Cheetos are manna from 7-11. But I think I've found a Cheeto that's holier than Cheetos proper: Barbara's Cheese Puffs Jalapeño.
I'm a snack omnivore. I'll chonk down artisanal salami in the same bite as a Ritz cracker. I'll wash down Reece's Pieces with a swig of Russian River Consecration from my dwindling supply. There's no such thing as slumming it when it comes to snacks.
One of my favorite crunches is Flamin' Hot Cheetos, even if my finicky bowels make that a game of Russian Loolette. Frito-Lay took perfection and perfected it twice-over with Flamin' Hot Cheetos with Lime, two bags of which I found a few months ago, never to be seen again. The lime flavoring cut through the ambiguous Hot flavoring making something so beautiful that I can only imagine it could be improved with the addition of one more flavor. I'm thinking eel flake.
But for a go-to Cheeto-class corn snack, I think Barbara's has beat Frito-Lay at their own game. The standard variety is great, but the jalapeño version is perhaps the best cheesy corn crisp thing I have ever eaten.
Cheetos are covered with a legendary cheese powder—a formula so iconic it's become an orange-stained shorthand for geeks and stoners—Barbara's cheese stuff is slightly more glommy. It sticks to the extruded corn puffs more than Cheetos' powder does, leaving very little on the fingers or in the bottom of the bag.
And while Cheetos have a flavor that represents real cheese, it's about as genuine as a skateboardin' furry playing cheetah. But Barbara's cheese tastes like cheese. Not just cheddar, either, but blue cheese for a slight tang. There's buttermilk in the recipe, too, which helps give them a little snap.
The jalapeño isn't overpowering, either, unlike the Flamin' Hot powder which is half flavor, half personal trial. (I love that challenge, don't get me wrong. But it's not a snack to idly eat. You need to give Flamin' Hots your full attention.) It's more flavor than heat, accented by bell pepper and paprika.
Altogether, the ingredients make Barbara's Cheese Puffs Jalapeño one of the most difficult-to-stop-eating snacks that's ever passed my teeth. Everyone I've ever given a sample has agreed—as they poured the rest of my bag into a bowl and got as far away from my grasping hands as possible.
Barbara's is also a "natural food," if you care about that sort of thing. Whole grains. No hydrogenated oils. No added sugar. That's great and everything, but we're still talking about cheese puffs here; a 120 calorie serving is still 90 calories of fat. But if you're one who treats their body as a temple instead of a snack food slaughterhouse designed by Temple Grandin, you can eat Barbara's Cheese Puffs without regret.
I'd only had Barbara's once a couple of years ago. I'd grabbed a bag without giving them much thought while shopping at a food co-op in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I went back the next day and bought two more bags.
But at home I'd never been able to find them. Trader Joe's carries a generic variety, much to my temporary delight. They don't hold a corny, extruded candle to Barbara's. Unfortunately, it had been long enough that I thought perhaps my memory had failed me and that they really weren't anything special. I'm fairly sure that the brand has changed their packaging in the last couple of years, as well, so my visual snack memory was polluted with old marketing.
I moved. They're at my local grocery store. I bought my first package a few days ago. Big mistake. I'm about to start ordering drop shipments monthly from Amazon.
Actually, that wasn't my biggest mistake. My biggest mistake was this weekend. I was eating my last bag while my girlfriend and I were camping in the rain. We sat under our tarp shelter, reading books.
"You should try these." I gave her a couple of puffs. A couple of seconds later she was popping a deformable camping bowl into shape and pouring some puffs into it. When she was done, she poured out the rest.
"These are dangerous."