REVIEW: Salt & Straw’s Carrot Cake Batter & Hazelnut Praline

The best time of the year is fast approaching, and as a certified spice fiend-ing cinna-slut I am ready for the equinox that arrives on September 22 at 1:02 PM PST. There will be so many special spicy pumpkin-y treats everywhere I turn that the air will taste of cloves. Since the leaves haven’t quite changed yet, I’ve found myself leaning back on the trusty year round crutch for myself and fellow spice-aholics – carrot cake. Seemingly in sync with my personal preferences for a little pre-autumn foreplay, Salt & Straw have laced their August Farmers Market series with an ode to one of the few desserts I would ever order with a vegetable in its name. Carrot Cake Batter & Hazelnut Praline combines a carrot cake batter ice cream with candied hazelnuts and a swirl of cheesecake frosting.

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The carrot cake batter ice cream is executed with insane perfection. It’s extremely smooth and creamy but also hefty with shreds of carrots seamlessly working their way through nearly every bite. It eats like a cake-baking dream, with spicy notes of nutmeg and cinnamon beneath a wonderfully balanced sweetness from both the dairy and the carrots themselves. In every way it reminds me of the scraping and licking reward after whipping up some batter and I can’t think of a single way that the base could be improved to more accurately translate that highlight of any day in the kitchen.

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While I generally associate walnuts with carrot cake I absolutely love the candied hazelnuts S&S threw into the mix here. They definitely have a slight candied sweet quality to them, but what they really provide is a dark, roasted, burnt-in-a-good way, caramelized richness that brings huge contrast and legitimate spoon intrigue to the equation. Hazelnut’s naturally have an intense, almost harsh flavor to them, and the aggressive roasted quality works well to heighten the presence of the spices in the “batter” as well as offset the general sweetness throughout. They also add a significant textural pop to the pint, with both a nutty crunch and a praline squish that is everything a perfect mix-in should be. Simply put, I love them.

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The swirl of “cheesecake” frosting, much like the inclusion of hazelnuts, is another brilliant slight switch up to the carrot cake formula that works wonders here. The swirl is essentially a cream cheese frosting but has a more restrained sweetness than the usual straight forward frosting or glaze with some beautiful cheesy notes and ample vanilla. The ribbon is dotted with vanilla beans which play perfectly against the tang and give a very cohesive and slightly savory but still predominantly sweet flavor in tandem with the base. It’s integrated seamlessly throughout the pint, with some thick sheets along the sides, never getting too dominant, but never straying too far from the spoon either.

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Despite the zero percent of actual cake in this pint, this is my favorite carrot cake flavored thing I have ever had that isn’t in actual slice form. The flavors are incredible, the idea is inventive, and the execution is immaculate. It is extremely rare for a cake batter ice cream to really channel the joys of licking the spoon, and this one not only does that, but does it in a way that is creative, elevated, and delicious.

Rating: 10/10
Found at: Salt & Straw ($11 – online and in stores)

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REVIEW: Krispy Kreme’s Eclipse Chocolate Glazed Doughnut

Today is the first total eclipse of my lifetime. For the lucky, small percent of those within the path of totality in the U.S., the sky will go temporarily dark during the middle of the day, and for the rest of us, it will go semi-dark. Stars will appear, the temperature will drop, and the animals will be confused as all hell. That’s pretty cool, but to be honest, I didn’t do so great in Astronomy class, and I can’t see a damn thing through this San Francisco fog anyway, so fortunately for me, today also marks the first time in HISTORY that something else is seeing the dark side – the Krispy Kreme waterfall of glaze. To celebrate North America’s moon party, today only (and for two soft evenings this past weekend when I snuck in) the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign will mean super fresh, melty, yeast doughnuts shimmering with black chocolate instead of the usual opaque tan sugar glaze.

I’ve gotta give Krispy Kreme some credit for their hype-o-meter skills. Rolling up at 6:30 PM on Saturday was the most poppin’ and clustered I’ve seen the shop since their big rollout and notorious over expansion in the 90’s. There wasn’t a line out the door, but the parking lot was full and the conveyor belt of doughy dreams was stopped and nearly empty – the first batch had already sold out! No worries, though, about ten minutes later the flour power was restored and the drooling group of people filming through the glass like an animal was giving birth at the zoo (myself included) simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief.

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The doughnut is the same in size, shape, and flavor as the KK original glazed, except for the glaze. It has almost the same light, airy, “I-could-eat-about-six-of-these” texture that I know and love, and is incredibly soft and delectable, but feels a little heavier and ever so slightly denser than its big bro; probably from the cocoa powder. The chocolate glaze actually makes a pretty significant change to the overall experience as it is much less sweet, with slightly bitter cocoa notes taking place of the usually sharp and bright sugary flourish. It isn’t a dark chocolate by any means, but compared to what is usually offered it is a notably more subdued and less intense version of the circular splendor.

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The other major difference is that the oily fried flavor comes through stronger with the chocolate, as there isn’t that huge wallop of sugar to cover it up. It isn’t greasy, it just has that golden flavor much like smaller french fries that get extra crispy, and it could be a good or bad thing depending on what you enjoy. I like crispy fried fries and a golden crunch on the outside of an old fashioned cake doughnut, but I’m not sure how much I love the flavor being so pronounced here.

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This is a solid doughnut, but not nearly as incredible as the original. When I have a Krispy Kreme glazed that’s been made within the last couple of hours, I marvel at its simplistic beauty as I’m taken over by its sugary perfection, and the chocolate version, while good, simply can’t eclipse it.

Rating: 7.5/10
Found at: Krispy Kreme ($1.39)

FOOD FIND: Third Culture Bakery’s Mochi Muffin

Third Culture Bakery are a Berkeley-based company specializing in East meets West baked goods with no designated brick and mortar location but distribution to a number of cafes and eateries in the Bay Area, including the popular Boba Guys in San Francisco.  I got wind of their inventive Mochi Muffin and had to try one.  I was fortunate to find a cool small shop near me called Chapter Two Coffee that gets deliveries from Third Culture a couple times a week.

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The outside has a firm muffin-esque crust that gives way to a perfect squishy mochi interior.  It’s soft and dense yet pillowy and just slightly sweet. Initially I thought it was kind of odd, and then I realized it’s absolutely delicious.

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The flavor as a whole reminds me of the crispy caramelized exterior of a chocolate chip cookie with all of its beautiful buttery brown sugar nuances.  The black and white sesame seeds on top add a nice subtle crunch and pop of savoriness that ties the unique nature of the experience together wonderfully.  All the fun dense-yet-soft feeling of mochi with the heartiness of a muffin – such a delightful treat with a strong cup of coffee or espresso.

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REVIEW: Salt & Straw’s The Roxie Road

Popcorn is one of my favorite foods. It’s a volume snack I can put back with light crunchy ease that tastes fantastic AND actually has some fiber and protein to go along with its deliciousness. Whether its the straight ahead low fat sea salt bagged variety, or the naughty oil drenched stuff in a dark movie theater, or a crunchy drizzled sugary treat, popcorn is a mainstay in my diet and I love it. As popular as it is, it rarely finds itself incorporated in my, and America’s, favorite dessert – ice cream. While it may sound kind of strange, the roasty, buttery, sweet and salty potential of popcorn is actually an amazing mashup for making a wonderful ice cream, and for the June Rescued Food series Salt & Straw did just that. Utilizing leftover popcorn from the Roxie Theater, S&S created a popcorn ice cream base and mixed it with their house caramel and a coffee-flour cookie crumble to create The Roxie Road.

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The popcorn flavor in the base is fairly subtle, but comes across in initial bites when I search for it. Beneath the layers of silky smooth high quality dairy are gentle corn notes that finish with a slightly roasted butter flavor. Much more apparent than a straight ahead popcorn flavor is an overall butteriness that aids in the texture and makes it feel and taste like an elevated corny sweet cream. The execution and overall effectiveness of the popcorn experience would have been greatly amplified by a saltier presence, which we know Salt & Straw can do extremely well in their Sea Salt with Caramel Ribbons and countless other stellar releases. Even though it’s lacking some salty pop there’s no doubt this isn’t vanilla and it’s a really tasty ice cream.

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The caramel in this pint is the same fantastic S&S caramel that I know and love – thick and rich with an impressively dark burnt flavor that is my absolute favorite caramel in any ice cream. It isn’t particularly salty but does reset my tastebuds to be able to taste the popcorn flavor in the base more prominently, and is a wonderful compliment to pretty much anything it touches.

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The surprise factor in this flavor, and my favorite element, are the coffee-flour cookie crumbles. There are some smaller “crumbles” sprinkled throughout, but also big hunkin’ chunks that explode with a gritty cookie texture and robust coffee flavor that are unexpectedly delicious. The chunks are hard, almost like a piece of toffee, and are equal parts intense coffee grounds and bitter chocolate notes. It’s almost like a super coffee-forward shortbread, crumbling beneath my teeth, and the bitter coffee flavor is very welcome in the sea of sweet creaminess.

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I was ecstatic when S&S announced they were doing a popcorn-infused base, and while it is a fantastic ice cream, I wish it was a bit more popcorn-y. The best popcorn base I’ve ever had was in a Humphry Slocombe seasonal last year called Peaches and Popcorn, and I feel as though I will be forever chasing that buttery salty memory. Regardless of any small flavor preferences, if you like buttery ice cream with sensational caramel and bursts of bitter coffee and are fortunate enough to live in the Bay Area this one is definitely worth at least a scoop, and probably a pint to boot.
Rating: 8.5/10
Found at: Salt & Straw (San Francisco)

REVIEW: Salt & Straw’s Food Runners’ Banana Bread Pudding

Salt & Straw’s June Rescued Food line of ice creams is one of the most interesting and engaging things I’ve seen a craft company do, and San Francisco got blessed with some seriously amazing flavors. Joining forces with SF based Food Runners, they took all of the unused pastries from bay area startup meetings and put them to good use, instead of in the trash can. While Food Runners usually take these baked goodies and deliver them to people in need, this month S&S bought them from the company and turned them into the fantastic Food Runners’ Banana Bread Pudding, which combines a spiced banana ice cream with chunks of bread pudding and a sesame caramel swirl.

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This is not your standard banana ice cream. Immediately the distinct flavor of squishy over ripened bananas smacks me in the face, with a taste that is so different and much sharper than what many banana bases offer. There’s a cutting, almost syrupy sweetness to hyper-ripe bananas that comes through beautifully and is balanced out and complimented by the high quality dairy. Rounding out the profile is a healthy dose of nutmeg, and with the use of that spice the banana base BECOMES banana bread ice cream, as the unique strong banana flavor mingling with spices and sweet honey notes is instantly recognizable as one of the most beloved quick breads in the game.

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For the actual bread part of the bread pudding equation, S&S made a cinnamon-spiked custard and tossed all of those destined-to-be-garbage pastries into it to create one big mismatched wheel of flavor. This is one of the most interesting elements of the flavor, as every pint, and likely every scoop, is going to be slightly different. I had a massive chunk of what felt like layers of crunchy filo dough or some kind of pie crust, and a bite with raisins, and another bite that tasted like cinnamon roll streusel. It’s a lot of fun. The element of surprise makes digging into this ice cream pure enjoyment, and the undercurrent of the cinnamon flavor drives the banana bread essence even farther.

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The final piece to this bread pudding puzzle is the sesame caramel, which, like most S&S swirls, is executed with skill and finesse. When eaten in conjunction with the other components the caramel adds the sweetness and gooey-ness you’d expect, but is a lot less dark and burnt tasting than the standard S&S caramel. The caramel helps marry the other two elements together in ooey-harmony, but when you taste it on its own it absolutely bursts with sesame flavor. The unmistakable earthy flavor that drives tahini is very present in the sweet swirl and adds a deep savory quality to the experience that brings the rescued food theme home.

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Simply put, this is Salt & Straw at their absolute finest – mixing delicious decadent flavors with innovation and purpose in ways that not many brands can accomplish. There’s plenty of intense decadence out there without the creativity, and plenty of elevated ice cream churners without the whimsy, but S&S manage to achieve both simultaneously and this is a glowing example of what makes them some of the absolute best in the expanding world of gourmet ice cream.

Rating: 9/10

Found at: Salt & Straw (San Francisco)

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VIDEO: Sean’s appearance on KQED’s Check Please, Bay Area!

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to shoot an episode of one of my favorite local TV shows – Check Please, Bay Area, which airs on KQED/PBS.  I had the opportunity to highlight one of my favorite burger spots ever – Jack’s Prime – and try some other amazing dishes along the way.  This is my first time doing food-related work on television and it was a blast.  Check out the full episode below!

REVIEW: Humphry Slocombe Hong Kong Milk Tea (Northern CA Whole Foods Exclusive)

On May 5 Humphry Slocombe will launch a Whole Foods exclusive flavor that can only be purchased in person at Northern California stores.  While on the surface this might not seem like that big of a deal, it’s important to remember that exclusive releases are generally reserved for brands like Ben & Jerry’s at stores like Walmart and Target; and this merging of a smaller craft ice cream brand with Whole Foods is a significant leap for the gourmet company.  The flavor, Hong Kong Milk Tea, is inspired by the sweet caffeinated beverage that keeps Hong Kong (and the bay area) hustling.  The ice cream is a fusion of Numi organic tea, sweetened condensed milk, and almond cookies, and arrives as the creamy brain-child of Slocombe’s Jake Godby and Whole Foods Market Chef Ambassador Melissa King.  The awesome folks at Humphry Slocombe sent over a pint so I could get an advance tasting of their latest creation and I’m eager to scoop into it.

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When I think of milk tea I think of boba tea, and imagine a syrupy sweet beverage with chewy tapioca balls and silly colored wide straws.  I know that that type drink is much newer and less traditional than the Hong Kong variety, but I have more experience with it, and luckily this ice cream is almost nothing like that.  The sweetness is incredibly subdued, with a wonderful melty mouthfeel and smooth malty black tea finish that is genuine and refined.  The flavor of the Numi tea coats my tongue with the dairy and tastes like a perfectly steeped cup of tea with a generous helping of sweetened condensed milk.

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The most impressive aspect of this great tea base is the lingering aftertaste, which even after a minute or more of not eating has left a nice sharp tea flavor that is pleasant and not bitter in the least.  This is a perfect frozen rendition of a drink usually served warm and preserves all the tannin-y nuances of tea balanced out by repeated licking sweetness.

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The almond cookies in place of tapioca balls (in my boba-mind) also elevate this to a more “adult” version of the milky beverage, adding small bursts of almond-y chew that add just a touch more sweetness but not too much additional flavor.  The cookies remind me more of softened, soggy cereal in milk than they do snappy cookies, and I wish the pieces were bigger and/or caramelized in the way that HS does in their fantastic flagship flavor Secret Breakfast.  As the lone mix in I don’t get a ton of crunch or almond taste from the cookies, which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity considering how simple and delicate the base is.  The idea makes sense, having an almond cookie with a cup of milk tea, there just needs to be something else done to make it all really click.

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Full disclosure: I’m not the biggest fan of tea-based ice cream, or coffee for that matter.  I like drinking my coffee and tea straight and my ice cream to be caramel-y and chocolate-y and salty sweet peanut butter pretzel-y intense.  That being said, if you like tea in your ice cream bases (like my girlfriend), you will undoubtedly love this pint.  It has a tremendous balance of flavor that captures the simple magic of Hong Kong milk tea.

Rating: 7.5/10

If you’re in the bay area and want to sample Hong Kong Milk Tea, they will be giving away free scoops at a public preview on April 29 from 12 PM to 3 PM at Whole Foods Market Oakland, where there will also be $1 off pint coupons, Numi tea samples, a lion dancer, and tons of happy ice cream enthusiasts.

REVIEW: Salt & Straw Roasted Strawberry Tres Leches (San Francisco Exclusive)

The time has finally come and on this Friday, April 14, the bay area will get its first Salt & Straw scoop shop.  The stellar Portland-based ice cream company will be taking a similar approach to their stores in Los Angeles and will offer some SF scoop shop only flavors that you have to be present for to actually experience and taste that will be unique not only in their exclusivity but in their profile to represent the bay area.  I was fortunate enough to get to try a couple of these flavors before they hit the public, and like everything S&S does, they are impressively great.  Salt and Straw’s San Francisco exclusive flavor Roasted Strawberry Tres Leches combines a roasted strawberry ice cream with chunks of tres leches cake and a vanilla strawberry jam swirl.

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The strawberry ice cream is perfect.  Bursting with authentic slightly tart strawberry flavor there’s a touch of saltiness to the base that is simply delectable and tempers the aggressive sweetness of the jam to create a full bodied multi-layered berry flavor.  The roasted element of the strawberries gives a true-to-taste fruit experience that shares absolutely nothing in common with lower quality, artificial tasting “strawberry” ice creams.  I’m not as well versed on berry bases as I am with sweet cream, caramel, or chocolate, but this is without a doubt my favorite strawberry I have ever had.

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The tres leches cake is dense and chewy in a way that resembles cake batter with a beautiful cinnamon flavor that melds harmoniously with the two fruity components.  There’s a touch of golden sheen to the cake that reminds me of graham crackers in the best way – channeling honey and spice and childhood nostalgia.  A little bit of the cinnamon seeps into the strawberry, so even when you get a bite without cake there’s an added touch of spicy depth that elevates the ice cream beyond your basic berry and into something transcendent.

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What makes Salt and Straw so incredible is their precise attention to detail, and everything about that precision is represented in this pint.  From the use of vanilla strawberry jam instead of just strawberry, which adds a round fullness to the flavor, to the subtle use of salt to balance everything out, Salt & Straw truly craft the scoops of ice cream lovers’ dreams.

Rating: 10/10

REVIEW: Señor Sisig Tacos (Pork and Chicken)

The Bay Area has a very rich food truck scene.  Largely thanks to organized events like Off the Grid and Moveable Feast, trucks that could easily go overlooked have a place to meet and mingle and show off their culinary expertise on wheels.  One of the best trucks I’ve come across in exploring these options is Filipino-Mexican fusion experts Señor Sisig, whose expertly marinated meats and thoughtful ingredients earn their multiple trucks hour long lines wherever they go.  While they’re largely heralded for their expertly stuffed regular and California burritos, this time I opted to try my favorite way for consuming traditional Mexican food – the street taco.

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Sisig is an aggressively seasoned Filipino dish that is usually made with the leftover or less desirable parts of the animal, like the head and liver, using the cuts of meat as a generic backdrop for a spicy and sweet marinade lead by chili peppers and calamansi (a tart citrus related to the kumquat).  Señor Sisig take the premise of the base seasoning and apply it to higher quality meat, like pork shoulder, chicken thigh, and for the vegetarians out there, tofu.

The Señor Sisig taco combines your choice of protein with a corn tortilla, onions, jalapeños, iceberg lettuce, and their signature cilantro cream sauce.  The pork taco is salty and sweet, with succulent slightly fatty pieces of shoulder that explode with robust flavor against the the spicy crispness of the jalapeños and onions.  There’s a beautiful char on the outside of the pork that feels fresh and slightly crunchy like the meat went straight from the grill onto the tortilla and into my mouth.

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Eating this taco is very reminiscent of the most perfect al pastor, with its balance of sweet and heat being one of the most delicious things you could ever put inside of a tortilla.  The cilantro cream sauce reminds me a lot of Mexican crema – thinner and more runny than standard sour cream with a slight cilantro and limey kick that offsets and mellows the spice running throughout.

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The chicken is a little bit leaner and sweeter, with a salty presence and significantly less heat; although you still get a good burst of spice from the ample diced jalapeño on top.  There is less char on the outside of the meat and the sweet/sour notes really sing on the firmer thigh meat.  While the pork taco didn’t need any modification at all, this one gets taken to new heights with the addition of the provided Sriracha sauce.  The heat and garlic that the sauce adds to the flavor makes up for the lack of depth that comes with the lower fat content and is deliciously spicy in a way that you never want to end.

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Ratings:
Sisig Pork Taco: 10/10
Sisig Chicken Taco: 8.5/10

REVIEW: The Halal Guys Chicken and Gyro Platter

Fast casual dining has been on a tear the last couple of years.  After the huge success of places like Chipotle and Five Guys, Poke Bowl spots have begun popping up everywhere, and now, The Halal Guys are going national.  The Halal Guys started as a “street meat” hot dog cart in New York in 1990 and have recently been bought out by Fransmart to franchise, with over 200 locations in development, opening up their second Bay Area location at the end of January.

Their Halal platter combines chicken and gyro meat on top of seasoned rice with lettuce, tomatoes, and pita, to build your own flavor-filled destiny bite after bite.  I got the small size, which costs $8.99, and is a pretty decent portion with plenty of protein and carbs to boot.

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The chicken on its own is a bit dry and bland, not bad, but nothing too remarkable either.  It’s chopped and shredded into bite sized pieces so it can be easily mixed with the other components in the bowl, which is good because it needs a little help.  On the flip side, the gyro meat is moist and salty with Mediterranean seasoning that embraces garlic, cumin, and rosemary.  The beef is delicious and robust with its use of earthy spices and aggressive salt shine.

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The orange rice is a little hard, almost like al dente pasta, with a slight oil slick and only a hint of additional spice, but no spiciness.  The pita is standard and tastes fresh; it is soft and fluffy with a doughy chew that serves as a good foundation for your personalized Halal-chomp.

What The Halal Guys are most heralded for (according to internet hype) is their White Sauce, which is essentially seasoned mayonnaise, or, ranch dressing without the dill.  It’s a purely decadent slathering of fat that helps aid in the moisture and flavor of the chicken, and is a solid combo with the poultry, but ultimately felt almost too rich for this type of food, which I associate more with a yogurt-based tzatziki sauce.  It’s got a slight lemony tang and beyond that just tastes kind of “white” – like a blanket of mayo snow on a town made of chicken.

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The element of this experience that surprised me the most was the Halal Guys hot sauce – it is HOT!  It might be the spiciest sauce I’ve ever received in packet form from a restaurant and there is no better time to use the phrase “a dab will do ya” than when applying this stuff to your food.  The sauce is thick and deep red with an immediate heat that coats your tongue and makes its way to the back of the throat.  I’m not sure which peppers they conjured from hell to whip this stuff together since the label just lists “spices”, but they did a very convincing job of channeling fire into a “to go” form.  Apparently in the original days of the New York food cart the people preparing the food would layer the two sauces on top of the platter, and if you’re going to use any decent amount of this hot sauce with your meat, the white sauce is definitely necessary to provide a cooling backdrop to the heat.

Overall my initial impression of The Halal Guys is that it is good, but not great.  Anytime a highly anticipated chain, small or otherwise, makes it to an area with such an elaborately rich food culture like San Francisco’s, it’s hard to convince me that the new guy is really needed.  While I would go back if the right scenario presented itself, I certainly wouldn’t put the food above the local chain Oasis Grill, or a fantastic one off spot like the Mission’s Old Jerusalem.

Rating: 7/10