Hello. My name's Nathan, and I love Trader Joe's. My wife Sonia does too. She's a great shopper, has excellent taste and knows good value when she comes across it. As many of you know, Trader Joe's is unsurpassed in the world of good-value grocery stores, so we spend a lot of our time and money there. Although the store fairly consistently delivers great taste with its own unique line of food products, there are definitely some big-hits, and unfortunately, there are some misses...

After doing a couple of internet searches for reviews of TJ's food items, Sonia discerned an apparent dearth of good, quality reviews for the store's offerings. So, at her suggestion, we decided to embark on a journey of systematically reviewing every Trader Joe's product, resulting in the blog you are about to read...

A couple of months into our Trader Joe's rating adventure, an old college friend, Russ, who unbeknownst to me had been following our TJ's blog, decided that I had been slacking in my blogging duties (which, of course, I was) so he decided to contribute his own original TJ's reviews to the blog, thus enhancing it, making it more complete and adding to it a flavor of his own. He and his wife Sandy are also avid TJ's fans and, as you will soon discover, he is an excellent writer and is nearly as clever, witty and humble as I am.

Seriously though, Russ: You go, boy!

So here it is: "What's Good at Trader Joe's?"

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Trader Joe's Sukiyaki

Although some might argue that it's not fair to compare a pre-packaged frozen dish purchased at a grocery store to similar food served in a restaurant, I think there comes a time when one should go ahead and make that comparison. In particular, when the price tag of a pre-packaged frozen food item starts getting up into the range of what you'd pay while dining out, then I say compare away. This bag of sukiyaki was $6.99, and the portion size was just about what one might expect from a restaurant. Sure, it was enough dinner for both Sonia and I, but most entrees we buy at restaurants turn into two meals for us as well. And while you might pay an extra dollar or two for this type of thing at a Japanese restaurant, you're also having it prepared and served by someone else, and there are usually some extra bells and whistles like rice or miso soup on the side.

So the question I'm asking myself is, "Was it restaurant quality?" 

Yes and no.

First, I'll start off with something positive: the sauce. The sauce was amazing. Excellent. Delicious. It was savory, thick, rich, and slightly sweet. Containing real sake rice wine and mirin, it was bursting with flavor. I've never had anything quite like it. The dish wasn't spicy at all, but I didn't find myself wanting to dump sriracha all over it like I usually do with non-spicy Asian foods. I don't think a bit of sriracha would have ruined it, but I didn't want to upset the flavor of this amazing sauce. It permeated all of the ingredients and added to their natural tastes. The veggies were plentiful and had nice textures. There were big pieces of carrots, napa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, and something called burdock. 

The noodles were made of mung bean flour. They were flat, long, and clear. I've had similar noodles in Asian dishes before, and each time I have them, I'm surprised how chewy they are. I usually wind up gnawing on them for a bit before I get so frustrated that I simply swallow and wind up taking down a much longer strand of noodle than I intended to. Surprisingly, there wasn't a lack of meat—one of the more common problems we've found with TJ's frozen food bags. The worst part was that the beef was much more chewy than the noodles. It was fatty, too. There were big chunks of white fat all through the meat, and it was quite rubbery. In this case, I would have preferred tofu chunks—or at least very lean beef. The meat tasted fine, especially once it soaked up all that yummy sauce. It was just too chewy. I ate the food with chopsticks, and I found myself attempting to bite a piece of meat in half with my teeth while yanking on one end with the sticks a couple times. As I stretched and pulled on the beef, sauce dribbled down my chin, and I even lost my grip on the chopsticks at one point—allowing the slab of meat to dangle from my lips like a dog running off with a piece of raw bacon. It almost ruined the experience for me. Almost.

But I'll be danged if that's not some deeeelicious sauce. I give this product 3 stars. It would have been much higher had the meat and noodles not been so rubbery. Sonia gives it 3 stars as well for the same reasons. She also thinks there are too many onions in the mixture. I guess I'm just a bit more into onions than she is, because I disagree on that point. But double 3's it is.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Trader Giotto's Ricotta & Spinach Cannelloni

As Russ noted some time ago, you never want to be the guy who heats up a fish dish in the microwave at work. No matter how tasty it might be, it puts a weird smell in the air. Always. Your co-workers will hate you. I learned that the hard way. 

But have you ever noticed that the exact opposite happens when you heat up Italian? Suddenly, you become uber-popular and everyone's interested in what you're eating. And it doesn't have to be something from a fancy restaurant or homemade. I mean you could nuke a bowl of Chef Boyardee, and if it weren't for people recognizing the classic shape of spaghetti-o's, you could probably get the whole lunch room fascinated with your meal. Sprinkle some parmesan cheese on top, and your associates might start asking you to cater their weddings and bar mitzvahs. Sterile office environments and the mundanity of the workaday world somehow enhance people's interest in food. Fragrances seem so much stronger when smelled from a cubicle.

And this cannelloni smells delicious. Even when heated in the microwave. To the best of my knowledge, I've never had cannelloni before in my life. But in this instance at least, it's basically lasagna. There are flat sheets of egg pasta with ricotta cheese and tomato sauce—oh, and bechamel sauce. Where have I heard that before? Hmmm...oh yeah! Our very first review, nearly four years ago. My first experience with bechamel left a bad taste in my mouth, and I wasn't quite sure if I'd ever be re-acquainted with the stuff. Well here we are, bechamel, face to face again. 

And on this serendipitous encounter, the bechamel is part of a similarly-packaged lasagna-esque dish just like last time, but now it's got better taste. I mean, I can't quite distinguish the bechamel from the pasta, ricotta, spinach, and tomato sauce. So I still couldn't tell you what it tastes like. But now I won't associate the word "bechamel" with nastiness.

The flavors that I could taste were very well balanced, and I never found myself wishing the cannelloni had any kind of meat or meat sauce, as I often do with vegetarian Italian. There was plenty of pasta and ricotta. If anything was slightly lacking, it was the spinach. The dish required an extra minute of heating, bringing the total time in the microwave up to eight minutes. That's not unreasonable, considering what you're getting.

I'm sure it would have turned out differently with a more traditional heating method, but the product was fairly soupy when it emerged from my electromagnetic particle disruptor oven. All of the sauces and cheeses created a wet conglomeration in the bottom of the microwave-safe heating carton. It was messy but tasty, easy, cheap ($2.49), and fast. Oh—and it smells really good, too. Heating it up at work just might make you the most popular guy in the lunch room. Sonia sat this one out, so I'll score it on her behalf. I'm torn between a 3.5 and a 4, so I'll give it one of each.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Trader Joe's Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Quinoa and Wheatberry Salad

Okay, confession time: For the longest time, I, Russ, was a serial fast food sneaker. Especially at breakfast time, especially on the way to work. Or late at night, while running out for the random errand. Ever want a quick way to gain 40 pounds? There you go, right there.

I'm changing my ways, though. These days, I'm a semi-regular salad sneaker. If there's not enough leftovers for lunch and I have the time in the morning, it's not uncommon for me to run over to TJ's to see what's there. I've had some decent ones, and while I still miss my favorite of all time, the $4 or so I drop on them are very rarely ill spent.  Want a good way to help drop 40 pounds? That won't do it all, but it'll point you in the right direction.

I found myself in that kinda situation on Friday morning, and since it's Lent and I'm respectful of Sandy's Catholic upbringing (although we're both Protestants, she strictly adheres to "no meat Fridays"...eh...happy wife means happy life), that means had to find a good, filling-looking salad without any meat. I saw Trader Joe's Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Quinoa and Wheatberry Salad and figured this would be quite the mouthful to both say and eat.

Well, it sure is. There's a lot that goes into this particular salad. There's squash. And quinoa. And wheatberries. And arugula. And cranberries. And toasted almonds. And goat cheese. And a host of other stuff, all topped with honey sesame vinaigrette. It's everything except the ampersand. I'd think it'd be hard to pull off a cohesive-tasting salad with all of that in there, but in actuality, almost all of it tastes like it belongs. This was my first experience with wheatberries, which kinda taste how they look (like soft, chewy popcorn kernels, except wheat-y), which I took a few bites to warm up to, but by the end was pretty happy with them. Between those and the quinoa, there's a lot to help fill you up, and the almonds add a great little occasional crunch to the mix. All ingredients were pretty fresh, which isn't always the case with prepackaged salads, of course. Also, not all of the dressing is really needed - I put maybe half on and was pretty happy with the coverage,

I only have a few minor knocks here and there. First, the squash had just a little too much bite to it. Coulda been "roasted" a few minutes longer for my taste. Also, there were a few bites I came across that were ultra-rosemary-laced that were a bit much. It was an herbal blindside backhanded smack to the taste buds each time. And that helps point out another quasi-issue - why the rosemary? There's enough other things in here for taste, that honestly if TJ's were to adopt a "less is more" approach, it would have worked out great. Sometimes, they need to learn that lesson. I would have voted out the rosemary and cranberries, but asked for a little more sesame in the dressing.  

Regardless, while I may dabble in some other salads before hitting up this particular jumble again, I am almost certain to make it a repeat buy, despite the ribbing from the guys at my lunch table. At least we started a scintillating conversation about ancient grains that lasted like 30 seconds before going back to sportssportssports as usual. Though I'm not exactly sure if anything here really is an ancient grain...meh. Since I snuck this without the wife's knowledge, we're going strictly on my score here. All in all, not a bad pick-up.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Roasted Butternut Squash, Red Quinoa and Wheatberry Salad: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons