Chain Reactions: Buc-ee’s

We were somewhere around DeLand on the edge of I-4 East when the Beaver Nuggets began to take hold.  Luckily, Doctor Professor Ma’am and I didn’t encounter any bats on our drive to or from Daytona Beach, but we shared a truly exhausting, truly American experience at Buc-ee’s (https://buc-ees.com/), the colossal convenience store just off I-95, a unique shopping experience as vast, overwhelming, and occasionally maddening as its home state of Texas.

Imagine Wawa, Cracker Barrel, and Walmart Supercenter twisted into a sweaty, throbbing throuple, and that comes close, but still doesn’t quite capture the sensory overload of Buc-ee’s.  I counted 43 locations on the website, but there are only two in Florida, both new: off the highway in Daytona Beach and St. Augustine.  We didn’t even bother to fill up the car with gas there, given the surprising crowd at lunchtime on a Friday.  Instead, we hustled inside to see what food and snacks awaited us in the sprawling superstore.

They say everything is bigger in Texas: the deserts, the hats, the trucks, the cattle, the churches, the guns, the belt buckles, and unfortunately the intolerance (see recent news for far too many examples).  Well, Buc-ee’s goes big in every way as well.  Once we made our way through sections of the store devoted to kitschy casual clothing, folksy home décor, and touristy novelties (the “schlock and awe” department), we made it to the the real draws: stacks and stacks of snacks and snacks.

Here is the wall of jerky, which is the kind of wall Texas should focus on building.  There is also a jerky counter, where you can get any of the jerky varieties you want, by the pound.  It was easier and faster to grab bags off the wall for $7.99 each.   

I chose cherry maple, Bohemian garlic, and sweet and spicy beef jerky.  So far, the cherry maple was disappointingly bland, but the Bohemian garlic was packed with strong, garlicky flavor.

Doctor Professor Ma’am is more of a fan of gummy candy, and she was faced with overwhelming options, here at the wall of gummies. 

She went with hot cinnamon gummy bears (I think that smell, taste, and texture are all gross, but more for her!) and chamoy-flavored peach rings, pictured below with three different flavors of Rice Krispy Treats she chose (regular, salted caramel, and “Fruity”), plus fried pecans.

I’m not really into nuts.  I just buy them for her, and I almost never snack on them myself.  But when we busted into these fried pecans back at home, all I could say was “GOOD LORD.”  Even with the hell-squirrel armed with a sharp fork on the bag, “GOOD LORD” is the appropriate response.  I couldn’t believe how good they were.  At $14.99, that was the most expensive single item we bought, but it is a good-sized bag, and they are so rich, they should last quite a while.

As an unabashed fan and collector of condiments, sauces, and preserves, Buc-ee’s had a staggering selection to tease, tantalize, and tempt me.

I went a little mad, but we all go a little mad sometimes.  I couldn’t resist (I’m your) huckleberry and blackberry preserves, peach-chipotle and mango-pineapple-habanero salsas, prickly pear cactus jam, candied jalapeños, sweet and spicy ghost pepper hot sauce, and pickled quail eggs!

I fully admit I haven’t tried most of these yet, since our fridge door has only so much space (and it is already stuffed with interesting things in bottles and jars, as one would expect from me).  But I did just bust open the pickled quail eggs, after letting the jar chill in the fridge overnight, and I liked it a lot!  Very spicy and tangy from the vinegary brine, which includes garlic and jalapeños.  “What, you egg?”  [I stabbed it.]

It was even hard to choose a soft drink, with dozens of options.  This is only one of the three huge soda fountain setups.  I grabbed an extra-large cup, avoided anything I could find elsewhere, and sampled sips of the Buc-ee’s-specific flavors.  Favorites included pineapple cream soda, piña colada soda, orange Creamsicle soda, sarsaparilla, strawberry lemonade (non-carbonated), and my big winner, the cream soda on the far right, which I ultimately filled our shared cup with for the schlep home.  Doctor Professor Ma’am said it tasted like pecan pie filling as a soda, and she wasn’t wrong.  It was too sweet to be refreshing, but a very tasty cream soda nonetheless.  We also tried the blue cream soda, which I thought tasted like banana-flavored candy.  She liked it until the chemically aftertaste hit.   We both really wished some of those sodas were sold in bottles or cans, since we would have definitely bought a few different ones to savor later, but alas, they were fountain drinks only.

There were multiple stations to get hot, fresh food, including a station with barbecue sandwiches already wrapped in foil.  I grabbed us a pulled pork sandwich that was delicious.  Doctor Professor Ma’am was tired and hungry by this point, so we split it in the car in the parking lot on the way out to keep hungry from approaching hangry.  Forgive my freestyling, but we savagely ravaged this sandwich, and its richness fixed us from being sad bitches.  The barbecue sauce was sweet, but it didn’t overwhelm the smoky savoriness of the pork. 

There were also touch-screen kiosks for ordering other food, including tacos, burritos, chicken fingers, and a few other sandwiches that get freshly assembled.  I was really hoping to get a pastrami Reuben on a pretzel roll, which came highly recommended, but they weren’t available!  I was so disappointed, which is a quintessentially American take, to bemoan the loss of one option in this land of abundance.  So I chose a “Chopping Block” sandwich that came with sliced rare roast beef, horseradish, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, and I asked to add jalapeños for a 50-cent upcharge.  We had to wait a while for that one, since the sandwich-makers were slammed due to 20 busy touchscreen kiosks all beaming in constant orders, but it was worth the wait.  The roast beef was tender, flavorful, and rare, the way I like it, the hoagie roll was nice and soft, and the sandwich was still warm by the time I got it home.   To the right is a chopped brisket sandwich that was also really good — pre-wrapped in foil like the pulled pork sandwich, and mixed up with sweet sauce.  I liked it even better than the pulled pork.

She was disappointed by the fresh potato chips, but I thought they were fine.  Just plain, crispy, salty, slightly greasy chips, as expected.

A fried apple pie was yet another impulse buy.  She enjoyed it in the car (eating it over the open bag to catch the cinnamon sugar cascade), and the one bite I took was really good.  The flaky fried crust was terrific.  We hoped it would be like the bubbly, crackly McDonald’s fried apple pies of our ’80s childhoods, but it turned out to be so much better than those.

Here’s half of the brisket sandwich I saved for Doctor Professor Ma’am back at home, along with a cream cheese kolache (left), a strawberry cheese kolache (right), and a sausage, cheese, and jalapeño kolache (bottom).  Kolaches are pastries that Czech immigrants brought to Texas.  There are sweet and savory varieties, and as you can see, the sweet ones look a lot like danishes.  The sausage inside that bottom one was hot dog-shaped, but much chewier, like a Slim Jim.  It was okay.  The pastry itself is just like chewy white bread.   
I also got a boudin kolache that looked almost exactly like the one on the bottom in this photo, stuffed with the savory Cajun pork-and-rice sausage, but that one didn’t last long enough to get photographed.

They had a fudge counter with nearly 20 different varieties of fudge, all neatly divided into squares.  You could buy any combination of four and get two more free, so how could we refuse?  My wife chose the different fudge flavors, and there is a chocolate one for sure, a chocolate pecan, a “gooey pecan,” a “tiger butter” in the top left (vanilla, chocolate, and peanut butter), and a blueberry cheesecake fudge (bottom left).  The sweet fudge lady would cut off little sample slivers, and I sampled key lime pie and banana pudding fudge.  Both were good, but too rich to get entire slices of, on top of everything else.  She warned me I might not like the banana pudding fudge, but I sure showed her!

Anyway, these are ridiculously rich, so I know we will make them last.  We might even freeze some, forget about them for a while, and then have a pleasant surprise when we rediscover them days or probably weeks later.

The very first thing that tempted Doctor Professor Ma’am was a box of six pecan pralines.  I suggested we do one loop around the store first to get the lay of the land before we start grabbing everything, and that’s when she found individual pecan pralines at the fudge counter.  She was thrilled to be able to just get one, rather than a six-pack, with all the other stuff we chose.  I broke off one little morsel, and it was almost cloyingly sweet and  intensely rich.

Since I regularly review chips in my series of Tight Chips features here on The Saboscrivner, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few small bags of classic, barbecue, and hot Buc-ee’s chips.  I don’t know how they’ll be, but I got ’em.   
A sample guy was giving out samples of the barbecue-flavored Baked Chees-ee Curls, the Buc-ee’s version of Cheetos, and they were good enough to bring home a small bag.  I’m surprised Frito-Lay hasn’t come out with a barbecue Cheetos flavor, in all these decades.

And we couldn’t go all the way to Buc-ee’s without grabbing a bag of Beaver Nuggets, one of the most famous (infamous?) and recommended snacks from fellow travelers.  These things are unbelievably good.  Crunchy, toffee-sweet, buttery, salty.  Imagine Corn Pops cereal, but a million times better in every possible way.  Neither of us had ever tried them before, but I figured she would love them, and I was right.  As for me, I can eat a whole bag of chips standing up in my kitchen without even thinking about what I’m doing, but the Beaver Nuggets are so much richer, heavier, and more substantial than chips, I was perfectly content after just crunching on a few of them. 
The Buc-ee’s Nug-ees on the right are a “Bold ‘n’ Spicy” version of the sweet, crunchy Beaver Nuggets.  Their texture is softer, though — more like puffy Cheez Doodles that you can easily crush between your tongue and the roof of your mouth.  They are well-dusted with spicy, cheesy orange powder that is spicier than regular Cheetos or Cheez Doodles, but much less spicy than Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.  I can only imagine combining the two varieties in a bowl as some kind of decadent snack mix.

Finally, I grabbed two large boudain [sp] sausage links from a freezer case, and I got the small package of sliced smoked venison sausage at the jerky counter.  Those were $5 and $4.40 respectively — cheaper than I expected.  I haven’t tried them yet, but my hopes are high.

Our first trip to Buc-ee’s was both physically and mentally draining.  It is a lot to process, and if you arrive hungry and like to try new foods and snacks, you can get yourself in a bit of trouble there, as we did.  But it’s such an overwhelming experience, somewhere between the food halls in cosmopolitan cities like Philadelphia or Seattle and a Southern Walmart on Black Friday.  I suspect that if we ever return, the novelty and mystery will have worn off, so we can quickly grab a few favorites and rush out, without feeling the need to see and try everything, like we did this time.  Trader Joe’s definitely feels like that now, after breaking the bank on my first-ever visit so many years ago, but now just running in and out for a few staples while dodging the mobs.  Novelty fades.  Newness wears off.  That’s why I constantly seek it out and share it here, with YOU.

But beyond the novelty of new sandwiches, snacks, and sodas, Buc-ee’s also felt like the kind of roadside attractions that used to line America’s highways and byways — bemusement parks that drew cross-sections of society away from their homes and out of their cars, those in-between places that made the journey so much more interesting (and often weirder) than the destination, before every highway exit started to feature the same corporate fast food restaurants and chain stores.

Being in a new job in academia where I no longer work directly with our diverse student body, and generally avoiding crowds and social situations for the past two years, this was the most people I had been around in a while — and such people!  There were exhausted families, bored teenagers, leather-clad bikers, swaggering cowboy types, beachgoers, retirees, active-duty military men and women in uniform, actual Goths (in broad daylight, in Daytona Beach!), a guy who looked like Gung-Ho from G.I. Joe, and so many tattoos, with a particularly large amount of spider webs on elbows.  The two of us only noticed one guy in an overtly political T-shirt, and we seemed to be the only two people still wearing masks.  Stefon would have had a field day.  But everyone was passing through Buc-ee’s on their way somewhere, fueling themselves up before or after they fueled up their cars, or stopping to use the gleaming, spotless restrooms (which are indeed glorious, living up to all the hype).

I wondered where that sea of sweaty people was off to, and how many had made the pilgrimage to Buc-ee’s as their ultimate destination, as we had, rather than just a rest stop along the way to someplace else.  Well, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, I can tell you that Buc-ee’s is definitely worth a stop — at least once — but don’t expect to get any rest there.

Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant

The first time I ever heard of Las Carretas Mexican Restaurant (https://www.lascarretasmexicanrest.com/), my heart filled with joy and hope, then immediate disappointment.  When I first saw a sign that the restaurant was opening soon in the Publix plaza on the corner of University Boulevard and Goldenrod Road in east Winter Park, I was overjoyed, thinking at first it meant an outpost of La Carreta, my family’s favorite Cuban restaurant chain in Miami, was coming to the Orlando area.

But I quickly noticed the sign was pluralized: “Las Carretas,” not “La Carreta,” and that it was going to be a Mexican restaurant, not Cuban.  We already have far more good Mexican restaurants here than in Miami, but I got over that initial disappointment and forgot about it for a while.  It opened earlier this year, and diners started posting really positive reviews on the Orlando Foodie Forum Presented by Tasty Chomps!, and I started paying attention all over again.

Well, I have eaten there four times now, and I can happily report that Las Carretas is an excellent Mexican restaurant, and we should be happy it’s here.  The initial fault was mine for misreading the sign and getting my hopes up.  It might not be the beloved Cuban restaurant of my past, but it is the terrific Mexican restaurant of my present and future.

The Las Carretas menu is HUGE, so I strongly suggest studying it in advance.  On our first visit, my wife and I started our first meal with a couple of aguas frescas ($4.99 each), sweet, non-alcoholic, non-carbonated beverages that are much tastier and more refreshing than sodas, and much better for cutting the heat of spicy food.  I chose horchata (left), sweet, creamy rice milk seasoned with cinnamon and vanilla.  My wife chose coco nuez, a rich and creamy agua fresca made with coconut milk, coconut shreds, and crushed pecans.  I’m not big on nuts, but I do love coconut, and I liked her drink even more than mine.  These are gigantic glass mugs, by the way — think German biergarten mugs.  No free refills, though!  (Yes, I asked.)

They have a self-service salsa bar!  Just use hand sanitizer before and after, and fill the little plastic cups with chilled fresh salsas and pickled vegetables (jalapeños, carrots, onions, nopal cactus strips) to your heart’s content.  They will be perfect for the fresh, crispy, thin tortilla chips about to grace your table.

Here are those chips with an assortment of salsas.  The white stuff turned out to be a tangy, creamy, cool salad dressing, but it was nice to dip the chips in, and it works well cutting the heat of some of the spicier ones.   The dark salsa next to it is a smoky chipotle salsa, blended smooth so it is thin, with no chunks in it.  That one was my wife’s favorite by far.  They’re all a little bit different, so if you’re anything like me, a self-proclaimed salsaholic, you will want to try little dabs of all of them on your chips.  One or two are extremely spicy, but I honestly don’t remember which of these were the spicy ones.  I think the orange one on the left was fiery, so be prepared!

My wife ordered table-side guacamole ($8.99), hold the jalapeños and easy on the tomatoes and onions.  It was made with care and flair by a nice lady who probably has to make guacamole in front of people all day, pushing her cart around the restaurant like teachers who wanted to show a video in class back in the day.  It was some of the freshest, nicest guac I’ve ever had.

For her meal, my wife chose the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99), a dazzling platter of grilled shrimp, scallops, octopus, squid, and bacon, with grilled peppers and onions, topped with melty oaxaca cheese and sliced avocado, tomato, and radish.  She loved it, except for the cheese.  She thought it overwhelmed the more subtle seafood flavors.  I’ve never noticed alambres on a menu before, but all of the ones at Las Carretas come with five tortillas.  She chose corn tortillas with it.   
This picture barely communicates the size of the platter and exactly how much food comes on it!

I couldn’t resist an alambre either, but I chose the alambre mata hambre ($16.99), which lived up to its name as a true “hunger killer.”  It was an equally massive platter of pork loin, al pastor pork, carne asada (grilled steak seasoned with lime), chorizo, bacon, ham, grilled bell peppers, onions, pineapple, melty oaxaca cheese, and topped with sliced avocado, tomato, and radish, and served with five tortillas (flour for me):

The a la carte menu has a lot of options for people who like to sample things, like a single cheese tamale ($3.50), which we both thought was just okay:

This is an a la carte beef burrito ($3.99), served “wet” (smothered in sauce and melted cheese).  It’s a classic wet burrito, which is making me reminiscent for Taco Viva, a South Florida fast food chain that predated Taco Bell in the ’80s.  They all closed decades ago, but they gave me my first tastes of Mexican food as a kid, igniting a lifelong love affair.  I don’t even know if Taco Viva was any damn good by Mexican food standards (probably not), but you know what is?  Las Carretas and this burrito right here:

This is a huge a la carte chile relleno stuffed with cheese ($4.99).  After I was so disappointed Tex-Mex chain Chuy’s removed chiles rellenos from its menu at some point in the last year and a half, I was thrilled to discover such a good one here at Las Carretas, with a lightly crispy batter that didn’t get soggy under all that sauce, and didn’t fall or peel off.

There were almost too many good choices for dessert, but on this first visit, my wife chose fried ice cream ($5.99).  The scoop of vanilla had a nice, thin, crackly coating she liked that reminded me of crushed corn flakes, and that was her favorite part.  I preferred the fried flour shell/”bowl,” so that worked out well for both of us.  But we had other dessert ideas that would have to wait for our second visit.

My wife and I went back for a second lunch a couple of weeks later (months ago, at this point), and met a good friend there.  I ordered the chimichanga ($9.99 on the lunch menu), sort of like a burrito wrapped in a flour tortilla, then lightly fried.  It was smothered with a sticky, thick cheese sauce and stuffed with beef tips that ended up being kind of like pot roast.  The Mexican rice, guacamole, pico de gallo, and sour cream were nice, fresh accompaniments that kept the beef, sticky cheese sauce, and crispy shell from feeling too heavy.

Our friend got enchiladas rancheras ($9.99) on the lunch menu — cheese-stuffed enchiladas topped with pulled pork, grilled onions, green and red bell peppers, and enchilada sauce.  I swear there are enchiladas under there!

My wife went back to the alambre Mediterraneo ($17.99) again, only asked for it without cheese this time.  She liked it even better without the melted cheese contrasting against the seafood.

This one cracked me up.  I always love tortas, Mexican sandwiches on bolillo rolls, so I ordered the one torta on Las Carretas’ menu, the torta toloqueña ($11.99 on the lunch menu), intending to split it with our friend.  The sandwich comes with chicken milanesa (a chicken cutlet, pounded thin, breaded, and fried), ham, oaxaca cheese, pineapple, “vinegar mixed manzano pepper,” tomato, avocado, ketchup, mayonnaise… and salchicha, which I know means sausage.  Well, I expecting more like a chorizo-like sausage, and not these hot dogs on top!  That’s my bad.  I should have known better.  All three of us had a good laugh over it, and we still shared the salty, overstuffed torta.  It was an unexpected surprise, but it was still a really decadent and satisfying sandwich.  This torta toloqueña was the only time in my life I’ve ever been okay with ketchup being anywhere near hot dogs.

We couldn’t decide between two desserts, so we got both!  These are the churros ($4.99), served with caramel and chocolate sauces:

And sopapillas ($5.99), fried flour tortilla wedges sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, drizzled with honey, and served with a rapidly melting scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I couldn’t tell you which of the three desserts was my favorite, but they all involved comparable flavors.

On both of these visits, I was thinking about how much my co-workers would enjoy Las Carretas, so a few weeks later, at the first mention of a work lunch, I was quick to suggest this place.  When I returned to Las Carretas for my third time, I brought three co-workers with me.  None of them are the adventurous eaters I am, so we often end up at Chili’s, Miller’s Ale House, or Gator’s Dockside for work lunches.  But I implored them to give this new Mexican restaurant a chance, and they wouldn’t be disappointed.

They weren’t.

My vegetarian supervisor and friend ordered enchiladas vegetarianas ($10.99), three enchiladas stuffed with zucchini, yellow squash, spinach, and mushrooms, topped with ranchera sauce and mozzarella cheese:

Another co-worker, my former supervisor who has since been promoted, ordered this beautiful campeche quesadilla ($13.99), with grilled shrimp, onions, bell peppers, and mozzarella cheese:

I ordered the party tacos ($14.99), because nothing says “party” like a lunch with your current and former supervisors and one other guy, where you talk all about work before having to drive back to work and not fall asleep.  Anyway, you get an order of six tacos and can try two proteins in them.  Frankly, I would have preferred an option where I could buy six individual tacos, all with different proteins, but I chose wisely: cabeza (tender, moist, fatty beef head; along the top) and al pastor (slow-cooked pork marinated in pineapple juice; along the bottom).  Both were so delicious and satisfying, not dry at all like the meats occasionally are at even the best taquerias.  This is an incredible dish, and a good deal too.

And another guy got a trio of tacos, but I don’t remember which ones these are.  Carne asada would be my best guess.

On my fourth visit with one of the same co-workers, she got queso dip ($3.99) and table-side guacamole ($8.99) to go with the fresh tortilla chips:

And I tried yet another new dish, the Texas burrito ($11.99), a dry burrito (not smothered in cheese and sauce, so you can hold it and eat it), stuffed with crumbled chorizo sausage (another one of my favorite Mexican meats), rice, beans, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, pico de gallo, and avocado sauce.  It was awesome and huge.  Look at it on this large, long plate:

And you thought it smelled good on the outside!

So that’s a massive review based on my four meals at Las Carretas, all eaten at the restaurant.  With how close it is to both work and home, I expect I will continue to be a regular at this place, especially since they have a large, covered outdoor seating area for when the weather finally cools down (and avoiding people carrying the Delta variant in the meantime).  Las Carretas may not be Miami’s La Carreta, but it is one of Orlando’s best Mexican restaurants, and now one of my favorites.  I can’t imagine anyone going out to eat here and being disappointed.  It’s a real crowd-pleaser in every way.

Tight Chips: Asian Potato Chips, Part 1: Savory Flavors

Orlando is a diverse and inclusive city with a huge Asian-American community, which means we are lucky to have so many terrific restaurants and markets representing our Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Filipino, and Indian neighbors and their cuisines. Most of our Asian markets are located along Colonial Drive, with good ones on both the east and west sides of downtown Orlando. They are treasure troves of ingredients you can’t find at Publix and other mainstream American supermarkets, along with high-quality produce, meat, and seafood that are often cheaper than anywhere else. And of course, the snacks alone are often worth the trip.

My readers know I often review potato chips and other snacks as Tight Chips features, so this is the first of what will surely be several write-ups of potato chips with unique flavors from the Asian markets.

I chose these particular chips to review here because they are all savory flavors: various meats, chicken, and egg-flavored chips.  And please note that I tried these and wrote down my opinions over the course of several months, rather than ripping all the bags open and gorging on them in one sitting, as soon as I got home from the market.  

Salted egg-flavored chips have a bit of a fan following, so I had to try these salted egg Lay’s from Thailand.  I believe I found these at Eastside Asian Market in East Orlando.   

They were salty and eggy (mostly a yolk flavor).  I don’t know what else I was expecting, but this was the only flavor that had a lot of built-up hype ahead of time.   

The salted egg flavor above was much better than these other egg-flavored Lay’s, which were more of a thick, ridged chip (kind of like “Wavy Lay’s” and much thicker than Ruffles).  These had a strong and very dry egg yolk aroma and flavor.  I wouldn’t bother getting these again, and I even forgot to take a photo of the actual chips, so I guess the yolk was on me.

I must have gotten these Roasted Chicken Wing Lay’s on the same visit to New Golden Sparkling Supermarket on West Colonial Drive in Orlando’s Pine Hills neighborhood, because they are the same thick, ridged style, and I also forgot to take a photo of the open bag.  They were savory and salty,  containing “chicken powder” and “chicken oil,” but I detected soy sauce more than anything strongly chickeny.  I think I just don’t care for the thicker texture of these kinds of ridged “Wavy” Lay’s.

I couldn’t resist being lured in by this eye-catching bag design, only to discover this was Lay’s Mexican Chicken Tomato flavor.  Now I’ve enjoyed plenty of Mexican dishes that included chicken and tomatoes among the ingredients, but I don’t automatically match them up in my head.  These were definitely more tomatoey than chickeny, and disappointingly not spicy at all.  

So which came first, the chicken-flavored chips or the egg-flavored chips?  I have no idea, but that sounded like a Scott Joseph joke, now that I’ve written it out.  

These next Lay’s chips have a braised pork flavor.  The bag has a picture of a bearded fellow who looks like most of the guys you see in comic book stores, who usually have strong opinions about nerdy topics and demand to be heard.  This is the logo of Formosa Chang, a Taiwanese restaurant chain that began with a single food stall in a market, but now has 30 locations in Taiwan and a few in Japan as well.  Just like Lay’s did some co-branding with American restaurants last year, with flavors inspired by their signature dishes, they must have worked out a similar deal with Formosa Chang for one of their more popular dishes.   

Braised pork sounded like a really great savory chip flavor, and I love the Taiwanese food I’ve tried at Mei’s Kitchen and Ms. Tea’s Bento, both in East Orlando.  But these were pretty bland and unmemorable.  I would love to try the real version of this dish from a Formosa Chang restaurant.

I didn’t even look at the label on the back of this bag of Lay’s until I got them home, but even though I was expecting some kind of sausage flavor from the look of the image below, this is a “spicy stewed flavor.”

Once again, this was a nondescript flavor, and look at how light they went on the seasoning on these chips!  They didn’t even taste spicy, and I was looking forward to feeling some kind of burn.  

I have finally moved past Lay’s for now, to review two chips from Oishi, a very good snack company based in the Philippines.  Oishi products always have good, strong flavors.  These are sweet and spicy potato chips that did not disappoint, after most of the above Lay’s flavors did.

Oishi is much more liberal with the seasoning!

And finally, these are Oishi “Ribbed Cracklings” (ribbed for her pleasure?), which are salt and vinegar flavors, or as I always call them, “salty vinnies.”  These are not potato chips, since they are made of wheat flour and tapioca starch.  They also aren’t pork rinds, despite being called “cracklings,” but they are not vegetarian because they contain fish sauce.  

These are AWESOME.  I saved the best for last because they have a terrific texture — crispy but not crunchy, sort of airy, kind of a middle ground between crunchy Cheetos and puffy Cheez Doodles, if you will.  If you’ve ever tried shrimp chips from an Asian market, it’s the same kind of texture.  They are addictive.  And if you love vinegar as much as I do, they are really intense with the vinegar powder, giving them a powerfully pungent, puckery punch.  If you don’t already like salt and vinegar chips, definitely spare yourself some torture!  But if you do, face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot.  

Don’t worry, folks — I’ll publish a new restaurant review next week, but I like to pepper in the Grocery Grails features from time to time to keep things interesting, including the spinoffs Cutting the Mustard (mustard reviews), The ‘Dines List (canned sardine reviews), and Tight Chips (snack chip reviews).  I swear I don’t go out to eat as much as you probably think I do, but I sure love grocery shopping and discovering interesting new foods at the store.  

Tight Chips: New Aldi and Fresh Market potato chip flavors

This week I’m back with another edition of Tight Chips, a recurring feature on The Saboscrivner, where I review new and interesting potato chips and other store-bought snacks.

This time I’m focusing on some new store brand chips I purchased over the last few months at Aldi and The Fresh Market.  I’ve raved about Aldi before, and  for the last few years, I do most of our grocery shopping there.  It’s cheaper than any other grocery store, and it mostly carries high-quality private label products — groceries and other goods produced by other manufacturers (often familiar ones), then rebranded with Aldi’s own store brands.  Some of them are “Aldi Finds” that only appear for a week, or as long as supplies last, and then vanish just as quickly.  Weekly ads run from Wednesday through Tuesday, so make sure you check the ads online and hit store starting on Wednesday to track down the Aldi Finds while you can.

Most of Aldi’s potato chips and snacks are sold under the Clancy’s private label, including these two delicious new potato chip flavors inspired by cocktails enjoyed at brunch: Bloody Mary and Moscow Mule.  Both of these are crunchy, “krinkle-cut” chips, with thicker ridges than Ruffles, and of course they were limited-time Aldi finds.

Here is the nutrition info for the Bloody Mary chips.  Bloody Mary cocktails are usually made with worcestershire sauce, a tasty and versatile condiment that adds a funky umami element to anything, in part due to containing anchovies.  I love cooking with anchovies.  They add even saltiness and umami, especially when you saute bitter vegetables like broccoli rabe (aka rapini) and broccolini (aka baby broccoli).  I’ve never had a Bloody Mary, but I can’t imagine they would be as beloved as they are by brunchers everywhere if they tasted like salty cured fish.  Seems like an instant ticket to acid reflux, but what do I know?  Anyway, vegetarians don’t have to worry, because the ingredients specifically state they use anchovy-free worcestershire sauce.

These were better than I expected.  Tangy, tomatoey, a little bit spicy.  I love these flavors in general, and especially on chips.  They are kind of like barbecue chips, but with a sharper flavor, and less sweet.  They would be great dunked in a tangy blue cheese dip or a creamy spinach-artichoke dip, but I didn’t have any. 

Next up, we have the Moscow Mule chips, so here is the nutrition info for those.  These chips were a pleasant surprise too.  I gave up drinking before ever trying a real Moscow mule, but the cocktail contains vodka, spicy ginger beer, and lime juice, and is served in a copper mug.  Note that the ingredients list lemon juice powder rather than lime juice powder, as well as citric acid for a sour, puckery punch.

These really do taste like ginger and citrus!  They are a little sweet, a little sour, a little spicy, and surprisingly refreshing.  Even if you don’t care about the drink, it’s a nice flavor combination that makes me think of a sunny summer day.

Aldi has a different private label called Specially Selected for serious gourmet goodies — everything from fancy preserves and holiday-themed sweets to frozen meals and decadent desserts, plus occasional new chips.  These are also Aldi Finds that pop up randomly, and they can be gone, baby, gone just as quickly.  I found these Specially Selected Pancetta and Parmesan kettle chips back in early March:

Vegetarians, note that these contain dairy, but no pork or other meat! 

These chips were savory and a little smoky, but all the flavors were subtle.  They really did smell and taste like pancetta, that wonderful cured Italian meat that is like unsmoked bacon, which can miraculously improve so many recipes.  They had a little bit of funky umami flavor from parmesan cheese as well.   

Another good grocery store that I don’t shop at nearly as often is The Fresh Market, which is more of an upscale, gourmet supermarket, similar to Whole Foods, but generally a little smaller and a lot less “hippie-ish.”  Shopping there really is a pleasure.  The stores aren’t overly bright, they pipe in classical music, and they have a lot of delicious food you can’t buy anywhere else.  Their groceries tend to be on the pricey side, but they run some decent sales and often put good products on clearance, so you want to be on the lookout and stock up on things when you can.  The Fresh Market has its own store brand for all kinds of products, including snacks and even potato chips.  I don’t recall being tempted by them before, but All Dressed potato chips recently caught my eye, and I couldn’t resist.  This is a terrific flavor that is popular in Canada, but very rare here in the States.  Frito-Lay has released All Dressed Ruffles before, but that’s all I can recall, until now.

These are thinner potato chips, very similar to Lay’s, which is my favorite texture and mouth-feel for chips.  They went heavy with the All Dressed seasoning, and they are fantastic.  The bag doesn’t lie — they are sweet, tangy, savory, smoky, spicy, vinegary, and vaguely tomatoey.  They are kind of like a combination of barbecue and salt and vinegar chip flavors, and I think that’s a winning combination.  If you like Zapp’s Voodoo chips, All Dressed is similar to those.  Tremendous flavor.  I highly recommend these!

The three Aldi flavors are almost certainly already gone, but Aldi brings old favorites back throughout the year.  I’m always on the lookout for the triumphant return of their Park Street Deli atomic spicy and sweet horseradish pickles and their maple-vanilla whipped cream around the holidays.  I’ve seen these chip flavors more than once, so just follow the weekly ads and stay vigilant.  I even bought my record player at Aldi, a neat little Crosley knockoff that transforms into a briefcase and even has a USB port for digitizing your vinyl collection, and those tend to show up around Mother’s Day every year.

The Fresh Market All Dressed chips should still be around, and I suggest running, not walking, to get those in your life sooner rather than later… so you can burn calories and allow yourself to eat more Tight Chips!

Cowboy Dips & Chips at Brooklyn South Bar at Aloma Bowl

I’m not a great bowler, so because I’m not great at it, I never really enjoyed the experience of bowling.  I remember going to kids’ birthday parties at bowling alleys and slinking off to play video games in the arcades, to spare myself some public humiliation at a formative age where everything felt like public humiliation.  This was my usual schtick at even more depressing parties at the roller skating rink when we were a few years older, back when Miami booty bass and freestyle music blared from the speakers, the soundtrack to everyone (except me) starting to kiss.

Of course, this was still during a golden age of arcade video games, back when nobody thought twice about touching things in public places that everyone else had been touching, and there were no hand sanitizer or wipes anywhere.  So as a result of arcades falling out of vogue and being a grown-ass man who avoids awkward social situations as a matter of course, I haven’t been to a bowling alley in over a decade.

Well, I am also a grown-ass man who loves sandwiches and potato chips, as stalwart Saboscrivnerinos know too well.  I recently learned of the existence of Cowboy Food & Drink, a restaurant in the perhaps-tellingly named Chagrin Falls, Ohio, that serves barbecue and American food.  They spun their concept off into Cowboy Dips & Chips (https://www.cowboyfoodanddrink.com/dips-and-chips), which serves a selection of sandwiches with au jus dip and fresh, house-made potato chips at bowling alleys, including two right here in Orlando.  They even donate a portion of the proceeds to charities!  I was intrigued, so last night I went to Aloma Bowl in nearby Winter Park on my way home from work.  Here is the menu for the Brooklyn South Bar, the snack bar at Aloma Bowl, which includes the new Cowboy Dips & Chips: https://www.alomabowlingcenters.com/aloma/food-drinks/.

As you can see, they offer two kinds of sandwiches on “butter-toasted rolls”: pastrami and roast beef.  Of course I had to try them both, and because I am a good husband, I brought one of each home for my wife as well.  They were both a good value, with lots of meat.  Of the two, the pastrami ($10) was much better, with lots of delicious fatty marbling, but not too much.  Here was mine.  I paid a 75-cent upcharge for grilled onions to try theirs, even though I had some at home, and I got creamy hot mustard on the side, to compare it to the multitude of mustards in my mustard collection.

My wife had her plain pastrami sandwich for lunch today.  It heated up well in our little toaster oven, and she enjoyed it:

I also got us each a roast beef sandwich ($8), and I paid a 75-cent upcharge for Swiss cheese on mine, and got pickles and creamy horseradish sauce on the side.  It was honestly just okay, and I wouldn’t get it again.  I love a good roast beef sandwich, but I would have preferred the roast beef to be a lot more rare, with more seasoning. 

My favorite deli roast beef is Dietz & Watson London broil, which you can buy at the deli counters at Winn-Dixie and Sprouts.  That stuff is the best, and I highly recommend it to all.  My wife and I are also suckers for a classic roast beef sandwich from Arby’s or our local legend Beefy King.  This looked more like “real” shaved roast beef than Arby’s or Beefy King, but didn’t have as much flavor.  It wasn’t as salty as those, and it was sliced thicker, so it wasn’t as tender as I would have liked either.

As much as my wife agreed with me that the pastrami was good, she didn’t care for the roast beef either, so we ended up with a spare(Bowling!)  I finished her plain sandwich for lunch today, warmed in the toaster oven with muenster cheese and onions I had sauteed myself, then doctored up with some of my favorite mustard and pickles.  That improved it immensely.  But here it was last night, still warm when I got it home:

Each of the four sandwiches came with a large plastic cup of au jus.  I’m not usually a fan of a WAS (wet-ass sandwich), and probably wouldn’t choose to dip if I was eating at the bowling alley, just to avoid making a mess.  I tried dipping the roast beef sandwich last night after changing out of my work clothes, but it didn’t add much to the flavor aside from salt, and made those good rolls wet and gushy.  But I can’t bear to dump these out — I am totally going to figure out something to do with the au jus.

I also got three orders of the house-made chips ($2 each), since they had three flavors to choose from: salted, BBQ, and salt and vinegar, which I always call “salty Vinnies.”  My wife only likes plain chips, but she really enjoyed these.  They had a fantastic texture, a good crunch without being too hard, and weren’t greasy at all.  I was a little worried because the BBQ and salty Vinnies didn’t look like they were covered with much flavor seasoning, but they tasted great.  The salty Vinnies in particular were delicious, and I would love to get some of that vinegar powder to use for different things at home, since I already have a huge vinegar collection to rival my mustard collection.

Finally, since I was already buying four sandwiches and three orders of potato chips at a bowling alley after a long day of work, I got an order of funnel cake fries from the regular snack bar menu ($5).  They were a little crispy on the outside, soft in the middle, warm, and sweet, just like you would expect and hope for.  They reminded us both a lot of the old Burger King French toast sticks from their breakfast menu in the ’90s (and possibly still; I haven’t gone to Burger King in many years).

It might seem counterintuitive to go to a bowling alley snack bar in search of good food, but if you’ve been reading my blog or anything I’ve ever written about food, you know I’m on the lookout for a good meal anywhere, and it’s amazing where you can find it if you’re willing to look.  Some of my favorite tacos and Nashville hot chicken come from local food trucks, my absolute favorite barbecue came from a gas station convenience store up until very recently (stay tuned for an update on that!), and one of my favorite restaurants in Orlando is a stall in a food court inside a Korean supermarket.  So why not a bowling alley snack bar?

I can appreciate upscale luxury, but I don’t always feel comfortable paying for it (especially since I’m still not dining in at any restaurants anytime soon), and I’d always rather take a gamble on something delicious, casual, and cheap, especially when it’s off the beaten path.  Those treasures that require a little hunting are often the most satisfying to find.  And while the roast beef sandwich was just okay, my wife (a tougher food critic than I) agreed with me that the pastrami sandwich and the chips were quite good, better than some standard restaurants.  The staff was great too — friendly, fast, all masked.  Just knowing there’s one more place in Orlando to get a decent pastrami sandwich and some house-made chips in different flavors makes me feel like all hope is not lost.

The Pass Progressive Cuisine

Not being an influencer, I sometimes arrive a little late to the hottest foodie trends. But for a couple of months, I’ve been salivating over photos and videos of birria tacos made with braised, shredded beef brisket or goat and served with a dipping cup of rich, glistening, orangey-red consommé. Now Orlando has a few Mexican restaurants that serve birria, and today I finally tried it at one of our newest birria boutiques: The Pass Progressive Cuisine (https://www.thepassprogressive.com/), located in a nondescript industrial warehouse plaza in Altamonte Springs. It’s a little off the beaten path, but the best places often are. And you don’t want to pass on The Pass Progressive, trust me.

My wife wasn’t as psyched for birria as I was, but at all of our favorite taquerias and Mexican restaurants like Tortas El Rey and Francisco’s Taco Madness, she always requests carne asada tacos, so that’s what she wanted to try here. You get an order of three for $11.95. I took one little bite and loved what I tasted, but more importantly, so did she. The steak was tender and picked up nice flavor from being grilled, and I think I detected some lime juice in there.

You can see they are absolutely stunning, topped with a snow flurry of Oaxaca cheese, fresh cilantro, and julienned radishes on soft corn tortillas. The carne asada tacos come with guajillo chile salsa, but my wife isn’t big on salsas, sauces, or anything too spicy, so I ordered it on the side for her (so I could have it).

But here it is, the star of the show: birria tacos! These also come in an order of three for $11.95. They were also topped with cilantro, radish, onion (I asked them to hold the onion for my wife’s tacos), and a dusting of Oaxaca cheese, plus there’s that rich, flavorful consommé.

The meat was so flavorful and tender from being braised and shredded, it didn’t even need the consommé, but you can bet I dipped anyway. Things got a little drippy and greasy from there, but we were at home, so all was well.

Close-up of these beautiful birria tacos:

They must season and grill these corn tortillas, because they are some of the best corn tortillas I’ve ever had. They held up to a lot of heavy ingredients and hungry handling, and really helped make the tacos into something special.

Since this was my first visit, I couldn’t resist ordering something else for later, so I went with something completely different: the Jaeyook Korean pork burrito ($11.20), with white rice, black beans, cheese, sour crema, avocado, kimchi cabbage, perilla leaf (a plant in the mint family, related to Japanese shiso), and spicy gochujang sauce wrapped up in a huge flour tortilla. I often like burritos even more than tacos, but I wanted to try birria in its traditional taco form and get something else as a burrito.

This one was a little spicier from the gochujang sauce, but nothing I couldn’t handle. Like all the other food from The Pass, it was gorgeous, with such an eye-catching blend of colors and textures, in addition to all the flavors at play. All their burritos come with excellent fresh, crispy, salty tortilla chips that we shared, and a different salsa that was all mine.

Sauce gallery!

Here you see pickled red onions that came with something, garlic aioli that had a thinner, more crema-like consistency than I expected (50 cents), the most delicious pineapple chutney that was so sweet it could have gone on an ice cream sundae (50 cents), the guajillo chile salsa that would have come on my wife’s carne asada tacos that she asked for on the side, the salsa that came with the burrito and chips, and some tomatillo salsa. Of all of these, the pineapple chutney was the big winner for both of us, and I also loved the smoky guajillo chile salsa. I’d buy both of those by the jar or bottle.

As you might guess, The Pass Progressive Cuisine was a big hit, and I know we’re not the only people falling in love with their food. I expect the legend will only grow, so you (possibly) heard it here first, on The Saboscrivner! I can’t wait to return and try their Caribbean wings, their ancho-braised beef or chicken empanadas, their lobster tacos (with lobster consommé!), but I know I won’t be able to resist the birria, so I’ll just keep ordering multiple things. And in case you ever tire of tacos or burritos (the horror!), you can also get almost everything as enchiladas or quesadillas too.

Just remember that The Pass Progressive Cuisine doesn’t have seating, so it’s a takeout-only place — but that’s perfect during a pandemic anyway. And they are open Tuesday through Friday, 12 – 8 PM, and Saturdays 12 – 5 PM.

Tight Chips: Lay’s Flavor Icons potato chips

As longtime Saboscrivner readers and any of my real-life friends already know, I am a sucker for potato chips, especially new, interesting, and exotic flavors, and I review them under the Tight Chips heading (formerly Grocery Grails).  Chips and other salty, crunchy snacks are my favorite junk foods, and I can voraciously devour a bag before realizing what happened.  That makes them dangerous… and it makes me dangerous too.

So in spite of the danger, when Lay’s rolls out new potato chip flavors, I always go on a quest to track them down.  They are always hard to find at first, and I love the thrill of the hunt — my old toy collector impulses never abandoning me.  I also know the new flavors rarely last, so I  want to taste them while I can, before they disappear forever.

This summer, Lay’s rolled out five new potato chip flavors branded as Flavor Icons, inspired by regional dishes from restaurants around the United States:

Nashville Hot Chicken from Party Fowl in Nashville, Tennessee.
New York Style Pizza from Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, New York.
Carnitas Street Taco from El Torito in Marina del Rey, California.
Philly Cheesesteak from Geno’s Steaks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Chile Relleno from Cocina Azul in Albuquerque, NM.

I haven’t been to any of these restaurants, but those are five meals that are easy to love, no matter where you order them.

If you want to try these, but don’t want to get stuck with a big bag of chips you might not like, or don’t want to feel too guilty about eating a whole big bag, you can almost always count on Walgreens to find smaller bags of new Frito-Lay chips.  They came through for three out of the five Flavor Icons: Nashville Hot Chicken, New York Style Pizza, and Carnitas Street Taco.nashville_pizza_carnitas

Here’s the nutrition info for the Carnitas Street Taco-flavored Wavy Lay’s.  Note that they contain pork and bacon fat!
carnitas1

And a look inside at the Wavy Lay’s.  I don’t care for the ridged texture as much as the classic thin potato chip we associate with the Lay’s brand.  carnitas2
For some reason, these tasted saltier than any of the others, and were also the blandest.  I detected lots of onion and a vague porky scent and essence, but I didn’t pick up on the cheese that is listed in the ingredients.  In fact, I never would have concluded “Ah yes, carnitas!”  But I have to admit, whenever I’m at a taqueria or Mexican restaurant, I’m much less likely to order carnitas (pan-fried pork) when I have other juicier, more flavorful meat options, like marinated al pastor pork, chorizo sausage, or shredded, braised brisket.

Here’s the Nashville Hot Chicken nutrition info.  They contain bacon fat and chicken fat!
nashville1

Now I LOVE Nashville hot chicken, and I’m glad it has become a foodie trend, including here in Orlando.  I first had it at one of the most famous destinations in Nashville in 2018: not the aforementioned Party Fowl, but the legendary Hattie B’s, where even the “medium” set my mouth on fire.  Since then, I have sung the praises of Nashville hot chicken here in town at Swine & Sons (it was one of my favorite local dishes in 2019), Chicken Fire, and Git-N-Messy BBQ. (Disclaimer: Git-N-Messy BBQ didn’t offer Nashville hot chicken when I wrote my review, but it is amazing, and I’ve tried so many new dishes there since then, I need to write a more detailed and updated review.)

So here’s a close-up of the chips.  Credit for this photo goes to my friend David Zubkoff.  More on that in a little bit.lays_hotchicken
They have a nice fiery burn that was most reminiscent of cayenne pepper, but more pleasant than Frito-Lay’s ubiquitous “Flamin’ Hot” flavor that burns going in and coming out, and more bearable than the Habanero flavor too.  Aside from those two, which I am not a huge fan of, it is one of the spicier chip flavors I’ve ever tried.  One thing I am a huge fan of is sauteing chicken skins low and slow, to crisp them up into gribenes (like chicken chips or chicharrones) and then rendering the fat, or schmaltz, to cook with later.  These chips reminded me of very spicy crispy chicken skins, so props to Lay’s for that.

Next up, here’s the nutrition info for the New York Style Pizza chips.  Lots of dairy ingredients in these, so vegans stay away, but no meat.
pizza1

Now I LOVE New York-style pizza.  Everyone has their own strong opinions about pizza, but it’s hard to go wrong with thin, crispy, huge slices topped with gooey, melty cheese and robust sauce seasoned with oregano and garlic.  Some of my favorite New York-style slices in Orlando comes from Pizzeria Del Dio, Paradiso Restaurant and Pizzeria, Tornatore’s Cafe and Pizzeria, Tomasino’s New York Pizzeria, Tuscany Pizza (review coming soon), Pizzeria Valdiano, and Antonella’s.

So here’s a close-up of the NY Pizza-flavored chips themselves.  These are the only ones that are thicker chips, branded as Lay’s Kettle Cooked.  And you know what?  These are awesome.  They taste like tomato, cheese, garlic, and oregano, and you can’t go wrong with that.  I like that the kettle-style chips weren’t so thick and crunchy as to be hard to bite, or to have too many sharp, mouth-shredding edges.  They had a great texture and an excellent flavor profile.  Moreso than the first two flavors, I ate these and immediately though “Hey, these taste like pizza!  Nailed it!”
pizza2

Next up is the Chile Relleno flavor, which is supposed to be exclusively sold at Walmart and 7-Eleven.  I searched for these chips for a few weeks, but have yet to see them anywhere in Orlando.  Luckily, my aforementioned friend David from Boston hooked me up, mailing me two bags out of the kindness of his heart.  (In return, I mailed him the Nashville Hot Chicken chips, and was kind enough to take that picture above, because I devoured my own bag and forgot to photograph the actual chips.)
chile1

Once again, the nutrition info, with dairy ingredients, but no meat:
chile2

When I go to a Tex-Mex or Mexican restaurant, I tend to judge it if they don’t offer a chile relleno on the menu, and then it serves as a good barometer of the restaurant’s overall quality.  A lot of them use poblano peppers*, first roasting them, then stuffing them with cheese (and occasionally meat), dipping them in a eggy batter, and then deep-frying them.  It can be a thing of beauty.  And fear not, spice skeptics — these aren’t spicy peppers.  The poblano is lower on the Scoville scale than even jalapeños, so don’t worry about not being able to take the heat.

*However, one of my stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, the sensational Savanna, just let me know that most restaurants in New Mexico, including Cocina Azul itself, use New Mexican green chiles instead of poblanos in their chile rellenos, which really makes a lot of sense. 

Here’s a close-up of these chips.  I liked these a lot.  I don’t know if my brain would have automatically gone to “chile relleno,” but I did taste pepper that had a familiar and comforting roasted flavor, a little piquant but definitely not spicy.  And there was cheese in there too.  Well played, Lay’s!chile3

I could only find the Philly Cheesesteak-flavored chips in a larger bag:
philly1

Once again, the nutrition info.  These contain beef, so watch out, vegetarians!
philly2

I’ve been to Philadelphia twice, and it’s a great food city, but this might sound sacrilegious: there are better sandwiches to be found and eaten there.  I’d much rather have an Italian roast pork sandwich with sharp provolone and bitter broccoli rabe, perfected by DiNic’s in Philly’s Reading Terminal Market (one of my favorite foodie destinations in the world) and recreated wonderfully here in Orlando at one of the best new restaurants to open this year, Uncommon Catering.  I’d also rather eat an Italian hoagie (or sub, hero, grinder, whatever, but in Philly, it’s always a hoagie).  Once again, the best one I had in Philadelphia was also at the Reading Terminal Market, at Salumeria, which sadly closed after my last visit.  But here in Orlando, you can get my favorite Italian hoagie and the city’s finest cheesesteak at one of my favorite local establishments, LaSpada’s.

Anyway, back to the chips, which I also forgot to take a photo of.  They tasted the most like cheese and onion, and you can’t have a Philly cheesesteak without them.  Well, you could, but it wouldn’t be the same.  I detected some general “grilled meat” flavor, so they did what they set out to do.

Instead of snacking on these chips,  I used this large bag to bake potato chip-crusted chicken thighs in the oven on the convection setting.  They came out tender, crispy, and delicious, even after being reheated in the toaster oven over the next few days.  Why did I use the Philly Cheesesteak chips and not the Nashville Hot Chicken-flavored ones?  Subversive, right?  Because I had a much larger bag of these, and I thought the strong flavors of cheese and onion would work well with chicken.  If you’re wondering about the two pieces on the right, I ran out of crushed chips and had to use Italian bread crumbs for those.  They were pretty good too, but not as good.
chipcrustedchicken

So that’s my rundown of Lay’s five new Flavor Icons, so get them while they last!  Unlike past years where we were “treated” to Biscuits & Gravy- and Cappuccino-flavored potato chips, there wasn’t a dud in this bunch.  Your mileage will surely vary, but I thought the Carnitas Street Taco was the blandest and most forgettable, and my far-and-away favorite was the New York-Style Pizza flavor.  In fact, it was my favorite new potato chip flavor I’ve tried in a long time.  I do love tomatoey chips, though.  I’m always up for anyone’s version of sweet, smoky, tangy, tomatoey barbecue chips, I was a huge fan of Lay’s Garden Tomato and Basil chips until they discontinued those, I am a sucker for Herr’s Ketchup chips (a Canadian favorite, eh?), and I recently reviewed “Burger Toppings” chips from Sprouts supermarket, which tasted like ketchup, mustard, and pickles in the best possible way.  But even though I’m still sad about the loss of Garden Tomato and Basil Lay’s all these years later, New York-Style Pizza Lay’s reign supreme, and I hope they stick around for a good long time.

Tight Chips: Sprouts Potato Co. Kettle Style Chips – Limited Edition flavors

Anyone who knows me know how much I love grocery shopping, as well as how much I love trying new flavors of potato chips and tortilla chips.  Sure, most of the time they’re disappointing and weird, but it’s always worth trying them because you never know if you’ll get another chance.  Kind of like new life experiences in general, I guess.  Anyway, from here on, I will be reviewing new and interesting chips under the Tight Chips heading.

I’m a big fan of the supermarket Sprouts (http://www.sprouts.com), which has two Orlando-area locations, in Winter Park and Oviedo.  It’s an “upscale” grocer in the sense that Whole Foods and Fresh Market are — lots of high-end products, and unfortunately high-end prices to match.  But if you check the weekly ads, Sprouts runs excellent deals and sales every week, especially on produce.  They also have a lot of neat store-brand products and things you can’t find elsewhere, and I love their Dietz & Watson deli meats and cheeses, which are much better than the Boar’s Head products carried at Publix.

As far as chips go, Sprouts carries their own potato chips in multiple flavors — all the classics you might expect, plus some curveballs like Hatch green chile.  They have regular potato chips that are thinner like Lay’s (the industry standards, as far as I’m concerned), and thicker, crunchier kettle chips.  On my first trip to Sprouts since the pandemic started, back on July 1st, I found two new “Limited Edition” kettle chip flavors, for $2.50 each.  Both had summer cookout themes, and I couldn’t say no to them:

  • Burger Toppings: Ketchup, Mustard, and Pickle
  • Aloha BBQ: Pineapple and Sweet Onion

I would soon learn that one was just okay and one was really good, but they were not the ones I expected!sprouts1

Here are the nutrition info (ha!) and ingredients for the Burger Toppings chips:
sprouts2

These were outstanding potato chips, with intense, strong, clear, obvious flavors.  They tasted like ketchup, mustard, and pickle, as promised.  Unlike some lesser potato chip brands, Sprouts didn’t skimp on the flavor powder.  They had a nice crunchy consistency without being rock-hard gum-shredders like so many other kettle chips.  I almost ate them all before remembering to take a picture:sprouts3

I guess I must really like tomato seasoning on my chips.  One of my all-time favorite flavors was Lay’s Garden Tomato and Basil, which was unfortunately discontinued a few years ago.  I also really like that Canadian favorite, ketchup-flavored potato chips.  Herr’s (a Pennsylvania-based company that goes hard on interesting chip flavors and doesn’t skimp on the seasoning powder) makes ketchup chips that I sometimes find at Wawa convenience stores and enjoy about once a year.  I’m adding these to the pantheon of really good tomatoey chips.

Here are the nutrition info (like I said, HA!) and ingredients for the Aloha BBQ chips:
sprouts4

I was looking forward to these, because I like barbecue-flavored chips a lot (that sweet-tangy-salty-smoky-sometimes-spicy combo always works for me), and I love onions and onion-flavored things, as well as pineapple and pineapple-flavored things.  But these didn’t taste that different from most other barbecue chips.  They were better than some (once again, they were generous with the seasoning), but they weren’t terribly oniony, and the pineapple was more of a mental suggestion than an actual flavor coming through.sprouts5

I returned to Sprouts last night, since I found an old raincheck they gave me when Rao’s pasta sauce had been on sale for $5 but they were out of it.  Anyway, I noticed both of these flavors of chips were now marked down to 99 cents each, so I figured now was as good a time as any to publish this Grocery Grails review so my dozens of Saboscrivner readers could be on the lookout.  I’m sure these flavors were launched with Independence Day cookouts in mind, but maybe they were a bust this summer, when the need for social distancing outweighed the desire to cook out with family and friends.  And frankly, it’s just too hot to spend much time at all outside, even without the looming airborne dangers of COVID-19.  But you know what can sometimes soothe that sense of disappointment and dread?  New chip flavors being clearanced for 99 cents!  Sprouts is offering a bargain which could only be described as “all that and a bag of chips.”

Tight Chips: Whole Foods 365 sandwich-flavored potato chips

I’ve been meaning to review more of the random grocery purchases I’ve tried, when I discover something worth recommending.  Sometimes little treats and new discoveries are enough to get us through the day.  But that should be a special Saboscrivner feature that deserves a special name, so I went with Grocery Grails because I love alliteration and assonance as much as Silver Age Stan Lee.  But for when I focus on one of my favorite foods, potato chips, I have an even more special heading: Tight Chips.

As one of the biggest lovers of sandwiches and new chip flavors, I recently made my first post-quarantine trip to Whole Foods to track down these new sandwich-flavored potato chips from their 365 house brand.  I rarely shop at Whole Foods (more like “Whole Paycheck,” am I right?), but these were on sale for a very reasonable $2.39 each, and let’s face it, I probably would have paid more for them and been happy to do it.DSC03184

Cuban Press ingredients:DSC03185

Italian Hoagie ingredients:DSC03187

Pastrami on Rye ingredients.  Vegetarians, take note of the beef stock in these chips:DSC03188

Here are the chips.  All three flavors look exactly the same, so there was no purpose to posting three nearly-identical pictures:
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They are thinner potato chips like Lay’s, not super-thick, crunchy kettle chips.  I actually prefer this consistency.  They are easier on my gums, too.

Unfortunately, none of them tasted much like the sandwiches that inspired them.  I definitely picked up the flavors of pickles, mustard, and a smoky flavor reminiscent of ham in the Cuban Press chips (and seriously, has anyone ever called a Cuban sandwich or Cubano a “Cuban Press”?).  The Pastrami on Rye chips reminded me of smoke, pepper, and the vinegary tang of sauerkraut, but unfortunately the Italian Hoagie chips were the least like their inspiration, with a subtle taste of Italian herbs, maybe a bit of tomato and vinegar.  They were all exceedingly salty, even by potato chip standards, to the point where I was thinking “Enough, already!”

So if you’re anything like me and you love to try new and novel chip flavors, I highly recommend them for that purpose.  But go in with tempered expectations and don’t expect them to rock your tastebuds or change your life for the better.  My best advice is to seek out the actual sandwiches and pair them with some of your favorite chips, no matter what they are.  (What are your favorites, anyway?  The Saboscrivner is always interested in what other people are eating.)  But for sandwiches in the Orlando area, I recommend Italian hoagies from LaSpada’s Original Philly Cheese Steaks and Hoagies (specifically the LaSpada’s Famous), Stasio’s Italian Deli and Market (the Stasio), and Manzano’s Deli (the Rocco).  You can get a great pastrami on rye from Pickles Delicatessen in Longwood, and the biggest and best Cuban sandwich I’ve ever had in Orlando is from one of my recent discoveries, College Park Cafe.

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen

I’m not a big fan of hanging out at Citywalk, Universal Studios’ dining and shopping complex, mostly because you have to pay $26 to park there.  Because of this, I call it “Shittywalk.”  Yes folks, I’m here all week.  Tip the veal, try your waitress!  But I recently had a friend in town, a brilliant fellow librarian and former Floridian, who was visiting from up north with her husband.  She wanted to schedule a lunch with me and two of her other friends, and after several Saboscrivner suggestions, they chose the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen (https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/things-to-do/dining/toothsome-chocolate-emporium-and-savory-feast-kitchen).  Even though it’s out at City/Shittywalk, I was happy to catch up with her, and let’s face it, also happy to be invited to anything.  Plus, it sounds like something that could only exist in the long-gone glory days of The Simpsons: like T.G.I. McScratchy’s Goodtime Foodrinkery, or the Fantabulous Contraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

I had been once before, a few years ago.  The coolest part about the restaurant is the unique steampunk-style theming.  For the uninitiated, steampunk is kind of an offshoot of science fiction based in the late 19th Century (usually England, sometimes the U.S.), where there are very modern, fantastical creations powered by steam technology, including luxurious airships, robots, gleaming brass and bronze factories churning out anachronistic wonders, and lots of gears.  So many gears.  If you can’t think of any famous steampunk movies, TV shows, or books, you’re not uncultured — there just aren’t many.  For fans, it’s more of an aesthetic than anything else — a chance for creative cosplayers to dress up all fancy, in an retro-futuristic, well-to-do manner (because in a Victorian society where trailblazing inventors and explorers ruled, there would be no exploited underclasses toiling in those fantastical factories, right?).  Men favor waistcoats, vests, jodhpurs, cravats, and the occasional old-timey facial hair.  Women get dolled up in fancy dresses and corsets, and I can’t find any fault with that.  There are plenty of goggles to go around, due to steampunk’s overarching themes of invention, discovery, and exploration (think of the Industrial Revolution and also — sigh — British colonialism), and a surprising amount of top hats (including tiny top hats for the ladies).  Is there jewelry?  You bet there is.  Just find some old watches, crack them open, and glue gears to various things.  Put a gear on it!  I always joke that steampunk style is for goths that just discovered the color brown.

Anyway, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium looks like a fantastical steampunk factory from the outside, with billows of steam rising from the central smokestacks.  DSC02780

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On the way in, you can wait for your table in a gift shop that sells all kinds of fancy chocolates, candies (some in fancy glass jars and bottles), and steampunk accessories (goggles, jewelry with gears, and even tiny top hats).  Nothing is cheap.

The two-story dining room is actually gorgeous, but it’s dark enough inside that I can never get good photos of it.  I apologize for that.  I love the look of the place and all the thought that went into the design and theming.  It’s truly unique, especially as far as restaurants go.  There’s a romantic quality to the gilded, retro-futuristic decor, despite the quirky nerdiness of it all.  It feels like you’ve been transported away dine to somewhere exotic, strange, and beguiling, not like you’re chowing down with tourists on the outskirts of two sweaty Florida theme parks.

There is a public face to the restaurant, a steampunk-inspired character named Doctor Professor Penelope Tinker-Toothsome, who is played by a statuesque blonde actress (or probably multiple actresses) in a luxurious-looking blue gown, accessorized with the aforementioned corset, goggles, and tiny top hat.  The world-traveling founder and heiress to the Toothsome fortune goes around the dining room doing schtick at people’s tables in a big, stagey British accent.  She warmly greeted us, but didn’t linger at our table.

Once our gang of five assembled and started to order, the people who didn’t know each other seemed to hit it off, which is a testament to my friend’s good taste and judgment.  Me being me, I ordered onion rings for the table, so… wait a minute… is this a little recurring feature on The Saboscrivner that I like to call RING THE ALARM?  I think it is!

RING THE ALARM!  These were the Black and Tan onion rings ($10.95), and they were very good, despite a few of them being a little burnt and falling apart.  They were served on a bed of lightly crispy fried noodles that were pleasant to crunch on.  The cocoa ranch dipping sauce was cool, creamy, and slightly chocolatey, going along with the chocolate theme of the place (as opposed to the steampunk theme), but it worked.  Get in with The Saboscrivner and be a good person, and you’ll find I am usually happy to share my onion rings.DSC02786

I’m reasonably sure my friend ordered the chopped Asian chicken salad, but I’m not sure if this was a half for $7.95 or a full for $11.95.  It included grilled chicken, Napa cabbage, Tuscan kale, roasted peanuts, and peanut-lime vinaigrette.  I didn’t try it, but she seemed to like it.dsc02787.jpg

Her husband, an accomplished artist and cartoonist, ordered the Southern-fried chicken BLT ($14.50), with a crispy boneless chicken breast, tomatoes, butter bibb lettuce, bacon, and Dijon mustard on a toasted brioche bun.  He seemed to like the sandwich, but I don’t know how he felt about those fries.  dsc02789.jpg

One of my friend’s friends I had never met before chose wisely, ordering off the brunch menu.  This was the patty melt ($12.95), which inspired awe around our table.  The half-pound house-made fresh hamburger patty was served on thick slices of challah bread (CHALLAH IF YOU HEAR ME!) with cheddar cheese, topped with a sunny-side up egg and grilled pork belly, and served with Lyonnaise potatoes that looked more interesting than the fries.  If I go back, I’ll probably order that.  dsc02791.jpg

On my one previous visit, I ordered a burger that was quite good: the “May Contain Bacon” burger ($15.50).  That was another half-pound burger served on a pretzel bun with bibb lettuce, smokey thick-cut bacon, grilled pork belly, pineapple chutney, and chipotle Jack cheese.  I couldn’t find a photo from that meal from almost three years ago, but back then I was still using my awful phone camera, so it probably would not have been any good anyway.  The photo, I mean.  The burger was very good.

I made friends with one of my friend’s friends, another foodie.  She was vacillating between two menu options, so I asked if she wanted to order one thing, I’d order the other, and we’d split both.  She was down with that plan, so she ordered herself a burger: the “Tour de France” ($14.95).  Of course it had another half-pound patty, this time served on toasted brioche, with bibb lettuce, roasted tomatoes, sunny-side up egg, avocado, crispy onions, and French brie.  Ooh la la!  DSC02788
I got to enjoy half, and it definitely was a tasty burger.  Funny enough, as much as I love cheese, Brie has never been one of my favorites, but it worked well in conjunction with the other ingredients here.  (Ironically, my wife isn’t big on cheese at all, but brie is one of the few she enjoys!)

I went with her other choice, which I was already considering anyway: the Fork & Knife grilled ribeye steak sandwich ($15.95), and I gave her half.  The steak sandwich sounded right up my alley, topped with sautéed onions, roasted tomatoes, arugula, herb shallot aioli, and horseradish cheese (awww yissss!), served on a toasted onion brioche roll.  It also came with sauteed mushrooms, which I asked them to serve on the side so she could enjoy them and I wouldn’t be poisoned by them.  I asked for fresh, house-made chips with the sandwich, which looked way better than the fries, and did not disappoint.  I thought it was a rather small sandwich for $16, but hey, that sort of thing happens at theme park restaurants.  At least it was a solid steak sandwich, despite being on the puny side.dsc02790.jpg

Well, as I’m sure you surmised from the name, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium is big on decadent desserts, especially massive, mountainous, monstrous milkshakes.  Pardon the blurriness, constant readers — these beauties were on display behind glass.
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When I was here years ago, I tried the key lime pie milkshake, garnished with an actual slice of key lime pie.  (That’s it in the foreground in this recent picture from their milkshake display.)  It was okay, but actually ended up being too much, on every possible level.  For one thing, I thought the whipped topping tasted more like artificial Cool Whip than fresh whipped cream, although it’s possible I am wrong about that, or they might have changed it since then.  And being a native Floridian and enjoying key lime pie whenever and wherever I can, I’m always a little put off when key lime pie is tinted green.  The pie slice on top clearly isn’t green, but I don’t think the milkshake had to be that pale, almost seafoam green color either.

Surprisingly, only my one brave librarian friend ordered a shake this time.  The rest of us were just too full.  This was the Espresso Buzzzz (copied and pasted right off the website’s menu to ensure I had all the “z”s present and accounted for).  This $12.50 milkshake has everything: coffee ice cream, espresso, and chocolate espresso beans, and it was topped with “fresh whipped cream” (that’s what it says on the menu!), and a cherry.  She was craving coffee, so this was the best of all possible worlds.  Sea turtle lovers, you’ll be relieved to know the large, festive straws in all these milkshakes are paper (more like cardboard).  DSC02792

So it was a really pleasant lunch in a beautiful dining room with old and new friends alike.  The distance and having to pay for parking keep me away from “Shittywalk,” but we end up down there every year or so for a show at the Hard Rock Live, so I’d totally return to the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.  In fact, we’ll be back a little over a month from now to see Patton Oswalt perform at the Hard Rock, so maybe I’ll go back again with my wife.  But she’s not a corset-and-goggles kind of girl, so I know better than to even ask.