Friday Fast-Food Fishtacular — Burger King’s Spicy Big Fish

What happens when a ubiquitous fast-food chain swaps out tartar sauce for “spicy sauce” on their fish sandwich?

You get a happy customer.

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Burger King‘s Spicy Big Fish Sandwich is their latest deep-fried ichthological offering. It appears to be roughly the same build as their Big Fish Sandwich (which I reviewed here), so for sake of brevity, I’ll just give the highlights.

BKFish

The slab of panko-crusted white Alaskan pollock comes with pickles, lettuce and a “spicy sauce,” all within a “brioche-style” bun. Not a true brioche, apparently. The sandwich experience is largely the same as their Big Fish, with one exception.

BKFish_inside

The “spicy sauce” replaces the tartar, and it’s a welcome change. Though not as spicy as their “Zesty Sauce” (the condiment-of-choice for their onion rings), it did change the overall flavor profile to something better — and more memorable — than tartar sauce. Which, in the world of fast-food fish sandwiches, is a good thing.

The Spicy Big Fish is $3.89. The Big Fish was $3.59 in 2013, so I don’t know if this is just a regular price increase or a $0.20 upsell for the spicy sauce. It also clocks in at 470 calories, 24g of fat and 1150mg of sodium — all lower than the Big Fish (and significantly lower than 2013’s Big Fish).

Not bad, Burger King — perhaps the tide is turning in your favor?

Read other Friday Fast Food Fishtacular posts here.

Friday Fast-Food Fishtacular — AM/PM’s Fish Sandwich

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It’s been a while since my last Friday Fast Food Fishtacular, mainly because I’ve exhausted all the fast-food fish sandwich offerings in the tri-county area. In fact, I was considering a series of critiques on fish tacos/fish burritos, but that could escalate into shrimp po’boys or tuna melts. No, fish sandwiches are my jam. Last week, I was completely taken off guard by a new fish sandwich from a most unlikely chain — AM/PM.

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Actually it was Darlene who spotted the banner ad as we were waiting for a green light, and I was instantly intrigued. First: How did AM/PM crack the fish sandwich code that fast-food chains held in complete secrecy for half a century? Second: How fresh/tasty could these sandwiches possibly be, in the absence of a deep-fryer or skilled fishmonger? Third: Is AM/PM considered “fast food?” I figured $1.99 (+ tax) would give me some answers.

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Of course the fish sandwich was served in a foil hotbag in their self-serve heatlamp box (where their burgers, dogs etc. reside). It had a cryptic expiration time on the bag, which said “Enjoy by 1:30″ but “5:00″ was circled on the clock. Seeing as how this was about half-past noon, I had no idea what any of this meant. I applaud that they try to make these as fresh as possible, but the problem is right in front of me: are we talking AM or PM? Was it made at 1:30 AM? Would I die if I ate it after 5:00 PM? And isn’t 5:00 PM technically before 1:30 AM the following day?? It’s the Gremlins Paradox: Don’t feed Gizmo after midnight… but isn’t 8:00 AM after midnight? WHAT DO I DO??

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From the initial reveal, it certainly looked like a fish sandwich, probably not too far off from what you’d get at the university’s dining commons. According to the bag, it’s a deep-fried slab of Alaska pollock with a slice of processed cheddar cheese. What it DIDN’T have was a fat blanket of tartar sauce or a beautiful bed of lettuce (see banner ad photo up top for reference). Maybe I missed the lettuce bin and the tartar sauce pump bucket?

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What it DID have was a curious case of shrinkage. In the above photo I highlighted two areas of the fish patty where the fish actually shrunk within its deep-fried coat of breading. Weird. Your results may vary.

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Onto the eating experience itself — it was not as horrible as I imagined. (AM/PM, if you’re reading this, feel free to use that sentence as a testimonial in future ad campaigns. You’re welcome.) The geometric fish slab was crispy and tasted fine, the bun was soft and not stale/dried out from the hotbag and the pasteurized and processed cheese tasted as you’d expect from its description on the back. A week later, I’d say the takeaway was a cheese-flavored sandwich with some fish essence. Certainly not worth two bucks or whatever regrets you’d have afterward.

The AM/PM Fish Sandwich has 357 calories and 8 grams of fat. Surprisingly, that’s fewer calories and fat than the Jack in the Box fish sandwich, but that apparently reflects the absence of tartar sauce.

The ball’s in your court, 7-Eleven.

Read other Friday Fast Food Fishtacular posts here.

Gilding the Lily: Deep-Fried Spam Musubi

Deep Fried Spam Musubi

Spam is the big joke in the food world but to me, I love me some fried slices with a bit of white rice. I try to always have a can in the pantry for impromptu meals when there’s nothing else to eat. In addition, I’ve eaten my way through as many varieties of Spam as possible (hint: stay away from Chorizo Spam).

Recently, a food writer friend told me about the deep fried Spam at Homestyle Hawaiian Restaurant & Catering. I haven’t really forgiven the restaurant for shutting down their shave ice stand but I was willing to give them another chance because of Spam.

There’s a make-your-own musubi with a choice of Portugese sausage, egg, teriyaki chicken or beef for $1.75 each. A regular Spam musubi is the same price but for a little more, you can order the deep fried version at 2 for $5.

I ordered it to go and took the most disgusting photo. Imagine four pieces of cynical Spam musubi squished into a styofoam box with orange sauce all over. For two people, its really quite a lot. And with the added crispy coating plus unnecessary “lava sauce” (a mix of Sriracha and mayo), it was too much flavor for something that’s already perfect on its own.

Unless you’re looking for an over-the-top musubi, just pass on the deep fried spam.

Homestyle Hawaiian
7524 Mesa College Dr.
San Diego CA 92111

The Case of the Curious Roll: Dickey’s BBQ

Dickey's Roll

As a Clairemont Mesa resident, I’m excited that I’m able to walk to 85ºC and slew of other restaurants in the area. Granted, they’re all chains but having choices is part of the fun. And I’ve been to all with mixed results. Chicken Charlie’s FRYBQ, in my opinion, is really a one-visit type of place and unless you’re really missing the fair doesn’t need to be in your restaurant rotation. And Boudin is really just an excuse to carbo load if the lines at 85ºC is out the door. And although Ototo Sushi is passable, the problems with service will keep me out of there for a while until they can smooth it out. Which leads us to Dickey’s BBQ across the street. Curious enough, it’s right next to vegan restaurant Native Foods which I surprisingly enjoy.

But back to Dickey’s. We happened there one Friday night for a relatively early dinner. At one week since its opening, it seemed like all of Clairemont was out for chain BBQ food. After some confusion of where the line started and ended, we both settled on one-meat plates that included a choice of two sides and a bun. By the time we finally were at the front of the line, sides were starting to run out (no baked beans for Paul). We got the last of the potato casserole, the mac ‘n’ cheese looked a tad soupier than I like and the bun that accompanies all plates looked to be part of a roll used for their sandwiches.

On asking about the roll when our trays were handed out to us, the lady at the casher confirmed without question that the measly portion was “the roll.” Paul’s plate fared no better looking like the top half of the same bun. Conditions for a Friday night were cramped, condiments were constantly running out and the bun just got us down.

Overall, the meat was OK and didn’t have that authentic, long smoke taste. Definitely not worth the wait. (According to the diagram by ordering station, the total weight of one meat plate should equal .19 lbs.) Aside from the starring component, the sides were pretty good. I loved the okra and mashed potato casserole but as a BBQ venue, I give it a complete pass. At least we made it up with a free vanilla cone.

Dickey’s BBQ 
5064 Balboa Ave.
San Diego, CA 92111

The Story of Allan

It would have been some time today that I’d call my mom up to share our fondest memories of Allan, and even some sad ones. I’d set aside some time and just talk. Call it part of our shared grieving process but even decades after his death, knowing how January 22 defined us meant a lot to me. But unless you knew me when it happened, I never spoke of him unlike my mom who talked like he was in the room next door waiting for us. A visit to his gravesite was always casually phrased as “I’m visiting Allan.” And as years went on, I tucked him further and further in the back of my mind despite my mom’s suggestion that’s there no shame in sharing it with people and not a pockmark on me as a person. In retrospect, I did it because of the explanation of how he died is a jumble of childhood memories and emotions. And talking about death in general — even in the past tense — makes people uncomfortable. Sadly, with my mom’s passing, there’s no one I can share memories about him. So I’m opening up and sharing the story of Allan.

—-

Allan My maternal grandmother, Warren, Allan (wearing a Superman shirt) and me.

Allan came to my family in the blustery cold day in November. Me, at the age of five, was unaware that my mom was pregnant until one morning, the sweet grandmotherly lady next door came over and prepped me and my other brother Warren, for a trip to the hospital to pick up the newest member of our family.

My first sight of Allan was a shrunken little thing. I squished between the bucket seats of my dad’s Datsun as he drove home trying to get a better look at my new brother. Even days after, they wouldn’t really let me see him. Or maybe I was just too involved in the busy life of a kindergartener. My dad was my main caretaker tying my waist-length hair into a painful ponytail while my mom tended to the baby.

For Allan’s first Christmas and a little more than a month old, he cradled was in his cradle looking like Santa Claus with white eyebrows. (My mom never explained what was going with that.) And I received the best present: a baby brother.

Being five years old with a baby brother was a dream. Allan was a living doll and I didn’t care he was a boy. I changed his diapers, dressed him, fed him and appropriately teased him. Our favorite song was singing “Kentucky Fried Chicken, they do chicken right” at the tops of our voices into each other’s cupped ears causing momentary deafness. I also stole food from him at the dinner table for faux dinner parties later on in the day. No wonder Allan was the skinniest of all the kids and the most resembled my mom. More importantly, he eagerly played house with me while Warren, who was two years older than Allan, willingly pretended to be “our child.”

We were due for a family trip the Navy Exchange where all military families went to do their bargain, tax-free shopping. Before leaving, my dad was delayed inside the house fixing a lamp while Warren, Allan and I played in the front yard. At the time, I was obsessed with ladybugs while Warren and Allan were doing boy things, namely playing catch with a softball. In between head dives into a bug-filled bush in our front yard, I reminded Warren and Allan to look ways before crossing the street but there was no really worry for traffic. At that time, a small farm was across the street in our sleeping neighborhood.

After spending three years, one month, 22 days and handful of hours with Allan, we lost him. I had a ladybug in hand one moment and in the next Allan was lying on the road with a car stopped in front of him. He lay down broken with the softball next to him. There was a rush of things that followed soon after (I know because I had to recall it to a lawyer months later). I called out to my dad and he rushed out, immediately holding Allan on his lap in the middle of the street as a crowd of our neighbors formed. A passing car took them to the nearest hospital and Warren and I were shuttled off to our cousin’s house a block away as my mom followed in another car.

Day turned into evening watching “The World According to Garp” and eating popcorn. (The last thing Warren, Allan and I ate was Jeno’s frozen thin-crust pizza.) When it was time to go home, my uncle walked Warren and me home without a word where we found our dad sitting on the piano stool crying.

The days that followed were a rush of relatives and close family friends flooding the house throughout the week. And there were the unforgettable open casket visitations that have scarred me far deeper than anything to date. Lying in the baby blue casket wasn’t my baby brother. Instead a pasty, slightly bloated little boy looking similar to Allan was wearing a white suit — something I would never consider dressing him in. I couldn’t bring myself to touch him even as my mom kissed his forehead before the casket closed for the final time.

Allan

Returning to school was surreal after a week off and things had changed. I was that student kids would point at, whose family was in the news making an already shy kid more unlikely to open up. Throughout my adult life, from elementary school to my adulthood, I never mentioned Allan again. I only had one brother to avoid explaining Allan. Realizing this my mom encouraged me to talk more and more about him, put out his photo. My favorite, is him as a baby and me posing with my pants cuffs sitting on our heads. You know how they say that time makes grieving a bit easier? It does but it never completely goes away.  I wish he was still around even more this year to help me share memories about our mom.

Whole Grain Diet: Bacon & Scallion Farro

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Hey. Have you been noticing the new blog design? Seems like last year I was playing around and completely screwed up my template so this is only the third and possible last version you’ll see in a while. Along with the new template, I’m writing more. Heck yeah! It’s not a resolution but I just have a lot to say and share. And this looser style of writing is so fast that I can churn something out like this in 10 minutes.

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Between the new template and more writing, I’ve been focusing on more mindful eating and taking care of myself from the inside out. Late last year, my body felt like it was shutting down both physically and emotionally. And with everything going on, I was warned that on a physical level, I had to take care of myself. So I sought out to nourish myself with whole grains, lots of greens and nutrient-rich proteins. Spinach salads and baked salmon could only take me so far and I needed something that could be refrigerated for a few days and reheated. And then I spotted this recipe for farro using bacon on Bon Appetit.

Farro Package

I’ve been meaning to play around with farro and this recipe hit all the right notes featuring cheese, the tang of lemon juice and lots of bacon pieces. It cooks a lot of like risotto but the only difference between my recipe and Bon Appetit’s is the cooking time is reduced in half. Go ahead and spend up to an hour in the kitchen if you want to make this, but if you want to spare a little time, look for a package of 10-Minute Farro at Trader Joe’s.

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Bacon and Scallion Farrotto

Adapted from Bon Appetit

2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
6 slices bacon, cut in 1/4″ chunks
2 bunches scallions, thinly sliced with white and green slices divided
1 package 10-Minute Farro from Trader Joe’s
1/2 cup dry wine wine
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

Bring broth and 1 cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat to low and keep warm.

Heat large saucepan over medium heat. Add bacon and cook until crisp. Move bacon to paper towel to drain fat.

Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from pan. Add scallion whites to pan and cook, stirring often, until soft, about 2 minutes. Add farro and cook until lightly toasted for about 3 minutes. Add wine and stirring, until liquid is almost completely evaporated.

Add 1 cup warm broth mixture to farro and cook, stirring often, until broth is absorbed, about 4 minutes. Continue adding broth mixture by cupfuls, stirring often and letting broth mixture absorb before adding more, until farro is tender but still firm to the bite. Stir in lemon juice, half of scallion greens and ½ cup grated Parmesan; season with salt and pepper.

Serve topped with bacon, more cheese and remaining scallion greens.

For Your Restaurant Week Consideration: Vessel

If you’re looking for a place to check out Restaurant Week, consider the newly renovated Vessel restaurant located within Kona Kai Resort. I visited once before (as a dining guest for another food writer) and didn’t take photos but made a point to return at the later date to see if the food was just as good. And it was.

The Restaurant Week deal at Vessel is $30 for three courses. A great deal considering the sheer amount of food served.

First course dishes included wild mushroom flatbread, mussel, calamari frito and a heirloom apple salad. We opted for the flatbread and calamari.

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Both are great starters and according to our server, the mushroom flatbread pizza is one of the more popular items. (It’s only $5 during their happy hour!) The mix of woodsy mushrooms and sprinkle of fontina and mozzarella cheese are highlighted by truffle oil. But it wasn’t too overpowering.

And while I tend to have problems with restaurants overcooking calamari, the version done was perfectly cooked. Not shown are the half black Napa Valley grapes tossed with the fried squid that added some welcome sweetness to the dish. It almost didn’t need the sweet chili dipping sauce served alongside it.

If it wasn’t for the two other courses afterward, I would have happily just stuck with these items but I came in specifically for the cider-brined pork chop and wild sea bass — two dishes I had tried before.

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Weighing in at almost one pound, the chop is brined for 24 hours, seared and baked until cooked. But it’s the housemade spaetzle that steals the dish with pork lardons tossed throughout (echoing the porkiness of the huge hucnk of meat) and sour cherries scattered throughout. It’s Vessel’s number one dish that executive chef Roy Hendrickson brought with him from Orange County.

Equally good — and Paul argues is better than the pork chop — was the sea bass. Perfectly cooked, the moist fish is dusted with porchini and served with avocado mousse and a toss of marinated wild mushrooms.

Short rib and a vegetarian butternut squash ravioli are the other two entree choices.

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We were far too stuffed for dessert but we soldiered on and tried each of the two dessert choices: key lime pie (not pictured) and a chocolate ganache (above). Does this even need explaining?

The restaurant also is serving up lunch for $15 per person. It’s not as impressive with fish and chips, burgers and sandwiches (but does offer the same dessert options for $5 more) so I recommend holding out for dinner.

Disclaimer: I was invited to dine at Vessel. Our meal and drinks were complimentary and I was not further compensated for this post. All opinions here are my own, duh.

Vessel at Kona Kai Resort
1551 Shelter Island Dr.
San Diego CA 92106
619.221.8000

Found at Trader Joe’s: Chocolate Babka and Sweet Sriracha Bacon Jerky

What’s the best way to break up a workday? Go shopping when everyone else is at work! As much as I complain about staying at home, there are a lot of advantages. Along with wearing PJs until 10 AM, going to the gym midday, not using an alarm clock and the freedom to make my own schedule, it’s pretty swell. (If you must know the bad side, it’s that I pay for my own health insurance, no sick days and my salary. Boo hoo.)

One of my favorite places to visit is Trader Joe’s. Grabbing a gallon of milk is swayed by the allure fabulous new products displayed on the shelf. A $5 visit usually skyrockets to $20 or more. And in between free samples and new products, what should be a 5 minute visit turns into 20.

Here are two products that recently caught my eye.

Brooklyn Chocolate Babka

Trader Joe's Babka

Babka has been on my to-try list forever. While I don’t normally visit the pastry aisle, I’m glad I did it this time to pick up one of these beauts.

Trader Joe's Babka Closeup

I’m unsure if it’s traditional but the version sold at Trader Joe’s has me hooked to try more variations. Imagine a not-too-sweet brownie-croissant-brioche hybrid studded with chocolate chips on top and you have this decadent chocolate treat. Looking it up, it’s a European pastry that’s served for breakfast, coffee break and dessert. Yup! All the meals. The package serves 9 but being the talented eaters we are, we stretched it to 14 servings over 3 days. For you pop culture fans, it’s immortalized in a Seinfeld episode along with a black-and-white cookie.

For $4.99, it’s worth a taste and much cheaper than a trip to Brooklyn.

Sweet Sriracha Uncured Bacon Jerky

Trader Joe's Bacon Jerky

One of the neighborhood dog owners alerted me to this gem. Aside from having our dogs meet ups, we talk about food. And it was through her I discovered this spicy-sweet jerky. At $5.49 for 2 oz. it’s far more than I would pay for jerky. But if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s anywhere near you, the price sure beats the $19.99 tag I’ve been seeing on eBay and Amazon.

Trader Joe's Bacon Jerky Closeup

Not recommended is opening it up for a nibble on the way home. Unless you have wet towelettes, it’s sticky and makes for dangerous driving. Although the slices are thick cut, it’s limp. Flavorwise, it comes across the perfect balance of sweet and familiar Sriracha heat. The package says two servings but I say it’s enough for one person who really, really likes bacon.

On The Set of The Taste: That One Time I Met Lawson, Lefebvre, Samuelsson and Bourdain

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Last fall, I received an invitation to visit The Taste. If you’re not familiar with the reality TV show, it’s where contestants of all walks of life compete on a cooking-reality show for a monetary prize. And it’s based on one fateful bite.

Produced by culinary superstars Nigella Lawson and Anthony Bourdain, it’s currently in its third season and we had a chance to visit towards the end of their season wrap-up. While I won’t spoil who lost when we visited, it was an interesting look at how the show is put together.

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First of all, all the filming takes place in a big, unmarked hangar in Los Angeles. I knew we were in the right place when I saw a printed parking spot for Ludo Lefebvre. (He drives a sweet motorcycle, by the way, which I’ve cropped out of the photo.)

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Once inside, it’s massive and very, very dark. Just as we arrived, lunch was about to be served. We were welcome to join the crew but we opted a bit of ice cream instead. I can’t pass up ice cream.

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Further down the hangar are several trailers dedicated to the stars of the show and decorated according to their preference. A French cafe surrounds Ludo’s trailer, a glamourous champagne and oyster bar for Nigella, Marcus went the way of a New Orleans night club and Tony’s was a Vietnamese market.

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On set, the surprising thing was how quiet it was even with filming in progress. We wouldn’t have known it was filming if the monitors weren’t on. It was fascinating to see that two filmings were going at the same time and based on what I previously read on Kirbie’s and Brandon’s site (who visited the set the day before), it was a continuation of the same show.

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There was a break in the filming and they gave us a chance to visit the set. Since it was only a brief interlude, the set was “still hot” and we were warned not to touch or move anything. Ingredients were spilled all over the floor and work areas were a mess.

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TheTaste_ingredients

Paul and I took the obligatory “Hey, look! We’re on the set of The Taste shots.” but we more intrigued by the pantry. With the exception of Pam cooking spray, most of the major brands were covered up with tape. Think about that; someone had to go through all the products and make them camera ready.

To complete our visit, met with the real stars of the show, the mentors. Having met Anthony Bourdain before at comic-con, I was really interested in seeing the others. Tony was seated on a leather chair poring over the L.A. Times’ business section (I love that he reads local newspapers) and he talked to Paul and I about his favorite comic books (stuff by Steve Canyon and Jim Steranko). Nigella, who smelled like fresh lilacs as she sat next to me, gave me some sage writing advice and was far more elegant than I could have ever imagined. And Marcus was intense but also thoughtful about where the restaurant industry was headed. I would have like to continue talking to him but time was running out and they still need to finish up the day’s work.

TheTaste_Ludo

Unfortunately, Ludo was nowhere to be seen so we left for the day, leaving him a copy of The Girl with the Donut Tattoo (where he’s drawn and mentioned along with Tony and Nigella on the very same page). But as soon as we were driving off , they call us back on set saying that Ludo wanted to meet us. How’s that for a cool story?

The Taste wraps up soon and if you catch the episode tonight (January 8), you’ll also catch San Diego’s very own Javier Plascencia as a guest.

Related: Reality Television: My Dinner at Gordon Ramsay’s Hotel Hell
Andrew Zimmern at Oasis Ice Cream

Not Quite Spicy: Popeye’s Ghost Pepper Wings

Popeye's Ghost Pepper

It’s a general rule that I look at fast food promotions and shrug wondering who in the hell wants to eat that stunt. The mere thought of McRibs make me gag, everything at Carl’s Jr. looks like heartburn waiting to happen and I still have no idea what Burger King’s Yumbo sandwich is about. But Popeye’s… I gotta give them credit. They know how to lure me in.

Last year, I actively sought out their waffle crusted chicken tenders and although the experience was meh, they did it again and drew me in this year with their Ghost Pepper chicken wings.

Only available until the end of January at participating locations, before coated and deep-fried, the wings are marinated in a blend of peppers including the infamous Ghost Peppers. If you don’t know about Ghost Peppers, they’re the super star of hot peppers and I predict that heat is gonna be big this year. In the Scoville rating, jalapenos rate 1,000-4,000 heat unit while ghost peppers can be anywhere from 855,000 to over 2 million units. How’s that for heat??

Popeye's Ghost Pepper box

But back to the wings. Six wing plus a biscuit sets you back $3.99. It also came with a choice of buttermilk dip or black pepper but in preparation for the heat, I opted for the cooling buttermilk to coat the heat as well as my stomach. But one bite in, the wings were anything but spicy. I tossed the dip completely and even let spice-intolerant Paul take a few bites. He agreed that the spice was there although not the scary heat they were advertising. And size-wise, they were tiny.

Sad to say that these didn’t live up to the name and the tag “taste the mystery.” If any ghost peppers were used, it appears it was diluted their entire batch for the day or even month. If you’re looking for real heat stick to their spicy chicken. Go in on Tuesday and you can score 2 pieces for less than two bucks.