It’s 2016! Balls have been dropped, stars have been risen, hangovers nursed, and funny glasses put back in storage. And what better way to celebrate the birth of Baby New Year than to swaddle her up, put her in the (rear-facing) car seat, and head on over to Costco for flat screens at rock-bottom prices and a cheap, hearty lunch. That’s right, I’m very happy to present the conclusive, unambiguous, and 100 percent correct Costco Food Court Power Rankings.
The second-largest retailer in the U.S. (behind only Walmart), Costco’s origins are as Price Club, a wholesale warehouse distributor that opened in San Diego in 1976. Costco began in Seattle in 1983, founded by an old Price Club employee, and in 1993 the two companies merged. The idea was to create something of a co-op on steroids: by purchasing a membership, shoppers could buy household goods and groceries in bulk, at steep discounts. Now, with over $110 billion in annual revenue, Costco remains one of the few places you can purchase a gallon tub of mayonnaise, a $20,000 engagement ring, and a casket all at the same time. The food court is the great equalizer, though, and where Costco’s low-cost comfort food engenders goodwill with its members (and non-members, at the Costcos where the food court is open to the public).
These rankings are limited to items found in in the Costco food court only; this will exclude other ready-to-eat items found elsewhere in the store, and hot food items found in the deli (ribs, rotisserie chicken). The scope is also limited to items found in Costcos in the United States; other countries’ Costcos have locally influenced/culturally appropriate items. The Costcos in Canada, for example, serve poutine; Costco in Japan substitutes the chicken bake with a delicious-sounding bulgogi bake. Sadly, I was unable to sample these items.
Parameters for this set of rankings are taste and a metric that attempts to measure “bang for your buck.” All of the items are cheap (everything is under $5), but food that truly offers BFYB provides not only caloric sustenance but a meal-like satisfaction.
1) Pepperoni Pizza Slice
Costco pizza is so awfully and immodestly good: a fat, sloppy wedge, dripping with salt and grease. The crust has a light texture and chewy interior, somewhere in between thin-crust and pan. The pepperoni slice is my favorite, as the meat provides a saline burn that perfectly complements the sweet acidity of the tomato sauce. At $1.99 for a slice, you could certainly find cheaper pizza, but it’s a stretch to think you’ll find better. The real deal comes when you order an entire pie for $9.99: a bargain when Costco opened its food court in the early nineties, and a bargain today. Bonus points for this bad-ass automatic saucer they use to make the pizzas.
Bang For Your Buck rank: 6 (tie)
2) Quarter-Pound PLUS Polish and Twenty-Ounce Soda
This will be splitting hairs for some (apologies for using the word “hair” while discussing encased meats), but I’m putting the “1/4 Pound PLUS” Polish dog decidedly above the all-beef hot dog. While the two certainly look the same, there are slight differences in flavor. The Polish is more garlicky and slightly spicy; and the option to include a mouth-puckering wad of absolutely free sauerkraut makes this dog best in show. Topped with mustard, onion, and the wadge of sour slaw, this is an obscenely long quarter pound of pure pleasure. It comes with a free twenty-ounce refillable soda cup, and while you have to fill that cup with Pepsi products (which, some might argue, actually detract from the value of this meal), this is one of the best lunch deals you’ll find anywhere in the Western world.
BFYB rank: 1 (tie)
3) Cheese pizza slice
There’s better pizza in the world than Costco pizza, of course, and there’s also much, much worse. But that’s not really the point when you’re stuffing your pie hole with that equilateral triangle of grease, sauce, chewy mozzarella, and cushy dough. It’s so big, so immodest, it feels like a truly wanton-but-well-deserved treat after an hour of braving aisles of sushi party trays and stacks of Costco-branded jeans piled to the sky. The cheese slice ranks second in the pizza triumvirate (pepperoni, cheese, combo), due partially to the deep-brown leopard spotting on the baked cheese. The memory of that slightly burnt, caramelized creamy goodness stays with you, long after that 3,986-serving 1-year food ration you just bought is gone.
BFYB rank: 6 (tie)
4) Chicken Bake
You’re either with us or against us. You’re either on team chicken bake or you’re not. I am decidedly on #teamcb, but there is a heavy price to pay for your loyalty to the team, and there are some things you should know before you enlist. It’s one of Costco’s more popular items and, yes, it tastes good. But this thing is big, and heavy, and calorie-laden, and not very good for you. It’s a hot, foot-long tube sock of dough stuffed with chicken, bacon, and Caesar dressing. The other thing you should know is the chicken bake’s origin story: at Costco R&D, they’re always looking for ways to use existing items and ingredients to create new items. The dough of the chicken bake? It’s pizza dough. The chicken and the dressing? The same stuff you’ll find in the chicken Caesar salad. One day someone said, essentially, “What if we turned a Caesar salad into a calzone?” The rest is history. History that can sustain a man for at least half a day for just $2.99.
BFYB rank: 3
5) Very Berry Sundae with Strawberries
Creamy vanilla soft serve with a very generous serving of strawberries in their own syrup. (Note: many strawberries do not come with or generate syrup, but Costco clearly knows something the rest of us don’t.) The berries are good quality and aren’t too mashed up; they taste fresh and are of a good size. The yogurt is cold, creamy, and doesn’t have any weird consistency or aftertaste. And at $1.65 (compared to $1.35 for just the yogurt), they’re essentially only charging you 30 cents for a big scoop of strawberries—not bad at all.
BFYB rank: 9
6) Quarter PLUS All-Beef Hot Dog and Twenty-Ounce Soda
Would it surprise you to know that since this hot-dog-and-soda combo was rolled out the early nineties, the price hasn’t budged? Not a penny. Not a farthing. It’s been pegged, like Chinese currency, firmly at $1.50, for twenty-five years. And as time goes on, it just becomes a better and better bargain. Costco used to use Hebrew National for their dogs, but decided to throw them over to develop their own all-beef dog. It tastes good: salty, juicy, a little like cooked salami. No wonder they sell four times the number of hot dogs per year than Major League Baseball sells in its stadiums. If you’d really like to feel like you’re at the ball game, grab one of these foot-long monstrosities and relax in front of some of that expensive commissioned sports art you just purchased.
BFYB rank: 1 (tie)
7) Combo Pizza Slice
Repeat every point I’ve made about the pizzas above, but the combo slice, with pepperoni, sausage, black olives, mushrooms, and bell peppers, is my least favorite. Why? I don’t particularly like the prefab sausage bits that most major pizza chains employ, and I don’t love black olives. A larger problem is the overuse of bell peppers—the last slice I got was positively swimming in the yellow and red variety. Did I order a salad? No. Maybe I’m too lowbrow, and you like fancy Euro vegetables on your pizza—if so, a combo slice will probably go perfectly with that tin of high-grade caviar you just bought.
BFYB rank: 6 (tie)
8) Kirkland Signature Nonfat Yogurt Swirl
There’s little more pleasing than when the edges of a hexagonal-shaped snake of chocolate and vanilla froyo begin to melt and you can run your tongue along those cold, sweet drips of nonfat dry milk, corn sweeteners, and artificial and natural flavors. The Costco froyo is not too saccharine, doesn’t have a strange chemical taste, and the differences between the vanilla and chocolate sides can actually be distinguished. At Costco, you get a fairly generous portion; it’s plopped unceremoniously into a plastic cup, but it’s still good. That’s the big complaint: if you could get this baby into a plain cake cone, that would nudge it up a spot or two. I would not—repeat, would not—recommend enjoying this in the four-person outdoor barrel sauna you just purchased.
BFYB rank: 5
9) Chicken Caesar Salad
Hail Caesar! The chicken Caesar salad is the only item on the menu that even comes close, that even pretends to assume to dissemble to masquerade, to be healthy. It definitely is, if you exclude the dressing and croutons: a mere 270 calories and ten grams of fat. With the whole shebang, however—lettuce, grilled chicken, Parmesan cheese, tomato, garlic croutons, generous portion of creamy Caesar dressing—that’ll add roughly an additional five hundred calories and fifty grams of fat. The dressing is garlicky and tangy but a bit too gloppy. The chicken is a bit too industrial, dense almost to the point where you can’t decipher the muscle fibers—a cruel slab of protein. In its favor: it’s a very filling meal for when you’re trying to fool yourself into thinking you’re eating healthy. The bite-sized cherry tomatoes are delightful, as are the shreds of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Not enough cheese on the salad for you? No problem, because you just bought a whole wheel of that shit!
BFYB rank: 4
Fact: the CEO of Costco, Craig Jelinek, has to personally taste and sign off on every item in the food court before it goes on the menu. There are mini ceremonies in which Costco’s R&D people serve Jelinek new foods they’ve been working on. That’s a lot of control; the entire menu, in other words, is based on the completely subjective tastes and palate of one man. Jelinek grew up outside of LA, so he was probably familiar with, and had a soft spot in his heart for, the churro. And who wouldn’t? A hot churro, pastry piped through a star-shaped nozzle, deep-fried, and coated in cinnamon and sugar, is a delight. (The one at Costco looks more like it’s hand-twisted, though. It’s also eighteen inches long.) The key word there, however, is hot. And when you get a hot Costco churro, ain’t nothing better. Half the time, though, you’ll find that they’re tepid at best, at which point they follow the same rules of the physical universe that other hot fried things must follow, the best example being McDonald’s french fries: they go from being the best, most delicious thing in the world to being the worst, most flavorless thing in the world.
BFYB rank: 13
11) BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwich
The BBQ beef brisket sandwich is the new kid on the block. At Costco’s food courts, they have a limited number of menu spots: they’re not about to go all Cheesecake Factory and start serving a million different things. They do, however, keep one spot open in which they rotate new items in and out, to test them. If the new item performs, great, they keep it. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. The most recent addition is the brisket sandwich, and it happens to be the most expensive thing on the menu—but it’s still a paltry five bucks. The flavors are good: slightly sweet, tangy barbecue sauce and good-quality beef brisket. The creamy coleslaw, which they plop right onto a soft, white bun, is a nice counterpoint to the meat. The issue? The grease. Lo, the grease. The sandwich comes wrapped in a cylinder of white cardstock and good lord, is it needed. Between the time you pay for your sandwich and you sit down at one of the picnic tables, orange grease will have thoroughly soaked through the cylinder, inducing mild nausea. If you still have an appetite at that point, though, you’ll be well rewarded!
BFYB rank: 12
12) Berry Smoothie
The Costco berry smoothie is okay, it’s just not good. The makings of something good are there: what tastes like a good selection of strawberries and blueberries and some orange juice for tang and sweetness. It also skillfully manages to dodge what befalls many a smoothie: too much banana. (Sidebar: What is the deal with bananas? How did they become so powerful? Put one little piece of banana in something and whole damn thing tastes like a Chiquita plantation.). It lacks smoothness, however, and has an unfortunate grainy, icy texture, like a 7-Eleven Slurpee. A little yogurt or something in there would be welcome to make the consistency a little easier. Because if I’m going to drink a Slush Puppie, I’d prefer it in some neon fake color and flavor.
BFYB rank: 10 (tie)
13) Hot Turkey and Provolone Sandwich
The concept behind this sandwich is good, even great: it’s described as “oven-browned turkey, provolone, red onions, tomatoes, basil garlic mayonnaise on a toasted torta roll.” The roll is kind of like a ciabatta bread, and I’m always down for a good hot turkey sandwich. More often you’ll find something that’s been sitting under a warming lamp for umpteen hours and is resultingly drier than an Algonquin Round Table in the Sahara. On the last one I attempted, the cheese was baked and hardened over the layers of deli turkey, tight like a mummified corpse. The ciabatta was dry and the basil aioli stuff had thoroughly soaked into the roll, giving it no chance to lubricate the rest of the sandwich. No bueno. And at $3.99, it’s one of pricier items on the menu. Give me two slices of pizza instead, please!
BFYB rank: 14
14) Mocha Freeze
What better way to wash down the $1,500 wagyu ribeye roast you just bought than with a 310-calorie mocha freeze that cost you less than one thousandth of the price? Anything else would be better, actually. The problem isn’t even that it’s particularly bad for you—Frappuccinos are far worse—it’s that it doesn’t commit to being an indulgent coffee drink. It needs added creaminess, and right now it’s the uglier step-cousin of the berry smoothie: a very cold, overly icy, grainy dessert “drink” that feels neither here nor there. And with a haphazard squirt of chocolate syrup carelessly thrown in, it’s entirely too sweet. Mr. Jelinek, you’ve done a helluva job growing Costco into one of America’s most beloved retailers, but this tastes like you tossed some old coffee into a snowdrift and decided to sell it. This will not stand, sir!
BFYB rank: 10 (tie)