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, April 24, 2015

Trader Joe's South African Inspired Biltong Beef Jerky

Conceivably, there's any number of ways to start off a review regarding beef jerky, so let's do something a little unexpected here: respect for vegetarians. No, seriously, I mean it. Can't speak for all vegetarians, for their any number of reasons for deciding to eschew meat, but for me, who's dabbled in it: it's tough. At least was for me. I've given meat up for a length of time during Lent, and for also about a six month period a couple years back (primarily for weight loss reasons - I was a big boy), but it's just kept bringing me back. Fortunately, I've figured out a way that works for me to incorporate mucho carne* into my diet and still lose considerable weight - namely, Paleo. I get the arguments for a plant-based diet and I know that going Paleo, in careless application,  can mean too much meat overall, looking at it realistically from an evolutionary standpoint, but...I needed to find something that worked for me to get me healthier, which primarily for me means losing a lot of weight (I've lost about seventy since last August). Vegetarianism was great, in a lot of ways, but in the end wasn't for me. Paleo, despite forgoing lots of former favorites like cheese and bread (oh grilled cheese, how I miss you - if you're in/near the 'burgh, check out this place), does. If you're on a similar journey, I hope you find what works for you and you stick to it - lots of hard work but it's so, so worth it.

All this to say: palatable portable protein is a must for my busy schedule. I don't get it often, but I love good quality jerky, so when Trader Joe's debuts some South African Inspired Biltong Beef Jerky, I gotta give it a try.

This isn't quite like most jerkies I've had. Instead of indiscriminate chunks or (shudder) Slim Jim style, the beef for the biltong is cut into neat little strips. The write up on the back says it's from the rump, cut following the grain of the muscle. I'm not all that up on my cuts of meat to know if that's different than most jerky, but I will say this style is noticeably tougher and chewier than most. There's also not nearly as much fat as would be expected from bovine posterior,not that jerky has all that much usually anyways, resulting in lean, tough meat that will get your teeth working to get through. Almost more venison like in some ways. This is a plus - while I can easily overdose on other jerky, this was too much to eat more than couple strands at a time.

The seasoning's a bit different, too. Instead of being marinated in a bath of whatever with little to nothing on the exterior, each piece of the biltong is liberally coated with a thick dusting of spices - lots of pepper and garlic, and yes, salt. To my recollection, the seasoning tasted pretty similar to what's on the South African potato chips, but it seemed deeper and fuller with its beefy base.

As with most jerky I try, I had my work buddy, Alan, give it a try too. Now, he's actually been to southern Africa and has stated he lived on biltong and Coca-Cola for about three weeks, so I'll trust his opinion more than mine. "Hrmm," he said, giving the first bite a chew. "The texture's just about perfectly right, but the seasoning...." He looked on the back of the bag. "I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that where I was, there wasn't Worcestershire sauce. Or apple cider vinegar." Probably true. "Not bad, just needs some bloodborne pathogens and the occasional maggot, and it'd be somewhat close enough to what I got from the market in Africa. But it's been a while."

Well, he liked it, I like it, heck, even the wife (usually ambivalent about things like beef jerky) liked it too. "Heck, whenever you'll buy it, I'll eat it," she said, which is about as ringing an endorsement I could expect from her. Like most TJ jerkies, the biltong was in the roughly $6 range for the quarter-pound package. It won't be an everytime pickup, but this will definitely be in the work snack rotation going forward.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's South African Inspired Biltong Beef Jerky: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons 
* Sorta. Still learning the whole "portion control" thing - have gotten much better, but still.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Trader Joe's Tropical Mango Pineapple Salsa

One of the perks of my moonlight gig as one of the nation's foremast amateur-hack foodie reviewers of all-things-Trader-Joe's is getting to hear from friends, family and colleagues about whatever they've tried from TJ's. I get some of my best tips this way. In particular, I love hearing from recent Trader Joe's converts too - heck, anything they can get excited about, I figure it's worthwhile. The store hooked me with fake meat, of all things, so I'm willing to try most anything that gets a newbie's heartstrings.

Except...Trader Joe's Tropical Mango Pineapple Salsa. Chrissy, one of my supervisors at my real job, came up to me a few weeks back after visiting the new North Hills Pittsburgh TJ's all worked up about this particular dip. Unlike almost anything else she says (promise, Chrissy!), I kinda let this go in one ear, bounce off something hard, and go back out. I have theories for this: Was still working on the first cup of coffee. Heard "mango pineapple" which somehow translated to "peach" in my head (not a fan of the TJ's brand). Not a fan of fruity salsas in general anyways. Like my usual go-to too much to deviate too far off course. Had to get those TPS reports done before taking the printer out to the field with a baseball bat. You know how it is.

Alas, it ended up in my cart the other day anyways, courtesy of the wife. No tomatoes equals a winner in her book right off the bat, and she wanted a little "something different" to go with some chips, veggies, and sausages for dinner. Fine, I said. Sigh. Fine.

Man, was I wrong.

Listen, I'm not gonna say this is the best salsa I've ever had. But, coming from a guy who doesn't like fruity salsa, this stuff is freaking delish. Fo' reals. It's thick and chunky but soft and plenty goopy from the agave syrup base, which had me apprehensive at first. I mean, that's a lot of fruit to begin with, and add in a sugary base? I thought it'd taste like candy salsa. Nawww. There's plenty to balance out all the sweetness - good bite from cilantro, some onion pungency, good jalapeno spice - that it all works out really well. There's a lot of the sweet upfront but plenty of spice with hangtime, if you know what I mean.

Still, it seems to me that the agave syrup was a bit much, but that being said, I can't offer a viable alternative at the moment. There's just a smidge too much sugar in there that coats everything, but the rest is so good, and so fresh tasting, that I can't mount too much complaint. You'll find this for $2.99 in the refrigerated section, not with the jarred variety, and tastes like it'll be a constant companion for summery snacking. Chrissy, the boss lady, loves this stuff enough to give it a five, with only the small caveat she wished there was a little less onion but everything else was "perfectly balanced." My other boss lady, I mean my wife, states more or less the same giving it a four. My score would nestle itself somewhere in there as well, so with some fuzzy math, we're gonna call it almost Pantheon worthy.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Tropical Mango Pineapple Salsa: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Trader Joe's Rosemary & Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds

There's some food combinations out there that should be pretty obvious to put together. For instance, for a mac 'n cheese cookoff this past weekend to benefit a neighborhood race, I may have invented one: exploded pierogi mac. I mean, think about it: there's two main common ingredients, namely cheese and dough/noodle. There's no recipe out there, far as I can find, though, so I just pulled one out of an impolite place to mention on this here blog. So here's what I did - homemade pierogi dough cut up to bite-sized noodle bits, then boiled and fried (talk about a PITA process), bacon, onions, and a potatoey cheese sauce with a good dose of seasoning to top it all off, and baked for a while. Darn good stuff, if a bit indulgent. But good enough to win the People's Choice vote and some folks even wanted to take my picture - kinda weird, and not quite my fifteen minutes of fame, but it was a good solid five, at least. If so inclined you can read more about the event here with a new food blogger buddy I met at the event, Breelicious Bites.

Other combinations: not as obvious. Like coffee and garlic. Cheese and chocolate. Or these new-fangled snackers I discovered the other morning: Trader Joe's Rosemary & Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds.

Rosemary and thyme? Yes, that works. Maple and toffee? Absolutely. But all four? Well, well, well, that gets interesting, so let's get this as clear as we can by breaking it down. Maple syrup = basically sugar. Toffee = sugar + butter. And butter makes almost anything taste better, including a classic herbal pairing worthy of song and bad British TV. So really, we're talking a buttery rosemary and thyme concoction...only with lots of added sugar.

It's kinda weird, and I'm not sure if I'm completely on board with it...but it sure is intriguing, I'll give it that. But it works. Kinda. Maybe. I think. Part of the fun of this particular product is each bite tastes a little different - some bites are more herbaceous, others lean much more towards the maple and sugar. There's always some of each flavor present, just in different ratios, and there doesn't seem to be a discernible pattern to which way the flavors hit - sometimes it's savory first then sweet, other times vice versa. Just depends. Plenty of salty butteriness regardless, so it's almost like there's a trifold of flavors continually jostling for attention, with each one winning on occasion.

Everything else is remarkably tasty. Based on sheer texture, I could munch these for hours - the seeds are roasted thoroughly in the maple glaze to give them a light, airy, crispy snacky bite to each. And maybe by then I'd have an idea if these are actually, truly good, or just an intriguing oddity out there. I can't quite make my mind, and neither can the wifey, but as this point we'll grade them fairly positively. Also, the wifey wanted it to be mentioned that these would probably be a great addition to a salad - I can be on board with that.

Now, what do you think? Comment away!

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Rosemary & Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons