Lay’s Stax – demolishing Korean BBQ

I’m sure that I’ve never had anything close to legitimate Korean BBQ.  However, Lay’s Stax version, Korean BBQ flavored, is simply amazing.  The ingredient list includes beef fat.  These are probably the first ‘meat’ flavored chip that I like.  And by ‘like’ I mean ‘could devour the entire can in one sitting’.

Yeah, the Pringles Bacon chips are good, I still have a can waiting in the wings (and they’re still on shelves), but they don’t taste like meat, really.  They taste like smoke.  And they’re fantastic, just not meaty.

These Korean BBQ chips are seriously meaty.  The chemical wizards have whipped up something that legitimately fools my brain into thinking I’m eating a nice cut of meat slathered with spices like you get a good American/Asian restaurants.  Just.  Like.  It.

These also have quite a kick to them.  Not burning hot, but spicy hot, that slow building, lingering burn of well-done spices that let all of the flavor of the meat come through before they pop you in the mouth and say howdy-do.  None of this in your face burning stuff.

Favorite product so far this year?  I think so.

But I haven’t opened the can of Thai Sweet Chili, yet :)  And I LOOOOVES me some Thai Sweet Chili.

(have to strongly disagree with Chip Review, I thought Lay’s NAILED these.  I think the problem is that they’re trying to compare them to authentic Korean BBQ instead of generic Chinese takeout BBQ flavor, which is more what these are.)

Smashburger short review: “Yes. Try it.”

What do you want from me?

So I had the happy opportunity to attend the media preview event at the new Smashburger on Wolf Road that’s opening on Saturday.  It’s in the old Friendly’s space right next to Trader Joe’s in Colonie by the mall.  After sitting through a well-rehearsed, oft repeated (this is one of the fastest growing chains in the nation, they’re doing these constantly) show and tell about the company, menu, owners, etc. and tasting samples with a small group (I asked, yes, it’s hard to get people to attend a Thursday afternoon media event, especially bloggers that have real jobs on the side) including YNN, the Record, and Steve Barnes and Kristi Barlette from the Times Union, I was driving back to work thinking about what I was going to write about.  And it wasn’t just run-on sentences.

Obviously I have no intention of just writing a long press release for Smashburger.  I wanted to write honestly about the food I tasted.  I knew the ‘real’ press would be printing photos of the pristine open-faced burgers they brought out specifically for photo ops (indeed YNN showed them in their blurb item and Steve has them here: link).  The papers will have the backstory of the chain etc. But I kept thinking, “What do you want from me?

And then I knew.  I thought about why I write this blog…to share experiences about food in the Capital Region and help people maybe decide what to try, where to go, etc.  Like when we wanted to try El Charro and there were no reviews out there yet to tell us if it was any good.  What would I want to see if I clicked on this blog to read about the new Smashburger if I live in the area and have never tried or even heard much about Smashburger?  I’ve checked out what the Record came up with, what Steve wrote, and the YNN report.  Apart from a couple of comments from Steve, none of them said anything about the pile of food we tasted.  And that’s what I’m going to try to do…give you an idea of what their signature dishes taste like so maybe you can decide whether you want to try them out (yes, do it) and maybe what you should order your first time there.  Let’s do that now.

Now I don’t know if what I tried was totally representative, so let’s get that out of the way, first.  I don’t know if the people making just a few items at a time without real time pressure of a line of waiting customers were newly trained and on top of their game or ringers brought in for the pre-opening show and maybe to train the new staff.  If you go in next week and get a dry, lifeless piece of chicken as they shakedown the restaurant, please don’t think swear words in my direction.  Let’s assume what I tried and how it tasted will be what we’ll get as they hit their stride, no matter how soon that is.  OK?  Great.  Let’s be friends and share a basket of veggie frites at Smashburger.

But let’s set the mood.  It’s a nice place, for sure.  Lots of cozy wood, menus, a few photos including local scenes.  Let me show you some (yes, this will be a photo-intensive post, I finally caved and got a smartphone with a decent camera).

smash

smash

See the tulips?  And Wolf Road?

See the tulips? And Wolf Road?

Can they take your order?

Can they take your order?

Patio

Patio

At Smashburger, you place your order and they give you a number for your table.  You go sit and then they bring you your food, whether inside or on the patio.  The typical wait is 5-6 minutes.  Then they bus the tables when you’re done, there are no garbage cans out.

Hey, it's Kristi Bartlette

Hey, it’s Kristi Barlette

Apparently you can sign up for their club and get a free birthday shake.  Word of warning, they have to post calories…a shake’s gonna add to your shake to the tune of almost 1,000 calories.

Pick a side

Pick a side

First they brought out a sampling of some of the sides.  From bottom to top:

  • smashfries – Thin cut, tossed with rosemary and garlic in olive oil.  Quite tasty with a good potato flavor, they had a nice fluffy potato center for such a thin cut, they weren’t just a shell.  My concern with these is that they’re thin fries all exposed in a pile and I think they must get cold pretty fast.  Not sure I’d get them (see below).  4th of 4 for me.
  • Haystack Onions – These I really liked.  Nothing that needs much explanation, they’re onion peels, onion strings, call them what you will.  Comes with a nice and tangy horseradish sauce.  They had a nice flavor, I’m not sure what it was exactly, heck it could’ve just been salt.  I didn’t eat enough of them (tried to control myself) to nail it down and then I had moved on.  2nd of 4 for me.
  • Sweet Potato Fries – If you like sweet potato fries, I think you’ll swoon for these.  They were 3rd of 4 for me, but mostly because I’m not a huge sweet potato fry fan.  These were a thicker cut fry with a ton of sweet potato flavor.  Not too crispy, nice and sweet.  People will gobble these up.
  • Veggie Frites – Best for last.  I loved these.  The others seemed to like them, also.  “Flash fried” carrots and green beans served with a really tasty ranch dressing.  Despite the frying, the carrots were super floppy.  Maybe that always happens with fried carrots?  It matters not, these rocked.   The carrots were so sweet they were, as they say, like candy.  Really good and I don’t love carrots.  The green beans were delicious, too, but in their case they were really helped by the generous topping of salt and pepper the basked received.  My wife and I will definitely order these and destroy the basket.  It was nice to see something really different.

    Veggie Frites

    Veggie Frites

Then the burger parade started.  Each of the tables got a quartered burger to try and, since I had a table (and burger!) to myself, I took pictures of them as assembled like you’d get it on your plate.  I also think I was the only one there routinely picking apart the offerings and trying individual parts, maybe because I didn’t have to share.  I’ll try to offer feedback as appropriate.

Classic Smash

Classic Smash

The Classic Smash is the straightforward burger.  The one zing is the addition of Smash Sauce, a combo of lemon juice, relish, mustard, and maybe one other thing I didn’t catch.  It was OK, honestly.  I wasn’t jumping up and down or anything after my first taste of a Smash Burger burger.  I know their thing is the ‘smashing’ of the meat on the grill to keep it moist, but it’s a pretty thin patty (Angus, never frozen), and none of them seemed super juicy to me.  The burger smelled really enticing…not just because I was hungry, either.  The Smash Sauce is way too mustard-y for me.

Burgersmashifier (possibly not technical term)

Burgersmashifier (possibly not technical term)

What do you think of the char?

What do you think of the char?

So it’s not like there’s a crazy crust going on here.  Trying the patty on its own, it was tasty, well seasoned, but nothing out of the ordinary.  They were all somewhat juicy, but not to the point of drippiness.

BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar Burger

BBQ, Bacon & Cheddar Burger

Tasty!  I think they said either 68% of men get this or 68% of them are ordered by men.  Either way, apparently men like a BBQ burger with bacon.  Shocker, right?  Nice ‘pull’ to the cheddar and the onion strings add a nice bit of saltiness.

BACON!

BACON!

Check out that bacon.  Now THAT is fast food bacon.  I tried it on its own and it was like fresh out of the pan.  Thick cut and delicious.  I think it was Kristi that mentioned how nice it was to have crispy bacon on a fast food burger.  All of the above come on the egg bun, which has a nice flavor, light textured, and not overpowering compared to the ingredients.

Truffle Mushroom Swiss Burger

Truffle Mushroom Swiss Burger

I was a little worried about this one.  Not an arugula fan.  Not a fan of mushrooms on burgers.  Don’t like swiss cheese.  We were warned that these have a strong smell, like you notice in the dining room when one is brought out, and they weren’t kidding.  And, wow, does this burger pack a strong flavor.  I keep coming back to the word ‘unctuous’.  So rich tasting.  The arugula bite is the only thing not just soft, squishy, and gooey in the bite.  I know the word is totally hackneyed already, but the mushroom, etc. really does embody ‘umami’.  I tried a bun with some of the truffle mayo on it and it was fantastic.  You can actually taste it over all those other flavors a bit, too.  This one, per our host, is popular with the ladies.  I don’t know that I would get this, but given my feelings on the ingredients on their own, I didn’t dislike this.

Truffle Mushroom Swiss Burger

Truffle Mushroom Swiss Burger

Look how thin sliced those mushrooms are and how that swiss just fills every crevice.  Get ready for a turn in the other direction.

New York Regional Burger

New York Regional Burger

Here’s your New Yorker burger.  Yeesh.  A pile of spinach, garlic grilled onions, peppercorn garlic aioli (I couldn’t taste this), and NY cheddar.  Forgettable brioche bun.  Yawn.  Just whatever.  Not that I can think of anything more ‘NY’ that would work…apple slices?  I would never order this.  It was very spinachy.  Removing the top bun and spinach, the onions had a nice mild flavor that worked well with the burger, which actually could be described as quite juicy this time.  So it is possible.

Avocado Ranch Black Bean Veggie Burger

Avocado Ranch Black Bean Veggie Burger

Yikes.  OK, just to let you know, none of us liked this.  The patty was just really mushy and overly smooth.  It smelled sort of weird, too.  I guess they recently changed the recipe from a chunkier patty, so maybe if you’ve had it before it won’t be the same.  There was a slight sting from the pepper jack cheese.  The flavor wasn’t terrible, but the texture of the patty, combined with the avocado, was just a big squishy mush.

Veggie burger glamour shot

Veggie burger glamour shot

Delicious goat cheese

Delicious goat cheese

Spinach, Cucumber and Goat Cheese Chicken

Spinach, Cucumber and Goat Cheese Chicken

Here was my favorite and I wasn’t alone.  The chicken, tasted alone, has a delicious, peppery taste with loads of zing and was really juicy.  They make the chicken thin so it cooks at the same speed as the burgers, but they keep it juicy.  There was some amazement expressed, but it’s not that hard.  I slice breasts thin at home all the time and grill them juicy, you just need to pay attention and they clearly do at Smashburger.  So this sandwich was really good.  The goat cheese adds a nice smooth flavor and a bit of squish to the chicken.  I will say that the great flavor of the chicken sort of gets lost in all the other flavors in the sandwich.  The balsamic is ‘here and there’ so you taste it in some bites and when it’s there it adds a nice pep to the overall effect.  I would definitely buy this.  The multigrain bun has a decent flavor, nicely wheaty but not overpoweringly so.  Inoffensive, which is a compliment for a multigrain bun or bread.

Avocado Club Chicken

Avocado Club Chicken

Avocado.  Yummy bacon.  Juicy chicken.  No mysteries here.  It was fine.  But what if you have a daintier appetite?  Maybe a little salad?

Cobb Salad

Cobb Salad

Yeah.  That’s a big salad.  Like a REALLY big salad.

Salted Caramel Shake

Salted Caramel Shake

This was a nice shake if you like caramel (I’m ambivalent).  It was tasty enough if that’s your thing. It was nice and smooth and easy to suck through a straw.

You get a big shake and then the remainder in the blender cup.

Salter Caramel Shake plus

Salter Caramel Shake plus

Oreo Shake

Oreo Shake

We also tried the Oreo shake.  It was OK, not too sweet.  Much thicker with some very large Oreo pieces.

Yeah, you need a spoon

Yeah, you need a spoon

Did I mention the large Oreo pieces?  I found this troublesome to drink.  In addition to the lodged piece of cookie, I often got the dreaded ‘empty straw suck’ here and there.  It was OK, but I doubt I’d spend my calories on it.

A few more random notes:

  • you can get any of the options with either a burger, chicken (grilled or crispy), or veggie patty as well as swapping up buns and adding premium toppings like a fried egg or bacon
  • we should see a buffalo chicken with blue cheese sandwich later…sounds yummy
  • there are some organic items, but it’s not all hardcore like Chipotle
  • fried pickles, once relegated to the ‘secret menu’, is now right up on the board
  • also a ‘secret menu’ item is the Sin City Burger, the Las Vegas regional burger which is available at all Smashburger locations…features an egg, bacon, etc. you can check it out on the website, apparently

OK, I think that’s it.  It was fun and informative.  Thanks to Smashburger for the invite.  Personally I think they’re probably going to do really well.  The location is great near Trader Joe’s and the mall.  Look out, the rest of the Capital District, Colonie is playing to win – Smashburger, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods…

World changing?  No.  A nice change and a welcome addition?  Heck, yeah.

It does a farmer good

Why does it feel like some sort of big step to start buying your weekly milk in a glass bottle from the farmer’s market? I mean, we’re spoiled with a great milk supply around here, generally nice and fresh.  So why pay a touch more at the Greenmarket?  I can’t answer that.  It just makes sense in a way, I guess.

Our last trip to the supermarket was a whopping $15, which is somewhat typical of our shopping trips now.  I’m sure it will go up in the winter, but it’s a little funny to plan the weekly trip, go in, get a cart, but leave with one or two bags for under $20.

Not that we can get out of the Greenmarket for under $20 :D  Glad they take credit cards.

Back to El Charro in Latham

As promised, we took another trip to El Charro for dinner to try some other dishes.  I think we were both happier with these choices, but again, I’d like to try something else.

Service was again generally good and definitely pleasant, but our food didn’t come lightning fast this time.  In fact, it took quite a while.  But given the small kitchen and very large group on the other side of the room, it was understandable and not a problem for us.  There was an odd sort of frenzy around the servers though (when not dealing directly with customers), which we couldn’t quite figure out since there were customers, but the tables were never all filled.  So, as last time, service was fine, but not overly impressive.  No complaints about it.

We stayed away from the fajitas this time.  Our entrees were a Taquitos Mexicanos, described on the menu as “Two beef and two chicken taquitos served with Spanish rice, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and guacamole”, and Enchiladas De Espinacas  from the vegetarian menu, “Three enchiladas with spinach, onions and tomatoes, covered in melted cheese. Served with spinach rice”.

The enchiladas were well received apart from the cheese, which seemed a little odd to my wife.  I thought it was OK, but I only had a bit.  The enchiladas themselves were tasty.  They needed a bit of sour cream (which you can get on the side for $1.00, but instead I donated most of mine from my taquitos).  The taquitos were pretty good, a very crispy shell (chew carefully, the roof of your mouth will thank you) surrounding either a finger-sized slice of beef or chicken.  Nothing was really spiced, which is an ongoing issue, and a bit dry.  I guess you’re supposed to eat it with the sour cream, guac, and veggies to liven it up?  It was better with some guac or sour cream or, best yet, topped with some of the salsa from the chips and salsa served when you’re seated.  The beef, compared to my experience with the fajitas last time, was 1000% better.  A bit moist and quite tender.  One of them was literally like pot roast, tearing easily into shreds.  That, my first of the four, was my favorite.  The meat even has some flavor.

The plentiful portions of rice had a bit of corn, peas, and carrot (plus one rogue lima bean) and was a little tastier than last time, but again I think kicking up the spice would be an excellent idea.  We also got a side of fried beans for $2.25, topped with some melted cheese.   It was plenty to share and typical of the dish.  They don’t come with many of the entrees and I always look forward to them at Mexican restaurants, so it was a wise addition.

With two soft drinks we came in under $30 before tip, which was acceptable.  So, yeah, give this new place a shot, it’s worth keeping around, although I think they could still punch up some of the flavors.  I’d like to see a bit more wild and a lesser helping of mild on my plate.  Go bolder, El Charro.  We’re going back.

Boston Market’s “Burger” and Baked Beans

During one of our infrequent treks to Boston Market this weekend I was surprised to see a few new items that I hadn’t been expecting.  Since I was thinking of trying something different, I decided to get each of them.  First up was Boston Market’s BLT Chicken “Burger” which presents thusly:

BLT Chicken Burger

BLT Chicken Burger

I saw the sign and it looked pretty enticing, so I didn’t think about it much and just went for it.  I got it as a combo for an extra $2.50 with a drink and side.  That side?  The new, limited edition baked beans:

Boston Market's Baked Beans

Boston Market’s Baked Beans

Want to stop reading?  They were both really good.

The “burger” is just a pile of dark and white meat chicken pieces.  As is typical of their rotisserie chicken, it was all nice and juicy and the pieces were big enough that it all stayed together on the bun really quite well.  The whole leaf lettuce was fine, the tomato was nice and fresh, the way it ought to be this time of year.  The bottom bun was decently smeared with the roasted garlic avacado aioli.  It added just a bit more moisture to the already juicy chicken and helped hold things together.  It did get a bit drippy from the warmth of the chicken about halfway through, but it was fine.  Tasted alone you could taste the garlic, but it didn’t really come through in the sandwich.  As for the avacado, I tasted nothing.  No point to it.  It just feels tacked on, like ‘hey, we’ve got avacado on here, you all freakin’ love avacado, right?!’

Ok, so…the bacon.  Thick cut applewood bacon.  Hmmm…So the bacon was really tasty…but instead of the thick slice of bacon you see in the glamour shot, the chicken was topped with a decent pile of bacon bits.  Yes, bacon bits.  I don’t know where the disconnect was, whether it was supposed to be bits and the photo is just BS or if someone got carried away with the chopper.  It was real bacon, though, with good flavor.  Honestly, it might have worked a bit better than thick slices, but it was surprising.

The single downside, really, was the bun.  Brioche is just a consistently terrible choice for fast food restaurants.  It dries out and might as well be stale.  The flavor was acceptable, but the bottom bun, in particular, except for the center, was sort of dry.  It didn’t stop me from eating it, it was just a bad choice.  Just go with a plain sesame bun and call it a day.  Change that out and get rid of the token avacado and knock a buck off and they’ve really got something.

Beans, beans.  The baked beans were a nice complement to this “burger” compared to a lot of the other Boston Market choices.  There was nothing special about them, but they were tasty.  Just decent, straight ahead baked beans.  A bit sweet, but not overly so.

I really recommend both of these items.

Found at: Boston Market on Rt. 9.

Centre Street Pub – Good? Bad?

The Centre Street Pub has been open in Schenectady for, what?  A year and a half or so now?  We finally got around to checking it out on the basis of their…eclectic menu.

Let’s get this out of the way.  I don’t drink beer, so I can’t comment on the quality or quantity of what they have on tap, etc.  This review is about the food.

We went early-ish on a weekend night and got a booth inside the converted industrial space.  A large bar dominates the room along with some oversized booths and I believe some tables at the far end, which we didn’t get to.  I guess you can also sit outside where these is another bar and picnic tables.  The booths are pretty big, so feel free to go with a group of 6.  Although the tables are oddly small compared to the seats so you’re sort of far from the table.  And the space is just awkwardly enough sized that there is a lot of empty space, but not enough to add more tables.  It is what it is.

The menu, as noted, is eclectic.  There are typical pub items – wings, burgers, steak…But then there’s gyoza and a charcuterie board appetizer.  Roasted vegetable panini.  Portabella burger?  Pierogies?  Weiner schnitzel?  Perusing the menu we knew this was either going to be good, because they wouldn’t dare put this stuff on the menu if they couldn’t pull it off, of it was going to be a train wreck, because they couldn’t pull it off.

As usual, I played it safe, mostly because I was in the mood for a burger, so that’s what I had – the Centre Street Burger.  Typical burger with choice of cheese (cheddar).  VERY reasonably priced at $8, I paid the upcharge for onion rings over fries.  I’ll cut to the chase, this burger was fantastic.  I wasn’t expecting much beyond a passable pub burger.  It helped that they came pretty close on the temp.  I asked for medium well and got a solid medium+, which is a win in my book.  At first it just seemed OK, like a decent burger, but the more of it I ate the better it got.  I don’t know exactly what it was, I think the spices in the meat, it just tasted really good.  Not like any weird flavor, just standard spices, it just really worked and tasted great.  The onion rings were big and, happily, made from real onions.  Tasty, but not worth a trip on their own or anything.  I was glad I went with them.

My wife went with the pierogies that comes with kielbasa, but she asked if she could sub out the kielbasa for the potato pancake that comes with the weiner schnitzel.  Despite the potato overload, they happily subbed it for her.  They also include braised red cabbage.  The report I got was that the pierogies were pretty good.  They were either house made or sourced from a good source.  The potato pancake was clearly fresh and not a frozen patty.  The red cabbage also seemed fresh, more crunchy than expected.  Not like soupy soft cooked cabbage, but more like a slaw.

OK, that all sounds good, right?  I was happy, and stuffed, when we left.  My wife was satisfied with her meal.  All in all I’d give it a thumbs up.  However, the party adjacent to us probably had other ideas.  They just had nothing going for them.  The waitress couldn’t answer questions.  Several of their beverages weren’t available.  One or more entrees weren’t available.  The drinks were seemingly the result of the waitress not knowing what they had.  The food was more of a mystery.  They don’t have that large of a menu.  How are you out of anything early on a Friday night?  If something weird happened with your supplier, your waitress should be informing people it’s not available when they first sit you down.  I hope they ended up happy with what they got, but it seemed like a tough slog for them.

Soft drinks were reasonably priced at $2, which was appreciated.  (reasonably priced for a restaurant that is, still a total ripoff, but less than a lot of places nowadays)

I loved my burger and I wouldn’t mind going back, but I don’t know that I would given the limited menu.  Parking is…awkward.  Unless there’s no one there, don’t bother with the lot that holds like 8 cars, just park on Broadway.  The Pub is at the intersection of Union and Broadway.  I’d recommend checking out the menu and if it appeals to you, definitely give it a shot.