Are things as good as we remember them to be? Or do our tastes just change that much over the years?
Take music, for example. I remember spending my hard-earned lawn mowing dollars on an Asia album. (I know. Asia. Please, no feedback is necessary.) The guitars, keyboards and percussion were pure rock symphony; the varying tempos encouraged air guitar and drums; the album art was worthy of a museum display; and the lyrics were pure poetry. Yet, as a middle-aged guy, I’m truly embarrassed to have songs from this same album in my iTunes.
I remember getting chills watching Rocky Balboa struggle with Clubber Lang, as (Rocky’s) former nemesis, Apollo Creed, yelled tactical advice from his corner; or believing that a group of high school kids really could regain American soil from an army of invading Russians (“Red Dawn”). Those feelings were right up there with the tension I experienced on Saturday nights, when The Great Kabuki or any of the Fabulous Freebirds delivered cheap shots to the Von Erich brothers.
From a culinary standpoint, there are some memories that will remain only that, because there is rarely such a thing as a fast-food rerun. I’ll never know whether my 10-year-old palate was on the money with the secret recipe orange-colored sauce (served cold with steak finger baskets) at the Dairy Cream; or whether the kraut dogs at Carousel Hot Dog (a mall eatery) still stand out as the best ever. Both restaurants are long gone.
Many once-beloved restaurants of my childhood are still around, though their menus have changed. Following is a list of some discontinued favorites. Not everyone will agree with my choices, but if you are a marketer for most of the following restaurants and you don’t want me to cringe when my children suggest we spend our money in your establishment — consider stepping back and remembering what helped you gain national notoriety. If you work for the nation’s largest pizza chain, there was really no need to add “bistro” to your title. I’m not fooled.
Peg Leg — Long John Silver’s
My memory gives this $1 morsel a perfect culinary 10. But, $1 for a battered drumette in the early 1980s? Long John Silver’s was definitely ahead of its time. Back then, chicken wings were still considered byproducts. You could buy a couple pounds for a buck, or two. But, even before wings caught on at restaurants nationwide (and quickly shot up in price), the fine people at LJ’s discontinued this deep fried goodness.
McDLT — McDonald’s
I’ve often said that McDonald’s food began going downhill when they replaced the Styrofoam burger boxes with cardboard. The waterproof Styrofoam was also greaseproof, and allowed the burgers to soak up just a little bit more of what made them decent to begin with. The international chain succumbed to pressure from vegetarian groups not long after that and quit using beef tallow in their frying oil. (And you wonder why those fries aren’t as good as they used to be?) But this space is reserved for the McDLT, not exactly one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, but one of McDonald’s most palatable options, ever. McDLT stood for McDonald’s Lettuce and Tomato, and it was served in a double-sided Styrofoam container. The meat and bottom bun were on the “hot” side, while the lettuce, tomato, pickles, sauce and cheese were kept in the “cool” side. The idea was for the consumers to build their burger at the table, and it was a damn good idea — except the cheese really belonged between the meat and the bottom bun. Many products have come and gone from McDonald’s over the years for various reasons (all centered on profit), but this mid-1980s offering happened to disappear about the same time the chain discontinued the use of Styrofoam.
Priazzo — Pizza Hut
The Priazzo, introduced more than 25 years ago, was Pizza Hut’s culinary opus. Other chains have tried to duplicate it, but Pizza Hut had it down. The Priazzo was an encrusted deep dish pie available in at least three varieties. My favorite included pepperoni, Italian sausage, plenty of cheese and sauce. There might have also been mushrooms. I seriously doubt I would like this dish today. Not only was it so rich that I could eat no more than two pieces, I’ve also learned as an adult that Pizza Hut is to Italian food what Asia was to rock and roll. The same goes for the occasionally reintroduced P’zone, Pizza Hut’s version of a calzone.
Fried Pies — Just about every fast food joint
As far as I’m concerned, anyone who doesn’t wish for the return of the 1970s-80s version of the fast food fried pies has a screw loose. I’m not speaking of the “healthy” cinnamon dusted baked/microwaved versions sold at a certain McPlace, or the thawed funky-flavored wedges hawked by the same people who claim I can have it my way. I’m talking about dangerously hot sweet goodness, encased in a golden rectangular crust. A close look reveals hundreds of little ‘bubbles’ — a result of being lowered into 400 degree oil. The crust’s consistency is unmistakeable, but difficult to describe. Think of it as edible bubble packing with a flaky tender finish. These morsels cannot be eaten on the sly, as the tiny oil pockets make a collective ‘popping’ sound when bitten. And there’s no such thing as waiting long enough for the gooey apple or cherry filling to cool. One bite and your taste buds go numb for a couple days. It’s well worth the pain.
Original Chicken Sandwich — McDonald’s
I should be ashamed that I remember this, but it was around 1980 when McDonald’s began nationally advertising its Chicken McNuggets. I was an excited 10-year-old. The only problem, though, was that our local McDonald’s only sold a recently-introduced chicken sandwich. The 1980 version of the chicken sandwich was pretty much the same as the one served today, except the chicken patty was slightly thicker, and it included “parts” from the white and dark portions of the bird. It was actually good, and I think I’d probably order one today as a guilty pleasure. By the way, that original version of the sandwich was yanked from the menu and replaced with the McNuggets not long after the ad campaign started. On a different note, if you ever ate the McFeast or sang along with the “You deserve a break today” advertising jingle, you are probably older than me.
Whether it’s movies, music or food, I chalk most of my childhood fanaticism up to … being a child. Still, I occasionally like to sneak a peek at a cheesy old boxing flick, with hopes that I hear at least one verse of “Eye of the Tiger.”
Following is a recipe I developed after Wendy’s recently discontinued what was probably their best menu item ever — the boneless Thai chicken. (Their burgers might be in the running if they’d figure out that buns should be toasted.) For the record, this dipping sauce is more complex than the one I fell in love with at Wendy’s. I hope you enjoy it.
Thai Sweet & Hot Dipping Sauce
1 Cup – Sugar
1/2 Cup – White vinegar
1/2 Cup – Water
2 Tablespoons – Minced garlic
1 Tablespoon – Kosher salt
1 Tablespoon – Soy sauce
1 Tablespoon – Chili paste or Chili Garlic paste
1 – Kaffir Lime leaf, minced
1 teaspoon – Toasted sesame oil
Combine first six ingredients in a small saucepan. Bring to rolling boil, stirring occasionally, then reduce heat to a simmer. Add half the minced Kaffir Lime leaf. Continue simmering until reduction is the consistency of a light syrup, about 15-20 minutes. Once sauce has reduced, remove from heat. Add remaining Kaffir Lime leaf, chili paste and sesame oil, and stir. Bring sauce to room temperature. Want to tame or fire up the spice? Adjust chili paste. Can be stored in refrigerator for 3-4 days.
Serve with anything fried — chicken, pork or seafood. This is also a great dipping sauce for eggrolls or springrolls. Take that, Wendy’s!
Makes about a cup of dipping sauce.