(Requested by James.k.polk, if I remember correctly)
I’ve handled battling chicken nuggets before, but this is the first time I’m really delving into all-out, four-way fast food war. And there’s no better item for this Texas Tornado-style oblong-off than what is pretty much my favorite cheap, deep-fried thing in the whole world – the jalapeno popper. Or depending where you get it, the Ched’r Pepper. Because there are a lot of fast food items I can buy frozen at the store which do a decent job: White Castle cheeseburgers, pizza, chicken nuggets, pizza bites – on a side note, Jack in the Box’s new pizza bites are the worst item they’ve ever had. Mine were as tangy as blue cheese, but they were meant to be cheddar; I think it had gone way past sale date and I may or may not have had hallucinations as a side-effect.
Back to my main point, though – I’ve never found a satisfactory store-bought popper. They need to be hot and NOW. Yet with the big names – McDonald’s, Burger King and Hardee’s/Carl’s not having them on the menu at this point in time, it can be hard to know where I’m gonna pick my hot pop-its. The contenders: AMC Theatres, Jack in the Box, Sonic and Wienerschnitzel.
STYLE: Only two of these follow essentially the same formula – both Jack in the Box and Sonic have whole peppers stuffed with cheddar. Where they differ is that JitB’s is clearly a solid cheese melted down, and it will solidify again if you don’t eat it quickly. This, however, means that 90% of the time, you gotta eat it at skin-melting heat, and I cannot count the times this has left a blister on the roof of my mouth (okay, I can – I think it’s three) or burned my hand with molten cheese that kept burning till I licked it off. Sonic uses a more processed, plasticky cheese-food-product (and I actually mean that as a compliment) with a lower melting point but still, be careful.
AMC goes with the cream cheese version but fails at one of the basics – while Ranch dressing is the preferred dipping sauce for cheddar, the cream cheese versions are traditionally paired with sweeter, fruitier sauces…that AMC does not deliver on. Honey mustard doesn’t count, and do NOT go for the marinara.
While we’re on the subject of Ranch – I don’t like it that much, but JitB calls it’s Ranch-type thing “Buttermilk House,” which gives me plausible deniability and I go for it. Seriously, tastes different/better, and I admit that could all be in the marketing.
Wienerschnitzel’s are cheddar – a plasticky version very similar to Sonic – but rather than stuff a whole pepper, they chop up the pepper into small bits and mix it all up with the cheese. This is to prevent that thing that often happens with the others, where you bite down but your teeth don’t go quite all the way through the pepper skin, and you end up dragging the whole pepper part of the breading with your teeth, often spilling burning fromage everywhere.
I won’t pick a winner in this category – style is what you make it.
SIZE: AMC’s are huge and you get eight, but then none of your (by which I mean my) lame friends ever wants to share and you’re (I’m) stuck with all of them. Wienerschnitzel’s are the smallest, and come in 3 or 6 packs. JitB comes 3 or 7, and I think Sonic only does 4. Six is about the perfect number.
TASTE: I’m more of a cheddar guy, and AMC blows it on the sauce, so they certainly don’t win. Sonic and Wienerschnitzel are close enough as to be the exact same flavor. I think JitB may have the slight edge in taste for the more authentic cheese and plausible-deniability dressing.
PAIN: Wienerschnitzel’s are the only ones not likely to burn or blister you in any way, and I’m talking about temperature, not taste burn. Easy win.
CONVENIENCE: AMC makes up some ground here, as they’re available at movie theaters, where options are so often boring. But Wienerschnitzel cruises to an easy victory by being bite-sized AND having diced peppers and cheese mixed. Less lava leakage.
THE WINNER: Wienerschnitzel may be a bizarre sad-sack of a fast-food chain, but when it comes to peppers mixed with cheese, they put the heat on the competition. They also put the poppers on their burgers, which is a good idea, assuming your interpretation of “good idea” has already been sufficiently compromised to eat at a Wienerschnitzel.
If we open up “fast food” to include chain restaurants, though, as I have in the past (the very first item I ever wrote about was the Philly Cheesesteak Eggrolls at Dave & Busters), Joe’s Crab Shack schools all these amateurs with the Great Balls of Fire – something akin to the diced-style Wienerschnitzel popper, but with the addition of crabmeat. Possibly the greatest menu item in the history of mass-produced seafood chains.