I am writing this as an after-the-fact retrospective, so I can say that the Lay's “Do Us A Flavor” contest in 2013 set the tone for all the years of glory that would follow. A ludicrous amount of prize money ($1 million supposedly) went to the person who submitted the winning flavor. This bothers me only in that the tiara was given to the wrong contestant, in my opinion. Mediocrity carried the day, which is a shame.
The three contenders in 2013 were Cheesy Garlic Bread (yellow bag), Sriracha (red bag), and Chicken & Waffles (blue bag). To me, the concept of Cheesy Garlic Bread – the winner – was simply low-hanging fruit. It was executed decently well, but Lay's clearly already possessed cheese flavoring and oniony-garlicky flavoring, so combining them wasn’t a real huge leap. These tasted to me simply like a combination of a sour cream & onion chip and a cheese-flavored chip. Which is not a bad thing, certainly, but also not particularly innovative. The flavor was pleasant, easy-t0-eat, and non-challenging, and so its popularity was assured. I will grant them that the ingredient list named five different kinds of cheese powder, as well as garlic powder, so they were doing their best to class this up.
I had high hopes for the Sriracha chip. I was amused by the clear depiction of the Huy Fong Rooster Sauce bottle on the bag, only minus the signature green cap (I’m assuming for trademark reasons). But that’s where any similarity to real sriracha ended. The chips were faintly orange in color, similar to a barbecue chip. The faint aroma coming from the bag was predominantly a sour smell. Likewise, the flavor had a heavy vinegar note that hit the tongue immediately and then lingered. There was also a strange sweetness. There was a suggestion of heat, but again it was more reminiscent of a sort of spicy barbecue seasoning, and not at all suggestive of red chiles or red chile sauce. The one thing I’ll say for these is, if there were corners of America that had never heard of sriracha before (and there almost certainly were), I’ll give props to Lay's for spreading the good word. That said, I wish they’d sent a more representative emissary.
Which brings me to Chicken & Waffles. I am, at best, an adoptive Southerner – born in Boston, but I went to college south of the Mason-Dixon line, where I got to know true Southern people for the first time. And man, do I love Southern food. As I discovered regional favorite after regional favorite, I asked myself, where has this been all my life? Enter Chicken & Waffles, that beautifully mystifying combination of savory and sweet; crunchy and yielding; meat and baked good. It makes no damn sense, and yet, it resonates as a combo, like Simon & Garfunkel, Ike & Tina, the Captain & Tennille.
But I digress: did the Chicken & Waffles chip live up to this rhapsodic memory of the real thing? Reader, it did. The sweet-and-savory factor was off the charts. When you crisped into one of these, you were hit by simultaneous sensations of salt, maple-syrup sweetness, and a sort of savory, meaty umami essence. Now I should note, you did not taste chicken per se, even though “chicken flavor” was listed in the ingredients. The salty-savory-meatiness was a bit more elusive than that. As I let the flavor develop on my palate, I became aware of a sort of herb-seasoning note that actually reminded me strongly of thyme. It somehow evoked memories of delicious crispy chicken skin, regardless of the fact that an herb rub, or for that matter dried thyme specifically, are flavors I associate with roast chicken as opposed to fried chicken. Still, inexplicably, it worked. Perhaps it didn’t taste exactly like chicken, or exactly like waffles, but the combination of savory/herby and maple syrup somehow took me to exactly the right place. And that place is apparently brunch in, say, Atlanta. This beauty was robbed of her rightful crown.