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Flavor is only the beginning of the problem. By Anna Spiegel
California Tortilla's ramen burrito. Photograph courtesy of California Tortilla.

On Tuesday the Rockville-based chain California Tortilla unleashed a new culinary mashup on the world: the ramen burrito. Like the orignal ramen burger and its culinary offspring—ramen sliders, ramen doughnuts—the dish capitalizes on the trendiness of the noodle soup and current obsession with food mashups (thanks, Cronut). But unlike some of the other ramen Frankenfoods, it doesn’t taste good. And that’s just the beginning of what's wrong.

Hybirds such as the original ramen burger, created by chef Keizo Shimamoto, are a product of what cooks do best: take a classic technique or dish—in this case, two dishes—and make it their own through creativity and talent. That's not to say the now-trademarked innovation is the second culinary coming (and the lines can be a little ridiculous). But if thought is what counts, at least it's in the noodle patty—a bun fashioned out of Sun Noodle strands, the seasoned patty glazed with shoyu ramen sauce.

Stuffing a heap of bland, unseasoned "authentic Asian noodle base" into a flour tortilla and calling it a ramen burrito is the opposite, a half-hearted attempt at trendiness. The glutinous cushion doesn't add any flavor, while the other ingredients—avocado, spinach, corn, cilantro, scallions—are overwhelmed by a heap of potent Sriracha-pickled onions (pack a few mints for after). Cal-Tor's meats are tasty, and the slow-cooked pork carnitas are probably the best choice for mimicking ramen's popular pork topping. Still, the sweet Thai chili sauce used to Asian-ize the proteins has as much to do with the traditional soup as a flour tortilla, and no connection to "all the classic flavors" the ram-rito is supposed to contain. Should you try it? Only if you need to carb-load while driving.

David Chang notes in his Lucky Peach article "The State of Ramen" that "the balance between innovation and quality is totally out of whack. Progress is good if you know what you’re doing and pay appropriate respect to what came before it." So is the ramen burrito the "fucking end of everything," as Chang suggests? Not in any diet-altering way, but it's likely to pave the bottom of the barrel when it comes to any ramen hybrids to come.

Posted at 01:31 PM/ET, 01/21/2015 | Permalink | Comments ()
Runs to the liquor store may be a thing of the past. By Benjamin Freed
Not pictured: one beer. Photograph by Benjamin Freed

Pardon our astonishment, but rarely do smartphone apps that offer deliveries of packaged goods actually live up to their pre-launch hype. Drizly, an alcohol-delivery app that launched in DC this week, managed to make good on its promises of speedy service when we decided the best use of an early-afternoon power outage that struck Washingtonian’s office would be to go on a digital beer run.

It took 15 minutes after punching in an order on an iPhone for ten cold bottles of Boulevard 80-Acre wheat ale and Bear Republic Racer 5 India pale ale to appear in our building’s lobby. Not bad.

Let’s peel back the top layer of mobile sheen, though. Drizly—which, obviously, Silicon Valley navel-gazers already refer to as the “Uber for liquor”—is still far from being a ubiquitous thirst-quencher. Based in Boston, the app is entering the DC market in a similar manner that more widely known services such as Postmates did, limiting its coverage area to Capitol Hill, downtown, Georgetown, Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle, and Upper Caucasia.

But a bigger reason Drizly covers so little of DC is its setup. Unlike Postmates, which sends contracted couriers to any store or restaurant of a customer’s command, Drizly merely transmits orders to liquor stores with delivery services of their own. The app also needed to be approved by the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration before starting up. One of its competitors, Ultra, was shut down after its initial launch in June for selling booze without a license; it’s since obtained one. (Society may applaud Uber’s flagrant dismissal of local taxi regulations, but it's more stringent where alcohol is concerned.)

The first store to be linked up with Drizly at its DC launch is Sherry’s Wine and Spirits. The Woodley Park liquor store is reliably voluminous, but because it’s the only store serving Drizly so far, the brick-and-mortar inventory dictates what the app can offer. Our first-choice beer, Abita Turbodog, was sold out when we browsed Drizly’s menus. We also considered a 12- or 24-can pack of Budweiser, but scrolled back when Bud Heavy only appeared in six-bottle packs.  (A Drizly representative says the company has a partnership with one other store, and may add more if demand grows.)

Still, the shopping process was not that alien, even if it did take us 20 minutes to decide what to get. (Hey, even in the digital realm, some of us like to really ruminate on what beer to buy.) The biggest difference in the shopping experience is not being able to consult store employees about what drink is best.

Still, the test run was impressive. Our order went through at 1:49. Fifteen minutes later, during which our delivery driver was trackable on a map, Sherry’s co-owner Danny Desai was standing in our lobby with a blue Drizly tote bag containing our beer. Desai says Sherry’s will keep up its traditional phone-based deliveries—many of which go to hotel rooms—though he expects the app will quickly become the dominant ordering platform (automated credit-card payments, no risk of being put on hold, etc.). And in case Drizly does become some kind of world-beating “Uber for liquor” and changes the way we drink in our homes, Desai seems braced for the possibility.

“It’s a new age,” he says. “People love that they don’t have to come into the store.”

Find Benjamin Freed on Twitter at @brfreed

Posted at 04:19 PM/ET, 09/05/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
We tasted it so you don’t (necessarily) have to. By Anna Spiegel
Photograph by Garrett M. Graff.

As many fast food fans know, Domino’s released the newest fast-food monstrosity invention yesterday: Specialty Chicken, essentially a pizza/chicken nugget hybrid involving a crust-like layer of breaded bird “covered in toppings, sauces, and cheeses.” 

So how special does it taste? We had two versions delivered to the Washingtonian office: the “classic hot Buffalo” topped with spicy sauce, ranch, and cheeses; and the “spicy jalapeño pineapple,” a Hawaiian-esque blend of mango-habanero sauce, jalapeños, cheddar, and pineapple. The fact that two taste-testers immediately sought out mouthwash afterward speaks to the new food’s campaign motto—“failure is an option”—but there were also a few big fans. Below you’ll find the best reactions to the new food. KFC chicken corsage, you may have some competition.

Its health value:

“God, it’s all sugar.”

Its success as a junk food:

“These are everything I could want them to be. I could eat them every week.”

Its taste:

“It doesn’t taste like pizza, but it doesn’t taste like chicken, either.”

Its target audience:

“My kids would love this! Who wouldn’t love chicken nugget pizza?”

Its texture:

“It’s really soggy.”

Its smell:

“It smells like ranch, but not the good kind.”

Its texture again:

“They’re kind of . . . bouncy.”

Its culinary doppelgänger:

“It looks like fish en brochette, but it doesn’t smell like fish en brochette.”

Posted at 02:21 PM/ET, 04/16/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
Will the “warm nacho cheese snack” make it in the DC market? By Vicky Gan
Is Doritos Loaded a nacho platter wrapped in a chip inside a mozzarella stick? Sadly, no. Photograph by Anna Spiegel.

Washingtonians now have the dubious honor of taste-testing the latest experiment in junk-food engineering: Doritos Loaded, or, as described in the marketing materials, a “warm nacho cheese snack.” Yesterday Frito-Lay, inspired by the success of its Doritos Locos Taco, began selling this new creation exclusively at select 7-Elevens in the Washington area. We found this box—the last under the heat lamp this morning—at 908 17th Street, Northwest, which receives three 60-piece cases of Doritos Loaded per day.

So how does this one-bite nacho platter compare to the Dorito? Let’s just say we won’t be rushing to load up on the new product. The ones we sampled were a dense, slightly mushy cross between a Dorito and a mozzarella triangle, with a concentrated hit of the signature spicy cheese-esque flavor. Don’t expect any gooey deliciousness in the center, as pictured on box; unfortunately these nuclear-orange wedges possess the consistency of hard chicken nuggets. Ours were dry, as if they’d been sitting out for too long, but it’s doubtful they contain enough natural cheese to ooze at any time during their lifespan.

One of our taste-testers was a bit more charitable, suggesting the extremely salty snack might pair well with Diet Coke (and a hangover). Another said he “could see eating four of these at 1:30 in the morning with a beer”—about as close to an endorsement as these mutant Doritos may get.

In an interview with ABC News, a spokesperson for 7-Eleven said that “future roll-out plans will be determined based on consumer response,” so Washingtonians will have to vote with their wallets to keep Doritos Loaded on shelves. We prefer to save our money for those $1 snack tacos.

Posted at 01:54 PM/ET, 02/12/2014 | Permalink | Comments ()
For the most part, buyer beware. By Anna Spiegel
Candy corn hybrids are sprouting up everywhere this Halloween. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

If there were a Halloween zodiac, 2013 would be the Year of the Candy Corn. It seems there are more riffs on those sugary little faux-corns than ever, from limited-edition candy corn Oreos to a Starburst fruit-flavored variety. Here’s what to expect on your last-minute Halloween candy run. 


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Posted at 02:30 PM/ET, 10/30/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
From Popeyes to BonChon to GBD, we wade through the best and worst Washington has to offer right now. By Anna Spiegel
Among the chicken contenders were (left to right, from top): Bojangles, GBD, GBD again, Eatonville, Astro Fried Chicken & Doughnuts, Cork Market, Hitching Post, Central, and Henry's Soul Cafe. Photograph by Andrew Propp.

Fried chicken is enjoying a golden age in Washington. Two new chicken and doughnut joints—GBD and Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken—opened in the past three weeks, and more restaurants than ever are offering fried chicken specials. Not that crispy birds are a new trend; old favorites such as the Hitching Post and Levi’s Port Cafe are still going strong. So who fries up the tastiest morsels of meat? We tested 14 varieties to find out.

The Criteria

As mentioned, fried chicken is popping up everywhere. In an attempt to show our arteries some mercy, we established a few ground rules for qualification. First, we only sampled chicken dinners—no tenders, poppers, sandwiches, rip’ns, etc. Every bird under consideration had to be available for carryout to the general public on a regular basis. Finally, we deployed anonymous fried chicken fetchers (ahem, interns) to ensure a fair trial and to guarantee that the chicken arrived promptly and, more important, warm and relatively crispy.

The crunch-factor wasn’t the only deciding point—we know a little something gets lost en route from fryer to office. The ideal birds had both flavorful meat and a well-seasoned skin, and delivered a satisfying grease fix without getting too greasy.

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Posted at 11:00 AM/ET, 04/25/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
This healthy-minded, circus-themed food truck, run by two former clowns, offers restaurant-quality food with a local focus. By Anna Spiegel
The niçoise salad from Cirque. Photograph by Anna Spiegel.

When the “greatest food on wheels” rolled onto Washington streets this past February, we expected another vendor slinging popcorn and funnel cakes. It’s a surprise, then, to pass by the purple, circus-themed Cirque Cuisine truck and see a menu boasting quiche filled with local corn, squash, and ricotta, or crab-topped watermelon gazpacho. What kind of act is this?

It turns out co-owners Sean Swartz and Jessica Shields are both former clowns who toured in South America—he with the second-largest circus in Mexico, she with a small troupe in Peru. The two connected over dinner at the pop-up Sensorium and shared visions of starting what Swartz calls “the social circus,” an organization to involve kids with exercise through tumbling, trapeze (Swartz is currently an instructor), and other cardiovascular tricks. The plan is still in the works, but they’re taking a similar healthful approach to their truck in the meantime: a menu of dishes with mostly organic or local ingredients from farmers markets and the Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-op, with vegetarian and gluten-free options—plus the occasional bout of unicycling.

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Posted at 09:30 AM/ET, 07/19/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()
In which we dive into the abyss that is the toasted-sandwich chain’s elusive seafood sandwich. By Anna Spiegel
On the DL: Quizno's off-menu lobster roll. Photograph by Melissa Romero.

Call me Ishmael, and the Quizno’s lobster and seafood salad sub the white whale.

Last summer I undertook a taste test of chain lobster rolls, seeking out the best of the worst. We caught rumors of a Quizno’s lobster special, but it had seemingly vanished by the time we’d lined up others from Subway, Au Bon Pain, Marvelous Market, and Panera. Then, around Lent, it resurfaced, but remained hard to find. Not every Quizno’s carries the sandwich, some that do don’t advertise it, and it’s absent from Quizno’s main menu except in the nutritional information. The sub is as mysterious as the sea meat inside.

Determined, I stopped into a local Quizno’s. Currently there’s no sign of it on the location’s menu of “chef-inspired” items like grilled flatbreads, pesto chicken, sliders, and other foods chefs might make if they worked at Quizno’s. But when I asked the man behind the counter if the store carried lobster rolls, his answer surprised me. He offered to make up a fresh batch of lobster salad on the spot.

Promising signs included a toasted (artisanal!) bun spread with butter, and the whole fresh-made thing. Less promising: how quickly the accommodating Quizno’s employee emerged from the back with a bucket, and started scooping the pink stuff onto the bun. Old promo material shows the sandwich simply dressed with lettuce, but we jazzed it up with some tomato and banana peppers—not a purist approach, but this is a place that spells crave with a “q.” The result? Not that bad, actually. The dominant flavor is industrial-strength mayonnaise, which could be worse considering the unknown origin of the “and seafood” portion of the meal (best guess: shredded fake crab, which is a mix of real crab and pollock). The little knuckle-like nuggets of lobster were tasteless, but speaking purely from a visual point of view, they simulate lobster pretty effectively. And as one relieved cubicle-mate astutely noted:

“At least it doesn’t smell bad.”

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Posted at 10:25 AM/ET, 06/06/2012 | Permalink | Comments ()