Recently a few of us at the Observer gathered with the task of testing pizza-dipping sauces from five major chains. As we often do around here, we like to embrace food shame and, if the stars align, maybe discover a hidden gastronomic gem.
Not everyone was up for this particular test though. Some ducked out of the room mumbling something about "deadlines." Perhaps a sensitive gag reflex was to blame, which is fine because once someone starts making that noise, it all goes downhill quickly.
The hypothesis was, well, we didn't think it out that far. The method, however, was simply to taste a small bit of each sauce (with crackers or pizza) with the goal to simply determine the best (or least worst).
There was one caveat to the test, which I'm still a bit conflicted about: Because of its overwhelming prominence in the condiment industry, ranch flavor was excluded. Repeat, no ranch dressing in this drill.
The test subjects were Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Little Caesars, Domino's and Pizza Patrón. A wide swath of dipping sauces were collected from each, consisting of members of the garlic, blue cheese, honey mustard and barbecue families. The rogue variants were the Ranchero from Pizza Patrón and Cheezy Jalapeño from Little Caesar's.
I learned a lesson about testing pungent products that don't have an expiration date on account of their chemical concentration: pace yourself. Open one or two at a time, then taste and discard before you open others. Otherwise everything starts to blend together.
The front-runner for the most hideous dip was clear the instant the noxious fumes overtook our, until then, delicate olfactory senses. (Insert first gag reflex here.)
Dear Little Caesar's Cheezy Jalapeño, you need to think long and hard about your mission in life and what good you want to bring to this planet. Because we're collectively missing it. Your florescent orange color mixed with your pudding like texture and astringent smell was reminiscent of a Homer Simpson disaster at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.
From a culinary standpoint, a test participant said, "It taste like a mall bathroom. This sauce has given up. It's the sweat pants of sauces."
Buttery Garlic, good sir, you're not far behind in the Little Caesar's family of shame. "It tastes like half garlic, half petroleum," said another tester in the group.
The three sauces that offered the least amount of pain were Papa John's Special Garlic, Pizza Hut's Blue Cheese and the Ranchero from Pizza Patrón, the latter being, "understated and subtle." (Yes, someone said that.)
What happened at the end of this tasting event is hard to explain. I can only attribute it to the abrasive cocktail of chemicals in the air that must have caused synapses in our brains to start misfiring. We wondered what would happen if we mixed our three favorites together. Like a suicide at the drink fountain, except this could actually kill someone.
So we mixed together Papa John's Special Garlic, Pizza Hut's Blue Cheese and the Ranchero from Pizza Patrón, stirred, then dipped.
And, yes, a few of us actually tried it. Jesse Hughey was one of those brave souls, "Garlic is dominant, followed by oil, then ranchero."
When it came time to clean, personally my gag reflex kicked into overdrive. I apologize to anyone who had any sort of business to conduct in that conference room for the next week because the smell was horrid. I tried really hard to wash it all down the sink, but the thick film that formed in the sink basin was impenetrable. Eventually I was beckoned to abort the mission and just leave. Again, I'm sorry.
So, in the end, which was the standout winner? Ranch. Hands down.
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