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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Trader Joe's Bibimbap Bowl

Today, we got our Bibimbap on. Here's a link that should help you pronounce it properly. It sounds like it starts with a "p," and apparently the middle syllable is stressed.

Bibimbap is a Korean word that means simply "mixed meal." So basically, we've got rice, some sort of Korean barbeque-esque meat, some carrot-like vegetables, a bit of seaweed or kelp or kale or something, and a mysterious egg-like substance. It's quite an authentic recreation of a visit to a real Korean BBQ house. You'll recognize one or two of the items, and the rest of the foods...well, you might have some vague notion of what they could be, but unless you're dining with a bilingual Korean person, you're pretty much flying blind. You kind of just get in the habit of sticking stuff in your mouth and hoping for the best. It's kinda fun. Until you get a bite of something nasty. But then you can always go back to the meats. Korean BBQ meats are pretty universally tasty, in my opinion.

To my delight (but probably to the dismay of many others) there was no kimchi in this meal. I'm not sure which amazes me more: the fact that people actually enjoy fermented cabbage dishes, or the fact that more than one culture on our planet came up with the same idea. "Hey guys, let's throw this yucky vegetable in a barrel, let it rot for a while, and see if something yummy comes out!" Kimchi is kinda like Korean sauerkraut. It's spicier than sauerkraut, to be sure, but just as nasty.

Thankfully, the Bibimbap Bowl does feature some Korean beef. Absolutely delicious. It has an amazing tender texture and lots of flavor. Too bad there's only a couple bites of it in the bowl. In fact, that's my biggest complaint about this dish. I really wanted to give this a very high score, but I simply can't praise it as much as I would like to because of the lack of its best constituent part.

The second best part of the bowl? The sauce. It's red, spicy, and flavorful, and to me it tastes authentically Korean. I've only had Korean BBQ a handful of times in my life, but from what I remember, the best sauces are quite similar to the stuff included in Trader Joe's Bibimbap Bowl.

The other 4 ingredients are also pretty yummy, especially when coated with the aforementioned red sauce, but they're not quite as special as the beef. They're all reminiscent of things I've had in a Korean restaurant, and not one of them is gross or too strange to be eaten. I broke out some leftover chopsticks we had from our recent visit to Pei Wei. It helped to make the experience even more Asian.

In summary, my score can't be too high because of the lack of meat in the dish, but maybe that's just my typical American overenthusiasm for beef talking. I'm sure Koreans, health-conscious as they generally are, don't eat that much beef on a regular basis, but my visits to Korean BBQ spots would tell me different. Although, those restaurants I've been to are probably just catering to their "Viva-America" clientele. Conversely, I can't score this dish too low, either, since my natural inclination is to compare this Bibimbap Bowl with entrees I've had from relatively high-class Korean restaurants and homemade dishes. It didn't even occur to me to compare this to anything I've ever had from any other grocery store. And therein lies Trader Joe's genius: many of their foods, this product included, simply transcend the offerings of other grocery stores.

Let's go with a 3.5. Sonia was also annoyed by the lack of meat, but overall, she was truly impressed as well. She gives it a 4.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Tea & Lemonade

So, I didn't grow up in Pittsburgh but have lived in the city for just over eight years now, and in the meanwhile have learned all sorts of terms and phrases known as "Pittsburghese" spoken by native "yinzers." Thankfully, I don't drop them too often except the occasional "let's redd up" (because it sounds such much more fun than "cleaning") and refuse to acknowledge many of them on principle. One phrase I have picked up a few years back was "Arnold Palmer." Palmer, of course, is the legendary golfer from Latrobe (or as the locals say, "Lay-trobe") and through some means or another, his name has become synonymous with a mix of basically equal parts of lemonade and ice tea. Did Palmer invent this concept? I don't know. I mean, he does have a golf event named after him which he founded, so conceivably, Arnold Palmer could be playing in the Arnold Palmer while drinking an Arnold Palmer. That's pretty cool if you ask me. Anyways, I thought it was just a neat little local reference until I saw it popping up more and more, to the point where Arnold Palmer has an officially licensed Arnold Palmer with Arizona Brewing. Naturally, some variations have come along the way such as the John Daly (add vodka) and the Tiger Woods (add Ambien, Viagra, and bad judgment).

Of course, probably because of copyright issues, Trader Joe's can't come right out and label their blend as an Arnold Palmer. It's not the first time such laws got in the way of a perfectly good name. It doesn't mean TJ's can't make a wink and a nod to colloquial origin of the popular name on the packaging with a golfing gentleman depicted on the front, and a duo on the back along with some old school golfing terms like "mashie" (a five iron) and "albatross" (three under par on a given hole). Plus there's this out-of-place reminder on the side to replace one's divot.

Well, copyright issues be danged, I'm calling it an Arnold Palmer, because it tastes like a pretty darn good one. The taste starts off with a good tart lemonade flavor that refreshingly and fairly smoothly transitions to an ice tea finish. In between both lemon and tea are about equally present. It's slightly heavy on the lemonade for me but not offensively so. I prefer about 2:3 ratio of lemonade to ice tea while mixing my own, and this drink hit the middle of the fairway fairly exactly like a good tee shot (i.e., like none of mine ever do). It's pretty light and crisp tasting and wouldn't be out of place out on the links. Be warned though, it is kinda sugary so expect it to be very easy to drink a lot of it trying to quench your thirst especially on a hot day. I also appreciate the fact that it is organic so it is real cane sugar and not junk like high fructose corn syrup giving its flavor. Overall, this is definitely better than par (can't say sub-par, because even though that's good in golf, it's a negative statement. Hmm).

It's not to say it's my favorite. When picking an ice tea to purchase, I tend to side more with the offerings from the regional dairy. I appreciate it now, but it took me a while out here to get used to Turner's, and hands-down my favorite ice tea is still Rosenberger's. Store and national brands like Lipton just don't hold the same appeal to me. And as I mentioned a minute ago, I like being able to mix my own blends and Arnold Palmers to get them "just right" for me.

Still, the Trader Joe's Arnold Palmer is one of the best store brand pre-made ones I've tasted. Sandy agrees. She's not all that into ice tea other than the sporadic batches of homebrewed she makes or the occasional carton of Turner's, preferring green teas and the like instead, but said she liked this overall and found it very drinkable for her, giving it a four. My line of thinking is, a four is a pretty good score to settle for on most golf holes (except a par-3, of course, but someone would take a four on a par-5 any time), and by in large there's nothing to be ashamed of for that. Four it is from me as well.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Trader Joe's Dynamo

When I hear the word "Dynamo," I think of the overweight, opera-singing, lightning-slinging baddie from 1987's The Running Man, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Played by some unknown Dutch-American fellow named Erland van Lidth, the character was bold, brash, and unfashionably fat. In fact, soon after the film's release, Mr. van Lidth passed away from heart failure in his New York City flat.

I thought maybe this beverage was inspired by the robustness of Dynamo from the movie. Or maybe, I thought, this beverage was dedicated to the loving memory of poor Erland, implying that if he had drunk more fruit juices fortified with vitamins and calcium and cut back on the greasy street vendor hotdogs, that perhaps he would not have met such an unfortunate, untimely demise.

It certainly didn't occur to me that this beverage might not have anything to do with The Running Man or the fictional Dynamo character. I mean, shoot, even the lights on the guy's costume were kinda orange. You expect me to believe that's just a coincidence?

At any rate, we decided to try it. I was somewhat scared. The beverage looked so very orange, I assumed that carrot juice was a main ingredient. I did check the list, and all of the juices seemed pretty safe. No carrot juice at all. Curious. Also, I noted on the product tag that some store employee named Jen recommended it. I took dear, sweet Jen for her word. Mind you, I have no idea who Jen is or whether, in fact, she is dear and/or sweet.

Then we tasted it. First impressions? The biohazard-orange color and the blatant Schwarzenegger action film allusions were way misleading. The first word out of Sonia's mouth was "Weird." We had both brushed our teeth just 45 minutes prior to trying this drink, so initially we blamed the lack of flavor on that. Later on, we tried it again, but same conclusion. The flavor of this beverage was not unpleasant, but was really, really, surprisingly subtle. Sonia declared, "It tastes like lemon juice with a little bit of sugar." I thought maybe I hadn't shaken the bottle enough. I proceeded to manhandle the juice, now with a sizeable pocket of air trapped inside the container, and agitated the beverage into a frothy foam.

There indeed had been a little extra flavor hiding in the form of sediment on the bottom of the bottle, yet still, I wondered where most of the apple, white grape, pineapple, and orange flavors mentioned on the ingredients list had gone. It was almost as if all those flavors canceled each other out.

I can see how this would be a very refreshing beverage after a run on a hot day. It is light, despite its robust name and color. And I'm sure the extensive list of vitamins and minerals would help an athlete regain his or her strength after a workout. Unfortunately, when we tried it, it was raining outside, so it was cool, and we were not in desperate need of deep refreshment.

Sonia's final assessment: "There's not enough flavor. I can't taste anything." But she agreed that it wasn't really gross, just kind of bland. She gives it 2.5 stars out of 5.

If I had been expecting something really light, I think I would have been fairly impressed. I think TJ's Dynamo would be extrememely satisfying after a half hour of jogging in the hot sun. I want to be careful to score it for what it is, and not for what I thought it was going to be. I give it a 3.5 out of 5.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Trader Joe's Pear Sauce

I've never had pear sauce before. I don't think I've ever even seen pear sauce before. Here's another chance for TJ's to set the bar for a previously non-existent commodity. And, if Trader Joe's Pear Sauce is successful, why stop there? Why not take a crack at peach sauce, banana sauce, papaya sauce, or blueberry sauce? I'm getting excited just thinking about the potential of the fruit sauce industry in coming years...

I found myself anticipating the taste of this product more than that of other TJ's products. Let's set up a logical analogy, shall we? The taste of an apple is to apple sauce as that of a pear is to pear sauce, or

apple : apple sauce :: pear : pear sauce.

Or so I thought.

As has been previously established by an older blog entry, I am indeed a pear fanatic. So I know the familiar flavors of Bartlett's, Anjou's, and Bosc's quite well. I thought I knew exactly what the sauce would taste like, however, I should have known that our good friend Trader Joe would have a trick or two up his sleeve as usual.

I certainly can't say the pear sauce didn't taste like pears, because it did. But, there was a thick, honey-like sweetness and consistency to it. Almost maple-syrupy. Now, I'm well aware that the pear is one of the sweetest fruits and that its juice is used to sweeten other 100% fruit beverages quite often, but I wasn't expecting such a blast of dessert-ish confection. It was actually a rather pleasant surprise, and the only thing I can think of to explain it is the presence of both pureed pears and pear juice concentrate. The texture of pears is barely detectable in the sauce, but it is there.

And another surprise was an unexpected, nearly-citrusy tang. As my wife put it, "This tastes a little tarty." I, of course, poked fun at her peculiar choice of words and asked her if she did, in fact, mean to imply that the sauce was late (tardy). Frustrated, she informed me that she meant to use the word "tarty, T-A-R-T-Y." Knowing full well she meant to use the word "tart," I looked up "tarty" in the dictionary and discovered that, according to Merriam-Webster, it means "resembling or suggestive of a prostitute, as in clothing or manner." Now that's some naughty pear sauce.

Along slightly more constructive lines, I also decided to look at the ingredients list on the pear sauce packaging to figure out where the aforementioned "tartiness" might have originated from. Lo and behold, they snuck some lemon juice and lime juice into the pear sauce to give it some tang. But no complaints from me. What could have been an overly sweet cup-o-natural-sugar type dessert was turned into an interesting combo of complex flavors and a good balance of complementary fruit juices.

Sonia isn't as big a fan of the pear as I am, and she gave this one a 4 out of 5. I've gotta say, although it wasn't quite what I expected, it was a pleasant surprise overall. I give it a 4.5, which happens to be the same score I gave to Trader Joe's Organic Apple Sauce with Cinnamon. Do I prefer the pear sauce over traditional apple sauce? Well, that's hard to say, but for right now at least, just because of the novelty factor, I would have to say yes.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Trader Joe's Multigrain Pilaf

pi·laf
noun
\pi-ˈläf, -ˈlȯf; ˈpē-ˌ\\pi-ˈlō, -ˈlȯ, ˈpē-(ˌ); Southern often ˈpər-(ˌ)lü, -(ˌ)lō\
Definition of PILAF
: a dish made of seasoned rice and often meat
- http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pilaf

: usually the most disappointing and forgettable part of a meal.
- Me

Yeah, I really don't get it either. I'm a guy who should like pilaf. I'm on record as a guy who enjoys rice and random seasonings and mixing it all up, so, really, what gives? I think I've never really had a good one, I guess. Granted, my experiences are pretty much limited to high school cafeteria, college dining commons, and the wedding banquet variety of anything that marketed itself as being pilaf, so I don't consider myself a subject matter expert on it. That, and any good rice/seasonings/other stuff memories are mostly filed under "fried rice" or "stir fry" so I guess I've assumed pilaf to be some lonely, bland, neglected outpost of the food spectrum, welcome to come and play only when a fancy-sounding cheap starch is needed and potatoes au gratin's busy.

Anyways, Sandy and I are continuing to try and move more away from prepackaged foods, but sometimes we know we just won't have the time to make a proper home cooked meal. I guess that's why we picked up TJ's Multigrain Pilaf. Sounds healthy (it has that buzzword "Multigrain" after all) and quick 'n easy (two minutes in the microwave!) so, well, why not?

Sandy nuked it up as I quickly grilled up some sausages the other night. Let's just say when it was done, it didn't make the best impression. You see, you open a small corner of the packet, nuke it, then open it the rest of the way and kinda dump it on your plate. First, the smell. It's a dead ringer for Spaghetti-O's. I kid you not. I had my back turned when Sandy was getting it on our plates, and I could have sworn she warmed up a bag of Chef Boyardee instead. Then, when it's on your plate, visually, it looks like...well, this is a family friendly webpage, so I won't say what I first thought. But use a little imagination. No further details. Sandy took some time to try and fluff it up with a fork to make it look, well, let's just say more appetizing.

Tastewise, at first, it's kinda bland, but then the heat sneaks up after a couple bites. Nah, it's not hot, but it's actually semi-discernibly spicy. There's a couple of the usual suspects around like turmeric, pepper and garlic, and overall tastes alright enough. Still, it wasn't the flavor but more the texture I noticed. Instead of rice, it's made of cracked wheat, soy beans and millet. The soy beans are decent sized and fleshy, which kinda weirdly jives with the smallish ball-like quinoa-esque bite from the other components. It's actually kinda fun to eat when focusing on the texture. Sandy, who can be texturally squeamish at times, agreed. Still, overall, it wasn't a terribly intriguing product, and left to my own devices, I probably could have made something I would've enjoyed more.

I guess I could say this is the best premade pilaf I've had yet, but then again, for me, that's kind of like remembering my favorite Pittsburgh Pirates losing season* or figuring out my favorite Rush song (I'm sorry, I know they have rabid fans, I just can't stand any of their songs. So sue me). It's not bad, but again, between the tasty grilled sausages and my wife's homemade strawberry rhubarb pie, it again was relegated to the realm of the meal's weakest link. Poor pilaf, maybe sometime you'll have your day in the sun. Not today. Sandy gave it a three based mostly on presentational concerns. I think a three is more than fair for it as well.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
---------------------------------------------------------

* There's so many to choose from, but any that prominently feature Tike Redman warrant serious, serious consideration. That play is the best he ever made. And notice he's in an Orioles uniform. One game I was at, he was brought in as a defensive replacement, only to drop two fly balls in a row. Ouch.

Trader Joe's Spicy Italian Chicken Sausage

Want to know one of my hands-down favorite things about summer? Grilling. I am of the opinion that anything and everything tastes better grilled. That's not to say I'm an expert or anything. My dad has taught me some tips and tricks over the years, most notably "Make sure you singe off your knuckle hairs every single time" but in my mind he remains the undisputed champ at it. I do alright at it. I'm pretty pleased that I can make corn-on-the cob and not completely wither a piece of boneless chicken to dry nothingness on a grilltop, but that's about where my talents end. Still, there's nothing that beats hanging out on my back deck, cold beer in hand, cool breeze coming in off the Allegheny (a short tee shot away down the hill), and a fired up grill that's about to be covered with meat and other grilled goodies, whether it's for just me and the wifey or for a bunch of buddies. I'd grill everything every day if I could.

Well, naturally, some days have more time than others. Monday was one of those nights that, between picking up the wife at work, getting her home and then having dinner together before she headed out babysitting for the evening, a quick dinner was in order. Well, that certainly doesn't mean you can't grill. I realize it's not the same art or time commitment as, say, making a rack of fall-off-the-bone ribs (not sure I could pull that off anyways [not that I would eat them-Sandy]) , but I relish every opportunity to get the CharBroil all smokey, so some TJ's Spicy Italian Chicken Sausages seemed like a good idea for a quick bite.

Hot sausage has to be one of the best meats ever invented. Has to be. It's right up there with bacon, buffalo chicken, *good* meatloaf, and medium-rare steak in the meat pantheon, Mt. Meatmore if you will. Love it, and like any good meat, a little variation with it is always welcome.

The Spicy Italian Chicken Sausages certainly fit the bill. Even though I enjoy pork and beef links quite a bit, the chicken for these made for a good stray-from-the-norm taste that's undoubtedly healthier. They're leaner, lighter, and less greasy but still pack plenty of tenderness, taste, and even a little good gristle in them. One aspect to that is they seemed to burn a little quicker than regular sausages, so keep an eye on them. And unlike other TJ products that claim to be spicy, these actually are. There's no spice-o-meter on them but instead depict a couple chile peppers on fire. I'd say compared to other stuff with the spice-o-meter, it's an accurate depiction, and thankfully, no hint of vinegar that plagues so many other purportedly spicy TJ products. It's just good, straightforward, chile heat. It's so welcome. It probably won't set your mouth on fire, but you'll notice it, no doubt.

About the only thing the two of us didn't like was the pork casing surrounding these guys. Maybe it was because of the overall tenderness and juiciness of the chicken inside, but it seemed, in comparison, kinda fake and rubbery. Sometimes, when the grill is buried under two feet of snow in February out here, we've been known to broil up some sausages in the oven. That's a method that seems to blacken and burn up the outsides all the way around a link, and with this casing, I'd imagine they'd turn revolting if made that way. Definitely I recommend these for grilling only.

Anyways, we both liked them and are happy we kept to the serving of one each so we can have another grill go around with them soon. Sandy went ahead and gave them a four, with the biggest demerit based on the casing. I'll go ahead and agree with her. I know I'd like them slightly better if I had some cheddar to wrap a slice around inside a good bun. Yeah, okay, that's not TJ's fault, but it was the only thing missing for me to give them a full pass. Oh yeah, and the casing. Next time...

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Trader Giotto's Fresh Basil Pesto Flatbread Pizza

Some days, like this past Sunday, my wife really puzzles me. For example, my trusty blue pair of Keens which I've worn pretty much literally everywhere for the past four years finally began showing their age a little and the two main parts sole began to peel apart ever so slightly a couple weeks ago. No problem, I say, and very understandable. I mention this to Sandy and she implores me to take them to a shoe repair shop. In my mind, I'm thinking, "Why? Just so they can dump some glue in there? I can do that myself." Out on an errand to Wal-Mart on Sunday, I decided to pick up a small jar of rubber cement to do the job. When I get home (Sandy didn't go along), she sees the jar in my hand and comments to our pooch how "lame" I am. "Lame? Why's that?" I say. "This oughtta fix it." Sandy then goes on to tell me of the one time she tried to fix a shoe with rubber cement, it didn't work, so she took it somewhere, and they said they couldn't fix it because she used rubber cement. This is the kind of knowledge that is useful before plotting a course of action, so I'm left wondering why she never mentioned that tale earlier. Naturally, being as stubborn as I am, I'm trying it out anyways, results TBD.

That's still not the most curious thing Sandy did on Sunday. On a pre-lunchtime run to Trader Joe's, she spied this incredible looking Fresh Basil Pesto Flatbread Pizza in the refrigerated section and put it in the cart. That's not all that interesting until you recall her food rules and take a not-so-close look at the product: there are diced tomatoes a-plenty right out on top in plain view. "It looks so good," she says. "Let's have it for lunch." Well, okay, I say. I can tell by looking there's a good chance I'll reasonably enjoy it. Basil pesto is good, on a pizza is better, so it sounds like a certain win to me. But her? And all the tomatoes sliced and diced up and mounded on top? She sounded confident enough she'd like when she picked up, so I didn't want to question her, but still, this went against most everything I've known about her and food.

Let me tell you: This is a great pizza, and as a very experienced pizza enjoyer/connoisseur, that's a compliment to not take lightly. As it baked in our oven, the aroma of pesto and cheese filled our house, making me even hungrier. Once I sliced it up and took a bite, I knew it was worth the wait. The ciabatta crust is ridiculously tasty - though flat, it's thick enough to be crispy on the outside while chewy in the middle, while the corners get all crackery when browned up. As for the basil pesto, it's superb and very fresh tasting, and made me eager for the day when we have enough from our garden to make a batch. The romano and parmesan cheese on top is also amazing - it's so light and mild and fresh tasting that I could have sworn it was young mozzarella which, as someone who's sampled virginal mozzarella balls from Penn Mac (in Pittsburgh's Strip District), is high praise. It was better than any cheese I've ever had on a frozen pizza, and tastier than pretty much any bagged shredded cheese I can think of. Every bite was met with an mmm from both of us and was delicious from start to finish.

But what about the tomatoes? We both actually liked them, for different reasons. I was enamored with them because, again, they were fresh tasting, very ripe and sweet, and added great flavor. Sandy was in favor of them because, and I quote, "They're right out on top and easy for me to pick right off, not like all embedded in the cheese and stuff." Hey, more tomatoey goodness for me, and potential crisis averted, so all good.

All together it made one really good lunch, I'd say nearly as good as what one can hope for when making from scratch with homegrown veggies and herbs involved. It definitely looks, tastes, and smells homemade all the way around, and was so good we were not tempted in any way to add any pepper flakes or other seasoning like we do with so many other pizzas.

At $4.99, I'd say it's maybe slightly overpriced, but then again, that's about the price for a mediocre freezer pizza, which this is way way better than. Our own respective halves carried us each other til dinner time without too much struggle. As a recommendation, when baking place a cookie sheet on the rack below the rack with the pizza on it to catch any pesto or cheese melting and drooping off (it's a pie you're supposed to put right on the rack itself). Aside from homemade (which my brother and sister-in-law are the experts at), this probably is the best pizza I've had in recent memory, and though it certainly made me scratch my head at my wife once more, I'm really glad she spotted it and decided the tomatoes weren't enough deterrent for her. Sandy gives it a four. I'll go with four and half.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Trader Joe's Fat Free Spicy Black Bean Dip

Before I ever met Sandy, I seriously doubt I ever ate a single black bean in my life. There's not a single childhood dinner I can recall with them included - the only beans I can remember were green, Boston baked, or red kidney when my dad and I made chili. And I think my mom very occasionally made lima beans when my siblings and I were being jerks and deserved to eat something nasty. But black beans? Except black jelly beans (my absolute favorite - there was a candy stand my folks took us to every Easter Saturday that sold a bag of only black ones - I was in heaven), nope. I'm willing to bet my surviving baseball card collection on it. It might be worth a whole $20...thanks early '90s market glut!

But once Sandy and I started spending some QT together, one of the first things I learned was, girl loves her black beans. Loves. That might not be strong enough of a word. Any way she can eat them, she will and be on Cloud 9. Black bean burgers, omelets, quesadillas with corn too, beans and rice with chorizo, bean chips, pizza, brownies...the only thing she won't touch with black beans is my homemade chili. She has no idea what she's missing. I've quickly learned to really enjoy them, too and I'd say they're now considered a definite staple of our diet, and I don't mind that one bit. They're good, wholesome, tasty, and satisfying. Both Sandy and I like hot and spicy fare as well (I can stand hotter and spicier, but she has a pretty boffo palate, especially for a girl), so hot and spicy, black bean based dishes are almost always a hit for us.

Which is exactly why TJ's Fat Free Spicy Black Bean Dip is so incredibly disappointing. If TJ's dips and salsas were Jennifer Lopez, this would be her "Gigli." If it were Sean Connery, this would be George Lazenby. If it were a basketball team, it would definitely be this year's Miami Heat...sans the heat, that is. And what talents Lebron James may or may not have brought.

Hate to do it, but I have to call out the pepper spice-o-meter on the label on this one. It's about 2/3 full, so I was expecting it to be at least somewhat spicy. Well, the dip is 2/3 full...of vinegar. Once again, Trader Joe's, VINEGAR ≠ SPICE. No no no no no no no. I took a bite tonight and immediately made the bitter beer face the instant this assaulted my taste buds. Ugh. It was if someone condensed all the flavor from a bag of salt and vinegar chips, ground it down and dumped it into the one corner I lifted with my tortilla chip. Each successive bite wasn't much better except I was able to brace myself better and not stomp as much. Maybe that's your kind of thing. For me, heck no. To be honest, by now, I so distrust that pepper pictogram and believe it is so full of lies and deceit I expect it to run for office any day now, or at least call me about a credit card offer.

That's all you taste, the vinegar. Nothing else. TJ's might as well have marketed this under dark vinegar hummus-y matter. Sandy, who likes it marginally more than I do, wholeheartedly agrees. "I wish it actually tasted like black beans or was actually spicy," she said. I concur. I look at the ingredients label and wonder where all the other stuff is - Onions? Jalapeños? Bueller? - it's indiscernible in this horrid mix of blahness. I took several tastes of it trying to figure out if there was any other aspect to the flavor but there's absolutely none. It's just nasty, not the nastiest thing I've ever had from Trader Joe's, but not too far off either.

Like I said, though, the love of my life also loves her black beans madly, and like she has to do with me from time to time, I think she affords the black bean dip a certain level of grace. She gave it a two despite her misgivings...then again, she loves salt and vinegar chips, too, but this is a low, low grade for her with anything involving black beans as a primary ingredient. I have to go lower. I originally thought one, to give it some of the doubt, but seriously considered a zero too. I think something has to be truly epically bad to be given a zero, though, and this falls just short of that criterion. Half a star from me. Hate to be harsh, but have to call it as I see it.

Bottom line: 2.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Trader Joe's New Orleans Style Coffee with Chicory

So, not to bore you too much with the details of my day job, but I work in a cubicle farm for a rather large pharmacy where I work to fix what I like to delicately call insurance "fusterclucks" for folks who need their medication. It's actually kind of a cool position where I get to help out some folks who really need it. This is a fairly recent promotion for me (within the past couple months, anyways) and aside from that, one of the things I really truly enjoy about it is, I have my own cubicle there every single day. In my previous position, depending on what my job function was, I could sit in any number of different desks, which necessitated not having too much stuff to move around. It stunk. I don't think I'm all that territorial, but I definitely like having my own sense of space and having, finally, some of my own stuff to bling out my work space. As a promotion gift to myself, I settled on buying myself a French press to make my own coffee every day, because probably like yours, my workplace coffee is tepid, bland, brownish water brewed with monotony and flavored with, well, nothing. I survived on a couple cups of that every day for over a year, and since I had finally hit the big leagues (*coughcough*), it was time to finally get myself some coffee worthy of my newly attained status.

There's not too many sections at Trader Joe's that give me much pause, but the coffee section is one that always does. Compared to all the other products except maybe the salsa, there's just such a wide variety of selections that it's tough to pick which bundle of brewin' beans to bring on home. I don't claim to be any sort of coffee snob, but I know what good coffee tastes like, and I like something with some character to it. A canister lasts a little while and is usually among the more expensive items in the cart, so I want to make sure I'm making a worthwhile selection.

TJ's New Orleans Style Coffee with Chicory definitely is exactly that. It's a darker roast of Arabica goodness, but not overly burnt tasting like some other more famous chain store brands. The chicory definitely adds an extra element of bittersweet essence that adds some tasty uniqueness that makes one satisfying sip with a little cream and sugar mixed in (take it easy on the sugar, though). Apparently, the tradition of adding chicory to coffee comes from the French who, in poorer times, wanted to stretch out their coffee supply and couldn't think of a better filler. Well, France, aside from the bikini, this just might be the best idea you've ever had. It's one delicious blend that, though I've never been to 'Nawlins, I can imagine sipping a Cafe Au Lait while being washed over by live jazz and grazing on beignets at a night club. Or, if you prefer a bolder flavor with less cream, the smell of the grounds remind me of good smoky pipe tobacco, so imagine an early morning on a dock in the bayou waiting for a nibble on your line. Delicious, delicious stuff.

It must be partially because the images that the city and region conjures up that TJ's claims, right on the side of the can, that they love New Orleans. Heck, I haven't been there, but I think I'd love it there whenever I'd make it. Well, I know love can be defined in many different ways, but...guess where the nearest Trader Joe's to New Orleans is. That's right, you can't pick up a can of TJ's New Orleans Style Coffee in New Orleans. Nor anywhere else in the great state of Louisiana. Maybe a quick trip to Mississippi then? Alabama perhaps? Nope and nope. Try 468-freakin' miles away to Atlanta. Seven hours 26 minutes according to Google maps, but hey, no tolls. That's not any type of love I'm aware of, and as far as I'm concerned, that's not right. 'Nawlins, stand up for your right for a TJ's! While we're at it, for a cool city I've been to, rise up Asheville, NC! And I'm not absolutely certain, but I think my aunt who lives in Austin, TX would appreciate one, too. I mean, if my square-as-a-shoebox suburban sprawl of a hometown of Hatfield, PA can have a TJ's within reasonable driving distance (Mom, it's just on the other side of Montgomeryville, it's not that far), why not these vibrant Southern cities? Trying to instigate another Civil War? With all the good things you offer, Trader Joe, you won't be viewed as a carpetbagger, methinks.

Anyways, I'm glad to have a TJ's two miles from my house, and glad I gave the chicory coffee a try. It's the first can of coffee I've picked up twice there, and I've thoroughly enjoyed each mugfull as it amps me up for a daylong battle against insurance companies trying to screw their customers (note: I almost always win). With my French press full of this delicious brew, I feel like I can take on anything that comes my way. That's worth a four to me. Sandy, who's a little bit more of a coffee snoot (err, I mean, discerning palate) than I am, enjoyed relaxing with a cup tonight as I putzed around making dinner. She usually prefers lighter, milder blends and has said in the past that some of TJ's darker roasts taste like they were stirred with a burnt stick, but said she "wouldn't not not drink it again." When I pointed out that was a triple negative which, in fact, makes that a non-affirmative statement, she quickly corrected herself and said "I'd definitely drink it again" and gave it a three.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, June 13, 2011

Trader Joe's Handcrafted Chicken & Cheese Tamales

Ah, tamales! The favorite dish of traditional Mexican fiestas and celebrations is now available at the local Trader Joe's. In L.A., tamales would show up at Christmas parties, New Year's festivities, weddings, and Bar Mitzvahs. Well, maybe not so much at Bar Mitzvahs, but you get the picture.

I had been under the impression that all tamales had to be freshly made in order to taste good. At all of the gatherings I had eaten them, they were either purchased at a little Mami and Papi's restaurant and taken directly to the party location, or they were handmade on site by family.

Levels of skepticism were through the roof when we spied these Chicken & Cheese Tamales in the frozen section at TJ's. Sonia's had tamales from chain restaurants, sit-down restaurants, and grocery stores, and any hot-blooded Mexicana will tell you that they just don't taste right unless they're fresh and homemade.

We decided to be brave and try Trader Joe's brand. We just reheated the two tamales in the microwave and then unwrapped them from their corn husk shells. After the first bite, I was impressed, but I didn't think there was any way Sonia would be quite as thrilled. On the contrary, she was pleasantly stunned as her tastebuds told her that TJ's had done the nearly impossible once again. Now don't get me wrong, these are by no means better than fresh, homemade tamales, but as Sonia put it, "They're the next best thing."

If you're a first time reader—or someone who just really knows your tamales, you might be thinking "Hmmm...I bet this guys works for Trader Joe's. There's no way an objective reviewer could be so enthusiastic about frozen tamales."

Sometimes I wish Trader Joe's would hire us to do what we do on this site full time...but then, we probably wouldn't have the freedom to rip them apart when they trick us with products like Spiced Cranberry Cider or Turkey Meatloaf Muffins.

No, trust me. We are objective, outside reviewers giving our honest opinions and trying to help out our fellow TJ's shoppers. And really, this is just another reason we love doing this website: Trader Joe's is always surprising us with unique, high-quality food products at a good price. Imagine that...frozen tamales worth eating. Sonia gives them a solid 4 out of 5 stars. I do too.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Trader Joe's Tuna Salad Wrap

I'm crazy about tuna.

Probably because of the high levels of mercury in it.

OK, well I just read some report that said only 5% of tested tuna cans have unsafe levels of mercury in them. Phew. That's a relief. Only 5%. But wait, that's 1 in 20. So, if over the span of your long life, you've had more than 20 cans of tuna...which I think is the case for many of us...certainly is for me...well, you do the math...the odds aren't really in your favor.

Anyway, I do like tuna, mercury-laden or not. And once you get past the mercury risk, there's the whole "dolphin safe" issue. Come to think of it, I didn't really do my homework and make sure TJ's was dolphin-safe. Of course, there are some groups that still claim there aren't any truly dolphin-safe companies in the U.S. and that the whole Department of Commerce Dolphin Safe logo is just a big conspiracy. But then, I'm sure there are some conspiracy theorists who would claim that the government is deliberately trying to kill off the dolphins in order to wipe them out for fear that in several million years they will evolve opposable thumbs, rise up and destroy humanity in revenge for all of their ancestors that died meaningless deaths upon our carelessly-cast tuna nets. That's actually not that far-fetched, really...bah, must be the mercury talking again...

Ahem, moving along...we shall now discuss the semi-deliciousness of the aforementioned Trader Joe's Tuna Salad Wrap. It's moist and tasty. The tuna salad is a good mix of mayo and vegetable bits and seasonings. Sonia actually much preferred this wrap over the Chicken Caesar Wrap we reviewed a week or two ago, but as she pointed out, the tuna wrap still could use a little more kick in the flavor department. I could see how maybe dropping a few banana peppers in the wrap would help it a bit, just like they do with my tuna sandwich at Subway...mmm, now I'm craving Subway.

I guess that if, whilst reviewing a particular food product, one begins craving a completely different company's product, that the former product has not been very memorable or totally satisfactory. I guess I do prefer Subway's tuna sandwich—or even the TJ's Chicken Caesar Wrap, but only by a little. All things considered, the tuna wrap is a nice, fresh snack, but don't expect anything life-changing. This is a "not bad" food all the way. 3.5 out of 5 stars from me. Sonia agrees.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Trader Joe's Shrimp Stir Fry

So there's been much ado in the news over the past week or so about the old food pyramid being scrapped in favor of the new plate-shaped graphic to try and help us nutritionally illiterate Americans decide what's healthy and not to eat. One of the critiques which I actually heard of the old pyramid was, since fats and sugars and junk food were depicted as being the top of the structure, they were being portrayed as the crown jewels of the American diet, so the pyramid had an unintended effect of inadvertently encouraging unhealthy eating. As if, generally speaking, society needed that. I mean, just do a Google image search of the burger chain Hardee's, or think of the last fast food meal you grabbed. One of my neighbor's husband found what really should have been the new plate diagram, but unfortunately I couldn't find it to link to it. Instead of "fruit" and "grain" and so on on the diagram, it simply said "Don't eat processed crap." There's a lot to that simple statement, but in summary it's not coincidence that obesity and related health condition rates have skyrocketed in the past few decades with the growing popularity and easy availability of prepacked meals and products made from all sorts of cheap nefarious production methods.

It's one of the big reasons that Sandy and I have decided to go on a little experiment with our meals the next couple of weeks. We're going to try to avoid more processed products and make dinners from scratch, and try to stick to healthier sized portions and make healthier choices. We're certainly not experts on the matter but trying to give it the old college heave-ho. A couple nights, though, we're busy enough with stuff that we realize we won't necessarily have the time or energy to cook a full meal, so when making something from a box or bag, we're going to try and make healthier decisions.

Because of this approach we're toeing, I picked up TJ's Shrimp Stir Fry on my last trek to the local shop. Sandy was off babysitting, so I felt a little pressure as I was embarking on this new mission of healthy eating while flying solo. I stuck mostly to the list she scribbled down for me, but for a premade dinner, she just wrote down, "premade dinner." No guidance, and I was going to have to wing it. Lo and behold, a bag of frozen shrimp and vegetables that takes less than 10 minutes to make on a stovetop. Shrimp and vegetables = healthy, low fat, low calories. Check. Quick and easy = check. And since there's nothing but raw frozen shrimp and a variety of veggies, from what I can tell there's a comparative small amount of processing involved - maybe some preservatives, but nothing like any high fructose corn syrup randomly injected in. Oh wait, not even any preservatives, and there's a "gourmet pepper seasoning" packet tossed in too. It definitely seemed to match all the right criteria, so it made for a logical pick-up.

Sandy and I just had it tonight (somewhat ironically, after making an after work trek to the local food co-op and farmer's market for some goodies for other meals), and well, let's say I was higher on it before munching through it than afterwards. I'll start with the positives. The shrimp itself was good - pretty good in fact. It wasn't salty or mushy like what I've had with other frozen brands. Indeed, it was firm and fresh enough tasting, and TJ's tossed in something like 15 of them, so they weren't skimpy on it, either. And it was a pretty good selection of mixed veggies in the bag, too - red peppers, sugar snap peas, broccoli, water chestnuts. Along with some rice I made on the side, Sandy and I had plenty enough for dinner, and enough left over for me to take some rice and veggies to work for lunch. Despite all that, and despite its overall healthiness, it just lacked something, like a good light sauce or seasoning to tie it all together. That gourmet pepper packet? It consists mainly of black pepper and garlic powder, and for whatever reason I was hoping for something more Iron Chef than "first two things I saw on the spice rack" inspired, and there wasn't enough to have it permeate the dish anyways. I don't know if some soy sauce would be the proper response to this. Sandy ended up sprinkling on some crushed red pepper flakes, but for the integrity of this review I trudged through without any further dressing up. I appreciated the fact that a lot of the natural flavor of the shrimp and veggies came through, but I just couldn't shake the notion that something was missing, and neither could Sandy. Also, I know that just by putting in slightly more effort than opening a bag to dump into a skillet, I could have easily made something just as good if not even better, and certainly more tailored to our taste buds.

I think I know why Trader Joe's decided to keep his name on it and not Trader Ming or Trader Joe-San. Ming has brought us too many good things that it'd be a shame for this to sully his reputation, while that Joe-San character has more of a legacy of disappointment which is best not to perpetuate. Big Joe himself has enough of a solid rep that this won't sway it too much one way or the other. For a quick, easy, healthy bag meal, I guess it's not too bad, but it could be better. A lot better, actually. As it comes, it's just too bland for us, but with minor adjustments, I'm sure it could be a tastier dish. Really, just a light sauce or more seasoning, and it could be a bigger winner...But not today. Both Sandy and I give it a 3 and a shrug.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Trader Joe's Teeny Tiny Potatoes

If you're one of the longer-tenured loyal readers of this blog, you may have noticed that we don't exactly feature a lot of produce reviews. It's not because we're anti-vegetable or anything (well, at least not since college), but for me at least, there's a couple pretty basic reasons. First, as much as I hate to say it, the one section at Trader Joe's that has disappointed me on the most consistent basis is the "fresh" fruits and vegetables. I have picked up more than my share of half-rotten clementines and veggies that turn to mush if you don't eat them the same day at TJ's. I'm not alone in this - one recent article listing what NOT to get at TJ's ranked produce the number one thing to avoid at TJ's (even ahead of the sushi) and I agree with every reason, though not every product, listed there. Another thing is, I've had enough satisfactory experiences with a bag of apples or an ear or two of corn from there, but they're kinda tough to review. I mean, I can write a break-up letter to a box of peanut brittle or imagine a heavyweight battle between competing soy sausage brands, but how do you review something like a green pepper in any depth? It's so much easier to write about a bottle of carrot juice than a bag of baby carrots.

Interestingly to me at least, potatoes aren't considered either fruits or vegetables, but instead some sort of plant classification called a "tuber." That kinda sounds like a vague seventh grade insult, to call something a tuber. It all has to do with some hoity-toity botanical hairsplitting which really, I don't get. All I know is, potatoes count as produce, and in general they sure are tasty, and that's good enough for me to consider this our first produce review on this blog.

If you like potatoes, you'll like these. If you don't, well, you probably wouldn't buy them anyways. TJ's Teeny Tiny Potatoes are just that - a one pound mesh bag of dozens of little potato runts. Nothing wrong with them, they're just small. I tried to see if these are a mini potato breed or just dug up at a real young age, but couldn't seem to find any definitive answers, and with over 5,000 types of potatoes in the world, I didn't want to sort through each type. It seems a little less tragic to think of them as just a small potato as opposed to being harvested and eaten before it had a chance to live and thrive as a full-blown Russet, so I'm going with that, a sub-race of rooted goodness if you will.

One of our favorite ways to cook them up is in a foil pack with some butter, herbs and spices right on the grill. There's two major advantages that the Teeny Tiny Potatoes have here over their much larger cousins. First, you don't have to chop them all up - just pocket them in and let them sizzle for a while. Each is small enough to be able to soak in the butter that with enough fire time, each get cooked through easily. And for me, one of the parts of the potatoes that I like the best is the outer skin, and with these, each bite is surrounded by tasty potato epidermis. Mmmm. Granted, with all the skin intact, these potato munchkins tend to inwardly insulate pretty darn well, so as a word of caution that I grant from much experience, give these a few minutes to cool down before you sink your chompers into them. Your tongue will thank you. I've also used these for simple tasty homefries by quickly chopping them in half. Short of doing anything too ridiculous like trying to slice them into mini fries or wrapping each in foil for uber small baked potatoes to top with itsy bitsy bacon slices, I'd imagine that pretty much any way you like a potato, these would work well as substitute for a regular sized spud. It's tough to exactly tell, but they seem to be more of a golden variety, which is more than alright by us.

Both Sandy and I enjoy them quite a bit. In fact, with me recently working on (and nearly completing) a small raised vegetable bed for our front yard, we're hopeful that a few of the remaining ones will spawn the next generation of dwarflings if we toss them in the dirt and let nature go at it. And I can say with absolute certainty that this is the one TJ's produce product that has never let me down, whether in overall quality or shelf life. Other than that, we just like us some potatoes. "Mmm carbs! I love carbs!" as Sandy eloquently exclaimed when I asked for her opinion. She gave them a five, and I figure that includes some extra credit for these being so cute and adorable. For me, I like them just fine, and don't have too many of the same qualms as I have with other miniature foods, but in the end I don't know how much credit I can give Trader Joe's for not screwing up a small sack of spuds ... eh, 3.5? Sure, why not?

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, June 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Chocolate Chip Chewy Coated Granola Bars

The good people at Trader Joe's have really shot themselves in their collective foot. They've established such high expectations from their customers that it's virtually impossible to please all the time...even with a decent product. I think many people who have been shopping at TJ's for a while have come to expect their products to be innovative, high-quality, unique, healthy, and green.

Those are some high standards to live up to. And, more often than not, they meet or exceed those standards, in my opinion. However, in some cases like this one, Trader Joe's seems to do what everyone else is doing, and even though their product is just as good as the competition, it feels like they didn't go all out...they didn't put their whole heart into it. And we know Trader Joe's can do better.

There are some unique TJ's products like the recently reviewed Scallop Bites or the classic Meatless Corn Dogs that simply aren't comparable to many products from other brands. Trader Joe's gets to set the bar in those cases, and they generally set it very high. Then, there are products like the Peanut Brittle, where TJ's takes a classic, common food, and they simply knock it out of the ballpark...they make it the way it was supposed to be, and they go above and beyond what's expected.

So when Trader Joe's makes a run-of-the-mill, average granola bar, it's a little disappointing. At any regular grocery store or Wal-Mart or Target, there's going to be a store-brand version of your basic chocolate chip granola bar. Those store brands are always going to come close to the name brands, but maybe fall a hair short on taste, texture, and/or overall quality. That's exactly what TJ's has done here. They're not bad, but they're not great either.

Sonia liked that these bars were gluten-free, and that they were rice and oat-based. She liked their texture, but she wasn't thrilled with the chocolate part, stating that its flavor was "weird and carob-ish." I agree. I thought maybe the chocolate was just darker than I'm used to, but Sonia really likes dark chocolate and she wasn't really a fan. I think a non-coated version of these bars would have been more successful.

They're certainly convenient like other brands, they come individually-wrapped, and they're very portable. They're crispy enough and they have plenty of chips. It's just that when it comes down to it, I'd still choose a Quaker Chewy Granola Bar over the Trader Joe's brand. TJ's version just tastes like a regular store brand snack. So-so.

Sonia gives it a 3, and I give it a 2.5. Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Trader Joe's Parmesan Pastry Pups

Cute li'l pups. Happily, they're made with beef, not puppy meat. I've met a few people in my day who've been like, "Who cares? I'd eat dog meat. It's just another animal!"

Mmm, yeah, OK, but no. First of all, I've heard that dog meat is really disgusting, and secondly, I believe that God in His infinite wisdom put each species of animal on this earth for a specific purpose. Dogs are so clearly meant to be man's best friend. Chickens, cows, or horses, though useful, will never catch your frisbee and bring it back to you. And, they lack the individual personality that dogs seem to possess. Horses are for transportation, racing, and riding, chickens make yummy eggs, and cows give great milk...and beef cattle, of course, yield delicious beef products such as these all beef pastry pup franks.

So let's take a look at this product in terms of its three constituent parts: the parmesan, the pastry, and the pup. First up, parmesan. What parmesan? Neither Sonia nor I detected much parmesan. There was some slight tang to the food, but it didn't strike me as being particularly parmesan-y. Not a bad flavor, just not so much like the parmesan cheese I'm used to.

Next, the pastry portion: good stuff here. It was flakey, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. It's just what I'd want in an oven-baked pastry puff bread-blanket. Not excessively greasy, and not too dry, either.

Finally, the pup: I liked it. Good, old-fashioned red meat mini hot dogs. They come out of the oven piping hot in 25 minutes, and they're flavorful beef, not pork. Pork supposedly has higher levels of bacteria, and for that reason, it is said to be worse than beef, health-wise. I'm rarely in the mood for hot dogs these days, but when I am, this is what I want them to taste like. Hot diggity dog.

Sonia was a pretty big fan too, and she eats even less red meat than I do. Though not as exotic as some of the offerings at TJ's, these pups make great hors d'oeuvres, and they're kind of a classic snack-food. If you're not so adventurous with your eating, these little guys are a pretty safe bet, even for kids. Other than a lack of parmesan, there are few surprises with TJ's Parmesan Pastry Pups. They're just a high-end version of pigs in a blanket...or in this case, I guess they'd be "cows in a blanket."

Sonia gives them a 4. I give them a 3.5. Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Trader Joe's Omega Orange Carrot Juice

Here it is, right at the start of another month, and thus another fresh opportunity for the Pittsburgh home office of the WG@TJ's team to reassess our overall healthiness patterns and nutritional choices. Okay, it's probably not an every month kinda deal, but it's cyclical enough, and Sandy's got it on her mind, which means she's making sure it's on my mind, too. By "sure", I mean "very sure." For the whole month of June, we're going to be tracking everything we eat, estimate all our calories, focus on working out, and trying to start living our way into a more wholesome lifestyle. Or so we say, check back with us in a couple weeks. I suppose it's kind of a natural time to do so, with Sandy resuming her training for her next half-marathon after kicking some tail a couple weeks ago at the Pittsburgh half, and with me embarking on my two day, 135-mile bike ride to benefit the National MS Society* in just a few days. That and we want to be sure we're in tip-top bathing suit shape if we ever make a beach run to the pristine shorelines of Lake Erie. Or something like that.

With that in mind, Sandy and I promptly ran to Trader Joe's to find the healthiest non-swampy-looking juice we could ... Wait, that's not how that goes. Truth is, we bought the Omega Orange Carrot Juice sometime in the undetermined past, had it on the bottom shelf of the pantry for who knows how long until Sandy decided to try it a week or two ago (probably because the other drinking options were beer, milk, and water at our house), stuck it in the fridge, and I finally got my gumption sufficiently upped to give it a try because I was thirsty and the other options were milk and water.

Yeah, I'll admit it, I was a little apprehensive to give it a try. I understand what the typical run-of-the-mill sugary fruity juices are - they're delicious. Veggie juices and those that throw words like "Omega" in their name call to mind that ploppy chunky off-colored stuff produced by the Jack LaLanne Power Juicer. Please tell me how ramming through then drinking a whole cucumber gets anyone ready for a day of aimless posing around the senior center. I don't get it.

Anyways, TJ's has themselves another winner with this juice. It's not just legitimately surprisingly good, it's tasty enough to pass itself off as being unhealthy. The juice is actually a blend of four juices - carrot, orange, apple and pineapple - with the different qualites of each shining through in smooth, smooth fashion. The nose of the flavor hints at the citrusy qualities, while midway through it transitions seamlessly to a less acidic, more base-like flavor (a la apple juice) and finishes with a silky cinnamony flourish which I can only assume is the carrot segment of this tasty potion. If this sounds unusual, it's because it is - I'm never had anything that tastes quite like it. Want proof of how good this tastes? Take a look at what they sneak in - omega fish oils from sardines and anchovies, tilapia gelatin (now that's cringe-inducing). There's not one hint of it. Granted, I don't know if those fishy components are supposed to taste, well, fishy, but this particular juice easily incorporates and covers over them in a concoction so flavorsome it had me fooled, and that's not easy.

It's not just the taste that I appreciate, but also its smoothness. There's a pretty heady amount of sediment in the bottle until you shake it out, but once you do, there's no pulp or clumps or amebic blobs to gag on. It's just smooth, free-flowing, glorious juice. As for its healthiness, well, I assume it's pretty good for you based on what the label says and hearing a thing or two about omega fatty acids here and there, but really, I'm not an expert. Relative to most juices at least, I'll go ahead and say it is. Keep in mind, this is coming from the guy who on the first day of spouse-mandated food intake monitoring thought it'd be an okay idea to get a steak, egg and cheese breakfast wrap from the local convenience store. I specifically custom-ordered it from the touch screen to have them add lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers and jalapeños - that makes it kinda like a salad, right? Right? And the tortilla was whole wheat too ...

Anyways, I've been thoroughly enjoying a small cup of the juice while typing this review. Note to my wife: Sorry, dear, I forgot to pour it into a measuring cup first, but I'm being good and not gulping it down like I could very easily be tempted to, I'll track it, don't worry. Sandy's a fan of it, just not nearly as much as I am. She gave it only a three, saying she liked the cinnamony aspect to the overall flavor. I asked her what could be better, and she blinked once or twice and said "Meh." I'm not exactly sure how to interpret that. Anyways, a three is way too low in my book. I'll go ahead and give 4.5, if for no other reason than to make sure it is listed among one of TJ's "really darn good" items on this blog. Because really darn good is exactly what it is.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* Hey, I made mention of this a while ago but didn't get much if any response but if you're interested in reading more about why I'm doing the ride, and would possibly be interested in supporting me, please check out my personal fundraising webpage. There's a lot of folks out there with MS, and I want to try and do something about it.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Trader Joe's Scallop Bites

In a previous post about TJ's pepper flakes, I mentioned a font on the packaging that greatly reminded me of the script found on the Spanish treasure map featured in "The Goonies." Here it is again, only this time it's even more appropriate: it's seafood. Scallop Bites. Yay. We haven't reviewed many seafood products on this blog as of yet...probably because Sonia is allergic to shellfish, crustaceans, and mollusks. The only swimmy things she can eat are fish. She'd probably be OK with aquatic mammals, too, but we generally steer clear of eating them because they tend to be very intelligent...and cute. Don't get Sonia started on these sea otters. She couldn't stop talking about how disgustingly cuddly they were for about 2 weeks after I showed her that clip on YouTube. At any rate, I'm thankful that those otters left some scallops for me, so that I was able enjoy these tasty TJ's Scallop Bites.

Scallops, in general, aren't easy to come by. You'll meet plenty of people that have never even tried them. Someone like that might not know what a good scallop should taste like, so let's briefly review my credentials, shall we? I do have some amateur scallop-eating experience, mostly fried ones from our local Bonanza restaurant as a kid. I also had some killer pan-seared scallops from The Warehouse Restaurant in sunny Marina del Rey, California a few years back. Delicious. So let's see how the Trader Joe's product holds up to the competition:

Well, they taste like scallops. They're a bit greasy, but not unbearably so. The jalapeño sauce is very subtle...if you're not into chiles and spices, don't worry, they're not very hot. When they came out of our oven, they were rather flat. The box depicts these perky little crown-like pastries, but ours were more like star-shaped pancakes. Overall, I'd say they were successful. They're certainly snackable, and they make good appetizers, but I did have to dock a point or two because of their greasiness, flatness, and lack of jalapeño-iness. They weren't quite the delicacy that the restaurant scallops I've had were, but in their defense, they cost a fraction of the price, they came frozen, and they only took 30 minutes to prepare. Definitely worth a shot if you're an appetizer-hound or amateur scallop-eater like me.

Anyway, I enjoyed them, and our Memorial Day weekend guests did, too. Since Sonia had to sit this one out, we'll simply double my score for the final total. I give them a 3.5 out of 5 stars. Bottom line: 7 out of 10.