How I Ordered Taco Bell on My Phone

Posted in Reviews on October 30th, 2014 by Nathan – Be the first to comment
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The glorious tacos & cinnamon twistsOrdering food online is not a foreign concept to me – I've ordered pizza delivery à la Sandra Bullock in The Net and I've used the Seamless app on occasion. A phone call and a web interface are nearly the same when the end result is food delivery coupled with payment via credit card.

So when my friend Ryan mentioned that Chick-Fil-A had an app, but would not be entering the delivery business, I was confused, skeptical, and intrigued.

In the course of the ensuing conversation, I learned that CFA was not alone: many other non-delivery fast food chains have apps. And Taco Bell became the latest newcomer with their app release yesterday.

After reading about Taco Bell's app concept, I knew I had to give it a whirl. Having not been to a Taco Bell in ages (probably at least a decade), I had even more reason to anticipate the experience: I could finally try the Doritos Locos tacos.

Using the app is a breeze. You have the option of logging in with a new account or connecting to Facebook, but unlike most services, you can also use the app as a "guest," saving no preferences, no favorites, and no payment data. This is a welcome option, and I was happy to use it.

After tapping "guest," I was immediately brought to a screen with a few menu sections: Breakfast (apparently this is a thing Taco Bell now offers), Tacos, Burritos, something called "Cantina Power," etc. I tapped "Tacos" and found myself on a screen with a map of Manhattan, showing me the nearby Taco Bell locations.

I tapped the closest one and was greeted by an unpleasant message: "This location does not offer mobile ordering." I tried the next one and received the same message. Hoping I wasn't doomed to end this experiment prematurely, I tried the last option within a reasonable distance and was rewarded! The taco menu appeared.

Essentially, the menu is a mobile version of the Jack in the Box kiosk I once encountered midway on a trip to San Antonio. You can customize every part of your order – more meat, more sour cream, more tomatoes, pico de gallo instead of cheese, etc. The options are nearly limitless!

I ordered three tacos: Cool Ranch, Nacho Cheese, and "Fiery." All supreme. And, in a nod to my childhood, I also ordered Cinnamon Twists. I put my credit card info in (three supreme tacos and cinnamon twists run you $10.32, which is a stupidly low price and a pretty solid indicator of why obesity is so rampant in this country) and was greeted by a friendly message telling me my food would not be prepared until I was close to the "restaurant."

I left the bar a short time later, hopped on a subway, and as I got off, my phone buzzed. An indication from the app told me that I was within 500 feet and asked if they should prepare my order. I tapped "take out" and a minute later, walked in the door. Ten seconds after finding the "mobile app pickup line" (which consisted of me), I was handed two bags, containing my full order. No receipt – that was emailed to me. Almost no human interaction – just a confirmation that I was indeed the techno-futurist simultaneously ordering food online and hastening the obsolescence of the man handing me the bags.

The tacos themselves were as I'd expect: freaking delicious but basically the worst things I've eaten in a long time. My stomach this morning regrets my decision, and even the excitement of the cinnamon twists (and they were as good as I remember) will make it unlikely that I return anytime soon. Having spent a few hours at a tap takeover before eating probably helped me appreciate the tacos as well – but they were exactly as I'd expected: imagine cheap nachos made with Doritos instead of tortilla chips. And yes, your hands get coated with Dorito powder, which I think we can all agree is a good thing.

I have to say, overall, the app was a great experience: it was easy, it saved time (on the order of many tens of seconds!), and it furthered the inevitable total replacement of human beings by machines. I see a bright future for these fast food apps, regardless of my initial skepticism.

I even felt a moment of pause as my phone prompted me: "Uninstall Taco Bell?"

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The Original db Burger

Posted in Burgers on October 15th, 2014 by Nathan – Be the first to comment
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I did not take this picture - this is direct from db themselves. Note the construction is very segmented.When I heard about the "Original db Burger" at db Bistro Moderne in Manhattan, and fairly close to my work, I knew I had to try it. Just look at this description:

THE ORIGINAL DB BURGER
Sirloin Burger filled with Braised Short Ribs, Foie Gras & Black Truffle
Parmesan Bun, Pommes Frites
35.

Sirloin, okay sounds reasonable enough.

Braised Short Ribs, yeah, I'm following you.

Foie Gras & Black Truffle? Now you have my attention.

Now, with this weighing in at $35, I was justifiably a bit hesitant. But ultimately, I knew, I had to try this burger. So, one recent Saturday, before hopping a train to Elmsford, NY (home of Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, where a sour beer fest awaited me), I stopped in to db and ordered a burger.

I found myself nearly alone in the front dining room. Two ladies-who-lunch sat at the corner table next to me, perusing the menu and gossiping about friends, drama, celebrities, some recent social event, their mimosas, the waitstaff… Off in another corner sat another woman, awaiting a date who would turn up some twenty minutes later, the lateness apparently expected by the woman who had wisely spent the time reading a book and who seemed completely unperturbed. The rest of the room was empty.

When my burger arrived, it was already cut in half, so that I could see the short rib as well as the large portion of foie gras that had been completely encased by the sirloin burger. This fact was not lost on the ladies-who-lunch, who also noticed the burger and felt that it was time to make their presence known to me:

Would you like to give us the name of your cardiologist so we can call him after you finish?

The burger itself was quite tall, which made for a wonderful spectacle, but served to cause problems when I attempted to compress it to take a bite. The foie gras, you see, is more of "seated" inside the patty and thus began to slip out, meaning I would have to eat it earlier than I would have preferred. Not the biggest deal, but by the time I had prevented that havoc, the burger now resembled a much more pedestrian-not-worth-$35 burger.

And this is only where the dismay began. The short rib, darker than the surrounding components, was positioned on both sides of the foie gras, rather than worked into the composition of the beef as ground short rib. This served the purpose of proving that in fact short rib had been part of the composition, but it also made the rather bland sirloin stand alone, as the most substantive part – and only remaining part after a brief period – of the burger.

The black truffle may have been non-existent entirely for all it contributed to the flavor. And the pommes frites? Well yeah, they were fries. Calling something French does not, as I've sadly noted in the past, actually make that thing taste any better. These fries were mediocre at best.

This burger was a novelty. It was pretty. It was,to borrow from Aristotle's Poetics, all spectacle and no story. Sure, it will elicit a reaction from nearby ladies-who-lunch, and sure, it is probably as haute cuisine as you can get in the burger world, but frankly, it was just average at best.

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I just tried Turkish Delight for the first time

Posted in Reviews on July 9th, 2014 by Nathan – 1 Comment
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Turkish DelightI don't remember much about the Chronicles of Narnia; I only read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe once, I believe in early elementary school, and didn't find it very entertaining. But chief among the things I remember is that one of the children is lured by the witch into her van sleigh with his favorite treat, Turkish Delight. I think at some point I watched a movie version of the book, or perhaps just imagined annoying little Edmund speaking in a Oxbridge accent asking for more Turkish Delight. Either way, that connection has been seared into my head, and the two cannot be separated.

So when two coworkers brought some Turkish Delight into work recently, I had no choice but to take a taste and see what Edmund wanted so badly. And I have to say, Edmund is a proper git.

It's chewy, sweet but in an odd and discomforting way, and the pistachios, while they probably mean well, are not helped by being suspended in this odd gelatinous creation. The green color is slightly off-putting, as it's not quite a shade of green you'd expect from normal foodstuffs, and the outer dusting of powdered sugar is a weak attempt to pretend that this goo is candy.

If that witch had tried to lure me away with this stuff, and I don't care how enchanted it's supposed to be, I think I'd get away just fine.

Actually, on that topic, why had Edmund's parents never told him not to take candy from strangers? Oh, I take that back. They probably did. But there's no way anyone of reasonable taste could identify this as candy.

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Rockwell Tavern

Posted in Burgers on May 21st, 2014 by Nathan – Be the first to comment
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I've been far out to Rockwell Tavern a few times now but haven't put my thoughts on their burgers here yet. So here goes.

Basically this is a great burger. I've tried a few of their burgers now and my favorite is easily the Sunburn, topped with all manners of heat: pepper jack, jalapeno bacon, chipotle mayo, and their "house hot sauce." I cannot verify the implied claim that it's made in house, it honestly doesn't seem so. But that doesn't matter: the burger is excellent. The meat is fresh and tasty, a good blend of beef that speaks for itself. (This is especially evident if you order the Vintage, a simple bacon cheeseburger.) It's juicy and oozes magnificently, but the sweet cheddar jalapeno bun (standard on every burger) easily stands up to the challenge.

The heat is not overpowering, and the chipotle mayo and jalapeno bacon complement each other to provide a little bit of extra flavor in contrast to the spice-only taste of the "house hot sauce." And to add to that, the hand-cut french fries, though not the best I've ever had, are pretty good, and are easily washed down with any of a very good selection of craft beers.

My only major complaint with Rockwell is the location. Oh and the hours: I find it very strange that a bar closes at 9 pm (and thus frequently empties/cleans earlier than that) on a Thursday night. If you find yourself in Cypress, hungry early in the evening, stop by Rockwell. Get a burger and fries. And enjoy.

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Snapchat your vacation

Posted in Travel on May 12th, 2014 by Nathan – Be the first to comment
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I guess the ghost is because the photos vanish?Photography, especially while on vacation, is a very strange subject. When visiting a new place, people immediately whip out their cameras or cellphones to capture, permanently, an image of whatever they point at. The lens of the camera becomes a surrogate eye, so that the vacationer "sees" (through the viewfinder) but does not experience. I am somewhat critical of ubiquitous photography, in that I feel there is little value in taking pictures on vacation, partially because a better picture has already been taken, and partially because the camera becomes a distraction.

I am also critical of the correlated desire (or even need) for these pictures to be seen by others. That is, when vacationing, people not only take pictures constantly, but then expect to show them to friends and family upon their return. This feels to me like a form of need for validation ("look how much fun we had!") rather than an actual desire to express the beauty of a place, the excitement of an experience, or whatever else the picture likely failed to capture. Not only does this further emphasize the point that the photographer was distracted, focusing on the image rather than the source of the image, but frankly, most people don't care.

This last point is one of the major reasons photo sharing on social media has been so successful when slideshows of yore were not: it moves the control from the photographer to the audience. That is, those people who do care to see the photos can, while others can move on and ignore them. While this does not solve the first problem (in fact, I believe it exacerbates it), it certainly does a good job of dealing with the second.

However, the permanence inherent in social media means that one's online presence is a constant, rolling résumé or advertisement. ("Look at me! Here's things I've done! Here's places I've been!") This, as I stated above, exacerbates the first problem, and as a result, people who fifty years ago would not have ever touched a camera spend time today taking pictures of everything, including the most mundane.

I took a short vacation to Portland a few weeks ago to visit breweries and check out their beer culture (which is incredible). The last time I went on a beer-related vacation (or "alcoholiday" in 1920s slang), I found myself taking pictures of the occasional beer menu or beer flight and tweeting them out. I did this largely because when friends of mine do similar vacations, I'm always intrigued by what and where they're drinking. These pictures are quick, they don't heavily distract from the experience, and they are interesting to at least some small number of people. So when I went to Portland, I intended to do the same.

However, upon whipping out my phone for the first flight picture, the little ghost in my notification bar informed me that I had a Snapchat waiting for me to view. I opened it up and saw a picture of an impressive few bottles of beer from a friend of mine. In response, rather than tweeting the beer flight, I Snapchatted it, as a reply to that picture and as an addition to "My Story."

Now you may think it hypocritical that I can say I dislike ubiquitous photography and would use Snapchat. And I assure you that's a correct thought. It absolutely is hypocritical. The rise of photo sharing social media applications such as Instagram and Snapchat has massively increased the presence of this problem, and by using Snapchat, I'm encouraging it. Pictures I take are not better than the ones I allude to at the beginning of this post, nor are they free of the attached distractions. Nor are they more interesting. I do not claim that any reason others may take photos would not apply to me. There is an unquestionable attraction to photography, even knowing full well that I will not likely ever revisit these pictures.

There is, therefore, a massive benefit to the ephemerality inherent in Snapchat. Essentially, because vacation photos are not something most people ever look back on after a brief grace period after the vacation, such photos are practically ephemeral, though in practice not at all. With social media currently, such pictures last forever. But with Snapchat, one can match the intentions ('bragging' or quest for validation, updates to friends and family who care, the satisfaction that comes from capturing an image) with this additional desire for true ephemerality of vacation photography.

On my trip to Portland, I snapchatted the entire time. Every picture I would have tweeted I instead pushed to those very few people with whom I am connected on Snapchat. The experience was exactly the same in terms of mechanics/satisfaction of the photography, and better still, the pictures are now gone. I never have to worry about not revisiting pictures I never would look at again, simply because they no longer exist.

Most importantly, Snapchatting my vacation forced a slight remedy to my first problem above; because I knew photos would be fleeting, I was able to take such pictures while still making sure that I focused on enjoying the experiences themselves – after all, the memories of such experiences would last even if the pictures won't.

So I highly recommend that you Snapchat your next vacation. Take the same pictures you would have taken before, but push them out to My Story and then put the phone down, enjoy the vacation, and make memories that are less ephemeral.

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Craft beer is underpriced

Posted in Beer on April 9th, 2014 by Nathan – 17 Comments
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If quantity cannot increase fast enough, price must.I've written a lot about this topic in various other locations, but I figured it's time to talk about it here: much of craft beer is absurdly underpriced. I've touched on supply/demand before in this blog, but a quick refresher can't hurt. Basically, to the left is a supply and demand curve. It's basic. Where that dot labeled "equilibrium" is is the magical world where supply matches demand. In that world there's an equilibrium price and an equilibrium quantity. It's magical, of course, because it rarely exists with specific goods.

Craft beer is one of those goods where the equilibrium seems to be a fantasy, impossible to reach. Instead, we're at a point on the supply curve down and to the left of the equilibrium: quantity is low, price is low.

The symptoms of this are obvious in many craft beer scenes around the country: super quick sellouts, the recent Hunahpu's Day disaster, beer scalpers, etc. When demand outpaces supply, these types of things happen. These are simple market inefficiencies. And there's only two ways to fix these inefficiencies: increase supply or decrease demand.

Increasing supply is a somewhat nice idea, and in the market overall, this is already underway. More and more craft breweries are opening, expanding, increasing production. However, because beers are not perfect substitute goods, an increase in supply in the overall market does not translate to an increase in supply for particular beers. As a result, rare or limited releases continue to see the problems described above. In fact, this is precisely where the problem is most evident and these beers are the exact ones I would argue are underpriced.

Thus, demand must be decreased. And as the supply/demand curve image shows, if the quantity can't increase, the price must. And as it does, the consumer appetite will decrease, demand will drop as prices approach equilibrium. Note that there's nothing "fair" about this – it's a purely capitalist system, but it's also a system that, with the scarcity that exists, works.

Jester King's Aurelian Lure and Nocturn Chrysalis were priced at sixteen dollars per 500ml bottle. There were about 500 bottles of each. Every bottle sold out within three minutes. That's absurd. Jester King could have easily charged twice that and the sellout would still have occurred, albeit at a slightly slower rate. In fact, I would argue that Jester King could have charged ten times as much – an unheard of (some might say obscene) $160 per bottle, and still sold out in a reasonable amount of time. (Of course, they would have had to remove the "limit one per person" stipulation. And I wouldn't have gotten any.)

A six-pack of Saint Arnold Divine Reserve may run you as much as twenty dollars. Look on Craigslist a day or two after it's been sold out in Houston, and you'll see postings asking for fifty or one hundred dollars. No matter how often people flag the posts (myself included) as prohibited, those sellers will sell the beer they bought. If they wouldn't, then we wouldn't see the same thing after every somewhat limited release. The prices they request are closer to the market equilibrium, and the gray market rewards them for taking advantage of a massive market inefficiency.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that there seems to be some kind of "noble pricing" that breweries implement. Reputational risk is probably a concern, but honestly, a lot of breweries are owned by or started by people who find it abhorrent to charge more than what they think is fair. Freetail is a great example of this, and they have stated before that they purposely keep prices low, intentionally do not capitalize on the extreme demand for Ananke and other special releases, and do not plan to change this in the future. Honestly, I think that's noble, wonderful for my wallet and those wallets of my friends, and unsustainable.

The prices probably won't rise in the near future, unfortunately, because of this reason and other reasons. But I repeat that I believe this is unsustainable. The growth in craft beer demand looks to continue at ridiculous rates, while supply simply cannot keep up. The result will be increased gray market activity, more catastrophes at beer releases, more rapid sellouts and angry consumers, and ultimately chaos. It's not impossible to envision a future in which a brewer throws his hands up and sells out or quits, in retaliation to this chaos. And that benefits nobody.

The responsible but unpopular thing to do is to raise prices. Craft beer is massively underpriced and unless this changes, there may be a crisis ahead.

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On Voter ID laws

Posted in Opinion on March 31st, 2014 by Nathan – Be the first to comment
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If I'm gonna continue blogging, I'm gonna go full nine. Politics this time around.

"We need to ensure our elections are fair" – Tom Corbett, PA Governor who signed the state's Voter ID law.

"I think any person who does not want to see fraud believes in having good, open, honest elections. Transparent. One of the ways to do that, one of the best ways to do that, is to have an identification, photo identification so that you prove who you are and you keep those elections fraud-free." – Rick Perry, TX Governor who signed the state's Voter ID law.

I don't have too much to say on this topic other than that I think voter ID laws are political power plays (possibly with racist and definitely with classist implications) that do very little to combat "voter fraud," a menace that I do not believe exists.

I do however think it's very interesting that those in power are the ones alleging elections – those elections that got them into power – are unfair. I also think it's interesting that these laws are fought for almost entirely by one specific party, and only when that party is in charge.

And finally, I think it's interesting that with so few voters in each election, anyone would do anything to try to decrease that number. If we are going to require an ID to vote, maybe we should take it another step and require everyone to vote. Of course, the political landscape would massively shift if every American voted, and I guarantee those who support voter ID laws would find that shift hateful.

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