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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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Trader Joe's Ditalini Pasta + Cheddar Cheese + Cauliflower + Kale (=Best Mac and Cheese, Ever)

My mother freely admits to having "punishment meals" for us kids growing up. By this, she means if we were acting up one day, and she had enough, she made sure to make something for dinner she'd like and we'd all hate. For days full of extra shenanigans, she'd pull out the big guns: tuna casserole. We all HATED it, chief reasons among them being canned tuna, which I always associated with my cat scarfing up then barfing everywhere. Still can't even bear the smell of it.

The details of the exact day have been lost to time and memory, but the ramifications have not: The day that I suggested that instead of regular tuna casserole, my mom instead put that canned kitty emetic into her homemade mac and cheese. Homemade mac was a capital-T Treat in our house. Still is. And whether out of my relative innocence, her maternal instinct of mercy, or perhaps her reluctance of making her devilish kids choke down a dinner so maybe we'd all just go to bed earlier, she obliged. It was awful. And then she kept making mac and cheese every time that way. A family classic, ruined.

Another way that, as a kid, I thought mac and cheese could get spoiled is by adding in veggies. Now, as a child, I was strangely okay with spinach...but kale? Cauliflower? No and no. Not gonna happen. I would have begged for tuna over those, I'm sure.

Not so much these days. Here's to Trader Joe's Ditalini Pasta + Cheddar Cheese + Cauliflower + Kale (=Best Mac And Cheese, Ever). PEMDAS headscratching aside, it sounds awesome...doesn't it? Gotta give it a try for $4.99 for a large 1.25 pound tub, large enough for several lunches.

If it could last that long....

This mac isn't earthshattering or lifechanging or anything....but it's the best I've had commercially available, for sure.  Pretty tasty all the way around. I wish the cheddar cheese sauce was a little sharper, with a little more distinction, but it's very creamy and subtly spiced with herbs like dillweed and garlic. It hits the right oozy comfort spots that adding anything like hot sauce or anything more than maybe a dash of black pepper would seem a sin. Warm gooey cheese can do a soul right, can't it? The cauliflower is steamed yet firm, al dente-ish, and is present in enough bites to add a good textural variant without being overbearing. And honestly, it's kinda easy to overlook the kale too - which is a compliment to the rest of the dish. it's soft and completely unobtrusive and inconspicuous. Ditalini pasta is basically elbow chopped up into smaller carbo-tube chunks -  I would have preferred perhaps a heartier noodle like rotini - but no real complaints there either.

Both Sandy and I enjoyed a few bites as a side dish over our lunch at my workplace. Even B, our youngest, got in a few bites and gave it a two thumbs up. M, our older daughter, wasn't that impressed (I'm thinking it's the sight of the kale) and skipped trying it, which hey, more for us then. Sandy was a tad disappointed at the presence of the chunks of cauliflower, as she thought it'd be more of a pureed-in variety, thus using less cheese and making it somewhat more healthy so she feel less guilty about eating it...if that makes sense. Does it, or have I gone mad? I don't know. She gave it a three and a half. I'll go in a little higher - for me, the only real thing that could ruin it is tuna. Thankfully none here.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Ditalini Pasta + Cheddar Cheese + Cauliflower + Kale (=Best Mac and Cheese, Ever): 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, February 20, 2017

Trader Joe's Carrot & Pea Vegetable Patties

She may have simply been trying to upsell me, which is uncharacteristic for a TJ's employee, but the checkout lady suggested I try these patties with sweet chili sauce, implying that their flavor wasn't particularly pleasant on their own. I politely declined, mainly because I didn't want to lose my place in line, but I got to thinking, "these patties must be really bland." Later, I found a comment or two online supporting that sentiment. Uh oh. Let's have some hot sauce on stand-by, just in case.

Next morning, I woke up hungry. Lacking other breakfast options, I decided to brave these veggie patties for my morning meal. I opted for the stove top heating method. I readied my skillet with a bit of olive oil and opened the package to find...orange hockey pucks. Not especially enticing. Not particularly appetizing. But I proceeded nonetheless.

After a full 12 minutes on medium heat, my patty began to brown. It had sopped up all but a few drops of the above-mentioned olive oil and was looking far more edible than it had straight out of the box. I decided to try it sans condiments. I braced myself for disappointment...and perhaps even disgust...

But what I tasted were all the ingredients of a delicious breakfast burrito, minus the tortilla, all smooshed together in a little round veggie patty. Not sensational, but not unpleasant in the slightest. Eggs, potatoes, onions...and of course peas and carrots, all right there, toasty warm and pre-seasoned with a dash of salt and pepper. I mean, the olive oil certainly helped, too. But I didn't even feel the need for hot sauce. In fact, I tried it with a little Tapatio later on, and sure, it gave the veggies a nice hot kick, but honestly, I preferred the patty plain. I did wrap it in a soft flour tortilla and made a proper burrito, but I was quite happy to let this product stand on its own.

Texture-wise, there were small pieces of soft carrots and peas, and all the other ingredients were scarcely more than an indiscriminate mush. But as a breakfast burrito, it worked. It didn't want to keep its puck-like circular shape at all. It wanted to fall all to pieces—just another reason to serve it in a tortilla, if you ask me. When it comes to food, Mexican-Americans are very practical people. And being married to one has its perks...like almost always having hot sauce and/or some sort of tortillas on hand.

Would this product work as a veggie burger? No way. It's not hearty enough. It's not firm enough. It certainly wouldn't pair well with traditional burger condiments. And there's absolutely no indication that this product is trying to imitate meat. Not even fake meat. But as a breakfast burrito-filler substitute, it's got my seal of approval. Less than $2 for four patties? This might even be a repeat purchase. Sonia liked it too, and she remarked that it was much more flavorful than she expected it to be. Double fours here.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Trader Joe's Mixed Nut Butter

Alongside cheap fastfood breakfast sandwiches and Shamrock Shakes, peanut butter is a weakness of mine. God, I love peanut butter. If I had to choose one food I had to eat every day for the rest of my life, a big ol' jar of Jif would be under heavy consideration. My hypothetical decision may rest on whether not different varieties of tacos could be considered or not. Anything you can put peanut butter in...heck, I've even had peanut butter on a burger and peanut butter beer, and have loved them all. Chances are if I'm raiding a kitchen late at night, I got PB on the mind.

This committed infatuation just doesn't extend over to other nut butters for me. I've dabbled in almond and cashew, and they're okay, but in the end, they taste like settling for a subpar burger when I could be having steak. Maybe it's partially because the words "nut butter" just don't sound right to me. I have the mind of a fifth grader, apparently.

So, forgive me for not being overly enamored with Trader Joe's Mixed Nut Butter. It's not a bad mix, at all - as you can see, almonds, cashews, walnuts, brazil nuts, hazelnuts and pecans - kinda akin to a high quality mixed nut canister. No peanuts in their pseudo-nut/really-actually-legume ways.

First turn off: the consistency. It's oily and drippy and saucy, even after refrigeration. There's a reason I mentioned Jif uptop: that thick, sticky, smooth feel? That's what I like, even if that's not always indicative of a "good" or "healthy" butter. But even by other butter standards, this goop seems thin and faintly gritty, with a fine sand-like feel. Meh.

And, despite all the nuts listed, I really can only taste two: almonds and cashews. Maybe  a little walnut here and there. Maybe. But it's primarily those two nuts, with a little salt, tasting all roasty and earthy and a bit dry and whatnot, but if you're hoping to taste all the nuts here, you're probably not going to.

All that being said, I think it's alright. A good breakfast/late night snack for me is an apple with some peanut butter, and this butter makes fine substitute. My wife Sandy made some chick pea blondies-dessert type deal* with half a cup of it scooped in, and it worked great for that - much more delicious than it sounds at first. So fluffy! And I'll admit to having one or two extra tastes right before writing this in the name of "making sure what I report is accurate."

Not perfect. Can use more taste of other nuts, and if given the choice, I would have preferred more of a chunky version. But not bad either. If I keep up with the apples and nut butter thing for breakfast, that can reduce my chances of going through the drive thru for a couple McGriddles and a shake...which would be awful(ly awesome) and my healthier breakfast is more satisfying anyways (or so I'll tell myself). I'll be fair and toss a three at it, and same goes for the wife.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Mixed Nut Butter: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons