Friday, February 17, 2017

Just Pure Foods

I have a snacking problem.  I admit it.  I love snacks.  I love to munch on things.  Popcorn (savory or sweet) is a major weakness of mine.  And all varieties of (homemade) Chex mix.  Seriously, I'm a munchaholic.  And, sadly, most of the things I want to munch on are not necessarily the healthiest.  While basic chips have never been my vice, virtually any other crunchy finger food is.  I am always seeking out healthier alternatives.

Veggie chips are one item I love to try.  Of course, the ones I generally end up loving are even worse for me than regular potato chips, like the Creative Snack Co veggie chips I eat by the bucket when I visit my family.  Occasionally, I find some great kale chips that aren't totally unhealthy, but, in general, the healthier, dehydrated style of veggie chips rarely do it for me (like the dehydrated broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower snacks I tried from Dipperz or the strange zucchini puffs from Snapz).  But I keep trying.

Just Pure Foods is another maker of healthy snacks - minimally processed, raw, to preserve the nutrients.  They are certified organic.  They make kale chips, tomato chips, and zucchini chips, plus onion rings and kale-nola, most in several different flavors.  "Highly Nutritious & Insanely Delicious" is their trademark.

I was pleasantly surprised by the items I tried, and would like to try more of their products.
Seasoned Zucchini Strips.
"We didn’t want to call them fries to confuse y’all. Just dip in ketchup—‘nough said."

Most of the other veggie snacks produced by Just Pure Foods are standard round chips.  And they do make 3 varieties of zucchini (sesame dijon, pesto, and sour cream & onion), that way, but, also make these strips.  I picked them as they looked a bit more fun.

"Just like fries - dip in your favorite organic or raw ketchup!", the packaging proclaimed.  I can't say I was compelled to do that exactly (really, ketchup on zucchini?), but, they were a fun snack.

The strips came in different sizes, all thin strips of zucchini, still skin on.  They were crunchy in a good way.  The "seasoning" was a mix of herbs and spices (mesquite powder, onion powder, garlic powder, and salt), plus tamari, lemon juice, and apple cider vinegar.  They were a bit zesty, almost cheesy tasty, and fairly fascinating.  There was a slight bitterness that I didn't care for though, perhaps from the sprouted buckwheat that was also added?

Anyway, I easily polished off the bag, not sharing with Ojan.  Given the collection of various kale chips, tomato chips, cheesy quinoa chips, and more arranged on the counter (my rejects), this was the first bag I didn't hand over to him in a long time, so, that was saying something.

I wouldn't want another bag of these due to the bitterness, but, I'd try other items.
Spicy Jalapeno Tomato Chips.
"A perfect friend for you bowl of fresh guacamole or hummus!"

Tomato chips are offered in two varieties, pesto or spicy jalapeno.  I went spicy.

I almost liked these.  They were slices of roma tomatoes, dehydrated and crispy, with lots of seasoning (jalapenos, onion, carrots, garlic powder, onion powder, parsley, bell pepper powder, and rock salt).  There was lots of flavor going on, and they were almost too zesty for me.  Like the zucchini sticks, they also had a bitterness, which I again attribute to the buckwheat.  Why was that added?

They were just too much to munch on plain, so I passed them off to Ojan, but he also didn't like them.
Spicy Tomato Chips: Salad Topping!
A few days later, I was making salad (to try out a new salad dressing for my blog, stay tuned!), and decided to try adding the spicy tomato chips on top.  I already had tomatoes, but I figured these would serve more like a crispy crouton, plus add some zing to the salad.

And ... they did.  Now my salad had crunch, more pops of color, and some kick to it.

So, while I didn't like eating them on their own as chips, they did work as a salad topping.  I imagine they could work inside a sandwich for some crunch too, or on a burger.

Thursday, February 16, 2017


Yogurtland is a franchise of froyo shops, with over 300 locations, including outside the US.  They use a self-serve, pay by the ounce, model.

What sets Yogurtland apart from other froyo establishments is the variety offered.  They have 16 flavors at a time (with options including tart, non-fat, low-sugar, dairy-free), and a minimum of 32 toppings (the location I went to had 46)!  I suppose it is also notable that they partner with Sanrio (creators of Hello Kitty), so have cutesy branding on their products.

Anyway.  I really like self-serve froyo, and particularly places with great toppings, so, Yogurtland held a lot of appeal for me.

I visited the Palo Alto location, located on University Ave, after dinner down the street at Oren's Hummus, around 7:30pm, with a group of 6.

The shop was empty when we arrived, including, um, any staff members.  I wanted to try a few flavors (I couldn't commit to picking just a few of the 16 without trying first!), but there were no sample cups set out, and, no one there to ask.  Finally, I just grabbed a few from behind the register and gave them to others (and myself).  Later on in our visit, while we were sitting eating our froyo, another group came, made their creations, and went to the register to pay, and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Where were the staff?  I laughed when the customers started eating their froyo before the staff member finally came back, given that it is sold by weight, so, technically, that was very wrong.

The shop had a few tables, all for only 2 people, so our group needed to do some furniture re-arranging in order to sit together.  The staff member, after ringing us up, left again and disappeared into the back, so, she clearly didn't care that we were rearranging everything.  She also didn't care that the trash was overflowing.  I can't say that service was good.

The froyo was ... fine.  Really, not remarkable in any way.  I prefer the creaminess of Yoppi (stay tuned for review!) and the more intense flavors from JP Licks, but, at least it wasn't too icy and the topping variety was above average.
16 Flavors.
Yes, they have 8 machines, each with two flavors, at all times.  16 Flavors.  I'll admit, even to me, this was quite overwhelming.  I wanted to try ... all of them?

The lineup when we visited was:
  • Regular: Cookies & Cream, Salted Caramel Pecan, Coffee, Pistachio, Madagascar Vanilla, Strawberry, Dutch Chocolate, Toasted Coconut, Peanut Butter
  • Low sugar: Pecans & Praline, French Vanilla
  • Sorbet (non-dairy): Rocket Pop, Strawberry Lemonade
  • Tart: Plain, Mango, Guava Pineapple
I tried a bite of Ojan's sample of the mango tart, and it was fine, but, I wasn't in the mood for tart style froyo.  I didn't try any of the sorbets or other tart flavors.

As for the rest ... I didn't try coffee nor dutch chocolate because of the caffeine, nor strawberry because I don't really like it, but, uh, I think I tried most of the rest (either as samples, as a bite of Ojan's samples, or, in my actual creation).

Of the flavors I tried, they were all decent enough, except the pistachio, I'm not sure what it was, but there was something off-tasting about the pistachio.  The others were all decently creamy, not too icy, but, not remarkable.
46 Toppings!
I do care that froyo be creamy and not icy, but, really, I'm at a place like this for the toppings.  And Yogurtland had quite a few options.

The lineup started with the quasi-chilled items, all in bins on the left.

There were two sauces here also, sweetened condensed milk and caramel, both in Ghirardelli branded squirt bottles.  No hot fudge, no strawberry sauce, no marshmallow sauce, no peanut butter sauce, no butterscotch, no whipped cream .... a bit strange that they had so many toppings, but really lacked in the sauce department.

For fresh fruit, there was sliced strawberries, pineapple, mango, and kiwi.  Canned maraschino cherries, lychee, and mandarin orange segments rounded out the fruit options.  Next came boba (including flavored mango and mango popping boba) and jellies (including coconut).

Next came candy (peanut butter cups, chocolate caramel cups, toffee crunch, carob chips) and baked goods (brownie bites, cheesecake bites, cookie dough balls).

Separating the chilled toppings (19 total) from the dry toppings was a row of 5 shakers, with sprinkles (rainbow or chocolate), nuts (peanuts or almonds), and graham cracker crumbs.

Then came all the dry goods (21 in all!).  Here we had cookies (nilla wafers, cream filled chocolate sandwich cookies, frosted animal cookies, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate rolled wafers), chocolate candy (butterfinger, malt balls, mini M&Ms, Peanut M&Ms, Reece's pieces, Ghirardelli chips), sugary candy (jelly beans, gummy bears, sour gummy worms, sour patch kids), cereal (granola,  Cap'n Crunch, Fruity Pebbles), and more (coconut, yogurt chips, mochi).  I was amused by the cookies in particular, as they were all full size.  Do people really want full size Oreos on top of their froyo?  I guess this makes it weigh more ...

There was a sticky honey cup on top as well, so I guess that counts as a 3rd sauce?
Peanut Butter, Toasted Coconut, Pecans & Praline, Cookies & Cream, Salted Caramel Pecan. And lots of toppings.
I still couldn't decide what I wanted, even after sampling all the flavors.  I somehow wound up with swirls of 6 different flavors.  I tried to take only a little of each at this point because ... uh, I basically had an entire froyo sampling all the flavors, but it is hard to really not take much at a time, and if you are taking 6 flavors, its basically impossible to wind up with a small serving.  Guess that is why they give you giant cups?

I thought all the flavors I opted for were fairly flavorful.  I wished the peanut butter was stronger, more like JP Licks.

I added mango and coconut jellies to the coconut froyo.  The mango was surprisingly fresh, decently sweet, and went well with the coconut froyo.  Points to Yogurtland for fresh mango.  I always like sweet slimy jellies, so those were a hit too.

To the cookies and cream section I added mochi, and it was soft, fluffy, and enjoyable.  Sometimes mochi can be hard or stale, and this seemed "fresh" too.  Maybe that is why the staff are never there, they are busy refreshing toppings?

I also added some yogurt chips for sweetness and crunch, and "toffee crunch", for, uh, sweetness and crunch to my other flavors.  The yogurt chips were pretty standard, but the toffee crunch was great, really sweet and crunchy as I hoped.  Perhaps a bit overkill on the pecans & praline flavor I put it on since that was already sweet, but, I'd get it again.

In fact, I'd get all the toppings I added again ... except the frosted animal crackers.  I'm not sure why I added those exactly, but, they don't really make sense in froyo.  I ate them after the froyo, and they were fine, but, yeah, not sure what I was thinking there.

I also added rainbow sprinkles, because I love sprinkles, but got annoyed at how much shaking was required to get any sprinkles out, so I gave up after a few shakes.

And finally, I drizzled on some sweetened condensed milk, because I wanted a sauce, and this was a bit novel.  It was kinda lost in the froyo, and too sweet, but, it was an interesting item for them to have (although, really, the sauce options were pretty lame).

Overall, I didn't love my creation, but it was fine.  Which sums up the entire experience.  It was fine.  I'd go back if someone wanted, but I wouldn't seek it out.
Yogurtland Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Drinks and Bites at Garaje

Update Review, February 2017

Oh, Garaje.  One of my favorite places in SF these days, which is funny, as it is a casual place, kinda a burger joint / taqueria, neither of which you'd expect to be at the top of my list.  But, Garaje clearly isn't really a Mexican place, nor is it a burger joint, or anything in-between, as you've read about in my previous reviews, from 2014 and 2016.  I'll skip all general descriptions this time around, since you can start there.

This visit was my first visit at lunch time.  I went with a group of co-workers when we wanted to have a lunch offsite, a rare occurrence for us.  We arrived at 12:20pm, and nearly every seat was taken, which didn't bode well for our large group of 8, given that most tables seat only 4.  Luckily, by the time we got through the line (which was long, but moved quickly), and went in search of seating, the one large communal table in the main area cleared out, and we swooped in.

Our group was all given separate numbers for food, even though we ordered (and paid, still cash only) as a group.  I think this was to simplifyy things for the kitchen, and ensure food was brought out as it was ready.  It did create a rather awkward setup though, as our food arrived at totally different times.  I was the first to order, yet the last to receive my food, a good 15 minutes after the first person in the group got theirs, which did not make me happy.

However, all my grumpiness over the agonizing wait for my food vanished the moment I took a bite.  Damn, this place is good.

Last time I visited, I went with Ojan and split the Crispy Crab Crack and the Surfer Leo Zapato (so I could finally try a zapato, but still get the crab cake that I loved so much on my first visit!).  It worked great, although was kinda too much food, but it made me also fall in love with the zapatos.  This time, I was met with indecision again.  The crispy crab crack really is hard to pass up.  But I did enjoy my zapato too, and wanted to try another one.  And I still had my eyes on the fish & chips, since I liked the beer battered fried fish in the Surfer Leo Zapato.   And, totally out of character, I was drawn in by the Jose Wong salad (I'd been really craving salads, not that this was a healthy one).  I would have also been happy with a pulled pork sandwich, or even the beer battered cauliflower "El Mermaid" taco.  I wanted it all.

In the end, I managed to basically get everything I wanted, by finding a co-worker to share with, and opting for the Maverick Zapato, aka, the one with the crispy crab crack inside a zapato, plus fries and a mini salad on the side.  I missed out on the fish, but, I still got 3 of the 4 items I really wanted, so, success.  It was also the perfect amount of food for two people, and I'd definitely go this route again, although, of course, there are still so many other things to try ...
Maverick Zapato. $14.  Thick Cut Skin On Fries. $3.
"Crispy Crab Crack, Fries, Avocado, Jack, Chipotle Mayo."

So ... this was a gut buster.  No doubt.  The crab crack alone is a massive deep fried crab cake.  It really is a meal in itself (there is a reason it is served just with slaw normally, and that is an entree not an appetizer.)  And then consider that zapatos have french fries, tons of cheese, and way more mayo than you'd ever put on yourself stuffed inside, in addition to whatever protein you pick.  Zapatos alone are huge, and more than a meal, even if you opt for a simple grilled chicken filling (several of my companions could not finish their zapatos, and they didn't order any sides!).  So, what do you get when you stuff a crab crack into a zapato?  Yeah, ooph.

Making the call to split this was absolutely the right move.   I loved every bite of it, but I can't imagine having more.  A half was plenty, a substantial portion, and left me absolutely stuffed.

So, how was it?  AMAZING.  Crispy grilled flour tortilla on the outside, just so much better than a standard burrito.  I normally don't finish the entire tortilla when I get a burrito, but this I easily finished.  It was not just a wrapper, it was an essential part of the tastiness.

Inside was the crispy crab cake.  I'll admit, it did kinda get lost inside the zapato.  The fried exterior provided crispy bites that I loved, and I could taste, and see, plenty of crab, but, I don't think I was able to appreciate the crab cake in quite the same way as when separate.

The fries worked much better here than in the Surfer Leo, since the mushy texture wasn't as strange with the mushier crab cake.  Or maybe I just knew what to expect this time?

And then of course there was cheese, tons and tons of very gooey, perfectly melted, delicious cheese.  And the chipotle mayo, which added more creaminess.  The cheese and mayo coated the fries, they coated the crab cake, they coated the tortilla.  There was tons, making this even more decadent (because, fried crab cake and french fries stuffed into a burrito isn't decadent enough already, right?), but, as much as I wanted to think "eww, too much mayo and cheese", it was just too delicious to care.

There was no moderation here, no way you could possibly convince yourself this was a reasonable choice of something to eat, but, sometimes, it just doesn't matter.  Its just too good.

That doesn't mean however that I'd get it again.  The crab cake really was better on its own, and I'd go back to that next time.  Delicious inside, yes, but you don't get to quite appreciate it enough with all the other elements.  That said, if I'm feeling the desire for something cheesy and comforting, I'd certainly get another zapato, just, probably back to the Surfer Leo.  The $14 price makes it one of the most expensive zapatos (most are $7-9), but, given the crab cake inside, it seems pretty reasonable.

We also ordered a side of fries.  They were entirely unremarkable.  Just fries.  Hot enough, fresh enough, but uninteresting.  I don't think Garaje makes just a cheese smothered version (they do make a version with carne asada or fried pork, guac, cheese, and salsa, which I had before), but I think cheesy fries would be pretty good.  I'd certainly skip these fries again in the future.  (Side note: we were bought a little bowl with packets of ketchup in it with the fries, why don't they have a ketchup dispenser or at least bottles of ketchup for dining in?)
Little Jose Wong.  $5.
"Cabbage, lettuce, cilantro, scallions, carrots, red peppers, jalapenos, crispy tortilla strips, peanuts, chile hoisen dressing."

As I mentioned, I was also craving a salad strangely, and was quite tempted by the Jose Wong salad on the menu, particularly after reading rave reviews.

You can get the Jose Wong as an entree salad for $10, and add toppings like grilled or fried chicken, carnitas, seared ahi, plancha grilled shrimp, etc, basically, anything you could get in a taco can be turned into a salad topping.  But we opted for a side salad, just to try it, along with our other goodies.

It came served in an adorable little Chinese takeout container, a bit hard to eat out of, but, cute.

This was a great salad.  The veggies were all crisp and fresh, and formed a great base.  I loved the crispy tortilla strip shreds on top, and the peanuts for additional crunch factor.  The dressing was spicy, sweet, and very tasty.  I'd gladly get this again, and would certainly choose it over the fries, but, half a zapato really was enough food for me, so it wasn't necessary.

If I ever visited Garaje and wanted a lighter option, I could certainly imagine ordering the full size salad and not feeling like I was getting "just a salad", and being quite satisfied with my meal.  I'm not sure how I'd ever pass up the other options, but, it could happen.  Really, ideally, I wonder if they could top the salad with fried fish?  It isn't listed as an option, but I don't see why that wouldn't be possible.  Just one piece of fried fish and the salad seems like it would be a great portion size ... or the salad and half a crab cake?

Update Review, May 2016

A co-worker of mine needed to plan a casual dinner for a fairly large group, within easy walking distance of our office.  The problem is, he knew the group would be somewhere between 20-45 people, but he couldn't require RSVPs in advance.  This rules out ... well, pretty much anywhere.  Places that can handle groups of those sizes really want confirmed guest counts at least 48-72 hours in advance.

He was pretty stumped, and I think was about to fall back on somewhere like Buca de Beppo, when I suggested Garaje.  Since I had attended a private party there back in 2014, I knew the format would be a perfect fit: he could reserve the upper mezzanine to give the group dedicated space, and then just hand out wrist bands so the food and drink costs would go onto the group tab.  People could come and go, and move about as they pleased.  I took my finder's fee by way of getting to crash the party.

If you aren't familiar with Garaje, I suggest reading my original review, and then returning here, since I'll be skipping background and format information, and just focus this review on this visit.

The venue worked well, except for the fact that we all arrived, about 35 or so people, all at once, at 6pm, when the line was already long.  We quickly overwhelmed the downstairs space near the register and some members of the group were in line for about a half hour.  Once we ordered though, food came quickly and was much loved.

Everyone raved about their dishes, and the variety I saw was huge: plenty of burgers, tacos, and zapatos, plus a number of Crispy Crab Cracks (at my recommendation of course), and even a few random things like chicken fingers.

The beer drinkers were also quite happy with the selection, as were the non-alcohol drinkers (lots of Bundaberg beverages, not just root beer and ginger beer), but I was again a bit disappointed by my options for alcohol that weren't beer: only sangria or honey-wine.  I had the honey-wine, and it was fine, but still a little too much like beer for my real taste.
View from Above.
We were again in the upper mezzanine, overlooking the entire space.  Here you can see the standard booths for seating, the pass and kitchen on the left hand side, and the front register.  Yes, it was packed.

The kitchen was crazy fast and efficient though, and our food arrived quickly.  They somehow managed to find us each and bring us our food while it was still piping hot.
Crispy Crab Crack. $11.
"Beer battered fresh Maryland lump crab cake, spicy slaw, cilantro lime sauce".

In the two years since my previous visit to Garaje, the menu did not change in any way that I noticed.  So I was again completely torn by wanting the fish & chips, the crab cake, a burger, and to finally try a zapato.  Luckily, this time I had Ojan with me, so we could order two things and split.  One of those things obviously had to be the crab crack again.  I know I had it last time I was there, but, it was too good to not order again.

The dish changed slightly.  It cost $1 more.  The crab cake, while still large, was actually only about half the size as before.  The pile of slaw that it was served with grew substantially though.

Overall, I still liked it.  The crab cake was delivered hot and fresh.  It was crispy on the outside, moist and full of shredded crab on the inside.  I love mayo based slaw, and this was fresh and crisp, and the jalapeño in it again really kicked it up a notch.  I of course loved the creamy cilantro lime sauce, as I'm a sucker for mayo based sauces.  A chunk of crab cake, dunked in sauce, with a forkful of slaw made for a delightful bite.  Fried, crispy, creamy, fresh ... it had everything you could really want.  I'd still get this again, although, I'm more open to trying something else now.
Surfer Leo Zapato. $9.
"Batter fried sustainable tilapia, fries, avocado, jack, chipotle mayo."

For our second dish, I sorta wanted to finally try a burger, but Ojan went out for burgers the night before.  I sorta wanted to try the bbq pulled pork or the fish and chips or even the hot pastrami.  But ... I settled on a zapato, one of the signature items at Garaje.

A zapato is sorta like a burrito, just sans rice, that is also grilled and pressed  Ok, so maybe not really a burrito.  How about a flour tortilla panini?

Anyway.  Garaje has a slew of different zapatos, including some basic varieties with jack cheese, refried beans, salsa, avocado, and your choice of protein like carnitas, mojo chicken, or carne asada.  See, basically a burrito.  But, then they also have some far more interesting options, most of which involve adding fries inside as well.  These include the "Surfer Vero" with plancha grilled prawns, the "Maverick" with an entire deep fried crab cake inside, or the "Surfer Leo", which we opted for.

The "Surfer Leo" is basically a fish + chips version of a zapato.  So ... fish + chips meats a burrito.  Yup.  While it might sound a bit crazy, it turns out to be pretty amazing.

Like my crab cake, the zapato came hot and fresh.  The flour tortilla was crispy from the grill, and it was cut in half, easy to pick up and eat.  Regular burritos can be a bit cumbersome, but this really was simple to eat.  While I don't really like flour tortillas, I liked the crispy aspect of this far more than a standard burrito.  A definite improvement.

Inside was several pieces of fried tilapia, french fries, and tons of cheese.  Avocado would normally also be inside, but due to my allergy, we asked for it on the side, so Ojan could add it in as he pleased.

The fish was super crispy, flaky, and really good.  I instantly wished I had ordered fish and chips.

The fries were a bit strange inside.  At first I really didn't like them.  So I pushed them aside and ate the rest of the zapato.  And then ... I came back and finished the fries.  I think I just didn't like the soft, starchy texture of the fries alongside the crispy fish.  I'd leave them out next time.  We also ordered a side of fries, again, hot, fresh, crispy, good fries.  So the fries were certainly good, just, not what I wanted inside.

The Jack cheese was kinda awesome.  I'll be the first to say that Jack is a pretty boring cheese, and not one I'd ever pick, but, it was melted so perfectly here that I didn't care what kind of cheese it was.  There was a ton of it.  Perhaps too much really, but it made it into such perfectly gooey comfort food.

Oh, there was also a very generous amount of chipotle mayo, super creamy, coating everything inside.  You know me and mayo, so, I loved that too.

I was shocked by how good this was.  Guilty pleasure food for sure.  Fried fish and french fries with an unhealthy amount of cheese smothered in mayo?  Yup.  I liked it even more than my crab crack.

Next time, I'm tempted to just get the fish and chips, as boring as that sounds, as I did genuinely enjoy the fried fish.  Did I mention that the fish and chips comes with the same awesome slaw from the crab cake, plus the chipotle mayo from the zapato, plus lime mayo too?  It really does sound up my alley.  Although I'd gladly get this zapato again (just with the fries left out), or the crab cake ....  Or maybe, the crab cake zapato?

Ok, I know, fish & chips, with melted jack on the fries?  Guess it is time to go back already ...

Original Review, April 2014

The other night I attended a birthday party at Garaje, in SOMA.  I was excited because it opened a year ago, and I still hadn't been, even though I've been hearing really good things.

So first, let me attempt to define what Garaje is.  At some level, I feel they are suffering from an identity crisis, so it is really hard to define.  Garaje is a sports bar, a taqueria, a beer hall, and a burger joint.  All in one.  But somehow, it works.

I'll dive into each aspect one at a time.

First, the sports bar.  The decor is uh, retro garage, with plasma screens showing sporting events.  You order drinks (beer only) and food (taqueria-style) at registers at the back.  They are cash only, but have an ATM near the doorway.  Drinks are dispensed immediately, and you are given a number for your food, which will be delivered to your table.  The single line, for food and drinks, is a bit of an issue, as it seemed to crawl along, and it regularly took 20-30 minutes just to get through the line.

Speaking of lines, the same goes for the bathroom, a single unisex room.  Yes one bathroom for an entire bar.  That line was regularly 5-6 people deep.

But I'll stop being grumpy now.  The food was shockingly good, even though the menu was expansive, and a bit of a strange assortment.  They somehow crank the food out quickly, even though it is all done à la minute.  This was the most impressive part.  I was at a private party up in the mezzanine, so I could watch the kitchen from above, and it was clear that they had minimal mise en place.  The cooks prepared each and every dish to order.  Each piece of fish going into a fish taco was dredged and fried to order, the slaw wasn't dressed until right before it was added to a dish, each order of fries was individually fired.  And this is at a bar?  This is certainly not ordinary bar food.

Like I said, a bit of an identity crisis.  Yes, it was a bar, albeit only with beer.  So maybe it was a taqueria, but with fancy microbrews on tap?  And burgers that people actually seek out?  Confusing, yes.  Delicious, also yes.

The taqueria part of the menu features tacos, basic street tacos, or far fancier options, like seared ahi tuna or plancha grilled farmed tilapia.  Ok, so it is an upscale taqueria.  The signature item seems to be zapatos, basically burritos that are grilled in a panini press.  But then there are also burgers, and they most certainly aren't the cardboard variety.  Marin Sun Farms grass fed beef, Acme buns, decadent toppings.  The birthday girl claimed that this is her favorite burger in the city.  The burgers are clearly not just thrown on the menu as an afterthought.  So now, it is a bar, a taqueria, and a burger joint?

Then, there are also salads and a slew of other sandwiches (fried chicken, grilled chicken breast, grilled pastrami, pulled pork, seared ahi) all also served on Acme buns.  At this point, I don't know how to define Garaje.

So I won't.  What I can tell you is that the food is on point.  Quality ingredients are used, it is well executed, and the food is incredibly flavorful.  It isn't a fancy place, and your food will arrive in a plastic basket.  But sometimes, this it is exactly what you need.

I highly recommend, and I'll certainly be returning, as there are too many menu items that I wanted to try.
Besides the food, the other major focus is the beer program, with a slew of microbrews on tap, and a sign proclaiming "no crap on tap".  But as a non-beer drinker, I was limited to only one alcoholic choice: house made sangria.  No cider, wine, malt beverages, or hard liquor are available.

The beer drinkers seemed very happy.  Garaje also has an impressive collection of glassware, and it seemed as if almost every type of beer came in its own custom glass.  Also exciting for some our group were the size options, including liter sized steins.  Given the long lines to order drinks, the liter option does make some sense, as you don't need to return as often :)  But, then again, perhaps it also adds to the bathroom line issue!

The sangria was not quite what I expected, as it was almost frozen and a bit slushy.  Not too sweet, a bit fruity, the strongest flavor was certainly the underlying red wine.  Not bad, and I was happy to drink it, but I of course would have loved more options.

For non-alcoholic options, they had soft drinks, iced teas, and a nice selection from Bundaberg, including tasty ginger beer.
Carne Asada Fries.  $8.
One of my dining companions ordered a bunch of fries, chips, and salsa.

We started with a side of plain fries, and I appreciated that they were crispy, clearly cooked fresh to order, and delivered immediately, as they were not soggy or limp.  The fries were a slightly thick style so they were fluffy inside, seasoned with the right amount of salt.  Pretty decent fries.

Next, the famous carne asada fries, the same thing, but topped with carne asada, jack, guacamole, and roasted salsa.  I didn't love the carne asada itself, it seemed a bit dried out and tough, but it was flavorful.  The jack cheese was perfectly melted, although I sorta wanted more, as many fries were left without.  I'm allergic to avocado, so I couldn't really dig into these much, but I'm sure if I was able to eat the guacamole, I probably wouldn't have missed the cheese as much.  Like all of the dishes at Garaje, there was a generous scoop of the guac, which was even more impressive on the tacos, as it literally seemed like there was as much guac as any other filling.  They don't skimp on the premium ingredients!

You can also add an over-easy egg for $1, which some of my companions added to their burgers, but not the fries.

Finally, we had some of Nico's chips and fire roasted salsa, also with guac.  The salsa was fine, spicy enough, and the chips crispy, but I didn't feel compelled to go back for more of them in the same way that I did with the fries.

The price for the plain fries ($2) was very good, but the carne asada fries ($8) were a bit high compared to other prices, since you could get a carne asada taco for just $3.  I wouldn't order them again, but, I also wouldn't have ordered them in the first place, due to the guac and steak.  Fries are also available in a pulled pork version.

The chips and salsa were $3, plus another $3 for the guac.  $3 for chips and salsa seemed a bit high compared with other prices, or compared to the fact that many taquerias include them with a taco.
Crispy Crab Crack. $10.
I really struggled deciding what to order.  Partially because I'd already had dinner, since the party started a bit late for me, and I thought it was just going to be a taqueria, so didn't think I'd be into the food.  So I wasn't really hungry.  But the real problem?  I wanted everything!  The seared ahi sounded particularly appealing, available as a taco, on top a salad, or as a sandwich.  And who can resist a classic fried fish taco, made with beer battered tilapia? (For the healthy types, you could also have your sustainable tilapia plancha grilled instead.  Or, you could just go all out, and get a full on order of fish 'n chips, which I was really, really close to doing.)  I also was very tempted by the "Surfer Leo" zapato, basically fish and chips (yes, including the fries), plus all the standard zapato fixings, inside a grilled tortilla.  Yelpers all rave about the zapatos, and this one had my name all over it.

Luckily for me, the line provided me plenty of time to ponder, make a decision, change it, and go back to pondering some more.  Such indecision.  But everything changed the moment I saw the "secret menu" (ok, not so secret, as it was posted on a large chalkboard just like the regular menu, and also listed on the printed menus at the register.  But they pretend it is secret.)  Indecision vanished, as I saw "crispy crab crack".  Crab crack.  Crispy.  No, not a type-o.  Described as "battered fresh Maryland crab cake, spicy slaw, cilantro lime sauce".

I was sold.  Sure, seared ahi or fish and chips are good and all, but ... crab!  One of my favorite ingredients.  Of course, in the Bay Area, I am used to local Dungeness crab, so it was a bit of a surprise to see Maryland crab make an appearance on a menu in San Francisco.  I love my Dungeness, but for crab cakes, Maryland crab does work well.

This crab cake was a monster.  Not an appetizer, not a side dish.  Probably best for sharing.  But share I did not do.  In retrospect, I should have.  Several people saw me with it and asked what it was, clearly seeking an invitation to try some.  But I just told them it was awesome rather than offering a taste.  And remember how I wasn't hungry?  Yeah, that vanished when this arrived.

First, they weren't joking with the "crispy" part.  I did see crispy in the name, and battered in the description, but I wasn't quite expecting this.  The same beer batter that they use for the fish, used to coat a crab cake, and then ... deep fried.  Genius!  I've had many crab cakes in my day, but I certainly haven't had one beer battered and deep fried before.  It worked beautifully, insanely crisp outside, moist inside.  Sooo much crab meat.  Yes, it was all shredded and there was some filler, no lump meat, but it was delicious.  Just like the fries, each one was made to order, dredged and battered and dropped into the fryer, delivered to me piping hot.

Served on top a bed of spicy slaw, fresh and crisp, with full slices of jalapeño in it for some serious heat, lightly dressed.  They are not afraid of flavor or spice.  As I watched from above, I saw each and every order of slaw dressed to order, so it was never soggy.  I loved combining bites of the crab cake with the spicy slaw.

And finally, the cilantro lime sauce, which was basically super flavorful mayo.  At this point, I was all in.  Deep fried crab smothered in flavorful mayo?  Sure, bring it on.  I hesitate to admit this, but I used up my entire container long before consuming my entire crab cake.  I wanted even more.  It was the perfect creamy compliment to the crispy fried deliciousness and the spicy slaw.

A fabulous dish, and I'd most certainly order it again.  The crab cake is also available as a sandwich, with chipotle mayo, on an Acme bun.  Tempting, but I'd still probably go for this version again.  But ... I do still want to try a zapato.  Perhaps I'd find a buddy to split with, and have half of each.   Yes, that is the plan, next time ... 
Garaje Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Breakfast @ Lobby Bistro, Sheraton Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal

During my recent visit to Lisbon, I stayed at the Sheraton Lisboa.  My platinum status gave me access to either the lackluster executive lounge breakfast, or, the Lobby Bistro buffet.

The Lobby Bistro buffet had ... everything, but, there was nothing that was actually very good.  Very few items were labelled.  It was better than the lounge though.

The Setting

The Lobby Bistro is located adjacent to the lobby, as you might guess from the name, on the ground floor.
Large Dining Area.
The dining area is large, full of assorted tables, mostly for 4, and open to the lobby area.  Its loud and busy.
Table Setting.
Tables are pre-set with coffee cups and sugar, place mats, silverware, and cloth napkins.  Once seated, coffee was offered, and a carafe brought to the table.  Amusingly, my carafe actually only contained one mug worth of coffee.  Why bring a carafe?

I had regular coffee, it was fine.


Food is all buffet style, on the back side of the room, two sides that are back to back, so the area gets *very* crowded.  It took a few days before I was able to catch a lull in people so I could take photos.

Hot Buffet

One side was a hot buffet.  The buffet had offering no matter what style of cuisine you prefer:
Jams, Honey, Nutella, Gluten-Free Baked Goods, Toppings.
The first area had a couple gluten-free baked goods, mini jars of jam/honey/nutella, plus some random toppings: tofu, poached eggs (cold?), soy sauce, nuts, raisins, and dried apricots.  I don't entirely understand this layout, to be honest. 

I liked the peach marmalade, and may or may not have just taken a tiny spoon and eaten a jar full.  Don't judge.  It was a mini jar.

I eventually tried a poached egg, because I grew *very* sick of this lackluster buffet that never changed, and I knew I should have some protein.  The yolk was decently runny, but, like the cooked eggs, it had a flavor I just didn't like.  Something about Portuguese eggs?  Also, um, cold eggs?  I tried to think of it like a hard boiled egg, which I'd eat cold, but it still just didn't quite work for me.
Miso Soup, Rice, Spring Rolls.
Next came miso soup, plain steamed white rice, spring rolls.

Ojan got the spring rolls one morning, and I tried a bite.  Do not recommend.  Incredibly soggy.

Asian station: check.
Several days in, I noticed that before the buffet was actually a side station, with curries and samosas.  I think it was likely there the whole time, and I just missed it the first days?

The veggies were spiced but overcooked and soggy.  Sigh, buffets.

The curry sauce was a rich coconut milk sauce with decent flavor, but, it was literally just sauce.  There was nothing in it.  It had a thick film on top, that I uh, actually liked as it added texture, but, yeah, just sauce.

Indian offerings?  Check.
Scrambled Eggs, Bacon, Sausage.
Next came the hot foods, starting with the classics: scrambled eggs, bacon, and sausage.

The sausages were tiny little things, and a strange redish color inside, and kinda mealy.  I still tried one, since sometimes I just love sausages.  I did not like this.

American basics? Check.
Rosti Potatoes, Baked Beans, Roasted Tomatoes, Mushrooms.
Then came the more traditional British breakfast sides: mushrooms, rosti potatoes, roasted tomatoes, and baked beans.

British needs?  Check.
And finally, pancakes.  Next to the pancakes was ... maple syrup and some other kind of thick syrup, like molasses.

I tried the pancakes, they were what you'd expect.  Thin, not fluffy, not very good.  The syrups were sweet and fine.

Hot breakfast carbs? Check.

Continental Buffet

Going down the other side was the cold continental selections:
Fruit, Yogurt, Muesli.
Slices fruit and fruit salad, which I avoided due to the melon.  Plain yogurt and bircher muesli.

The yogurt was plain, natural yogurt.  Not particularly thick or creamy, tangy.  Meh.

Healthy stuffs? Check.
Yes muesli!

This was ok muesli.  It was loaded with shredded apple (too much in my opinion), and uh, chunks of banana?  I don't think I've ever had banana in muesli before.  But the mushy texture wasn't entirely wrong with the soft muesli.

There were also some nuts and seeds.

The base was very yogurty, thin, tart.

It was decent muesli.  I wished I had some stewed fruit or something to add to it though, only stewed prunes were available, not really my first choice.  One day, I mixed in Nutella, and that was pretty tasty.
Yogurt, Cereal, Milk, Prunes.
Next came cereals: corn flakes, bran sticks, and chocolate.  Only regular milk.  Next to that was assorted Activa packaged yogurts, drinkable Dannon yogurts, and boxes of individual flavored soy milks.

The chocolate cereal was ok, and good when I grew sick of the crappy pastries and still wanted something sweet.

Continental basics?  Check.
Chocolate Soy Milk.
The juice boxes of individual soy milk were kinda cute.  I guess if you wanted soy milk for your cereal, you could take a plain one and dump it in?

I grabbed a chocolate one to enjoy after a workout, but, the chocolate flavor was kinda chalky, and I wasn't really a fan.

The vanilla was just sweet soy milk, which I enjoyed with cereal, but otherwise wasn't particularly interesting.

The strawberry I did enjoy though, good soy flavor, sweet strawberry flavor.
Cheese, Charcuterie, Smoked Salmon.
Next came the cheeses and charcuterie.  Assorted sliced deli meats, seemingly beef and pork products, sliced hard cheeses, tomato and mozzarella salad, a soft cheese, and smoked salmon with capers and onions.

The tomato and mozzarella looked awful, the tomatoes incredibly under-ripe.

I tried the soft cheese, and haven't really had anything like it before.  It was incredibly flavorless.

I also tried a few of the meats, including one that looks like mortadella, but, it wasn't very flavorful either.  Meh.

European continental breakfast? Check.
Caviar, Blinis, Salad, Lettuce, Salsa.
Next came the station that everyone always notes in reviews: caviar.

The top tier had lemons, blini, capers, red onions, and cream cheese, with a tiny bit of caviar.  Champagne was available on the side as well.

Below the caviar station was mixed greens, tomatoes, salsa, salt, and some herb?  #random

I tried the blini and caviar, because I felt like I *should*.  But, really, a cold mini pancake and mediocre caviar just isn't that exciting.

Fancypants breakfast? Check.


And finally, the usual highlight for me, baked goods and pastries.
Zomg, what a spread.  There were actually a few items labelled here: the scones and the croissants.  That's it.  Lols.  The items here were the same daily, although their position changed.  The only item that did change was that the "some kind of quickbread/cake" that changed variety daily.

Top tier, left to right: some kind of cake/quickbread (changed daily), chocolate croissants, Pão de Deus, custard filled pretzels, soft rolls shaped like croissants, apple strudel, soft rolls shaped like torpedos.

Under the riser: Scones, lemon muffins.
Middle: Glazed donuts, chocolate glazed donuts.
Basket of Croissants.

Front row: Sugar donut holes, more custard pretzel shaped things, more coconut topped rolls.

Although this spread was extensive, none of it was any good. And believe me, I tried it all.


Some of these items were not actually sweet pastries, and were instead just breads.  Deceiving! 
Wheat Roll - Not a Croissant.
I grabbed this, thinking it was a hearty whole wheat croissant.  I forget where it was, but somewhere during one of my travels I had a really good wheat croissant.

This was not a croissant.  It was a wheat roll, just, shaped like a croissant.  It was fairly stale, hard, dry, boring bread.  Certainly not croissant dough.  Doh.
Soft Roll (Torpedo).
Soft rolls, that looked like they might be Portuguese sweet rolls, given their shiny exterior and the fact that well, we were in Lisbon.  No other reason I would grab something so plain looking.

They weren't sweet, instead, just, more dry bread.  Not sure why they were in this section and not the regular bread section?
Soft Roll - Not a Croissant.
A few days into the trip, I decided to try the other croissant-like item.  Like the soft torpedo shaped roll, I hoped it would be Portuguese sweet bread.  And I think it was supposed to be, it just wasn't good.  Like all the other baked goods, it was dry, stale, and not actually sweet.  Meh.
Eventually, I tried the item labelled "scone".

It looked like it might be savory, cheese or herb perhaps, but it was just plain.

It was a hard style, not crumbly, and had no flavor at all.

Since there was no clotted cream or anything to go with it, very dry, very plain, very boring.
Chocolate Bread.
The "some kind of cake" slot in the buffet changed daily, sometimes with things like pound cakes, sometimes with quick breads.  Out of novelty more than anything else, I tried it most days.

I thought this would be a molasses-like quickbread, but, it turned out to be chocolate bread.  It wasn't awful, although, pretty dry.

I think it might have been decent toasted with some peanut butter or nutella on it?  I grabbed it to go to eat later, so that wasn't an option for me.
Banana-ish Bread.
Another day it was this cake looking thing, that I think was banana bread, as it had two slices of hard banana on top.  The texture of this was strange, the taste was strange, and it didn't taste like banana bread, but, I have no idea what else it could have been.

Another day it was dry and crumbly, more cake like than bread like, and had bits of I think dried fruit it in it?  That also wasn't good.
Chocolate Orange Bread.
Another day, chocolate orange bread.  Very dry.  Not rich chocolate flavor.  Meh to orange.
Lemon Muffin.
There was only one variety of muffin, unlabeled, but it sure looked like a corn muffin to me.  Corn muffins are my favorite, particularly when slathered in butter or jam.

This had a crispy top, which I love.  It was fairly moist inside.  But ... it was not a corn muffin.  It was lemon!  I dislike lemon things, and obviously wouldn't get another.

Sweet Pastries

Custard filled pretzel shaped things.
The first day we were in Lisbon, Ojan went to breakfast before me, and came back raving about the "pretzel shaped things that aren't pretzel bread but are stuffed with custard".   He loved them enough to grab an extra "for the road".   I obviously had to get one.

And, uh, yeah, not for me.  It was a crispy croissant like dough braided into a pretzel, which sounds good, except the dough wasn't buttery nor flaky and was spongy.  And I didn't like the eggy flavor from the custard.  I certainly didn't want a second one, let alone the rest of my first one.
Pão de Deus.
Speaking of not knowing what it was, the item that looked the best to me was the round buns, topped with something crunchy, and powdered sugar.  They turned out to be topped with sweet coconut.

The rolls themselves were dry and flavorless.  I ate the crunchy topping off, but it wasn't actually particularly good, basically just like a macaroon on top, and I wouldn't get one again.  I looked these up later, and found out that they were most likely Pão de Deus, and should have been delicious (and I later did get a great version, from a real bakery).  Let's just say, this hotel was not known for the quality of the baked goods.
Chocolate Croissant.
The chocolate croissant drew me in due to the large amount of chocolate I could see spilling out of both ends.  Unfortunately, the chocolate was the only redeeming quality to this croissant.

The croissant dough was not buttery and flaky, it was kinda stale and spongy.

The chocolate wasn't even that good, but, at least it was chocolate, and there was a decent amount of melted chocolate inside.  I wouldn't get another.
Apple Danish.
The apple danish was the last pastry I tried, as I don't tend to like apple danishes, even when they are good.  It had a lattice pattern on top, and a filling that actually seemed to be more like custard than apple goo actually, although it had a couple tiny chunks of apple too.

The pasty wasn't very good, although it was a little more buttery than some of the others, it still wasn't flaky, it was kinda spongy, and it just wasn't a fresh quality item.

Somehow, it did end up being one of my favorites, but, this is not a strong endorsement, as I wouldn't get another.


And ... donuts!
Chocolate Glazed Donut.
This ... wasn't awful.  In a very specific way.

The chocolate coating was thick and like a shell.  Inside was a very plain cake-like donut.  It wasn't fresh.  But, it reminded me exactly of those little chocolate covered donuts I used to get at the convenience store when I was a kid, except that it was full sized (you know what I'm talking about, mini chocolate frosted donuts by Hostess or Entenmann's ...).

So, was it a good donut?  Probably not.  Did I eat the entire, full size, thing in about 2 bites?  You betcha.  Such nostalgia.

Once I gave up on the other pastries, I tried another.  And ... yeah, ok, these weren't magical.  Not very fresh, but at least I liked the chocolate shell.
Glazed Donut.
Finally, I decided to try the other donut, just a glazed donut.

It too wasn't very fresh tasting, was kinda spongy, and without the chocolate shell, there were no redeeming qualities to it.

Breads, Butter.
Then came the bread station, with rolls, sliced breads, and other breads to slice yourself.

There were three types of butter products, and a toaster.

I tried the fluffy wheat bread that I needed to slice myself, as it looked really good, and everyone was getting it, but it was pretty dry and boring, like all the baked goods.

Carbs? Check.

Egg Station

Ah yes, the section that always sets apart a buffet. People who don't travel a ton and eat at breakfast buffets all the time always go nuts over egg stations.  Yup, they had one here, but, it was pretty confusing.
Egg Station.
The egg station was tucked away on the side.  No signage, and some days, the chef wasn't even near it.  It got *very* low usage most days, because no one ever knew it was there.  I was staying at the hotel with a group of at least 20 people, most of whom mentioned they didn't realize they could order eggs until their last day there.

I saw it, but I don't like eggs (or at least, boring breakfast eggs, I like eggs *in* my baked goods of course).

But, I know I need protein, so, eventually I ordered eggs from the made-to-order egg station.  I asked the egg chef for a fried egg over medium.  I waited around the buffet for it to be done, and at one point he asked where I was sitting. I pointed him at my table.  I heard the chef tell a server that my eggs were ready to bring to my table, and then he walked away from the egg station.  She ignored him.  My eggs were sitting there getting cold.

I hovered around a bit more, wanting my eggs hot.  I went back to my table, thinking they wouldn't bring them until I was seated.  Eggs still getting cold.

I went back up to the buffet.  The server came to ask me what I'd like for eggs.  I told her I had already ordered eggs, pointed at the now very cold eggs, and said I thought those were mine.  She said no, something about her colleague.  I ordered again from her.  She wrote my order on a notepad, and then went to track down the egg chef who had left his post.  He exchanged some harsh words, and pointed her at the eggs sitting there.  She exchanged more harsh words.  I have no idea what was going on.

Eventually she came over to me with the egg, the same one that had been sitting there this whole time.  "Is this yours?", she asked.  I told her I thought so?  So she brought it to my table, cold.

I have no idea what went on there, if I did something wrong, or what.

A few days later, I tried again, because there was a line forming at the egg station.  This time, the egg chef (different person) stayed posted at the station, making orders, handing them over to the person who ordered them when they were ready.  This made more sense.

Fried Egg, Over Medium.
On the plus side, I did actually get a fried egg basically over medium, which is kinda rare to get right.

It was pretty oily, as you can see.  The yolk was brilliant yellow, which excited me since I love a nice custardy yolk, but, sadly, it wasn't very good.  It had a strange flavor that I didn't enjoy.
Egg White Omelet, "small", mushrooms, onions, "cheese".
My final day, I decided to get an omelet, egg whites, since I wasn't really liking the flavor of yolks.  I asked for it small.  I asked for mushrooms, onions, and cheese.  The chef repeated all these things back to me.

Then she added a cup of oil (I might be exaggerating slightly, but not much) to the nonstick pan, and added a teaspoon of mushrooms and a teaspoon of onions, and then tons of egg white mix.

I walked away to get other food, assuming she'd add the cheese in later on when it made sense.

I came back to claim my omelet.  She served it directly onto my plate, nicely rolled up.  It was a large omelet, but, whatever.

The egg white was fine, firm, pretty much what I'd expect.

But, it was basically just all egg whites.  Well, egg whites and oil.  The tiny, tiny amount of veggies was negligible.  When I picked out some onions, they were tender, sweet onions, but, they were totally lost in the omelet.  The mushrooms were even more lost.  And the cheese?  It never happened.

So, yeah.   Very, very oily, way too few fillings, no cheese.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Coffee from 7-Eleven

Third Review, February 2017

One hot day, I decided to finally try 7-Eleven's iced coffee offering, called "Chillers".  I had seen the Chillers dispensers many times before, but, they only have caffeinated chilled coffee, and San Francisco is rarely warm enough early in the day when I drink caffeine to consider iced coffee.  But one morning it was warm, so when I came out of bootcamp, and saw 7-Eleven next door, I knew it was a great opportunity to finally try it.

I've reviewed 7-Eleven's other coffee offerings before, so, if you haven't read those posts, I suggest you start there.

The Chillers dispensers are usually located near the hot coffee.  They dispense the "coffee", which is really a mix of coffee, creamer, syrups, and who knows what else.  They make 3 varieties: Colombian, Mocha, and French Vanilla, but each dispenser only carries 2, and I've only ever seen the flavored ones.  I opted for French Vanilla ... sorta.  Making this drink was a bit of an adventure.
French Vanilla Chillers (modified).
First, I needed to get ice in my cup.  It took me a little while to realize that I needed to go find the soda machine in order to get ice, and it was on the other side of the store.  A bit awkward, but, I guess it does make sense to have the iced coffee near the hot coffee rather than the soda, and it makes sense to not add another ice machine.

Then I started filling my cup from the dispenser.  It was immediately clear that this stuff was loaded with far more sugar, cream, and chemicals than I really wanted (particularly given that I had grabbed a large cup!), so I took a tiny sip to verify my fears (yes, technically not allowed I suppose), chocked on the cloying sweetness, and decided to fill the rest of the cup with regular hot coffee (hazelnut).  The hot coffee of course melted the ice, so then I had to go back to the soda machine to get more ice, which was much harder in the nearly full cup, causing some slashing ...

But, in the end, it worked out fine.  I really enjoyed my beverage.  It tasted like the Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee I remembered from my college years.  Seriously, it transported me.  I loved the french vanilla and hazelnut combo, and, when cut with so much ice and regular coffee, the sweetness and cream level were just right (I think my final recipe was only about 1/3 Chiller mix?)

I'd gladly get this again, but actually, I realized I can kinda make iced coffee anytime, by just adding ice to the regular hot coffee, although it would be diluted I guess.

Second Review, January 2016

To celebrate National Coffee Day, many places give out free coffee.  I was down in Southern California on National Coffee Day this year, and gleefully went to claim my free coffee at Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme, which were conveniently located half a block from each other.  The internet was full of grump at 7-Eleven though, as they did not participate.  But 7-Eleven promised they were going to do better that just for coffee for one day.

And, they did.  Just a few weeks later, for the full week from October 12-18, they gave out free coffee.  The only caveat was that you had to use the 7-Eleven app on your phone to check out.  This allowed them to ensure that every person only got one per day, and helped drive their app usage.  Besides that, it was a much better offer, even if you went a single day, as it was good for any size coffee or hot specialty beverage (iced coffee was excluded).  One per day, every day.  And, even more ridiculously, you still earned 7-Eleven points for the free cups, so, if you went 6 days, you also got another free drink to redeem anytime.

Now, you may be thinking, "Um, yes, but Julie, it is 7-Eleven.  Why would you want their coffee? You hated it before."   I guess, I just can't resist a freebie, it had been several years, and I do love the ridiculously extensive condiment stations most 7-Elevens have.  Also, I forgot just how bad the coffee was, as my other 7-Eleven memories have been overshadowed by their glorious cinnamon rolls.

During the week of free coffee, I visited a number of different 7-Elevens, as we have a slew of them in SF, and many are within a few blocks of each other, all an easy walk from my office.  I made it an adventure every morning to visit a different one, and compare the offerings.

Hot beverages at 7-Eleven are offered in 4 sizes: small (12 ounces), medium (16 ounces), large (20 ounces), and x-large (24 ounces).  For most of my freebies, I went for the largest, because, why not?

Pricing is not consistent across stores, even when they are literally 2 blocks apart.  It seemed that the bigger locations charged about $0.10 more per cup.

Hot Coffee

7-Eleven has a number of different coffee blends.  Depending on the store, they seemed to offer between 6-10 different coffees each.

The varieties I saw were basic blends like Brazilian Dark Roast, Regular "Exclusive Blend", and 100% Columbian, plus flavors like Hazelnut, French Vanilla, and Pumpkin Spice, and a single decaf, although they also make a Crumb Cake, Texas Pecan, Cinnamon, and Blueberry flavors.
Large Coffee Carafes.
Most of the locations I visited housed the coffee in large carafes like these.  They were great - easy to dispense, the coffee was hot.  Each one had a label with the variety of coffee, a description of the flavor, and the style of roast (light, medium, dark).  The little digital displays on top were always blank, but I think they were supposed to show how long ago they were brewed?
Standard Coffee Pots.
Smaller locations I visited had old school standard coffee pots instead.  The pots were all only quasi-full, had only the name of the coffee on the handle with no further description, and were just sitting there burning away.  This coffee tasted worse across the board.  Burnt.

These locations were $0.10 per cup cheaper.
Some locations had large creamer dispensers, with half and half and non-dairy french vanilla creamer.

If a location didn't have this, they had plenty of other options for creamer.
Sweeteners, Creamers.
Most places also had powdered non-dairy creamer, and a large selection of International Delight flavored creamers.  All locations had french vanilla and hazelnut flavors, many had irish cream and pumpkin pie spice as well.  I found one with caramel macchiato, and even one with a Cold Stone branded Sweet Cream flavor.

Interestingly, not a single one of the 9 or so locations I've visited has ever had milk of any form.  They always had half and half, and non-dairy creamer in a million varieties, but, never milk.  No low-fat options, if that matters to you, and obviously nothing fancy like soy milk, almond milk, etc.

Then, time for sweeteners.  All locations had large jars of 7-Eleven branded sugar.  But if you don't like regular white sugar, do not fear.  You can also pick from brown sugar, Splenda, Equal, or Sweet N Low.
But, that isn't all.  What if you want your sweetness and flavor in another form?  Go for the syrups.

Hazelnut, french vanilla, and seasonal pumpkin spice seemed to be offered at every store, in large, barista style dispensers, self-serve, like the coffee.  Some also had sugar free vanilla or hazelnut.  This one also had ... honey syrup?  (I guess for tea?)

At this point, you may have realized that if you wanted hazelnut flavor, you had 3 entirely different ways to get it: the hazelnut flavored coffee, hazelnut syrup, or hazelnut creamer.  So. Many. Options.
But, that is not all.

While some coffee shops only offer cinnamon, or maybe cocoa to sprinkle on, 7-Eleven goes bigger.  Most stores had cinnamon, chocolate, vanilla powder, and even mini marshmallows!

I quickly discovered that I loved dumping a ridiculous number of these mini marshmallows on top of my creations.
Whipped Cream.
But it gets better.  One location even had a whipped cream dispenser, but I wasn't able to figure it out.  I really wanted whipped cream, so I finally asked how it worked.  The guy looked at me like I was crazy.  "Whipped cream?  We don't have whipped cream."  I pointed to the machine.  Then he told me that had never worked, and has been broken for years.  Um, wow.  Thanks for keeping it there as a decoy?
Extra- Large Decaf.  $2.25.
"This medium-roasted, well-balanced decaf coffee is made for all you rebels out there who like to drink coffee well into the afternoon, evening and night. "

And, for the coffee itself, I went for decaf.

The decaf was absolutely fine.  No strange funk.  Sure it had no complexity to it, but at least it wasn't bad.  It was boring black, but totally sufficient when you load it up with their plentiful selection of flavors and creamers, which I obviously did.  I got a bit addicted to Irish Cream creamer and lots of sweetener and tons and tons of marshmallows.  Yes, I realize it is totally not "coffee" that this point.

Really, the coffee reminds me of Dunkin' Donuts.  You aren't really there to taste amazing coffee.  It is all about the flavors, the cream, and the sugar.  Dessert in a cup.  For breakfast.

I also learned that if a location doesn't have the variety of coffee you desire, aka, no decaf in the morning, you can ask to have it made, and they'll brew up a whole pot.  I guess I could have asked for the fun sounding blueberry or crumb cake flavors too?

Speciality Hot Drinks

Specialty Drink Dispenser.
In addition to regular hot coffee, 7-Eleven also has dispensers that make "specialty" drinks.  Again, what is on offer at any particular location is different, but they have everything ranging from hot chocolate to a standard cappuccino, to french vanilla cappuccinos, pumpkin spice lattes, peppermint mochas, and even a cuban cafe con leche.  I don't think the names are really that accurate though, I'm pretty sure the cappuccinos, the lattes, the machiattos, etc are all made with the exact same ratios of milk and coffee, and the milk is just quasi-steamed hot milk, not foam.

Warning: these drinks are all crazy sweet.  The tagline of "Enjoy our Sweet Sensations" displayed on the dispensers is very real.  Even the basic cappuccino has 40 grams of sugar ... in a small.

Some of these dispensers also had an option to just make frothed milk, if you'd like to put that on top of your regular coffee, and avoid the sugary crazy that is these drinks.

The astute reader will now notice, that if it was fall and you wanted to indulge in Pumpkin Spice craziness, you now have a 4th option, in addition to the flavored coffee, the flavored syrups, and the flavored creamer.  This machine also makes pumpkin spice lattes.
Pumpkin Spice Latte. Large. $2.05.
"Our limited-edition premium blended coffee drink is mixed with rich cream, pumpkin flavor, and hints of cinnamon and nutmeg for a taste that totally delights and an experience that brings to you all the warmth and fun of the fall season"

I finally gave in and tried the machine.  I was curious.  And I decided to just go for it, and went for the pumpkin spice latte.

I took one sip.  Woah.  Sweet overload.  I sorta regretted my decision.  Way. Too. Sweet.  I did like the flavor though, nicely spiced, and it was creamy and frothy.  Not bad at all for something coming out of a random machine.  But, what was in it?  My guess: instant coffee, lots of sugar, and non-dairy creamer.

I looked it up after, and I was basically dead on.  Ingredient #1: Sugar.  No shocker there.  Ingredient #2: Nondairy creamer (with corn syrup in it too).  #4: Instant coffee.  #3 was "dairy product solids" ... whatever that is.  So, not lactose-free.

I did someone drink this entire thing, a large.  I felt fairly sick after, like I had way, way too much sugar, and clearly way too much caffeine.  I think a better move would be to use 1/2 pumpkin spice latte, and 1/2 regular decaf coffee.  This would cut both the sweet and the caffeine amounts in half.

By the way, if you didn't guess it, this thing is awful for you.  475 calories. 68 grams of sugar.  Even Starbucks is significantly less.
2/3 Decaf Coffee, 1/6 French Vanilla Cappuccino, 1/6 Pumpkin Spice Latte, 2 Pumps SF Hazelnut,  2 French Vanilla Creamers, Chocolate Powder, Vanilla Powder, Mini-Marshmallows. X-Large. $2.15.
So, uh, I got crazy.

It didn't start that way.

I started with 2/3 decaf coffee and then about 1/6 french vanilla cappuccino, taking my advice from above, but leaving room to tinker.  And ... I didn't like it.  It was really ... bitter.  It needed sweetness and creaminess.

I added sugar-free hazelnut syrup, not wanting to go crazy on sugar, but wanting some flavor.  It still wasn't good.  I dumped in 2 french vanilla creamers, hoping to amp up the flavor and creaminess.  It was getting there.

I was going to top it off with decaf coffee, but decided to just fill it up with Pumpkin Spice Latte.  This thing was already ridiculous, so why not just add on?  And then, just to have fun, I dumped in chocolate powder, vanilla powder, and loaded it up with mini marshmallows.

The result?  Well, it wasn't actually bad.  Not nearly as sweet as the unadulterated Pumpkin Spice Latte, but sweet, flavorful, and creamy.  I uh, liked it.

And I'm glad I went for mostly decaf, because this X-Large size would have killed me otherwise.

For $2.15 normally, or free during free coffee week, this was quite the deal, and kinda fun to make!
4/5 Decaf Coffee, 1/5 Pumpkin Spice Latte, 2 Pumps SF Vanilla Syrup, Chocolate Powder, Vanilla Powder, Mini Marshmallows.  $2.15.
I kept trying to improve my creation.

This time, I left out the french vanilla cappuccino and the french vanilla creamers, but still finished it off with pumpkin spice latte.  I left out the hazelnut syrup, but still added vanilla syrup.  I couldn't resist dumping all the things on top.

This was the best version yet.  I liked the flavoring and creaminess from the Pumpkin Spice Latte, but it wasn't overpowering.  I adore those silly little marshmallows (can you tell?)  It still had a slightly cloying property to it, not that it was too sweet exactly, just that it was wrongly sweet.

I tried a few days later with the same recipe, but added cinnamon on top too.  That was a bad move.  The flavor didn't go well with the others, which I didn't quite anticipate, since, "pumpkin spice" already has cinnamon, right?  Not sure why it clashed so badly, but, it did.

Just For Lols

Mislabelled Baked Goods.
I didn't actually have a donut, but I thought these signs were way too funny.  Look closely.

Original Review, September 2012

As I mentioned a few months ago when I tried my first ever Slurpee, I grew up without 7-Eleven.  I haven't ever really had a reason to visit since, but today I was walking by and saw signs for free coffee, to celebrate National Coffee Day.  It was freezing outside, and a warm coffee sounded particularly welcome, plus, who can resist freebies?
Large Coffee.
It was easy to locate the coffee section, as there was a huge swarm of people.  They had a number of types of coffee to choose from, several different blends, a decaf, and a bunch of flavored coffees, including french vanilla and hazelnut.  I grew up drinking tons of Green Mountain Coffee's flavored coffees, and these two flavors in particular were my favorites, and I always mixed them.  I choose to do the same at 7-Eleven.  I was very happy that they had so many choices for the coffee!

I was even more impressed when I saw the area to customize your coffee.  They had standard sugar, alternate sugars, and creamer of course, but then they also had a bunch of flavored creamers (irish cream! french vanilla! hazelnut!).  If you weren't happy adding your flavor that way, they also had a bunch of flavor syrups.  Or if that wasn't enough, they had flavor powders as well.  And then fun toppings like cinnamon and mini marshmallows.  And extra caffeine shots, scary little things that looked like creamers, but were labelled with a warning about only consuming 2 per day.  What fun!  I really appreciated that they had all of these things, and didn't charge you more for them.  Most places would charge for a flavor shot.

But ... then I took a sip of my coffee, and realized why they had all the additives.  It was, hands down, the worst coffee I've ever tasted in my life.  It tasted like lighter fluid.  So horrible.  No amount of mix-ins could save it.

I was daunted, but thought perhaps in the hooplah of the day, they screwed up brewing the coffee.  I knew there was another 7-Eleven two blocks away, and I wanted to give them a fair review.  So I tossed my horribletastic coffee, and sauntered into the next 7-Eleven.

This one had an even more impressive setup.  More flavors of coffee, in bigger serving vessels rather than pots, with timers indicating how old the brews were.  And even more syrups, powders, and whatnot.  I was again excited.

I stuck with just hazelnut this time, thinking that perhaps my mixing caused the badness.  I took a tiny dribble only, just to try it, not wanting to waste a whole cup if it was again horrible.  And ... yes, it was again, just as bad.  The only redeeming quality is that it was served nice and hot.  (Ok, too hot, I burnt my tongue pretty badly).  Seriously, I've never had such horrible coffee.

At this point, I was pretty sad, as my hopes had gotten up.  I overheard a woman standing next to the automatic coffee machine talking about the wonder that was her creation.  Intrigued, I went to see what she was up to.  The machine was a standard auto-magic thing that could make a variety of drinks: hot chocolate, cappuccino, latte, steamed milk, and a rotating special.  I have no idea when I last consumed anything out of one of these machines.  They can't possibly be good right?  But, this woman was going on and on about her drink, and it turned out, that anything from the machine also counted for free coffee day.  So I followed her lead.

Her recipe was to start with the seasonal special, the Pumpkin Spice Latte.  I already almost ran away at this point, as I just honestly don't get the rage with these things.  I've tried them from a bunch of actual coffee shops and just find them nasty.  And, she said, this would be too sweet and overwhelming, so you only go halfway with that.  Then, you use the regular steamed milk button for the rest.  This dilutes the crazy sweetness and flavor of the latte, basically making you a steamed milk with some nice flavor to it.  I was skeptical, but made my own.  And ... I liked it.  I know, I know, it was just powered milk, powered coffee, and some chemicals acting like pumpkin, but it was actually tasty.  Perfect for the freezing winter day.  It was even decently frothy.

I can't imagine actually going to purchase one of these, but I do give 7-Eleven some credit for having such a generous array of options for customizing your drink, at no extra charge.  And for having the cost of the magic latte machine and regular drip coffee the same.  Probably the cheapest pumpkin spice latte you can find!