Thursday, July 19, 2018

The Varsity (Atlanta, GA)

Time, as they say, is a flat circle. I recently journeyed once again to a city that changed my life. Sola Cepa first began in Atlanta almost two years ago, and I relished the opportunity to revisit my great muse and discover more of what it had to offer. After wandering semi-aimlessly through the exceedingly hot streets of Atlanta, far beyond the confines of my hotel room, I eventually arrived at my destination; the (purportedly) legendary The Varsity.

Here's a review of onion rings from the Varsity. Thanks to Trey D. for the suggestion.

Presentation and Appearance: 3.5/5

Taken without context, a paper plate, accompanied by plastic cutlery, atop a school-grade red plastic tray, with a delicate cardboard carton on top, doesn't scream haute cuisine. I have found, however, through extensive experimentation, that onion rings don't really follow the traditional norms of plating. The casual style of presentation simultaneously evokes nostalgia and ease, settling one in for an immediate sense of comfort food.

The onion rings expand beyond the small carton elegantly, like a delicately crafted bonsai tree sprouting from its earthen mold. Each ring is delicately and tightly packed almost perfectly into the carton, forming a neat row of consecutive circles, of a shockingly uniform thickness.

Though the presentation is stellar, the onion rings do lack something in appearance. The inconsistent battering, filled with dozens of scrappy spirals of batter schlepping beyond the circle, does clearly indicate a hand-made batter, but perhaps one mass produced in the back of house. It's nothing hugely sinking, but it does leave something to be desired in terms of care and precision.

Taste: 4/5

Bursts of flavor coalesce from a fusion of the batter and the onion. The house-made batter was seasoned just right, with just the right mix of salt and other spices. The batter is peppered with flecks of black pepper, adding a good bit of color in the otherwise brown batter. When mixed with the onion flavor, it's smooth and buttery.

Onion-wise, the cook time is such that the onions yield a solid mixture of grease and juices, without devolving into a wet, sopping mess. The thin film of grease fits the flavor well, and complements both the batter and the onion.

The main mark against flavor comes from a lack of oomph. The parts that make up solid taste are there, but they can't quite make it to the next level. I suspect, in large part, this is due to their mass-production. Made in small batches, with perhaps a little more time, they could soar to the peaks of the mountains of flavor, ascending like the eagle of proper food preparation, before resting on the nest of cohesive production.

Texture: 3/5

I suspect the Varsity, being the well-oiled machine of food production that it is, has the fry time of onion rings down to a near exact science. The onions, as they were in taste, are the start of the texture of this dish. It's the Golden Mean of onion texture, with the perfect position on the sliding scale of firm to mushy. It has enough give to yield juice and flavor, but is firm enough to maintain shape under duress.

The batter, despite the heavy taste, is delicate, and flaky. Though the onions are cooked to perfection, the slightly-too-thin layer of the batter became a bit too crispy, with some rings bordering on burnt.

Carl Menger thought that the first facet of economic analysis was understanding cause and effect. Though I'm loath to compare my meager reviews to the beauty of economics, I think an apt comparison can be drawn to cause and effect. Because the batter was weak, and coated relatively lightly, while subjected to too long of a time in the fryer, shedding seems to be the natural consequence. Flecks of batter chipped off the structurally sound onion, falling onto the sea of of the red tray below me.

Value: 5/5

Value is among the hardest things to quantify, as it relies so strongly on a heavily subjective and personal understanding. That said, for $2.20, these onion rings are a grand slam. For a none-too-tidy sum, you get a dense carton of thick rings, at a perfect meal sized quantity with above average taste and texture. These onion rings are a grand value any day of the week.

Total: 15.5/20

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Udder Side (Jonesville, MI)

As one might be able to imagine, there's not a whole lot to do in the region of Hillsdale. As a result, standards for an "exciting night out" fall dramatically. This, in essence, is how a standard ice cream shop, The Udder Side, became an exciting destination for the Hillsdale students who are not yet old enough to drink, or just want to do something to ease the characteristic tedium for a few short moments.

Fortunately for me, the Udder Side also has onion rings. Here's a review of said onion rings from the Udder Side. Many thanks to my wonderful girlfriend, Allegra, for joining me.

Presentation and Appearance: 2/5

Curled into the recesses of a greasy paper bag, which is somehow stapled shut, I manage to unearth a medium-sized cylindrical carton, overflowing with a packed set of onion rings too big for their metaphorical britches. The container itself is naught but a ghastly pallor, showing a unique contrast between the darkened rings.

The rings themselves, while appearing to be hand battered, have clearly seen better days. Though some batter does tenuously cling to the rings, it far too often borders from dark-brown to a crispy black, indicating an almost certain burning sensation soon to come.

Taste: 2/5

They say one ought not to judge a book by its cover, but in my many years of reviewing onion rings, I'm pretty confident that I can judge the taste and texture of an onion ring by its presentation and appearance.

In short, the burnt batter overpowers any other flavor present in these onion rings. The more passable bits of batter, like the handful of shiny beets at a roadside beet stand, form a thin, shell-like coating over the onions. While it's not as greasy as one might expect, it fails to deliver a flavor capable of standing up to the almighty char.

The onions, cooked reasonably well despite the overdone batter, provide a solid, if somewhat light, onion taste. Unfortunately, like the breading, the onion is overpowered by the too-crispy, too-burnt batter.

Texture: 2.5/5

The shell-like coating of the breading makes a valiant effort at a reasonable crunch, but the burnt batter makes them far too crispy. The onions, on the other hand, have a smooth, juicy texture, riding the line between soft and firm, and erring neither towards a mushy paste nor a raw circle of onion.

Texturally, these onion rings held some small potential. Had the execution been better, either on the frying or the battering, the score would be much more competitive. Alas. Perhaps the Udder Side should just stick to ice cream instead.

Value: 2.5/5

For a time, I held off on writing this review because I couldn't recall the price, needed for the value ranking. Through a complex series of searches, and a healthy dose of luck, I finally managed to find a menu with prices.

I was shocked to discover the price for these onion rings were $3.50. For the amount received, it's bordering on a premium price, but with sub-quality taste and cooking, they left much to be desired.

Total: 9/20

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Whataburger (Chain)

At long last, I conclude my travelogue of dipping my toes into the vast culinary world of Austin, Texas. Of course, by that I mean sampling a variety of onion rings to gauge restaurant quality. The nobility of my calling, and the esteem that comes with it, is often lacking. Many fail to understand my crucial role in the culinary ecosystem, and I must work in the shadows, skulking about with those precious few who know the power of the Onion Ring Standard. 

Here's a review of onion rings from Whataburger, at a location in Austin, Texas. Thanks to my brother, Zach, for driving and joining me. 

Presentation and Appearance: 3/5

The carton shape that serves as a delivery mechanism for the onion rings from Whataburger is unique among the various fast food onion rings I've reviewed. It's neither roughly cylindrical, nor roughly cubic, as is the norm, but a mysterious combination of angles, in what I assume to be a unique Texan geometry. It's intriguing, though somewhat confusing. 

The odd shape of the carton makes it difficult to see all of the onion rings at first glance. From my vantage point, I can clearly see at least one exposed onion ring, showing its hidden ivory interior to the world around it. The breading is colored on the darker side of golden brown, and I suspect they're fairly overdone. These rings are, in short, a mixed carton characterized by creative presentation and lackluster attention to detail. 

Taste: 3/5

Unsurprisingly, given the geographic location of these onion rings, and the chain of Whataburger at large, they are heavily flavored with grease. The grease serves as a flavor delivery mechanism for the onion juices, derived from the somewhat overdone onion rings, and is the highlight of the taste of the dish. These juices deliver a strong and more than sufficient onion flavor of the rings, though this taste is inconsistently applied over the rings. 

The batter, on the other hand, is largely flavorless. There's a vague hint of seasoning, probably no more than a dash of salt, but the juices meld with the batter on occasion to deliver a soft, buttery bite. 

Texture: 1.5/5

An onion ring fried for a good length is a delicate balancing act. The longer cook time tends to generate an excess of onion grease, and additional flavor, but at the cost of yielding a mushy onion texture. This was demonstrably the case for these onion rings, as the onions fell prey to this unfortunate tendency. Though several were soft and smooth, and approaching a fine onion paste, a number of them slid further still into the unquenchable heat of the fryer, resulting in blackened and scarred crunchy remnants of what was once an onion. 

The batter is worse. The hint of a cracked batter I saw early on reared its ugly head further in, with cracked batter running amok on more than half of the onion rings in the carton. The batter was attached by a thin membrane, weak as a spider's web and half as tasty. A major problem was likely in the thin cut of the onions, making them unable to withstand the crucible of grease and oil. In short, the texture was a crumpled and wicked mess. 

Value: 3.5/5

This carton of bruised and frayed onion rings cost a mere $2.39. Though lacking in cohesive texture, they did deliver a strong onion flavor, with a substantial quantity, at a more than reasonable price point. 

Total: 11/20

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Uchiko (Austin, TX)

Magic is something I don't really think of anymore, that almost-lost, intangible quality of wonder and delight. There are moments, however, where something manages to recapture its spirit, and I get a spark of that awe that was once so common.

Thomas Kuhn, who I was first introduced to by Dr. Steele in a course on the History of Economic Thought, famously described changes in scientific understanding in the terms of paradigm shifts. Researchers discover phenomena that can't be sufficiently explained within the current model (or paradigm), which eventually prompts a dramatic shift in methodology and principle to explain the data.

The onion rings at Uchiko gave me a little slice of magic. They prompted something akin to a paradigm shift in my cynical mind, and shattered my arrogance at having "seen it all" in onion rings. To date, they are the best onion rings I have ever had.

Here's a review of onion rings from Uchiko. Thanks to Zach, Emily, and Leah (aka Mother) for joining me.

Presentation and Appearance: 5/5

The meager picture I managed to snap, through a combination of haste, my phone's camera quality, and relatively dim lighting, genuinely does not do these onion rings justice. The menu simply bills them as "onion ring tempura," and they are, in fact, clearly tempura battered. This is a wholly unique innovation in the world of onion rings, at least, to my experience, and results in a non-standard appearance. It is the first, and most dramatic, paradigm shift in the world of onion rings.

These onion rings are massive, and marred with dozens of pockmarks in the batter. The batter balloons out like an inflating tube, somehow maintaining inflation despite the porous nature of the casing. There are a plethora of different colored spices and seasonings mixed into the batter, with a deep, dark red being the most dominant, but brown and green also make an appearance. Beyond these specks, the coloring is remarkably consistent.

A surprisingly large grouping of four onion rings sit atop a multi-colored modern plate, with just the right amount of an expertly placed paper underneath. The small accompanying ramekin of soy sauce looks to be the perfect size and amount for the four onion rings, another fine attention to detail.

In a certain sense, these onion rings break the rules of appearance. The batter is inconsistently covered, with more holes than I can think to count, much of it is hollow and expansionary, and it seems almost destined to fall for hubris. But, for whatever reason, they pull it off with style.

Taste: 5/5

Batter flavor is a woefully under-valued quality of a good onion ring. Though I was initially suspicious of this new tempura batter, the taste won me over. It's simultaneously salty, savory, and spicy, with no one flavor overpowering the other. The delicate mixture of multi-colored seasonings blends together in a veritable party in my mouth, and nobody is throwing up.

As my palate is only sufficiently refined in the realm of onion rings, I couldn't place the flavors as anything other than originating from Japanese cuisine. My brother hypothesized the specks of red were some variety of roe egg, but I can't be sure myself. All I know is that the batter, and the seasoning, delivered flavors like nothing I've ever tasted in an onion ring before. This is the second paradigm shift. 

The strips of onion, buried deep within the recesses of the bloated batter, brings an onion taste with no complaints. It's sufficiently strong for me to know it's an onion, but doesn't overpower anything else. The batter is without a doubt the star of this dish, but the onion plays a supporting role with no complaint. This shows in the wonderful complementary taste between onion and batter, much like the on-stage charisma between Steve Carell and Rainn Wilson.

The accompanying soy sauce neither overpowered nor perfectly complemented the onion rings. Rather, it transformed it. Though I didn't miss any moisture when I was eating them, a quick dab in the soy sauce flooded it with a whole new dimension of flavor. This is the third paradigm shift. 

Texture: 4.5/5

My first blast of magic came when I picked up an onion ring on the plate, and my normally placid face immediately lit up in delight, as I exclaimed excitedly that it was "like paper." The tempura batter was, indeed, somewhat like a dry clump of various papers, or like a wasp's nest abandoned on the pavement. It was light and delicately crackling, almost like a pork rind. This all combined to make them, at first brush, appear fragile.

The boldness of the tempura batter breaks all the conventional rules of texture, namely stability, integrity, and a thickness, but it just works. The tempura batter forms the facsimile of a planet-like crust, albeit with chasms, but the interior is almost entirely hollow, until you get to the onion core.

The core of the onion has a smooth and approaching perfect texture. It is neither too mushy nor too raw, not too thick nor too thin. Though no doubt aided by the gargantuan size of of the tempura batter, the onion remains steady and smooth, with no slippage.

My first impression of fragility proved wrong, as barring one dramatic incident of shedding, it stayed steady. This was, perhaps, the only true flaw with these onion rings. The tempura batter just can't quite maintain itself with the rigidity needed to compose the parts.

Value: 5/5

The going standard for larger, and higher quality, onion rings is approximately $1 a ring. Here, four onion rings cost a mere $5. They are, without a doubt in my mind, worth the extra quarter a ring. Frankly, they're worth more than that. The amount is certainly not mind-blowing, but I got a way greater value than I paid for.

The threefold paradigm-shifting nature of these onion rings would be bold enough on their own. Uchiko was not content with merely breaking the mold, however. They also delivered an explosion of Japanese flavors and seasoning, an almost perfectly executed tempura batter, and perfectly sliced and fried onions.

I wasn't being hyperbolic above. These truly are, to date, the best onion rings I've ever had. This is the Crying Dragon I've been chasing ever since Saucy Dog's Barbecue in Jonesville, Michigan. The magic is back.

Total: 19.5/20

Monday, June 11, 2018

Mighty Fine (Austin, TX)

On my sojourn to Texas, my brother took a vested interest in me sampling the many fine delights (provided these fine delights are just onion rings) of the culinary wonderland that is Austin. On hearing my somewhat unimpressed thoughts on our first outing of the trip (Hut's Hamburgers), he nodded sagely and said "I bet you'll like Mighty Fine." And so, we fought our way through the morass of Austin traffic to the nearest Mighty Fine, eager to get another hit of that sweet Allium.

Here is a review of onion rings from Mighty Fine Burgers Fries & Shakes in Austin, Texas.

Presentation and Appearance: 3/5

I genuinely can't think of a way to make the presentation of these onion rings simpler. Just about the only thing that comes to mind is a disgruntled employee grabbing them hot from the fire and flinging them at me, with my only hope to catch them with my bare hands. It's fitting with the ethos of Mighty Fine, that is, simple and unpretentious, with a delectable stack of onion rings nestled within a barely-shaped squiggle of white wax paper.

The unpretentious and simple attitude so evident in the cavalier wrapping of paper shines further in the onion rings. On the bad side, the battering is uneven, and cracks spread throughout the edifice, like the dying gasps of a doomed planet about to implode. A handful of the onion rings are cracked as well. On the good side, the batter has a unique hue of an Autumn sunset, in a slight shift from the classic golden brown. A handful of darkened bits of seasoning pepper the batter, like a flock of migrating birds desperate to escape the oncoming winter. The batter is, for lack of a better word, flaky.

Taste: 4.5/5

It should not come as a surprise that the freshly made onion rings at a restaurant with actual picnic tables as seating are greasy. Though not quite soaked to the point of drowning, there's more grease than is to my liking, my initial taste was a tad overwhelming.

This Protective Layer of Greasy Deception is the onion ring equivalent to non-poisonous tropical frogs, who front as dangerous by sharing their bright and alarming color pattern with poison frogs. Though I am personally dubious that a raw frog carcass would taste as good as these onion rings, the principle is the same.

Beneath the layer of grease one finds a moderately seasoned blend in the better, with just the right amount of salt and pepper, complemented by a buttery finish. The onions within are cooked to perfection, with just the right amount of give and just the right amount of onion juices. There's nothing extreme about these onion rings, perhaps with the exception of the grease, but the Golden Mean of Batter and Onions is executed with ease and professionalism.

Texture: 3/5

The menu warned me, before I even ordered, that these onion rings were "lightly battered," and it shows. The batter holds at best a tenuous grasp on the onions, threatening to crumble at any provocation. Shedding abounds, as bits and pieces of the tasty batter violently fly across the gingham table, with Zach admirably dodging as needed. The batter was hard and crunchy, but didn't adhere to the onion enough to mesh.

The onions are as solid in texture as they are on the tongue, maintaining their shape despite being moderately sweated to provide ample flavor. Unfortunately, they are overshadowed by the flaws in the batter.

Value: 4/5

$3.09 brings a good portion of good rings. As with the taste, these onion rings are solidly normal. They are not extreme, but they execute the classic battered onion ring, with a middling size at a middling price, with poise.

Total: 14.5/20

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Hut's Hamburgers (Austin, TX)

Hut's Hamburgers is an oddity, even in the hodge-podge of a city like Austin. Surrounded on all sides by the rising skyscrapers of a booming city, the unassuming building rests between a liquor store on one side, and a surprising amount of greenery on the other.

This restaurant was my very first stop in the city of Austin, arriving straight there from the airport, guided and urged by my local brother and his wife (Zach and Emily), and joined by my mother (Mother). He, among other Texans, transplants and locals alike, had sung the praises of this simple diner. My goal, as always, was to see if it lived up to its hype, judged solely on the basis of its onion rings.

Here is a review of Hut's Hamburgers in Austin, Texas.

Presentation and Appearance: 4.5/5

Our order of onion rings for the table arrives in a red plastic basket, lined with plain, white paper. The simple and standard plating style fits in with the restaurant's aesthetic, an island of old in the sea of new. Its lack of pretension bodes well.

The onion rings themselves are obviously impressive. They are both tall and thick, possibly hinting of a meaty onion interior within, coupled with a substantial breading. Unique for onion rings of this size, they are clearly breaded, and not battered. The batter itself is interesting, with the banner of clumpy breading broken up by darker spots, indicating where whole peppercorns have made it into the batter. The integration of non-grounded spices directly into the batter is a new one for me, and an exciting prospect.

Though the appearance was generally good, there were a handful of misses and gaps in the breading, which seemed almost on the verge of peeling and cracking, like the shell of some hideously delicious onion based prehistoric creature.

Taste: 1.5/5

For all the might of the robust appearance of these onion rings, the taste largely fails to deliver. The breading is crispy, but largely flavorless. The only hint at flavor in the breading comes from the whole peppercorns embedded in the batter, which does deliver a nice peppery bite. Unfortunately, as the pepper is not evenly distributed and flavored throughout the whole ring, this leaves the rest severely lacking.

The onion delivers slightly more flavor than the batter, but it's woefully apparent that the onion is undercooked. There's hardly a hint of onion grease or a juicy runoff, which is essential to letting the hidden flavor of the onion come out in an onion ring. There's a hint of sweetness, but it's not enough to make up for the deficiencies in the rest of the ensemble.

Texture: 3/5

These onion rings are both thick and massive, an impressive feat considering the use of breading in lieu of the traditional battering that accompanies rings of this size and scope. The breading takes on an almost cake-like quality, and is surprisingly smooth and light under the initial layer of hardened crumbs. The thickness of the batter was accompanied by a stellar structure, with no signs of slippage, and only minor shedding when subjected to the immense pressure of my hands trying to see if it would shed.

As noted above, the onions were underdone. This resulted in an "just barely out of the ground" level of rawness, which, in addition to failing to deliver on taste, makes for an odd and unappealing texture in the onion.

Value: 3.5/5

For $6.50, you can get a large enough serving of onion rings to satisfy four people, no doubt largely due to the gargantuan size of the onion rings themselves, in addition to the reasonably large quantity in the basket. The failures of quality, however, most obviously seen in the almost complete lack of taste, lowers their value considerably. When it comes to onion rings, Hut's Hamburgers might be more bark than bite.

Total: 12.5/20

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Remoulade (New Orleans, LA)

As I navigated through the morass of humanity on Bourbon Street one Friday evening, my eyes were ever on the prize. When looking through the haze of revelry, daiquiri, and voodoo, I only sought one thing and one thing alone: onion rings. Only a bite of that sweet delight could bring tranquility to the chaos of Bourbon Street that night, even with my large novelty plastic cup of light beer.

Unfortunately, I was there so late that all the restaurants that had decent onion rings were closed, so I just went back the next morning, when the glitz of Bourbon Street had faded into the smell of stale urine and regret.

Here's a review of onion rings from Remoulade. Thanks to Aaron and Wouter for joining me.

Presentation and Appearance: 3/5

Occasionally, restaurants will brand or otherwise customize the standard wax paper that so often forms a barrier between onion rings and the plating. Remoulade follows this trend, with lines and lines of "remoulade" cover the paper. It shows a decent degree of effort and branding. The light red plastic basket is about as standard as they come.

The onion rings themselves are clearly hand battered, with a sliding shade of light to dark golden brown in color. The cracks in the facade are readily seen, as there is little solidity in the batter, with gaps and lack of full coating aplenty. The onions seem relatively thin cut, based on the size and thickness of the rings, but the batter looks cracked and weak.

Taste: 4/5

While the batter wasn't quite as flavorful as its New Orleans companion, Saint Lawrence, I tasted a good blend of seasonings with some Cajun kick. The onion taste was relatively mild, but certainly present and flavorful. The light onion taste meshed well with the Cajun seasonings, which melded together to deliver a flavor sensation worthy of Bourbon Street, minus the drunken bead-grasping hordes, strippers, and tarot women preying on the previously mentioned hordes.

Overall, the flavor was cohesive, buttery, and smooth. I would have liked more onion taste, and I suspect the light taste was largely a result of the thin-cut onions, in addition to them being ever-so-slightly underdone. Despite these flaws, Remoulade delivered a solid, buttery, lightly greased onion ring. The combination was light and airy, and seemed to melt in my mouth.

Texture: 3/5

Though the batter was a little gnarly, with peaks and valleys forming out of the not-so-delicately latticed coating, it made for a good crunch. The twin preys of slippage and shedding failed to rear their ugly faces, which is a remarkable achievement, especially given the tenuous grasp the batter had on the onion interior.

The onions themselves, as noted above, were a little under-done in most of the onion rings. Texture-wise, this typically results in a firm onion interior. While avoiding the plague of mushy, juicy onions is a positive step, the underdone onions usually mean less onion flavor, and a bit too hard of a bite. The inconsistency of the breading, and the curious presence of some nearly burnt batter (oddly contrasting with the lightly done onion rings) make these onion rings miss the mark.

Value: 4/5

In an area famous for tourism and drunken revelry, I naturally expected a steep price tag on any onion rings. I was pleasantly surprised to pay a mere $4.95 for a good sized basket of pretty good onion rings.

Total: 14/20