Friday, September 22, 2017

Will's Fresh Foods

Will's Fresh Foods is a packaged picnic salad distributor from the Bay Area (San Leandro).  They make all the basics: pasta salads, potato salads, slaws, tuna/chicken/egg salad, etc.  And for each category, the range is shockingly large.  18 pasta salads alone, 55 salads total.  The products are sold through many big distributors in the area, including Costco, and all the standard grocery stores (Safeway, Albertson's, Lucky, Raley's, etc), so if you are a Bay Area resident, you have probably seen their goods.

Will's makes, I'm not joking, 17 different potato salads.  17!  The range starts out with the usual suspects: diced potato salad, with or without egg.  German (non-mayo) style potato salad, with or without bacon.  Red bliss, with or without egg, with or without mayo.   Then comes "Homestyle" potato salad and "Old Fashion" potato salad (yeah, what is the difference? Homestyle has scallions, eggs, and mayo.  Old Fashion has parsley, sweet onions, and mayo.  Then what is the regular diced one?  It has bell peppers, celery, onions, and mayo).  Then there is ... "Natural" with celery, eggs, relish, and mayo, which sounds like the most normal one to me.  Things get more fun with Southern Creole (yams, bacon, and bbq sauce?!) and Roasted Poblano (poblano and jalapeƱo in this one).

Then there is San Francisco style.  Wait, what?  We have our own style of potato salad now?  It is their signature salad, and top seller, available in salad kit form too.  The packaged version is what I tried.

And before you wonder why on earth I'm reviewing deli salads, let me remind you, I, uh, tend to love these things.  I really love deli salads, particularly macaroni, potato, and slaw, particular when loaded with mayo (like the shockingly good ones from Fountain Cafe's salad bar, or the herbaceous, crunchy Ensalada De Papas from Playa Azul ) or the lackluster options (like the not flavorful enough versions from The Sandwich Spot, Deli &, and Muracci's, the later of which also had corn and broccoli in the potato salad, or mushy ones like A.G. Ferrari, or just plain unmemorable like Wise Sons).  Delica's wasabi potato salad, as crazy as it sounds with snap peas and romaine hearts in it, remains a favorite.  The potato salad from the Qantas business lounge at LAX was the highlight of all my lounge visits in LA, and the Qantas business lounge in Sydney also had some salad hits.

I like deli salads, what can I say?
San Francisco Potato Salad.
"Thin slices of tenderly cooked potatoes blended with rich, creamy whole egg mayonnaise, onions and pickles. A 65 year traditional favorite!"

So, "San Francisco" potato salad is classic mayo potato salad, with onions and pickles.  What makes that ... San Francisco exactly?  I have no idea.

I eagerly scooped up a big plate full, and dug in.  The potatoes were mushier than I like.  It was very creamy, which was good, but I just didn't like the seasoning.  I'm not sure why.  I'm all for pickles and onions, but there was something about this that I just really, really didn't like.

So, 1 point for creamy, -1 point for kinda mushy, and -many points for flavor.  This was not for me.

I realize now that years ago, I had potato salad from Bayside Market, and it was called San Francisco Potato Salad.  It looks just like this, and, well, my review is almost a direct match.  Pretty sure I figured out where they source their salads from!

Edible Cookie Dough, from Doughp

"Doughp makes edible (and bakeable) raw cookie dough! We serve up the raw dough in sugar cones or cups for a ridiculously unique dessert experience. "

Yup, edible cookie dough.  You have seen this taking over the Instagrams lately right?  Will it reach the level of the cupcake craze of years ago?  Probably not, but I see potential to perhaps rival cronuts.

Edible cookie dough is exactly what you think it is.  Cookie dough, made safe for eating without baking.  Sold at speciality shops with long lines, and ever creative ways of making the product look more and more Instragram worthy.  (I've also had amazing cookie dough as a dessert at Little Donkey restaurant in Boston, served on a beater.  Review coming soon!)

Doughp is the latest San Francisco establishment to join this craze (say the name outloud and you'll get it).  They started as a popup at Spark Social events, did a bunch of catering, and now have space inside The Myriad.

They use flaxseed eggs to make the dough safe for eating, and do note that you could bake this dough into actual cookies if you wanted.  But, that isn't what people do.

No, they go to the shop, and get ... cones of cookie dough.  Yes, imagine an ice cream shop, but, instead of scoops of ice cream, you get scoops of cookie dough.

Doughp offers a slew of flavors (nearly 20, which they rotate), including some with names that made me laugh (like, "Eminem" for the M&M flavor, or "Red Dum" with "Red velvet cake violently smashed into a blonde cookie dough"), and plenty that sound amazing ("Fluffed Nutz" I have my eye on, peanut butter & marshmallow fluff!)

And then, the cone.  Flavored cones, like a brilliant red velvet one.  For an extra $1.50 of course.  And toppings, colorful ones, like Fruity Pebbles.  Add $0.50.  Pick your pairings based on looks, or how they'll taste together, depending on your priorities.

The dough itself is $6 a scoop.  Would I pay that?  Nah.  Do I really want a full scoop of cookie dough at a time?  It turns out, no.  But if someone brought me a container full, and I had it stashed in my fridge for a few days/weeks (they say it keeps for a month), I'd gladly eat a couple spoonfuls every day ...
Assorted Edible Dough!
I got to try an assortment of flavors when a friend brought them to a party.  We didn't have them as scoops, or in the colorful cones, or served with toppings, but we still had all the joy of eating cookie dough with a spoon.  And honestly, eating it right from a container like this taps into the same part of my brain as eating Ben & Jerry's from the pint for me, making it that much more satisfying than if in a cone.

The flavors I tried were: Amber Rose, Matcha Dood, That Eclipse, Dough, Oh Snap, and PB Oreo.  My reviews below follow in my order of preference (favorite to least favorite).

All had an enjoyable cookie dough texture, a buttery sweetness.  I didn't taste the flax in any of them, which I was really fearful of, as I don't like flax.
Amber Rose.
Amber Rose: "Cranberry sugar cookie with a hint of elderflower & rose water."

I loved the Amber Rose.  My favorite, no question.  It was a beautiful pink color, studded with dried cranberries.

It was buttery, it was sweet, it was everything good about cookie dough.  I didn't know what the flavor was when I was trying it, but I could tell there was a fascinating subtle something going on, which I guess was the elderflower, and it was sweet in a lovely way, which I guess was the rose water.  I don't even really care for dried cranberries, but I even liked them in here, a bit of texture, more sweetness.

Certainly not a flavor I would have picked, but I loved it, and it was my favorite of the bunch.
Matcha Doodle.
"Snickerdoodle cookie dough with a matcha green tea twist." 

Next I went for the crazy green looking one, Matcha Doodle.  I'll admit, the color wasn't necessarily appealing, but, I knew it was matcha based.  The name ... sounded familiar to me.  Why?  Uh, I think Doughp got inspiration from Humpry Slocombe, who has a flavor of the same name, described as "Generous chunks of cinnamon-y house-made snickerdoodle cookies are mixed throughout creamy matcha green tea ice cream."

Anyway, *this* matcha doodle didn't taste like snickerdoodle in any way, which, was fine with me.  I'm not really one for snickerdoodle.

It did taste like matcha, sweet butter matcha that is, and had a few little bits of white chocolate for added sweetness.  As a fan of matcha, I liked this quite a bit.  My second favorite.

That Eclipse, Dough (Limited Edition).
Ok, back to interesting colors, the limited edition, jet black That Eclipse, Dough.  You can probably guess when this was offered: the eclipse.

While it *looked* interesting, it didn't taste like anything.  Just buttery sweet cookie dough.  The color comes from being charcoal-activated, which didn't add anything to the flavor.  Very plain, boring, but I'm sure it was a top seller during the craze around the eclipse, and probably looked very Instagram worthy in the bright cones (just like the Nano X soft serve from JP Licks, also charcoal activated).

So, fine, but boring.
Oh, Snap!
Speaking of snickerdoodle, next was the plain looking Oh, Snap! the snickerdoodle flavor.

It looked just like regular cookie dough, and that is what it tasted like too.  Very seasoned, very cinnamony, and probably good, if you like snickerdoodle.  Not the flavor for me.
PB Oreo.
I saved the PB Oreo for last, expecting it to be my favorite.  It was my least favorite.

The peanut butter cookie base was ok, but I wasn't into the Oreo.  Which I guess makes sense, as I don't like Oreo much, but I thought the peanut butter and chocolate combo would win me over, and that I'd appreciate the texture.  I didn't.  Meh to Oreo (sorry Dad, I know you love them).

My least favorite, but Ojan enjoyed it (although he also noted that while it was good, it wasn't $6-a-scoop-good).

Monday, September 18, 2017

Papa John's Pizza

Update Review, September 2017

Another year, another free Papa John's pizza as part of T-Mobile Tuesdays.

While I wasn't super excited about Papa John's the first year, this year, I was looking forward to it, since I was pleasantly surprised by the tasty crust and amazing garlic dipping sauce last time.  Plus, I had ideas on how to refine my pizza, and knew exactly what I wanted to order.

Last year, I was impressed with the speed and friendly service.  This year ... not so much.  Same location, different staff member, entirely different experience.  It took forever for my pizza to be ready, and in the end, it was actually sitting there for quite a while before it was handed over.  Also ... I'm pretty sure most of the flaws with my pizza were entirely his fault.  And to be fair, it was not busy, and I was the only customer.  If this was my first Papa John's pizza, I assure you, tasty garlic sauce or not, I would never return.
Medium, Original Crust, Regular Bake, Square Cut, 1/2 Pineapple, 1/2 Onion, BBQ sauce, light cheese. $16.49.
I changed a few elements from my previous order, taking my own advice.

Since I liked the soft, fluffy, original crust last year, I stuck with it (plus, I knew I didn't like the thin crust, and I have bad associations with pan crust from Pizza Hut ...).  I also stuck with the "regular" (instead of "well done") bake, and went for the less standard square cut, that I found so useful.

Unfortunately, this pizza, while those components were ordered the same was as before, was not at all the same.  Where was the puffy, soft, lightly golden, tasty crust from my previous pizza?  This crust didn't puff up, was dark brown, and was quite hard.  Overcooked for sure, but also, it seemed overworked and like it had not risen properly.  Since I was most looking forward to the crusts to dip in the sauce, this was quite sad.

I didn't like the regular pizza sauce last time (too sweet and tangy), so this time, I decided to try the bbq sauce.  The bbq sauce was also sweet, which comes as no surprise, given that the second ingredient (after water) is sugar.  Third ingredient?  Brown sugar.  Both before tomato paste and vinegar are two sugars.  Sweetness like this is more normal in bbq sauce than tomato sauce though, so it seemed more fitting.  It had a light taste of tomato and tang of vinegar, and seasoning from cumin, chili peppers, oregano, and garlic.  But, overwhelmingly, mostly just sweet, so not really possible to taste nor appreciate the other aspects of it.  I wouldn't go for BBQ sauce again.  The final sauce option is ranch, which perhaps I'd try, but honestly, I think I'd rather leave the sauce off entirely, and just have it more like cheesy bread.
Speaking of cheese, we decided to go for "light" cheese rather than regular, which doesn't actually change the type of cheese, only the quantity.  This was a mistake.  Well, it was probably worse due to the skill of my pizza maker, but many edge pieces had no cheese at all.  Only the center slices had cheese.  We ended up adding our own cheese at home, as it was really just lacking.  The cheese that was there was pretty standard, part skim mozzarella (with modified food starch, sugarcane fiber, whey protein concentrate, sodium citrate, and sodium propionate in there for good measure).

For toppings, I went for pineapple (since it goes great with bbq on a classic Hawaiian) and onion (to hedge my bets).

The pineapple bits, er, "tidbits" per the menu, were certainly the canned variety, sweet, and made even sweeter by the addition of sugar.  Yes, the ingredients list pineapple, water, sugar, and some bonus citric acid too.  There wasn't anything wrong with it, but it was very sweet, and with the sweet bbq and no cheese to balance it out, it was just too much.

The onion was actually good.  Onion and bbq were a great combo.  I wish there was more of it though, most slices had 1-2 pieces at most.  These did seem to be real vegetables, "fresh US #1 yellow onions" are the only ingredient listed.

Overall, this was a flop.  The hard crust just ruined it.  The bbq sauce was too sweet.  The toppings were eh.

Future Julie: stick with original crust, regular bake, square cut.  Consider ranch, but probably go sauceless.  Go for onions again, or maybe pepperoni for Ojan.

I got this for free, but normally it would be $16.49, which is way too pricey for such a low quality pizza.

Special Garlic Sauce. $0.65.
But let's talk about that garlic sauce.

Yes, this stuff is a horrible blend of chemicals.  Yes, it tastes just like amazing butter sauce yet contains no butter.  It is terrifying.  And it is delicious.  Liquid delicious.

Soybean oil and water are the base, mixed with some spices that make sense (garlic, salt, "natural flavors"), and then, a slew of additives: vegetable mono & diglycerides and soy lecithin are the magic that makes it to perfect smooth runny melted butter consistency,  lactic acid, sodium benzoate, calcium disodium EDTA, and citric acid add "freshness", natural beta carotene gives it the color, and vitamin A palmitate  is used to "enhance flavor".  Uh, yeah.  Better to not look.

And don't look at the nutrition stats, 150 calories in the little container, all 150 from fat.  

A single container is included with every Papa John's order (no idea why, really, and there is no way to opt-out, or ask for a different dipping sauce instead, but there is no reason you should possibly want to do that anyway).  If you want more, it, like all dipping sauces, are available for $0.65 each.

This was the saving grace of our order.  It makes anything you dunk in it tasty, overcooked or not.
All the free seasonings: Crushed Red Pepper, Parmesan Cheese, Special Seasoning.
I also asked for all the seasoning packets, just to experiment.

The crushed red pepper was totally standard, "dried cut ripe chili peppers", nice for a bit of kick, and something I grew up adding to pizza.

Papa John's can't seem to stop adding sugar to things.  Yup, the parmesan cheese includes sugar of sorts, sugar cane fiber, to prevent caking?   And they add some natamycin to prevent mold.  Lots of additives everywhere.

Finally, the "special seasoning".  This really was basically just spices, I'm not sure what exactly besides salt, garlic, and dried onion though, as the ingredients just say "spices" and "natural flavor" (plus fun things like wheat starch and soybean oil).  I was surprised by how finely ground it was though, it made it hard to really taste much of anything  besides salt and vague spiceness, even when I tried it plain.

Overall, nothing to really note about these, good to add a bit to your pizza, and nice that they include them for free if you ask.

Original Review, 2016

I rarely order pizza.  Sure, I had plenty of pizza growing up, takeout pizza at birthday parties, personal pan pizza at Pizza Hut for Book It, my dad's homemade pizza when my mom worked nights.  When I was in college, I had way more than my fair share of monster slices (with blue cheese to dip my crust in!) delivered late at night to my dorm room.  I went through a phase where I loved making bagel pizzas in my toaster oven.  I discovered deep dish pizza (no, not Pizzaria Uno, I'm talking the good stuff like Little Star), and couldn't get enough.  I went through an artisanal thin crust 900 degree wood fired trendy pizza phase (like Tony's Pizza Napoletana).  My office had a pizza oven for a while, and we had pizza every day.  I've certainly eaten, and enjoyed, plenty of pizza.

And I like carbs.  I love cheese.  I adore toppings.  But, for some reason, pizza has fallen off my list of preferred foods as of late, and I'm really not sure why.  I keep trying to like pizza, and just ... don't.  The only exception is when I transform it via my waffle iron, of course.

But Ojan loves pizza, and one day I had a coupon for a free large 1-topping carryout pizza from Papa John's (thanks, T-Mobile Tuesdays!).  Not one to pass up a freebie, I of course used it as a chance to try Papa John's again for the first time in years.

Do you need me to tell you about Papa John's?  It is a pizza franchise, the 3rd largest in the world (behind Dominos and Pizza Hut, with ~5,000 locations worldwide.  Fairly impressive, given that it was only started in 1983, yes, by a guy named John.

Ordering from Papa John's website was actually kinda fun.  They let me customize far more than I was expecting, and, illustrated it the whole way.

First, the crust.  I could choose my style (original, thin, pan), and then my size (medium, large, extra-large for original, large only for thin, or 12" for pan), and then how it was cut (normal, square), and finally, how it was baked (normal, well done).  There was so much I found novel at just this crust selection step.

For example, sizes.  If the pizza comes in medium, large, and extra-large ... how is that not just small, medium, large?  Have they inflated the sizes so much small no longer exists?  And why does thin crust only come in one size (large)?  And why is pan crust specified in inches, a real metric, rather than these arbitrary sizes?  How does a 12" compare to a large? (If you care, the internet implies that they did used to make a 10" small, but now only have the 12"/14"/16" sizes, the thin crust comes only in large because it isn't made in-store, and the pan pizza comes only in 12" which is a medium in original crust).

Then, cut.  Normal or square?  I had no idea that I had options like this.  I clicked on "square", and watched my pizza illustration change from "normal", 8 triangle slices, to 4 crustless squares in the center, 8 square-ish slices with crust, and 4 rounded corners that were more than 50% crust.  Well, huh.  When getting a large pizza, I immediately saw the appeal.  8 same size slices never really is ideal, is it?  Someone always wants more, but not a full slice more.  Someone always discards the crust.  Someone else always wants the crust for dipping.  With square cut, you can take a small piece more.  You can opt for crust or not.  You can go for the little corners with all the crust.  So much better for groups.  Why is this not an option at more places?  Or is it, and you just have to ask normally?

And finally, baked regular or well-done.  I guess that is for the folks who want really crispy pizza?

Next up was sauce.  I had choices: original (aka, tomato based pizza sauce), bbq, or ranch.  I could choose how much sauce (normal, light, extra, no).  Again, I guess you can ask any place to go light or heavy, but it was great having it built into the ordering process without feeling like asking for something special.  While there was only one choice for cheese, I again could pick if I wanted it light.

Finally, toppings.  For meats, I could add pepperoni, bacon, canadian bacon, grilled chicken, sausage, spicy sausage, beef, anchovy, and salami.  Veggies were pineapple, onion, black olive, roasted garlic, jalapeno peppers, roma tomatoes, mushrooms, artichoke hearts, green peppers, and banana peppers.  Oh, and here was more cheese customization, extra cheese, 3-cheese blend, or parmesan romano.  You can opt for half toppings, and choose which half, again, nicely illustrated.

I had way too much fun playing with the online pizza maker, particularly the toppings.  It animated them dropping on!

Since my coupon was for a single topping large pizza only, I didn't spent too much time exploring the rest of the menu, but, Papa John's is basically just a pizza place, no other entrees, no token salads or pasta dishes.  They do have a few starters, a slew of different forms of breadsticks (original, cheese, Tuscan 6-cheese, garlic parmesan, Wisconsin cheese stuffed, bacon cheddar stuffed), garlic knots, wings (buffalo, bbq, honey chipotle, plain), and chicken poppers.  Oh, and dipping sauces.  All pizzas come with their magic garlic dipping sauce, but they also have bbq, ranch, buffalo, blue cheese, honey mustard, cheese, and pizza sauce dipping cups, $0.65 each.  As a dipper, this is a highlight for me, although I wish you could sub in another sauce for the garlic sauce from time to time, since they are all the same price.  I could have added on crushed red pepper or special seasoning packets (complimentary), but I totally forgot, as they weren't part of the pizza making flow.  Doh.

Of course I did glance at the dessert options, but alas, no dessert pizzas here.  They do have a huge family size chocolate chip brownie cut into 9 squares and a large format 8 slice chocolate chip cookie, both served warm, plus local It's It Ice Cream Sandwiches, and the only one that looked good, cinnamon pull aparts, sweet roll pieces covered in cinnamon and sugar, drizzled with cream cheese icing.  Alas, my freebie was not for dessert.

Anyway, I easily ordered my pizza from the San Francisco location online.  I could have specified a pick-up time in the future, but I opted to get it ASAP, worried that saying I wanted it at 5pm, could mean they'd make it early to prepare, and it would be less fresh.  Of course, this meant I didn't know exactly when it would be ready, and the online system just told me that I'd get an e-mail with more info.  The e-mail said ... 5-15 minutes!  Luckily, I was just a couple blocks away.

My pizza was ready when I arrived, and, my order was correct.  The sole guy running the place looked up when I entered, greeted me (even though he was in back making pizza), and hurried out to help me.  He double checked my order, handed it over with a smile, and was really quite pleasant.  Perhaps I lucked out, as I honestly was a bit worried about the whole thing, given Yelp reviews consistently saying that online orders were not received and that the staff are rude.

My entire experience was pleasant, from ordering, to pick up, to consumption.  Is Papa John's amazing pizza?  Nah.  But it was well made pizza, and the garlic sauce is really a thing of (awful) beauty.
Large Original Crust Sausage Pizza. $18.74.
I could say this was just a "Large Original Crust Sausage Pizza", but, if you want the real order, it was a Large, Original Crust, Square Cut, Regular Bake, Original Sauce, Normal Amount Sauce, Normal Amount Cheese, Sausage Pizza.  As with all Papa John's pizzas, it came with a single pepperoncini on the side and a single pot of garlic sauce, each of which you can order more of for $0.65.

The box was warm, and the pizza looked like any old standard takeout pizza.

The SF location does not have any seating, but, I wanted to try it hot, so I pulled out one small slice as I walked down the street, pizza box tucked under my arm.  Don't judge.  (Side note: this is part of the beauty of the square cut, I could pick just a small piece, easy to hold and munch on the go, rather than a full sized triangle slice).

It was indeed hot and fresh.  It was a well made pizza, for this style of pizza.  It had plenty of cheese, equal coverage to the edges.  Generic, shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese, not too greasy.  The sauce was also well distributed, and in a proper proportion, although, I didn't quite care for the tangy, herby nature to it.  Maybe I'd get light sauce next time, or even switch in the bbq or ranch.  My topping pick, sausage, came in a good quantity, although the coverage wasn't quite even.  The sausage was fine, a bit spicer than I expected given that they also have a spicy sausage, but I didn't mind this at all.

But the sauce, cheese, and topping weren't particularly interesting to me.  It is those elements that have made me kinda sick of pizza.  What I cared about was the crust and the dipping sauce.

Again, the beauty of the square cut, is that I could opt for those tiny corner pieces that were 80% crust.  The loser piece to many, but for me, the prize.  The crust was fluffy and light, crispy on the bottom, puffy and doughy on the edges.  It had a good chew to it, as in, not chewy, and a subtle sweetness that I really liked.  Sure, still generic takeout pizza crust, but, I liked it.

Ok, maybe I just liked the garlic dipping sauce?  The Papa John's "Special Garlic Sauce".  A magical mix of scary ingredients, that tastes like liquid garlic butter (although, it, uh, has no butter).  The garlic is great.  The buttery nature is great.  It transforms crusts into what you always want a garlic breadstick to be.  If you read the ingredients however, you'll be scared: soybean oil, vegetable mono & diglycerides, soy lecithin,  lactic acid, sodium benzoate, calcium disodium EDTA, citric acid ... Their online ingredient guide does tell you why they add each of these things (some help maintain the consistency, others for freshness, others for color).  But still.  I pretended it was just totally natural liquid garlic butter of perfect consistency at room temperature.

I enjoyed my crusts dipped in the garlic sauce.  I appreciated that, even though a generic pizza, it was made some decent care.  I can't imagine paying $18.74 for this though.

I found some notes later that I had actually tried the thin crust (with pineapple on top), before.  I didn't like the thin crust, noting that it was "very cardboard-like.  Thin and fairly useless.  Not sure why I ordered thin crust, I know generic pizza places are better at regular crust!"  So, original crust it is.  I also didn't like the sauce then, saying it was too sweet, and that there was far too much of it for a thin crust pizza.  The cheese then was well melted and in the proper amount too.  The pineapple was little chunks, good distribution, but just canned stuff.  And I loved the spice packet on the side for the zing.

Papa John's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato