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, July 31, 2014

Trader Joe's Zucchini Fries

Zucchini is one of the few things my dad was actually able to grow in the garden in our backyard when I was a kid. I think he managed to salvage a few tomatoes from the ravenous squirrels and rabbits as well, but as I've mentioned before, I've never been a fan of actual tomatoes, despite a paradoxical affinity for all tomato derivatives. Similarly, since raw zucchini is kinda nasty, he'd pan-fry a homegrown specimen or two from time to time, and it always surprised me how good it tasted. Now that Sonia and I have our own big backyard, we'll undoubtedly have our own garden here too, appropriately, in the Garden State. (Au revoir, Media, PA, TJ's. Hello Marlton, NJ, TJ's!) Can't wait to (attempt to) grow our own zucchini and fry them like my old man used to.

These zucchini fries from TJ's are good too, but there are a few key differences from those home-fried zucs I remember all those years ago. First, there's a noticeable coating of batter on these fries. It's apparently made of cornmeal and wheat flour. It's good. It's a nice touch. There's not too much and not too little. Secondly, the pieces of zucchini are completely inconsistent. Some of them are small, some of them are big, and some of them are really just globs of empty batter. And thirdly, due to the inconsistent sizes, it's really hard to cook the entire bag to perfection all at once. The little pieces cook faster and wind up a little charred. The big pieces wind up undercooked and a bit juicy on the inside. It's not a terrible thing, especially if you're one of those "variety is the spice of life" types. You get some crispy critters, similar to the texture of traditional fries, and you get some moist, squishy fries—which have a lot more real zucchini flavor.

Another oddity about these fellows was the absence of a sauce. The bag mentioned something about "serving them with your favorite sauce." Hmmm... I don't think they mean chocolate sauce. Can we have a hint, Trader Joe? Ketchup? Because I don't think that would work either. Fortunately for you readers, I looked up the product on TJ's own site, and they did throw us a bone and suggest sriracha or tzaziki as dipping options there. We actually had tzaziki and sriracha on hand when we ate these. I certainly wish I had known to try it with them at the time. I think that might have sealed the deal and put these puppies in the Pantheon had they included their own sriracha and/or tzaziki. But they're still really darn good as they are.

Having never tried fried zucchini before, Sonia was pretty enthusiastic about this dish. She gave it 4 stars. I'm going to go with 3.5. Let this blog post serve as a petition to TJ's to include a sauce in ver. 2.0.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Trader Joe's 4 Kouigns Amann

Somewhere in the depths of our vaults, I've written about (or at least alluded to) Saturday mornings. Best morning of the week, by far. More times than not, there's at least an opportunity to sleep in a little, wake up, make some good coffee in the French press, and actually have a chance to sit down, relax, and enjoy it with my lovely wife Sandy. Granted, the rest of the day might be filled with errands and odds and ends, but usually those are on our terms, not The Man's. A nice, peaceful, relaxing morning was exactly what we had this past Saturday - heck, even our toddler slept in til about 9:30, as did we.

Wish I could say Trader Joe's 4 Kouigns Amann really added something a little extra special. Breakfast is almost always my favorite meal of the day, and I felt a break would be good from the normal eggs/toast/breakfast meat/fruit routine. I've heard these pastries are a pretty decadent treat, and we've had wonderful success with another proof-and-bake treat in the past, giving me high, high hopes.

Alas, not to be. I think I've narrowed it down. First, the proofing process went a little askew. Think of each amann as a dough square, with the corners folded in so there's an X on top of the square. While rising overnight (a little longer than the six to seven hour range noted, but it still "overnight"), the corners on two of the amanns unfurled, making it a flat rhombus that laid bare all the sugary delectability lurking in what should have been the doughy depths. The other two (which I did not mean to make but was forced to when I left them in the box on the counter overnight by mistake - hey, I worked til midnight, gimme a break) kept much better form.

Secondly, the directions state to bake for about 25 minutes, or "until quite dark. Do not underbake." I went for the "quite dark" mark, which wasn't far past the 25 minutes, but apparently it was just enough that the caramelized nether-regions got burnt and more or less unappealing. The amanns that were accidentally left in the box fared much better in this regard, but still...I'm just not completely impressed by them. At their bests, the outsides got crispy and buttery, the insides soft, melty and sugary, and the bottom hittimg of some caramel undertones, but kinda missed a little je ne sais quoi to really put them over the top or make them memorable. And much of what we ate was fall short of this standard, unfortunately, and I'm not sure all the blame falls on us.

Both Sandy and I feel kinda indifferent about them, with perhaps a little disappointment and regret. I mean, if you're gonna start your day with 13-gram-saturated-fat bombshell straight to the coronary pipework, it oughtta be for something more than a blasé bite, right? I'd say this is a doubtful repurchase for the $4 or so. We'll be slightly generous, though, and go with a two each.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's 4 Kouigns Amann: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

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