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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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Trader Joe's Brandy Beans

Prior to picking up this product, I had never even heard of brandy beans. If I had been asked what brandy beans were, I probably would have pulled something out of my backside along the lines of "Brandy beans are the beans used in the brewing process and fermentation of American brandy," trying to sound erudite and edumacated. And most of you would have believed me. Sorry, I guess that could be construed as an insult. Some of you would have believed me. Maybe.

Are these even a holiday item? They were released (or re-released?) at exactly the same time as a million other holiday-related items, so I guess they are. I guess getting blitzed on brandy is sort of a holiday-ish thing to do—or at least a holiday party-ish thing to do. Unfortunately—er, I mean fortunately, you can't get crunk off of these little brandy beans alone. You need to pair them with actual brandy in order to achieve that effect—even though there is a bit of real brandy in each bean. There's a fascinating spiel on the back of the box indicating "sale of this product to persons under the legal age for purchasing alcoholic beverages is unlawful." Wow. I certainly didn't even get a buzz from the product's 4.9% alcohol content, but maybe the youngsters could if they ate the whole box.

Because again, these chocolates are actually filled with real brandy. And it tastes like brandy, but thicker and much sweeter. The brandy filling almost has the consistency of maple syrup or honey. Somehow, it works with the chocolate. The packaging doesn't specify that it's "dark chocolate," but it certainly seems darker than your average milk chocolate to me. The moderate bitterness of the chocolate helps offset the sticky sweetness of the liquid center. It's a nice combo, and one that I've never had before.

Sonia reacted similarly: pleased, but not blown away. If brandy and chocolate is your thing, then you're probably more qualified to review these than I am, and we'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Double 3.5's from Sonia and I.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Trader Joe's Jingle Jangle Ice Cream

There's a certain allure to places like Coldstone Creamery, or the local frozen yogurt place where you can put in all your own mix-ins, isn't there? It feels like an ice cream laboratory, where you, the Dessert Doctor, concoct your own blend of all sorts of various ingredients then devour it all. It's cool. You're in control. You know what you're doing. You're going to make the Best. Ice Cream. Ever. It's going to be amazing, and all yours.

Well, maybe that's your experience. Must be a lot of peoples', otherwise they wouldn't be so popular. But it isn't mine. Now, I'm a guy who likes chunky, wacky, jumbled frozen deliciousness as much as anyone else - I've been to the Ben & Jerry's mothership in Vermont literally about 100 times, and wondering when I'll have my next chance - but it's not been my experience. I take what I feel would be an awesome mix, and instead the outcome seems less than the sum of its parts. Like I did something wrong.

It's kinda like that with Trader Joe's Jingle Jangle Ice Cream. This oughtta be a slam dunk. Take TJ's semi-popular Jingle Jangle and mix into vanilla ice cream! Sounds like an easy yum! Can't go wrong, can you?

Well...it does. Where to start? Let's go with the vanilla base. Now, I have a deep appreciation for good vanilla ice cream, and TJ's happens to provide one of the better store varieties out there. This Jingle Jangle stuff must come from a different supplier, because it's so...non-descript. Run of the mill. The most boring of boring vanillas. It's white, milky, vaguely sugared, and cold, which while that can describe vanilla, it's not really vanilla. It's uninspired low premium filler at best.

Not a big deal, you may think. That's why all the Jingle Jangle is in there....for flavor! That'll make up for it! Hate to say, but no, not really. I had to recheck our Jingle Jangle review to see what's even in it, because all I tasted was cold, hard chunks. And that's even when my spoon came across something - there's not a whole lot mixed in. There's little specs of dark chocolate this and that everywhere. I spotted a couple busted peanut butter cups here and there, and was excited when I found a shard of choco-covered pretzel, only to be dismayed when I bit into it and discovered how soggy it felt.

Major bummer. This ice cream is really rather ho-ho-ho hum. Now it's two seasonal products in a row I've reviewed that I've not overly liked. this time around it's not just me. Even Sandy didn't really enjoy it much either. The kids seemed to like it fine, which shows how easily content they are. I could really learn from that. Anyways, I'm not expecting to see this in our dessert mix again anytime soon.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Jingle Jangle Ice Cream: 3.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Trader Joe's Gelato Filled Panettone

This item wants to be eaten like a cupcake. I mean, look at it. It's got "icing" on the top with mini chocolate chips instead of sprinkles, a body made of something bready and cakey, a liner/wrapper thing, plus a yummy creamy filling. 

On the other hand, when I eat things like this with my hands, I tend to look like a baby by the end of it. Some part of the pastry winds up on my fingers, my face...and often in my lap, and I'm sitting there helplessly flailing around trying to lick some of the dessert out of my goatee. Not that babies have goatees. And not that there's anything wrong with getting in touch with one's inner child—however, I'm not nearly as comfortable with wearing my food as most infants are.

So I opted for the refined adult approach. I broke out a real metal fork and our finest dish (which happens to be made of plastic right now—don't ask). I set the thawed panettone in the middle of it, and dug right in. At first bite, I was mesmerized. Part of me wished I had opted to eat it with my hands so I could shovel it into my face faster. But then that seldom heard-from and even more seldom listened-to adult voice rang out in my head: "Slow down, my friend. This dessert wants to be relished and appreciated."

Because it's awesome—by far the best panettone we've had from TJ's. It's still the same fluffy, soft bread, and it still has some interesting dried fruits in it, but man oh man, that gelato is just amazing. It's both sweet and sophisticated—worthy of a top-notch Italian restaurant. It's worth using a fork just so one can measure out equal parts of gelato, cake, dried fruit, and chocolate bits in each and every bite.

Since the gelato is vanilla bean and there are lots of tasty chocolate drops, there's almost a cookies n' cream vibe about it. It's amazingly rich and creamy, and it blends together with the panettone bread and dried fruit much better than I would have guessed. 

There are pieces of candied orange peel, which I'm admittedly not a fan of just by themselves, but in this case they were so tiny that their texture was a complete non-issue. I thought they flaunted a poignant citrusy zing that really added something nice to the other elements. There were only a couple raisins, but they worked somehow, too. I could have sworn I saw a dried cranberry in there as well, but it may have just been a raisin with a sunburn or something.

If you like good gelato and/or panettone, go ahead and pick this up and thank me later. It's one of the best desserts I've had in a while.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.