The ‘Dines List: Canned Sardines 101

“Born sinner, the opposite of a winner
Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner”
–The Notorious B.I.G., “Juicy” (1994)

I’ve been putting this off for a long time, but we’re into July now, so for Floridians, hurricane season is starting to feel like a real, existential threat.  As I put the finishing touches on this piece, a tropical storm named Elsa is currently days away from our big, stupid peninsula, and I wish we could all just let it go, am I right?  But we don’t have that luxury.  We need to stock up on serious supplies and shelf-stable snacks in the days to come, so this is the right moment for my latest review.  Trust me.  If nothing else, it will be a deep dive into uncharted waters.  But it could just save your life!

Most of this food blog is dedicated to reviewing and recommending restaurants in and around Orlando, Florida, and my occasional travels out of town, which I look forward to resuming.  But how do most of us eat most of the time?  We buy groceries and prepare simple meals at home, right?  (I know, I know, your meals are not simple, how dare I?)  As much as I like getting takeout, and as much as I’m loving eating at restaurants again, I still do meal prep, pack lunches for work, and cook food in large batches so I can eat leftovers for a few days before the cycle repeats.  I enjoy the process of grocery shopping, even when every trip out of the house felt like putting on the ol’ hazmat suit and wandering out into the wild wastelands.  So last year I created a new recurring feature on The Saboscrivner called Grocery Grails, where I review some of my favorite supermarket and grocery store finds.  So far, Grocery Grails have covered potato chips (the recurring Tight Chips features), pickles, mustards, and ramen noodles.

And now Grocery Grails has a second spinoff (after the aforementioned Tight Chips), a fabulous, fantastic feature devoted to one of my staple foods, sardines — delicious and healthy, but also unglamorous and relatively intimidating for the uninitiated.  It’s a little feature I like to call The ‘Dines List, and it is a crash course in appreciating canned sardines and other canned seafood, which I collect and eat all the time.  I will use The ‘Dines List to demystify, review, and recommend sardines, since I consider myself a connoisseur of the canned, a professor of the preserved, a dean of sardines, if you will.  This isn’t the first sardine review blog out there — Mouth Full of Sardines and Society for the Appreciation of the Lowly Tinned Sardine are out there, fully dedicated to reviewing sardines, whereas this is just going to be a recurring feature here on The Saboscrivner, as a palate cleanser between my restaurant reviews, just like Tight Chips and Grocery Grails.

So here’s The ‘Dines List 101: my freshman feature on the best canned sardines out there.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some gross sardines on supermarket shelves, and those may have turned people off to the entire concept of tinned seafood.  Here are a few helpful hints to get you started with this sardine syllabus, just based on my own personal preferences:

  • Smaller sardines taste better to me than larger ones.  If you can find a can that advertises itself as “two layer,” “dual layer,” “double layer,” or “cross pack,” you have tinier fish, literally packed in like sardines.  Bigger fish that are packed two to four in a can usually don’t taste as good to me, although there are always exceptions.
  • Stick to sardines packed in oil.  Feel free to drain the oil (not down the sink!), but I guarantee they will smell and taste better than sardines packed in water, which even I don’t like.  The same goes for canned tuna, which I ate my entire life until I met my wife, because she hated the smell so much when I opened a can of tuna.  She doesn’t share my love of sardines, but at least the smell of an open sardine can never seems to bother her the same way.
  • I never like skinless and/or boneless sardines.  Don’t be afraid of the shimmering silvery skin or the bones.  Those ‘dines always taste better than skinless and boneless varieties, which are always blander, and their textures aren’t as pleasant.  The bones are usually removed anyway, but they are a good source of calcium.  And yes, sardine tails are so teeny-tiny, you can eat them with no problem.  Don’t worry — nothing is going to crunch in your mouth or get caught in your throat.
  • Really large, oval-shaped cans of sardines never taste that great to me.  You will often see these in the “ethnic foods” aisle in the supermarket, rather than with the rest of the canned meat and seafood.
  • I love spicy sardines, and there are a lot of terrific spicy varieties out there.  But as much as I love tomato sauce and mustard as ingredients in so many foods, I almost never like sardines packed in tomato sauce or mustard.  They are always watery and low-quality, imparting a funky flavor to everything (or more likely, attempting to cover up the funky flavor of the fish).  Add your own condiments and accompaniments!  Sardines are very much a blank canvas that allow you to get creative.
  • On that note, sardines are versatile, and you can do almost anything you want to them.  Personally, I like them best on some kind of bread or crackers or in a sandwich, but I definitely eat them straight out of the can sometimes, usually standing over a sink (dad-style) to avoid dripping the oil everywhere.  But you can put them on a salad, serve them over pasta or rice, and even mash them up and make “sardine salad” the way you might make tuna salad with canned tuna.  If you elect to preserve the oil, you might consider sautéing vegetables in it and mashing up some ‘dines for an umami punch (I do this with canned anchovies much more frequently), or even using it for a quick vinaigrette dressing.
  • Sardines are practically health food!  They are full of omega-3 fatty acids to help prevent heart disease, and they are pure protein, fantastic for a meal or a snack if you are trying to cut carbs.  Legend has it that my favorite actor, the great thespian Nicolas Cage, bulked up for the 1997 action movie Con Air while working with a trainer and eating nothing but sardines.  (Con Air is a fun ride, but doesn’t even make my Top Ten Nicolas Cage films.  Cage is at his best when he’s full Method and completely unhinged, but I digress.)
  • Being so low on the food chain and plentiful in wild waters, sardines are extremely ecologically sustainable and low in mercury, much moreso than larger fish like tuna, or farmed fish.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a lot of interesting and important information about choosing sustainable seafood.
  • Finally, while sardines have been dismissed as food for broke people and dads, apparently they are the “new hotness.”  I don’t know where you’ve been, but these days, hip bars and gastropubs like my friend’s Baltimore bar The Back Yard are serving up fancy tinned seafood, inspired by bars in Spain offering canned conservas on tapas menus.  They’re elegant!  They’re continental!  And if that don’t beat all, the fashionable website Nylon just named tinned fish “the hot girl snack of the summer.”  Well, I had no idea I’d be up on some hot girl shit, but I’ve always been ahead of my time (and mostly unappreciated as a trendsetter).

So since I’m highlighting personal favorites, I figured I’d start you out with the ‘dines that earn consistently high marks on my ‘Dines List: wild-caught brisling sardines from King Oscar.  The Norwegian company was founded in 1873, but has been using King Oscar II’s name and likeness “by special royal permission” since 1902, and exporting its delicious ‘dines to the U.S. since 1903.  King Oscar is known for its high-quality, sustainable sardines from Norway’s icy waters.  They market several varieties and flavors, and cans typically run between $2 and $4 at most major supermarkets, including Publix, Winn-Dixie, and Walmart.  You can find cheaper sardines from other brands, and some of them are also good, but many are not.

My favorite King Oscars are the two layer jalapeño sardines, which are actually packed in Poland since 2008.  They are easy to find, cheap, and delicious in anything, or alone.  I always have a huge stash of these at home:

They actually pack sliced jalapeños inside the can to impart their spicy flavor into the extra virgin olive oil and the ‘dines:

I enjoyed this particular can on some toasted Cheesecake Factory brown bread.  Did you know you can buy that bread as a sandwich loaf or a pair of mini-baguettes at Publix and Winn-Dixie?  I also spread on some homemade tzatziki sauce made with Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, dill, and coarse sea salt.

Since I had more sardines left in this can but no more jalapeños, I made a second slice of toast with thin-sliced cucumbers.  Now I’m just waiting for some Boomer to complain about my sardine toast, but maybe they won’t find it as inexplicably offensive as avocado toast.

If you don’t like spicy, you can buy regular, plain two layer sardines, also packed in EVOO:

From a different day, here are King Oscar’s single layer Mediterranean style  sardines, also packed in EVOO and seasoned with herbs de Provence, red bell pepper, black olives, and garlic.

They weren’t kidding:

Here are some of these slightly larger Mediterranean ‘dines on toasted pita points:
I’m not a big fan of black olives, so I bought this can specifically to review here on The ‘Dines List.  You’re welcome!  I ate the whole can, though — olives and all, to get the full Mediterranean experience.

Next up, we have the King Oscar cross-pack, their smallest sardines of all.

The can says it holds 24-38 ‘dines, and I counted 24 exactly.  Yes, there is an entire layer underneath the ones you can see here.
The cross-pack is usually about a dollar more expensive than the other varieties, but I don’t like them quite as much.  Don’t get me wrong, they are fine, and might even be a good “gateway” sardine for the uninitiated, but I just prefer the taste of the jalapeño two layer variety.  The cross-pack ‘dines are definitely blander, but you can include them in some really creative recipes and jazz them up that way.

This was a dish I concocted recently — my own take on pasta con le sarde, with shaved fennel bulb, onions, garlic, smoked sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, chili flakes, Italian-seasoned bread crumbs, and King Oscar cross-pack sardines, all sautéed together in extra virgin olive oil and served over bucatini pasta.  It was damn delightful, and I will make it again for sure, maybe when I have golden raisins on hand in the future.

In the interest of really comparing and contrasting, dear readers, I opened three cans from my stash at once to take these comparison photos on pita strips I toasted until they were crunchy and firm.  The top row is plain two layer King Oscar sardines (exactly the same as the jalapeño variety, just minus the jalapeños), the three in the middle are the slightly larger one layer Mediterranean ‘dines, and the bottom row is the cross-pack ‘dines.  Funny, looking at them laid out on a cutting board like this, they really don’t look that different from each other!

Moving past King Oscars, I want to introduce you to some other good brands of canned ‘dines.  These are the only other kind I stockpile in our pantry, in addition to the King Oscar  jalapeño ‘dines.  They are from the Canario brand, and there is almost no information about this company on the Internet.  But I absolutely love their sardinillas picantes en aceite (“small sardines in oil spiced piquant”).

These Peruvian-caught fish have a rich, meaty flavor and consistency, and a pleasing amount of spice.  I only ever see these at Latin grocery stores, so I stock up whenever I’m at Bravo Supermarket or Fancy Fruit and Produce, both of which have multiple locations around Orlando.  Canario usually costs around $1.59 per can, so they are cheaper than King Oscar.  And I really, really like them.

Here are the Canario sardinillas on a soft, crispy, flaky paratha, an Indian flatbread that is like the beautiful love child of a flour tortilla and a croissant.  I spread on more of my homemade tzatziki sauce here to make a really delicious lunch.

Here is another serving of Canario ‘dines from a different meal, this time on rye avocado toast.  (Here come the Boomers, oh nooooo!)
DSC02706

Some of the most luxurious tinned fish I’ve ever found are Riga Gold sprats, which are very similar to sardines, but slightly larger.  These Latvian-caught fish have a terrific smoky flavor, taking on a golden glow from the smoking process.  The only places I’ve ever found them in Orlando are at International Food Club, a sprawling supermarket on L.B. McLeod Road, boasting food from over 20 countries around the world, and Tima’s House, a smaller Euro-Balkan grocery store in Longwood, much closer to home.  International Food Club in particular is such a fun place to shop, browse, discover new things, and treat yourself.

You can see that the round Riga Gold cans have a clear plastic pull-top to allow you to inspect the glorious golden sprats inside.  Da, tovarisch!  By the White Wolf!

I ate these on some leftover rye bread from The Pastrami Project, with more of that homemade tzatziki — something creamy and cool to cut the salty smokiness of the sprats.  It was an inspired combination.  Riga Gold sprats are really terrific, especially if you like smoked fish dip, whitefish salad, and other smoked fish delicacies.

I strongly recommend these sprats, even if you’ve tried sardines before and didn’t like them.  Especially if you’ve tried sardines before and didn’t like them!  If you like whitefish salad, that smoky Jewish deli delicacy made from golden smoked chubs, the Riga Gold sprats might fill that void, and you won’t have to pick out dozens of tiny, hair-thin, transparent, plastic-like bones while preparing it.

But if you don’t live close to a cool international market that sells Riga Gold smoked sprats, WALMART sells the Polar brand of smoked brisling sardines, which come in a very familiar, flat, round can with a clear plastic top, and they are also from Latvia!  Are they a repackaged version of Riga Gold?  They sure look and taste similar, they would be a heck of a lot easier to find, and for only $2 for a can, you can’t go wrong.

Here are the Polar sardines on rye-pumpernickel swirl toast, over thin-sliced cucumbers, and there is tarragon herb mustard (one of the seven mustards I reviewed in my first Cutting the Mustard feature) underneath them.  Despite being slightly smaller than the Riga sprats, these were very similar in smoky flavor, firm texture, and golden appearance, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Well hey there, sailor!  Congratulations!  You passed The ‘Dines List 101, a rundown of most of my favorite canned sardines.  I have no idea how this is going to go over, if I have somehow alienated my already small readership.  Most people dismiss sardines as stinky, funky, fishy, gross, and depressing.  Biggie Smalls sure did, and that guy loved to eat!  Remember from “It’s All About the Benjamins”: “Three course meal, spaghetti, fettuccine, and veal!”  Did that guy order the Tour of Italy at Olive Garden, or what?  And don’t forget Biggie’s breakfast of champions from “Big Poppa”: “A T-bone steak, cheese, eggs and Welch’s grape!”  (Or did he mean “cheese eggs,” like the eggs are served with cheese on them?)  But again, I digress.

Some sardines are certainly better than others, but trust me — I’ve tried so many ‘dines over the decades, and I’m sharing the best ones with you here.  And by the way, why is “fishy” so bad when we’re talking about fish?  Frankly, I’d be a little disappointed and concerned if my fish didn’t taste fishy.  But for people who crave the mild, bland taste of white fish like tilapia, these oily little fellas have so much more flavor, they’re cheap, they’re sustainable, they’re good for you, they’re great to nosh on when hurricanes knock our power out (hopefully not this summer!), they’re currently making hot girls swoon, and you might be pleasantly surprised by how tasty they are and how creative you can get with them.  (The sardines, not the hot girls!  Okay, why not both?)

I promise that next week I’ll review another good local restaurant, but I definitely plan to continue The ‘Dines List right here on The Saboscrivner.  I have two more installments already partially written, and I’m taking care to try new ‘dines to review, rather than falling back on old favorites already covered above.  Readers, reach out if you have any review requests or recommendations for sardines and other tinned seafood.  If there are specific ‘dines or other canned fish you love, recommend, and would like to send my way to sample and review, challah at your boy!

Grocery Grails: Cutting the Mustard

In the three years I’ve been writing this food blog, I have made no secret of my love of condiments and sauces.  I love visiting new and unfamiliar grocery stores anywhere I go, and there are a few sections and aisles I will always spend my time browsing: the deli, chips and snacks, canned seafood, jarred pickled vegetables, and condiments and sauces.  I am always looking for new taste sensations, especially any products I can’t find locally.

Ask my patient wife — our refrigerator door and pantry are both full to bursting with condiments and sauces, and I am the only one who likes 99% of them.  I’ve been known to plan entire meals around a specific condiment or sauce, and I’ve begged and pleaded with restaurants to sell me some of their unique house-made condiments, salad dressings, etc.  Sometimes they even say yes and hook me up.

But while some condiments have limited uses, like ketchup (burgers, meatloaf, fries, and onion rings; never on hot dogs), mustards are near and dear to my heart because there are infinite brands and varieties, and infinite uses for them.  I freakin’ love mustard.  My dad was from Brooklyn, and we ate a lot of hot dogs growing up, between Hebrew Nationals cooked at home, Sabrett carts that used to be all over Miami, and the legendary Arbetter’s, founded in 1959, which I hope to review some day, on my next visit back to where I grew up.  He always bought Gulden’s Spicy Brown mustard for the house, which is a perfect good, versatile, cheap, everyday mustard for hot dogs, burgers, and so much more.  It isn’t that spicy, though — trust me, everyone else in my family hates all spicy food.  Spicy food turns my dad from brilliant, mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner into the Hulk, to the point of making him angry.  (And you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry!)  They all wonder how I got this way, where I love trying interesting, new, and spicy flavors.

Ever since my first apartment in college in the late ’90s, I’ve been cooking for myself, trying to stick to a budget (back then it was a very small budget), but still branching out and trying new things whenever I could, as a treat.  My love of mustards has only grown in the last 20+ years, and now I have a veritable collection.  Some are better spread on different kinds of sandwiches, some on burgers and dogs, some with sausages, some with lamb, some with sardines, some in marinades and dressings… you get the picture.

Hence my newest Saboscrivner feature, a spinoff of my Grocery Grails features where I review different grocery items, called Cutting the Mustard.  In this inaugural Cutting the Mustard feature, I reviewed seven mustards I have at home right now.  (I have more, but I don’t want too many mustards open in the fridge at the same time.  My wife doesn’t like them at all, and I am just one man!)  I timed this piece to be published on Memorial Day weekend, so as we remember and honor our servicemen and servicewomen who made the ultimate sacrifice, you may find yourself at a cookout where hamburgers and hot dogs are being grilled, especially now that people have been getting vaccinated over the last few months.  Since it is becoming safe to gather and share meals with family and friends again, someone may ask you to recommend or even bring a mustard.  You’re welcome!

In an attempt to introduce the scientific method to these mustard reviews, I tried each of them the exact same way, as a control for this taste testing: on some Deutsche Kuche Bavarian soft pretzel sticks, purchased at my favorite grocery store, Aldi.  These aren’t available all the time — just a few times a year when Aldi busts out this private label of German imports.  I always try to stock up on these when I can.  I pronounce the brand name “Douche Cooch,” but you can call it whatever you like. I just heat up the frozen pretzel sticks on a tray in the toaster oven for nine minutes at 350 degrees, and they come out crackly and crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy on the inside.  They are way better than you’d think frozen pretzels could possibly be — better than many fresh soft pretzels I’ve had.  Plus, pretzels are a perfect mustard delivery device, so let the grand experiment begin!  On to the mustards!

These are the seven mustards I go on to taste below.  I’ll tell you where I got each one, what I think of them, and what you might want to do with them.

The first mustard I tried is Sir Kensington’s Dijon mustard.  Sir Kensington’s is an excellent brand of mustards, condiments, and salad dressings that tend to be on the pricey side, but I stocked up on several jars on clearance over a year ago, when the late, lamented Lucky’s Market was still open, and I’ve made them last.  Publix puts their products on sale occasionally, so be on the lookout.   I have never been a huge fan of any Dijon mustards for everyday use on things like sandwiches, hot dogs, or burgers, so I wasn’t enamored with a big dollop of Sir Kensington’s Dijon on the soft pretzel here.  If you’ve had the more famous Grey Poupon (but of course!) or even a cheap store-brand Dijon, you know what you’re trying here — smooth texture, a little flavor from white wine, a little spice you can feel in your nostrils.  But I keep this particular mustard on hand for one purpose: LAMB.  Dijon goes so well with the rich and slightly gamey flavor of lamb, which my wife and I both love.  I buy thick-cut lamb loin chops at Costco, rub them with Dijon mustard, sprinkle with salt and pepper and whatever herbs I feel like using, and roast them until they are rare.  It’s a winning flavor combination, and one of the only situations where my wife tolerates any form of mustard.

But not all Dijon is created equal!  Grey Poupon makes a Mild & Creamy Dijon mustard that I tried several years ago when it was on sale, and instantly became obsessed with.  I own about ten bottles of it right now, after snatching up a deeply discounted dozen at Ollie’s Bargain Outlet a while back.  This mustard remedies all of my criticisms about regular Dijon, including regular Grey Poupon.  It’s a fabulous mustard to spread onto most sandwiches: roast beef, turkey, ham, chicken salad, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, even an Italian sub, and those are usually better off without mustard.  (Don’t ever sully an Italian sub with yellow mustard!)  Despite the way it looks, the Mild & Creamy Dijon doesn’t have a gritty consistency from the visible seeds, so if that is a turn-off, don’t worry.  I don’t like whole-grain mustards that feel like you’re crunching a mouthful of Nerds either. I don’t think Mild & Creamy Dijon is spicy or pungent enough to complement hot dogs or classic Jewish deli-style sandwiches like pastrami, corned beef, or tongue, where the salted, cured meats usually beg for something tangy, spicy, or garlicky.  But for more everyday sandwiches, it’s a wonderful choice, and I did not mind having some straight up on the soft pretzel.

By the way, it is far too rare when my love of food and my love of hip hop cross over, but did you know there is a long tradition of rappers referencing Grey Poupon in hip hop lyrics, as a symbol of luxury?  It’s true!  Vox published an article and a playlist with 26 songs that reference Grey Poupon mustard over a 25-year period, up to 2016.  I appreciated this to no end, especially as a researcher and pop culture scholar in my day job.  But I digress.

I don’t shop at Walmart often, but sometimes I end up there when I work past 10 PM and other stores have closed, and I always check to see what interesting foods they have that nobody else carries.  Walmart has two private labels: the cheap Great Value, and the more upscale and gourmet Sam’s Choice, which has some pretty tasty, high-quality products, including a whole line of mustards.  I picked up this Sam’s Choice Herb Mustard because it was on clearance for a buck, down from the usual $3-something.  It had less of the tangy pungency that a regular yellow mustard is known for, and the herbs in question are tarragon and garlic, plus white vinegar, white wine vinegar, and mysterious “spices.” I haven’t eaten enough tarragon in my lifetime to confidently, competently describe what it tastes like on its own, and it isn’t terribly garlicky either.  Think of this as a yellow mustard that isn’t as “bright,” tangy, vinegary, or salty as you’re used to from a lifetime of cookouts.   There is an extremely subtle sweetness to it that isn’t there in regular yellow mustard.  I’ve tried it in several sandwiches since my first taste, including with some sardines, and also mixed it into chicken salad, where it is pretty inoffensive.  I didn’t love it, but didn’t hate it either.  At least the price was right.

With few exceptions, I never keep plain, regular yellow mustard at home.  Sometimes (too often), it is the only choice available at restaurants.  It is fine on hot dogs and hamburgers (my beloved Krystals wouldn’t be the same without yellow mustard), but there is one more purpose for it, where a “nicer,” fancier mustard just wouldn’t be right: Cuban sandwiches.  When you slice and stack tender, mojo criollo-marinated roast pork loin, sweet baked ham, Swiss cheese, and crunchy dill pickles on fresh Cuban bread and press it in a plancha, you need that basic yellow mustard for the Cubano to taste just right, making it one of the ultimate sandwiches of all time.   And I believe I have found the tastiest yellow mustard out there, or at least my own personal favorite: Sam’s Choice Cuban Style Mustard, also from Walmart.  It tastes so much better than any other yellow mustard I’ve ever tried, and oh yes, I did put it on homemade Cubanos and a couple of store-bought Cuban sandwiches too.  I stocked up on a few bottles of this, because I don’t go to Walmart that often, but it is really good.  Publix doesn’t carry any equivalent of this, and Winn-Dixie carries a Cuban mustard from the Plochman’s brand, which is a few dollars more than the Sam’s Choice.  I haven’t tried the Plochman’s Cuban yet, but at least I know I like this one a lot for anything that normally calls for yellow mustard.

Terrapin Ridge Farms is definitely a fancy, upscale brand that I normally don’t take a second look at due to price, but it is based out of Clearwater, Florida, which is home to a really nice beach.  Publix stocks a few Terrapin Ridge Farms condiments near the deli, but not even close to all the interesting flavors they produce.  No matter how good their condiments may look and sound, I can’t justify spending $7 for a jar.  But a few weeks ago, Publix had a Buy One, Get One Free sale for their small Terrapin Ridge Farms product selection,  so I finally indulged.  I bought three jars of an absolutely delicious hot pepper bacon jam, and one jar of this dill pickle mustard.  It’s on the creamy side, and very pickley.  It tastes more like sour pickles than dill.  Normally I’d put mustard and pickles on burgers or sandwiches, so I’m trying to think of uses where you might want this mustard to cover both bases, without making it redundant by using actual pickles.  I also dipped some homemade sweet potato oven fries in it and mixed a lot of it into some chicken salad, and those worked okay.  I think I’d rather use other mustards and then just add favorite pickles for a nice crunch, but if you don’t have pickles on hand or don’t want to use them, you might be pleasantly surprised by this mustard.

I was also dipping sweet potato fries in this Robert Rothschild Farm Sweet & Spicy mustard, which was a better fit for them.  The Robert Rothschild Farm brand is always expensive, but their products seem almost tailor-made to tempt me: mustards, condiments, sauces, dressings, and dips with flavor combinations I love.  They always have stuff that is savory, sweet, spicy, fruity, smoky — often all combined together!  This Sweet & Spicy mustard is thick and sticky like a honey mustard, with a slight bite, but not overpoweringly hot.  It was fine on the soft pretzel, but very good with the sweet potato fries.   I think it would work well in a sandwich with savory meats like roast beef and turkey.  It would be an inspired main ingredient in a glaze if you were baking a ham (and then you could leave out some sugar), but it might be a little much spread onto a sweet ham sandwich.  It would be great as a dip for heavy, salty fried foods like french fries or fried chicken, or made into a barbecue sauce.

Last, but definitely not least, is another Robert Rothschild Farm product, Anna Mae’s Smoky mustard.  This was recommended to me by a foodie friend and former co-worker, and that’s when I learned that Walmart was the only place that sold Robert Rothschild Farm mustards around here.  Interestingly, they started clearancing them a couple of months ago, so I picked up a few jars of the Sweet & Spicy for $2-something each and a few of the Anna Mae’s Smoky for $3-something each, both marked down from the usual $5.  Now they are gone, at least from the Walmarts near me, so I’m glad I stocked up when I did.  This one is AWESOME.  It is my favorite mustard I’ve reviewed on this page, and I highly recommend it to all, if you can still find it anywhere.  This mustard would go well on or in anything.  If you can find a jar, treat yourself and pick one up, even at regular Robert Rothschild prices.  I give it my highest possible Saboscrivner recommendation.

So my top recommendations are the Robert Rothschild Farm Anna Mae’s Smoky mustard (for anything and everything), the Sam’s Choice Cuban Style mustard (for anything you’d put yellow mustard on) and the Grey Poupon Mild & Creamy Dijon (for most sandwiches).  Those were the big winners here, but I feel like the biggest winner of all, eating imported German soft pretzels with seven different mustards like some kind of big shot, and then blogging about it.  I wish I could time-travel back to tell my teenage self “It gets better.”

Grocery Grails: Sun Noodle fresh ramen kits

Everyone loves ramen, right?  I sure do.  I never even tried ramen noodles until I moved away to go to college, and then they were de rigeur dorm food — bricks of fried noodles that came with seasoning packets (mostly salt and MSG) that you could turn into soup with just a pot of water boiled on an illegal hot plate.  Best of all, when we were poor all the time, you could get six or seven packages of this instant ramen in a multitude of flavors for a buck.  I quickly learned I liked my ramen best after draining the water and mixing the seasoning directly into the noodles themselves, like eating very salty flavored pasta.  When my old band spent our freshman year Spring Break touring Florida for a week, we brought bread, peanut butter, and bricks of instant ramen, which we ate uncooked, just crunching away at them in random parking lots.  All of this was extremely unhealthy, but ramen helped get me through three degrees, especially when paired with proteins like canned tuna or sardines, or sometimes chicken or sausage if I was feeling flush.

I wouldn’t discovery the glory and grandeur of “real,” authentic Japanese ramen until my 30s, when I was a little shocked over spending $10 or more for a bowl of the good stuff.  But it was so good, and I wondered where this real ramen had been all my life.  I tried a few and quickly realized tonkotsu ramen was my favorite, a creamy pork bone broth served with a slice of fatty roast chashu pork.  So delicious, and streets ahead of the cheap stuff that sustained me for so long.  I’ve had particularly lovely tonkotsu ramen at Ramen Takagi, Susuru, and Domu here in Orlando, and those are links to my reviews.  The tonkotsu at Ramen Takagi even made my Top Ten Tastes of 2020 in Orlando Weekly!

But sometimes you just want to make ramen at home for a nostalgic night in.  Orlando is blessed with a huge number of Asian markets, some of which are as huge as any Publix supermarket, and all of which feature a selection of ramen and other noodles that put Publix to shame.  And they aren’t all the fried dry bricks either — many brands offer fresh and frozen noodles that can be cooked just as easily, except the texture, taste, and quality are so much better.  Well, constant readers, I might have discovered the best store-bought ramen of all, so I had to share in another Grocery Grails feature.

The brand is Sun Noodle.  Based in Hawaii and founded by Hidehito Uki in 1981, Sun Noodle furnishes many of the best ramen restaurants in the U.S. with its fresh, springy noodles.  Seriously, if you don’t believe me, check out these features on Eater and Serious Eats and in Honolulu Magazine.  In recent years, Sun Noodle started producing ramen kits for home cooks to make fast, easy, restaurant-quality ramen with their fresh noodles and rich, flavorful concentrated soup bases that are a great leap forward from the salty powder packets we all know.

I recently found all three Sun Noodle ramen kits at Enson Market, formerly known as 1st Oriental Market, at 5132 West Colonial Drive in the Pine Hills neighborhood west of downtown Orlando, full of Asian restaurants, markets, and other businesses.  I found all three varieties in the cooler and bought them all: tonkotsu, shoyu, and miso ramen kits.  Each one comes with two servings.  Keep in mind these are perishable, so eat them or stick them in the freezer so they don’t go bad, which would be a damn shame.   

Of course I had to start with the tonkotsu, my favorite:

The back of each package includes cooking directions, nutrition information, and ingredients.  Note that this tonkotsu soup base contains pork extract, lard, and chicken powder,  so it is definitely not for vegetarians!

Each package includes two separate portions, with individually wrapped noodles and soup base packets.  The concentrated tonkotsu base was a thick, sticky paste the color of butterscotch pudding.  Let me save you the trouble — don’t bother tasting it.  You probably won’t like it, at least not until you mix it with hot water and stir well to create the creamy tonkotsu broth you were hoping for.

Here is my tonkotsu ramen, which I served with some corn and a piece of Filipino pork adobo, the only pork I had on hand.  It was great!  Definitely not as good as Ramen Takagi and the other aforementioned restaurants, because they make their broth from scratch and include house-made chashu pork and other fine ingredients.  Cobbled together from a ramen kit, a can of corn, and a hunk of leftover pork that wasn’t even from a Japanese recipe, it was still some damn fine ramen, and far better than any instant ramen I’ve tried before.  The rich, creamy broth was better than I could have imagined, made with that paste instead of a powdered seasoning blend. 

A week or so passed, and I decided to bust out the shoyu ramen, which is soy sauce-flavored.

Nutrition info and ingredients.  This one includes dried sardine extract powder, so vegetarians, stay away.

How everything looks before cooking.  Note the shoyu ramen noodles are more of a rich golden color than the paler noodles that came in the tonkotsu kit above.

And here’s the prepared soup, with more corn and some crunchy fried onions.  They’re not just for Thanksgiving green bean casserole anymore!  I think I liked these noodles better, but I definitely prefer the rich, porky flavor of the tonkotsu broth to the almost overwhelming saltiness of the shoyu broth.   And yet, it was still better than any instant ramen I’ve ever tried.

Most recently, I made the miso ramen, which is soybean paste-flavored.  Now, I’ve had miso soup at Japanese restaurants before, but only when it came with something else I ordered.  I must admit I never get too excited about it, because it never tastes like much to me.  I’ve never really sought out tofu or other soy-based meat substitutes, and it certainly never occurred to me to order miso ramen at any restaurants when tonkotsu was an option.  But I tried it for you, constant readers, for the sake of SCIENCE and JOURNALISM!  I may never be the kind of “influencer” food blogger that gets invited to free meals and fancy events, but I will definitely keeping reporting on the best local restaurants and the most interesting groceries you can find at local markets. 

Anyway, here are the nutrition info and ingredients for the miso ramen.  Yes, it is vegetarian-friendly!

The fresh noodles and soup base packet.  This one was also a thick paste that I poured the hot water from the noodles into and stirred.

And here is my miso ramen, with (surprise!) more corn, more crunchy fried onions that didn’t stay crunchy for long.  I decorated this bowl with black sesame seeds, and that cherry on top is actually a bulb of black garlic, with a very complex and surprisingly sweet flavor, and a chewy consistency like gummy candy.  

Interestingly, this was the most complex flavor of all.  Having never tried miso ramen before, I can barely even describe it, but there was a lot going on — all of it good.

I strongly recommend these to anyone curious, and I would definitely buy them again to keep in the freezer for when I crave ramen.  This happens a lot, by the way.  I’m sure there are other great ramen brands to make at home, but Sun Noodle is kind of a big deal.  I was thrilled to discover these existed, and then to find them locally.  Have you tried these?  Is there another variety of ramen you recommend, either a brand, a flavor, or both?  Your friendly neighborhood Sabsoscrivner is always on the lookout for gustatory glory with Grocery Grails.

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!

Grocery Grails: A Plethora of Pickles

I spent most of my life not liking pickles, despite being a Jew who loves New York-style Jewish deli food more than just about anything.  So I’ve been on a long quest to find pickles I liked, with most of them ranging from “meh” to “feh.”  My long-time readers will recognize that I’ve brought this up a lot.  I can’t try any pickles without commenting on them and somehow ranking them in my head.

Well, thanks to our local barbecue maven Chuck Cobb of Git-N-Messy BBQ (which I reviewed right here on The Saboscrivner last fall and have been frequenting ever since), I’ve found the best pickles I’ve ever tried, and very possibly the best pickles ever: Grillo’s Dill Pickle Chips.  Don’t worry, in pickle parlance, “chips” refers to round slices, not pickle-flavored potato chips.  See https://www.grillospickles.com/ for more information.  But I have snacked on them like potato chips or tortilla chips; they’re that good!  IMG_0193

The only ingredients are cucumbers, water, distilled white vinegar, salt, garlic, fresh dill, and GRAPE LEAVES.  They are firm, crunchy, and not overly salty, which is always nice.  There’s a slight sweetness to them, something I felt was missing from every bite I’ve ever taken of a dill pickle before, but there’s no sugar listed, so maybe it’s the grape leaves.  They’re fantastic.  I’d put them on just about anything.

At least at Florida’s ubiquitous Publix supermarkets, Grillo’s Pickles are in the refrigerated case above the hot dogs, where they keep the “fancier” pickles and sauerkraut.  These came in a relatively small container that cost $4.99, but they’re worth every penny.  Sometimes they go on sale.  If they do, stock up, pickle peeps!
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And of course, as a librarian and a nerd, I have to research anything I like, so here’s an article about Grillo’s Pickles from FoodDive.

More recently, I was at Target picking up a few things and found Grillo’s Classic Dill Pickle Spears in a 32-ounce plastic container in their refrigerated case.  I was a little more hesitant to get full spears, rather than the sliced chips that fit so well in sandwiches, but it was a very good price: $5.99 for that much larger container.  Well, even though they taste the same as the chips, I didn’t like chomping on the spear as much, compared to the perfect flatness and crunch of the sliced chips.  Plus, the spears were just a little more inconvenient for fitting on a burger.
grillos

Grillo’s makes hot pickles too, so I’ll have to try those eventually.  I never thought I’d be so enthusiastic about pickles, but if I could like Grillo’s that much, then normal people who have always liked pickles should really taste the difference as well.  The brine is so good, I always keep it and make pickled eggs in the Grillo’s brine.

I am also a huge fan of shopping at Aldi, the discount supermarket chain that offers amazing deals on everything, including some serious gourmet shit.  I buy the majority of our groceries at Aldi now — they can’t be beaten for quality and value on staples like fruit, vegetables, cheese, eggs, and salami.  I check their weekly ads online every Wednesday to see their special buys for each week — interesting foods and other products that are only there for a week, or until they run out.  Aldi sells a lot of “private labels” that are usually national or international products from familiar brands, just relabeled as store brands that are exclusive to Aldi.

In recent months, I’ve discovered and tried three delicious kinds of sliced pickles from Aldi — two private labels and one national brand.  These were all weekly “Aldi finds” that I picked up at various times.  They probably won’t be available there now, but watch those weekly ads, and be on the lookout for their return.

The two private labels are the Great Gherkins spicy maple bourbon pickles, which were new to me, and the Park Street Deli sweet horseradish pickles, which were my favorites until I discovered Grillo’s.  I still like them a lot, though.  Like the Grillo’s brand, the Park Street Deli pickles are sold refrigerated, and they have other varieties, including regular spears and “atomic spicy.”  Suckerpunch Gourmet Pickles is a national brand, and I wanted to try their Spicy Bread N’ Better pickles too, since I was reminded of a friend and colleague’s ska-punk band I like a lot.

I recently tested out all three of these pickles on Krystal sliders, one of my favorite snacks that I’ve reviewed before.  I ordered a dozen Krystals with cheese, the standard yellow mustard, and extra onions, but I asked them to hold their usual mediocre pickles.

Here are the Great Gherkins spicy maple bourbon pickles on four Krystal sliders, so I could gauge their full effect.  I think the strong flavors overpowered the sliders.  They have that nice crispness, but they’re a little too sweet and not as spicy as I was hoping. 

The Suckerpunch Spicy Bread N’ Better [sp] pickles were also sweeter than they were spicy.  They would be a perfect pickle on a larger, more substantial burger to cut the juicy richness and saltiness, but again, Krystal sliders are delicious but puny, and these pickles were overpowering.  

I’ve been buying Aldi’s Park Street Deli sweet horseradish pickles the longest, so I already knew I liked them a lot, especially on homemade burgers.  Of these three kinds of pickles, they were the best on the Krystal sliders, but the slices are thicker than I would like.  They are nice and crunchy, not quite as horseradishy as I would like, but not as sweet as the two aforementioned pickles.  These were the best of the three, but would have been even better if the slices were thinner.

Sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos, you can see Krystal has pretty decent breaded onion rings now.  RING THE ALARM, WHAT WHAT!

But I felt like the two newer, sweeter pickles still deserved another chance, so I made my own really delicious cheeseburgers to try them.  I don’t like the flattened “smash burger” style, so my burgers are thicc, juicy, and medium rare.  I served these with American cheese (the best cheese for a burger), Cuban mustard, and a little ketchup.  Check out these perfect golden buns, spread with garlic aioli and lightly browned in the pan:

Now with the Great Gherkins and Suckerpunch pickles:

Both of these pickles went so much better with the juicier, higher-quality burgers, with their sweetness working well to offset the saltiness of the meat and tanginess of the mustard and ketchup.  Their crunch held up well, especially with the light, toasty crispiness of the pan-grilled buns.  I give the edge to the Suckerpunch Spicy Bread N’ Better pickles here, but they were both good pickles that led to even better burgers.

Now I’m thinking about all the foods that pickles could go well with, and I am psyched to experiment more.  I’ve already chopped pickles up in chicken and egg salads and made my own relish the last time I cooked hot dogs.  (I buy the Boar’s Head all-beef hot dogs with the snappy natural casing, and they are awesome.)  Salty, sour Saboscrivnerinos, which pickles do you like, and how do you eat them?  Inquiring minds want to know!

But so far, the only pickles I’ve just gone to the fridge and sought out as a solo snack are the Grillo’s, which are above and beyond all the rest.  In this pickle pantheon, they sit on the throne of gods.

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!
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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!
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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.
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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!”
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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.)
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Once again, the nutrition info, with dairy ingredients, but no meat:
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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:
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Once again, the nutrition info.  These contain beef, so watch out, vegetarians!
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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.
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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:
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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:
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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.