Things I Have Put in My Mouth Lately(ish): the Schwifty Steak

By now, we’ve all heard about last weekend’s Szechuan Sauce debacle. Many a hot take has been written over the past few days about the confusing attempt at marketing by McDonald’s, as well as the behavior of a bewilderingly large segment of the Rick and Morty fandom that seems to be missing the point.

I’m going to take this as an excuse to write about a related limited-edition dish that I got to eat myself back in June. During this year’s Wizard World Philadelphia, two Reading Terminal Market vendors teamed up to make a Schwifty Steak; that is, a cheesesteak with the infamous “Mulan sauce.” They probably reckoned they’d make bank off of the influx of geeks, and I can’t imagine they were wrong. Hell, they got my money.

It should be noted here that I’ve never even seen a full episode of Rick and Morty. The extent of my viewing is pretty much Gazorpazorpfield, “get your shit together,” and the scene that started this whole mess. Oh, and learning the awful truth behind “wubba lubba dub dub.”

Nevertheless, I was curious. When my then-partner mentioned the Schwifty Steak, I thought that if nothing else, it sounded delicious. That Sunday, I took the walk to RTM to try it for myself. (It also happened to be my 30th birthday. Oh yeah, I’m 30 now. Time is a ceaseless horror and that seems very on-brand for this whole experience.)

The Schwifty Steak was created by Spataro’s Cheesesteaks, with an assist from Condiment, who created the Schwifty Sauce that was slathered on each sandwich. (They also make a transcendent lime curd, and I’ve eaten truly embarrassing amounts of their toum.)

I say that it was slathered on each sandwich. I should have said “each sandwich but mine.” I waited in the long lunchtime line and got my sandwich all the way to Dilworth Park to eat in the sunshine, only to open it and find a regular non-Schwifty steak. Disappointment seems like an essential part of this whole experience.

Usually I just resign myself to eating whatever’s in front of me when this happens, unless it’s something I can’t stomach. But, damn it, it was my birthday and this was a curiosity, so I made the walk back and awkwardly stood in line waiting to get someone’s attention. Thankfully, Spataro’s was great and sent me off with not only a fresh Schwifty Steak, but the original sandwich as well. Two cheesesteaks for $13 means you aspiring financial planners can cool it.

Gazorpazorp blorp

Not a tremendously photogenic sandwich. Also, there’s a reason I haven’t used Instagram in ages.

But how was it? It was: fine. Tasty. The sauce was appealing with a decent spicy kick, though nothing overpowering. I can’t speak to the nostalgic “accuracy” of the Szechuan sauce, as I missed the boat on the original stuff back in 1998, having been a spice-averse tween. (I’m willing to bet this stuff was spicier than the original and my 11-year-old fears were overblown to begin with.) The fried onions were great and always welcome. The American cheese felt like a weird choice, except as a McDonald’s pastiche.

Was it worth it? I mean… sure. It was a good sandwich, as was its cousin, devoured the next day. I only had to wait in a long-but-not-more-so-than-normal lunch line 1.25 times, rather than clamoring to a nearby franchise to battle over a few handfuls of sauce packets. As gimmicks go, you could have it a lot worse, but gimmick it was. 1998 isn’t coming back. Your favorite show won’t save you from what’s coming around the bend. There’s no escape.

Wubba lubba dub dub!

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Things I Have Put in My Mouth Lately: 7-11’s New Jones Sodas

On Sunday I found myself at 7-11 buying cat food, because that’s what happens when you forget to stock up at the grocery store and then find yourself in the throes of a Meowing Emergency State. I’ve been trying to cut way back on my soda consumption, so of course I made the mistake of looking at the beverage coolers. My eyes were drawn, as they so often are, to the most x-treme ‘90s looking stuff in the case. The black-and-white photos on the labels looked awfully familiar. Sure enough, a closer look revealed a familiar name: Jones.

Jones Soda is a smallish soda company based out of Seattle, known for unusual flavors (approach their holiday packs with caution) and featuring customer-submitted photos on their labels. In my preteen and early teen years, a bottle of Jones was a regular treat on nights my brother and I spent with our dad. I have particularly vivid memories of selecting a flavor and suitably cool label picture on our runs to the supermarket on the way home. I have Ideas about kids of divorce and our weird food attachments, but that will be for a later entry.

Anyway, Jones has been tapped by 7-11 for a line of store-brand sodas. There are five flavors, including unusual-in-the-U.S. fruits like lilikoi and rambutan. I bought them all, because I have no self-control. In my defense, I brought them to a Fiasco session that night to share with friends, thinking a group taste test would be fun. However, my friends are smarter than I am and drank almost none of the soda, leaving me to play Drink Roulette while stabbing everyone in the back and getting off almost scot-free. Jones Soda makes you a character in a Coen brothers movie; pass it on.

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Things I Have Put in My Mouth Lately: Malört and Irn-Bru

This past weekend was one for the ages as far as swallowing strange liquids is concerned. Top three for me, at least.

For the uninitiated (i.e. most folks outside the Chicago area, where it was formerly produced and is primarily distributed), Jeppson’s Malört is a type of bäsk, or Swedish wormwood schnapps. You may recognize wormwood as “that stuff in absinthe that’s supposed to make you trip balls,” if you’re a teenager or an ill-informed, pearl-clutching moral guardian. Neither absinthe nor Malört contain anywhere near enough thujone to make you hallucinate and/or die. The one time I tried absinthe, all I got was a mild buzz followed by a faux-consumptive cough that lasted for a week afterward. I guess you could say the experience was historically accurate in that sense.

Anyway, the worst you can say about wormwood in distilled alcohol is that it’s super gross. Not long after I first came to Chicagoland in the summer of 2005, I saw the famed Malört face for the first time. I don’t have a funny story to tell about the circumstances because my long-term memory is a sieve that strains out virtually everything that isn’t personal humiliation or obscure trivia, but suffice it to say that I was not the one making the face. My friends who were native to the area filled me in and, like the true champions they are, never tried to subject me to that particular rite of passage.

As the years passed, I started to consider it something of a point of pride to have dodged the Malört hazing for so long. Every time I missed a round of shots for the out-of-towners, I gloated a bit. I confided in others that, despite all my years in Chicago, the stuff had never crossed my lips. More than once, I was told I was tempting fate.

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Used to be one of the rotten ones

It snowed yesterday, the third-earliest snowfall on record for Chicago.

Hot Doug’s closed on Friday. I never made it down one last time like I meant to. It kept escaping my mind until the beginning of this week, at which point the lines had already grown beyond my tolerance level. I waited for over three hours early in the summer as it was.

I will be going to Club Foot one more time tomorrow night before it, too, shuts its doors. It’s one of those places where most of the stories I can tell are ones I lived only vicariously, but I have memories of my own as well. I’ll drink to the music and take pictures of the memorabilia on the walls and use the uncanny glowing hand dryer one more time.

The city drops its leaves while you aren’t paying attention.

—–

Today marks ten years to the day since I left high school, having tested for my diploma over summer vacation. I knew the anniversary was coming up, so I went back to my old LiveJournal and checked. (It’s like reading a stranger’s writing in places. I read what I wrote and find references and inside jokes I no longer understand. Other posts could have been written yesterday.)

I was seventeen. I had just started my first job as a dishwasher at a Thai restaurant. I was excited to start college courses.

My post from that day:

“I left high school today. For good.

I also applied to SCC today, and I’ll start classes in two weeks, if luck holds.

I just got off work (which I’m loving) an hour ago. Now I’m holed up at Bloodstrike. Soon, I get to ride home through the night and breathe in the fall air.

I love my life. I feel free. If this is adulthood, I’m not so scared.

I’m taking the bus out to Sacramento tomorrow to take some assessment tests for my English and math placement. Wish me luck.”

I could laugh or cry at that girl, on the verge of learning about work and distance and sex and heartbreak and blind unthinking fear, but still oblivious.

Maybe I’ll choose to love her instead.

We’re not so different, after all. I’ve come full circle, and here I am in the middle of another autumn, in a relatively new work situation, with a sense of independence I don’t fully understand and the perpetual feeling that I’ve gotten myself in over my head, even though I’ve always been able to kick my way back to the surface all these years. I’m still lugging around a heart that wants to be everywhere at once.

—–

This is fairly desultory. What it boils down to is that I’m feeling the passage of time intensely these days.

Here is a dedication.

Things I have put in my mouth lately: Butterfly, the Mariah Carey drink

This past week and a half has been a rough cross-section of adulthood for me. The sewage system in my apartment complex decided to back up spontaneously, with the nearest point of exit being the bathroom in my garden apartment. This required me to evacuate first to a motel where I could swear I heard violins in the shower, then out to the suburbs to stay with endlessly patient friends and spend all week panicking about landing more writing jobs and not being broke.

It was in this frame of mind, unknowingly longing for a bit of childhood regression, that I stumbled into Walgreens to buy wine they didn’t have (because Naperville), and found this treasure in the refrigerated beverage case.

it is not

Is it just a sweet, sweet fantasy?

Yes, Mariah Carey has launched her own beverage, described as “interactive” and “melodic.” The latter adjective in particular concerned me, but apparently it means you can scan the bottle with your smartphone to get access to bonus content. I didn’t bother, because the anachronism whiplash was already hurting my neck.

You see, despite its trappings of modernity, I can only describe this drink as tasting like 1998, the year I listened to its namesake album on cassette until it started to wear out. How can a drink taste like a year, you ask? As it turns out, 1998 was also a banner year for marketing perfumes and cosmetics to preteen girls, and as I turned 11 that year, I was deeply familiar with that aisle of Rite Aid. Those of you who remember, say, the Bottled Emotion perfumes Bonne Bell made will find yourselves thrown back into your awkward stage at warp speed.

To come at this with more food-appropriate vocabulary, Butterfly tastes strongly of grape and melon, but in an offputting, artificial way. Those of you who have ever eaten those lychee jelly cups that pose a delicious choking hazard may also notice a resemblance.

The commentary from the friends I roped into tasting it with me (or, in one case, didn’t) backed me up:
“It tastes like perfume! It’s so sweet.”
“It tastes like a Victoria’s Secret in 1998, yeah.” (We may have been in slightly different demographics.)
The sole man in our group, in response to being asked “Doesn’t it smell like 13-year-old girl?”: “I don’t make a habit of smelling 13-year-old girls, but sure?”

Verdict?
As an olfactory sensation, it brings back intense memories of a time when things were more carefree and potential seemed limitless.
As something to actually consume? Honey, I can’t describe how good it feels inside, because… it really doesn’t. I felt vaguely sick and found myself wondering if I would wake up in a cocoon the next morning. (I did not.)

And yes, I have been listening to the Butterfly album for the first time in probably 15 years while writing this post. Thank you, Spotify.

Things I have put in my mouth lately: Glazed & Infused and The Orbit Room

I’m still gathering my thoughts on B-Fest 2014, which was this past weekend. (“Fever dreams tinged with PTSD” might be a more accurate descriptor than “thoughts,” granted.) In the meantime, I’ve got a backlog of food-related scribblings I’ve been meaning to put to pixels.

Various doughnuts, Glazed & Infused (multiple locations around Chicago, @GoGlazed)

Much has been made of the recent doughnut revival, as if doughnuts had been gasping on their deathbed. (I think we were all just tired of trying to make cupcakes happen.) That said, these ones are pretty frickin’ awesome. We had them twice at work recently, once thanks to a thoughtful co-worker and once through a pop-up restaurant program, and I was able to try pieces of five kinds. I’ll go from my least favorite to most favorite.

Caramel Apple: This was the only one I didn’t like. The doughnut was lacking in apple flavor and the topping had an off, burnt taste, whether from the caramel or the peanuts. I don’t see this flavor on their website now. Coincidence?
Old Fashioned: I love old fashioned doughnuts, so I’m particular about what I want out of one. In particular, this means lots of craggy, crusty, crunchy edges, and Glazed & Infused goes a bit restrained on this front. This is really a personal quibble, though. The doughnut has a nice, tender crumb and a vanilla bean glaze that actually provides some flavor beyond “noncommittally sweet.”
Maple Bacon Long John: lololol BACON DOUGHNUT. Now that we’ve got the hipster giggles out of the way, this was tasty, though my admiration may have more to do with the “maple long john” part than the “bacon” part. I’m a sucker for maple doughnuts. It runs in the family. Anyway, the raised doughnut dough is light, the glaze has a true maple flavor, and the bacon is front and center rather than an afterthought.
Fruit Fritter: I think this one took all the fruit flavor from the caramel apple and ran. Where that one was bland and slightly dry, this was lush and oozing with apple. Really, in my opinion, it’s hard to screw up a fritter.
Crème Brûlée: A winner. That great raised dough, intensely flavored vanilla-bean-flecked custard filling, and a torched sugar crust? Deliver directly to face. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200, unless that money is going immediately toward more doughnuts.

Le Bourjois Pig, The Orbit Room (2959 N California Ave, Chicago, IL 60618)

[sic] on that burger name, for the record. Written as printed on the menu. (Possibly a conflict with this Bourgeois Pig, or is that just idle speculation?)

I’d had my eye on LBP for several visits before taking the plunge. It’s a behemoth of a burger topped with bacon, caramelized onions, roasted pears, and Brie. I’m at a loss for adjectives that don’t make me sound like Hedonism Bot.

How wonderfully decadent!

No chocolate icing here. Not that you’d be able to tell, because Instagram.

If you’re a stickler for burger construction, be forewarned; this shit is going to fall apart on you constantly. I found myself taking bites of the burger, then popping the fallen pieces of pear in behind them.

How does it taste, though? Good, in the way that makes you feel bad about yourself afterwards. There’s a lot going on. The pears, in addition to having a desire to escape, ended up overpowered by the other toppings (especially the Brie rind); I wonder how thinner slices of raw pear would fare in the mix. Also, with so many other flavors going on, the beef ended up playing second fiddle, which was a shame because it was a great juicy medium-rare. I’ve had simpler burgers here and I know they’re not hiding anything.

Verdict? I’d eat it again, but there are other things on Orbit Room’s menu that I’m overdue to try first. If you end up there to drink, be advised, their food isn’t just stomach insulation. They put thought into it, and even if you’re not drunk yet, you will eat too much.

Also, their onion rings are awesome. But that’s for another day.

Things I have put in my mouth not-so-lately or will soon: Thanksgiving edition

I’m so torn over BuzzFeed. Every time I realize how much time I’ve wasted reading vapid listicles and start vowing to block the website to save me from myself, I run across something like the rather excellent longform piece on boomtown strippers that ended up partly inspiring my current stab at a novel draft… or today’s crucial discovery, the LATKE BURGER. (original here)

You guys, I need this inside me.

Unlike last year, I don’t get to jet off to New York on a whim this Thanksgiving, and I’m presumably spending the day at home on my own. (Don’t cry for me, Argentina. I get a Friendsgiving on Sunday, plus any day where I don’t have to put on pants is a good day in my book.) I might have to try this. I just hope it’s not completely underwhelming; it’s still a turkey burger, after all.

Ghosts of Thanksgivings past:

Sauce Thanksgiving menu 2012

Last year’s Thanksgiving prix fixe menu for Sauce in NYC (78-84 Rivington St, New York, NY 10002, @sauce_nyc). Extremely belated review:

– The fall Parmigiano salad was amazing, possibly my favorite course. It was well-balanced between the bitterness of the greens, the sweetness of the pears and dried yams, and the saltiness of the Parmigiano and bacon. All of the components were distinct but none of them felt out of place. I really want to try replicating this at home.
– Much to my heartbreak, they were out of the short rib tortelloni by the time of my reservation, which wasn’t exactly late in the evening. I went with the cappuccino di zucca instead, which was still tasty if a bit heavy-handed with the salt (like, “crunching down on crystals of it” heavy-handed). Butternut squash soup isn’t exactly a novelty, though. I still mourn what might have been.
– The main course made me feel better. The turkey was awesome, which is not usually an adjective I apply to that particular bird. (Thanksgiving has always been all about the starches and cranberry sauce for me, to be honest.) I especially loved the porcini mushroom stuffing in the breast, and the leg confit was intensely savory. The farro and sausage stuffing was just what I wanted it to be, hearty and slightly spicy. Oddly, this course arrived with neither the cranberry-apple relish nor the mashed potatoes promised on the menu, but there was already a metric fuckton of food so I wasn’t inclined to complain.
– Dessert was disappointing and anticlimactic. The pumpkin pie was still partly frozen and served with coffee ice cream instead of cinnamon, which I didn’t realize until it was already in my mouth. I am decidedly not a coffee fan.
– Overall, as you can probably tell from all of the missing dishes and substitutions, I think they were probably unprepared for the volume of diners. Service was very gracious and apologetic, though, which helped. The bartender was especially awesome and turned me on to Sangiovese, which I’d never had before because I am a rube. Thanks, bartender dude!

I do want to go back to this restaurant next time I make it out to NYC, just to see what they can do on an average night. Anyway, if you’re in the area and don’t have plans for T-day and happen to be reading this for some unfathomable reason, it looks like they’re serving the same menu this year if you want to try your luck. Send me some frickin’ tortelloni. I’m not joking. I will find you.

Thanksgiving 2011

And now for something completely different: the meal I cooked for myself and a certain sociopathic ex in 2011. Potato soup, stuffing, garlic broccoli, pumpkin toffee cheesecake, and the requisite canned cranberry sludge because I love it and it doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving without it.

I had never made stuffing before that day, since I don’t generally handle Thanksgiving cooking and I’m not a big fan of the conventional soggy-bread stuff. He wanted it, though, despite the lack of anything we might have the pretense of stuffing it in; it represented the same thing to him that the almighty cranberry cylinder does to me. So, like a dutiful girlfriend, I made it and promptly set it on a burner I’d forgotten to turn off in order to take pictures of the meal before we ate it. Half of it ended up burnt to hell. In retrospect, this seems appropriate somehow.

I’m kind of concerned by how much I can write about meals that have been digested for over a year.