Corn Chip Chowdown

‘Well, I suppose we should start with the chip that Mr. Frito gave his name to,” said Frank as he popped open a bag of Frito-Lay Fritos ($3.49 for a 10 oz. bag at Ralphs). “The original and the best, right?” he asked, mixing up corn flakes and corn chips.

Mr. Frito’s namesake turned out to be more old-fashioned than classic. “They taste okay,” he said, “but they’re just too small and frail. Each bite disintegrates in my mouth.”

“Thin as shirtbox cardboard,” agreed Patrick, munching.

“It goes to masa in my mouth,” continued Frank. “I want to spit it out and make a tortilla.”

“Gross,” said Bernice, but she agreed. “It’s still better than other snacks, but it’s not the best there is.” With that, she snapped open the Fritos Scoops ($3.49 for a 10 oz. bag at Ralphs). “Look at the size of these babies. Just one could cover almost your entire tongue. And it’s not thin. It’s got that Frito taste, but with more crunch and body. It holds up when you chew, doesn’t go to paste right away.”

“I like the way the initial saltiness gives way to a real corn flavor,” agreed Frank. “It’s like Frito-Lay knew it had something great with the original, but worked to perfect it over time. It’s kind of like raising kids.”

“Except it’s much more important than raising kids,” said Patrick. “This is snack technology we’re talking about.”

Trader Joe’s, playing the organic newcomer to the corn-chip party, wisely chose to emulate the scoop instead of the original chip when it fashioned its corn dippers ($1.99 for 9.75 oz.). “Oh, SNAP,” exclaimed Bernice. “These have even more crunch.”

“And it’s even more corny,” marveled Frank. “I think they come across as saltier than the Fritos, but the upped salt is balanced by the upped corniness.”

“Almost like a deep-fried corn tortilla,” agreed Patrick, “but crispier.”

Alas, the Fresh and Easy Original Jumbo Dipping Corn Chips ($1.99 for 9.25 oz.) measured up in size but not in flavor. “Too. Much. Salt,” grimaced Patrick. “And nowhere near enough corn.”

Bernice was down on the texture. “I don’t mind lingering texture, but I do mind when it reminds me of styrofoam and also gets stuck in my molars.”

“It’s just too oil-heavy,” observed Frank. “And the aftertaste reminds me of microwaved popcorn.”

At least microwaved popcorn is a food. Our next entry — admittedly, something of an outlier — smelled of wet paint. Pop Chips’ Katy’s Kettle Corn Popped Corn Chips ($2.99 for 3.5 oz. at Sprouts) boasted a proper pop pedigree: created by Katy Perry! And they promised potential prizes: concert passes to a Katy Perry concert! But Bernice was not a fan. “First it’s sweet, then it’s salty, then it’s corny. But for never being fried, it seems weirdly oily, and the texture quickly goes to ‘soggy Cheerios.’”

“I don’t mind eating them, but I don’t like the smell,” said Frank as he scarfed.

Our second outlier left us with happier mouths: Whale Tails Original Flavor Yellow Organic Corn Tortilla Strips, made with Hawaiian sea salt ($3.79 for 9 oz. at Whole Foods). Yes, they are shaped like whale tails. Yes, they are locally made. “This is the middle ground between a corn chip and a tortilla strip,” said Patrick. “I like the earthy wholeness of the corn flavor and the crackly crunch as I chew.”

Frank was with him. “They’re drier, less oily than the rest. They stay crisp in the mouth longer than the others. The salt is refreshing. They’d make a great beer snack. I find myself popping one after the other here. They are, dare I say it, fun to eat.”

Eager to play up a successful local product, I looked into Whale Tails. The shape is designed to remind snackers of the importance of ocean conservation (the company donates 10 percent of its profits to marine mammal conservation efforts). The label shows a Wyland whale — you may have seen a few on murals around San Diego — and the company works with the Wyland Foundation to promote healthy oceans. The sea salt on Whale Tails is alaea, a sun-dried salt from Hawaii known for its low sodium content and trace minerals. And they’re kosher!

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