Friday, October 30, 2015

Snack Pack Puddings

Update Review, October 2015

Sometimes, I need to learn to take my own advice.  I said snack packs were awful, and that I wouldn't try them ever again.

And then, I visited my LA office, where they have a "junk food" microkitchen, and it came stocked with ... Snack Packs!  Pudding, I love pudding!  I couldn't resist trying another.

Like I said, should have taken my own advice, from my original review ...

I know, I know.  Why did I try this.  Curiosity got the better of me.

One bite was all it took to remind me why I don't like these.  Plastic.  All you taste is plastic.  Not chocolate, not creamy pudding, just, plastic.  They smell like plastic, they taste like plastic.

Dear self: really, don't try these again.

Original Review, March 2013

I love pudding.  Creamy pudding, rice pudding, warm pudding, cold pudding, I love it all.  I don't normally go for packaged puddings, but I decided to give Snack Packs a try when I saw one named "Chocolate Cupcake".  Protip: Do not go grocery shopping when hungry!

They are as bad as I expected.  I won't by buying more!
Chocolate Cupcake.
Part of the newer "Bakery Shop" line, inspired by baked goods.  A layered creation, intending to be like the cupcake base and frosting.

The chocolate layer had ok chocolate flavor, it was slightly creamy, but mostly just kinda tasted like plastic.  The top layer, aka, the "frosting", had absolutely no flavor.  I didn't get the frosting sense at all.

Would not eat again.
Butterscotch is my favorite pudding of all time, as my grandmother makes a from scratch amazing version. As you can imagine, this didn't nearly live up.

All I could taste was strange sweetness, with the same consistency as the chocolate pudding version that is smooth, but isn't really creamy, and has slightly plastic-like taste.

Better than the chocolate cupcake, but still not good.
You'd think I'd give up.  But ... maybe the tapioca was different enough that it would be ok?


Again, not very creamy consistency, tasted like plastic.  Sorta vanilla flavored plastic.  With a few balls of tapioca, not nearly as many as I'd like.  They were flavorless and didn't even really add much texture.  Meh.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tortas Frontera, Chicago O'Hare Airport

Oh, airport food.  Not something anyone looks forward to.  I'm sure most of you just grin, bear it, and swing through McDonald's to cure that McDonald's itch that I know we all get.  But not me.  I can get McDonald's anytime.  To me, every airport is an adventure.  There might be something ... new!  I had a 2 hour layover in O’Hare, and of course, immediately began researching my options, trying to find the best of the lot.

The answer was pretty clear: Tortas Frontera.  It sounded like people thought it was good, as in, legit good, not just for airport food.  Hundreds of reviews, and 4.5 stars on Yelp?  Even regular restaurants don’t normally get those sort of accolades.

Tortas Frontera is one of Rick Bayless’s places.  I’ve tried a few bites at the Frontera Grill in a food court in San Francisco, and was impressed there by the flavors (sadly, it was shuttered), so, this certainly had potential.

At Tortas Frontera, even in the airport, nearly everything is made fresh to order.  They pride themselves in their ingredient sourcing.  The menu has a large section devoted to where the food comes from, ranging from the Miller antibiotic-free chicken from Orland, IN, to bread from local La Fournette bakery in Chicago, to even a special coffee blend made by Intelligentsia.  Serious quality sourcing.

The Space

Menu Board, Seating.
The establishment is located in a big food court, alongside McDonald’s, generic looking pizza, and all the usual suspects.  The food court shares seating in the middle, but Tortas Frontera has private seating in addition.  Not much, just a long thin counter with a rail separating it from the walkway, but, it is something.
Bar Area.
There is also a bar on the side, which was constantly active, with bartenders whipping up some pretty tasty looking margaritas.  So far so good.
Lots of Agua Fresca!
The menu mostly features tortas, as you might expect given the name.

If you are into sandwiches, they seemed to have something for everyone, meat lovers and vegetarians alike.  For those who want to load up on meat, the cubano is filled with smoked pork loin and bacon, or you can opt for the pepito with braised beef short ribs, the chochinita ibile with braised pork, the choriqueso with chorizo, or albondigas (pork and bacon meatballs).  Prefer poultry or seafood?  Several options exist for you too.  Vegetarian?  No problem, the roasted mushroom version gets rave reviews.  All tortas come with assorted flavorful sauces and other filling components as well.

If you don't want a torta, you can go for a salad, or have any torta made into a salad.  Tortilla soup, corn & poblano chowder, and a host of chips and salads and guac options round out the menu.  The other main choice is molletes, open faced pizza/flatbread sorta things.

Tortas Frontera also offers a breakfast menu with scrambled egg tortas and a greek yogurt bar, but I visited in the evening.

For non-alcoholic drinks, they have a slew of house made aqua frecas, pictured above.
Prep Station.
Everything as made to order, as promised.  Not typical fast food.

Every station was frantic, busy, churning out orders at a rapid pace.  And yes, each and every salad was hand tossed with dressing to order.  No soggy lettuce here.  Each sandwich assembled and grilled to order.  I can't even count how many fresh avocados I saw chopped up during my brief time there.  The only thing not made to order is the molletes (open faced flatbread/pizza like creations), which are also the only items that garner lackluster reviews.

The model is order-at-the-register (except for bar seating), get a buzzer, and wait.  When I ordered, I was warned that it would be 10 minutes, which I already expected.  The wait time estimate was dead on, my buzzer ran in precisely 10 minutes.  All orders are packaged to go.

The Food

Garlic Shrimp Torta. $12..
"Smoky garlic mojo, poblano rajas, goat cheese, black beans, wild arugula, lime."

I wanted something a bit lighter than the heavy meaty options, given that I was mid transit, and didn’t really want to over indulge and feel nasty on my next flight.  Plus, I had my eye on the TCBY nearby for an after-dinner treat.  I oped for the garlic shrimp torta.  Since I don’t like goat cheese, I subbed that out for cojita, which I knew they offered since other tortas used it.  It was no problem to make the switch.

The sandwich was nicely grilled, very crispy on the outside.  Inside was a smear of a black bean spread, and a generous layer of grilled poblanos.  There was plenty of arugula, which made it feel light, exactly what I was going for.  The arugula was really spicy though, in a peppery way, that I didn’t quite care for.  As for the shrimp, again, a generous amount.  They were … decent.  Not too rubbery.   I didn’t taste the garlic though.  I never found any “lime” in it either.  The smokey garlic mojo was provided on the side.  It was nicely spicy, but I actually expected this to be more of a creamy component, which I really wanted.  My sandwich needed some fat!  I wanted aioli!

Overall, it was … fine.  Ojan really enjoyed it.  But I guess I just wasn’t really in the mood for it, and really, my decision to go for something light backfired.  At the end of the day, when am I ever happy without mayo, cheese, or cream, anyway?  And, oh yeah, I don't like sandwiches.

But if you do like sandwiches, then trust Ojan on this one.  He really did enjoy it.
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Monday, October 26, 2015

Pastries from Panera

Update Review, October 2015

If you didn't read my original Panera baked goods review, I suggest you start there, and then return to this update, since I'm skipping the background this time around.   See "Original Review, October 2014" below.

Assorted Baked Goods!
I recently attended a brunch where someone brought a platter full of Panera baked goods, nicely cut up into reasonable size chunks.  I used it as an opportunity to check in to see if the disappointing cobblestone sweet roll was still as lackluster as before, and to check in to see that the scones were still the best baked goods from Panera.  Answer: yes on both counts.
I also tried the pecan roll, which you can see peeking out of the front right and back left corners of the platter. Described as "Freshly baked sweet dough with cinnamon-sugar filling and topped with caramel and pecans."

Sadly, it went exactly the same way as the cobblestone. It looked good. It *should* be good, given the lineup of ingredients. But, just like the cobblestone, it was really dry. You could see cinnamon, but it had no cinnamon flavor. There were plentiful pecans, but they were bitter tasting. And yes, plenty of caramel, but even that wasn't very good.
Cinnamon Crumb Coffee Cake. $2.49.
"An old-fashioned butter coffee cake, swirled with cinnamon and finished with a butter crumb topping."

Ok, so this is weird.  I don't know what happened to me.  I headed to Panera, intending to get a blueberry scone, since I recently had one at brunch and I enjoyed it.

And then I got to Panera and didn't want a scone.

For some reason, the muffins called out to me.  And of all things, the cranberry orange muffin looked good.  I don't like orange flavor!  And I've never liked a single muffin I've tried from Panera.

I was paralyzed.  Logically, I knew I'd hate the muffin.  But I really, really wasn't feeling the scone.  And I had a birthday free pastry to use.  In my moments of total indecision, I saw the coffee cake.

It didn't actually look good.  And honestly, I don't generally like coffee cake.  Heck, I don't even really like cake. But somehow it seemed like I'd get the muffin satisfaction, and have a chance of trying something totally different?  I don't know what I was thinking.  I think I remembered the really great streusel topping I had on top of coffee cake recently, and it inspired me.  I just wanted streusel, really.

My decision was made when I asked the friendly worker what he thought of the coffee cake.  He told me, honestly, that all he does is eat the topping.  He said the topping was awesome, but the cake was, well, just frozen thawed cake, and not interesting.  But he loved the topping.  Done.

So I got it.  Even though I don't like cake.  Even though it didn't look good.  Even though the streusel layer looked piddly.

It ... wasn't awful at least.  Better than I expected, honestly.  But, really not great.

The cake itself was not dry.  Nor was it moist.  It was very homogenous, non-offensive.  There was slightly different flavors in the two colors, but I wouldn't be able to identify either as anything in particular.  It was just plain cake.  I didn't really taste any cinnamon.

The topping was decent.  It was sweet, slightly buttery.  Again, no cinnamon.  It was crumbly.  But there wasn't nearly enough, which I could tell just from looking at it.  The powdered sugar on top did help too.

So, overall, not horrible, but not particularly exciting.  Not that I expected it to be.  I wouldn't get it again.

The slice for $2.49 was in line with their other baked goods.  It is also available as a whole cake.

Original Review, October 2014

Last Monday, I reviewed a bunch of scones from Panera.  The week before, I covered some drinks.  A while ago, I reviewed their bagels and mufins.  I've also covered the cookies. I'm not one for sandwiches, soups, or salads, so, what else remains?

Of course, more baked goods.  I'm skipping a real intro here, because you can read all about Panera in my previous posts.
Pecan Braid.  $2.49.
"Our pastry dough, twisted and braided with butter and freshly ground pecans coated with light sugar syrup for sweetness."

I've had a thing for donuts, cinnamon rolls, and similar treats lately.  I'm really not sure what it is, but somehow sweet bready things are just really appealing to me, particularly when paired up with a coffee.  So when I entered Panera, although I was intending to get a bagel, I didn't make it past the pastry displays.  Whoops.

I was in the mood for a cinnamon roll, and Panera makes a cinnamon roll, but it hasn't ever looked good.  It always looks kinda dry, and clearly doesn't have enough icing.  They also make a pecan roll, which looks a little too far in the other direction, coated in sticky sweet caramel.  I kinda think I'd love it as a dessert, but it was morning, so I was trying to pick a "reasonable" breakfast pastry.  I went for the pecan braid, it looked like a compromise, as it had an icing so it would meet my sweet need, and it looked sorta like a twisted donut.

I know the description didn't say anything about cinnamon, but I somehow thought that the filling was going to have a cinnamon flavor, and be a cinnamon-sugar mix with the ground pecans.  It wasn't.  It was really just ground pecans, so it totally didn't meet my cinnamon roll craving.  Whoops.  It also wasn't donut-style dough, more like a croissant dough, although not really light and flaky and buttery.  So it didn't meet that craving either.  Double whoops.

As I said, the dough wasn't flaky, it wasn't buttery, it was a bit dried out even.  It made me very glad I haven't bothered try any of their croissants, as those always look dry, and I'm pretty convinced now that they must be.  I don't understand though how it was so stale seeming, as I got it at 10am, and they said their baked goods are all baked fresh at each location every morning?  How could it be stale already?

Anyway.  The form factor for this pastry was a success, I did like how much pecan filling there was, and the way it was twisted made every bite nicely distributed.  But the filling didn't really have much going on, I wanted more spicing of some sort.  The whole thing was coated with a sweet glaze that seemed to have a bit of an orange essence to it, although I'm not certain, and a single pecan half perched on top.

Like many of the other pastries I've had at Panera, I really wanted it to be warm.  It was just so unremarkable and dry at room temperature.  I saved a chunk to bring home and stick in the toaster oven, because I was curious if it would be better.  Indeed it was, it even seemed to get more moist this way.  But it still wasn't that great, and I wouldn't get another.

Unlike most pastries at Panera, I was not surprised by the nutrition stats, as they seemed fairly resonable: 470 calories, 26g fat, 24g sugar.  Since the filling wasn't sweetened, the only sugar was the light glaze on top, so it made sense that the sugar wasn't off the charts like most of their goods.  And the plentiful amount of ground pecan explains the fat content.  An actual reasonable choice, compared to the rest of the sweet rolls, muffins, and scones.

It turns out that I'd had this once before, as I discovered some tasting notes once I went to write this up.  They read: "Icing on top not particularly good.  Kinda soggy and not flaky dough.  Didn’t pick up on much pecan.  Meh."  Whoops.  While my notes weren't identical in context, I would have known better if I'd read them.

The $2.49 price was fine for a baked good of its size.
Panera Bread Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato