There is nothing good about Hot Pockets, and I am saying this as a person who, for some reason, enjoys a Hot Pocket every now and again. Have I ever been under the impression they were good? No. I have always known what I was getting into and have always understood the consequences. Hot Pockets are not so much a food as they are an act that is committed. They are a method of both self-destruction and disassociation from anything you’ve known to exist in reality.
Nothing that is stuffed inside of a Hot Pocket tastes like it’s supposed to in the world that exists outside of its pallid, beige jacket. The question that must be asked before selecting a Hot Pocket is, “How disappointed do you want to feel today?” And yet, Hot Pockets, I have come to realize, are human. Like us, they’re not even close to perfect, and sometimes not even close to fine, but we all have a purpose, and we do the best we can.
Over the span of four days, I ate 35 Hot Pockets. No one should ever do this. The employees of the three major supermarkets in which I purchased every variety of Hot Pocket in stock also believe that nobody should attempt to this without a note from either their doctor or, in my case, their boss. Fully understanding the space Hot Pockets occupy in this world, I evaluated each of the Hot Pockets twice: once with my food critic cap firmly strapped on, and once after smoking a fat spliff. Here’s how they ranked, from worst to okay-est.
Picture Wendy’s chili, but instead of chopped hamburger meat, it’s the sliced beef used in Fancy Feast. If not for the Hot Pocket’s faint kick of cayenne, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that this is, in fact, Fancy Feast en croute. Cats can’t eat mildly spicy foods, though, since it hurts their floofy tummies.
I ate this Hot Pocket three days ago, and I am still struggling with how to properly describe the texture of its white meat chicken cubes, which bob through the undulating molten cheddar sea like protein-packed buoys. I considered comparing the meat to a sponge, but sponges (even the old, musty ones) do not have the firm, elastic spring that these white meat chicken cubes possess. They have the unnatural smoothness of a fine pâte de fruit, but instead of being made of fruit puree and pectin, they’re made of low sodium canned chicken broth and rubberized epoxy. While the white meat chicken makes the most textural noise, the dominant flavor of this Hot Pocket is imitation bacon bits—particularly remarkable because the Hot Pocket does, in fact, contain actual bacon. This Hot Pocket confused and repulsed me, and I wish to strike its existence from my memory.
Pizza Hot Pockets are neither like strombolis, which do not have sauce, nor calzones, which ooze with soft and stretchy cheese. Pizza Hot Pockets were designed by people who damn well knew that the only thing they needed to do was pour pizza-type stuff into a dough tube and no one would ask the tough questions: Why does the pepperoni pizza have the consistency of soup? What are the four cheeses and are they actually supposed to taste like that? Who was the person who developed the meatball recipe, and had they ever tasted a meatball before they became involved with the Hot Pocket corporation? None of us will ever know the answers to these things, and clearly, none of us need to. We’ve been enabling the existence of Hot Pockets for nearly 40 years, and we’ll always be excited for a dough tube filled with pizza juice.
As is the case with actual pizza, Hot Pocket Pizzas also offer different styles of crust. The “Garlic Buttery Crust” had no discernible garlic flavor and left me wondering how hard it could possibly be for a corporation with over $650 million in annual sales to figure out how to make garlic bread. The “Crispy Crust,” found across the entire Hot Pocket line, tastes like vulcanized matzoh. This is not altogether unpleasant.
This could have gone under the Hot Pocket Pizza banner, but because this variety employs a somewhat rational amount of sauce and cheese, it gets the “sub” treatment. There are quite a few salty meats in here, but their flavors all blur together so nothing in particular is recognizable. The biggest plus is the proper balance of components, which makes this the best Hot Pocket for people who want pizza and also want protein for, I don’t know, Crossfitting?
The watery, lifeless specks of previously frozen broccoli are the best part of this Hot Pocket, so that should tell you a lot about this whole situation.
I was expecting this Hot Pocket to be full of grease-poached beef and lava-esque melted cheese. Instead, it was filled with grease-poached beef, lava-esque melted cheese, and ketchup. Ergo, Cheddar Cheeseburger has been placed squarely in the middle of this ranking, and its spot on the list is dependent on one’s feelings about putting ketchup on a burger. I, for one, was not thrilled with it, but even with my extreme anti-ketchup bias, I will concede that it was better than every Hot Pocket that preceded it on this list.
The Philly cheesesteak was practically made to be interpreted as a Hot Pocket. A good cheesesteak should be a sloppy, chaotic mess; if anything, its Hot Pocketization stands to make it a bit less unwieldy. It’s got gobs of salty melted cheese and noticeable nuggets of sweet roasted peppers. The greasy, chopped Steak-umms-style beef is scantily present, which is a fortunate mistake. This will never be an adequate substitution for a real Philly cheesesteak, but judged on its own merits, it’s well-constructed garbage food.
This was another Hot Pocket variety that I was able to obtain in different styles of crust. In evaluating the “Seasoned Crust,” it became clear that in the World According to Hot Pockets, anything “seasoned” will have no taste of seasoning whatsoever, whereas varieties that mention nothing about seasoning seem to contain a quarter cup of salt per Hot Pocket.
Pretzel Hot Pockets might be the only worthwhile Hot Pockets to anyone who’s not eating them unconsciously. This variety was, as one would assume, extremely greasy, and I’m not positive that the chorizo isn’t just pulverized hot dogs with value brand taco powder—but these are all positive attributes in the Hot Pocket universe. It’s like Tex-Mex hot dog chili, stuffed inside a pretzel stick. If you dislike yourself, there’s a lot to like here.
This is the only breakfast variety I tested, and it was really the only one I needed to try before I got the point of these things. Listen, a Hot Pockets breakfast gets the job done, and if you’re eating breakfast Hot Pockets, that’s really all you’re hoping for, isn’t it? You don’t need to be having some sort of revelatory, transcendent experience like you’d hope for in a brunch Hot Pocket. All you want is to quickly eat something familiar and inoffensive, because you’re not supposed to take statins on an empty stomach. This tastes like microwaved eggs, bacon, and cheese. It’s fine. That’s all it needs to be: fine.
Ham and Cheese is the OG Hot Pocket, introduced way back in 1980 when they were still still called Tastywiches. Seriously, who isn’t, on some level, sexually attracted to a hot ham and cheese sandwich? It’s an ideal of the form and an easy win. This is a Hot Pocket that doesn’t force me to ask any questions whatsoever, and I am grateful.
Beef Taco is a successful Hot Pocket because we Americans have an insanely low bar for taco-flavored products, and that’s okay. Though our nation has been blessed with superlative, immigrant-crafted tacos from coast to coast, there is still room for all tacos and taco-adjacent items in America: The exquisite perversion of Taco Bell, the drunken salvation of a gas station burrito, the electric orange glops of nacho cheez dispensed at a bowling alley snack bar. Beef Taco Hot Pockets are, from the moment of their birth, a race to the bottom, and it is precisely that quality that puts them so close to the top of this ranking.
Of all the Hot Pockets I sampled for journalism, this is the one I could see myself purchasing again. It’s quite good! It’s a chewy soft pretzel—made even chewier than usual thanks to some nifty microwave magic—filled with melted cheese and chopped jalapeños. This could be the only product that Hot Pockets made, and it would be totally fine. That might be something for R&D to think about.