Not eating up Subaru

Are these “story” Subaru ads on the radio ridiculous, or what?

I remember our first Thanksgiving together as a family.  All week long they were predicting wet weather, but I once saw a guy drive a Subaru through a puddle…a big puddle, right in front of my bus stop.  I knew that when I got a car, I was gonna get a Subaru.  When we woke up it was drizzling, but I knew that with my Subaru my family would be fine.  We all hopped into the Subaru, even our pet turtle Frank, and set off for my in-laws, clear on the other side of town.  We didn’t even make it to the end of the street before it actually started to rain.  I mean, I had to turn my windshield wipers on.  As we drove across town, hungry for roast turkey and pumpkin pie, my wife got nervous as we skirted other cars pulled over and stuck in ditches because it was raining.  But I knew we’d be fine.  I was even confident enough to take a back road and avoid a traffic light.  We must’ve driven through five or even six puddles.  I didn’t even slow down.  We made it in time for my father-in-law to carve the turkey, safe and sound, even on the Thanksgiving that it rained.

Pulled pork at local Wendy’s

Sorry for the terrible photo, I was so confused I didn’t think to get a better one until it was too late.  I was distracted as I was getting yet another BBQ Ranch Chicken salad.  I was like, yeah, pulled pork, ok.  Then it was like, wait…BBQ pulled pork at Wendy’s?  Is that new?   Well, the answer is ‘sort of’.  Apparently Wendy’s has been test marketing it for a few months.  Maybe this is the full roll out…although with the smoked gouda thing still going on, you’d think they wouldn’t want to step on their own toes.

BBQ Pulled Pork

BBQ Pulled Pork

I guess you can get BBQ pulled pork on a cheeseburger, just on a sandwich, or on top of cheese fries.  And you can pick your sauce…spicy, smoky, or sweet.

If that sounds interesting to you, you can check out the Clifton Park Wendy’s, don’t know about other local locations.

Smashburger return

So I just visited the Wolf Road Smashburger as a patron for the first time after the media preview.  I wanted to see how the reality would hold up to the preview fantasy.  And there were a couple of things I really wanted to eat again.

The place was a little busy but tidy and efficient.  Lots of staff running food, clearing tables, etc.  Like a lot of staff.  I don’t really need 4 or 5 people coming over to my table while eating fast food and I don’t want you asking if you can take my basket while I’m clearly still eating.  Food was flying out of the kitchen.  Despite the claims from the preview of ~5 minute waits, I don’t think we waited more than a minute or so for our food after getting fountain drinks and sitting.  I’ll come back to this.

I went with my favorite from the preview, the Spinach, Cucumber, and Goat Cheese Chicken sandwich.  My wife went for the regular grilled chicken sandwich as a safe starting point.  We shared an order of veggie frites.  So, how did it turn out?

smashed dinner

smashed dinner

Nothing was bad.  But nothing was as good as before, either.  I was so impressed with the chicken on its own that I again peeled off a piece before digging in to try it.  What I loved about the simple salt & pepper coating at the preview was the deft touch with the salt and the strong peppery bite that the chicken needs to fight through the other flavors.  This time the prevalent flavor was salt.  Really salty.  Some pepper, but it was more background.  The flavors were reversed from the preview.

The sandwich itself was OK.  The spinach was fine, a few too many onions for my taste, but that’s almost none, so it was fine.  The cucumber was crisp and fresh tasting.  The tomato was an absolute disgrace.  I’m not kidding.  We are at the UTTER AND COMPLETE PEAK of tomato season around here.  You’re not going to find a fresher or more gorgeous supply of tomatoes during the year than right about now.  There is not a single excuse for the pathetic, orangey, pale slices on our sandwiches.  As a serious tomato lover, I was a little angry and a lot sad.  If you can’t get tomatoes right in early September, what should I expect in February?  Honestly, these tomatoes would be pathetic in February, too.  If this was what your supplier brought and you couldn’t get anything better (there’s a Hannaford across the street, I bet they had better tomatoes) you should have taken them off the menu and apologized to patrons that you couldn’t in good conscience serve what you had on hand.  (sorry, I really like tomatoes)

Anyway…the bun was still good, the goat cheese, warm and creamy on the hot chicken, again makes this sandwich.  In spite of the lame orange slice masquerading as tomato, my sandwich was pretty good.  My wife’s was OK, but again the dominant flavor was salt.  It was also SUPER drippy.  Not really sure why from the ingredients, but it was puddle-making drippy.

At the preview, the veggie frites were a star.  The carrots were sweet and delicious and very floppy.  The green beans were stiffer and were rocked with their delicious touch of salt and coating of coarse black pepper that went great with the ranch sauce.  This time, the carrots were undercooked and too firm, not having developed their peak sweetness.  The beans were floppy but not bad.  But, guess what?  Yeah, unsurprisingly these were incredibly salty.  They had salt and pepper on them, but again the pepper was an afterthought and the salt was the dominant tongue blasting impression.  The emptied basket had a pretty good puddle of oil in it.  These were simply not prepared the way they could be.  They were amazing at the preview.  They were a ‘probably not again’ purchase this time.  Really sad.  And salty.  Simply put, they were rushed.  The carrots were not cooked long enough to develop their flavor and were a weird mix of not crisp enough or soft enough.  Mushy outside and crunchy inside?  My wife in particular wasn’t happy with that.  And the copious oil, to me, says ‘not drained long enough’.  We could have waited another minute for our food to have it done right.

So what have learned?

  1. Honestly, I probably won’t rush back.  I’d like to try some other stuff again, but I’m hoping they might get better at it, I guess.  If things stay like this we would stop going there completely.
  2. C’mon, that’s just way too much salt.  Pepper’s pretty good, too.  Give it a shot.
  3. Slow down just a little.  They’re doing quantity over quality right now.
  4. Seriously?  The salt?
  5. I said the shakedown might not live up to the media preview and right now that’s the case.
  6. LAY OFF THE SALT!  Nothing says, ‘we’re only pretending to care about fresh ingredients’ like burying them under salt.

All in all, effort needs improvement.  I have a hard time recommending the place the way food is currently coming out of the kitchen.  Maybe give them a month and see what happens.

Did I mention how salty everything was?

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.  (Update: Thai Sweet Chili is pretty lame)

(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.