Category Archives: Food

Operation: Soda Pop

On or around 12.30.2005, Agents Bladerunner, Renegade, and I infiltrated Galco’s Soda Pop Stop in Los Angeles. Posing as regular customers, we obtained many different varieties of sodas, and even held discussions with the owner, without ever being suspected as agents of The Crack Team. We were on full alert, and brought along two civilians to enhance our cover.
     This storefront contains possibly the largest selection of carbonated beverages, including sodas, energy drinks, beers, and everything in between. It is owned and operated by soda savant John Nese, who whenever possible stocks beverages that are flavored with real cane sugar and are bottled, not canned. There is a dizzying array of beverages, including many that have had large gaps in production, and have only recently been revived. They also have a selection of classic candies, such as Beemans Chewing Gum, the official gum of the astronauts of The Right Stuff. The store has been featured in many articles and on the History Channel’s Modern Marvels (When Renegade pointed out to Nese that most of his products were not modern, Nese countered with, “Well, they are a marvel.” The Crack Team agrees.)
     Overall, the mission was a great success. This was expected, since “Soda Pop” has three syllables. Sufficient time has passed for me to analyze the results of this Crack Team reconnaissance mission. I had assistance from Agents Hulagun and Assassin for a few of these.

This is an energy drink flavored by a highly caffeinated berry known as guarana (Go ahead, make a guano joke. It will only be the millionth time I’ve heard it.) Some people find guarana doesn’t make them jittery (or bother their stomachs) like caffeine, but still keeps them awake. I admit, it was a much gentler stimulant, but I usually go for an energy drink when I want to WAKE UP NOW. I first heard about it on, they’re big on energy drinks. Frankly, I thought it had a strange medicinal taste, and the guarana fruit flavor is hard to describe. Tolerable, sure, but I wouldn’t drink it again. The diet version tastes very similar, but again, not very good. I do dig the cobalt blue bottle, though.

Belfast Original Sparkling Cider
Created in San Francisco in 1849, the label claims it is California’s first soft drink. Tastes just like a carbonated version of the apple juice I drank as a kid. I noticed it is artificially flavored and contains no juice, so I was surprised how they got it to taste just like that apple juice. Then I realized I probably grew up on artificially flavored apple juice. If you really liked that stuff, you’ll like this, too, but I prefer Martinelli’s Sparkling Cider. That’s made with 100% real juice, and you can taste the difference.

Bubble Up
An old time lemon lime soda originally introduced in 1920, it’s glass bottled and sweetened with cane sugar. To me, most notable was the light, tiny bubble carbonation style. Good overall, with a cool retro bottle, but not a big standout.

Clearly Canadian Blackberry
A special soda for me. For a couple years in college, I had one just about every day with my lunch. Back then they had really interesting (and surprisingly delicious) flavors like Loganberry, which I just found out is a rasberry/blackberry hybrid. In 2004 they changed their formula from sugar flavored to a 50/50 cane sugar/Splenda mix. I tried the blackberry, and it’s still pretty good, but not as good as the original. Big surprise. They also cut down on the number of flavors. I just wish I knew about the switch beforehand so I could have stocked up on the original.

Coca Cola
A standard, but note that Galco’s only stocks Coke and Pepsi from Mexico, flavored with real sugar in glass bottles. Tastes a little different, but good. In SoCal you can also get them in most Mexican supermarkets like Ranchito. It is important to note that like in America, the label says it might contain corn syrup, but it does not (like ours never contains sugar because corn syrup is always cheaper).

Jeff’s Amazing New York Egg Cream
An egg cream is chocolate milk and seltzer, usually heavy on the chocolate syrup. Get them at a good Jewish deli and they’re damn good, despite the off-putting name. Finding the bottled version was pretty rare when I was in HS, so they were something of a treat. I can recall the label warning you not to shake them, but the chocolate syrup had settled to the bottom, so you had no choice. The syrup still settles, but now I realize you can gently tilt it back and forth, or move it in a swirling motion, to mix it without having it spray everywhere when you open it. Unfortunately, they don’t taste as good as I remember them. More of that artificial flavor creeping in. I tried chocolate and coffee, and Bladerunner tried chocolate and vanilla. Just didn’t do it for us. Stick with the delis, you can’t go wrong.

Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee
I was pretty skeptical of this one, even though a journalist doing a story on Galco’s said it was his favorite. Overall, it’s mixed. It does taste good, just a sweet, carbonated coffee taste. For the record, I don’t drink straight espresso or brewed coffees, they’re too strong for me. I stick with the lattes, mochas, etc., but down them daily. The problem is that over the course of the bottle, the flavor kinda got to be too much for me. Maybe I just drank it too slowly. Nese claimed that Manhattan Special is a very hands on bottler; they even roast their own beans. It just came off as too much of a good thing. Ooh. I bet this would make a great vanilla latte ice cream float.

Manhattan Special Vanilla Cream
A winner in my book, and I’m starting to wonder how a company like this can stay in business for over 100 years without anyone knowing about them (yes, I’m anyone). I am not really a fan of cream sodas, but this tastes just like vanilla ice cream. Again, all natural ingredients, flavored with pure cane sugar and real vanilla beans that you can see in the soda (but just a tiny bit). Assassin, who is a big cream soda fan, didn’t like this one too much. Go figure.

Moxie Original Elixir
Another one of those old time sodas (“Since 1884”) that Renegade could remember seeing in billboard ads drawn in Mad Magazine cityscape cartoons. I also read that it’s very big in New England. Unfortunately, it took a very short time to discover why this is an elixir and not a soda. It has a strong medicinal aftertaste, which comes from “gentian root extractives”. Nese explained that gentian root is the secret ingredient in Coke, but obviously Coke uses way less. Hulagun and I gave it a big thumbs down, but Assassin said it tasted like root beer. It is important to note that Assassin had just finished 3 regular (non-root) beers, and that might have affected his taste buds.

Original Nehi Grape
After seeing Radar O’Reilly constantly order them on M*A*S*H, I was excited to try it. However, the words “Artificially Flavored Soda” are prominent on the label, and you can really taste it. Kind of reminded me of those tiny wax bottles of syrup you’d bite the top off of and drink, and it almost had a waxy taste to it. I wonder if it was artificial when it was created in 1924.

Plantation Style Mint Julep
This has a great, real mint flavor that reminds me of the strong scent that would burst from the ground when I’d hit a mint patch with the lawnmower. Smooth and not overpowering; in other words, it doesn’t taste like carbonated Scope. One of my grandmother’s favorite desserts is vanilla ice cream with a little Creme de Menthe poured over it. I’m thinking this would be great for a vanilla/mint ice cream soda, kinda like a Shamrock Shake (which is just McDonald’s artificial vanilla milkshake with mint syrup). So, on second thought, maybe a lot better than a Shamrock Shake. The web site has a recipe listing.

Red Rock Premium Cola
This was one of the best of the bunch. Nese tells us it was Babe Ruth’s favorite cola, and that unlike Coke, the formula is pretty much unchanged from it’s introduction in 1885 (also in Atlanta). It had a very subtle vanilla flavor to it, but don’t think vanilla coke. Just a smoother flavor, and yet another flavored with pure cane sugar. I would easily take this over Coke.

That’s all for now, I’ll report again after our next mission.

Caffeine Disinformation

I am a caffiend. It is my chosen vice, as I don’t drink, smoke, or partake of controlled substances. My other vice is hot, hot ladies, but I’ve found they’re harder to obtain than caffeine-laden beverages. However, both are often found in the same places. So I’ve got that going for me.
     I also pride myself on being a fountain of useless knowledge, but recently my caffeine knowledge has been called into question. I have found most people are very confident about their caffeine knowledge (including me), but that confidence is almost certainly misplaced. This is because most information on caffeine is obtained “tribally”; in other words, it was passed on by word of mouth, and I have found that key details are often missing, and assumptions are being made. Again, I don’t exclude myself, so I’m here to show my useless knowledge is at least correct.
     One of the big problems is that we might not be talking about the same thing. For instance, there are several charts explaining how much caffeine is in a substance. However, they often make no mention of the amount used for the test, or normalize the results (i.e., list mg/fl. oz.). At home, we might use 8 oz. (1 cup) for coffee and tea, but most coffee shops won’t sell you less than 12 oz (bless their hearts!), and some caffeine listings give a serving as 6 oz.. More to the point, it has been shown that the same person, using the same equipment and process, will have varying amounts of caffeine in what he/she brews! If you’ve ever tried to consistently measure a teaspoon of tea leaves, this makes a lot of sense.
     I’m particulary interested in espresso vs. brewed coffee, another area rife with disinformation. The difficulty here is in getting consistent numbers for 1 serving (shot) of espresso, which can be 1-2oz., so we’re already off by up to a factor of 2. The charts I found list espresso as having more caffeine per ounce than brewed coffee, although I have read previously they are equal; I can’t find that site now. But it also seems consistent since you get so much more brewed coffee in a serving, it can be more potent. Most of the data shows that a 16 oz. brewed coffee will offer more caffeine than a 16 oz. latte, with 2 shots of espresso. Another factor (not mentioned in the reports), is that you’re also getting 12 oz. of milk in that latte, which could slow the processing of caffeine.
     Perhaps the most widespread misconception lies in coffee vs. tea. All charts I found show tea to have less caffeine than coffee (about half). However, most people I know believe the opposite, which is particularly ironic since they’re very bright, and most of them are scientists or engineers who pride themselves on being well informed (and if they read this article, they will be!). Now I’ve always received a much bigger jolt from coffee, and I’d think this would be obvious to anyone, but maybe believing tea has more is having an effect? I wouldn’t be surprised. I did find tea has two other chemicals in the caffeine family, but they are negligible. Also, tea does contain actual caffeine, not a caffeine analog called theine, as was once believed (even by a chemistry PhD friend of mine).

Hope that clears things up a bit. Here are my resources:

Adagio Teas (great vendor, BTW)
Caffeine FAQ
How Stuff Works


Welcome to Agent Mystery’s ONE MINUTE RESTAURANT REVIEW. If it takes you more than one minute to read this, you must be an idiot. It’ true. I’ll prove it. Stopwatches out. And. GO!

Astro burger was founded in the 1900’s by a person with a dream. A dream to sell burgers and other prepared food items and to make money doing it. Historians believe this restaurant was the first to be founded on this principle, influencing cultures in all stretches of the world. That much we can take as scientific fact. But how can one explain the perfect zucchini stick? Now, you’re asking yourself, why one would try. And now you’re looking at your stopwatch and going, ‘it’s been forty seconds already? Am I retarded? And now you’re telling yourself, ‘No. I’m not. This review is retarded.’ And now you’re reassuring yourself that, ‘yes, it is in fact the review that is retarded.’ And only now are you ready to read the real review. Well, done. The student has indeed become the teacher.

ASTRO BURGER is a medium sized fifties diner setting with cool booths, each complete with occasionally working juke boxes on every table, so bring your quarters and a hankering for Elvis. There’s also an outdoor patio so bring your cigarettes. Or not. Maybe a coat? I don’t know. Use your common sense. You’re bound to see every type coming in for a bite. The gamut of Los Angeles runs through here nightly and steadily, right up until Four ‘o’ clock hour. That’s AM folks.

It’s a burgers and shakes, fifties rock, kind of place but it’s infused with today’s modern Los Angeles cravings. Mexican and Cali influences touch various dishes. Lots of Avocado on hand at this uniquely cool restaurant on the corner of Santa Monica and Gardner. It is also directly across the Street from FAT BURGER, which isn’t bad in it’s own right. It also just so happens to be diagonally across from the future sight of the CRACK TEAM’S Newest Restaurant, FAT ASTRO! I’m confident it will be one of the top three burger joints on that block.

Now, some notes for the unfamiliar on the MENU:


At Astro Burger, everything is freshly prepared. And all burgers come with the thousand island-chopped onions-crisp-shredded-lettuce-sliced-tomatoes compilation. I usually go for the Turkey burgers. Go bold and get the Bacon Avocado Cheeseburger. Or be dedicated to your health and your colon and grab their renowned Garden Burger. Both of these are considered “House Specialties.” Also in that category falls their pastrami burger, however, I haven’t felt myself get the urge to induce a heart attack, and frankly it doesn’t sound that good. One at a time, please. Thank you.

They’ve also got Buffalo burgers (which I ordered thinking it was some how covered in hot sauce…and then realized that I had just made a really dumb assumption and that even a burger covered in hot sauce didn’t sound very good to begin with) The Buffalo Burger is heavily seasoned and was a bit odd tasting but not bad at all. And the one I’ve yet to try but is seriously up for consideration is the Ostrich Burger. Actually made from, get this: Real Ostriches.

I don’t really have any qualms about eating Ostrich. I’ve only really seen them on TV but they just seem to act like total assholes. Y’know, kinda like the prick in high school that pushed kids into lockers. They probably taste good. Not the pricks in high school. The burgers, I mean.


All their mexican is good because the guys cooking are, um,…how you say…Mexican. Hombre, get the Quesadilla. You’ll thank me later. Ask for Sour Cream. They won’t give it to you without asking and they’ll charge you for it when you do.


Club Jr. and Fries is a great quick filling meal for six and a quarter. A good deal for this place. Pastrami sandwich is pretty good, though their menu clearly states, “Best in Town”. Other Pastrami Connoisseur’s believe Astro Burger’s statement is an attempt to insult the town. The Tuna Melt is a smart choice. I wouldn’t go for the steak sandwich though. But then again, I’ve never been a fan of rib-eye steak sandwiches. I’m a philly fan myself.

Side Note:(No matter what you hear, nobody in LA does a great Philadelphia Steak Sandwich. And as a rule, you definitely don’t buy it if they actually call it a “Philadelphia Steak Sandwich.”)

The Chicken Club once reigned supreme to my current norm, the Bacon Cheddar Turkey Burger. The Club has bacon and swiss on top of the large and fresh grilled chicken breast. They throw in a little mayo and BBQ sauce. It’s one club you’ll want to join. Ok. that was weak. Moving on.

Salads here are good and BIG so remember to ask for Extra Dressing. They very well might charge you for it. fifty cents bitch. CHAR CHICKEN is the way to go. I get mine with Blue Cheese but you don’t have to do everything I do. I mean this is flattering and all but c’mon.

They also have Fish and Chips here. Go ahead live dangerously. Ever wonder what Cod tastes like made at a burger joint twelve miles inland? Me neither.


Now, my favorite thing they do with food, here. HOMEMADE ZUCCHINI. The perfect amount of breading on the perfect slice of zucchini fried to a nice crispy texture. They do it right. Somehow these guys have figured out how to make breaded and fried zucchini that doesn’t scorch your mouth with its boiling zucchini juice or that doesn’t turn to mush. Other places do okay. Maybe you’ll read about them in another blog. But NO ONE compares to Astro. All fried in Cholesterol-Free Canola Oil. They give you a large portion. That’s the only size they come in. You get two sides of a very tasty ranch dressing, which is thick and creamy and great for dipping your stick in. Maybe that’s not the best way to put it. Either way, you’ll want to get your lips around it.

Onion Rings are also extremely good. And quite possibly the best I’ve had out here. And I’m talking about Rings here. Strings are a whole other category that Astro doesn’t compete in.

Of course they do fries, and they do them well. The menu notes the Chili is homemade, as are the Onion rings and as I mentioned, the zucchini, however their fries are not. Still good. Add Chili if you like. You know you want to. Go on. Do it. Don’t be shy.

Shakes are made with real ice cream but they make chocolate shakes by mixing in Syrup with Vanilla ice cream. It’s not bad but it misses the point, doesn’t it? It’s like when you use white bread when you’re out of burger buns. It’s typically a last resort.


Well, I’m not even going to bore you with the breakfast because, well, it’s your normal breakfast fare. It’s also pretty good. Breakfast Burritos, Denver Omelets, French Toast. You can’t really go wrong. The hard part is getting there before 11:00am.

This place rocks for the casual, fulfilling venture out. You might have even seen the fuss over it when Hillary Swank went there after her Oscar Win, with wife, Chad Lowe.

Million Dollar Burger

It’s got a great vibe, interesting people, and amazing food. It’s good day or late, late night and it’s done the way it’s supposed to be. Quality food, pretty quickly. You’ll spend about three or four bucks more than you would at the Chains but you’ll be happier you did. Try their Location on Melrose near Larchmont. Slightly different menu. But they’ve got a drive-thru.

And Stop your watches. If you are between:

0-20 seconds– YOU are a genius.

20-40 seconds — YOU are pretty smart.

40 – 60 seconds — YOU can spell most difficult words, but still get stuck on whether it’s separate or serperate.

1 – 1:20 minutes — YOU may have graduated college but you’re not fooling anybody.

1:20 – 1:40 minutes — YOU were probably home schooled and breast fed till you were twelve. It’s not your fault.

1:40 – 2:00 minutes — YOU were raised by farm animals after your only living relative left you for dead after throwing you out of the car window instead of the diaper.

2:00 and above – You probably hold some sort of political office and/or perhaps involved in some aspect of NASCAR.

Diet Sodas That Don’t Taste Like Ass

For most of my life, I’ve hated diet sodas. Sacharine/Sweet & Low tasted especially horrible, but Aspartame/Nutrasweet didn’t taste great, either. Diet Coke and other colas taste pretty foul to me, and I love Coke. Friends have told me that all I have to do is choke down the stuff daily for 3 months, then you can stomach it no problem. I’ll pass. However, a few diet sodas have managed to taste really close to their non-diet counterparts:

  • Diet Minute Maid Orange The first diet soda I really enjoyed, very close to the original, but almost impossible to find in can form these days. I occasionally see it in 2-liter bottles.
  • Diet Sunkist A very good substitute for Minute Maid Orange.
  • Diet Sprite, aka Sprite Zero Nearly identical to the original. They are getting on the low carb bandwagon, rebranding it as “Zero”. Great for me, as it’s carried in 7-11 now, and I’m occasionally seeing in vending machines.
  • Diet Cherry 7-Up What I like to call a Shirley Temple in a can. Not very manly, but tastes great. Note that I have not included Diet (regular) 7-up, that misses the mark.
  • Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi This is pretty groundbreaking for me. I’ve long been a champion of Coke in the cola wars, and I’ve outright hated all diet colas (only Diet Rite came anywhere close, and still not close enough for me). Regular Coke meant less sweet, more carbonation; Pepsi tastes too flat. But in diet sodas, less sweet tastes wrong. Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi still needs the carbonation of Coke, but flavor wise it’s an achievement. Almost no diet taste. Can’t say the same for Diet Cherry Coke, which still has a ways to go. As for carbonation, if you’re just drinking a can, there isn’t much time for it to get any flatter. Worth it just for the caffeine, which none of the other sodas in the list have.
  • Coca-Cola C2 This is great while it lasts. I think this tastes very close to regular Coke, and makes an excellent substitute. Unfortunately, it looks like both this and Pepsi Edge (never tried it) have lost millions for their companies. The problem is, they wanted to capitalize on the various low carb diets, which prescribe zero sugars, not just lower carbohydrates. Half isn’t close to zero. Still at the supermarket, but my local vending machine has been sold out of it for some time, and it doesn’t seem to be getting replenished.
  • Coke Zero and Cherry Coke Zero Nowadays, I probably drink more Cherry Coke Zero than anything else. There is just something about cherry that masks/softens the aftertaste of artificial sweeteners. Coke Zero isn’t bad, and it’s finally arrived in a few soda fountains, most notably movie theaters.

Now, if we could just get more of these into vending machines, instead of the foul Diet Vanilla/Lemon/Lime Coke/Pepsi/Dr. Pepper permutations that currently fill them.

Roly Poly Fish Heads

As a seafood lover, I try to stay abreast of which species are deadly killers. An Eco Defense website has a nice chart telling you which ones are safe to eat (including catfish, clams, crabs, scallops, wild salmon) and which are slowly poisoning you (orange roughy, shark, swordfish, farmed salmon). There are several others on the list, and it also gives info on which are being over-fished, and how much of the deadly ones you can eat, based on gender and age (yours, not the fish’s). Pay attention to locations on the chart and at the supermarket; for example, most Alaskan fish is ok, but if caught from different areas or farmed, it may contain unsafe levels of mercury or other toxins.