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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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Trader Joe's Blackberry Crush

It's hard to admit it, but I was wrong.

I was wrong about the blackberry. No, not the smartphone (I'm still not a fan of those crash-prone glitch-machines).

In a previous post about blackberry preserves, I not only demonstrated a decided lack of knowledge in the jams/jellies/preserves/fruit spread department, but I think I may have maligned the often misunderstood, dark, raspberry-like fruit known as the blackberry.

To the blackberries of the world, I apologize profusely. I mentioned in that previous post that I had overestimated you, but it seems, quite to the contrary, that you are more than I could ever hope for in a berry.

You see, the blackberry is apparently a really good team-player. In this beverage, we see a dynamic fruit trio: apple, white grape, and blackberry. Move over, pineapple/orange/banana. The apple and white grape juices give the beverage a nice, smooth sweetness. Then the blackberry puree adds an incredible, rich, full, tart flavor. This is what I wanted those blackberry preserves to taste like. I don't recommend putting this stuff on toast, however, I totally thought about it. It is a little bit thicker than the average juice, but not to the point that it loses any refreshing gulpability. It's very good. There's an almost earthy quality to it, but it's still sweet.

I really don't have any complaints. There were little particles of blackberry in the drink, but you'll get that with any real fruit puree. It makes it feel authentic. Reminds you that you're drinking real fruit and not some over-processed fake stuff.

This one is definitely getting a slot on our regularly-purchased Trader Joe's beverage roster. Sonia liked it too. She gives it a 4.5. So do I. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Trader Joe's Corn and Chile Tomato-Less Salsa

One of the best parts of writing for this blog is using it as an occasional forum to poke some light fun at my wife. Food is a pretty easy and tame avenue for me to do so. A few years ago as we were beginning our dating relationship, I remember it taking a lot of effort (and trial and error) on my part to try and learn Sandy's "food rules." Chili? No. Red meat? Except for a burger here and there, nope. Some vegetables are okay, others aren't. We kind of turned it into an ongoing joke where I said I'd need to keep a spreadsheet of what was and wasn't okay, and when. For example, squishy cooked vegetables are flat-out never acceptable. Onions are okay only sometimes, such as onion flavor, but Sandy doesn't like big chunks of them, except for onion rings. I really wanted to learn these rules so I could impress her and make sure when we were going somewhere there would be food choices she would like. I took it quite seriously, to the point where one night early on in our relationship when I was making a homemade dinner and dessert for us, I felt compelled to ask her if she liked from-scratch chocolate chip cookies because I didn't know and didn't want to make them if she didn't. As she can attest to, Sandy certainly loves them (who doesn't?) and probably wonders why I don't make them more often (the answer = like we need more cookies).

By now, I've grown so accustomed to them I rarely have to think about them much. It's kind of like natural knowledge at this point. And to her credit, I think she's opened up to more kinds of foods. But there's still one sure-fire food item that she'll refuse to have nearly any part with: tomatoes. Except for maybe a little ketch-up and just enough sauce to make her pasta noodles semi-red, Sandy wants nothing to do with them. Increasingly, salsa is getting some more leeway for her in this department, even though she's still a little wary of the chunkier varieties and prefers salsa verde, which is made from tomatillos, over the more usual salsa types.

I guess that's why Trader Jose's Corn and Chile Tomato-Less Salsa appeals to her so much. There's the huge upfront plus of no tomatoey guts being spilled for its sake. Plus, it's something different than the usual variety, though I'm not so positive about its authenticity as an actual salsa class instead of being a gringoey gimmick. Correct me if I am wrong. The only other time I've seen or heard anything about corn-based salsa is at Qdoba's or Chipotle's, and though I've never tried it there, that stuff has always appeared to me to be more spiced corn than an actual salsa. That's how the TJ's brand strikes me as well, except to say it's spiced is a little bit of an overstatement. It doesn't have the spicy pepper meter that usually overstates heat level on the jar label, and I'd like to think that was on purpose because, to me, it'd barely register a blip. There's a little heat that emanates from the back of your throat after a corner-of-a-chip-ful or three, but that's about it, and it's more than balanced out by the overall sweetness. Like any good American food product, the two chief ingredients in the salsa are corn and sugar, which makes the salsa seemingly syrupy-sweet. There's not nearly enough jalapeños and spices to combat it with any sort of effectiveness. It's kinda like flinging rubberbands at a tank - not gonna work. One good thing the salsa has going for it is, it's decently fresh tasting as the corn kernels taste like they were just stripped from the cob, and certainly not mushy but good and firm, almost crunchy in a way.

Anyways, Sandy loves it. Last night, as I came downstairs after a post-work/pre-dinner shower, I could hear her rustling our bag of soy and flaxseed chips shut followed shortly by the sound of a jar lid being screwed back on. I got to the kitchen just in time to see her one step away from our fridge, half-gone jar of salsa in hand, with a very guilty look on her face. This is an extremely common scenario in our house, except with the roles reversed. Granted, we poked at it some the night before, but she did some serious work on it while I was washing away the day at work. "It's just so good, I could eat it by the spoonful," she said. "Apparently," I said as I shook my head and tsk-tsked her. I couldn't be too mad not only because I've been the guilty party in this situation way too often and therefore thought grace would be the wisest route to go, but also because honestly I don't like nearly as much as she does. I'm going to have to go low and give it a 1.5. Sorry, while it's a good premise and has potential, it just doesn't have enough spice to hold my interest, and it's way too sugary-sweet for me to even try to pretend it's a mild, enjoyable salsa for me. While she agreed it needed to be spicier, Sandy was so joyful about finding a salsa she liked without tomatoes, she literally broke out into song as she scaled our stairs to turn herself in for the night with a good book. "It has no tomatoes, it has no tomatoes, that makes me happpppyyyyy, it has no tomatoes," she sang to our beloved little fur baby as he no doubt shot back a quizzical look. Sandy toyed with giving it a perfect five before settling on a 4.5, tripling(!!!) my score. Usually we agree more or less on our rankings, so this type of split is definitely unprecedented and hard to repeat. Sandy's probably happy though, because since I don't like it so much, it means more for her.

Enjoy the rest of the jar, dear. All yours.

Bottom line: 6 out 10 Golden Spoons

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

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Trader Joe's Chicken Caesar Wrap

In the great state of Pennsylvania, there's a big convenience store turf war going on. From the west comes Sheetz. They've pretty well dominated the state in terms of 24-hour gas, food, and coffee operations. The unmistakable glowing red trim of Sheetz stores shines all through the night in a plethora of towns in PA and several surrounding states. Every time Sonia and I visit my parents in central PA, we stop by a Sheetz and order up some custom nachos or a made-to-order sandwich using their novel touch-screen system.

In addition to some national chains, the eastern part of the state has Turkey Hill minit-marts. But the Philadelphia area, where Sonia and I live now, is dominated by Wawa convenience stores. Sheetz has not yet been able to breach Wawa's line of defense. There are a staggering 200 Wawa stores within 20 miles of our apartment. It would be nice if we had access to both Sheetz and Wawa, but for now we'll have to settle for only having Sheetz on special occasions and westward-bound day trips.

Wawa offers a variety of pre-made sandwiches and snacks, and Sonia has completely fallen in love with their chicken caesar wraps. I agree that they're tasty, but I think there are plenty of other good chicken caesar wraps out there, including this one from Trader Joe's.

Upon tasting the TJ's brand, Sonia was crestfallen. True, it didn't taste identical to Wawa's chicken caesar, but I was impressed with its fresh, homemade qualities. Trader Joe's wrap had tomatoes, something that should have impressed Sonia more than me...she's a much bigger fan of fresh tomato than I am. The lettuce and spinach in TJ's variety were a dark, rich green and the chicken was all good, tender white meat. The one thing I will give her is that the dressing on the Trader Joe's wrap tasted a lot more like peppercorn ranch than caesar. Luckily, I like peppercorn ranch, but in Sonia's case...not so much.

Sonia's affinity for Wawa's chicken caesar and her dislike of peppercorn-esque dressings yielded one of our most lopsided scores ever, since I was quite pleased with Trader Joe's product, as usual. I give it a 4. Sonia was only half as impressed. She gives it a 2.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Trader Joe's Dixie Peach

Fun fact: California produces 65% of the peaches in the US. But there are peach orchards all over the place. Even my hometown of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania has a reputation for excellent peaches. See here. But I guess there's something romantic about those Southern peaches. Georgia is "The Peach State" after all. They even have a peach on their license plate. South Carolina is one of the biggest peach producers in the country, too. At any rate, TJ's decided that their peach nectar beverage would be called Dixie Peach. Away, away, away down south in Dixie.

It's actually a mixture of juices with peach and apple purees. Once, on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, I had a peach nectar drink (Nectar de Melocotón) that was very similar. I've been looking for a peach beverage like it in the US ever since. There's a brand called Kern's that sells cans of peach juice, but they're definitely not as good. So my search continued...Thanks to TJ's, my search has now come to an end. Now, if only someone would sell pear nectar or something like it here, I'd be a happy camper.

The Dixie Peach is very smooth and thick. If you only like really watery, thin juices, you might get freaked out a little. It's plenty sweet, and although there's a mixture of fruit juices and purees, the overall flavor is decidedly peachy. Sonia wasn't a huge fan at first, but she says it really grew on her after drinking some more of it. She likes it best with tons of ice. It does seem like the colder it's served, the better it tastes for some reason. And a little bit of melted ice helps to thin it out a bit.

The sweet beverage fiend (that's me) gives it a 4 out of 5. Sonia gives it a 3.5. Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Trader Joe's Rice Pudding

Rice pudding is apparently a very popular dish worldwide. According to this Wikipedia article, different versions of the dessert evolved independently of one another in virtually every region on Earth. I guess you've gotta figure that any civilization that has rice, milk, and sugar is eventually gonna throw those three ingredients in a bowl together and see what happens.

Somehow, I managed to grow up in a rice pudding vacuum. I don't think I had even heard of it until I was in my teens. At first, it sounded revolting to me; rice is simply not a dessert food. But then, I grew older and more adventurous, and after eating raw fish, sauteed grasshoppers, and Chinese food that only cost a dollar, rice pudding suddenly seemed tame to me.

When I first tried it, it was presented to me by Latino-folk as "Arroz con Leche," leading me to believe that the dish was, in fact, Mexican. And, it is...but it's also Indian, Thai, German, Danish, and/or a whole host of other nationalities. The Pennsylvania Dutch did a pretty good job of bringing all good German foods to central PA, but if they did bring some kind of rice pudding, it certainly didn't end up at the local markets in my hometown.

Anyway, for all you gringos out there: Arroz con Leche = rice with milk. What an inventive name. That's why "horchata" never caught on in this country: poor marketing. You ask somebody what horchata is and they'll tell you it's "Mexican rice water." Mexican rice water? People drink that? Yuck! I picture a nasty soapy-gray liquid that comes as a byproduct of rinsing a strainer of rice with tap water in the sink.

But have you had horchata? It's delicious! People should answer the question "what is horchata?" with "It's the sexy Latin Cinnamon-Sugar Beverage, mi amigo!" Then you'd see horchata flowing from every restaurant soda fountain in the U.S.

Anyway, my point is that "rice pudding," though not totally appetizing to white bread Americans, is much better than "rice with milk." Now, let's move on to more important matters, such as the weird old-timey photo on the container...

It's a vintage pic of two young ladies sharing a secret of some kind. Judging by the expression on the first girl's face, it's a very scandalous secret. I'm not sure why something like that should make us hungry or make the food more appetizing, but apparently it gets the buyer's attention. Interesting choice of packaging. Maybe the one girl is telling the other the true origin of the product within the container.

Oh yeah, all that and I haven't really mentioned anything about the taste of the food yet...It's really good! My only complaint is that it could use a dash of cinnamon. There's just the right amount of rice and just the right amount of sweet milky stuff...it's very yummy.

I give it a 4.5. Sonia's score is slightly lower, probably because she grew up on the good homemade stuff, but she still gives it a 4. Not too shabby. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Trader Joe's Spiced Cranberry Cider

As a young boy, my parents would regularly take me to visit my grandparents and various elderly friends of the family. During these visits I noted that older folks, for some reason, were quite fond of putting out candy, often unwrapped, in little dishes on endtables and coffee tables throughout their homes. That didn't bother me one bit. A source of free, quickly-replenished, easy-access candy was the stuff that my young dreams were made of. Before my parents could call me off, I would easily down a third of the dish. Then, inevitably, they'd yell something about spoiling my dinner, and I'd stomp off reluctantly with bits of chocolate smeared on my face and shirt.

One of the types of confections I'd frequently discover in such a candy dish were multi-colored, fruit-flavored gumdrops. I loved trying each flavor to see which was the best, and then I'd attempt to eat every gumdrop of that flavor in the entire dish. Or, I'd take one yellow gumdrop and one green gumdrop and try to create my own flavor combination: lemon-lime. In short, I loved gumdrops.

However, I can distinctly recall on one occasion stuffing my face with what I assumed were sweet, delicious gumdrops, only to be shocked by a biting, unpleasant flavor. I grimaced and choked back my gag reflex. The aged owner of the candy dish, taking note of my sufferings, said, "Aw! You don't like the spice drops, hmm?"

I thought to myself, "What on earth are spice drops?" For a moment, I thought I had eaten something that was intended for decorative or aromatic purposes only. Had I inadvertently eaten some bizarre form of potpourri?

Drinking this cider was a similarly disappointing experience. Maybe I should have taken the word "spiced" in the title as a warning sign. But I thought they meant they put a dash of cinnamon in it or something...

Typical spice drop flavors include: cardamom, clove, allspice, pimeneta, spearmint, anise, and licorice. This drink tastes like a base of cranberry juice with each and every one of those spices dumped in it. It's like drinking a glass of liquid potpourri. We finished the bottle, but it took some effort. Honestly, I'd rather down a bottle of Nyquil than drink this stuff again. Not a fan.

Sonia gives it a 2. I give it a 1. Bottom line: 3 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Trader Joe's Mini Chicken Tacos

Mmm ... tacos ...

Really, can anything bad be said about tacos? I'm not really talking about the Taco Bell variety, though occasionally those can work in a pinch (okay, very occasional pinch). A good taco is spicy, flavorful comfort wrapped in crispy, greasy wholesome goodness that'll put a smile on your face and a little indigestion in your gut. Well, maybe not the indigestion part, but if it's there and nothing too fiery, no foul in my book.

Our favorite taco spot in town is a street stand down in Pittsburgh's Strip District in front of Reyna Foods, a great Mexican grocer. We go down every once in a while on a Saturday and grab a pair each for five bucks. There's consistently a line but it's always worth it for the fresh grilled meat piled high with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes (for me), topped off with a squeeze of fresh lime and choice of salsa seated on a fresh homemade corn tortilla. I was thoroughly impressed with myself that I managed to scarf down a set of these on Saturday while speedwalking through a crowd on a busy day without dropping it or indiscriminately smearing it all over my face or shirt. Now those are tacos.

When keeping mind these are the at-home freezer box variety, these are kinda close. It's one of those things you gotta grade on a curve. They're certainly not amazing by any stretch of the imagination, but that doesn't mean they aren't good. Contrary to the picture on the box (those darn misleading "serving suggestion" depictions) they're just little corn tortillas with some chicken bits and spices pocketed in. I guess I can't blame Trader Joe's for not dicing up veggies and shredding cheese small enough to sneak in these guys, because honestly I have no interest either. Aside from maybe a little hot sauce, these will just have to as they are for us. They're taste decent overall, but kinda plain for my taste, and I can't help to think that they could be just a little bit better. They're certainly not nearly as good as making tacos and setting up a toppings bar for yourself, but they're sure quicker and easier. They're also just tasty enough to keep me interested in them and to eat a couple more than the serving size of four. Not that Sandy would let me get away with that.

The fact that they're mini tacos kinda weird me out, though. When eating them I feel like I'm a sort of giant roaming the earth and these tacos are normal-sized for normal-sized people while for me they're two quick little bites, and I must eat enough of them that'd feed a family reunion to satisfy my belly. I feel like I've stolen them from these fine folks. It's the same kinda thing with sliders and even (to a lesser extent) personal pan pizzas. Fun-sized Halloween candy bars get a pass on this because I'm used to those from trick-or-treating and they're ubiquitous enough to make sense to me. Baby burgers and pizzas and tacos just don't. The side of the box of these taco dwarfs say they're "adorable" and that TJ's "guarantee[s] you can't eat just one." Listen, I'm a guy, I don't want to hear I'm eating something that's "adorable" and dang right I'm going to eat more than one. That's the whole point of the microscopic food genre. Eat four regular sized tacos and you're either a college freshman or a glutton. But if they're super-small 1:25 models of the real thing, you can still honestly tell yourself you ate four tacos and not feel any guilt.

I made these for dinner on Monday night along with some tater tots (not these ones but still pretty admirably good) for an easy dinner tonight. Sandy was beat from kicking some serious half marathon butt on Sunday (2 hours 48 minutes! Daaaang) and to a much lesser extent I was tired from a long day of getting her to where she needed to be way too early, cheering her on, then a long day of errands and work on Monday, so a "path of least resistance" dinner sounded right on the money. The tacos 'n tots offered enough of a comfort food quality to our meal that I'll give them a pass despite wishing they were a little tastier and bigger so I wouldn't be so worried about depriving a family of Lilliputians their dinner. Sandy, in her deserved day-after of relaxation and hunger, said she could eat the whole box, she likes them so much. I'm pretty sure that's some exaggeration on her part, but she proved beyond a shadow of doubt to me over the weekend she can do anything she puts her mind to, so I won't say she can't. She settled on giving them a four, only saying she wish Trader Joe's would have added some lime and other flavors. Otherwise, she's pretty darn happy with them. As for me, well, you've heard me ramble enough. I think I can spare a three for them, right in the middle.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Trader Joe's Veggie Sticks Potato Snacks

When I hear the term "veggie sticks," I think of narrow little slivers of carrots and celery arranged on a circular platter around a pool of creamy ranch dipping sauce. That's not what these are, if you couldn't tell from the pic. These are crunchable doodle-puffs of snack-tastic potato-matter.

From the first bite, they seemed familiar somehow...like a long-lost friend who had just returned from adventures abroad...like a wayward relative that came back to his father's house with a strange foreign accent, a prodigal son of the pantry if you will...there was just a certain 'je ne sais quoi' about them...who are you, veggie sticks? Haven't I met you before? In another life perhaps...on a distant shoreline, did I partake of your salty goodness under a Pacific sunset marked by the sound of crashing waves and the crispy-crunches of your bite-sized bits?

No. No, you are new to me...but you remind me of someone...you remind me of...who is it now? OH! YOU TOTALLY remind me of the unmistakable flavor of McDonald's French fries...with the texture of cheese-puffs. Seriously. McDonald's fries. It's gotta be the sunflower/safflower oil.

When I told Sonia about my McDonald's French fry epiphany, she went "Oh! Really? You think they taste like that?" Then I had her try one again, and told her to think about McDonald's French fries. Then she went, "Eh, I guess I can see what you're talking about..."

So apparently I'm more or less alone in my assessment that they taste just like McDonald's French fries. Mind you, the texture is much different. The texture is that of a generic, yet not necessarily low-quality cheese-puff/cheese-doodle/cheesy-poof thing.

I tried hard to tell if there was a difference among the three varieties; orangish-red, yellowish-white, and green. I thought maybe they were tomato-flavored, potato-flavored, and spinach-flavored, respectively, however, I was unable to discern any variation in taste. Just three different colors of McDonald's fries.

We tried them with a little lemon juice. Good. And they would have been KILLER with some Trader Joe's Jalapeño Pepper Hot Sauce, but alas, we did not have any. I almost tried them with a little packet of McDonald's fancy ketchup, but then I thought that might be a bit weird. I docked a point because we were kind of wanting to dress them up a bit, however, we polished off the bag within 24 hours of getting it back from TJ's. That usually indicates a successful product. Sonia agrees.

Sonia and I both give them a 4. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Trader Joe's Chile Spiced Mango

So, Nathan and I are kinda similar overall. We both love eating Trader Joe's stuff and blogging about it, we both graduated from Penn State at more or less the same time, and the two of us significantly outkicked our coverage with our much better looking wives. My folks when they first saw our write-up from the good folks at The Daily Meal said judging from our pics on there, we could have been twins separated at birth, which if that's the case, there's some dark family secret I don't want to know about. I'm the squintier looking guy.

It seems like, at times, we have similar shopping habits and curiosities nearly simultaneously. For instance, Sandy got one delectable looking Trader Ming treat a month or two ago, and planned to eat it on a certain night so I could review it ... well, that same day Nathan posted his review on the same tasty beef and broccoli treat, so that got nixed. Doh. Last week, I dodged a bullet of sorts when he decided to try out an adventurous chile-mango combo at the same time I did ... he did the frozen version though, and I picked up the dried fruit version. Whew.

Unlike Nathan, though, my awesome Comcast Internet connection has been on the fritz all week until now, not allowing me to write or post any reviews. Thanks for holding down the fort, sir.

Anyways, like Nathan, as a good old Pennsylvania boy, chile and mango is not a combination that I was accustomed to growing up. The craziest we got with flavor combos in my childhood was putting pretzels on our ice cream. I've been to Mexico twice but have somehow avoided the chile and fruit phenomenon down there, so I'll admit this is my first foray into this gustatory realm.

It's not something I'm willing to give up on quite yet, but I don't think the Trader Joe's Chile Spiced Mango dried fruit chunks made the best introduction. The issue is, I think, for a flavor combination to work, there has to be at least two flavors present. With these, literally all you can taste is the chile. It's coated on the mango pieces like sand on some cheap sandpaper. And since it's dried fruit, with juiciness being the essence of mango flavor, well ... the mango flavor is there, barely perceptible. It takes a lot of work to get at it, and with the heat level radiating off the spices, it may not be something you're willing to do. I wish Trader Joe's would halve the spice on these and redistribute it in some of their other goods, and try to figure out a way to let the mangoey goodness shine through. It's just so imbalanced that it doesn't really work.

Sandy and I tried a piece at the same time. She didn't have quite the reaction I expected, but it wasn't exactly positive either. I think she managed to get down her one small piece she took, but that's all she's ever going to have. I can munch on them here and there, but I'm not the biggest fan of them either. It's not that they're too spicy for us (though I think they are the spiciest thing we've ever purchased at TJ's), but the heat drowns out any trace of the mango. Honestly, you could tell me these were chile-laden chunks of tough orange leather, and I would have no basis to not believe you. About the only thing I'm looking forward to in regard to these is bringing them into work, having them on my desk, and daring coworkers to try them. They already think I'm weird enough because of my occasionally shaved head, my expressed love of long bike rides, my French press coffee, and my generally persistent amicable demeanor. Bringing in the remaining bagful of these guys might ratchet me up to a whole 'nother level.

Sandy gives them a 1. I'll be the slightly more gracious one this time and give them a 2. Kinda like my thoughts on chocolate flavored gum and the cupholders in my Subaru - good concept, but in practice, it just doesn't quite work, at least not in this case.

Bottom line: 3 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, May 13, 2011

Trader José's Hot Chipotle Salsa

Finally, a hot salsa that's actually kinda hot. The little chile-meter on this baby is mostly full. Plus, it tastes like actual chipotle chile peppers. It's not quite as hot as chipotle peppers by themselves—if you've ever had one, you know that they're pretty spicy—but I think it's darn close. However, like all of their other salsas, Sonia thought this one lacked heat, too. I think it's a step in the right direction, though. I'm pretty sure this is the spiciest TJ's salsa we've had so far.

I wasn't aware of this before, but chipotles are actually a dried, smoked variant of the jalapeño. See here. Somehow, they seem much spicier than a regular jalapeño to me. But what do I know? Soy solo un gringo loco.

Most products they slap a "chipotle" label on here don't really taste that much like the real thing. I'm happy with the flavor of this salsa. Authentico. The label claims it has a "slightly smoky taste," and it's not lying.

Fat free. And in theory, it'll raise your metabolism. Burn baby, burn. Try it with the Super Seeded Chips or the Soy and Flaxseed Chips.

Sonia and I each give it a 4. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Trader Joe's Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice

Yay! More Indian food. So far, TJ's track record with Indian has been pretty well above par...er, below par...wait: In golf, below par is good. But we know "sub-par" is bad. So I guess in things other than golf, one wants to be above par. But "par for the course" always means just average, or "what's to be expected."

Um, but yeah, TJ's makes pretty good Indian stuff.

I had never heard of Butter Chicken before. It certainly doesn't sound like an Indian dish to me. And the brownish, gravy-like substance in the picture on the box doesn't look like butter, either. It looks more like an Indian masala-type substance. Enigmatic, indeed.

We'll just get to the point here: the chicken was good, tender, and moist, but it didn't taste like an Indian dish to us. There's very little of the familiar Indian spiciness, and it certainly wasn't as good as the other TJ's Indian meals we've had. That brown sauce is apparently not masala sauce, and it brought very little to the table in the flavor department. And again, it wasn't bad. It just wasn't what we were expecting.

Fortunately, we decided to eat the chicken with Trader Joe's Masala Tandoori Naan bread. It's just naan with yummy Indian spices baked in. It's got a little more kick than the average naan, which is good, because it made up for the lack of spiciness in the chicken. Also, the spices make the bread a happy yellow color.

So, in the end, it tasted very similar to a chicken masala dish served with regular naan. Except in this instance, the masala came from the bread and not the chicken. This bread is definitely tasty, but its extra flavor can't quite make up for the lack of kick in the Butter Chicken.

So, for Trader Joe's Butter Chicken, it's not bad if you just want some run-of-the-mill chicken with sauce or if you're a spice-o-phobe that wants to try something Indian-ish. The Basmati Rice is good, as usual. Sonia and I both give it 3.5's. Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

As for Trader Joe's Masala Tandoori Naan, it's just like TJ's other naan, but with a little something extra. Double 4.5's. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Breakfast Scramble of Eggs, Potatoes, and Onions

OK, so let's honor Cinco de Mayo (I know we're a day late... make that Seis de Mayo) with a special product. I know what you're thinking: "This product isn't Mexican!" No, it certainly isn't. But here's a fun fact for you: Cinco de Mayo isn't the Mexican Independence Day. That's September 16.

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla, the day the French were driven out of Mexico. And, Cinco de Mayo is more widely celebrated in the U.S. than it is in Mexico. Kind of like St. Patty's day, it's really just another American excuse to have a couple cervezas. So on that note, we're going to take a look at a French product—since this very well could have been Mexican cuisine had the French been victorious on May 5, 1862.

Trader Joe's Breakfast Scramble proudly declares that it's a product of France. There's an official-looking seal right on the cover with a fleur-de-lis in the middle. I guess TJ's wasn't worried about all those folks that eat freedom fries instead of French fries and boycott France every chance they get. Bill O'Reilly would not be pleased.

And yet again, I must ask this question of Trader Joe: why go to the trouble to create a French character, Trader Jacques, if you're not going to use him for all of your French products? Maybe they decided they'd only use him with the more pretentious French products, such as the Ham and Cheese Croissant Sandwiches.

This product is similar to an omelette, but the ingredients aren't all folded inside the egg. They are, as the title indicates, scrambled together. It just struck me the other day that omelettes are French, too. "Omelette." It's a very French-sounding word. I guess I just always associated the dish with American cuisine, like Denny's or down-on-the-farm home cooking, perhaps served up by someone named Trader Jim-Bob.

At any rate, this stuff is pretty tasty. There's a bit of greasiness and saltiness, but not too much. It's just enough to make you feel like you're not eating something that was very recently frozen. The microwaveability of this scramble is astouding, really. If you put it on a plate, you could very easily pass it off as freshly cooked. There's a great balance of the three main ingredients, and the heating instructions are ultra-simple.

No major complaints. No big surprises. Just a good microwaveable international breakfast.

Sonia gives it a 4. I give it a 4.5. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Trader Joe's Heat & Eat Falafel

Growing up in a small town in central Pennsylvania, there weren't a whole lot of food joints around that sold falafel. I think I was aware of its existence at some point in college, but I never tried it until I lived in L.A., where they had Lebanese chicken places all over the city, most notably Roro's and a chain called Zankou. Both restaurants sold falafel. I tried it. Tasty. I'm definitely a fan of the versatile chick pea (garbanzo bean) and I always have been since I discovered them at the local Bonanza Steakhouse salad bar at the age of six.

With falafel, though, the chick peas are mashed up with some choice spices, rolled into little balls and then deep fried. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it...

This particular Trader Joe's variety comes frozen, although I've heard rumors of non-frozen, fresh falafel from TJ's, too. They actually suggest you reheat these frozen ones in the microwave, although the oven is an acceptable method as well. Before I filled my pita pocket with them or put any hummus on them, I just tried one plain. Delicious!

We ate them with Trader Joe's Smooth and Creamy Spicy Hummus. Ah, hummus, another brilliant chick pea derivative. This product doesn't lie. I totally agree that it's smooth, creamy, and spicy—but not too spicy. Just right. The flavors in here mixed very well with the falafel.

The inner circle (you can see it in the photo) is where all the spiciness comes from. There are dark flecks of some kind of peppery stuff in there. I think it's dark matter. I certainly hope all dark matter tastes this delicious, because our universe is quite full of it. If all dark matter is just like this, once we start really exploring the depths of space, let me tell you, we're in for a spicy future...

OK, that was weird. I just got all astronomical on you. Mainly to see if you were paying attention. But also because I needed a little filler to extend this section of the review beyond the photo of the hummus. It never looks quite right when I post multiple pictures in one review...Whatever, I know I'm weird.

Anyway, back to the topic...Finally, we ate the falafel and hummus in these Trader Joe's Soy Pita Bread pockets. Again, the perfect compliment to the other flavors present. Soy pita is just as good as regular pita. To tell you the truth, I couldn't really tell the difference. Maybe because there's almost as much wheat in these as there is soy. They're definitely not gluten-free. Whattaya gonna do?

So to summarize, we have a trio of big winners here. Especially the falafel. And it's all vegetarian. Let's take our final looks:

Trader Joe's Heat & Eat Falafel. Sonia gives it a perfect 5. I give it a 4.5. Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Smooth and Creamy Spicy Hummus. Double 4.5's. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Soy Pita Bread. Sonia gives it a 4.5. I give it a 4. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Trader Joe's Fat Free Chile Mango Fruit Floes

We were in a very mangoey mood on our last Trader Joe's run—as you might have noticed, yesterday's post also involved mango.

And a few months ago, we reviewed the Caribbean Fruit Floes, which nearly reached our highly elite "Pantheon" status. Very tasty. So, let's take a look at these Chile Mango Floes and see how they measure up:

First of all, let's make sure everyone knows exactly what's going on here... This is a popsicle-like dessert that is indeed sweet and fruity, and thanks to our zany friends to the south, it has chile on it. As in chile pepper...as in spicy. I lived in Southern California for about 7 years, and let me tell you, I was quite skeptical about sprinkling chile powder on fruit when I first became aware of the practice. Chile powder and corn on the cob made sense: salty and spicy. That works. But spicy and sweet? Mexicanos like to eat chile with their mangos, watermelons, pineapples, and even oranges. Hmmm... It took some convincing.

I was in Disney's California Adventure when I had my first taste of "mango con chile." I remember right where I was standing. Our friend Carlos bought a plate of it and began sharing it with the group. I loved it. First, you taste the mango, and then as you chew, there's this little burst of spice that kicks in later. It's like the clichéed party in one's mouth that everyone and his brother is invited to.

I later tried a vending machine pop with mango-flavored candy, covered in a thick layer of sawdust-like chile powder. It came from our local laundromat in Hollywood, but it was clearly imported from Mexico. Such candies were childhood favorites of Sonia. It was so-so. It got tastier as it went along. I had to suck about 3/4 of the chile powder off before the mango taste even came through, and by then my tongue was somewhat numb, and it made the experience only moderately enjoyable.

These fruit floes are similar. Except in this case, the chile powder cannot be licked off of the candy. It's thoroughly blended with the frozen mango juice. Remember how Sonia and I are always saying that the salsas aren't spicy enough or that they don't seem as spicy as the little chile pepper spice-o-meter would seem to indicate on the package? Not the case with this product! This is quite possibly the spiciest thing I've ever had from TJ's. I'm tempted to take the remaining popsicles, allow them to melt, and use them as a chip-dip instead. I think they overdid it a little in the spice department here. Sonia does, too, and she grew up on these goofy spice n' fruit combos that seem so alien to me.

On the plus side, one can still taste mango through the oddly cold searing pain. There are also a handful of real mango chunks scattered throughout each popsicle—and they're not chile-ified. Chewing them gives one's tongue a moment to recover.

All in all, they're just kinda weird. And that's coming from two people that like chile and mango. Not terrible, but certainly don't get them if you've never had chile and mango or think that that combination sounds a little funky...But if you're the biggest chile-mango fan ever, then by all means grab a box and tell us what you think...

Sonia gives them a 3. I give them a 3.5. Bottom line 6.5 out of 10.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Trader Joe's Heart of Darkness Mango Passion Fruit Blend

This beverage was apparently inspired by the Joseph Conrad novella by the same name. Weird to name a beverage after any literary work, let alone one so bleak as "Heart of Darkness." Though I'm a fan of the film adaptation, "Apocalypse Now," it still hardly makes me want to partake of a drink derived from such a dark work of fiction.

And if there were any doubts as to whether they were alluding to Joseph Conrad's story, the artwork on the bottle depicts a ferry boat in the middle of a wide river, surrounded by thick jungle on both sides.

Although the film version takes place in Southeast Asia, the original story is set in the Congo, and I guess the title of the drink is to make us think of deep African jungles which, I suppose, are where the best mangos and passionfruits come from.

So, with a mental picture of some safari dude plucking mangos from a tree in a dense, humid rainforest in my head, I proceeded to read the label only to find that apple juice and white grape juice were the main ingredients. Hmmm. The mental picture quickly evaporated, but I remembered the last Trader Joe's mango beverage we tried, and I thought that the apples and grapes might actually be welcome, familiar flavors - and I was right.

Unlike Trader Joe's Organic Mango Nectar, this juice blend is highly chuggable and refreshing, but it still tastes like mango. It's much thinner than the mango nectar. I think the apple and grape juices simply serve to sweeten the blend. Mango is definitely more potent than any of the other flavors in here, but not overwhelmingly so. To tell you the truth, I can never taste passionfruit in anything. I'm not even sure it really has that much flavor. I think it's a marketing ploy. People see "passionfruit," they think "passion." Sex sells... you see what I'm getting at.

Anyway, whether you think of it as a sexy summer treat or a bleak ride through the Congan jungle, I think you'll like it. It's a very nice balance of sweetness and real mango taste. Yum.

Sonia gives it a 4. Me too. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.