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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Friday, July 25, 2014

Trader Joe's Lamb Koftas

"Kofta." Now that's a cool word. I've never heard it until stumbling across Trader Joe's Lamb Koftas on my latest trip. Basically, a kofta is a Middle Eastern/Indian/Mediterranean meatball, with different variations from different regions. Sounds good, and I was interested.  My wife Sandy, though? My goodness. She's not usually not one to get too excited about most meats - she's on record on saying she'd be vegetarian if she only liked vegetables more, and I've seen her be indifferent towards bacon, of all things - but lamb anything she's all over it. "I've just never have had any bad lamb," she explains. Granted, me neither, but most of my exposure to the gastronomics of the wooliest of farm mammals has been limited to gyros at Greek food festivals and an occasional dish here or there from either TJ's or occasionally out. I recall us making lamb roast a year or two ago for Easter, and being relatively unimpressed but not overly dismayed by it. Regardless, since I said before we go in it was her turn to find something tasty for dinner, once these koftas were spotted, there was no question what was going on my dinner plate that night.

Like most of TJ's Indian-inspired dishes, the real highlight to me was the masala sauce. It comes frozen in a side packet that you swish the meatballs around in once they're heated up. It was so good - a little heat, a little creamy, but so much flavor - I think I got a hot dog bun out to grab every last drop I could. If you've had their masala sauce on other dishes before, you know what I'm talking about. It's gooooooooood. I think I could put it on anything.

As for the lamby balls themselves...to me, eh. Without the masala, they tasted like a meatier-but-still-tender sphere of gyro. That's not a bad thing, but it was kind of unexciting in of itself. Heating them was a cinch - a couple minutes on the stove top while steaming in a little water was all they really needed. Other times we've gotten frozen meatballs, I've had to cut them in half mid-cooking so the insides would thaw to a less than rock-solid state without blackening the outside. No such issue here. Neglected to take a picture of the finished product, but each kofta was a couple bites each, with ten in the package (so about 50 cents each), so it seemed like a decent value to me.

Sandy, though? Score this as another big winner for her, enough that she unequivocally gave them a perfect five. For me, I'm not as impressed, but when (not if, "when") these come back to my place for dinner again, I won't be disappointed. Sandy gets some more lamb, I get some more sauce, and we're both pretty darn happy then. Definitely a winner dinner.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Lamb Koftas: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Trader Joe's Organic Mini Cheese Sandwich Crackers

As a general rule, I don't write about (or even mention) my daughter much on here, but today, perhaps in honor of her recent second birthday, I am. You see...I love my girl to pieces, and I love spending as much time as I can with her. I find myself constantly learning how to enjoy her and my time with her, no matter her mood, how my day otherwise went, or what we're doing. Sometimes, it's the big fun family trips, like our recent overnighter to Ohio for a Reds/Pirates game and Columbus Zoo visit. Her highlight? Jumping on the bed at the hotel we stayed at in northern Kentucky (or as she calls it, "Kucky!!!"). Other times, it's the smaller, fun outings, like going to the pool or out for ice cream here (her favorite flavor of ice cream? "Blue."). Or, more times than not, it's the small, simple, everyday stuff that I just try to soak up. I love coming home after a nine or ten hour workday and snatching her up as she smiles (provided that she'll willingly part from an episode of Peppa Pig, of course) then going out to the kitchen and making dinner with her "help" and company as Sandy gets a few minutes to herself to recharge her batteries (seriously, she's tough, but everyone needs a breather). It's so much fun to be with her, talk about her day some, goof off, sing songs, do whatever...it all reminds of why I do what I do, all day every day. Then, of course, it's bath time, then jammie time, then brushing teeth and reading books and looking at pictures before I sing her to sleep - these days, I have to sing both "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" and "Come Thou Fount" as I snuggle her in for the night. I hope that somehow, some way, she'll remember all those small moments, and that'll they mean as much to her as they do to me.

What does all this have to do with Trader Joe's Organic Mini Cheese Sandwich Crackers? Besides the "cheese" factor, of course. Well, sometimes while whisking away to make dinner, or getting to sit down and be still, or to tide her over at a ballgame or in her stroller, like any toddler she needs a snack or she will be NOT HAPPY and will let you know. These cheesy crackers have been a key find recently to combat her little hunger monster on the go.

Truth be told, I can munch on these, and not notice much of a difference between the TJ's brand and a brand like Ritz. There's not anything fancy - generic, kinda fake cheese (you know the type) sandwiched between two crackers.  At least these are organic, so presumably a tad healthier, although I look at the fat, salt and calories and kinda wonder. Good thing my daughter is on the smaller side and eats a reasonably healthy and balanced diet, so I don't feel too too guilty about it. I mean, she loves peas, for goodness sake. About the only difference I can discern is perhaps the crackers are a slight bit heftier than Ritz's, but that could be me trying too hard and making things up in an effort to try to draw at least a small distinction. Crackers are crispy, buttery, and fairly light, the "cheese" is a salty, gritty variant of creamy, and they're easily twistable so if you (or your toddler) wants to rip apart, lick cheese off one cracker, then devour both dime-dimensioned discs like some diabolical snacker cracker monster, go right ahead.

For two-ish bucks, not a bad pickup. No offense to my beautiful wife, but I'm skipping her opinion this time and going straight to the expert: my two year old. I explained the concept of Golden Spoons to her and was met with blank stares. Then I asked her if the crackers were "yucky" or "yummy." "Yucky!" she exclaimed. I then pointed out the two fistfuls she was holding, with crumbs down her front and smeared around her mouth and asked her if she was sure. "Hummmmm....yummy!" she then squealed. Glad to get that cleared up. There's also, naturally, a peanut butter version which we haven't tried yet but will probably soon as our next trip - I thank God every day she has no PB allergies, because I love me some peanut butter. Seeing as though these snacks make up two of her favorite things - cheese and crackers - when she eventually told me a five for these guys, I'll believe her. If they only had baseball, ice cream and fireworks involved for her...I'm going with a 3.5 myself.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Organic Mini Cheese Sandwich Crackers: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Trader Jacques' Shells with Brie and Asparagus

I'm not going to sit here and brag about how open-minded I am about new foods, because I've already done that plenty of times before on this blog. But I feel I must set that precedent before I say something controversial like, "I don't like anything with blue cheese" because otherwise people assume I'm a lame, close-minded 'Murican who only eats hamburgers and freedom fries. Sonia doesn't like blue cheese either. Do you know what the blue stuff is? It's mold. Aside from having a nasty mold allergy, I mean, that's just gross. If we were meant to eat mold, many of us here on the soggy east coast would have a never-ending food supply in our basements and crawl spaces. But no, we do what we can to get rid of that mold. We banish it. We send it back to the dark recesses of whatever sinister realm from whence it came. We don't eat it. But somehow if there's cheese surrounding it, it magically becomes ok. I don't get it.

You know what else I usually don't like? Brie. Now here's where Sonia and I differ. She loves it in all its glorious forms and in almost any context. Most people I know like brie. They gather around the hors d'oeuvres table to sing its praises at fancy shindigs and they stop talking to me when they find out I don't like it that much. Now why, you ask, would I buy a product that so prominently features brie if I'm not an avid fan? Honestly, I was thinking of my wife. On certain uncommon occasions, I am able to remove my head from my posterior and have thoughts that center around someone other than myself. That's what happened here I think. That, and sometimes I like to try things that I didn't like in the past just to see if my taste buds have changed or if my initial assessment may have been inaccurate.

So far, I have only had brie that sat well with my palate once: this TJ's dish. And I think that's because it was melted. I'm not saying I would have minded if it were mozzarella or cheddar or something less exotic, but brie worked here. It was amazingly creamy. And flavor-wise, brie goes really well with asparagus, apparently. And I've always liked asparagus. Who knew they worked well together?

The "conchiglie" pasta was fairly run-of-the-mill shells, but perhaps a bit on the larger side. The texture of the asparagus was excellent. Not stringy at all. Although, I must point out that we cooked this dish on the stove top, not in the microwave as indicated by the heating instructions. Our power was out during one of those freak storms we had last week so we decided to heat up some of the perishables before they got too thawed. I figured out that the ignition doesn't work on our stove top when the power is out, but we still get gas, so I have to turn on the gas and then ignite it with a lighter. I usually draw out a bit too much gas and lose a few eyelashes and a portion of my goatee in the process. But hey, with great risk comes great reward.

Sonia wishes this product came in a larger size. She gives it 4 stars. I liked it, but I'm still not a "brie guy" yet. So 3.5 stars from me.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.