Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Barstow Taco

Place: Arby's
Lunch: Arby's 'Shroom & Swiss, potato cakes, Pepsi

I can't remember the last time I actually liked an Arby's LTO.  I like this one, though.

The NHL just announced that the Atlanta Thrashers have been sold to a group that's moving the team to Winnipeg.  They haven't announced a name yet, but they HAVE to go with the Jets, right? 

I still have a Jets jersey.  Never saw them play in the old Winnipeg Arena, but I did see them play at Colorado in their last season.  I did see a couple of concerts in the old Winnipeg Arena.  That was one odd building.

You can add Henderson, Nevada to the short list of cities I wouldn't mind living in.  A nice house in the hills overlooking the Las Vegas area.  A telescope on the deck that allows me to view the strip and aircraft taking off and landing at McCarran.  Easy access to all that is fun about Vegas from a safe distance. 

I based myself there over the Memorial Day weekend.  Played some pinball, ate at all the cool California fast food chains, wandered Fry's Electronics (where every answer from every employee is always "I don't know, that's not my department"), and spent all of two hours on the strip, which is a lovely walk on a Sunday morning.  The strip's newest property, The Cosmopolitan, is really nice.

Started a road trip to Barstow that sort of accidentally ended in Los Angeles, where I visited my brother and had dinner with @nyssa23 and @jammer427.  Checked out California's first Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, who are doing Wichita proud.  Checked out the Barstow Del Tacos, whose tacos are so much better than the national Del Tacos, one has to wonder just what the national Del Taco is thinking not moving to that taco meat recipe themselves. 

Barstow is the original home of Del Taco, and founder Ed Hackbarth and partners (family?) still franchise units there.  But their tacos differ from the national chain.  Their "Barstow Taco" meat has a different, milder seasoning blend, and the shells are fuller.  $1.29 gets you a nearly full shell of beef with lettuce and cheese falling over the top.  Eat a national Del Taco version afterward...in regular OR "classic" form....and you just might want to add Barstow to the list of cities YOU wouldn't mind living in.

Or take road trips to.

From Henderson.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Hot Dog

Place: Burger King
Lunch: Whopper (no tomato), onion rings (with zesty sauce), Dr. Pepper

I give Smiling Counter Girl my order.  She shouts to the back "WHOPPERRRRR!"

Me: "Did you tell them 'no tomato'?

She gives me a genuine "oh noes!" look.  "NO TOMATOOOOOOH!"

The order is ready before I've even finished getting my drink, and I'm the only customer in the building, so you know it was assembled out of stuff sitting around for who knows how long.  The fries look cold.  Wait...I didn't order fries.

"I asked for onion rings."

Smiling Counter Girl: "Oh...you did?"

She takes the fries, puts them under the warming light for the next customer, and immediately produces onion rings.

Somehow, the food's okay anyway.

Yesterday was a work travel day.  Three and a half hours out, an hour of nonsense, three and a half hours back.  It's a living.

On the way back, I was feeling REALLY hungry, and I had a specific craving.  I wanted a hot dog.

Simple enough, right?


Kum & Go (Mile 267) - I pull off the interstate and head to the ginormous fabulously modern Kum & Go that you can see coming for miles.  I go inside and head for...well, the bathroom first, but...the roller grill.

No hot dogs.

They have smokey links, cheddar brats, jalapeno brats, and a variety of taquitos.

But the sign that says "Hot Dogs" has nothing in front of it.

The good news?  They have $.69 32-ounce fountain sodas.  Off I go with a freshly drawn Pepsi.

Casey's (Mile 240) - Yay!  Hot dogs!  But why do they look like they're covered in sludge?  Oh...because they're practically frozen.  These were JUST put on the grill. 

Tanger Factory Outlets (Mile 220) - 55 stores and not one sells hot dogs.  But that's okay.  I really stopped here to find a spatula.

Ever since that McDonald's commercial with the jealous spatula (aka "hamburger flipper" for spatula purists who only believe a spatula is a flat utensil used for smoothing frosting on cakes) started airing, I've wanted a really nice new spatula.  I'm sure that wasn't the thing McDonald's was going for when they made that ad, but that's what happened with me.  I want to replace my crappy black plastic flipper with a nice spatula with a stainless steel body and a black woodish-knife-like handle.  But I haven't been able to find one anywhere except Williams-Sonoma, who had EXACTLY what I was looking for...for FORTY SIX DOLLARS.  Jeepers.  Declined on principle.

So I go into Le Gourmet Chef...no.

So I go into Corning-Revere...no.

So I go into Kitchen Collection...and they had something called an "oversized cookie spatula".  It had the black handle.  It was heavy duty stainless steel.  But the flipper end had a massive oval shape.  Price?  $9.99. 

SO bought it.

I still want a normal shaped one too, though.

Smiling Counter Girl tried to get me to buy a skillet.  "You get free tongs with it!" she exclaimed, snapping the tongs at me.  I passed.  "But this is our last set of free tongs!  Until we unload the truck!"

Then I saw the Reebok store sign and remembered I'd been thinking about getting new shoes.  Reebok's ZigTech shoes, specifically.  Because if Peyton Manning is your spokesman, I'm totally buying it.

ZigTechs are supposed to be these modern shoes full of technology that, more or less, make you walk funny.  Given their obnoxious style, they also make you look funny.  They had ZigTechs-a-plenty.  A couple of styles were on clearance, saving $20-$30 over the usual $99.99 price.  Only one of the styles on clearance was available in my size, of course.  (12, if you were wondering.)  And those were the ones with the obnoxious yellow soles.  Bought 'em anyway.  Nervous Counter Girl looked and acted like she thought she recognized me from America's Most Wanted or something.  No idea why, but I'm pretty sure she thought she was gonna die.

bp (Mile 220) - On the way out of the factory outlets, I made my third attempt to get a hot dog.  This store didn't even HAVE a roller grill, let alone hot dogs.  Really?  What's the point in owning a convenience store if you're not going to have a totally boss roller grill to show off to your friends?  Actually, they also didn't have employees.  There wasn't a soul in here.  There was no noise in the back either.  Maybe the Reebok girl called ahead and told these people to run for their lives.

Kwik Star (Mile 201) - What's THIS?  HOT DOGS!  Jumbo hot dogs!  FINALLY! 

I dress a bun, drop a hot dog in, and pay.

I finally have my hot dog...and it's not very good.

In fact, it's crap.

I eat like two bites and toss it.

Oh well.  Craving's gone.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Self Indulgence

Place: Yogurtland
Lunch: Frozen yogurt topped with fruits and love and harmony and stuff

This is technically the after-lunch treat, but since it fits today's blog theme, you are none the wiser.  Except that I just told you.  Forget I said that.

Remember when the only place you could get soft-serve frozen yogurt was TCBY?  And they had like three flavors if you were lucky? 

Your options have increased exponentially in recent years.  Frozen Yogurt (known as 'fro-yo' in youthful hipster circles) has gone upscale with newcomers like Pinkberry and Red Mango, both who offer traditional treat shops where counter people make your treat.  Both outlets offer limited standard and seasonal flavors with several available toppings.

But the big craze emerging is self-serve frozen yogurt.  These stores offer a bunch of different flavors, and you get to make your own concoction.

There are several players with dreams of becoming the king of the concept.  The players include (but are not limited to): Yogurtland, Orange Leaf, Cherry Berry, Yogurt Story, Yogurtini, Fiji Yogurt, Josie's, Peachwave, and Menchie's, just to name a few.  And about a bajillion independent imitators are going up too, lots of whom seem to like to use the name "Yogurt World" or some variation (I can find lots of Yogurt Worlds, but no sign of an organized chain).

Don't think the older chains aren't noticing.  Both Red Mango and TCBY are now offering a self-serve format to potential franchisees.

So over the past couple of weeks, I've been checking some of these places out.  Here's what I've found...

They all work exactly the same way.  You walk in and grab an empty container.  You face the imposing wall of soft-serve dispensers.  You pick your flavor...or mix a bunch of flavors.  You move to the topping bar.  You add toppings, which usually include a variety of fruits, candy, fake cookie batter and cheesecake pieces, nuts, and even breakfast cereal.  I put Cap'n Crunch on something somewhere.  It was WEIRD.  The cashier weighs your concoction and charges you a flat by-the-ounce price ($.35 to $.43 depending on store).  Oh...and most of these places have a tip jar.  Because the counter person did such a good job of...taking your money.

(Note to self: Write ranting blog post about fast food tip jars.)

They usually have decor packages that look like they were designed by teenage girls.  Funky modern plastic seating is almost universally mandatory, as is colorful mosaic tiles surrounding the self-serve yogurt dispensers.  Heck...even their websites mostly look like they were designed by the same person.  Now that I think about it, the yogurt dispensers all look like they're made by the same company.  I wonder if there's a single individual out there going door-to-door selling people yogurt machines and an instruction manual on how to create a franchising empire.

The popularity of the concept seems to be three-fold...Some people are under the impression yogurt is healthier than ice cream, so eating this instead should automatically increase their life expectancy by sixty-three years.  Some people like this because they can actually make a treat in a smaller, more reasonable portion size and pay a lower price.  Some like it because it's just fun to go nuts making a really awesome treat. 

ONE guess which camp I fall in.

Here's a lovely summary of the visits I made and the fro-yo that was had...

Yogurt Story - I was innocently driving down the road minding my own business when I saw the signage and thought "Hey, that's clever."  So I pulled in. 

At first, I had no idea what was going on.  I'd never heard of a self-serve treat joint before.  Smiling Counter Girl, who had absolutely nothing better to do, didn't make any effort to relieve my obvious confusion.  But I got the idea after watching others.

I grabbed a cup and made three mini-treats, a pattern which I've since continued.  I had Strawberry, Cake Batter, and NY Cheesecake.  I put blackberries on the Strawberry, strawberries on the NY Cheesecake, and cookie dough bits on the Cake Batter.  The NY Cheesecake was sort of disappointing.  The Cake Batter was incredible.

Yogurtini - Yogurtini's decor looked like they pillaged a Spring Hill Suites lobby.  They had sixteen flavors available.  Their topping bar was by far the most extensive of any I've been to.  The two guys working there were friendly and went out of their way to be helpful to obvious newbies, a standout example compared to the other stores.  I tried Birthday Cake Batter, Chelsey's Cheesecake, and Orange Creamsicle.  I was hoping Orange Creamsicle would be a worthy successor to the amazing Orange Sherbet Twist I used to get at the nearly extinct Hogi Yogi chain.  Yeah, not so much.  Chelsey's Cheesecake was easily my favorite here.  (A couple of the chains have an orange sorbet in their rotation, but it wasn't available at the stores when I visited them.)

Peachwave - Peachwave's decor looked like they pillaged a Spring Hill Suites lobby, but painted it all green and orange.  There were twelve flavors on hand.  I tried Cookies and Cream, Cheese Cake (really...the sign separated the words), Cupcake, and Vanilla.  The flavors here were much more mellow and the yogurt seemed a little creamier.  Vanilla won out here.

Orange Leaf - Orange Leaf's decor looked like they pillaged a Peachwave after Peachave pillaged a Spring Hill Suites lobby and painted everything green and orange.  Except for the awesome orange vinyl couches.  Peachwave didn't have those.  Orange Leaf's spoons were shaped like a little plastic shovel.  Cute.  Sixteen flavors, one noted as being Greek-style.  Ever tried Greek-style yogurt?  It's gross.  Icelandic yogurt, which Wikipedia tells me is technically not yogurt but soft cheese, is also gross.  Actually, I don't even eat ordinary lowfat store yogurt anymore since I discovered Brown Cow Cream Top whole milk yogurt (available at Whole Foods, some health stores, and if you live in Utah, Harmon's.)  I sure seem to like these low fat frozen yogurts, though.

Anyway, I had Raspberry Lemonade, Brownie Batter, Confetti Cake, and Red Velvet.  Which one was the best?  Too close to call.  I guess I'll go with Brownie Batter for originality.  I could taste the Raspberry Lemonade flavor for hours after eating it.

Josie's - Josie's looks like an Orange Leaf after they...oh forget it.  They had this whole rambling diatribe posted on the wall about how they use 'pure crystalline fructose' instead of high fructose corn syrup in their yogurts.  They go on to claim that you can parallel the growth of type 2 diabetes with the growth of HFCS.  They also claim that pure crystalline fructose is sweeter than table sugar, so they use less of it.  If you ever went on a blind date with somebody who talked like this read, you'd probably be bored to tears and hope they never call you again.

Josie's had ten flavors, including a lovely watermelon sorbet.  I had that and New York Cheese Cake (again, like Peachwave, two words) and Mountain Ripe Strawberry, which I piled some real strawberries on.  The watermelon sorbet won, but the strawberry was also excellent.

Frogurt - A small chain of a half dozen stores in the Salt Lake City area.  There's another two-store operation in North Carolina and Virginia using this brand, but they're not related.  The eastern operation has a frog in their logo, because frog-flavored yogurt would be AWESOME.

Utah's Frogurt is the only chain with a manly decor that I've seen.  Yellow walls.  Brownish yellow walls.  A faux sandy stone tile facade around the yogurt machines.  Dark brown leather sofas.  Chrome-backed chairs.  Dude.

Their signage said "over 16 flavors to choose from", but they only had twelve dispensers, and only seven of them were in service.  I tried Cookies & Cream, French Vanilla, Hawaiian Delight Sorbet, Cheesecake, and Strawberry.  My favorite would have to be a toss-up between Cheesecake and Cookies & Cream, but truth be known, they were all really good.

(**UPDATE** At least some of Utah's Frogurt stores were being converted to 'U-Swirl' franchisees by the end of 2011.  I've had them in Vegas.  Nothing remarkable to report.)

Menchie's - The name comes from a mistranslation gone horribly wrong.  But it reminds me of one of those made-up words like "Qdoba" or "Panera", so there you go.

Menchie's differs from the pack in a few ways.  First off, their decor is a little more original.  Not much, but a little.  Second, they offer an optional waffle bowl to use instead of a regular cup.  Third, they have pre-packed take-home containers for sale.  Finally, they sell all sorts of Menchie's-branded merchandise.  Buttons.  Stickers.  T-shirts.  Hats.  Koozies.  And a plushie version of the Menchie's mascot.  Jeepers.

Most of their flavors were labeled non-fat.  I tried German Chocolate Cake, Very Berry Sorbet, Cake Batter, Pecan Nut, Hart(?) Tart, and Vanilla Snow.  I'll note that the last two don't actually appear as choices on their website.  My favorite?  None of the above.  I really didn't care for any of these.  I think it was the lack of creaminess.

Their topping bar had an extensive selection of nuts and candy toppings.  They were short on fruits.

Lemon Tree - Two-store franchising empire out of Kansas City.  Total rip-off.  Their flavors didn't include lemon OR tree.  And the idiots who work there can't print a receipt to save their lives.  The machine prints one just fine, but they insist they need it, and getting a re-print turns into a major production.  The third (and last) time I went there, the girl actually hand wrote one on a post-it for me.  None of the other fro-yo joints I went to had a problem printing me a receipt.  NONE.  And I don't like any of Lemon Tree's flavors.  NONE of them.  Naturally, this is the ONLY fro-yo place that's available locally, or even in my entire STATE.

CherryBerry - Apple green interior with glossy red mini-brick tiles around the machines.  I forgot to write down what I had or how many machines there were, but the standout flavor was Snickerdoodle Cookie Batter.  That was awesome.

Yogurtland - Super Nice Counter Guy: "It's slow today."

Me: "Well, it's Sunday."

SNCG: "It's always slow during the day.  It's busier at night."

Me: "Probably because of the (neighboring) movie theatre."

SNCG: "Yeah.  But it's nice during the day because we have everything topped off and people can take their time making their yogurt."

Upon paying, he asks me what color spoon I like.  "Doesn't matter."  I get green.

16 flavors.  I tried Devil's Food Cupcake Batter, Madagascar Vanilla Bean, Irish Mint Creme, New York Cheesecake, Red Velvet Cupcake Batter, and Blood Orange Tart.  Devil's Food Cupcake Batter was my favorite.  They NAILED that flavor.  It's promoted on a window poster as being available for a limited time only.  Are they NUTS?  This NEEDS to be here full-time.

Mix Devil's Food with a little of the Blood Orange Tart and you have a really nice chocolate-orange flavor with an international flair.

Decor was more conservative than others with non-funky chairs.  Sort of disappointing given their overly cute logo.

So who's the winner?  I think I'd have to go with Orange Leaf, but most of them were good.  Menchie's and Lemon Tree are the only ones I might not see the point of returning to.

Financially, they ALL seem to be big winners currently.