Grocery Grails: BarbaCuban Sauces

Longtime readers of this humble food blog, the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, know I am obsessed with condiments and sauces, to the point that I will plan entire meals around certain ones and check grocery stores wherever I am for new condiments I might not be able to find back at home.  I occasionally take breaks from restaurant reviews on this blog to occasionally highlight  grocery store finds in a recurring feature called Grocery Grails, and that got a spinoff of its own, another recurring feature called Cutting the Mustard, where I review different mustards.

Earlier this year, I was introduced to a whole new line of sauces I’ve never seen for sale before, and I was actually encouraged to review them on my blog.  A foodie friend with impeccable taste and a job in marketing gave me the sauces to try.  He told me that if I like them, they would be grateful if I reviewed them, but if I don’t like them, I’d be under no obligation.  No money changed hands, just a few bottles of sauce.  I’ve always taken pride in maintaining the independent status of this food blog, not taking any kind of quid pro quo in exchange for good reviews, and I’m not about to start now.  I’m no influencer-for-hire, just a guy who loves to try new foods and tell people what I think of them.  As a result, I was stoked to sample some new sauces, free from any conflicts of interest or ethical worries, and even more stoked that they were good enough to feature in a Grocery Grails segment.  (In fact, two of them are mustard-based, so this is also an official Cutting the Mustard column!)  So here we go!

BarbaCuban sauces (https://barbacuban.com/) are the creation of the BarbaCuban himself, Jose Juarez.  Back in 2015, he appeared on the Live with Kelly and Michael show and won the title of “America’s New Grill Star,” a nationwide contest sponsored by the show.   The secret to his BarbaCuban Sandwich success was his 455 Sauce, a tangy, creamy blend of three “M”s: mustard, mayo, and mojo criollo, the marinade that brings citrus and garlic flavors to so many Cuban pork and chicken dishes.  Now you can buy it, along with all of his other condiments and sauces, on the website.

The BarbaCuban website showed me that 455 Sauce is named after the engine block of Jose’s GTO convertible, which was a mystery to me until just now.  But I have been enjoying both the regular and hot 455 Sauces for months now, using them for everything from chicken marinades to dips for fries to the base for chicken salad, cole slaw, and honey mustard salad dressing.  As I’ve shown in my previous Cutting the Mustard columns, I consider myself a mustard aficionado and connoisseur, and BarbaCuban 455 Sauces have been a terrific, versatile addition to my condiment collection and my mustard museum.

Here are the ingredients for the hot 455 Sauce.  I finished the bottle of the regular version a while back and recycled it already, but I’m sure it is very similar, minus the smoked ghost pepper powder:

Here is the hot 455 Sauce accompanying a platter of chicken salad sandwiches I made on nice, fresh Cuban bread from the legendary Alessi Bakery in Tampa, the subject of my review from last week.  I pulled every morsel of meat off one of those gigantic mutant Costco rotisserie chickens and mixed it with chopped cornichons, pepperoncini peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes, raisins, a good bit of hot 455 Sauce (where I would normally use mayo and some other kind of mustard), worcestershire sauce, and pretty much every herb and spice in my spice drawer. 

Here’s that hot 455 Sauce again, served with a grilled cheese sandwich with homemade pickled onions on sourdough bread, with chicken sausages on the side.  It’s a ridiculously versatile condiment — definitely the spiciest of the six BarbaCuban sauces I sampled, but creamy enough to be a great ingredient and/or dip for anything, in a way most conventional mustards aren’t unless you mix them up with mayo or something like that.  Mr. Juarez has already done that mayo-mixing for you!

Ketchup might be the most popular condiment in the United States, but it still has a polarizing reputation.  People either like ketchup or hate it.  I like it fine, but only for certain applications: burgers, fries, onion rings, and making a glazed crust for meatloaf.  I do most of my grocery shopping at Aldi, so I have no problem buying private labels and store brands, but for ketchup, I must admit I’ve always been a Heinz loyalist.  Nothing else ever tastes or feels quite right.  I’ve been to some restaurants that serve “house-made” ketchups, and I always steel myself for something that tastes like Christmas — chefs going hard with cinnamon and cloves, either too thick or too thin and never quite right.

But anyway, BarbaCuban makes Ram Air Red Zesty Ketchup, and it immediately won me over: a non-Heinz ketchup I have been using exclusively for months.  Having these new sauces in my life, and especially this spicy ketchup, has inspired me to order more fries than I ever did before, and to bring them home from restaurants, untouched, just so I could reheat them in my toaster oven and use them as a Ram Air Red Zesty Ketchup delivery system.  I also make a legendary meatloaf, so of course I have been brushing it on to form that sweet, tangy, sticky glazed crust.  Even if Heinz is the industry standard, this is the disruptor everyone has been waiting for without ever realizing it: a more complex flavor than Heinz with a pleasing amount of heat, but simple enough that it will still enhance all your old favorites without overpowering them.

Here are some Sidewinder fries (maybe my favorite kind of fries) that we brought home from St. Johns River Steak and Seafood earlier this summer, just so I could enjoy them with the Ram Air Red Zesty Ketchup.

These are the ingredients, which include orange, grapefruit, lemon, and lime juices, Spanish olive oil, smoked salt, smoked paprika, and smoked ghost pepper powder.  Yowza yowza yowza!

Here are some onion rings and fried avocado nuggets from two different restaurants we visited on a recent trip out of town, which I have yet to review.  If you can guess where we got these, I’ll be impressed, and I may have to think of some kind of prize for the sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerino.  But as good as they were at their respective restaurants, they were even better heated back up with BarbaCuban condiments:

My absolute favorite of all the BarbaCuban sauces was the 4 Barrel BBQ Sauce (below left).  I always love barbecue sauce as a condiment, and not just on barbecued meats.  I know Mr. Juarez, the BarbaCuban himself, is a grill-master, but I don’t even own a grill!  It’s too damn hot and humid to spend any time outside nine months out of the year, so I know I wouldn’t get my money’s worth.  But that didn’t stop me from pouring that 4 Barrel BBQ Sauce on anything and everything over the last couple of months, while trying to make my one bottle last.

It is thinner than a lot of sticky, thick, gloopy commercial barbecue sauces, but so much more complex-tasting.  It has the most inspired ingredients I’ve ever seen in a barbecue sauce, including bourbon, Cuban coffee, tamarind extract, worcestershire sauce (bringing some nice umami funk from anchovies), ghost pepper, and guava, mango, pear, pineapple, lemon, and lime juices.  All those amazing ingredients and NO high fructose corn syrup?  Now that’s what I call barbecue sauce!

The BarbaCuban 4 Barrel Barbecue Sauce is so delicious, you could put this on vanilla ice cream!  I didn’t, but I would have if I ever kept vanilla ice cream in the house.

Next up, the BarbaCuban Havana Gold Barbecue Sauce is a combination of the mustard and mayo-based 455 Sauce and the brilliant 4 Barrel Barbecue Sauce.  It was sweet, tangy, a little spicy, a little creamy, and so good.  While I dipped plenty of things in it (see two photos above), I decided to use it to glaze a bone-in, spiral-sliced ham I bought on sale at Aldi after Easter.  I only ever treat myself to whole hams when they are discounted after holidays, which makes me both a good Jew and a bad Jew at the same time!  I’m here all week, folks!  Tip the veal!  Try your waitress!

Here’s the before picture:

Here it is, post-slatherin’ with BarbaCuban Havana Gold BBQ Sauce:

And here it is, hot and sweet and sticky and crackly, right out of the oven.  Our home smelled like heaven, and this ham tasted like it too.  Since I’m the only one here who eats ham, I froze a lot of it to save for later, specifically for the next time I make Cuban sandwiches at home. 

So that is an excellent segue to the last, but definitely not least, the BarbaCuban 90 Miles to Mojo Marinade, Mr. Juarez’s excellent version of mojo criollo, that citrusy, garlicky Cuban marinade so perfect with chicken and pork.  I follow a long, involved, labor-intensive Binging With Babish recipe to make my own mojo criollo from scratch when I want to make roast pork for homemade Cuban sandwiches, inspired by the delightful movie Chef.  It yields one of the most delicious meals ever, but it’s quite a process.  As a result, I’ve tried several store-bought mojo marinades over the decades, and most of them are pretty lousy.  In fact, I’ve only ever found two I liked, and this 90 Miles to Mojo Marinade is one of them.  Here are the ingredients:

I took this photo today, in fact — oven-roasted chicken thighs, marinated overnight in 90 Miles to Mojo Marinade, and served with seasoned black beans and homemade pickled red onions.

I do a lot of meal prep for the week on Sundays, and these are going to be my work lunches for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, alongside salads and fruit.  They are going to be great.  The whole house smells so good!  I made sure to save plenty of the 90 Miles to Mojo for the next time I bring home a pork tenderloin to make Cuban sandwiches.  Here’s hoping it will save me a ton of money and prep time, compared to making my own scratch mojo criollo.  And I already have sliced ham ready to thaw, with that BarbaCuban Havana Gold glaze on it.

Over the last few months, since my friend introduced these sauces to my life, I’ve been keeping my eyes peeled to find them at retail.  I shop for groceries at a lot of different stores in and around Orlando, but I have yet to see them at Publix, Aldi, Winn-Dixie, Fresh Market, Sprouts, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, or Walmart.  Right now, my advice is to take the plunge, treat yourself, and order them on the BarbaCuban website: https://barbacuban.com/.  If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written about food before, you know I’m a nerd who gets enthusiastic about recommending things I have enjoyed.  I wouldn’t tell you to seek these out if I didn’t like them, trust me.  I did, so now I’m tellin’ you.  Call me a saucy boy if you must, but your meats, your carbs, your friends, and your mouth will thank you if you trust me!

Grocery Grails: Cutting the Mustard II: The Quest for More Mustard

Well, it’s the summer, and that means we’re getting some sequels.  Movie sequels always try to top the originals by being BIGGER, LOUDER, and LONGER, so that’s what I’m trying to do with the sequel to my original mustard review feature from last summer, Cutting the Mustard.  I reviewed seven different mustards, just in time for Memorial Day weekend, when people tend to eat a lot of hot dogs and burgers.  Well, it’s Memorial Day weekend again, so here’s our sequel: Cutting the Mustard II: The Quest for More Mustard!  And if you think I only reviewed eight mustards this time, then go jump in a lake, jabroni.  I only offer the best content to my dozens of readers, the stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, so I have raised the stakes and reviewed TEN mustards right here!  Fasten your seatbelts and get ready for mustard mishegas!

The first two new mustards I reviewed were from iconic mustard company French’s, famous for its standard yellow mustard.  But since nothing I write about on this blog is standard, I tried two of French’s deeper cuts, if you will.  The first one was French’s Brown Sugar Bourbon stone ground mustard, which comes in a relatively small glass jar.  Just like in the first Cutting the Mustard, I sampled it on a Deutsche Kuche (pronounced “douche cooch”) Bavarian soft pretzel stick from Aldi, imported from Germany, a place that knows something about pretzels and mustard.  This was a winning combination.  The Brown Sugar Bourbon added a subtle sweetness that wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet.  I thought it would go great with hot dogs to cut their extreme saltiness, and would also go well with most deli meats like turkey, roast beef, or ham, as long as the ham isn’t overly sweet already.

I chased that with French’s Roasted Garlic stone ground mustard, which comes in the same kind of glass jar, at the same price point.  I found both of these at Winn-Dixie, by the way.  The garlic flavor was a lot more subtle than I expected.  It reminded me of a standard Dijon mustard, but not as spicy in your nose, and definitely not as “bright”-tasting as a classic yellow mustard.  It would go really well on a sweeter ham sandwich, and it would be fabulous with roast beef or on a nice rare burger.  I could also see mixing it with mayonnaise and honey as the base for a slightly garlicky honey mustard dressing.   I was pleased that despite being labeled as “stone ground,” neither of these French’s mustards had whole crunchy seeds in them.  As I’ve remarked before, I am not a fan of eating mustard and feeling like I’m crunching away on a mouthful of Nerds candy.

I found my next two mustards at Clemons Produce, a wonderful locally owned and operated produce market at 3325 Curry Ford Road, Orlando, Florida, 32806.  It is on the northwest side of the intersection of Curry Ford Road and Crystal Lake Drive, in a great foodie neighborhood known as the Hourglass District.  I am a recent convert to Clemons Produce, but in addition to carrying some of the finest, freshest fruits and vegetables in town, they also have a great selection of groceries, including lots of Amish products: jams and preserves, pickles and other pickled veggies, pies, and even bottled sodas I haven’t found anywhere else in Orlando.  They also have an Amish deli counter that features meats and cheeses from the Troyer brand.  I recommend trying the Lebanon bologna and farmer’s cheese, if you’re in the area. 

And while you’re there, you can pick up some mustards from the Woeber’s brand!  I picked out two of Woeber’s Sandwich Pal mustards: Hot & Spicy and Sweet & Spicy.  The Hot & Spicy mustard had a fair bit of heat.  The Aldi pretzel sticks may have been out of season, so I don’t have a photo of it on one of those, but this was around the time during the pandemic when I was trying to engineer the perfect breakfast sandwich, and I used plenty of it on those experiments.  I love mustard on eggs and breakfast sandwiches.  I even love McDonald’s Sausage McMuffins With Egg, a nostalgic childhood treat that has aged better than anything else at McDonald’s, as far as I’m concerned.  As an adult, I always take them straight home so the American cheese has a chance to melt, and I can apply my own mustards.

Here is one of my most beautiful breakfast sandwich creations with the Woeber’s Sandwich Pal Sweet & Spicy mustard.  This is on Wonder brand Texas Toast (far superior to any other white bread due to its thiccness), and it is topped with a perfectly fried egg (cooked in a ring mold, the way McDonald’s does its McMuffin eggs), American cheese, lap xuong Chinese sausage (much chewier and sweeter than typical breakfast sausage), sautéed onions, Peppadew peppers, and of course the Sweet & Spicy mustard.  The Texas toast is spread with Duke’s mayo, after I chopped up an entire HEAD of garlic and added it directly to the Duke’s jar, so I always have garlic aioli at the ready.  Then I grilled the entire sandwich in a pan like a big ol’ grilled cheese.  Brilliant, and the different kinds of sweetness from the mustard, the sausage, and the Peppadews really sent this one over the top.

My next two mustards are Russian mustards, which I bought months before Russia invaded Ukraine, committed war crimes, and threatened to start World War III.  I found them at another terrific grocery store that specializes in Eastern European products, Green Hills Supermarket, at 1140 East Altamonte Drive, Altamonte Springs, Florida, 32701.

This first one is Zakuson Russian Standard mustard.  It was extremely spicy, the kind of spicy that burns your sinuses more than your tongue.  It reminded me of the hot Chinese mustard that comes in little plastic packets with takeout Chinese food — great for clearing clogged sinuses when you have a cold.  I have to admit, it wasn’t my favorite, but I bravely made my way through the jar.

Here is the Zakuson mustard on a toasted bagel with delicious smoked sable (aka black cod, one of the finest smoked fish you can eat), also purchased at Green Hills Supermarket.  I also added sliced tomatoes and my homemade pickled onions, which are sweet and crispy.  In the future, I would stick to cream cheese for a decadent sandwich like this, rather than a strong and pungent mustard.

The other Russian mustard I bought at Green Hills Supermarket was Uncle Vanya, a small bottle that called out to me because it cost under $2.  How could I go wrong?  It was less intense than the Zakuson, which was a relief.

I decided to use it on the last batch of Cuban sandwiches I made at home, after making my own mojo criollo marinade for some pork tenderloins.  I used a loaf and a half of fresh Cuban bread, and I used up the entire jar of Uncle Vanya mustard, spreading it on both sides of the bread.  

These turned out to be some fine Cubanos!  Of course I used Grillo’s pickles, which I reviewed back in 2020.

Next up, I did a scientific taste test of four more mustards: three I like quite a bit, and one that was new to me.  I call this segment DARE TO COMPARE.

First up is Burman’s horseradish mustard, a pretty standard and budget-priced selection available at Aldi, great on hot dogs and most sandwiches.  It might be a rebranded private label version of Gulden’s horseradish mustard, given the similar shape of the bottles:

Next up is Ba-Tampte delicatessen style mustard, a classic and one of my all-time favorite mustards.  This is available at most Publix supermarkets for $2.99.  Just be aware that they keep it near the deli and not in the mustard section in the condiment aisle.  It is so delicious on anything, and I always recommend it highly.   As good as it is on hot dogs and conventional sandwiches, you might weep if you can get your hands on some good corned beef, pastrami, or tongue and apply a liberal schmear of Ba-Tampte.   Of course rye bread would be the industry standard here, but if you know someone who can hook you up with club rolls, you’ll never want your pastrami on rye again.

I also highly recommend Boar’s Head delicatessen style mustard, which is made with white wine and horseradish.  It is also available near the deli at Publix, and one of my favorite local delis in the Orlando area, Pickles New York Delicatessen in Longwood, is classy enough to put bottles of this on every table.  It is like a cross between a standard deli mustard and a dijon, and it’s absolutely delicious — tangy with a subtle acidic sweetness I attribute to the white wine.  Bottles usually cost around $4 because Boar’s Head products aren’t cheap, but I think I grabbed this one on sale for $3.50. 

And the new one (at least for me) was Kosciusko original spicy brown mustard.  I actually bought this one at Green Hills Supermarket too, despite it being an American product (and not Australian, as the name would have made me guess).  It is actually owned by mustard mega-conglomerate Plochman’s!   
Kosciusko is very similar to the Gulden’s spicy brown mustard my dad always kept in our house growing up, but maybe a touch creamier?  Despite “spicy” being in the description, it probably had the least zing of the four.  Still good, though.  I would consider it a solid all-purpose, everyday mustard.

I had these with a Gabila’s potato knish, which are my favorite knishes.  For the uninitiated, knishes are seasoned mashed potatoes that are baked — or in Gabila’s case, fried — in a pastry crust.  There was a fire at the Gabila’s factory back in 2013, and  I still remember multiple articles being written about the cataclysmic knish shortage, stirring up tsuris among fellow fressers and affiliated altacockers alike.  But luckily, just like the Fox’s U-Bet syrup empire, Gabila’s bounced back.  A lot of delis serve these knishes because they are such a high-quality product with a lot of history, but now you can buy a box of four frozen Gabila’s knishes at Publix, and I can’t recommend them highly enough.  They are one of my favorite ways to eat potatoes, and considering I also write potato chip reviews, I don’t say that lightly.

Here are the frozen knishes:

I very scientifically heated up one knish, cut it into quarters, and enjoyed it with each of the four mustards.  I am pleased to say that unlike sports, where there is generally always a winner and a loser, in this DARE TO COMPARE even, all of these mustards were winners, and I was the biggest winner of all.   
I would strongly recommend any of these four mustards for any of your dipping, spreading, or seasoning needs, especially if you’re mostly used to plain yellow mustards or just standard dijon when you’re feeling fancy.

So when you’re grilling out on Memorial Day weekend (please don’t call it “barbecuing” unless you’re smoking meats low and slow; that’s a pet peeve of mine), please consider some of these magical mustards for your condiment needs, and you too will conclude that they cut the mustard!

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.

Grocery Grails: Fox’s U-Bet Syrups

This week I’m taking a break from restaurant reviews to bring back my recurring Grocery Grails feature, where I review and recommend some of my favorite food products you can buy at supermarkets and grocery stores.  In the past, I’ve reviewed pickles and ramen noodles in order to highlight the best store-bought varieties I’ve ever found, as well as all kinds of potato chips under the Tight Chips banner, reviewed sardines in features called The ‘Dines List, and mustards in a recurring segment called Cutting the Mustard.  Stay tuned for more of those, sharp-eyed Saboscrivnerinos, but today we’re going to cool things down with something a little different.

Have you ever eaten too much, or too much of the wrong things?  I have.  Sometimes you get that feeling where you’re too full and bloated, or you’re an anhedonic altacocker like me and suffer from a bit of acid reflux.  In that case, allow me to recommend the perfect solution for your indigestion: an egg cream!  You’ve probably heard of these delightful, deli-derived digestive drinks before, and I’ve even mentioned them in some of my past reviews.  An egg cream contains neither eggs nor cream, but three perfect ingredients to help you feel better after a heavy meal, and to leave a sweet, creamy, refreshing taste in your mouth: seltzer water, milk, and a flavored syrup.  And folks, if you make your egg creams with anything but Fox’s U-Bet Syrups, you’re not living right!

Fox’s is one of those beloved, old-school New Yawk products that is harder to find these days, and costs a little more, but is totally worth every penny.  Founded in Brooklyn in 1895 by H. Fox & Company, the Fox’s U-Bet brand is now owned by the Gold’s Horseradish company.  They do not contain high fructose corn syrup, unlike many comparable brands, and they are kosher for Passover.  The thick, rich chocolate syrup with the yellow label is the standard for egg creams, but I would strongly recommend it for any of your chocolate syrup needs: making chocolate milk, hot chocolate, ice cream sundaes, milkshakes, or anything else.  It tastes better than any other chocolate syrups, and definitely any powder mixes I’ve ever tried.Personally, I like the U-Bet vanilla and coffee syrups even more than the chocolate, which speaks volumes about how good they are.  Both of these are thinner than the thick, sticky chocolate syrup, but they are so good. They are harder to find around here, though.  I found the coffee syrup once at a “bougier” Publix than my normal location, and last fall, I was lucky enough to find some vanilla U-Bet bottles marked down for clearance after Yom Kippur at another swankier Publix, so I grabbed them all.  Pickles Delicatessen in Longwood also sells the chocolate and vanilla syrups.

With any of the three, squirt some U-Bet syrup into a tall glass, fill it about halfway with the milk of your choice and stir well, making sure it doesn’t all stick to the bottom and sides of your glass.  Fill the rest with seltzer, stir some more, and enjoy an effervescent, foamy, sweet, creamy, classic beverage that goes so well at the end of any meal as both a dessert and a digestive aid. 

Our plastic glasses have seen better days, after going through the dishwasher for 13 years, but here’s one of the many vanilla egg creams I’ve made to relax after work.  Hey, as a non-drinker, I take my simple pleasures where I can find them.

Last year I discovered a game-changing new product that completely changed my egg cream game, and it can change yours too.  The Polar brand makes several calorie-free flavored seltzers with all-natural ingredients, no sugar, and no gross artificial sweeteners added.  Sprouts Farmers Market grocery stores in Orlando and Oviedo (but interestingly, not Winter Park) sell a toasted coconut flavor of Polar seltzer that is absolutely delicious on its own, but elevates chocolate, vanilla, or coffee-flavored egg creams to the next level.  Think about how good a toasted coconut flavor would be when combined with any of those flavors, but especially my absolute favorite, the vanilla.  Combine that with 1% or 2% milk (which still taste so luxurious to me, after growing up in a house with skim milk, or vaguely milk-flavored water), and your egg cream will taste so much richer and more decadent than it really is.   I buy every bottle of Polar toasted coconut seltzer on the shelf every time I see them at Sprouts, just so we never run out!

Last year, a really good friend visited Rhode Island and brought me back this huge bottle of Autocrat coffee syrup, completely unknown here in Florida, but a standard shelf staple in Rhode Island, where everyone drinks “coffee milk.”  (Yes, it’s essentially the same thing as chocolate milk, just made with coffee syrup.  And I knew about it because I am obsessed with regional foods, especially anything I can’t easily find around here.)   I despise autocrats in real life, and there are far too many of them these days with too much power and control, but I sure did like the coffee syrup named after them.I almost never drink coffee due to the aforementioned acid reflux, but I like the taste of a sweet, creamy, chilled, coffee-flavored beverage.  Naturally, I enjoyed comparing it to the Fox’s U-Bet coffee syrup and using it in some coffee egg creams with plain and toasted coconut seltzer.  I decided the Autocrat works great for coffee milk, but nothing can touch the flavors of the Fox’s U-Bet products for egg creams.

If you read through this review and still have no idea what I’m talking about, treat yourself to a bottle of Fox’s or find a deli or a bagel shop willing to mix you up an egg cream.  You’re not gonna regret this!

The ‘Dines List 2: Mission to Morocco!

Believe it or not, even though we’re finally into October, it’s still hurricane season, so this lifelong Florida Man isn’t relaxing just yet.  I usually don’t let my guard down until we get to Thanksgiving, so I still have a huge stash of shelf-stable food on hand, including plenty of my favorite quick, easy, healthy, delicious household staple, tinned sardines.

I don’t know if my first installment of The ‘Dines List, the new ongoing Saboscrivner feature where I review canned sardines and other tinned seafood, was a rousing hit among my dozens of readers back in July.  Most people come here for restaurant reviews, but because I don’t go out to eat as often as everyone thinks I do, I bolster those with reviews of other foods I enjoy and want to spread the word about in recurring features like Grocery Grails, Tight Chips, Cutting the Mustard, and now The ‘Dines List.  But the truth is, I eat a lot of sardines.  I got into them when I was a poor student, but now that I make the medium bucks in the high-stakes, high-pressure world of academia, I continue to dine on ‘dines because they’re so healthy, they’re environmentally sustainable (especially compared to most other fish), they’re cheap, they’re versatile, and I just like them.  Plus, as a lifelong collector of things like comic books, action figures, and music, I appreciate that there are seemingly infinite varieties of sardines, so I love discovering and collecting new brands and flavors and sharing information about them.

My first ‘Dines List feature, “Canned Sardines 101,” was a rundown of some of my all-time favorite sardines, meant as a guide for the unfamiliar and the skeptical, to ease new ‘dine eaters into those briny waters and introduce them to the tastiest and least-intimidating tinned ‘dines I know of.  But since there are so many more sardines out there, future ‘Dines List installments are going to have themes to them, and this one is going to be about sardines from Morocco.

Why Morocco?  Perhaps the better question is why not Morocco?  Located in the northwestern point of the African continent, Morocco borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Alboran Sea, which is the westernmost edge of the warm Mediterranean Sea.  This geographical area, where ocean meets sea, has a long history of fishing and trading, and there are commercial fisheries all through the region.  Morocco is right across from Spain and Portugal, and plenty of tinned sardines are products of those three countries.  I’ll cover Spanish and Portuguese sardines in future installments, but it is worth noting that due to European Union agreements regarding fishing rights, many Spanish vessels fish for sardines in Moroccan waters.

The first Moroccan sardines I found were from the Titus brand, which most Asian markets around Orlando seem to carry.  These had a very cool-looking can.  I love how sardine can graphic design tends to be “old-timey,” like they’ve had the same artwork, fonts, and colors for decades, or even longer.  You’ll never see tins emblazoned with a cartoon fish shredding on an electric guitar while riding a skateboard and wearing sunglasses and a backwards cap, because there are no focus groups warning the sardine companies they need to be more “extreme” and “totally in your face.”  And that’s just fine, really.

But the ‘dines inside weren’t the prettiest.  This was after I drained the oil, but don’t worry, you didn’t miss much.   

I just threw these over some pasta and didn’t bother to take a picture.  They were okay.  I don’t think I would get them again, but of course I bought two cans of the regular Titus and two cans of…

HOT TITUS!  I almost always gravitate toward spicy sardines, which are either packed in spicy oil or with some kind of hot peppers, or both.  They usually taste better than plain ones, at least to me.   

This can only included three large ‘dines, and in my experience, the bigger ones rarely taste as good as the smaller ones.  They tend to be drier and flakier in texture than smaller brisling sardines.   These Hot Titus ‘dines came packed with some very hot peppers (dry and full of spicy seeds) in addition to the bright orange spicy vegetable oil.

I made the Hot Titus ‘dines into one and a half sandwiches on delicious Deutsche Kuche soft pretzel sticks from my favorite grocery store, Aldi.  I pronounce the brand name “Douche Cooch,” because I am easily amused.  The pretzel sticks are imported from Germany, and I just bake them in the toaster oven at 350 for nine minutes.  They come out with perfect crispy, crackly exteriors and soft, fluffy interiors, ideal for salvaging sardines (or sampling mustards, as in my Cutting the Mustard feature from earlier this summer).I left off the condiments to get their full flavor… which wasn’t much to speak of, even with the two peppers they had been canned with.  I drained the oil, as I always do, but it didn’t impart much flavor either.  That could have been because it was vegetable oil instead of the superior olive oil.  A schmear of mustard and some fresh and pickled vegetables would have helped turn these into superior sandwiches, even with mediocre ‘dines, but I wanted the full, unadulterated Hot Titus experience.

Earlier this year, I found these Brother and Sister sardines at Tima’s House, a Euro-Balkan grocery store in Longwood, which has some neat stuff.  I don’t think they would have cost more than $3, or I would not have bought them.  You don’t usually see sardines in sunflower oil, but I’m a mark for spicy ‘dines with peppers, so I had to try them.  Plus, they were from Morocco!

They were pretty typical-looking large sardines with dark skin, packed in a deep orange spicy oil that didn’t actually impart much flavor. 

I had these four Brother and Sister ‘dines over a simple salad, since I pack a salad in my lunches for work almost every day.  This salad looks like it was more simple than usual, since I just see lettuce and cucumber on it, but I probably splashed on a bit of a vinaigrette dressing.  They were okay.  I’ve made better salads and eaten better sardines, that’s for sure.  The little peppers aren’t very tasty, and they are full of seeds, so I tossed them after taking this picture. 

I don’t remember if I got these Baraka sardines at Tima’s House or at one of Orlando’s many Middle Eastern grocery stores.  Once again, they are products of Morocco, and they are packed in soy oil with chili peppers, so I was on board.  The price was definitely right on these, but sometimes you don’t want the absolute cheapest canned seafood out there. 

I instinctively drained the orange oil before taking this photo, so they weren’t just sitting in a completely dry can:

And I enjoyed them on some marble rye toast with a schmear of neufchatel cheese (like cream cheese, but low-fat, so the cheese and your life are both less enjoyable) and everything bagel seasoning.  The tin ended up having just three large sardines plus the long chili pepper that didn’t taste very good on its own.

The next Moroccan ‘dines I tried were from the Sultan brand.  First I tried spicy Sultan sardines, in oil with chili peppers.  I believe I found these at the Walmart Supercenter, of all places, in the small Middle Eastern food section.  They were cheap, so I figured “Why not?  I’m already in Walmart.  How much worse can things get?”

They were pretty large ‘dines, as all the Moroccan ‘dines tend to be.

I had these on Ritz crackers (the BEST crackers for any purpose), with dabs of my homemade tzatziki sauce underneath each one — Greek yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, salt, and a dash of dill.  These spicy Sultans weren’t bad at all.  They were very meaty ‘dines, with decent flavor from the spicy oil and some subtle heat.  The chili peppers, as usual, were barely edible.  

I also bought a can of plain Sultan sardines at the same time, and my hopes for these weren’t as high, especially after the relative disappointment of the plain, non-hot Titus ‘dines compared to the Hot Titus.

These were even larger fish:

But I worked some magic, following a Sicilian recipe for pasta con le sarde, a dish that includes onions, garlic, fennel bulb, golden raisins soaked in wine, seasoned bread crumbs, the plain Sultan sardines, and pasta — in this case, some perciatelli, which is essentially the same as bucatini (long, hollow tubes).  Of course I didn’t have any wine to soak the golden raisins in since neither my wife nor I drink, so I just threw them in there unaltered, thinking the sweetness and chewiness would bring something nice to the experience.  It was a tasty pasta dish, especially with that fragrant fennel, which is a truly underrated ingredient.  But I felt like it could be better.

In my first ‘Dines List write-up, I sang the praises of Norway’s King Oscar brand, some of the best sardines you can buy in terms of quality, variety, and value.  King Oscars are readily available at most major supermarkets, and I mentioned last time that they are terrific “gateway sardines” for the uninitiated.  Most King Oscar sardines are products of Poland despite being caught in Norwegian waters.  However, these skinless and boneless Spanish Style ‘dines, packed in olive oil and seasoned with chili peppers and tiny slices of carrot and pickle, are products of Morocco, hence their inclusion here.

In that previous installment, I warned about avoiding boneless and skinless sardines.  That’s just a personal preference, but I felt obligated to try these for a more complete feature on the different varieties of Moroccan sardines.  These King Oscars are perfectly good sardines, but they never look right to me without the silvery skin.  And I think the bones add some interesting texture (plus calcium).

I decided to attempt pasta con le sarde again, to do something more exciting with these boneless, skinless ‘dines.  I started sautéing diced onions, garlic, and more of that awesome fennel bulb in extra virgin olive oil, then added a can of Cento anchovies, which I always stock up on at Trader Joe’s, because they are so good in recipes.  (They are also products of Morocco!)  I mashed up the salty anchovies and their oil in the aromatics and kept sautéing until the anchovies completely dissolved.  That added some saltiness and savory umami flavor, which is good because all boneless, skinless sardines are very mild.  (Although these Spanish Style King Oscars are the best boneless, skinless sardines I’ve ever tried, both flavor- and texture-wise.)

Once the aromatics were translucent and soft, I added sultanas (golden raisins) that I had been soaking in white wine vinegar as a substitute for wine, since I learn from my mistakes.  Then I stirred in the King Oscar ‘dines, their oil, and the tiny sliced vegetables straight out of the can, then some seasoned Italian bread crumbs and red pepper flakes, and let everything continue to sauté.  I tossed it all together with some al dente fettuccine pasta, threw some diced tomatoes on top, and boom: new and improved pasta con le sarde!  This was by far the better attempt, between the higher-quality King Oscar sardines that brought their own flavors, plus the can of anchovies, the red pepper flakes for some necessary heat, and the white wine vinegar-soaked golden raisins for sweetness and tartness.  I’ve never seen this pasta dish on a restaurant menu anywhere, but I am  obsessed with it now.

A long time ago, I bought a can of Alshark sardines from a Middle Eastern grocery store and thought they were pretty good, so I tracked down another can for the purposes of this review, since they are also Moroccan.  

This was the only sardine can I had trouble fully opening, but I was still able to get the four large ‘dines out.  

I ate them plain to really experience the flavor.  These were meaty and pleasantly spicy, moreso than any of the other so-called spicy ‘dines in this review.  I’d definitely get these Alshark ‘dines again.

Last but not least, I decided to try Wild Planet’s “Wild” white anchovies, another product of Morocco.  These are totally different from the salt-cured anchovies most people are familiar with, like the Cento anchovies shown above, which are one of my secret weapons when cooking.  These are more like typical tinned sardines than super-salty brown anchovy filets.  

White anchovies like this are popular in tapas dishes in Spain, where they are called boquerones.  I ate these straight out of the can after draining the oil because I had never had boquerones before, and they were okay.  Pretty plain and bland, like Wild Planet sardines I’ve tried before.  Despite the name of the company, there wasn’t much “wild” about their flavor.  Unfortunately I bought these at Costco, so I have four more cans to get through.  I will definitely jazz them up with more exciting recipes and serving methods to make them more interesting in the future.

So here ends our Mission to Morocco, the second of hopefully many ‘Dines List features right here on The Saboscrivner.  Expect to learn all about sardines from Spain, Portugal, and other parts unknown in the months (and years) to come, but at least I got this one out before hurricane season is over, just in case it inspires anyone to stock up on some sardines.

As always, stalwart Saboscrivnerinos, let me know what you try and if you like them or not, and if there are other sardines or tinned seafood you recommend.  I’m always happy to take requests and accept freebies, especially if any of you jet-setters travel to Europe, where grocery stores have mythical aisles of nothing but fancy tinned seafood.  But in the meantime, I’ll be on the hunt (or more accurately, gone fishin’) in Orlando’s many supermarkets and international grocery stores as a connoisseur of the canned, a professor of the preserved, the dean of sardines.

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.  

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!)
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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!