Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fast Food Review: McDonald's Fish McBites

When I hear about a new fast food promotion, I usually have one of three reactions. First are the products that sound like they might be really good. These are few and far between, but include any promotion from Del Taco involving fried shrimp, most boneless fried chicken offers from Church's, and used to include everything from Popeyes back when I went there. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the things that sound awful and of no interest to me: KFC's Double Down, all fast food desserts, and most variations of Burger King's sandwiches are good examples of this. 

The rest fall somewhere in the middle, items that cause me to say "Well, maybe I'll try that if I have a chance." And when I first heard of McDonald's Fish McBites a year or so ago (while it was being tried out in test markets), that's what I thought. I guess I would try them if they came to my area. (To be honest, they were much closer to the that-sounds-awful category than the must-try category.)

On Tuesday, I read Grub Grade's report that the Fish McBites would be released on February 12th - Fat Tuesday (or Mardi Gras, if you will). I often like to make fried seafood for dinner on Mardi Gras (as an homage to my visit to New Orleans for Mardi Gras when I was 21), and I had no plans to get these instead. I figured I would try them sometime in the middle of the month. 

But I was out for a walk yesterday and saw this sign in the window of McDonald's. A snack size for $2.29, and only 250 calories. Why not?

Not surprisingly, the fish version of the McBites are served in the same containers as the chicken variety.

There were about a dozen Fish McBites in the snack size. I have to admit they were better than I expected them to be - though that isn't saying much. The fish was flaky white Alaskan Pollock. (According to reports, McDonald's is the first national restaurant chain to carry fish that is certified "sustainable" by the Marine Stewardship Council, if you care about such things.)

The main thing I did not like about the bites was the breading. I felt there was too much of it and it was slightly overcooked. Imagine the most heavily-breaded fish stick you've ever eaten. Did you enjoy it? If so, you will probably like these. If not, these might not be for you.

I did not enjoy the tartar sauce, but this came as no surprise: my expectations for a room temperature container of soybean-oil-based tartar sauce are never high. If I were to ever get these again - and I don't have any plans to - I would try them with the sweet chili sauce instead.

Actually, I just thought of something: Popeyes is the only fast food chain I can think of that actually refrigerates their tartar sauce. And in my neighborhood, McDonald's and Popeyes are literally right next door to each other. If they're close in your neighborhood, too, see if you can get some Popeyes tartar sauce to try with the Fish McBites.

These were a decent snack. If you love fish sticks, you could probably eat a larger order of these than the snack size and be happy. But like I wrote, I won't be getting them again.

I used to get McDonald's three or four times per month back in Pasadena. I've now had it four times in the 10 months I've been in Brooklyn - I've only gone there to try new promotions; I've never once said "Hey, you know what I want for dinner? McDonald's." And the Fish McBites  aren't the item that is going to get me to become a regular again.  

Now, if they were to bring back McNuggets Shanghai...

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A Breakfast Taco & A Breakfast Sandwich

I've never been a big breakfast fan. Breakfast foods aren't my favorite, and at any rate I've just never been too hungry in the mornings. I always preferred a cup of coffee (or several cans of Pepsi Max) and then an early lunch. But so far in 2013 I've been sticking to a decent workout routine in the mornings (the fact that it's almost February and I'm still at it definitely makes it one of my more successful New Year's resolutions) so I've been eating breakfast a lot more. I've easily had more breakfasts in the 30 days of 2013 than I did in the 366 days of 2012.

Monday night I was watching The Layover and Bourdain was in New Orleans. He finished the episode at a taco truck, where one of the offerings was a breakfast taco called "Woke Up In Oaxaca," with eggs, chorizo and cheese. Damn that sounds good, I thought. It was close to midnight but I still considered making one. Tomorrow, tomorrow.

I had eggs and tortillas but no chorizo, so yesterday morning I made sure a stop at Paisanos was near the end of my walk. I picked up some Columbian chorizo.

 I diced it up and heated it in a pan for a couple of minutes.

And then scrambled two eggs with it.

I had been thinking about what kind of cheese I wanted, contemplating stopping into a market and getting some cotija, but then I had another idea.

 Remember those finger peppers from Paisanos stuffed with prosciutto and cheese?

I sliced them up and added them to the pan, too.

 Almost ready...

A spooning of Brooklyn Salsa Company's "The Green" salsa, made with tomatillo, mango and lime.

Now this is the kind of breakfast I like.

Over the weekend I spotted these breakfast sausages at Paisanos as well. You gotta love the concept of adding fruit and booze to sausage, right?

I broke apart a few links and cooked them in the pan as well, with scrambled eggs.

Then placed it all on a white Kaiser roll.

With a dollop of "four pepper" goat cheese.

I wrapped the thing in foil and placed in the panini press. Why wrapped in foil? Well, there is nothing in my kitchen that has been as neglected since we moved to Brooklyn as the panini press. It looked like it needs a cleaning. But I was too hungry to do it then. So I encased the sandwich in foil before pressing it.

I'd forgotten just how much I love the look and texture of a pressed sandwich.

This wasn't quite as good as the taco, but damn was it good. The cognac flavor was noticeable in the sausage and the goeey goat cheese held the components of the sandwich in place, to say nothing of tasting great. The Kaiser roll was perfect when grilled - it firmed up to provide a nice contrast to the eggs and cheese but still retained its airiness.

I should start experimenting with breakfast foods more.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Farmer in the Deli

I was doing something in Brooklyn one day, the details are not too important, and at lunch time there were 11 of us in need of food. I volunteered to go pick up sandwiches. After looking on the ipad, Farmer in the Deli appeared to have good reviews. I brought up a menu, showed it to everyone, and wrote down their orders.

When I got there, the man behind the counter didn't like the way my order was written down and asked (actually ordered) me to do it differently. (Well, first he yelled "Why you no call first?" But when I said "Okay, I'll just go to Subway," he agreed to help me.)

I am not sure why he needed me to write down the order in a different fashion: only three of the eleven were made correctly. (One of the guys for whom I picked up a sandwich had been here before. "Oh, that place?" he said. "It doesn't matter what you say, they make the sandwiches however they feel.")

Three people wanted wraps but they only had one tortilla in the deli, so two of them had to settle for sandwiches. And there are other anecdotes I could share about the level of customer service, but you get the point.

I had a pastrami hero with cheese, lettuce, pickles, mayo and mustard. And you know what? It was damn good. The ingredients were all Boar's Head and the roll was fresh. I also took a couple of bites of my brother's buffalo chicken sandwich because, despite the fact that I had written "chicken and cheese only," they had slathered mayo all over it, and my brother hates mayo. But I like mayo, and I thought his sandwich was good too.

The total for all 11 sandwiches was $54, one of the better deals I have found in the last year. I don't see any reason why I would ever return to Farmer in the Deli - there are plenty of delis around with Boar's Head ingredients and I imagine some have comparable prices - but if I have to, that would be okay. It's an adventure ordering, but at least the product is very good.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Chicken Sandwiches with Alabama White Sauce

When I wrote about the Carolina barbecue sauces the other day, I mentioned a book I purchased in Memphis years ago: Peace, Love, & Barbecue. The book has several recipes for barbecue sauces, including one that I had not heard of before: an Alabama white sauce, made famous by Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q. Apparently the sauce is only found in northern Alabama. (I've driven through northern Alabama - I once passed by a tornado just outside Birmingham - but I've never stopped anywhere for barbecue.) It sounded good so I made it and loved it. 

I haven't made any in years, but decided to give it a try the other night. 

I rubbed two chicken breasts with poultry rub and placed them in the slow cooker with some apple juice. I left them there on low for five hours.

The juicy chicken broke apart quite easily.

The sauce recipe is easily found online - Big Bob Gibson shared it freely with people. The main ingredients are mayonnaise, vinegar, lemon juice and cracked black pepper. It has the sweetness of mayo (and a bit of added sugar) but the tang of the vinegar and lemon is very noticeable, as is the black pepper.

I tossed half the chicken pieces in the bowl of sauce and left half of them without sauce. I placed both on a soft Kaiser roll.

I added some red cabbage slaw and my last two homemade pickles.

This was a delicious sandwich. I will not be letting another few years go by before I make this sauce again.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Carolina Barbecue Sauce Tasting

A few days before Christmas, a present from Elizabeth arrived in the mail and she let me open it: two kinds of Carolina barbecue sauce. Coincidentally, that evening we had gone to Rockefeller Center and 34th Street to look at Christmas stuff and, while I was killing time waiting for Elizabeth to get done with work, I had ducked into Dean & Deluca and purchased for myself a bottle of their "Carolina Style" sauce.

Some background (this is oversimplified out of necessity; Carolina barbecue can be divided into many, many different regions): when a sauce is referred to as Carolina-style, it usually means one of three things. South Carolina barbecue sauce almost always contains mustard. North Carolina barbecue sauce can be two different styles: in the east, it is vinegar-based. (Sometimes it is only vinegar with chili flakes mixed in, which goes wonderfully with fresh pork.) In the western part of North Carolina, sauce still contains a fair amount of vinegar, but it also has tomato added and other things like brown sugar.

I like all of the types of Carolina sauce. And since I had just acquired three bottles in one evening, I had an idea, one of those ideas that makes this blog beloved by millions dozens of people from coast to coast: get some more bottles and do a tasting with pork.

Now, I don't mean go crazy online and order 50 different kinds of Carolina barbecue sauce (though I won't lie: I considered doing that). I just mean go around my neighborhood - perhaps a little farther afield - and pick up a few different styles. A Christmas present to myself. I ended up with a total of 10 bottles.

The pork I cooked isn't barbecue, it's just tender, slow-cooked pork with some spices. It was still delicious, but no comparison to a pork butt that has been smoked for hours over apple wood. And pork like that, with the delicate, sweet flavor of apple wood smoke, is perfectly complemented by a tangy, slightly spicy sauce. It's why I love the Eastern Carolina-style sauces.

This one, with vinegar, cayenne and mustard, is simple yet intensely vinegar. I mean, it tastes of almost nothing but vinegar up front, and then the unmistakable burn of cayenne pepper on the back end. It's not really fair to judge it on this kind of pork - it was almost too tangy. With the sweet smoke of apple or peach wood, this sauce would be a nice foil. But it was just too much here.

This one belongs here in name only. Bull's Eye regional varities of sauce (in addition to this "Carolina" version they also offer Texas, Memphis and Kansas City editions) is really more of a marketing gimmick. All of Bulls Eye's sauces are extremely sweet (they are all loaded with sugar). They are basically doctored-up ketchups. 

Now, that being said, this sauce isn't bad at all. But it tastes like more of a honey-mustard than a Carolina-style barbecue sauce. In the past it has been seen on this blog topping things like fried chicken sandwiches and hot dogs, and that's what I will continue to use it for. But I will never again add it to chopped pork.

The gold standard, no pun intended. I have eaten mustard-spiked barbecue sauces all over the country, but I cannot think of one that I like more than this. The mustard flavor in this is pronounced, balanced by a brown sugar sweetness and the tang of apple and Worcestershire. I am going to get myself some authentic barbecue soon and try it with this sauce.

Most of the ten bottles that appear here are sitting on my counter (a couple are in the fridge) with only a tablespoon or so missing. This Lillie's Q bottle is almost empty; I've been adding it to homemade potato chips, reheated White Castle burgers, grilled chicken, etc. I should order another bottle or two immediately.

I'll admit something right now: I did not notice, until I just uploaded and enlarged the above photos, the words "Made in Maine." It gave me pause. But after a moment of consideration, I realized I don't care. As long as the ingredients are correct, that's all that matters. (And then I looked at the location of all of the sauces. Not a single one was made in the Carolinas.)

I like the label of this sauce more than the actual sauce. It went to both extremes: at first was a mouth-puckering blast of vinegar, followed shortly by an intense sweetness. I checked the label: each one-tablespoon serving contains 5 grams of sugar, more than twice that of any of the other vinegar sauces - it's the same sugar content as the Bull's Eye, which as I mentioned is pretty much a ketchup. (The Blue Smoke sauce, for example, which comes closest to resembling this one, only contains 4 grams of sugar per each two-tablespoon serving.)

The label mentions using this sauce as a marinade, and that seems to me like a better use of it. I am saving this (there is only one of these sauces that I discarded after trying) for a couple of other ideas I have.

This sauce has appeared here before; I really like it. I've tried some of Guy's other sauces and hated them: the slaw dressing was disgusting, the habanero-mustard wing sauce was not the slightest bit spicy, the salsa sucks... but this sauce is a pretty faithful representation of a North Carolina sauce. It's tangy, as a vinegar sauce almost always is, but has the right amount of spices and a little bit of sweetness from the cider vinegar.

Where I live, Guy's sauce is the most readily-available in grocery stores of the sauces seen here, and that's not a bad thing. It's not the best of the bunch, but it's certainly not the worst.

In 2005, some friends and I went to Memphis for the Memphis in May barbecue competition. After visiting the Peabody Hotel lobby to see the ducks, one of the bigger letdowns I have experienced (though to be honest, expecting excitement out of watching ducks exit an elevator and march into a fountain was perhaps an error on my part) I went to the gift shop. I noticed a book called "Peace Love & Barbecue" which I purchased after flipping through it for ten seconds.

It's a collection of recipes, stories and reviews from a champion pit master named Mike Mills, who, in addition to owning a few barbecue restaurants, consulted on the opening of Blue Smoke in New York City. A year later I was in NYC and tried to eat dinner at Blue Smoke, but the wait was long and I was hungry, so I went to another barbecue restaurant (that turned out to be one of the three worst I have ever tried in America).

All these years later I live in New York, but I still haven't been to Blue Smoke for a meal. However I did stop in the other day to buy a bottle of sauce. (The smell was amazing and I plan to return to eat one of these days.)

The vinegar blast of this sauce was intense up front but, like the Denny Mike's, after a few seconds it was too strong on the sugar. The label talks about the peppery kick and I kept waiting to experience that, but it never showed up. There is also a suggestion that this be mixed with oil to form a salad dressing and I think I will try that soon.

This was the wild card: I saw it in a local market and purchased it, though I wasn't looking for it and in fact had never heard of it. It was similar to the Denny Mike's in that it provided both vinegar and sweet flavors, but there was another flavor I could not place. And it was incredibly unpleasant. Have you ever touched your tongue to a battery or perhaps (when you were a kid, of course), put a coin in your mouth? You know that bitter metallic taste? That's what I got out of this sauce.

It was, suffice it to say, the sauce I mentioned throwing away after the tasting.


I went to Brother Jimmy's hoping to buy a jar of their "Carolina" sauce, then learned that they don't sell it that way. So I opted to get the mustard sauce instead. I ate at Brother Jimmy's once a few years back and thought it was pretty good. (Like Sticky Fingers - coming up in a minute - the sauces were more enjoyable than the food.)

The mustard sauce is certainly good, but it can't hold a candle to the Lillie's Q mustard sauce. The problem I had was the sweetness: where Lillie's dominant flavor is mustard, the Brother Jimmy's is sugar. I was not surprised to see corn syrup - both the high fructose and regular versions - on the ingredients list.

Still, it's not bad, and I plan to use it when the Lillie's Q runs out... but not until then.


Like Bull's Eye, the Dean & Deluca sauce was more of a honey-mustard than a barbecue sauce. (But it was definitely better than Bull's Eye.) The combination of mustard flavors was nice, but it was thick and sweet. It obviously contained molasses. 

This would be a good dip for chicken fingers, and I could see myself mixing this with olive oil, tossing with some veggies and grilling, but this is not a sauce that I will be using on pork again. 

I've told the story of my Sticky Fingers discovery several times - my friend Tom and I were in Tennessee and famished after having driven up from New Orleans. Sticky Fingers was the only restaurant in the shopping center without a long wait so we ate there. The food was forgettable but I really liked the mustard barbecue sauce. I have not eaten at a Sticky Fingers again since that day ten years ago, but I've purchased a bottle of their sauce many times.

This is not as good as Lillie's Q - obviously, since I called that the best mustard barbecue sauce I have ever tried - but it's still tasty. It's a little sweeter than Lillie's, it doesn't have the mustard-dominant flavor that I love so much, but considering this is available in the nearby supermarket, I am certain I will always have a bottle of it on hand.

That was intense. No more pork for me until... actually, never mind, I forgot I had planned to go out for a pork sandwich for lunch today. Cool.