Enhancing Homemade Meals With A Little Help From Restaurants

Restaurants don’t just come in handy when you want to order a full meal. Often, you can purchase small items not listed on the menu to improve a dinner you are cooking yourself. A couple instances of utilizing a restaurant for an “assist” occurred this past week in Spokane, thus serving as my inspiration for this blog post. Let me give you five examples…

Ice from Sonic – It is no secret, Sonic is as famous for its ice as it is for its Sonic Blasts. A brand new Sonic just opened up a couple minutes from my parents’ house and my brother and Sid decided to stop by last week to pick up some lunch. Besides the grilled cheese sandwiches and mozzarella sticks they brought home, they also carried in a bag of Sonic ice. For just $0.99, they were given a bag filled with the famous “nugget” ice. We kept it out on our back porch and scooped our cups in it all week long when we went to fix a drink. My mom even commented that it made her soda taste better!

Taco Salad Shells from Taco Bell – When my mom would host her Bunco group, she would make homemade taco salad…well, almost homemade. Although she labored on the salad itself, she went to a famous fast food restaurant for the containers to serve it in. For $0.10 each, you can purchase taco shell bowls at Taco Bell. They are great for entertaining as you normally don’t see taco shell bowls outside of restaurants.

Fortune Cookies from any Asian Restaurants – Sure you can buy a box of fortune cookies at the grocery store but if you want the homemade or obscure variety, just walk inside any Asian restaurant and ask the hostess. Some places will charge a quarter per cookie while other places will happily give you a handful for free. Trust me, I have a lot of experience with this. Fortune cookies can provide the perfect surprise ending to any homemade Chinese feast.

You can walk inside any Asian restaurant and request fortune cookies.

Alfredo Sauce from Papa Murphy’s – Growing up, I always enjoyed it when my mom would let us kids make homemade pizza for dinner. She would set all the ingredients out on the table and let us have at it. While she provided the red pizza sauce herself, she called upon Papa Murphy’s to provide the white sauce. A couple hours before we prepared our pies, she would go inside the store and get several plastic condiment cups, usually $.50 each, of the delicious alfredo sauce served by my favorite pizza chain. Being able to choose an ingredient from an actual pizza place was always fun.

Salad Dressing from Tomato Street – There is a fabulous Italian restaurant in Spokane called Tomato Street. Besides its to-die-for pastas and savory garlic bread, it also has a reputation for an amazing creamy garlic salad dressing. For our Christmas dinner, my mom topped the salad with dressing she went and purchased at the busy restaurant the day before. No store bought dressing could ever compete with what Tomato Street serves and my mom took full advantage of it.

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Do you use any side items from restaurants to enhance your homemade meals? If so, let me know. You can get pretty creative. Don’t Blink.

My Top Five Pizza Chains

A little over a week ago, I addressed gourmet pizza. Tonight I want to talk about greasy pizza. This evening is not about pies dusted with pesto sauce and topped with corn and roasted garlic. Rather, it is about pepperoni, extra cheese, and plenty of red sauce.

I have felt the urge to talk about my favorite pizza chain restaurants for a couple years now. For the purpose of this post, when I say “pizza chain restaurants” I am talking about places that are primarily either delivery or carryout. So please note that buffet places like CiCi’s or sit down places like Roundtable Pizza were not considered. With that said, I give you my top five pizza chains:

5. Domino’s – Growing up, I enjoyed the Domino’s coupons that were cut out to fit on your door handle. Our neighborhood would be targeted a couple times each month so we had plenty of them. I enjoyed looking at the offerings that always included a pizza, side item, and soda for what seemed to me like an inexpensive amount. All the way through my teen years I held a pretty favorable impression of Domino’s. But as I became a little more aware of quality, my enthusiasm for the chain dimmed. A few years ago, I shook my head as Domino’s ran a marketing campaign that showed their food in a bad light and basically sent an apology to the American people for their pizza sucking so much. This concession by the company almost made me leave it off of the list but there was no way I was going to let Little Caesars replace it.

4. Costco Pizza – This isn’t a joke. Costco is legitimately listed as one of the country’s largest pizza chains. Although I usually opt for a hot dog at Costco, every now and then I go for a gigantic slice of pepperoni pizza that sends grease oozing through the paper plate. But how could I place Costco on this list if the pizza isn’t even my primary food court choice? You see, while I might not be a huge fan of pizza by the slice at Costco, I love to buy the full pizzas offered take and bake style. When I was a bachelor, I would buy a pizza for myself and immediately bake it. I would then put the slices in ziplock bags, place them all in a Tupperware container, and eat the slices throughout the week. It was convenient, cheap, and pretty darn good. I have a soft spot for Costco pizza.

Me with my container of take-in-bake pepperoni Costco pizza.

3. Papa John’s – Out of the five places on this list, I like Papa John’s as a company the most. It is safe to say that this chain has distinguished itself. When you think of a Papa John’s pizza, you immediately think of a jalapeno pepper and a garlic sauce container coming inside the box. You think of the CEO acting goofy in commercials with Peyton Manning. You think of the Super Bowl heads or tails coin toss promotion that won us all free pizza. You also think of that distinctive taste. Yes, put me through any pizza blind taste test and I will always be able to pick out the Papa John’s pie. Now, this isn’t to say that the taste of a Papa John’s pizza is amazing but it isn’t bad either. I would say the chain is extremely consistent in taste and a little unpredictable when it comes to specialty pizzas…like the Fritos chili pizza that was introduced in 2014.

Me holding the Fritos Chili Pizza from Papa John’s.

2. Pizza Hut – It is no secret that Pizza Hut has fallen on tough times as of late. The chain recently revamped its entire menu in response to a country that was demanding more options. However, throughout my whole life I have never had a problem with Pizza Hut pizza. I think I became a Pizza Hut loyalist for life after hearing these two words: stuffed crust.

Yes, I am dating myself here but I remember when stuffed crust first came out. I can see those David Robinson commercials right now advertising God’s gift to pizza lovers. To this day, I still love stuffed crust pizza. But I like Pizza Hut for more than just that one reason. Like Papa John’s, I think Pizza Hut is pretty consistent. I like the other types of crusts offered as well. On the days I took a break from the stuffed crust, I would order the meat lover’s pan pie (so good and so many calories). When I was younger, I was motivated to reach my summer reading goals because a coupon for a Pizza Hut personal pan pizza awaited me. When I worked at the University of Montana, I lived on Pizza Hut pizza because of a corporate contract. I can’t tell you how many days I scarfed down a couple slices while working games. The good memories make me like Pizza Hut even more.

1. Papa Murphy’s – I love my lists where I don’t have to debate the top spot. This is 100% one of those situations. Without a doubt, Papa Murphy’s is BY FAR my favorite pizza chain business. Don’t think this is nostalgia over the fact that Myrtle Beach doesn’t have a single Papa Murphy’s location because it is all about the taste baby. A take and bake pizza joint as my all-time favorite? You bet!!

Ask my mom, ask my wife, ask my brother…I love Papa Murphy’s pizza. The entire experience is delightful. No other pizza place smells better than a Papa Murphy’s location. Watching them make your pizza is a testament to the freshness and care that is devoted to each pie. The smell that takes over the kitchen when you put it in the oven is incredible. The taste of a freshly baked Papa Murphy’s pizza is of course delicious. But it is the taste of either cold Papa Murphy’s pizza or reheated Papa Murphy’s pizza that is the ultimate satisfying experience. Eating the pizza a couple days after it was cooked gives me incredible enjoyment. It is my belief that the love affair many of us have with cold pizza can be traced to the moment the first person ate Papa Murphy’s pizza about 48 hours after it was cooked.

I love all kinds of Papa Murphy’s pizza but for me, nothing beats the stuffed pizzas, especially the 5-meat stuffed pie. You basically have a whole bunch of meat stuffed between two thick floors of delicious crust. Try it, your life will never be the same.

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So, Sid…is pizza for dinner tonight?

Don’t Blink.