"Are you pondering what I'm pondering, Pinky?"
"I think so, Brain, but how are we gonna get the pepperoni paste inside the cracker?"
It's only because we're used to them, grew up with them even, that Combos—those tubular, gunk-filled baked snacks—don't seem totally strange to us now. Like that one guy in your office* who you don't even notice any more, but if you were to bump into him on the street, you'd be all like, "Hey, get a load of this guy! Isn't he kooky?"
*We all know who I'm talking about
Created in the '70s, Combos have become a staple of rest stop gas stations. They're marketed as the perfect driving food—75% of all Combos sales occur in gas stations**—and those marketers may well be right. They're baked, so they don't get your fingers greasy the way potato chips do, allowing you to maintain proper grippage on the steering wheel as you maneuver through perilous long, straight, highways. They're heartier and more texturally varied than most bagged snacks. They provide just enough interesting structural and procedural challenges to keep you occupied until the next game of Mad Libs, while not so many that you get distracted from driving. They also come in over a dozen flavors that range from "That makes sense" to "WTF, buffalo?"
**According to the statistics I just completely made up
What structural and procedural challenges, you ask? Ah, you haven't been eating Combos for long, I take it. Obviously, separating the soft filling and the crunchy shell—wether it's cracker, pretzel, or its newfangled tortilla cousin—before swallowing is of utmost importance. It's a prize you have to work for with the painstaking precision of a safecracker. I like to employ a variety of techniques.
Easiest is to break the cracker off the soft core like shelling an egg, using your incisors to prize pieces away in large chunks. It takes a bit more precision as you take off the inner layers that are touching the filling, but with a bit of patience, you'll be rewarded with a naked cheesy-paste tube that you can then dissolve on your tongue.
More difficult is the move I call the Tooth-Hold-Tongue-Tipper. You know, when you hold the tube ever so gently between your front teeth and gently scrape away the filling a layer at at time, your tongue working its way into the hole like an octopus squeezing into an empty soda bottle. There's an image for ya'.
Then there's the most difficult of all: The Hoover. When you suck the filling straight out all in one go. 7 out of 10 times, the cracker suffers from total structural collapse and you're forced to crunch it all together in your teeth, filling and all (the horror!). 2 out of 10 times, the filling shoots straight out like a cork from a pop gun, shooting into the back of your throat, the empty cracker flying across the room leaving a trail of crumbs as you cough for air.
But that 1 time out of 10 when the filling gently slides out and you get to taste both in all of their unadulterated glory. That, my friends, is what Combos dreams are made out of. Who's with me?
After all that, the flavors are largely incidental, but we went ahead and tasted them all for you, with the exception of Zesty Salsa. It seems that the entire Eastern seaboard is is out of Zesty Salsa.
Buffalo Blue Cheese
The blue cheese is unmistakeable, and the cover of the bag shows a piece of chicken dipping into a bowl, but there is not much hint of either chicken or buffalo sauce. Still, blue cheese and pretzel is not a bad... Combo.
The classic: salty cracker tube around a cheese-paste center. Despite the "made with REAL CHEESE" labeling, the "cheddar" tastes more like cheez than cheese, but that's not a bad thing for a car snack.
The same cheezy filling inside a pretzel crust, which, of course, makes the whole thing vastly superior.
Jalapeño Cheddar Tortilla
The only one in the lineup I'd recommend avoiding. The jalapeño flavor reminds me of frozen microwaveable jalapeño poppers, but not the nice kind with whole japaleños stuffed with cheese—the poor man's version with dehydrated what-could-have-been-jalapeño-in-a-previous-life nubs of chopped jalapeño in grainy cheese product. The "STONE GROUND CORN" tortilla-esque shell is also pretty short on real stone ground corn flavor.
Nacho Cheese Pretzel
Like the cheddar, but a touch zestier. This may well be my favorite.
"Open your mouth and close your eyes," I said to Carey, a pepperoni pizza Combo hidden in my hand. Is that something people say to their co-workers in a normal office?
Anyhow, her reaction: "This is pizza... Um, pepperoni pizza? But pepperoni in that way that pepperoni pizza snacks are identifiable, even though they don't taste anything like real pepperoni pizza."
I know what she's talking about. It's like the blue raspberry phenomenon. Doesn't taste like raspberry, but we all know that flavor anyway. I could see myself enjoying these on a long road trip.
We also found a single pre-emptied Combo in the bag, which made me picture a hungry Combos worker who missed his lunch fervently sucking paste-ified pepperoni gunk out of the cracker before he sealed the bag. Only one per bag so nobody catches on. Until now.
This is the one I was always excited by as a kid. It's pizza, AND it's nugget-sized? Like the pepperoni pizza, this one doesn't taste much like real pizza, but it's got that unmistakeable dried-herb and zesty sauce combo that all pizza-flavored-objects have.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.