TASTE TEST! Taco Bell’s Nacho Fries and Dorito’s Blaze

A wonderful week for those who love bold, crispy crunchy flavors, provided two new TASTE TEST videos from the Skillet Instagram that are worth your eyes and tastebuds!

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REVIEW: Lay’s Do Us A Flavor 2017 (all three finalists)

One of the greatest moments in modern junk food history is when Lay’s announced the Do Us A Flavor contest in 2013. Three flavors of “weird” potato chips that the consumer got to vote on and ultimately decide the fate of. I love this shit. Limited offerings and seasonal engagements are what make junk and fast food so fun, and this idea from Lay’s spawned other great offshoots like voting on peanut M&M’s and the ongoing My Oreo Creation contest from Nabisco. It also was an unfortunate reminder of how boring America’s tastebuds are, as the most snooze-worthy and underachieving flavor from that initial year – Cheesy Garlic Bread – took the potato crown from the far more interesting and successful Sriracha and Chicken and Waffles. But that’s all in the past.

Over the last four years I’ve tried every flavor from the contest, and I’m one of the weirdos that even liked 2014’s Cappuccino chip – which was a slightly creamy, cinnamon-kissed chocolate coffee sweet savory oddity that was so bizarre it worked. 2017’s lineup of the top 10 semifinalists had lots of promise, with the likes of Smoked Gouda & Honey, Sloppy Joe, and Nashville Hot Chicken sounding particularly interesting – but of course, none of them made it. I already tried and did quick “TASTE TEST” videos of each of the flavors with the lovely Sil B on Instagram, but below you will find my overall thoughts on each flavor as well as the associated video. Enjoy – and don’t forget to vote for your favorite to still be around next year!

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Wavy Fried Green Tomato:

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These chips came in with the natural advantage of being Wavy, aka the best type of potato chip, and they live up to their advantage in terms of texture and crunch. They’re wonderfully crispy and perfectly fried without being greasy at all. The flavor is salty and peppery with some herbaceous tomato notes that are present but not incredibly bold. Each of the chips, depending on their amount of coating, tell a bit of a different story with some packing a much bigger punch than others (classic). I haven’t had a ton of fried green tomatoes, but the most dominant flavor I get out of these is “fried coating” with a hint of parmesan cheesiness, garlic, and a nice black pepper finish.  The most interesting element to this flavor is a mayonnaise-y creamy undertone to represent the sauce shown on the front of the bag.  They’re good, safe, and a very eat-able chip that aren’t offensive in any way but don’t have much of a wow factor either. As I eat these I can’t help but feel like the semifinalist Fried Ravioli would have been a similar experience but much better with a more robust, oregano and basil seasoning blend and some wonderful slightly sharp mozzarella notes instead of fatty aioli. Oh well.

Rating: 7.5/10

Crispy Taco:

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Wow. These chips are exactly what Do Us A Flavor is all about. When the semifinalists were announced Crispy Taco was one of the most boring average sounding flavors that have already been done as a chip seasoning for years, but Lay’s completely knocked it out of the park with this one. The flavor emulation game is on another level here with the leading flavor being lettuce – yes, lettuce. Somehow they packed the bright, crisp flavor of shredded lettuce into the powder, followed by cheddar cheese, tomato, beef seasoning, and even some tomato acidity. It’s actually unreal how this potato chip tastes nothing like a potato and somehow manages to taste more like a hard corn taco shell than the vegetable it’s actually made of. Kudos Lay’s, you officially impressed the hell out of me. And yes, I did squeeze some Fire sauce onto the chips and it tasted 95% like I had just left the Taco Bell drive through. Ridic.

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Rating: 9/10

Kettle Cooked Everything Bagel with Cream Cheese:

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These were the chips I was most looking forward to, since everything bagels have lot’s of great seasoning that can plop themselves onto most vessels and be delicious. What a missed opportunity. I’m not sure if Lays got too focused on the cream cheese element of the profile or simply got lazy, but these chips taste like sour cream and onion with a slight tang and hints of garlic, onion, and an extra dash of salt. Not a disgusting chip by any means, in fact it’s pretty good, but nothing new or exciting in the slightest. I can’t say they didn’t try though, as there are poppy seeds on most of the chips, but the flavor doesn’t translate. None of the more dominant elements of “everything” – like sesame, deep onion, or a twist like caraway seeds – are present at all. These are a safe bet to be enjoyed by someone seeking a salty/creamy/slightly spiced snack but do not deliver on what could have been an ultimate follow up to the now standard salt and pepper kettle chip.

Rating: 6/10

Overall this was an okay return for the annual potato battle. Keep in mind that the ratings are based mostly on whether or not the desired flavor was achieved, and that all of these chips are pretty good and a worthy sando sidekick. My biggest disappointment is that none of the finalists this year were spicy in the slightest and they are all relatively safe. Hopefully a couple more of the semis make it out as exclusives or short runs in the near future. 

REVIEW: Limited Edition Dunkin’ Donuts’ Mocha Oreo

Few things in this world go together as beautifully as coffee and chocolate – so why the hell did it take so long for Oreo to put a spin on the classic combo? When Trader Joe’s released their fantastic Mocha Joe Joe’s earlier this year I couldn’t believe they beat Nabisco in the cookie race, but they did, and they put out a real bang up of a product in the process. Although late, Nabisco teamed up with another junk food juggernaut in Dunkin’ Donuts to unearth the Limited Edition Mocha Oreo, which pairs the traditional chocolate Oreo wafer with a coffee flavored creme filling.

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Coffee is one of the most fantastically seductive aromas the culinary world has to offer, and shockingly these Oreo cookies don’t smell like coffee – at all. In fact, they smell like chocolate frosting. Slightly less sweet than what I remember regular double chocolate Oreo’s smelling like, but absolutely zero traces of the roasted bean that’s the inspiration behind the product. Sometimes coffee is used in baking to elevate the flavor in a chocolate cake, adding extra depth to the bitter cocoa notes, and I’m hoping that’s what’s at play here, and not a cookie that tastes as weak and diluted as Dunkin’s overhyped coffee.

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Fortunately for me, and for Nabisco’s reputation, these cookies actually taste great. There is 100% more coffee flavor than there is smell, and while it isn’t the punchiest mocha product I’ve had, it’s a damn good one. The usual bitter notes of the wafer cookie are amplified by the coffee creme, and the two play off of one another to great success. A mocha is generally less coffee-heavy, with only two or three ounces being actual espresso and the rest milk and chocolate, and with those ratios in mind this Oreo is pretty much spot on. As a daily black coffee drinker who really appreciates the natural flavor of the dark stuff these satisfy my tastebuds and are still sweet enough to actually compliment a real cup of bitter joe on the side.

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As simple as this minor creme-change is, it really works, and I find these Mocha Oreo’s to be the best chocolate-based limited offering in recent memory. They’re much more interesting and endearing than Chocolate Covered Strawberry and have a much more significant flavor switch up than Filled Cupcake or Brownie Batter. While they may not deliver as big of an espresso hit as Trader Joe’s Mocha Joe Joe’s, they’re nearly just as delicious and full of that classic Oreo nostalgia.

Rating: 8.5/10
Found at: Safeway ($2.99)

REVIEW: Cheetos Sweetos Caramel Puffs

When I was a young lad frequenting Taco Bell more than my adult-self would like to admit, I always walked in thinking about tacos and left tasting like cinnamon and sugar.  Taco Bell’s warm cinna-sugar churro-y twists were an irresistible way to leave the restaurant, and even though they might not have been part of my initial order, 75% of the time I would grab an order of them to go – happily munching my way to the sidewalk.  Two years ago when Cheetos announced their new Cinnamon Sugar Sweetos for Easter, I immediately drew a comparison to my TB trips and was not disappointed.  The Sweetos have continued to make seasonal appearances for both Easter and Christmas over the last couple of years, and new for this year is a second flavor – Caramel.  As someone who’s diet has individual spots in the pyramid for both cinnamon AND caramel this is one of the most exciting releases of 2017 so far and I am ready – to – crunch.

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The bag has a big sweet caramel aroma that hints at kettle corn and funnel cake with its combination of sweet, salty, and dangerous.  The egg shape is just as I remember, with the extra squiggles in the middle providing more surface area than the Christmas time “O”, and absorb more magical Cheeto dust.  Going in for my first handful I’m surprised that they taste a lot less sweet than they smelled; they definitely have a caramel flavor but it leans more towards smooth and buttery than sweet and silky.  As with the cinnamon flavor, there’s no notable corn taste like you get with cheesy Cheetos, and the base itself is relatively neutral.

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The texture is super light and airy with a pillowy crunch that begins to dissolve as quickly as I start chomping, and before I know it the 25 count serving size has evaporated inside of me.  As with most bags of chips there are some pieces that are more heavily coated than others, and those darker ones are really tasty, but the less dressed ones are are a bit bland and flat.  Fortunately, the Caramel Puff Sweetos are less greasy than the Cinnamon Sugar so the naked ones aren’t gross, just boring.

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These Sweetos are very true to the original version – light, crunchy, sweet, and for me, not at all weird – but they just aren’t as awesome as the OG.  The absence of cinnamon means less of a distinguished pop, and while this caramel iteration is still good, it doesn’t have the same great balance that the cheetah-bunny delivered to us two years ago.  However, that doesn’t mean that these aren’t addictive and nearly impossible to stop eating, it just means that my allegiance stands strong with the inner cinna-demons and these come in second to their deliciousness.

Rating: 8/10

REVIEW: Hostess Limited Edition Frosted Strawberry Donettes

There’s something appealing about mini things. Mini cupcakes, mini peanut butter cups, personal pizzas, sneaky baby bottles of booze…and, donuts, or, Donettes, as Hostess appropriately calls them. These miniature tire-esque circles of sugary delight have always tempted me, and what better time to be lured by temptation than the season of love? To help get our love juices flowing, Hostess have injected their already aphrodisiac-laden chocolate Donettes with another aphro-treat – strawberry, for a fiery start to your Valentine’s Day morning.

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Biting in there is a predominantly sweet but slightly tart strawberry flavor that breaks through the chocolate and stands out pretty powerfully on its own. The two flavors compliment each other well, with the bite beginning on chocolate and gradually transforming to berry, leaving a distinctly artificial strawberry presence on the tongue.  While the taste is artificial and candy-like in nature it isn’t too overwhelmingly sweet, which would have made it difficult to eat more than one or two (not a problem).  Fake strawberry tends to be more agreeable and easily executed than cherry, and these little dough balls are no exception.

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The strongest element of this Donette is its texture. The outside, while still having that classic Hostess waxy element to it, is incredibly soft and thin, giving an airy snap when chewing.  That outer coating is a very distinct texture that for whatever reason works better on mini donuts than any other kind of snack cake.  The inside is very moist, and may be the freshest tasting Donette I’ve ever had from Hostess.  This could be the seasonal advantage of buying a limited item close to its release, as the expiration is still six weeks away and I’m reaping the benefits, or it could just be the luck of the draw with this particular batch.

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Is this a better junky nosh than the classic chocolate frosted Donette with the yellow inside? Nope, not for me; but it is a solid limited release that is much more worthy of burning your calories than even some of the standard editions, like Glazed. It’s got that breakfast cereal-y, Sunday morning strawberry pop that you will find either nostalgic or gross, but for $2 on sale at Target it’s hard to go wrong if you find the plump little fake chocolate ‘nuts as comforting and strangely delicious as I do.

Rating: 7/10

REVIEW: Baskin Robbins Chocolate Hazelnut

For as long as I can remember Baskin Robbins’ flavor of the month in February has been Love Potion #31, but this year, much like they did in October with Trick Oreo Treat, they have made their love potion a seasonal flavor and brought back Chocolate Hazelnut as the February special.  It’s no secret that chocolate is a sensual aphrodisiac, but is there some romantic allure to the hazelnut as well?  I’ve noticed it popping up more frequently this time of year, and with February 5 being named “World Nutella Day” (apparently since 2007), there may be a consumer conspiracy at hand.  Baskin Robbins’ ode to the apparent love nut is chocolate ice cream and hazelnuts covered with chocolate flavored coating swirled with a hazelnut cookie fudge ribbon.

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The chocolate ice cream is just as expected – smooth, decadent, and creamy with a wonderful milk finish that isn’t too dark or bitter.  It’s that classic high quality chocolate flavor that isn’t remarkable or complex but serves as a great foundation to building a solid scoop. The hazelnuts are ample and give big bursts of genuine nutty flavor.  They aren’t tiny pieces either – they’re entire chocolate covered nuts that bring not only a solid richness and big textural crunch, but extra sweetness as well because of the coating.  Hazelnut is not one of my favorite nuts but their unique, almost bitter flavor really shines in the sea of sweet chocolate.

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While the ice cream and hazelnuts are both very good, the real star of the show here is the hazelnut cookie fudge ribbon; a thick fudgey ganache with crunched up cookie grit and fantastic pops of saltiness.  The darkness of the ribbon flourishes against the lighter chocolate base and the salt cuts through the dominant sweet flavors bringing the whole experience together.  I’ve always felt that BR does ribbons really well and this one truly makes all of the flavors sing and elevates it beyond what would have been a fairly basic scoop.

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If you love Nutella you’re going to love this flavor; there are no if ands or buts that this scoop delivers huge chocolate hazelnut satisfaction.  If you’re like me, and think Nutella is good but a touch overrated and you really fist pump for team peanut butter, you will likely also find this February offering surprisingly delicious.  I went into this expecting to be slightly underwhelmed but the variance in texture and layers of chocolate made it much more interesting than I thought it would be, and is a worthy side piece to Love Potion #31.

Rating: 8.5/10

REVIEW: Taco Bell Naked Chicken Chalupa

Rarely does an item get as much buzz as the latest release from Taco Bell.  Granted, I probably spend more time than most people reading about limited Oreo flavors and weird protein concoctions, but the Naked Chicken Chalupa has seemed to permeate through all of the different food and news sources I tend to look at on a daily basis.  Aside from the usual spots like Grub Grade or Brand Eating, the Naked Chicken Chalupa has seen hype from The San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, and tons of other relevant non-junk food blogs.  For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Naked Chicken Chalupa is a deep fried piece of chicken shaped like a taco shell filled with lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese, and an avocado ranch sauce.  I don’t eat tons of fast food but I love Taco Bell and all of their zany ideas, so I have been pumped on this since it was first announced and hope it lives up to the hype.  Let’s dig in.

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My initial thought is that it is smaller than I expected it to be.  The smell immediately reminds me of a standard cafeteria chicken sandwich with a little extra spice.  The cheese has melted, which is always a good sign, and considering the decently lengthy wait time in the drive through this bad boy was made fresh.  The shell is fried chicken crispy and holds its shape perfectly.  The bite has a nice crunch and spice to it with really solid seasoning that is not too salty.  Unfortunately the chicken is of the cheaper McChicken/separated variety, but is white all the way through without any weird looking or tasting pieces; I imagine it would be hard to shape an actual chicken breast into a taco.

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The avocado ranch sauce is creamy and a touch spicy, but has pooled at the bottom and mixed with the slightly wilted lettuce a bit, leaving an undesirable texture in certain bites.  It’s less greasy than the regular Chalupa shell, which I’m happy about as that’s a potentially big issue with a fried meat vessel in place of a standard tortilla

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The Naked Chicken Chalupa is good but it feels a bit…naked.  The execution on the shell is spot on but an additional meat on the inside would really bring it home.  I would love a nacho cheese double chicken Chalupa or supreme beef version.  Deep frying the shell when it is ordered presented both negatives and positives – it helped melt the cheese but also got the lettuce to wilt and be flimsier than on most Taco Bell products. The possibilities on this new item are endless but the initial attempt falls short of being a slam dunk.

Rating: 8/10