Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Shake Shack Sheep

When people ask if I’ve ever been to Mardi Gras, my answer is that I would never visit New Orleans when it’s so crowded. The same rule applies in my life when it comes to Black Friday, free Shakespeare in the Park, and Danny Meyer’s global hit burger chain Shake Shack. Mr. Meyer started his empire 30 years ago with Union Square Café, and has experienced continued, subsequent success after opening restaurants like my favorite, Gramercy Tavern (whose original chef, Tom Colicchio, is now famous in his own right). Shake Shack was different from the restit was Mr. Meyer’s personal love project based on the modest burgers, fries and ice cream he experienced growing up in the Midwest.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Would you like hash browns with that McBlandwich?

The McDonald’s Egg White Delight breakfast sandwich is a recent brand extension in the U.S. of the popular Egg McMuffin. All McMuffin ingredients have been altered—an egg without a yolk, a whole grain instead of plain English muffin, processed white Cheddar cheese instead of processed American—except for the round of Canadian bacon, which remains in the sandwich unchanged.

By introducing this “healthier” McMuffin, McDonald’s has also inadvertently suggested that we in the U.S. are a bland people craving bland food. Perhaps their thinking is that the U.S. melting pot has melted together so much that our cultural rainbow has morphed into a mottled grey, resulting in an ineffectual breakfast sandwich, aka the McBlandwich.

I tried the Egg White Delight when it was first advertised around the city. And I wanted to like it, except for the fact that I couldn’t really taste it. Living in Los Angeles, I wondered if this was a regional sandwich created just for this area, since Southern Californians and Hollywood types have a reputation for healthier eating. But that didn’t make sense, since those healthy Angelenos don’t eat at McDonald’s, right?

One wish for this McBlandwich—surely researched to death by corporate chefs at the chain's Illinois headquarters—was some revved up cheese to add more flavor or color. You know, perhaps some jalapeño-flecked Jack cheese instead of the white “Cheddar” cheese—unless of course the Egg White Delight's marketing goal was for it to be as white as possible. Or did McDonald’s not think we bland-palated every-people could handle a sandwich more exciting than ourselves?

I'm only jumping to such conclusions because it feels as if the sandwiches McDonald's makes in a given country are representative of what McDonald's thinks that nation's palate is. When traveling, I always check out the local McDonald's to see what's different. In Europe I’ve noticed flavorful sandwiches on offer that represent different cuisines and countries, all made with exotic breads. One example is from Paris, where I found both an Italian vegetable sandwich on focaccia and a spicy Indian chicken tikka sandwich in a seasoned yellow wrap years before the introduction of their Snack Wrap stateside. So maybe McDonald’s believes other countries are more exciting than their own, and that’s why those countries get the exciting sandwiches and we don’t.

This idea really hit home on a recent trip to Australia. I stopped in a McDonald’s in Sydney one morning to see if they too offered the McBlandwich. Instead I discovered Australia had its own play on the Egg McMuffin. They had the Chorizo McMuffin.

The who what? Did you say chorizo? Yes, yes! The Chorizo McMuffin rocked my world, and I’ll tell you why. Per a typical McMuffin, there was the egg with yolk and English muffin and processed yellow cheese, but ah, the Canadian bacon circle of meat was replaced with a Canadian-bacon shaped chorizo patty. Ingenious! This just-spicy-enough addition elevated the sandwich to new heights. I couldn’t believe my taste buds, even without the sandwich’s thick tomato relish, which I asked them to hold so as not to cloak my taste experience.
(Note: It was good with relish too.)

Here's the curious question. Doesn't McDonald’s realize that the U.S. has been experiencing an expansion of its national flavor palate exponentially for years? Food magazines know this, supermarkets know this, and certainly other restaurants know this. Also, don't they realize that in Los Angeles specifically—with a predominance of South American immigrants who love spicy food as well as Spanish sausage like chorizo—that a Chorizo McMuffin would bring much happiness to the local McDonald’s-loving masses?

All right, I admit it's also possible that my Australian Chorizo McMuffin tasted amazing because the ingredients were less processed and more locally sourced than they are here. But regardless, when I compare the foods offered in one country to my own (like potato chips), and the ones offered here are as homogenous as milk, I can only conclude one thing: That a large food behemoth like McDonald’s only speaks to its home country in one language, one that best suits their need to sell to the masses. It's called the language of bland, spoken to what they think is a generic U.S. populace in a place they call bland land. If I never left the states I wouldn't know any better, but I've seen the truth, which is that they sell exciting sandwiches everywhere but here. Sorry McDonald's, I'm not lovin' it.

Until we eat again,

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

For the Love of Greek Butter Cookies

As a young girl, my favorite place to go out to eat was a Greek place at the foot of the Watchung Mountains. We lived in suburban Scotch Plains, NJ, and my father liked this family-run, homestyle joint that had checkered tablecloths like Italian restaurants, yet the colors were blue & white and there was no red sauce on the menu.

Part of the fun was that dinner felt like a meal of exotic appetizers. The restaurant’s specialty was phyllo dough cigars filled with either spinach (spanakopita), Greek cheese (tiropita) or seasoned ground meat (kreatopita?). My father would ask how many of each kind we'd like, which always resulted in a variety to share. I loved this food and rotated bites of each phyllo cigar. They were crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, with flavors always fascinating in their newness to me, and always delicious.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Potato Chip Gyp

The United States of America is often referred to as “the land of opportunity.” This country may indeed be a rich land of opportunity for many reasons, but certainly not when it comes to potato chips. For some reason, the U.S. is the blandest producer of potato chip flavors in the world. England, Canada, India… their chips swell with flavorful pride. Here? All we’ve really got to call our own is BBQ, Sour Cream & Onion, perhaps some Cheddar, and endless riffs on the same. Why is it that our diverse melting pot palate is presumed to be one-dimensional when it comes to potato chips?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Local Hostess to the Nth Degree

There's a really super bakery in Los Angeles that produces fantastic and innovative pastries and gets them to people in a unique way. Cake Monkey Bakery does not yet have a retail storefront, so they distribute a few of their most popular single-serve cakes to specific retail partners. Finding one at a store is sort of like a bakery treasure hunt. "There's the Cake Monkey foil-wrapped cakes! Do they have the kind I want??"

Some may find this a sort of pleasure-hunt game, others may find it annoying. I say let's be grateful for the opportunity to even have cakes like this, meaning their rules are okay by me. Cake Monkey treats are baked in Burbank, and to get some you have to find a retail store that sells them. Too frustrating? Then place an order directly, like the time I picked up a special order of limited-edition passion fruit brown butter bars (and did not regret it!). The benefit of ordering ahead is you get much more choice, since only four of their cakes are sold at retail partners and there are so many more choices online (like these Inside Out 'Smores).

Friday, October 26, 2012

Tales from the Customer Service Crypt

Starbucks' Salted Caramel Hot Chocolate
Foodies love to think about what they're going to eat and drink way before the actual moment of ingestion. Could be because they love to think about their favorite hobby, and if you only think about what you're eating and drinking while eating and drinking it, the whole pleasurable event is over way too soon. In my opinion, that's why all roads leading to the tasting moment also contribute to a foodie's bliss.

In an episode of “Top Chef” this year, host/producer Tom Colicchio said, "People come to a restaurant for food, but they come back for service." How true! Customer service is a huge and often taken for granted part of any buying experience, whether the buyer is a foodie or not. When there are bumps in the road to acquiring what a person can't wait to taste, that leaves a lingering malaise and can result in a customer lost.

It's only a few days until Halloween. What better time, then, to share a few scary tales from the customer service crypt. The scary-meter below refers to when I, as customer, realized a particular business was scaring me with its cluelessness and/or lack of sanity with regard to basic customer service.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Calamari Please Hold the Ketchup

In the last few weeks I’ve been hit with an overwhelming craving to eat calamari, aka “fried calamari in the typical fashion." To me that translates to breaded rings and tiny tentacles of squid that are deep-fried and served hot and crispy. When I refer to calamari I am never referring to grilled calamari on top of greens or that newish fad of calamari sticks—a stack of breaded calamari planks that when picked up flounce up and down like a rubber pencil. Nope, those latter types of calamari are just not for me.

Calamari is one of those proteins in which I suspend my disbelief about 80% regarding what I’m actually eating. What can I say, I could barely look into the famous and breathtakingly gorgeous jellyfish tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and while I know that jellyfish are not quite the same as squid, still, this type of creature is not what I like to imagine ingesting with full cognitive awareness. Calamari is squid after all, and personally I do not find squid attractive to look at or think about chewing. That said, the tiny tentacles pieces on a typical fried calamari plate is pretty much the squid sticking its tongue out at me proclaiming, "See, how could you NOT know you're eating me, the squid." Alas, how true, and that is likely why 20% of my brain always gets that eating delicious fried calamari equals eating pieces of a once squiggly, icky squid.