Sunday, December 05, 2004

Junk food roundup

Costco: a warehouse club — much like a wholesalers in the UK, except here anyone is free to join as long as they pay $40 per year. The in-laws are huge fans. We haven’t joined yet, but might when we move out into our own apartment. They are cheap, as long as you can store (or eat before they go off) industrial-sized quantities of stuff.

But from the junk-food perspective, two things are significant: firstly, they offer a lot of free samples in the store. And although they check cards on the way in through the main entrance, it’s easy enough to sneak in through one of the registers and graze.

And secondly, their food court is before the card check, so you can go in and eat without needing to be a member. Pizza is good — about $2 a slice with a soda, or $10 for a whole one — but the best deal is on dogs: a hot dog or Polish dog (same basic thing but a more Germanic sausage) and a soda for $1.50. I can definitely recommend the Polish dog over the hot dog.

In-N-Out Burger: a Californian institution since 1948. A basic burger joint — tiled walls, lighted menu — but with a difference. Five things on the menu: burger, cheeseburger, Double-Double (double beef/double cheese), fries, soda; everything cooked fresh after you order; and staff that are well-paid and happy. All excellent. And they’ll customise the order if you want: extra pickle?

(And there are more secret codes, apparently. I’ve seen a few Protein Style burgers — the lo-carb version, wrapped in lettuce leaves rather than a bun — although invariably partnered with an order of fries, which seems to rather miss the point. Atkins is pervasive here, but ripe for a backlash; can’t come soon enough, in my opinion, low-carbers always seem so sanctimonious.)

El Balazo taqueria: one effect of California’s high Hispanic/Mexican population is that Mexican food is cheap, pervasive, and generally good; competition weeds out the duds. El Balazo is a local chain of about 10 taquerias, with locations in Contra Costa County and in San Francisco; and they’re the best burrito I’ve had yet. I can highly recommend the Super Burrito with steak and black beans, although they have a huge menu and I plan to go back and try some other dishes.

We went to the San Ramon restaurant, which is huge and runs along cafeteria lines; take a tray, give your order, and move along the counter; watch it being assembled in front of you; pick it up at the end and pay. $10 buys you enough burrito to render you immobile for the rest of the day.

Also recommended: La Fiesta (Berkeley); La Salsa (chain). Yet to try: High-Tech Burrito; Baja Fresh (both chains with restaurants nearby).

Auntie Anne’s pretzels: and here pretzel means soft pretzel, rather than the hard snacks that President Bush likes to choke on. A soft pretzel is a large baked dough knot, still hot, and usually salted. Two chains dominate around here: Auntie Anne’s and Wetzel’s. Melinda has brand loyalty to Anne’s, so that’s what we’ve had most.

Various varieties at Anne’s: original (crusted with salt; very good); garlic (which is I think the basic pretzel without the salt and dusted with garlic powder; also very good); jalapeño (which has chillis baked into the dough, no salt, and is excellent: enough chilli bite to be interesting, not enough to be overpowering); and sour cream (again the basic pretzel dusted with a sour-cream flavoured powder; this one is not so good).

Wetzel’s has an odd thing called a Wetzel Dog: a hot dog wrapped in a spiral of pretzel dough and baked. Sounds revolting, but in a greasy this-has-got-to-be-bad-for-you way it’s very good.

It’s-It ice-cream: a San Francisco institution — you can see their factory driving South on 101 from SFO. The It’s-It bar dates back to 1928 and is something like this: vanilla ice cream, sandwiched between oatmeal cookies (think plain Hob-Nobs and you’re on the right lines) and then dipped in chocolate. Good, but rich; you certainly wouldn’t want to eat several on the trot.

Jose Cuervo premixed margarita: yum. I tried repeatedly to mix margaritas from scratch in the UK — how hard can it be, it’s only tequila and lime juice — and failed dismally each time. The premixed stuff comes in a 1.75l bottle and is great. They also sell a margarita mix you can add tequila to yourself; I’m trying that one next.

Lemonade: lemonade here is a revelation. In the UK, lemonade is clear, fizzy, and tastes of chemicals. Here, it’s pale greenish, still, and tastes of lemon. Or it’s pink, still, and tastes of lemon; I’m not sure why pink lemonade is pink, but I like it.

And you can buy lemonade (and fruit juice) concentrate frozen in tubes and mix them up at home. A simple pleasure, but still a novelty for me. (Avoid Safeway store brand; it’s worth paying 25c more for Minute Maid frozen pink lemonade.)


The Albertsons own-label is also poor. Stick to Minute Maid.