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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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 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Pomegranate Seeds

I'm usually not a fan at all of those stupid e-card meme things that float all around Facebook all too often, but I saw one the other day I actually kinda marginally liked. In case you didn't feel like clicking the link, it's no-nose business lady in a power suit saying "Chocolate comes from cocoa, which is a tree. That makes it a plant. Chocolate is salad." Actually, now that I've been forced to look at it again, I kinda hate it. But I guess I can appreciate the sentiment, because as much as I like veggies, I no doubtedly like chocolate even better.

Well, if chocolate isn't really salad, maybe the next best thing is chocolate covered fruit? That's a good way to justify a lot of cocoa-consumption, right?

If that's your train of thought, you can do better than Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Pomegranate Seeds.

There's just something off about them. It's not the chocolate, which is, as usual, pretty good dark chocolate unto itself. Sandy said the bite feels a little off - the seeds don't exactly crunch nor are they particularly juicy like regular pomegranate seeds. It makes sense to me for them to not be all soft and squishy, so I'd side with them being a little drier and crispier/crunchier. The taste is a little funky, though - it's not a smooth flavor but more discombobulating between the rich dark chocolate and sharply tart/sweet pomegranate. It might even get accented a little further by added pomegranate powder, I don't know. But kinda ends up as a sickly sweet muddied flavor, which at least keeps me from eating too many at once. I think the only reason I've eaten the two midsized handfuls I have is because of the complete lack of chocolate in my diet recently, and out of obligation for you, our faithful reader.

It's a little disappointing, because I thought at time of purchase the choco-covered seeds would be a nifty little snack. At least I'll know next time to skip on by them. Sandy agreed, mainly for the texture related issue, giving them a measly two. Maybe I'm still just a little bitter over the soy chorizo fiasco, because a two is all this'll get from me as well.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Pomegranate Seeds: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Trader Joe's Watermelon Cucumber Cooler

Back in the days when this old blog was not so very old, and there were only 340 or so TJ's locations nationwide, people knew me as "the sweet beverage fiend," or "the hummingbird." I grew up on full-calorie sodas and sticky sweet, high fructose corn syrup-laden "juice" drinks. And while I've basically sworn off HFCS altogether at this point—and love Trader Joe's because they very infrequently, if ever, use it in their products—I still love me some sweetness. So when this product tasted just as much like cucumber as watermelon, I was a little disappointed.

I mean I know it says "cucumber" in the title of the product, but I thought that was just to make it sound healthier than it actually is—in the manner of TJ's Tropical Carrot Juice Blend or Omega Orange Carrot Juice. I'm not saying those carrot drinks aren't healthy, I'm simply pointing out that the carrot flavor is cleverly blended in with a multitude of other sweeter essences. But this actually tastes like cucumber. And while my instinct is to simply complain about tasting cucumber juice for the next couple paragraphs, I really can't think of anything else to say about it, and I know my negativity would attract a plethora of negative comments, and I'm sure there are plenty of you, like Sonia, that will actually enjoy drinking cucumber juice.

Surprisingly, however, both organic sugar and watermelon juice outrank "cucumber juice" on the ingredients list. And even more surprisingly, the cucumbery taste is growing on me—ever so slightly. Sonia pointed out that this beverage will be perfect come summertime. It's meant to be a "cooler," just like the title says, and I must admit that it's a great thirst quencher. It was a little better with a ton of ice. It definitely does taste like watermelon, too, but the watermelon to cucumber ratio favors the "cuke" a good bit more than I was expecting. It's a light flavor. And...it just tastes a lot like cucumber. I'm sorry I keep saying that. It's just...you don't drink cucumbers. I'm open to new things, but...cucumber juice? It's weird, but I guess it's not necessarily bad. Always good to expand your horizons, right?

I think I'll be generous and give it 2.5 stars for its thirst-quenching properties and uniqueness. But be warned: if the idea of cucumber juice turns your stomach, you probably won't like this product. Sonia gives it 4 stars. She's down with the cucumberiness.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.