I can’t remember the first time that I tasted a Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, but it definitely happened when I was a teenager. In between memorizing all of the lyrics to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, collecting Bonne Bell Lip Smackers, and directing my teenage angst toward my parents, I was also a prolific snacker–and when I discovered Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, my world changed for the better. I could channel my mild case of rebellion into eating snacks so outrageously spicy, salty, and devoid of nutritional value that no self-respecting Asian parents would ever willingly purchase them for their pantry. “ZOMBEYYYYYY!” I would shriek in my room along with the Cranberries, my tongue a fluorescent red, the roof of my mouth burning.
My love for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos persisted throughout adulthood, but it had been a while since I had permitted myself to purchase a bag. So I was shocked one day to wander into the snack aisle of my local supermarket to spot a bag of Flamin’ Hot Funyuns. What?! There were Flamin’ Hot products other than Cheetos?
A few months ago, I decided to explore just how many Flamin’ Hot products were out on the market. From the Frito-Lay website, I counted about 18; when I checked Amazon.com and other outlets, I settled on a list of 19. 19 products: enough to do a taste-test! It wouldn’t be so hard to track all of them down, right? After several months and visits to numerous gas stations and sketchy corner liquor stores, I had located all but one Flamin’ Hot product: Fantastix!, which I eventually determined is sold only on school campuses. I was ready to throw in the towel…but then I opened my birthday present from my husband and burst out laughing: it was a box of 100 packets of Flamin’ Hot Fantastix! that he had managed to source from a food-distribution company that supplies school vending machines. Now if that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
After assembling my nineteen Flamin’ Hot products, I gathered four friends (Jenn, Chris, Fran, and Derek–the same friends who participated in the dumpling party) and decided that the best way to taste all of the Flamin’ Hot products was to do a fantasy sports-style matchup, pitting the perceived strongest contenders against perceived weaker competitors. Our chart looked like this:
My husband, who created this bracket with our friend Chris, explained the above chart thusly: “We created a sixteen-team bracket to create the Flamin’ Hot tournament. However, given that we sought to use every Flamin’ Hot product on the market, we ended up with nineteen snacks, which does not fit into a bracket of sixteen teams. So we collectively ranked the snacks based on our perception of most to least delicious (note that, for the most part, we had never tried any of these snacks, apart from Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Xxtra Flamin’ Hot Cheetos). Then, we took the six lowest-ranked teams and created another round of tournament, requiring those six teams to play in a low-seed contest in order to determine which snack would have a right to compete in the tournament of sixteen.”
Here is a list of the snacks, in order from those eliminated earliest to those that lasted in the competition until the bitter end:
Matador Snack Stick
Chewy and oily, the Flamin’ Hot Matador Snack Stick was the only product to terrify all of us, and I suspect only a die-hard Slim Jim lover could love the Matador. The oil goops out between your teeth.
Comments: “Beef gum. Ow, I think I bit my cheek! I think I actually drew a little blood.” – Jenn. “The way the oil comes out of it is totally gross, but the spiciness is good…wait, we’ve been chewing on it for a minute, and we’re still chewing it…” – Chris. “Like you’re dipping liquid tobacco.” – Husband. “It tasted like an animal ejected its filth into your mouth.” – Fran. “Why is it so slick? It looks like it’s sweating or something. Like a greasy toad ejected into your mouth.” – Derek.
Frito-Lay’s foray into Flamin’ Hot peanuts was slightly more successful than the Matador snack stick. However, I still wrote in my notes that these Munchies Peanuts tasted like a “stinky, stale man.” If you enjoy such a taste, then you should definitely buy these peanuts.
Comments: “Too salty.” – Jenn. “I like them and would buy them.” – Chris. “I would eat them, but they’re not flamin’ hot, and they could stand to be flamin’ hot.” – Husband.
Flamin’ Hot Fantastix!
Ahh, the infamous, nearly impossible-to-procure, and designed-for-schools Fantastix! So fantastic! that an exclamation point is built into the name! These have a toasty flavor and crunch, which I really enjoyed initially, but the texture is a little off-putting: it’s reminiscent of styrofoam and dissolves easily in the mouth. Don’t worry–I have only 90 more packs to get through.
Comments: “Underlying earthy taste. Tastes like mushrooms to me. Not spicy enough, but I do like the texture and crunch.” – Jenn. “Most chips make me want to eat another one immediately. This one…I’m done after one.” – Chris. “Artificial taste. Texture and crunch are on point. Aftertaste is very clean.” – Husband.
Flamin’ Hot Munchos Potato Crisps
The Munchos line of chips, on first glance, looks a little like classic Lays. But that’s where the similarities end. Light and crunchy, these have a strange texture and flavor–like a potato chip made out of processed reconstituted potato.
Comments: “Too potato-ey, and not flamin’ hot enough.” – Jenn. “It’s like the Baked Lays base. I don’t like the flavor.” – Chris. “It’s kind of like they’re going for a potato skin taste, and I don’t like it.” – Husband.
Munchies Flamin’ Hot Snack Mix
Frito-Lay’s Munchies Flamin’ Hot Snack Mix makes you wish that the company made a Flamin’ Hot flavor of Sunchips. The only flamin’ hot element of the snack mix are the mini Cheetos, which don’t taste nearly as good as a normal Flamin’ Hot Cheeto. I suspect that’s because the smaller size of these Cheetos throws off the perfect proportion of Flamin’ Hot cheese powder to Cheeto. Yes, this snack mix is good, but what’s the point of a Flamin’ Hot snack mix in which the only flamin’ hot item is one of the weaker elements?
Comments: “Look how cute the little Doritos and Sunchips are! They should have not included the pretzels. I think the pretzels made the Cheetos stale!” – Jenn. “Man, they should make Flamin’ Hot Sunchips! It’s like you went and saw a band that was really good but the drummer (i.e., the pretzel) can’t keep a beat.” – Chris. “This is good; definitely a strong contender. But combined, the snack mix elements have no synergy–I blame the pretzel.” – Husband.
Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Popcorn
Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Popcorn is one of those products that I championed but that no one else really liked. I love the soft-crunchy flavor and the cheesy, slightly-sweet flavor.
Comments: “I don’t like eating stale popcorn.” – Jenn. “These are hard to get into, but i could see myself eating them for a while.” – Chris. “I don’t like stale popcorn.” – Husband.
Chester’s Flamin’ Hot Puffcorn divided the group much more than I thought it would. It helped me realize that there are two different kinds of people in the world: those who prefer the craggy, deeply crunchy texture of regular Cheetos, and those who prefer a lighter, puffier crunch. I find myself squarely in the first camp, so I didn’t really enjoy Puffcorn.
Comments: “I don’t like the texture; I wish it were crunchier. I wish it were less puff and more popcorn.” – Jenn. “It’s like the opposite of synergy; it’s not as good as popcorn and it’s not as good as puffs. It dissolves like cotton candy, almost. It’s like hard, spicy cotton candy.” – Chris. “It’s a puffy Cheeto and popcorn. Let’s say it’s not going to be the Cinderella story.” – Husband. “I don’t like the way these melt. They taste stale!” – Fran. “These melt in your mouth. You’re not supposed to use your teeth, Fran!” – Derek.
Again, the Cheetos Puffs highlighted the deep divisions in the room between those who love the styrofoam texture of a Puff versus those who prefer the deep crunch of an original Cheetos. Me–I’m running fast and far away from that styrofoam texture. That being said, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Puffs are a little better than Flamin’ Hot Chester’s Puffcorn.
Comments: “These are definitely better than puffcorn for me. These are a solid Flamin’ Hot family member.” – Jenn. “I like it.” – Chris. “This is a good cheesy poof. You want your cheesy poof to coat your hand with cheesy powder. But while it’s good, it’s not spectacular.” – Husband.
Flamin’ Hot Chester’s Fries are for puff-lovers. They have the same disconcerting tendency to collapse and stick to your teeth like Fantastix!, Puffcorn, and Cheetos Puffs do. TL;DR: They look like a Fantastix! clone but taste a little better than Fantastix!
Comments: “Way better than Fantastix.” – Jenn. “They’re fine. I would never pick these over Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.” – Chris. “It’s basically Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, minus the crunch. They’re like a mix between the Puffs and the Cheetos” – Husband.
Cheetos Mix-Ups Flamin’ Hot and Cheezy Mix
Cheetos Mix-Ups Flamin’ Hot and Cheezy Mix represent yet another example of a misguided snack mix in which the Flamin’ Hot element gets lost. The Flamin’ Hot Cheeto in this mix is very tangy and tastes a little cheesier than normal. Meh.
Comments: “I like the jalapeno balls–they taste like stadium nachos.” – Jenn. “I like the jalapeno ball thing. Too many puffs.” – Chris. “It’s just a bag of Cheesy Puffs. The flamin’ hot is just a throwaway gimmick.” – Husband.
Flamin’ Hot Funyuns
Funyuns, the onion-flavored ring of my youth! These have a light and brittle crunch. The spice is good, but ultimately, I can’t get over their oily odor.
Comments: “I like them!!” – Jenn. “I like the texture. These are good. Weirdly, they smell a little like salt and vinegar chips.” – Chris. “Heat is good. These are good! I would buy them.” – Husband. “Nice, oniony, then I get the hit of spice after. This is limey. I definitely could eat more of this, but I do have a Funyun thing.” – Fran. “Pretty good. Good crunch. I don’t eat stale s**t. The spice is mild. This was too powdery though. These are a little porous.” – Derek.
ELITE 8: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Limón
Oh, no. We had such high hopes for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Limón, but these taste unmistakably like bathroom cleaner. Honestly, given the terrible lime taste of these Cheetos, I’m surprised they made it this far in the competition.
Comments: “Oh, that’s weird – they taste like Fruit Loops! They’re gross!” – Jenn. “It’s like the company didn’t trust the flavor of real lime and they chose breakfast cereal lime rather than real lime.” – Chris. “I these are a little gross-tasting.” – Husband. “These are too limey for me. I like the texture a lot better than the packing popcorn (of the Puffcorn)” – Fran. “Very strong lime flavor.” – Derek.
ELITE 8: Oven Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
Oven Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos are surprisingly close to the original in texture, even if the flavor is a little too clean and tangy. You’d never mistake them for the original Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, fried in all their oily glory, but maybe sometimes you want a lighter version.
Comments: “This feels good, like eating a salad. After eating all of these different snacks so far, though, I would say that the Oven Baked don’t taste as flavorful.” – Jenn. “Are we factoring in the fact that we don’t have to feel as guilty eating these? I feel like I’m giving them more points because they’re healthier. I would say I feel like, what’s the point? If you’re going to eat Cheetos, just eat Cheetos.” – Chris. “These make you feel a little less oily in the mouth.” – Husband.
ELITE 8: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos & Doritos Dinamita
Unlike with the snack mixes in which Flamin’ Hot Cheetos play only a supporting role, the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos & Doritos Dinamita mix really does give equal screen time to both snacks. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the Cheetos in this mix are very close to the original Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (rather than having its identity changed, as in the Mix-Ups or Munchies snack mixes). This particular mix is quite salty, but somehow that seems acceptable because the lime flavor of the Doritos tastes natural and the sweet corn aftertaste helps to cut the saltiness.
Comments: “These are the classic Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and they’re more like the classic Cheetos than the ones from the Munchies snack mix. I really like the rolled Doritos. The lime flavor is more subtle, and I feel like I could eat more of these.” – Jenn. “I agree with Jenn. It’s a good bag of chips.” – Chris. “Great. This is a contender for first overall.” – Husband.
ELITE 8: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos
The classic. The one, the only, Flamin’ Hot Cheeto. Its crunch is so deeply satisfying.
Comments: “They were really good. They’re spicier than the ones in the Munchies snack mix. They don’t taste stale (as the ones in the Munchies snack mix do).” – Jenn. “They’re good. They’re the reason why we’re doing this whole thing.” – Chris. “There’s a reason the Flamin’ Hot brand exists.” – Husband. “I like that this is more cheesy than hot. I enjoy these more than the Funyuns.” – Fran. “I’m a big Cheeto fan! Ooh, I like this.” – Derek.
FINAL 4: Flamin’ Hot Munchies Baked Snack Crackers
Munchies Baked Snack Crackers look like they’d be a questionably-flavored cracker sold at clearance stores, given the slightly depressing packaging and the retail outlets (mostly gas stations, if I remember correctly), but they taste like they belong on the most prominent shelves of the finest supermarkets in the nation. (Is that actually the highest compliment I’m able to muster up these days?) Okay, these crackers taste really addictively cheesy in a concentrated powdered cheese kind of way, kind of like Kraft Macaroni & Cheese–and that actually IS the highest compliment I can pay to a cheesy snack product. I think these crackers have been discontinued since we did our snack-off, though–which is truly unfortunate. Bring back the Munchies Flamin’ Hot crackers, Frito-Lay!
Comments: “I really like these. I like the flavor of the cracker itself. There’s a butteriness. This conjures up memories of a family trip during which we ate these crackers, and that makes me really happy.” – Jenn. “You know those veggie crackers (like those chicken in a biscuit crackers)? That’s what these are like.” – Chris. “These reminds me of those Keebler Elves’ Town House Crackers. Or like Ritz. Flamin’ Hot Ritz? The question is–should Frito-Lay really have put the Flamin’ Hot flavor in these? Regardless, these are a little obsess-worthy.” – Husband. “Wow, these are weird! What?!” – Derek.
FINAL 4: Flamin’ Hot Fritos
The Flamin’ Hot spice and tang pairs wonderfully with the sweet corn loveliness and deep crunch of Fritos. Every time I try to write about Flamin’ Hot Fritos, only gushing love emits from my keyboard. Also, it’s important to note: Flamin’ Hot Fritos taste like Corn Nuts.
Comments: “I think these could be really good in a Frito pie.” – Jenn. “These are dangerously good. I feel like I could get into a bag of these.” – Chris. “Thank God they did not introduce the Flamin’ Hot brand with Fritos because they would have fallen flat, but these are pretty good.” – Husband. “I hate Fritos.” – Derek.
RUNNER-UP: Flamin’ Hot Lays
Lays as the runner-up? If you had asked me at the outset of the competition, I never would have predicted Lays to advance as far as it did. While my heart was stolen by the Fritos, I can recognize the crowd love for the Lays, which pair a well-balanced and spicy Flamin’ Hot burn with the classic delicate Lays crunch.
Comments: “These would be amazing in a turkey sandwich.” – Jenn. “Yeah, I’d buy those.” – Chris. “These could give the regular Flamin’ Hot Cheetos a run for their money.” – Husband.
WINNER!: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Xxtra
Featuring the same deep crunch as the classic Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Xxtra Flamin’ Hot Cheetos taste and smell smokier than the classic. They’re delightfully spicy, but I think the smokiness threw me off.
Comments: “This is tough. Too spicy for me.” – Jenn. “I don’t like them as much as I thought I would. They sacrificed a lot to make them more spicy. The flavor is not as compelling…I don’t want to say “nuanced” though, because, come on. – Chris. “Funyuns might knock off these Xxtra Cheetos, which were originally my #2 draft pick!” – Husband.
CONCLUSIONS: Wow, wow, wow. I was truly shocked. Cheetos Xxtra won the competition? All along, I think I expected some other snack to take it all: either Fritos, with its superior crunch and sweet corn flavor; Lays, with its refined, delicate crunch and its crowd-pleasing snackability; or even the classic Flamin’ Hot Cheeto, in all its balanced perfection. But that could just be me pooh-poohing this final win as a sore loser. Other thoughts:
- The biggest upset of the entire night was the original Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (which everyone had assumed would reach the finals) being beaten, in a decisive victory, no less, by Flamin’ Hot Lays.
- Some of the voters (not me) were shocked that the Funyuns had been eliminated so quickly, and lamented that the Funyuns had “run into a juggernaut early.”
- Oven Baked Cheetos were highly-seeded, but went nowhere fast, even though most agreed that these snacks were reasonably tasty. “If I’m going to eat something super-bad for me,” seemed to go the line of reasoning, “I’m just going to do it, rather than have it taste a little worse just to try to fool myself into thinking I’m doing something healthy.”
- Munchies Baked Snack Crackers were not a high seed, and yet they “pulverized” most of the bracket, as one participant observed in awe. What was notable about Munchies Crackers’ victories was not that the crackers won the match-ups, it’s that the wins often weren’t even close. Flamin’ Hot Limon Cheetos, for example, were a total taste disappointment when pitted against Munchies’ Crackers. Given that we never would have tried Munchies Crackers but for this Flamin’ Hot Snack-Off, the crackers were truly a delightful find. (But now they appear to be gone forever, so I will try to hunt down every last bag of Munchies Crackers that I can find in gas stations around America.)
- As difficult as they were to procure, Fantastix! were “pretty gross.”
After the competition, I realized that I wasn’t satisfied with merely eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I wanted to pay homage to them in real-food form, as well. What better way than by uniting my love of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with my love of deep-fried chicken wings–specifically, Korean Fried Chicken (the other KFC), which is one of the most revered snack foods in Los Angeles? If you like wings but you’ve never tried Korean fried chicken, you’re in for a treat: thanks to two trips through the fryer, the wings render out the fat under their skin, leaving a shatteringly-crisp crust that’s then coated with a sweet-sticky-salty sauce.
I pulverized Flamin’ Hot Cheetos into an oily powder in my food processor, and started brainstorming.
After tinkering with several different recipes and frying my way through pounds and pounds of wings, I realized that it was futile to try to incorporate Flamin’ Hot Cheeto powder into the chicken batter itself; doing so was weighing down the batter and making it so oily that it was slipping off the chicken in the fryer without adding much flavor. I resigned myself to reserve the Cheetos powder for sprinkling on the chicken after the frying process.
But what if I could design a recipe for a sauce that would enhance the flavor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, rather than detract from it? As in–could I create a glaze for the fried chicken that would mimic the flavor of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos?
I was finally able to design the right glaze by thinking about the Flamin’ Hot Cheetos ingredients list, pulling together lemon juice, garlic, and lots of red pepper to create a coating for the chicken that uncannily evokes the classic Flamin’ Hot flavor…and finally, with my husband and my friend Eunice as able taste-testers, I figured out my perfect recipe for Flamin’ Hot Korean Fried Chicken Wings. I’m no spice wuss, but these are pretty hot, even without the Flamin’ Hot powder.
Now I’ll have to excuse myself, because I have about 90 more packets of Flamin’ Hot Fantastix! to finish.
These Flamin' Hot wings are addictively crunchy and coated with a tangy, spicy-sweet glaze.
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp. flavorless oil, like canola oil
- 1 Tbsp. red pepper flakes
- 1 Tbsp. cayenne
- 1.5 Tbsp. lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp. water
- 3/4 tsp. salt
- 1/3 cup corn syrup
- 1 Tbsp. white vinegar
- 1 Tbsp. brown sugar
- 1 cup Flamin' Hot Cheetos powder (from Cheetos ground in food processor or blender)
- 2⁄3 cup flour
- 1 tbsp. cornstarch
- 19 chicken wings (about 2 lbs.)
- Briefly saute garlic in oil over low heat until it starts to brown. Add the rest of the glaze ingredients except for the Flamin' Hot Cheetos powder. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, and boil for about 2 minutes. Mixture will bubble and foam. Remove from heat, cover, and set aside to cool while you make the wings.
- Pour oil into a 6-qt. pot to a depth of 2 inches. Heat over medium-high heat until a thermometer reads 350˚.
- Whisk flour, cornstarch, and 2⁄3 cup water in a bowl. Add chicken; toss. Working in 3 batches, fry chicken until golden, 6–8 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Return oil to 350˚. Fry chicken until crisp, 6–8 minutes more. Drain again for several minutes, then remove chicken to a medium-sized bowl.
- Reheat glaze until it starts bubbling around the edges. Pour glaze over chicken and toss well. Roll in Flamin' Hot Cheetos powder.
Adapted from Saveur Magazine