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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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Trader Joe-San's Tempura Chicken

Since becoming an amateur food-reviewing hack, I have become more and more aware of how little I know about food and its vocabulary. I realize I basically know nothing beyond the basics and American terms - like, okay, I get what a "burger" or "deep-fried and greasy" mean, but stuff from other cultures? Not so much.

Take, for instance, our Japanese friend Joe-San and his Tempura Chicken. A couple years ago, for the one and only time in my life, I went out for sushi and sampled many different types of rolls. California rolls were okay but didn't do too much for me, and I don't recall the names of any other type of roll I ate except some shrimp tempura ones. Sandy was pretty content to just stick to her fried rice. Those shrimp tempura rolls were pretty good, and I recall them being fairly spicy, so since then I have taken to assuming that the word "tempura" implies some level/type of spice. Well, turns out that's wrong as I found out after trying out this chicken. "Tempura" is actually a style meaning lightly battered and fried, with no implication of spicy hotness. Which, in turn, means that when I thought I was eating raw shrimp in the sushi, it was actually not, which means not all sushi is raw (to which Sandy says "duh"), which just leaves me a little confused, like I ventured a little too quickly down the rabbit hole.

Anyways, the tempura chicken .... meh. What caused me to look up the meaning of the word "tempura" was the flavor (or lack of existence thereof) of this particular dish. To make this stuff, you bake up a bagful of skimpily breaded chicken nuggets in the oven (you can also deep-fry, which I guess leaves it technically "tempura") and toss it around in some red sauce that comes in a packet you microwave and dunk in warm water. The chicken itself is decent - it turns out to be crispy and chickeny and all that good stuff. The sauce though - it doesn't do anything except put a coat of reddish goop on your dinner. It's just there and doesn't taste like anything. It's as worthless as a plot in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. I tried a little bit of it by itself, and there is a faint, barely distillable sweet-sour taste like the package proclaims, but when put on chicken, the taste of the actual chicken easily overpowers it. It was only slightly discernible when eaten with plain white rice (not like there was much to spare .... Joe-San is a stingy guy saucewise). After a few bites, just to give it some flavor, Sandy and I dumped a few sprinkles of crushed red pepper on there. On a positive note, texture-wise you do end up with a plateful of chicken chunks that mirror what you'd expect from a Chinese restaurant, so it does have redeeming qualities. Given the choice between the two, I'd definitely recommend TJ's Mandarin Orange Chicken if you're in the mood for an inexpensive, easy-to-make semi-Asian inspired dinner.

Both Sandy and I are in agreement about it: We'd get it again, and wouldn't necessarily mind it, but we definitely wouldn't be upset if we pass it up on a fairly regular basis. Next time, we'd probably modify the sauce a little before combining it with the chicken ... I'd imagine some various chili peppers, maybe some Chipotle, cumin, black pepper ... wait, those aren't really Asian, and Sandy would be semi-upset that it wouldn't be right (I have a tendency to just dump whatever spices in, and they have to be at least semi-thematic for her) ... I have much to learn. Sandy gives them a 2.5 out of 5, and I agree. The taste just isn't quite there enough to rate them any higher.

Bottom line: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons


  1. Just for the record, Sonia and I have had this, and we would have given it at least a 6 or 7...

  2. I just tried this tonight. While I can't speak for the oven version of it, the FRIED version (using my Fry-Daddy) was really delicious. I used a saucepan to heat up the sauce (which took away from the "goopy" state of the sauce when it's still frozen, of course), then coated the chicken (which only took 3 minutes to fry, per directions). It was really good - I was impressed at the ease of preparation and the consistency of the chicken. I ate it with Jasmine rice from my Aroma rice cooker. My husband came home later and even enjoyed the reheats a good bit.

  3. I agree- I thought that the chicken had a good flavor, crunchiness and consistency. The sauce just tasted like duck sauce to me- Wasn't impressed w the sauce.

  4. I thought it was spectacular with some tri-colored peppers!