Sunday, February 26, 2017

Harvest Road Flamin' Baked Crunchy Curls (Big Lots)

Can't find the actual fucking photo of these anywhere, but at least the brand is right. Similar product, only redder.
When it comes to private label foods, Big Lots is only a couple notches above Dollar Tree for me--that is to say, I don’t have a lot of confidence when picking up a food item from a brand I’ve never heard of before.  But a man’s gotta eat, and when I saw Harvest Road’s Flamin’ Baked Crunchy Curls for $1.50, I jumped at the chance to give them a shot, even though in the back of my mind, I knew that I was potentially purchasing a bag full of failure.

Well products like these are the reason why I try to go in with an open mind, instead of judging a book by its cover:  These are pretty much exactly the national brand, for a fraction of the cost.  Now, I might be missing some slight differences in taste, namely because my mouth goes numb a few pieces in (I love hot foods, but I do not have the mouth for it), but right before I lose all feeling in my tongue, I do get a strong dose of cheese flavor.  In fact, to me it’s virtually indistinguishable from the national brand, so it gets heavy marks for flavor.

The one problem I have with this, and many other similar products, is that the packaging is so weak that it easily falls apart.  This lead the first bag I bought to go stale within three days, simply because I didn’t realize the bag had torn so far down from me just eating a few pieces.  Even Aldi’s version of this product did the same thing to me.  Would it really increase the costs that much to have decent packaging?  For a product that’s mainly corn, one of the cheapest and most-used ingredients in the world, I doubt the cost of the stuff in the bag even approaches $.50, so I’d like to think a couple extra pennies could be used to solidify the packaging.

Other than that, though, I was heavily surprised by the quality of this product, at least in terms of being compared to the national brand.  I can’t say for sure if this is something that Big Lots will carry all the time going forward (I’ve never seen them before), so if you see these in your local store, and enjoy the national brand, then you can definitely satisfy your craving while simultaneously saving a buck or two.

Overall: 8.5/10. I’m really astonished at how “accurate” the flavor is, when compared to the national brand.  There’s a heavy dose of cheesiness, and the exact same amount of heat, which always causes my mouth to go numb just a few pieces in.  Even its appearance is pretty much exact, with cheese curls heavily coated in the daunting red powder.  At $1.50 per bag, there’s also a decent amount of savings over the name-brand stuff, so it’s definitely worth your while to grab a bag.  I’m not sure if this is a product Big Lots carries all the time, or if it’s part of their rotating selection of closeouts, so I’d recommend getting to your local store quick!

Fresh Finds Dippable Tortilla Chips (Big Lots)

Not even the right goddamned brand, but the chips look similar. I'm just about over this photo shit.
I went to both Dollar Tree and Aldi one day, and completely forgot to buy chips at both of them.  This wouldn’t be much of an issue, had my wife not made (literally) three pounds of pineapple salsa the night before; if you’ve never had fresh pineapple salsa, then you have not lived a complete life.

Not wanting to make the five minute trek back to Aldi, nor the roughly ten minute journey back to Dollar Tree, I instead opted to take a three-minute drive to Big Lots, figuring they would have some form of tortilla chips.  I had only two rules, laid on me by my picky wife: No yellow corn chips (fine by me, as I don’t like them, either), and no round chips (also fair enough, as I tend to equate those with cheap gas station food anyway).  I was really hoping Big Lots would have another option, as I was not going to make a trip anywhere else.

After scanning the chip aisle for a few seconds, I started to get nervous, as I had not seen a single bag of tortilla chips.  Of course, there was the usual collection of misguided chips, and failed experiments, but nothing so straightforward and plain as a tortilla.  Then, right in the middle, I spotted the small section of tortillas.  My options were either a small bag of round tortilla chips, for a dollar, or a larger bag of “dippable” tortilla chips, with the large crater in the middle to hold a generous helping of whatever you‘re going to dip them into.  Since that was the only kind that met my wife’s stringent criteria, I “scooped” up a bag of Fresh Finds Dippable Tortilla Chips, Fresh Finds being, as far as I can tell, Big Lots’ own house brand.

I’ve been pretty impressed with the small handful of Fresh Finds items I’ve tried before, but these chips have to be their best product yet.  They’re surprisingly light and crunchy, with a corn flavor that’s not too strong, but not too light, either.  Even more importantly, they’re not doused in a heavy helping of salt, something that tends to happen with many bargain brands.  Because of this, the chips actually fed off the salsa surprisingly well, by allowing the sweetness of the pineapple to really shine, only throwing in a little bit of sodium to create the perfect counterbalance.  My wife also enjoyed them, to the point that we declared these to be our new go-to tortilla chip.  If that doesn’t say it all, well then I don’t know what will.

Overall: 8/10.  Fresh Finds products are Big Lots house brand, and the handful that I’ve had have all been at least good.  But these are the best of the bunch:  They are surprisingly light, yet crunchy, and don’t compromise the taste of your favorite dips or salsas with an overabundance of salt, like some brands have.  And for the standard Fresh Finds chip price of $1.90, it’s light on the wallet, too.  Give them a try

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Stacker Pop Super Strength Cherry Cola Flavored Energy Shot (Dollar Tree)

For those masochists out there who like to punish themselves.
Well, the citrus soda version of this shot was terrible, and that's a flavor that shouldn't be that hard to screw up, so now we turn our attention to the cherry cola energy shot, presented by Stacker. Again, I don't understand why a non-carbonated energy shot would attempt to emulate a carbonated beverage, but let's just cast our doubts aside and give this one a "shot", eh?

Now, I was even more disturbed at the thought of this, because I can't stand fakey cherry syrup. If I go to a restaurant that offers cherry cola, only to discover it's just cola with cherry syrup, I flat out refuse to even partake in that...way too many syrups are way too over-the-top, and it just tastes to me like I'm drinking a cartoon. With that in mind, here's an energy drink that is made up entirely of chemicals and fake stuff, so that knowledge, paired up with the failure of the previous drink, had me really dreading this one.

As it turns out, it's even worse than I ever imagined. The taste of this one is so bad that it literally makes my stomach turn just thinking about it. There is some fake cherry cola flavor in there at first, but then it's once again replaced with a bitter aftertaste that completely ruins it and not only makes drinking it not enjoyable, but a literal chore: The cherry flavor reminds me a ton of cough syrup I hated as a kid, so I have to force it down while dealing with PTSD-style memories of being sick as a child. The aftertaste hints that there's some alcohol in there, only without the benefit of there actually being any alcohol in tastes like shit just because it wants to, which doesn't even make sense in my book, especially considering a vast majority of these shots actually taste good.

Even within the walls of Dollar Tree, from where I got these, there are no fewer than ten different energy shots available, and all of the others I've tried have been good. Hell, even Stacker themselves offer knockoffs of the national brand energy shot, in both grape and berry flavors, that are above average. Why they felt the need to release this abomination on the world is beyond me.

Just like the citrus junk, I have to give it some points, because it actually does work for what it's supposed to do. In other words, I did get a noticeable increase in energy after forcing some of it down. The dollar price tag is stuck in the middle of Valueland: it's more expensive than Aldi's $.69 energy shots, but much cheaper than the national brands, so there's at least some value to be had. But this just feels like an endurance test, like a prank product where some executive is laughing at the shit we'll shove down our throats just to save a few coins. This flavor is better suited for ipecac rather than energy.

Overall: 2/10.  This somehow tastes even worse than the citrus soda version, with a flat, non-carbonated cola flavor combining with cherry-flavored cough syrup in an attempt to make your stomach turn. At least, that's what I'm assuming they're going for, because you have to try hard to make something this terrible.  It's literally the worst energy shot I've ever had, and quite possibly the worst energy anything I've ever had the misfortune of forcing down my throat. At a dollar, value is decent, and it does actually provide a kick of energy (hence the reasons it avoids a flat-out zero), but there are no fewer than seven energy shot choices from within the walls of Dollar Tree, and the rest are actually really good (including Stacker's own knockoffs of the national brand energy shot), so there's literally no need for this junk to even exist, and even less of a reason for you to buy it.

Stacker Pop Super Strength Citrus Soda Flavored Energy Shot (Dollar Tree)

Genetically engineered to appeal to 1950s tastebuds.
Stacker's “Stacker Pop” energy line is the perfect example of a product that just feels like it's fifty years too late. For starters, there are any number of full-size energy beverages (8 – 16 oz.) that feature carbonation and are in a much better position to replicate an actual citrus soda, if they felt so inclined. Hell, many such energy drinks have citrus variations, or citrus qualities, so there's already no shortage of such drinks on the market, ready to quench the thirst of—and give a nice energy kick to—people whose tastes skewer more toward the sweet.

But apparently the fine folks at Stacker took a look at the energy market, and found that it seemed to be missing one thing: a citrus energy shot. Okay, fair enough, I suppose. I'm sure there are a growing number of people that don't have time, or the want, to down an entire 16 oz. can and would rather just get their stamina boost by quickly downing a 2 oz. shot. Even taking into consideration that shots have absolutely no carbonation whatsoever--so even if they knocked the flavor out of the park, it would still probably just taste like a flat, uninviting soda—there are a number of other odds stacked against this whole idea before we've even cracked it open.

And then there are the problems that you face after you crack it open. Like the fact I would rather drink my own piss than ever get this shot again. You think that's a far-fetched statement, but as it stands in bottle form, it tastes like I'm drinking someone else's, so it's not so exaggerated after all. There is a small taste of something citrus to start off, that lasts just long enough to trick you into thinking that it might be okay after all, until a bitterness sets in and everything just goes straight to hell after that. It reminds me of a poison that's trying to mask its bitter flavor with some terribly fake, and medicine-y, sweet flavor. It's a rather disgusting flavor that has no business existing in 2017.

Which brings us back to my original statement: This feels like something that would have been offered as a “revolutionary” product in the fifties or sixties. It has the same similar way-off taste that could have tricked people back in the infancy of “natural flavors” but that is just inexcusably way off today. I don't know who tasted this and approved it for human consumption, but I guarantee it's some disconnected executive who never actually has to taste this shit.

On the upside, it does actually provide a little burst of energy, as it's supposed to do, so at least forcing down the flavor isn't entirely for naught. But come on, we shouldn't have to pick between flavor AND functionality. Certainly not in the 21st century, anyway.

Overall: 3.5/10. A terrible blend of medicine, citrus, and piss that has no business being on store shelves in 2017. This is the kind of product I would have expected to see in the fifties and sixties, when “natural flavors” were new and consumers were more tolerant of disgusting stuff because it was "new", but in store aisles filled with delicious-tasting energy shots, what's the point of intentionally introducing this junk? It's a failure just in concept: Why would you try to translate a citrus soda flavor into the only kind of energy drink that is never carbonated? It gets points because $1 is a decent deal (though Aldi's vastly superior shots are $.69) and it did give me a little kick...just not enough of one to justify forcing down its terrible flavor. Gross.