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, October 21, 2016

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Chai Spice Loaf

There may come a day when I stop reviewing pumpkin spice products. To be honest, I wouldn't be completely heartbroken if that fateful day arrived soon. But before that happens—before I stop reviewing TJ's profound plethora of pumpkin products—two things will have to happen: Trader Joe's will have to stop releasing new pumpkin products OR I'll have to hit a looong streak of pumpkin nastiness, AND Americans will have to stop Googling "trader joes pumpkin spice" in such enormous numbers. Once those things come to pass, I shall hang up my hat as this blog's designated pumpkin and pumpkin spice reviewer extraordinaire.

However, this product did not help towards that end—that is, it's pretty friggin' tasty. Now I certainly don't have anything against Maple Sugar Candy, but before you pumpkin agnostics go declaring maple sugar the new pumpkin spice, you'll have to try pumpkin chai. Several readers tipped us off that this dessert was indeed worth a gander, and they were definitely not wrong.

I always thought pumpkin spices and chai spices were remarkably similar. And together, they're even better than they are separately. The cream cheese-based icing is where most of the chai flavor resides, and it's undoubtedly the sweetest and most decadent part of the product. It's absurdly delicious. Good thing they don't sell the icing in a can by itself. If they did, there'd be a widespread frosting-abuse epidemic, and people would be checking themselves in to clinics and joining twelve-step programs en masse.

The bread's not too shabby either. It's nice and soft. A bit crumby perhaps, but moist enough that the crumbs and chunks can be reassembled by mashing them with a fork before shoveling them into your mouth. Together with the icing, it's a delectable blend of sweetness and spiciness.

At $4.99 per loaf, it's not the cheapest pumpkin product we've tried this year. But in my opinion, it's worth every penny. It's perfect for dessert, but I must admit I've had it for breakfast on at least one occasion—easier to justify those calories in the morning, you know.

Four and a half stars from me. Four from Sonia.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Trader Joe's Maple Sugar Candy

"Ugh! Why does it have to be pumpkin spice everything!?!?!"

Believe it or not, that wasn't me who uttered that the other morning. No, it was M, my four year old, when I gave her the rundown of her breakfast options. Pumpkin O's. Pumpkin poptarts. Or a pumpkin muffin (not those, but close enough). Quite obviously, Sandy had done the last grocery shopping trip.

I have rarely been prouder as a papa.

Maple. It's one of the great flavors of fall, and it's so underrated. I think it's because all too many people equate "maple" as the "breakfast syrup" you see on shelves year round. Ummm....no. Real, authentic maple has a little of a premium attached to it because it's not the most efficient treat to make, but in my opinion, God and nature has made no finer natural, rich and sugary, divinely inspired nectar than unadulterated maple.

So it stands to reason that Trader Joe's Maple Sugar Candy ought to be knock-out-of-park good. In case you haven't read "Little House In the Big Woods" 37 times like my wife and don't have the maple sugaring chapter(s) memorized, maple sugar is derived from boiling sap past the syrup point to where nearly all the liquid is dried up, leaving clumps of natural sugar solids. It's firm enough to be able to mold into different shapes, in this case little cute leaves.

This small bites are pretty representative of the maple sugar candy genre. There's a slightly firm crystallized feel that quickly melts away into smooth-yet-granuley, buttery soft spread. Enjoy that. Let it linger for a while, and run your tongue all over and slather up every last bit...mmmm....maple....these are treats meant to be enjoyed and savored. As I am one prone to gulp down most anything without much thought, Sandy probably is going to check my temperature after that statement. But it's true.

These candies are deeply rich, superbly maple, and easily satisfy with just one or two, despite their small size. I mean, they're only seven grams each...but only five of those grams are sugar...what's the other two, tree magic? I don't know.

Pair with a hot beverage. Sneak some on an autumn treat tray. Hide some away for yourself when you need a "me" moment.

The small sleeve of four cost $1.99 near the checkouts, which, all things considered, isn't a horrible price to pay. We enjoyed them as a family after-dinner treat and no one had any complaints, and the only one of us to give a less than perfect score was B, my not-quite-two year old, who was probably only trying to be her characteristically silly, difficult self. Really, no complaints, Take a seat, pumpkin spice.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Maple Sugar Candy: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, October 17, 2016

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Spice Almond Beverage

From the moment Sonia saw this product on Instagram, she was swooning. On her next TJ's run, she searched high and low, but could not find this enigmatic beverage in our favorite Marlton, New Jersey store. She asked an employee if they had it hidden in the stockroom or if they'd be getting a shipment of it soon. The Trader Joe's employee was friendly and polite, as they almost always are, but he replied something along the lines of, "No, people on the east coast don't like gross stuff like that." Actually, his reply wasn't anything like that. However, he did say it was only available on the west coast. We'd heard that before. Remember the Parsnip Chips?

In that case, we just waited like a week, and voila, they were suddenly available on the east coast as well. In talking with Russ, we discovered that just several days after we were told this product was only available on the west coast, it was suddenly available in Pittsburgh. Now unless there was some pretty significant seismic activity that somehow eluded the evening news and shifted The Steel City 2500 miles closer to the Pacific Ocean, there's absolutely no way you could say Pittsburgh is on the west coast. So Sonia still had hope.

Sure enough, a day or two later, this beverage popped up on shelves here in Jersey. Sonia snagged a carton, and soon we were both sipping pumpkin spice flavored almond milk. A happy ending, right? Well...

Sonia and I haven't disagreed this strongly on a product in quite a while. She enjoyed it thoroughly. I did not. You all know I'm down with pumpkin and pumpkin spice stuff for a limited time each year between mid-September and late December, right? And I've always liked plain or vanilla almond milk just fine. But this stuff didn't quite work for me somehow. It's not nearly as sweet and sugary as it needs to be to succeed as a desserty kind of drink. Yet it's not simple and nutty like the regular stuff.

At first, you can taste the pumpkin spices in spades. For a moment, it's almost enjoyable. But then, as the flavor rolls over your tongue, there's a bit of a weird chemical kind of vibe. And I'm not a huge fan of the slight aftertaste, either. The texture is fine—very similar to other almond beverages—but possibly a little bit thicker in this case. To me, the overall essence of this product is that of an unsweetened pumpkin spice coffee creamer, not designed to be a stand-alone beverage. But that's just me.

Sonia thinks it's silky, smooth, and just about right in every way. She likes the flavor just fine and is happy to chug the beverage straight out of the carton, although she does concede that it makes sense to use it as a coffee creamer even more than a drink all by itself. Four stars from her.

Two from me.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.