Nostalgia Week #1: Lunchables Cracker Stackers

Lunchables, as much of a household name as Justin Bieber, terrorism, and Alf. If you grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, you know them as the number one underground currency of the lunchroom and playground. Seriously, at 7:30 in the morning in any classroom across America, intense trades were going down with these suckers before Wall Street even woke up. Unless you were one of those kids whose parents stopped giving a crap and just slipped you one of these babies and five bucks for milk every day, having one of these was like Christmas, your birthday, and a surprise appearance by Mickey Mouse all in one.
And the most famous and coveted of all these was the cracker stackers. Long before the advent of deep dish cold pizzas with chewy, dog-treat esque pepperoni and cold sliders was the beloved combination of crackers, a cheese block, and bologna or turkey. For many kids, this was our first introduction to the concept of handheld food and likewise, the very same subconscious reason that compels us to keep eating cracker and cheese sandwiches at parties.
What used to be a grubby, sticky means of self-immunization via finger-transmitted germs atop turkey flavored petri dishes is now a remarkably sterile, kid formulated version of crudites. The crackers are enhanced with whole wheat, the turkey circles are free-range, the Skittles are organic and free of allergens. It’s like they don’t even know me any more, man.
However, the Capri Sun libation remains untouched and the Lunchables folks still had the wherewithal to include the obligatory games and prize on the back of the-what the fuck is this!? Win a trip to Illinois? Why? And not just the awesome, deep-dish pizza eating, Chicago Bears Illinois, the type that brings back aaaaaaallllll your horrible repressed memories of agonizing family vacations. This trip sucks.
But the Lunchables! The Lunchables! They’re just as delicious as I remembered and maybe even more so because they’re now bereft of sticky kid germs. The flavor is classic- creamy cheese product dominated with a slick, liquid salinity from the turkey, shaped in discs sourced from the frisbeenus part of the turkey breast. Washing it down with my Pacific Cooler, a fine example of the classic Capri Sun varietal I know and love, delivering a healthy dose of sugar to fuel a body through recess.
My mind wandered the nostalgic romance and betrayal of trying to woo Allison from the 3rd grade with a pack of contraband filched Doritos, only to discover that she’d been driven to sharing Pat’s cracker stackers with him tableside style, Caramel the lunch lady waiting anxiously to deliver their valet-parked Big Wheel. Damn them all. True to form, as I remembered this awful time in my life, I blew up the Capri Sun container after drinking its contents and stomped on it, the straw shooting out of the box like my disgruntled sexual frustration.
Regardless, these deliver a flavor that doesn’t make me want to run for the garbage can or even trade these for someone else’s gummy bears. It’s both heartwarming and edible, a classic combination almost as classic as turkey discs and Skittles.
Too bad their website is straight-up sketch. Now we’re packing fruit indeed, says the Hannibal Lecter of pineapples.
Also, Allison, call me. Please. My mom made Rice Krispy treats!

Pretzilla Pretzel Rolls

Or rather, they found me.
But allow me to back up. A few months ago, I posted a rather inflammatory review of Arnold’s Pretzel Rolls, decrying the trials and tribulations of not being able to goddamned find a decent goddamned pretzel roll in this goddamned state without traveling to goddamned Brooklyn and consorting with hipsters to get some crispy, salty goodness. #firstworldproblems Pretzilla, a Milwaukee-based company, stepped in with all the debonair of Fonzie pushing aside Ralph Malph at a malt shop and offered to send me a selection of their pretzel rolls to see if they met my rigorous expectations.
Spoiler alert, they totally did. In the noble words of Jay-Z, “if you can’t respect that, your whole perspective is whack.” I’m impressed by hubris, but I’m even more impressed by the product behind it. As you saw in yesterday’s recipe, they demonstrate their versatility in a multitude of ways, from breakfast to dessert. We have been eating them all weekend and are already planning to order more. Think of the best challah bread you’ve ever had- the sweet eggy flavor and honeyed aftertaste. Now purchase two round-trip airplane tickets to Milwaukee and woo it in a week-long whirlwind tour, kissing it with salt and a thicker, more robust crust. We’ll always have Wisconsin, challah. And from that journey comes this pretzel bread. It is yielding, yet tough, holding up to all manner of toppings and condiments. Each roll has a thick, perfectly chewy outer crust– slightly deceptive as its innards are as fluffy and sweet as can be.
We tried this with everything. We were exhaustive in our research, leaving no stone unturned. There is no condiment too messy, no meat too succulent that this cannot handle. Each roll soaked up its sauces and still remained chewy and contained, never falling apart before the end of a sandwich. It was perfect for everything from a cranberry apple turkey sausage and mustard breakfast sandwich to a chipotle chicken sloppy joe and bread pudding, too.
Pretzilla squashes the competition under its massive, powerful flavor and gives the other brands a serious run for their money. I’ve found my ideal roll and I couldn’t be happier.

Bufalina, Guilford, CT

There’s a chain restaurant with a particularly irksome saying- “when you’re here, you’re family.” Call me old-fashioned, but my idea of family never included passive waitstaff and large, generic dishes. In thinking of the ideal family meal (always better in theory than in practice), I consider attention to detail, shamelessly experimental dishes, like the time my father tried making beer-infused waffles for us, and above all, the suspension of time, where an hour turns into three and minutes pass quickly yet seem like forever. A good restaurant can mimic that with the enjoyment of a night out. And that, my friends, is Bufalina.
Bufalina opened in Guilford off of Route 1 in September in a space formerly occupied by an Israeli deli no larger than the common room in my dormitory. With eight seats, a hand-crafted wood-fire oven cooking up anything from crepes to cookies, and a large, round-table style of bumping elbows with your dining mates, it wins both the awards for the most claustrophobia-inducing and the most exclusive place in town. Reservations are easy to get and quick to disappear as the evening fills. Owners Matt Scialaba and Melissa Pelligrino dance around the kitchen as though performing a constantly fluctuating, interpretive tango with the preparation and the orders and the chit-chat coming in lightning fast.
Opening my ears, it was not unusual to hear hearty greetings from repeat customers, who soak up Matt and Melissa’s almost eidetic memories with gusto. “How’s your baby?” she’ll ask one couple, cooing over their photos on their iPhone. To another, Matt will discuss wine, eventually accepting a glass from a diner before they depart. Chatter of Italy, Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, shelter dogs, and such reverberate through the tiny room. It was like watching an elaborate ballet, seeing them cook, interact with customers, and serve food simultaneously.
Bufalina does not have a liquor license or a wine list, but they encourage customers to BYOB and open bottles happily either at the counter while you’re waiting for a table or at the table itself. A makeshift bar indeed, where dolcetto is happiest served in scotch tumblers as it is Schott Zweisel. We ordered both a Porri pizza, with caramelized leeks, aged mozzarella, and pancetta, and an order of their lasagna, hand-made daily using not noodles, but fresh crepes. The menu is minute, but carefully crafted. They’re still working out a rotating seasonal menu but have established some pretty well-loved standards. This was a favorite of both take-out customers and those dining in.
The pizza was otherworldly, the direct antithesis to the horrors we experienced at The Hungry Ghost, with a distinct woodsy flavor permeating the fluffy, bubbled crust. The crust has a classic style reminiscent of its New Haven apizza brothers, but a little denser and chewier, lacking that quintessential element of brittleness but bringing a little more body, with a slight tang from fermentation and a beautiful craggy undercarriage.
The toppings were not terribly plentiful, but were enough to get a bit of everything in each bite under the blanket of perfectly melted, soft mozzarella. The leeks were naturally sweet and yielded to each bite, and the lack of sauce was barely detectable as they were moist enough on their own. With the thick slices of pancetta, it was both smoky and sweet and thoroughly addictive. I was extremely tempted to order another as the first came out in record time, around eight minutes after we ordered.
Our lasagna also slid to the back of the oven after a quick assembly of crepes and a creme brulee-esque dusting of parmesan on top that crackled and crisped similar to its sweet counterpart. Served in a deep-dish foil tin oozing with cheese and charred bits of crepe edges poking out of the sides, it was molten hot and ethereally light, the crepes soaking up the sauce and melted mozzarella cheese while leaving a delicate lace of crispy parmesan on the bottom. It was a predominantly nutty and sweet lasagna that benefited from a little hot crushed red pepper on top and still remained luxurious and rich despite its airy texture. Pockets of cheese continued to delight as ricotta and mozzarella seeped out of each bite.
After overhearing that Melissa served not only as the waitstaff and manager but as the resident pastry chef as well, we couldn’t resist splitting a piece of the night’s special dessert, a chocolate ricotta crumb cake whose supply was quickly dwindling. In fact, shortly after we ordered our piece, a man who had come in with his wife at six for dinner popped back in at nine to grab the last few slices for dessert. The cake was the perfect end to the meal, bridging the gap between savory and sweet with a mild flavor from the powdered sugar topping and a cloud-like, fluffy charcoal center, crisp from the bottom of the oven and slightly smoky. With the final sips of our dolcetto, it was a wonderful way to depart.
And yet, we lingered over our check, listening to the quiet clamor of cleanup and the last of the conversations trailing off. Our bill was incredibly reasonable, $27 and change for two, and was worth twice the cost for the bonhomie and delicately prepared food. As we left, one customer was talking on the phone to a friend who was a tomato farmer, “Listen, you’ve got to check this place out…” as Matt showed another his most recent magazine article. Three waved as we left, wishing us a safe drive on the cold and rainy evening. We didn’t know their names yet left feeling as though we’d departed from a comforting and intimate dinner party. Looking through the window you’d have no idea it wasn’t a simple gathering with friends.
The euphoria lasted well into the evening, the good vibes and care from the customers and staff lingering on our tongues and in our minds. If restaurants like Bufalina continue to thrive, we can say goodbye to the cookie cutter idea of the sterile “family restaurant” and move onto a brighter horizon where we’re all just a little more human.

Gross Food Week #1: The Original Hooters Medium Wing Sauce


Sorry, I just had to get that out of my system. With that exuberant commencement speech, let us begin Gross Week 2012. Today’s selection embodies all of the principles that I consider to be important for this theme week, namely, that it is a proudly licensed product aggressively marketed by its source and even touted as “secret”, that it is a disturbing shade of nuclear hazard orange, and that it was 99 cents at a grocery clearance store. The fact that it is not, like so many products at this store, past its sell date should give you a taste of its quality already.
Where to begin? There’s just so much to cover on the label alone. Let’s start with the lusty endorsement from the Hooters owl himself, “A thrill on the grill BBQ!” It doesn’t take a professor with a Ph.D in Lolology to figure out how Engrishy that is. Despite my suspicions that this was some sort of perverted and failed test item, it turns out that Hooters still makes this sauce, selling it for a mere $7 on the interwebz, and still employs this awful catch phrase. Reading further, I caught the official Hooters logo emblazoned no less than four times on the jar. Either they’re trying really, really hard to prevent copyright theft or they’re actually proud of this product.
The directions on the side (whose inaccuracies I’ll later explain) also provide a list of recommendations of foods with which you can drown in this sauce. Surprisingly, slathering the sauce on the breasts of an after-hours Hooters waitress is not one of them. There goes my bucket list. The cooking process sounded easy enough- fry up some wings, toss them in the sauce, enjoy with a side of classified ads to wipe away the tears and excess dribblings. Not so terrible, right?

Oh my god, it’s like the bastard child of napalm and nacho cheese. My hatred for Robin Williams and Spy Kids has nothing on this one. I think you get the picture. Yep, nasty surprise number two- the sauce had the texture of cold margarine and the smell of gasoline, Tabasco, and melting plastic. This in no way felt like something I should have put near my face, much less ingest. And I haven’t a clue why the instructions said to shake the jar first- it’s about as productive as shaking a jar of peanut butter. But readers, like a dutiful serf, what I do, I do for you. And so I began the process of cooking my wings.
I decided to try this on both breaded and non-breaded wings to get an idea as to how it adhered to the chicken. Huge mistake on my part. On both applications, the sauce had the softness of warm yogurt and melted like butter on toast. On the pieces of unbreaded chicken, it left no more than a slick trail on the skin and clumped at the bottom of the plate, and on the breaded pieces, it melted into the nooks and crannies and separated almost immediately after sticking on. It felt like the sauce was too runny to handle any temperature above lukewarm, yet was so congealed in its original form that it was also unable to function as a dipping sauce.
Once the wings were no longer molten and ready to eat, the sauce returned to its original liquid consistency, that of a melted almond bark coating, and shellacked the wings to the plate, rendering them mere components in a disgusting and inedible art project and requiring the force of a fork and knife to remove them from their glued-on state. Taking this photo was easy as they remained preserved in their original positions on the plate, held upside down, for over two minutes.
It tasted rancid. This is exactly the kind of product that aspires to be a hot mess and fails miserably. There was literally no element of this that made it appear edible, much less palatable. The heat is warm, but no warmer than a hamburger sitting next to a bottle of mediocre hot sauce and certainly not at the level of any Buffalo wing you’ll find at a sports bar. It has an oily, thick consistency not unlike facial cream, were said facial cream purchased at a dollar store and had a slight numbing effect on the lips. It tastes predominantly of vinegar and Crisco with an aggressively salty bite and leaves a buttery slick all the way down the throat. The sauce had the unique ability to permeate through even the thickest flour breading on a wing, saturating the meat so with its liquid ass flavor and rendering every single wing I made inedible. Lest you worry that I went hungry, I thankfully deployed my backup wing supply with a hot honey and red pepper flake sauce and ate them with gusto.
Congratulations, Hooters. In the world of successful marketing vehicles, this sauce is the abandoned flaming Pinto on cinder blocks with a tarp and headless doll in the trunk.

Arnold Pretzel Rolls

There is no God.

Or rather, the God we currently have now inexplicably hates pretzel rolls. Atheistic blanket statements aside, I’m pretty sure that part of my life’s mission here on earth is to find the best pretzel roll man can possibly make. No pressure, though. I’ve been through frozen pretzels stuffed with more crap than Adam Richman, pretzel hot dog buns loaded with expensive edible accoutrements, pretzels topped with crustaceans, and disappointing pretzel rolls. I’m all pretzeled out and I still can’t find the perfect bread.
To me, the ideal pretzel roll has a foot in both worlds, despite being a freakish monster belonging in neither. It is kissed with a hint of tinny, metallic goodness on its crust and is almost certainly boiled prior to baking, to ensure an airy, yet chewy inner surface that is porous enough to accommodate to even the gooiest of toppings, but yields to a firm bite without vomiting its contents all over the plate. Rock salt mandatory, toasting optional. An idyllic one-two punch at home with ham, mustard, and little else, or with a gluttonous number of toppings. Needless to say, they are freaking perfect, elevating a mere sandwich to a more complex and Bavarian plane. And to date, I had to rely on luck and intense menu research to find these little suckers. Until…not.
Yes, it looks like I meant “now” but it’s not “now” because I have to wait. Yes, I peed myself when Arnold’s came out with these two days ago and my mom brought them home. And no, these are not the droids we’re looking for. Sigh. Despite showing a promising amount of homemade homeliness, these just weren’t up to snuff. Six rolls to a bag, with 190 calories each, they appear to be hefty and even slightly irregular from roll to roll, offering charming variations in the waffled base and slits on top. Quite a promising start.
Unadorned, they were bland. Adorned simply, the pretzel’s natural charms were squelched. Suffocated under the weight of a stupid amount of toppings, they disintegrated. God damn it. We were so close, Arnold’s. We could have had it all. Unfortunately, these just didn’t cut it. To the touch, they are light and airy, a little too light. White bread light and Vanilla Ice white with a squishy and uniformly bubbled core. A small bite yielded a sweetly flavored crumbly interior and thin, pliable crust with a hint of alkaline tang from the baking soda. It wasn’t chewy at all and had the texture of a thin slice of sandwich bread rather than a crusty roll. Most of the salinity was overpowered by the breadiness as there was no other supplemental salt source, like a scattering of rock salt on top of the roll, to boost its flavor.
The least offensive way to eat this is with a little salt and butter, much like my bagels. This way accentuates the pretzel’s natural flavor the most, but still falls prey to the plain bready texture. There wasn’t enough irregular definition in the bread’s cell wall to allow the butter to melt into any nooks and crannies, and it floated on the top after melting, barely penetrating the surface and leaving the top part soggy and the bottom part flavorless. Were it not for the appeal of the salt coaxing the tinniness out, I wouldn’t bother eating this as toast.
As a sandwich, I figured this would be a little more successful. And what better way to do it than to do a balls-to-the-wall crazy condiment orgy on a bun? Do or do not, there is no try, after all. The Italian Job featured condiments best suited to a good bun with no margin of error. If it was a good pretzel roll, it would work. Anything else would disintegrate under the weight of so many sauces. With hot pepper relish, mustard, mayo, Tabasco, ham, American cheese, mango and ginger Stilton ’cause we fancy, arugula, fennel slivers, and freshly cracked black pepper, the Italian Job ain’t nothin’ to muck with.
And unfortunately, after I removed this ornamental steak knife, all hell broke loose. This is not the right bun for the job, folks. Not in the slightest. See that distended yellow-hued smear on the starboard side of the sandwich? That’s the sauce seeping through the bread, sponged up by the fluffy interior. Arnold’s, you are a failure.
Bam, she falls apart as soon as I look at her. Another one for the vaults. Successful as a roll, perhaps, but as a pretzel, you’re an absolute shame up there with Glitter, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the InstaHang. Looks like it’s back to the drawing boards for the time being. I appreciated the initiative on part of Arnold’s, but for God’s sake, if you’re going to go out on a limb, try not to make the product so utterly unappealing that people won’t ever want to eat its inspiration again.

Terrestrial Crab Cakes (a.k.a, a very wd~50 Thanksgiving)

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t incredibly impressed by wd~50 to the point of wanting to use some clever tricks in my every day cooking. While I didn’t bust out my supply of emergency sodium citrate and calcium chloride, I did try to take back the concept of taking a concept- holidays, udon noodles, Jackson Pollack, and translate it into food.
With all the Thanksgiving leftovers lying around, I wanted to make something a little classier than the standard sandwich ‘n’ hash deal (though I ate plenty of that as well) and decided to try what Keepitcoming Love later dubbed the Terrestrial Crab Cake- a croquette made of leftover Thanksgiving offerings that emulated the buttery, stringy texture of a crab cake with no seafood.
It’s fucking delicious. And simple. I literally can’t believe that I made this in no time at all with such perfect results. Speaking from the humiliated perspective of someone who isn’t all that keen on Thanksgiving foods, this completely swayed me. Eaten with a sunny side up egg atop the whole mess, it made a decadent, but subtly complex meal.
Terrestrial Crab Cakes (Thanksgiving Hodgepodge)
Ingredients (serves 2)
1 small leek, thinly julienned
1/4 cup cranberry jelly or sauce, preferably with whole cranberries
1/2 small Poblano pepper, diced
1/4 cup water
1/3 cup sopressata, sliced and cubed
1 large turkey breast, cubed
3/4 cup leftover mashed potatoes
olive oil
dried or fresh sage to garnish (optional)
1. Gather your ingredients and cut as specified. In a small pan, drizzle a little olive oil and pour in your leeks, cooking slowly on a low heat until caramelized.2. When leeks are soft and almost cooked, pour cranberry sauce, peppers, and water into the pan and turn the heat up slightly, cooking until most of the liquid is reduced.
3. Put remaining ingredients in the pan until all are mixed together and hot. Put the mash on a plate and let cool until you are able to handle it and mash it into small patties.
4. Form into patties and prepare another small pan with a thin layer of olive oil. Cook patties on medium until they are golden brown and crisp on all sides and serve with sunny side up egg or on their own.
Eat this. Just eat it. Even a baby could cook this. It surpasses the sandwich and slaps the leftovers upside the head with subtle, sweet flavors.

Wendy’s “W” Burger

Pros about living in New England: we’re awesome. Oceans. Ascots. A distinct lack of accents outside of Bahstahn and New Hampshah. Bleeding heart liberalism is pretty sweet most of the time.

Cons about living in New England: We have roughly four fast food restaurants, approximately none of which are ever test markets. In all honesty, that might be my biggest pet peeve. I live in an area a hair too far away from Maine, which carries the McLobster, and lack an appreciation of the irony that would entail eating a McPizza in freaking New Haven, Connecticut, home of two of the world’s greatest pizza restaurants.
So what would normally take ten minutes for anyone living in a normal state took FF and I a rollicking two hour drive to go to a better Wendy’s than any of the Wendy’s around in the quest for the elusive “W” burger. The “W,” surprisingly not provoking any jokes or lawsuits from our former president, is actually a play on words, “double…you?” Well, it partially delivers on that front, with two 2.5 ounce beef patties, two slices of American cheese, a loveable cast of vegetable rag-tags, a signature sauce, and a softer, artisan buttered bun. At its best, a burger with an affordable price point for those whose hunger isn’t small enough to be satisfied by the dollar menu and those who just don’t feel like breaking out the big guns. At its worst, a glorified and more expensive McDouble. Size-wise, it seemed fairly average for a burger, even a fast food one. Not too big or too small. The first immediate issue with this burger was its scent- as soon as I extracted it from its paper prison, a fake nacho cheesy scent emitted from its core. It was definitely freaky, but I ignored it and forged on, figuring the restaurant itself smelled weird or something. The burger is stacked pretty tall, but the height isn’t so unreasonably high that it needs to be squished in order to get a bite of every topping in your mouth. And that’s good, because the squishy bun practically falls apart with a stern glare.
As far as toppings go, nothing really distinguishes it from other fast food burgers on the market, aside from the special sauce on top. Wendy’s describes this as a soybean oil-based, sweet honey mustard flavored sauce. I would normally be all over this sauce, but the flavor of the sauce was so mild that all that remained was the viscous, runny texture and a slick, oily mouthfeel in every bite. Not an appealing way to start the meal. The veggies were incredibly fresh, with the exception of the pickles, limp, translucent shells of their former selves, with an unfortunately mild, bitter flavor, lacking any acidity. The beef was thin and crispy, with a smoky, moist flavor, but had a chunky, chewy texture similar to leftover meatloaf.
Like the release of Justin Bieber into human society, one small thing led to the utter demise of a greater, more complex being, in this case, the poor quality of the pickles led to the downfall of this burger. Without the pickles providing a much needed foil to the assault of cheese, sauce, butter, and a rich bun, the only tangy bite coming from this was the red onions. It’s like putting a 1996 engineless Camry in a drag race with a Ferrari. It just can’t compete. The dairy elements in this were truly unctuous- heed that as a word of advice from a shameless lactophile. Alone, or scaled down, they might have been somewhat appealing, but all three milk-based ingredients combined completely overwhelmed almost any additional flavor this burger attempted to have, with the aforementioned popcorn butter residue and gooey nacho cheese flavor absolutely persistent and infused into every cranny of the sandwich.
I can understand what the motives were in creating a burger that allowed a maximum amount of toppings for the consumer with a lower price point, and I genuinely appreciate that. Having a somewhat subdued appetite myself, it seems like something I’d get behind when my dollar menu fantasies were no longer hitting the right chords. But the exuberance works against them with an imbalanced flavor and makes for a sandwich that takes away your hunger not because you’re full, but because you’re mildly repulsed.

McDonald’s Big Mac

Everyone’s first time is supposed to be memorable.

At least, that’s what Hollywood told me. Note that I didn’t say “special”- we can’t all have Rick James, satin sheets, and a gorgeous body when we get down to business. I came to the shameful realization one lonely evening that, no matter how hard I tried to push it to the back of my mind, the facts were glaringly obvious. I was a 21 year old virgin to one of America’s iconic symbols of happiness and prosperity.
How did it happen? I don’t know. It could have been my staunch parental upbringing. A fear of commitment. However it came to that point, I knew it had to change. So I hiked up my jeans, I put on a special playlist of the Indigo Girls, Rod Stewart, and the original Broadway cast recording of Spring Awakening, ponied up $3.95 for what was promised to be a life-changing experience, and dug right in with a paper towel for a napkin. After living 7,714 days on this earth, I was about to have my first Big Mac.
Let me preface this by telling you that this was a completely blind tasting. I never heard the jingle, never took a bite of one, and never smelled one from afar. The closest I came to eating one of these was watching Morgan Spurlock maneuver one into his mouth in SuperSize Me. I was curious. Perhaps even fry-curious. My first gripe with this was the bulky, extensive myriad of plastic and paper packaging. The Big Mac, for all intents and purposes, isn’t really that big. With the economy-sized bag and cardboard holding facility, I was a little disappointed to lift out a sandwich no bigger than a small portable hard drive with a somewhat emaciated-looking mere two ounces of beef. But as we all know, it’s not about the size of the fries, it’s about the motion of the ‘Mac. Or so they say.
Flavor-wise, the sandwich is perfectly balanced. And not only balanced, but layered with textures and savory sensations. The first bite was as beautiful as I’d imagined it, with an initially sweet, slightly sour crunch of pickles and onions mingling with the seductively creamy Special Sauce. I was surprised that the beef took such a backseat to the veggies but came together so well, letting the more superfluous elements in some sandwiches take first billing with each bite. The buns were cotton soft, but not chewy, and melted into the meat. I had to admit I was pretty impressed.
Structurally, we’re in a whole other ballpark. That was my main beef with this, (please pause to laugh) as by my third bite roughly two minutes in, the sandwich had completely disintegrated in my hands, spewing lettuce shreds and special sauce all over the place. What had once been a regal skyscraper of a sandwich was now a hot, wet mess in my hands. And then, things started to get a little weird. It was like all the integrity of the burger was in its perfect structure and balance. After that one stupendous bite, flaws started to perk up as the sandwich entered Bizarro territory. The flavor of the onions started to linger with a briny, salty aftertaste. The buns got mushy and soggy and tasted greasy and buttery when eaten alone. I lost the flavor of the beef completely.
If the euphoria of that perfect bite had been consistent throughout the sandwich, I’d have no qualms giving it my highest rating. It is, after all, engineered like the McGriddle to max out our pleasure and tantalize us long into the night. But in all things, I value consistency, cleverness, and maximum pleasure (which makes Keepitcoming Love my McGriddle) and in five minutes, this went from amazing to falling apart. It was like making out with a cute guy and realizing that underneath his perfectly coiffed hair and sweater vest, he had a tattooed quote from Twilight on his bicep. Not abhorrent, but not ideal and certainly not what I initially expected.
I soon realized that despite its perfect exterior and legendary reputation, it wasn’t perfect. Did I learn from my mistakes? Yes. Do I regret it? Not for a second. I may not ever order this again, but for one brief moment in time (what is now a stunted timespan due to this consumption) I had the Big Mac, and that is a moment that will forever remain special.

California Pizza Kitchen Limited Edition Chicken and Bacon Ranch

Ah, legal loopholes. That simple twist of the tongue that leads to so many Homer Simpson “d’oh!” moments during checkout at the grocery store. Personal favorites include chocolate flavored, Chick’n, and as we’ve seen with the Taco Bell Chicken Bacon Ranch flatbread, “baconranch” the ex dolo malo of the food world, hated by all and loved by the toothless. When I brought this pizza home, I slapped my forehead in disgust, worrying that when I opened the box, I’d see a smattering of bacon-flavored ranch sauce covered with anemic tomatoes and little else. I sometimes feel like the abused child of the CPK industry. I’ve been burnt too many times.
This time was different, though. I can’t say that CPK will stay this good, but this time, they were pretty decent. Much like my inherent weakness for small succulent plants, roadside tacos, and tight pants, I feel the compulsive need to purchase every single new pizza they’ve put out, despite their failure time and time again. Then again, it could be because they keep slapping “limited edition” on all their freaking pizzas. Not this time, Roasted 15 Veggie. Not this time.
I liked this pizza. It seemed as though with every misconception I had about this came a rebuttal of the finest form that blew my argument right out of the water. There will be no bacon! Oh, wait, actually, there’s a metric asston (not to be confused with the hogshead) of bacon and it’s all ground up and crispy and delicious. Oh. Okay, well, the tomatoes will suck? Mmm, wrong again, they’re actually pretty juicy, some are yellow, and they’re cut up in small enough pieces to get a bunch in every bite.
This was the point in the consumption where I furrowed my brow. Might I have actually gone out and purchased a pizza from a store and tried to trick myself using magical thinking to pretend this was from CPK? But the box was in the trash. It’s not like this was a perfect, magical pizza. The crust was, as always damningly thin and crispy, but worked better with this combination of flavors than it had in the past. It created a crisped open-faced panini effect on the pie and lent itself to sandwiching quite well. The main drawback with this was that it was incredibly salty, no doubt aided in part by the gluey ranch sauce adhering its components together. Thankfully, the chicken wasn’t seasoned and was strangely quiet throughout the entire lunch. I don’t think I’ve ever had a prepackaged food item, pizza or otherwise, where the amount of bacon outweighed the amount of other proteins. It was strange. And yet, so epic.
But damn it, CPK, your website still looks like a Geocities reject. Why is that? Y U no change that? And so upsettingly sparse in places. I want wine recommendations for my chicken bacon ranchathon, please.

Frontera Limited Edition Chipotle Pumpkin Salsa

As I’ve mentioned, I’m moderately obsessed with the chill of autumn. Now that it’s getting to be time for gloves and huddling, though, I’m finding out, as I do every year, that I’m only obsessed with the idea of looking moody and lost in thought in the chill of autumn. After that one perfect profile picture is snapped, I’m cursing and looking for the nearest shower to warm up in.

I needed a snack tonight and found myself longing for the salsa and chip appetizer generally accompanying warm, summer nights out in the yard. And then I remembered this crazy salsa we had in the back of the fridge. I grabbed this at a time, mid-July, at the Fancy Food Show when eating it seemed a little blasphemous with all the green and red salsas lying around. But I’m good enough at planning ahead that when I see freaking pumpkin chipotle salsa, I know that come October, I’m going to be nomming for eight because it’s so good. And this was a Rick Bayless creation that seamlessly bridges the gap between summer and fall, a man whose takes on Mexican have been salivated over many an afternoon in Whole Foods. I met chef Bayless, strongarmed a jar of this, and waited four months to write about it. That’s dedication.
You’ll notice this jar is propped up like a taxidermied Anne Geddes baby. I don’t give a crap. Inside that jar, which, mind you, is clearly the more boss of seasonal flavors- eff you, heirloom tomato, is a smoky, sweet combination of chunks of peppers, tomatoes, and pumpkins bathed in a perfectly executed chipotle sauce. Chipotle is incredibly overrated, but when paired well, it’s transcendental. And this is paired very, very well. It’s not so much a smoky flavor as it is charred, with bits of blackened pepper and tomato skin floating around in the sauce, giving it a deep, rich flavor and an intensely smoked bite. At first, there’s no heat, and I didn’t expect there to be with all of the pumpkin spices, like nutmeg, cinnamon, and brown sugar, giving it a rounded, sweet potato-like flavor, but after a few bites, a lingering heat emerged and persisted for quite some time.
Like some of the other pumpkin products I’ve sampled, this manifested its fall colors in the spices it used rather than the ingredients, despite there being actual pumpkin in this. I’ve come to realize that that’s a boon rather than a bust, because the texture of pumpkin could upset the balance of a salsa with its heavy, wet mouthfeel and is pretty flavorless on its own. Though admittedly, a little thickness couldn’t hurt. This separates very easily, even after thoroughly shaking in the jar. If watery salsa annoys you, these are not the droids you’re looking for. With such an emphasis on utilizing pumpkin, this had the thin consistency of a heavily tomatillo based salsa, which it was. It wasn’t very enhanced by the gourd at all.
It’s worth noting, however, that Bayless not only used pumpkin in his salsa, a feat unto itself, but used a special Mexican variety of pumpkin called the calabaza. It’s part melon, part gourd. You know it as the plant that produces the popular squash blossom. It’s still a pumpkin. Don’t say the guy didn’t try. The only element this is missing is the crunch of toasted pepitas on top, an easy hack that will turn this into the perfect fall appetizer. I can’t wait to try this as a heated sauce over pasta or on top of pulled chicken tacos.