only Tostitos Cantina Sopapilla Cinnamon & Sugar Tortilla Chips

Limited Time Only Tostitos Sopapilla Cinnamon  Sugar Tortilla Chips

The Limited Time Only Tostitos Cantina Sopapilla Cinnamon & Sugar Tortilla Chips bag suggested I top ice cream with the chips. Since vanilla is THE neutral flavor, I went through the difficult task of finding vanilla ice cream.

Now some of you might’ve read that last line and thought I was being sarcastic because buying vanilla ice cream is super easy, but I was not.

I spent an unusual amount of time in the ice cream aisle deciding what to pick up. I’m pretty sure I looked like a shoplifter to the security guards watching me from the cameras as I walked up and down the aisle, interrogating myself about vanilla ice cream.

Should I get regular vanilla, vanilla bean, French vanilla, or Madagascar vanilla?

Should I get ice cream or gelato?

Or should I be lame and get frozen dairy dessert or frozen yogurt?

If I get the Dreyer’s, do I get Slow-Churned or Grand?

Should I buy a pint, quart, half-gallon, or that huge one gallon pail that I can reuse to make sand castles?

Do I go with the organic Three Twins?

Should I be cheap and get the store brand?

Or should I support local companies?

Do I go non-dairy?

Should I settle for Cool Whip?

But thank goodness I went through the effort and eerie feeling that someone was watching me to pick a vanilla ice cream because the Tostitos Sopapilla Tortilla Chips NEEDS ice cream or something to make them more snackable.

Oh, by the way, I picked up Häagen-Dazs.

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The seasoning is inconsistent from chip to chip. Some have so much of it that they look like they were in a Tatooine sand storm. But most have a dusting that looks as if they were just standing outside on a calm Tatooine evening staring at a double sunset wanting something more in life.

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The heavily seasoned chips taste very similar to the Cheetos Sweetos Cinnamon Sugar Puffs, which I did enjoy. There’s even the slight butteriness those puffs have. As for the chips that have a light dusting, there’s a hint of cinnamon flavor, but it’s not bold enough to make me want to stuff my face with them.

But did the ice cream I painstakingly picked out help make the chips more face stuffable?

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Yes. The combo has a cereal and milk vibe to it, and it’s now the only way I’ll eat them. So thanks for the suggestion, Tostitos Cantina Sopapilla Cinnamon & Sugar Tortilla Chips bag.

Basically, these sweet tortilla chips are like regular tortilla chips in that they taste fine by themselves, but they’re really meant to be paired with something else — salsa for regular tortilla chips and ice cream for these.

Oh, by the way, sopapilla is now my new favorite word to say. Sorry, bumfuzzle. You have been replaced!

(Nutrition Facts – about 14 chips – 150 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1 gram of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 75 milligrams of sodium, 18 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of fiber, 1 gram of sugar, and 2 grams of protein.)

Purchased Price: $5.39*
Size: 9 oz. bag
Purchased at: Longs Drugs/CVS
Rating: 6 out of 10
Pros: Reminds me of the Cheetos Sweetos Puffs. Goes great with vanilla ice cream, the combo has a cereal and milk vibe to it. Saying sopapilla.
Cons: Inconsistent amount of seasoning. Most chips don’t have a strong cinnamon flavor. Needs something else to make them more snackable. So many questions when it comes to picking up vanilla ice cream.

*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: Lay’s Southwestern Queso Potato Chips

Lay's Southwestern Queso Potato Chips

I love Tex-Mex – breakfast tacos, fajitas – you name it, I’ll eat it. But, my favorite Tex-Mex invention is hands down: queso.

As part of their annual “Do Us A Flavor” contest push, Lay’s has unleashed another presumably LTO flavor – Southwestern Queso – to get the creative juices flowing. Of course, Lay’s had to be politically correct and name it “Southwestern Queso” but is there really any other kind of delicioso queso like this?! I think not. I am currently living very far away from the “Southwest,” so I was pretty stoked to see something, anything queso.

When I opened the bag, I was surprised that there was no pungent smell invading my olfactory system. In attempts to make up for the flavor not actually tasting like what it’s trying to mimic, a lot of limited edition foods overcompensate with smell or at least I think so. Unfortunately, this notion gave me false hope that the chips would actually taste like queso. Anyways, the smell of these reminded me faintly of BBQ; I couldn’t really pinpoint it immediately.

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The chips looked like a normal seasoned chip color – a twinge of orange, but not neon Cheetos orange. Unlike the photo on the bag, they were also speckled with additional seasoning which reminded me of speckling on Lay’s Kettle Cooked Jalapeno Chips. Is it bad that I was surprised that the chip pieces were actually whole? I recall Lay’s being really brittle/always cracked for some reason. But, these whole oval slices looked like they actually came from a spud.

Like the smell test, I couldn’t really immediately identify what I was tasting. I kept thinking BBQ but realized the prevailing taste was another Lay’s favorite: Sour Cream & Onion. But, the aftertaste was like Cheddar & Sour Cream. So, the extra tang initially reminded me of eating spoiled cream cheese (don’t ask haha). After a handful of chips, I was surprised that I was picking up on a little heat as well. But, it wasn’t too spicy.

Lay’s, what about this tastes like my beloved queso?

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After my tastebuds were saturated in salt and artificial flavoring, I concluded that it wasn’t good but wasn’t terrible for a chip. But, don’t you dare try to tell me that this is queso-flavored. It’s like Lay’s took all their popular existing flavors and blended it into one like Frankenstein’s monster.

If I were naming the flavor I’d name it: Cheddar, Sour Cream & Onion with a little bit of Hot ‘n Spicy BBQ. After this disappointment, I took a peek at the ingredient list. Lay’s attempted to make it look like they tried with “Southwestern Queso Seasoning”, red and green bell pepper extract, paprika extracts and even blue cheese. Either R&D really sucked or this “Southwestern Queso Seasoning” is the Franken-creation I previously mentioned.

I keep telling myself that some Tex-Mex is better than no Tex-Mex, but Lay’s Southwestern Queso flavor is a really hard sell.

(Nutrition Facts – 15 chips – 150 calories, 10 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 0 milligrams of cholesterol, 200 milligrams of sodium, 15 grams of total carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, 1 gram of sugar, and 2 grams of protein..)

Purchased Price: $2.98
Size: 9.5 oz. bag
Purchased at: Walmart
Rating: 4 out of 10
Pros: No pungent smell. Whole chips that look like they actually came from a spud! Some Tex-Mex is better than no Tex-Mex?
Cons: What about this tastes like my beloved queso? Extra tang initially reminded me of eating spoiled cream cheese. It’s like Lay’s took all their popular existing flavors and blended it into one like Frankenstein’s monster.