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Feature Fri Jan 16 2009

When the Chips are Down

I grew up in the Chicago area, and when it came to snacks, my family was a Jays family. We always ate Jays snacks. Chips, Okee-Dokee popcorn, shoestring potatoes. Nothing came close to the salty goodness of a Jays snack. Not Vitner's, and especially not Lay's.


As an adult, I started buying potato chips less often, and I fell in love with tortilla chips, especially Jays Zestidos. They were light, salty (some might say overly salty, but I liked that), and they held salsa pretty well. They didn't put a huge dent in my wallet, and they became my go-to chips.

This fall I noticed that Jays took up less room on my Jewel's shelves. Had they cut back on their trade spending, the money that food manufacturers pay to grocery stores to sell their product, or was someone else paying more for the shelf space? I did a little research and found that Snyder's of Hanover had purchased Jays in 2007 and were slowly discontinuing some of the Jays brands. Sadly, my Zestidos were axed, leaving me without a favorite snack food.

Herein lies the dilemma: What chip will take its place in my heart? I tried several brands to see if anything could be zestier than a Zestidos. I tried to stick with similar styles, mainly white corn. No red or blue chips, which although I do like, can be difficult to compare with the typical tortilla chip.

I had to try Snyder's of Hanover, the takeover brand. I should probably call it the passover brand because they weren't very good. Chips were a bad attempt at the stone ground corn style, resulting in thick, dull chips, without much flavor or salt. Snyder's should stick to making pretzels.

Del Ray chips look authentic, and that's about the best thing I can say about them. They are made from corn, I believe. They're also made with a fair amount of grease, and I don't know what their secret recipe is, but it gives the chips an odd greasy coating that left a slimy aftertaste in my mouth.

Maybe you've seen the bright green El Ranchero bag with the big "Authentic!" blazed across the front and thought, Well, yeah, they do look pretty authentic. And they are fairly similar to some I've had in more traditional Mexican restaurants that are really thick and crunchy and you think you might break a tooth. I like eating those every now and then and then. I feel the same way about El Ranchero. Do buy the salted variety; otherwise they won't have much flavor. These chips can take on any dip though. Bring out your heartiest chili-cheese dip, and you'll be able to scoop it up and enjoy it without fear of the chip breaking. Once I start eating these, I find they're strangely addictive, but I really have to be in the right mood to buy them.

It wouldn't be a taste-test if I didn't try the biggest player on the market. Tostitos aren't bad, but then neither is McDonald's. However, McDonald's isn't great either, and neither are Tostitos. Unfortunately, like a chain restaurant, Tostitos are everywhere, so there are times when you end up buying them, and that's OK. They're salty, crispy, and light--almost too light to hold a hearty dip, but the flavor is decent enough to get by. Would I call them authentic? Hardly.

I had to see if Rick Bayless' Frontera Gourmet Mexican Tortilla Chips were as good as the food in his restaurants. For the most part, these chips are pretty decent. They're heavier than a Jays chip, but they have a true stone ground corn flavor and a nice balance of salt. After eating a few, I started to think they were slightly bland, but I discovered that dipping them helped bring out more flavor in the chip. Overall, a decent chip, but not one where I felt I wanted to buy it again and again.

Let's talk a little private label. I tried three different store-brand tortilla chips, two from Trader Joe's, and one from Whole Foods. Both stores' versions of the stone ground chip tasted more like cardboard than corn. And more than once I found myself eating and eating these chips, only to think, "Why am I eating these? They don't taste all that great." You could put a thick dip with them, and that might mask the blandness. Maybe. But why spend money eating cardboard?

On the other hand, Trader Joe's has a brand called the Longboard chip. This one came the closest to tasting like Zestidos and honestly, I think they're a little bit better. The chips are long and narrow, and even though the bag says they're perfect for dipping, they're a little too thin for scooping up guacamole. However, they're perfect for noshing on. The taste is a little on the light side, but they still have a good corn flavor and a really nice balance of salt. They're also not greasy, which can be a problem in some of the lighter chips. Unfortunately, my husband and I managed to go through a bag of these in no time at all, which is my only complaint about these.

Still, the Longboards are fairly Americanized tortilla chips. For a flavorful, more authentic chip, you can't go wrong with the last brand in my test, El Milagro. Their Mexican Kitchen Style chips are made from oven-baked tortillas that are cut up and fried. I don't know how they do it, but they fry them just long enough to let the flavor of the oil come through without leaving them saturated in grease, and the salt level is perfect. They're hearty enough to withstand a thick dip, but they don't have that thick, cardboard-like aspect to them. As my husband and I ate them, we couldn't stop saying how good they were. We've found our new favorite, and I'm happy to know that another Chicago food company could win over my heart.

 

Tim / January 16, 2009 1:22 PM

I thought this was covered here.

Joel / January 16, 2009 5:15 PM

El Ranchero makes a red bag (spicy) which has more saltiness and flavor than that of the green bag. It's spiciness while abrupt at first calms down after only the second chip and has great synergy with a homemade guacamole. I, too, found the green also bland, yet addictive...I think that's called a bad habit.

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I was using Rick Bayless' restroom, I mused, staring up at the ceiling window that was projecting a heavenly beacon of light upon my less-than-angelic duties. I could barely distinguish Rick's faint murmurs through the orange walls, something about how...
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