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, May 26, 2011

Trader Joe's Rice Noodle Soup Bowls

I have a confession of sorts to make.

When it all comes down to it, I'm just not really a lunch guy.

Breakfast is usually my favorite meal of the day, especially if involving eggs and some good bacon. But sometimes, even just a bowl of delicious hearty cereal does the trick pretty well. Dinner, in any and all of its manifestations, is something I routinely look forward to and enjoy. But lunch? Usually, for me, it's kind of lame. Most of the time it means I'm still at work for a few more hours, and I'm munching on whatever I managed to grab in 30 seconds of half-awake stupor before running out the door, or some cheap greasy not-that-great chow that I went and fetched from some run-of-the-mill chain restaurant. I'd rather skip lunch altogether and either snack through out the day or hold out for one large mid-to-late afternoon meal, but since my work schedule doesn't look too kindly on that, I'm kinda forced into the lunch option. I think that's why I routinely look for the cheapest, easiest ways to do lunch, because if I don't like the meal all that much to begin with, I don't see the point in investing time, effort and money into trying to make it better.

Enter Trader Joe's Rice Noodle Soup Bowls.

For starters, they come in three varieties - Mushroom, Garlic, and Spring Onion. To review each flavor would be as pointless as reviewing each flavor of Ramen noodles - they all kinda taste the same, without all that much distinction. And, like Ramen, they're certainly not fantastic either - cheap noodles with some colored salt on them, and that's more or less it. Don't let the "Thailand" on the front fool you - these are about as authentically Thai as a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli is authentically Italian. They're not even remotely close to any Thai noodle bowl I've had at any restaurant anywhere - there's no sense of the complexities and layers of heat that good Thai cuisine offers. It's really just salt and parsley, a fancier Cup o' Noodles if you will. With a lot more packaging, to the point it seems downright wasteful. There's the outside cardboard sleeve, the plastic shrinkwrap, the lid on the bowl, the bowl itself (pretty sturdy in its own right), then inside there's a plastic baggie that's open half the time anyways that holds the foil seasoning packet, smaller baggie of either leafy green stuff or mushroom nanobits (depending on which variety you chose) and another little plastic packet of oil which I guess is supposed to add flavor to the broth. That strikes me as being packaging overkill - skip the cardboard sleeve and the bigger inside plastic baggie at the very least. Anyways, once you buzzsaw your way through all of that, dump it all together and splash in some water and nuke it for three minutes, the end result can be very inconsistent from one batch to the next. Without doing anything discernibly different and being very careful to fill the water to the lower inside rim, I've had bowls that were thick and full of noodles with very little broth, and others that seemed to average-to-skimpy in noodle-to-soup ratio.

Okay, enough with the negatives. I actually kinda like them. Here's why. They're certainly pretty easy to make, even with the most primitive of workplace kitchens at my otherwise state of the art facility where I work. The rice noodles, while not spectacular, do a decent enough job of tiding me over. Tastewise they're passable enough. But the number one thing they have going for them is this: coworkers have seen me eating them and have asked me how they were. My typical response has been "Eh, they cost a buck and they taste like it." That was just something offhand I happened to say without thinking about it much until I randomly found myself one day in the international food aisle of the local grocery chain. Perfectly identical rice noodle bowls (even down to the same three flavors of mushroom, garlic and spring onion) were $2.29 each. Even at the neighborhood Trader Joe's, they sell another brand of microwavable noodle bowls for $2 American a pop. These? One greenback. That's it. And while I'm willing to acknowledge I may be missing out on something, to me these are about as good as I can reasonably expect instant noodles to taste like, and even if the other brands are better, I doubt it'd be worth paying twice as much for them.

Chef Boyardee used to be my default quick-grab work lunch that cost a singleton. Not any more. I routinely snag at least three or four each shopping trip and Sandy grabs one or two for herself as well. I don't think it's that we're necessarily big fans of them, but we like the fact that they're cheap and simple, and they work well enough for lunch for us. Sandy was wavering between giving them a three or four before settling in the middle with a three and a half, stating she wished they were spicier and more Thai-like. For me, I have to dock some pointage for the wasteful packaging (though I've reused a couple of the plastic bowls for my desk to hold office supplies, and Sandy said maybe they could be useful at her preschool) and join with my wife in wishing they offered more spice and flavor, but the fact that I routinely purchase and munch on them for lunch says I can't dislike them too much, even if that's based more on value than overall performance. I don't know, sounds like a three to me.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

3 comments:

  1. I used to eat those all the time, like 2-to-3 times a week. And I had the same inconsistencies (even down to the glue on the cover -- sometimes impossible to open!). They smelled really good, and tasted OK, but in the end, it was just too much sodium and empty starch calories.

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  2. Dang, that was a lot of words to say that your soup is okay.

    I'm at the other end of the spectrum. I like these soup bowls. I always toss in a handful of shrimp or chicken with mine though. In fact, I really, really like these soup bowls. I don't like Ramen. As for the packaging, for me it's like the old time free dishtowel or water glass in the box of laundry soap. I get a free keeper bowler that is just the right size for most everything. In a houseful of kids, that's a super bonus. Those bowls are tough!! And they stack down to nothing. You can put at least ten in a stack and it still fits in the standard cabinet shelf.

    But they are just so yummy. I haven't tired of them yet. And even when I have no shrimp and chicken, the soup is still good without anything else added.

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  3. I like these because they are cheap and gluten free. Finding a quick, inexpensive, lunch when you have a wheat/gluten allergy is a real pain in the tuchus. To jazz them up I add a handful of frozen veggies (broccoli is especially nice) when I am adding all the other packets. It kills the overwhelming salt flavor and of course adds some nutrition.

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