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, September 29, 2016

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Vinaigrette

Since you all know my blogging buddy Russ is a huge fan of pumpkin products, as well as salad dressings, of course I had to race to the local TJ's to purchase this product and beat him to the review. But here I sit, dumbfounded by this enigmatic dressing. Of all the hundreds of foods, beverages, and condiments we've reviewed these past six years, this might be one of the hardest to describe, as far as taste is concerned. We've seen every kind of pumpkin product, as well as plenty of salad dressings, but for some reason this one was hard to pin down for me. I couldn't even tell if I really liked it or not. But like a brave li'l foodie-hack, I'll attempt to tackle it anyway. Here goes nothing.

Okay, so the first thing that jumped out at both Sonia and I was that this dressing is surprisingly sweet. Like sweet is probably the first word either of us would use to describe it. It's not sweet like you'd use it as an ice cream topping kind of sweet. It's just sweet for the world of salad dressings. It doesn't taste at all like pumpkin pie or pumpkin spice—there's no cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, or allspice. And none of those spices would work here, so they're not missed. It does, however, taste like pumpkin, as pumpkin puree is the main ingredient. It has a squash-like essence. I guess that's because pumpkin is a type of squash. Sonia thought it tasted more like butternut squash than pumpkin, but I think I might have picked out the pumpkin flavor even if this had been a blind taste-test. But I'm probably overestimating my taste buds. My brain can't see a bright orange label with the word "PUMPKIN" written on it and taste anything other than pumpkin. I'm highly suggestible like that.

But beyond the pumpkin is where the flavor gets really complex. There's olive oil, dijon mustard, white wine, and turmeric in this stuff. And wow, it's like there's a fall festival in my mouth and everyone's invited. Yet I wouldn't say the flavor is super intense—it's just...complicated. It's not completely unlike other vinaigrettes, there's just more going on here.

Texture-wise, it's oily and somewhat thick. Toward the beginning of the bottle, there were little yellowish globs of what I can only assume would be pumpkin puree. None of said yellow globs were around by the time we snapped the above photo. But you can still get a vague idea about the product's viscosity, hydraulic stability, and other physical properties from the pic. And yes, I like a little salad with my chick peas. I call it the "garbanzaganza."

All I can say is, if you're into pumpkin, dressing, and consider yourself an adventurous eater, this stuff's worth checking out. And hey, if you're not into it, Trader Joe's has an excellent return policy. What's there to lose? Sonia gives it four stars. I think it's a little too weird for four stars, but I am glad we tried it. I'll be nice and give it three and a half.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Trader Joe's Shrimp Soft Tacos

Another week, another shot to grind my gears about something. Made my annual autumnal rant last week about pumpkin spice. Man, that felt good to get out. This week's target? Food trucks. By in large, I think they're dumb. I get that in some scenarios they may be a way of life...but man. Stand around forever in line just to overpay for one item, have to wait around forever in another line if you want anything else, all from some typically greasy grungy kitchen on wheels. No thanks. Here in the 'burgh, the whole food truck craze has really hit in the past few years. We're kinda slow on a lot of trends - can't wave a Terrible Towel without hitting a mullet or three - but in the past two or three years, any kind of community event anywhere, it's food truck bonanza! And everyone gets so excited! FOOD! FROM A TRUCK! WITH WHEELS! STAND AROUND ON ASPHALT AND EAT FOOD! WOW!

No thanks.

I bring this up in relation to Trader Joe's Shrimp Soft Tacos because on the official TJ's website, there's a whole thing about taco trucks when they start talking these tacos. Blah. That may be a way to entice a lot of potential eaters, but not me...but then again. it's a shrimp taco, so twist my arm.

I'm not going to say these are the best shrimp tacos ever, because they aren't. Far from it. But, I will say these are the best microwavable shrimp tacos that cost less than $1.25 each I've ever had. A three pack cost only $3.69, so keep that in mind with all I am about to say.

Though the taco filling looks nothing like what's depicted on the package, it's still plenty flavorful. There's a spicy heat radiating on nearly every bite, much more than anticipated - there's some potent jalapenos lurking in that salsa verde. Lots of black pepper bite, too. I wish a little more lime flavor were present to cut through the heat some - lime juice is listed as an ingredient - but something like a little lime basil would be killer on these tacos. Once done nuking, the soft 'n mild cotija cheese is kinda indistinguishable from everything else, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Surprisingly, there's plenty ample filling too. One could reasonably expect that a perceived premium taco stuffer could be shorted here, but it's not - not skimpy on the shrimpy. Each taco had at least two to three firm, fresh(ish) bites of shrimp in there. You're not getting cheated here.

As for the corn tortillas...meh. Listen, they do the job. Each taco is actually double-tortilla'd, which is probably the right call - if left with just one, it'd be too soggy and potentially messy. That being said, for a corn tortilla, they're not awful, but not particularly memorable either. I'm spoiled by the handmade ones from two trips to the mountainsides of Mexico, and it's an unfair comparision, but one I hold every other corn tortilla to. I would have preferred flour ones.

Really, not too many complaints. The tacos could really use some vegetation if you have some on hand, just to freshen them up a little bit. Some lettuce or tomatoes or avocado would be a welcome addition if I had any one hand. A little dollop of sour cream would be nice, too, especially to help dampen the spice. Both Sandy and I could totally justify picking up the shrimp soft tacos again, and, heck, probably will for a quick, easy, and somewhat different lunch. No food truck required.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Shrimp Soft Tacos: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons.     

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Soup Crackers

This is one of those TJ's products with a tricky name. It's not hard to pronounce or anything, but when I look at the box, my immediate assumption is that these are pumpkin-flavored crackers optimized for crumbling and throwing into a big bowl of piping hot soup. And I'm not saying they're not good for that purpose, but what the name actually means, according to the little write-up on the packaging, is that Trader Joe's took the taste of pumpkin soup and infused these crackers with it. Interesting.

It hasn't been all that long since we've had pumpkin soup from Trader Joe's. Sonia has made at least one repeat purchase of that soup since our review of it three years ago—I'm fairly certain we had a carton of it last year. Or was it two years ago already? Gosh, it sucks being old. Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that we both remember the soup being fairly pumpkinny. Despite the presence of pumpkin puree, these crackers, in our opinion, are not.

But they do taste "harvesty," if that makes any sense. There is the slightest essence of something squash-ish—undoubtedly due to the pumpkin puree. But more notable is the pleasant blend of herbs and spices, including salt, onion powder, and brown sugar. It's this blend of flavors that gives the crackers their "soupy" vibe. The taste is not unlike a homemade broth, but in a solid form. Sonia thinks they're reminiscent of original flavor SunChips.

Texture-wise, they're nice and crunchy. They taste and feel like they're made of rice and oats, which they are—and yes, they're gluten-free. If you were inclined to eat them in soup, they'd probably go best with something like chili or tomato soup, rather than lighter, clear-broth soups.

If you're avoiding the whole sweet pumpkin pie spice thing, but still want something autumnal, these might be what you're looking for. They didn't blow us away, flavor-wise, but there's a unique heartiness to them that's worth a looksee if you're after something subtle and herby. Three and a half stars from each of us.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.