Welcome to Corner Store Food Critic, where we select an item typically found at any number of corner stores in San Francisco, bring said item home in a carefully wrapped bag, and then taste it in private. Seeing as how that, in a pinch, many of us eat entire meals bought solely at barely-lit corner markets and liquor stores, we now see it as our duty to examine the crud you shove down your throat during moments of drunken weakness or sheer hunger/laziness. That tin of deviled ham? Hellacious-looking Rockstar derivative? Bizarre Skittles flavor concoction? New Hot Pocket flavor? Those bottles of viscous water with chunks of aloe plant floating inside? We'll cover that and more. In this edition, our love of sodium gets us into a bag of Lay's Garden Tomato & Basil chips.
Late summer. Capri. Hungry, sunburned, and dazed from a day spent in the relentless Mediterranean sun, we found ourselves wandering narrow cobblestone lanes in search of some little cafe, some refuge where we might restore ourselves with a crisp glass of the local wine, perhaps a salad of the island's fine tomatoes, little things sweet enough to remind you of their status as a fruit. Ah, here's our quarry.
In the sordid gray-yellow fluorescence of the bodega, there are several elements to consider when confronted with Lay's Tomato & Basil chips.
For example, let us examine the bag's spare design, and the copy that proclaims the flavor vehicles/potatoes were "farm grown." Thank goodness for that, no one wants to be eating any of those space-raised tubers given the whole local/sustainable climate.
The design of the bag screams, rather, asserts, "I did not come out of a lab." One should always be wary of a food that tries too hard.
This would be a good time to mention that the delicate flavor compounds responsible for freshness in the taste of a tomato are destroyed when heat is brought into the equation. With regard to some tomato byproducts, like paste or other highly processed canned sauces, the chemical is added back in for a punchier tomato-y quality.
And that brings us to the taste.
It stands to reason that, like adding "Tuscan" to the name of any dish, adding a potent flavor coupling might conjure images of natural landscapes, Italian nonnas, and Mario Batali. It's entirely possible that someone at Frito Lay hypothesized that a consumer might wonder whether they should drink red or white wine with this snack: "Why, tomato and basil: that's one classy snack, think I'll pop open this Pinot Grigio."
This critic, however, immediately opened a bag of Chili & Cheese Fritos to act as a restorative palate cleanser. Initial topnotes were of dehydrated canned tomato sauce, with a strong chemical-basil background. By the time the tongue gets past the cloying sweetness, the off-putting synthesis lingers bitterly.
Half a bag later, the genius becomes apparent: the components that make up the flavor dust are essentially those of Campbell's Condensed Cream of Tomato Soup. For about thirty seconds, we lingered, wondering whether soaking the chips in milk would produce something akin to a bowl of soup. By layering enough chips into a buttered casserole and adding cream, might one achieve a tomato scalloped potato dish?
The remainder was summarily composted, teeth brushed. Let us never speak of this again.