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, December 30, 2010

Trader Joe's Really Expensive Authentic Handcrafted Chicken Burritos

Work lunches have always been a little tricky for me. I don't want to go out and spend $5 or $10 every day on lunch. We also rarely have leftovers to pack, and I don't plan ahead to pack a meal at night, nor do I ever wake up with enough time to make a sandwich or anything in the morning. So generally this leaves me with options that are quick to grab as I run out the door, and that are easily prepared at the typical work lunch room (sink, fridge/freezer and microwave bank), and ideally cheap. By default, most weeks this has meant stocking up on Chef Boyardee goods with the pull-tab can lids ... mmm, tasty. Not. Coworkers openly mock me for it - "Hey, you got dinosaurs or ABCs today?" - as they chomp down on their delivery pizza and wings (coincidentally, these same ones complain a lot about "never having money" ... hmmm). A man's gotta eat, but after so many cans of mini-ravioli, you gotta find some other options too.

Fortunately, Trader Joe's seems to have some possibilities worth exploring.

One of the first canned pasta alternatives I stumbled upon were his Really Expensive Authentic Handcrafted Chicken Burritos (REAHCBs). They appealed to me for a few different reasons. First off, I love burritos and nearly everything about them - tortillas, meat, beans, cheese, whatever you can fill them with, and wrap it all up - delicious and vaguely Mexican, and I love any Mexican food that doesn't include cow stomach. Secondly, the directions seemed pretty short and simple to make - keep frozen, unwrap when you're ready to eat, cover them with a paper towel, and nuke 'em for a couple minutes. Quick and easy enough for a workplace meal. Thirdly, well, I didn't realize it until I started busting them out, but as a work place food, they look pretty impressive. One of the middle-aged ladies in the lunch room asked where I got them - "they look too good to be from the vending machine," she said. Judging by the look on her face, I could have probably told her they were from the Sharper Image and she would have believed me. As the guy previously most famous in the lunchroom for an unnatural obsession with the Chef, it felt good to have some recognition (however fleeting) as having the Cadillac of microwavable meals. Their pretty impressive name certainly helped.

Well, overall the burritos are pretty decent, but also somewhat tough to get a reliable gauge on through no fault of their own. I blame the work microwaves. The directions say to defrost for two minutes, then go on high for a minute - yeah, show me a work microwave that can you can trust to do just that. There's not even a defrost setting on ours, so I resorted to heating on high for about four or five minutes. The result was a burrito alternating between containing molten hot bean-y magma scorching the inside of my mouth and literal ice chunks which served as relief. The tortilla itself got a little chewy in the process too. But that's CVS's fault, not Trader Joe's, I think.

Taste-wise, the REAHCBs work for a lunch option. The filling is mostly typical bean filling with dark meat chicken chunks. It's flavored with some tomato, onion, and typical spices which give it a little kick, but certainly not taste bud overkill. When it comes to texture, I'd prefer if there were some whole beans or the occasional vegetable chunk in there to mix it up a bit. The tortilla is a decent flour one, but nothing terribly special either.

They're certainly not Really Expensive (I think they were $2.49 for the package) and depending on your appetite they can make one or two lunches. As for Authentic ... well, that can be a relative term. They're not nearly as "authentic" (or for that matter, "handcrafted") as some of the most delicious burritos and related Mexican food I've had in Mexican mountain villages where the women woke up at 4 a.m. to grind the corn and the chickens were clucking around three hours before being served up. But of course, that's not what I could expect either, so I won't hold it against them. Just that Trader Joe character can get a little boastful at times, that's all. At least he wasn't stretching the truth when it came to the "Chicken" and "Burrito" part.

I'll give them a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. With a better preparation method, I'm sure they'd be a little bit better, and I'm somewhat indecisive between giving a 3 and a 3.5 for them. But since Sandy hasn't had them (they have that killer word "tomato" prominently displayed), I'm solely responsible for their grading, so I'll give them one of each.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, December 27, 2010

Trader Joe's World's Puffiest Sour Cream and Onion Corn Puffs

Hey everybody! Sorry for the extended break ... just a few days after the latest post, family Christmas celebrations kicked into high gear, and in my family that means lots and lots of food, homemade, nonstop. I'm talking hundreds of cookies, cheesebread, Swedish tea ring, pork roast, mashed potatoes, ham, mac and cheese, cheese omelets, etc. All that good I thought I was doing at the gym went down the tube (kinda literally!). Mix that in with a few days of recovery time, a little rest for the taste buds, and finally I feel like I can make honest reviews again. No offense to Trader Joe, but there's nothing that he can offer up that can compete with any of my family's homemade goodies.

Quick sidenote: My sis got me not one but two TJ cookbooks where everything in the recipe is made from TJ foodstuffs. Awesome gift, and looking forward to trying out some dishes - if I stumble across anything particularly good, I'll share for sure.

TJ's Sour Cream and Onion Corn Puffs made a good first entry back into regular non-holiday fare. I'll take his world that they're the "World's Puffiest" - I haven't exactly spanned the globe a la Andrew Zimmern and tasted corn puffs from across the international food spectrum while making as many happy sighs and groans as he does. But they are pretty puffy. Texture-wise, they are a treat. Although in appearance they resemble packing peanuts, they're definitely crunchy on the exterior with their puffy popcorn-like interior filling out the shell, so they're not quite like Cheetos either. They'd be pretty crappy if they were all puff and no crunch. In case you were wondering, they're strictly puffs with no kernels like popcorn. They're light and easy to munch down, not terribly filling, which makes grabbing a couple handfuls and chowing down just a little too easy to do. They're just okay taste-wise, I'd say. The onion flavor is subtle yet prevalent - it seems to be a light coating of mild onion salt (i.e, complete opposite of Funyun-style salt orgy). The sour cream doesn't seem to make its way on every puff. It's more like little sour cream pockets here and there that are pretty noticeable when your taste buds find them. I guess this way they're better by the handful then they are individually.

These guys are kind of hard to rate. Both Sandy and I like them, but don't consider them to be that spectacular. Yet when we tried them the other day, we had to rip the bag away from us and close it up after eating way too many of them. Maybe it was their crunchy, puffy texture or maybe it was their little sour cream blasts, but we wolfed down half the bag in not a lot of time. Of course, it could have just been our appetites still coming down off their holiday high. Sandy gave them a solid 3 out of 5 Golden Spoons - "a good, average snack" is what she said. I agree with her assessment and give them a 3 as well. The jury's out to see if they'll be a repeat buy.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Trader Jose's Super Seeded Tortilla Chips


I'll spare you the details, but from what I understand, diverticulitis is not a pleasant thing to have. Basically, it's a condition in some people who cannot properly digest seeds, nuts, and things of the like because their intestines don't like them. I know someone with what I assume to be severe diverticulitis, and he claims if he were to eat any seeds, he'd end up in the hospital. It's really nothing all that funny.

But, it must suck to have it. Imagine. No popcorn ... no pumpkin seeds ... no freshly toasted everything bagels with semi-melty cream cheese. Extra care must be taken when eating watermelon. You don't know what rye bread or Chick-Fil-A buns taste like. Think of all the extra work if you want to put peppers in your chili.

And up there with all of those injustices of the condition, no Trader Jose's Super Seeded Tortilla Chips for you, either.

Trader Jose found him some good chips here. The first bite offers lots of evidence that they're tough to beat. They seem to be a bit thicker than most, so they have a good satisfying crunch that other chips seem to miss. The seeds add a good nutty undertone, enough to be noticeable but not enough to interfere greatly with salsa and whatever else you might eat them with. Sandy and I heartily recommend pairing them with some Trader Joe's Peach Salsa, but I assume any type of chunky salsa would be a decent match. I crumbled some up to put in a bowl of homemade chili, and that worked really well because they're so thick and crunchy, they didn't get soggy at all. My last bite still had a good, loud crunch in it. Some other brands of tortilla chips tend to be overly salty, and these guys, while not exactly low sodium, don't make you feel like you just swallowed some ocean water either.

And they must be as relatively good for you as tortilla chips can be. Though not expressly marketed as being organic, all their ingredients say they are, and I thought I saw a blurb somewhere on the bag saying they were. I was too busy munching them down to really notice, though. They're gluten-free, which is nice for all you crazy celiacs out there. Plus, all the benefits of the seeds ... let's see ... well, we all know Barry Bonds was actually telling the truth when he credited flax seed oil for helping him hit all those home runs. Chia seeds can help turn ordinary ceramic creations into lovable furry green animals or definite office conversation starters. Hemp makes you cool with the hippies. I think. There's also poppy seeds, which we all know what they do for you on drug tests, and caraway seeds, which, uh ... well, I have no idea what any of the seeds do but I trust Trader Jose implicitly. Amigo hasn't let me down yet.

Trader Joe's has a lot of pretty good chip options, and these guys are Sandy's and my tortilla chip du jour. I think we downed two bags of them in about a week's time. I asked her how many golden spoons she would rate them, and she just said "a lot", which to me means four out of five, mostly because I give them a four as well.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Trader Joe's Mac & Cheese Bites

We are back! After a long period of transition and moving across the country, we have made our maiden TJ's shopping trip on the east coast, and we're ready for another blog entry.

We are now primarily shopping out of the Media, PA Trader Joe's. So long to our favorite TJ's at 3rd and La Brea in L.A...

Anyhoo, let's take a look at these Mac & Cheese Bites...Hmmm...

Well, let's face it: mac and cheese was never really health food...and deep fat frying it isn't exactly a step in the right direction...unless, of course, the direction you want to go involves triple bypass surgery.

I think my good buddies at TJ's read my blog about their "Joe's Diner Mac n' Cheese" and resolved that their next macaroni and cheese product would NOT be bland. Trader Joe's Mac & Cheese Bites are quite tasty...but these little balls make Philly Cheesesteaks look like Weight Watchers entrees.

The bites must be about a half an ounce a piece, yet paradoxically, about 3 ounces of grease flow out of each one. A half a dozen of the things completely drench a paper towel in milliseconds...we're talking crazy, freaky, Stargate portal summoning grease from another dimension type lipids here...the Simpsons episode where Bart rubs the Krusty Burger on the wall and it magically becomes transparent came to mind...Sonia and I have a new window in our apartment thanks to these little bites.

But they do taste good. I mean, something with this much grease HAS to taste good...unless, for some strange reason, you don't like grease. If you don't like grease, I suggest you avoid the aisle they sell these things in at TJ's entirely.

We did wind up putting some Cholula hot sauce on them just to give them a little more kick, but I was happy with their flavor and the comfort food coma that followed. I give them 4 out of 5 stars. Sonia gives them 3.5, docking some points because she's still mopping up the pools of liquid fat in the kitchen.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10. (Projected score for grease-haters: -9 out of 10.)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Trader Joe's Candy Cane Joe-Joe's

So it's pretty much a proven fact that it's a bad idea to go grocery shopping when hungry. Everything looks better and tastier and you're bound to buy more prepackaged junk food because your thought process is more in tune with instant gratification and not reasonable meal planning.

This is especially true at TJ's with all of their snack food and how they pile it on every conceivable display they can.

Sandy and I went there for our somewhat weekly supply run after I picked her up from work one night but before we had a chance to eat dinner. Our stomachs were both growling as we walked through the doors to see what Joe had traded for us this week. We behaved going through the first couple aisles, getting cheese, our latest installment of soy chorizo, some fruit, etc. You know, real food we actually needed. But when we turned our cart around the corner about to go up through where I call "Temptation Lane", there it was.

Huge, bright, happy endcap display of Candy Cane Joe-Joe's. It was like the centerpiece of the entire store, brimming with promise of seasonal sweet tooth satiation. They might as well have had a guy dressed as Trader Joe approach us and say "Aye, Capt'n, these be the best I scrounged for you this week" in some false pirate accent. There was no way we weren't picking up a box before scurrying home and plowing our way through.*

Well, they aren't bad, but they're not that great either in the end. Imagine taking a candy cane, smacking it with a hammer til there's nothing but a pile of granule-y dust, smacking it more and putting it in the middle of your classic Joe-Joe/knock-off Oreo with a little mint flavoring. That's about what there is to them. The package claims to have "real candy cane pieces and rich cocoa in every bite" - both parts are a bit of an overstatement, as it's literally minute minty particulate matter and the usual not-so-rich-but-okay chocolate cookie wafer with the typical sugary filling holding it all together. The red food coloring dots they put in the filling are made of deception and falsehood, not good old candy canes. Of course, I should have questioned the accuracy of the packaging as they are clearly named Joe-Joe's, not Joe-Joes. I'm not sure what the apostrophe is trying to express ownership of ... the cookies themselves? No, I just bought them, they're mine, whoever you are, Joe-Joe. Of course, like any cookie of its type, enjoying them with a little milk makes them a little better too.

Anyways, they're neither remarkable or unremarkable, They're just a seasonal variation on a classic. Just because they were the centerpiece of the store doesn't mean they should be the centerpiece of your holiday cookie tray - make some good old fashioned homemade cookies for that. The Candy Cane Joe-Joe's are good for a little snack or to tuck into a lunch, or okay to grab if you're running late to a casual holiday party, but for me, that's about it. I wouldn't mind getting them again, but I wouldn't insist either, and I won't miss them when they're put away for the season in a few weeks. Sandy seems like them a little more than I do, and she gave the Joe-Joe's 4 out of 5 golden spoons. Girl loves her candy canes, I guess. I'll give them 2.5, right down the middle, for total of 6.5 out of 10 golden spoons.

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*It's about a week later, and about half of them are still around. That'd be a household record for a truly irresistably deliciously tasty sugary munchie if, you know, that's what they were.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Trader Joe's Soy Chorizo


Hey everybody! What's Good at Trader Joe's has a new contributor! So it's been a while since this blog has been updated ... my old college buddy Nathan's been busy moving across the country or something ... and my wife Sandy and I (Russ) happen to pretty big TJ's fans ... so hopefully you'll be seeing at somewhat regular posts by me. We're hoping this blog, while a work in progress, will be a fun way to share about the good, mediocre, and nausea-worthy stuff we find on the shelves at TJ's. Nathan made this sound better up top.

Anyways, enough about that. Let's talk about fake meat product.

If you know anything about me, you know that I like food. And I like my food to taste like what it actually is - a steak to taste like a steak, coffee to taste like coffee, beer to taste like beer, etc. Sandy, on the other hand, is a little different. She likes her coffee to taste like caramel apples (this is what her choice of creamer tells me) and she loves to use black beans to make brownies (which I don't really get ... I just pretend they're actual brownies and go with it). She also loves fake meat. No, not like Spam. Like Morningstar Farms soy chicken products and "chicken" at Whole Foods and stuff like that. She's not vegetarian (she doesn't like vegetables enough to be), but she just loves the fake meat. I've tried it, and honestly, for me, if you want something that tastes like a piece of chicken, have it be the actual bird. It's nasty enough what they do to a chicken to turn it into a box of McNuggets, and I don't want to think of the additional steps of nastiness required to turn a handful of tasty-in-their-own-right beans into that.
Anyways, I guess it was her affinity for all things soy that led us to the original purchase of Trader Joe's Soy Chorizo. It sounded interesting to her, and I guess for the $1.99 and her happiness, we put it in the cart. We got home, put it in the freezer (it does freeze well) and a few nights later, decided it was time to try. I did not have high hopes. First off, the very name is a lie if you know any Spanish. Soy Chorizo = "I am sausage".* No, you're beans, not delectably ground up little piggies. Then the way it is packaged is somewhat of a lie. It's tubular shaped, and comes in plastic casing, which originally lead me to believe this was a grillable-type of chorizo. So I go out, put it in on the grill (anything is better grilled), and once it gets even somewhat hot, it starts crumbling into a mess. Not good. I take the pieces I can salvage and not knowing what else to do, come back inside, put in a frying pan, and start cooking it. I explain this to Sandy, we re-figure out our dinner plans, and decide to make a go of it. Not knowing what else to do, I think we ended up tossing in some black beans and rice once the chorizo was crumbled completely and beginning to brown. We also had some salsa to stir in along with some cheese, and either tortillas or tortilla chips. Finally, it was time to take the first bite ...

Freaking. Awesome.

For a soy-based meat product, it's really good. Scratch that. It's just really good, period. It's spicy, but not overly. The chorizo when cooked also has just a little of the requisite gristle so it's hard to remember that it's not actual meat. When made with rice, beans, and other stuff (our favorite way to have it), it really seems to hold it all together without dominating the other tastes. I think it'd be a pretty good meat substitute for anything ground meat would be needed for in a spicier dish, like chili, tacos, or hotter pasta sauces. It's not anything you can shape or form into a patty or loaf, so burgers and the like are out, but it tastes better mixed into things as opposed to standing on its own anyways.

This has become a "must buy" nearly every time we shop at TJ's - Sandy and I always ask each other how much milk we have left, how many eggs, and if we still have any soy chorizo in the freezer. It's almost become that much of a staple - I'd say we eat it probably at least every other week. We heartily recommend trying it out just as described above - with black beans, rice, your favorite salsa, cheese, and tortillas. Sandy calls it our "everything we love in a bowl meal", which I think sums it up pretty well.

I think Nathan did the star rating thing. I'll use the same methodology, except instead of stars I'll use golden spoons. I give it a rock solid 4.5 golden spoons (it's tough to get 5), Sandy's busy so I can't ask her but I think she'd give it a 5, so 9.5 golden spoons out of 10.

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*It occurred to me after writing this sentence that it might not have been a lie after all. If TJ's wanted me to read into the Spanish meaning of the product name, they probably would have marketed it under Trader Jose's, not Trader Joe's. We call it "I am sausage" anyways because it sounds funnier, and it's so good, I'm not going to argue with it.