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[Photographs: Daniel Souza]

It's not often that Lay's lets its customers choose a new chip flavor they want the company to produce. In fact, this is the only time they've ever done it. And I think it's fair to say that America responded to the challenge—to the tune of almost 4 million flavor submissions. With the help of some celebrity judges, Lay's narrowed the staggering list of entries down to just three.

And they couldn't be much different from one another: Chicken & Waffles, Cheesy Garlic Bread, and Sriracha. My guess is that you just formed an opinion about which one you will like best. I know I initially did. But I had to grab a bag of each to find out for sure.

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[Photograph: Lay's]

Chicken & Waffles

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I didn't grow up eating chicken and waffles. The first time I tried the then-peculiar combination was on a road trip in college that passed through Atlanta. It was there, on Peachtree Street, that I tucked into a big plate of sweet waffles and salty fried chicken at Gladys Knight's Chicken and Waffles. At the time it felt like perfect drunk food (to be fair I was probably drunk) but now it just seems like perfect food. I crave that trifecta of salt, sugar, and fat all wrapped up in the comforting textures of crispy skin, juicy meat, and fluffy buttermilk batter.

I was excited to try Lay's interchiptation of the dish but also apprehensive that it might fall flat. In the end, I was pleasantly surprised. The balance of sweet and salt is spot on; these are hard chips to stop eating. The waffle flavor is very clearly in the frozen Eggo camp, which isn't necessarily a criticism. There's no maple syrup listed on the bag but I taste a lot of it on the chip. The chicken flavor takes a moment or two to surface but does so just in time to keep the sweet waffle from becoming cloying.

Cheesy Garlic Bread

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Here's a chip flavor that I would never have submitted in a million years of chip flavor submitting. Okay, in a million years I'd have probably at some point submitted it, but definitely not in first 500,000 years. And it's not for a lack of enjoying cheesy garlic bread. That stuff's darn delicious. I assumed a garlicky, cheesy chip would leave me missing the crisp crust and chewy, doughy center of the real deal. I was wrong.

First off these chips nail—and I mean absolutely nail—the flavor of Italian-American garlic bread. Sure it's cheesy (there are 5 different kinds of cheese) and garlicky, but what really makes this chip shine is how buttery it is. Not everyone knows that a copious amount of butter is the key to good garlic bread, but the mad scientists at Lay's certainly do.

Sriracha

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"Okay", I thought, "here's my chip". I love that bright red rooster sauce drizzled on untold dishes, am addicted to anything vinegary, and eat up spicy food like it's going out of style*.

Imagine my surprise then when I bit into my first Sriracha chip, and then my second, and then I stopped. Were they bad chips? Certainly not. In fact they offered a pleasing balance of real spice, tangy vinegar, sugar, and salt.

Did they taste like Sriracha? Certainly not. I closed my eyes and tasted another chip, tonguing around the corners of my mouth for even a hint of red chile, but I couldn't find it anywhere but on the back of the bag. Frantically questioning my understanding of Sriracha, I reached for the green-capped bottle and squirted some into the center of my tongue. A few swishes later confirmed that yes indeed, Sriracha does taste like red chiles (and is also really spicy when squirted directly onto a tongue). I'm not saying it's the most complex of Asian chile sauces, but chiles are the first ingredient on my bottle of Sriracha and the primary, overarching flavor.

The chips, in my opinion, just don't have it. Once I was able to move beyond what the chips were supposed to be, I actually ended up enjoying them, especially when smothered with a creamy, cooling dip.

*Don't worry, I checked with Kenji and it's not.

The Verdict

I started this tasting with the assumption that the Sriracha chips would get my vote. In the end, it wasn't. So which of the other two finalists makes it into my winner circle? Unable to make a clear decision, I spent the weekend heavily snacking, weighing the remaining contents of each bag, promising to vote for whichever bag had been most emptied. The result? Let's just say my top chip and I are leaving on a Midnight Train to Georgia.

Have you tried the chips? Tell us what you think.

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