Hello. My name's Nathan, and I love Trader Joe's. My wife Sonia does too. She's a great shopper, has excellent taste and knows good value when she comes across it. As many of you know, Trader Joe's is unsurpassed in the world of good-value grocery stores, so we spend a lot of our time and money there. Although the store fairly consistently delivers great taste with its own unique line of food products, there are definitely some big-hits, and unfortunately, there are some misses...

After doing a couple of internet searches for reviews of TJ's food items, Sonia discerned an apparent dearth of good, quality reviews for the store's offerings. So, at her suggestion, we decided to embark on a journey of systematically reviewing every Trader Joe's product, resulting in the blog you are about to read...

A couple of months into our Trader Joe's rating adventure, an old college friend, Russ, who unbeknownst to me had been following our TJ's blog, decided that I had been slacking in my blogging duties (which, of course, I was) so he decided to contribute his own original TJ's reviews to the blog, thus enhancing it, making it more complete and adding to it a flavor of his own. He and his wife Sandy are also avid TJ's fans and, as you will soon discover, he is an excellent writer and is nearly as clever, witty and humble as I am.

Seriously though, Russ: You go, boy!

So here it is: "What's Good at Trader Joe's?"

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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Trader Joe's Sugar, Chocolate & Coffee Bean Grinder

There's some things that hold a lot of appeal for Sandy that, while I understand on a certain level, I'm not really all that enamored by. Take, for instance, gadgets like any e-reader device. I know that as humans we come preinstalled to like anything with a glowing screen as a standard feature, but, to me, if you're gonna read a book, make it an actual book. Not Sandy. She's been researching these and polling friends left and right about the Kindle, Nook, and whatever else is out there these days as she's been saving up her babysitting dollars for one of these and has been talking about them endlessly. We've talked about it, and I get the arguments for, like ease of portability (Sandy at any time can have up to seven books in a backpack, though I believe she can still only read one at a time), but the arguments against are much stronger to me, such as: breakability/durability (like if you were planning to read at a beach, would you really want to take one of these? Think of all the places sand could go), risk of theft (airports, etc), "another screen," and finally, just, there's something about a book and holding it in your hands and turning actual physical pages that make it a more satisfying experience. And don't get me started on the iPad and other tablets. It strikes me as just being an iPhone for old people, kinda like the large print Reader's Digest you see at nursing home versus the regular sized ones. If they could be a viable, versatile-enough alternative to a laptop, sure, I could be on board, but until then they seem like some overall gimmicky marketing ploy to get folks to spend money they don't have on things they don't need. Maybe I'm some old school ornery codger, but I just don't get it. Sandy definitely does, and we've come to more or less a truce about it, and chances are she'll be picking up a Kindle or something soon, and maybe then I'll see the light. Til then, meh.

Of course, this is a bigger example of something that plays out in much smaller circumstances. Take, for instance, Trader Joe's Sugar, Chocolate & Coffee Bean Grinder. Last week, Sandy spotted it on an endcap touting TJ's new products and immediately started this kinda weird, silly, not remotely serious little"gimme gimme oh please please please" dance that immediately said "You better put this in the cart, there, Mister." Since it was something like two bucks, eh, sure. Cheaper than an e-reader. Sandy's little dance was definitely cute and gave me a chuckle, so I didn't mind, but whenever we have a kid and Little Russandra does that, you can bet I won't be so amused.

Okay, so I get the appeal of the sugary chocolatey coffee beany grinder guy. There's a built-in grinder that, instead of dispensing tellicherry pepper or sea salt, grinds up sugar crystals (both brown and white), chocolate bits (dark?) and coffee beans wherever you can dream it can go. Good in theory. The side of the grinder says it goes great with ice cream, coffee, and toast, among other things. Sandy's preferred method of consumption is to hold it high and grind directly into her mouth*, which she did once we got home like a sugar-deprived lunatic, and still does occasionally when she thinks I won't know but I can hear the telltale scrapy-grindy sound from the living room. Anyways, I tried it on vanilla ice cream, which was alright. I could definitely taste the three main elements and it almost made my ice cream not taste like plain vanilla, and added a gritty, crystally texture that though a little odd wasn't completely unwelcome. When ground on top of coffee, it honestly didn't add too much, which shouldn't be surprising if you think about it. While okay with buttered toast, if I wanted something sweet and tasty on toast and have it not be jam, I would have much preferred the timeless classic of cinnamon and sugar. And finally, straight from shaker to mouth...meh. That's a silly, not overly rewarding thing to do if you ask me. Overall, I think it's safe to say it just doesn't tickle my fancy all that much.

If you ask Sandy, though? She loves it. Besides the aforementioned methods of consumption, she's also put some on top of cottage cheese and maybe yogurt, too. She loved it with ice cream and with toast, but agreed with my thoughts about it with coffee. And I hear her grinding away in the kitchen often enough to know that she's happily plotting her next cavity in a way she finds most satisfying. Sandy said she gives it a four, which I thought was low for her but made sense when she explained, "It adds flavor, and it's really good, but it could add more." Me? I think I've made my opinion fairly clear, but to summarize it strikes me as being something akin to parsley for your desserts. Looks good, but doesn't do much of anything worthwhile, a Paris Hilton of the pantry, if you will. I'm going with a 1.5.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* For some reason she wouldn't let me take a picture of this. I can't imagine why.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Trader Joe's Peach Pops

As a young boy, I was constantly getting in trouble for moving our family's good pair of scissors from the miscellaneous drawer in the back room. "Nathan MacFarland Rodgers," my mother would shout from down the hallway, "where have you hidden my scissors!?"

During the summer months, it was a sure bet those scissors were either on the kitchen table or the stand next to the fridge. While playing kickball in the backyard in the heat and humidity, I never failed to work up a craving for Fla-Vor-Ice. I'd rush into the air conditioning, sweat dripping off my then-full head of blond hair, make a bee-line for the freezer, snip the end off the plastic pop, and in seconds I was blue-tongued and nursing a nasty brain-freeze.

Well, friends, there's a new reason the people you live with might be searching for the scissors next to the freezer. These peach pops are scrump-dilly. They're just like Fla-Vor-Ice pops, except there's only one color, and it doesn't look and taste like a series of experimental chemicals with a gallon of high-fructose corn syrup crammed in. It's Fla-Vor-Ice for grown-ups (and children with parents who care about their health).

It's like they took canned peaches in light syrup, threw them in a blender, chopped them up for a few seconds (they didn't liquefy them or puree them—there are still chunks of peaches in there) and poured them into those fun little plastic pouches. Not terribly inventive, but peaches don't need much dressing up to taste good.

As most of you already know, it has been HOT here lately on the east coast and throughout much of the country. If TJ's isn't sold out of these things, it's probably a miracle—or perhaps just a bit or foresight on the part of the dudes that decide how many of which items will go on Trader Joe's shelves—which in and of itself might be a miracle. No offense to those guys, it's just that I imagine it's very difficult to predict which TJ's brand products are going to be best-sellers and which ones are going to flop.

So to summarize, Trader Joe's Peach Pops are really refreshing and mostly fruit. Sonia and I both give them 4's. Plus, there's a cuddly penguin on the box. What kind of marketing ploy is that, though, really? If penguins wanted a frozen treat, I would think they'd want a pureed fish pop...but that idea probably wouldn't fly.

Get it?

...'cuz penguins can't fly...

<sigh>

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Trader Joe's Mahi Mahi

It's taken me a while to get around to the idea of enjoying fish as a food source. I've always liked shrimp and crab legs and other crustaceany goods but fish, like an actual chunk of fish? Not so much. Growing up, it was easy to tell when all of us kids (I have two brothers and one sister) yanked my mom's chain just a little too much. That meant it was haddock for dinner, drenched in lemon juice and butter, and coated with breadcrumbs before being oven baked. Maybe that sounds good to you, but to us, I would rather eat yard clippings. Our only other exposure to fish in my youth was the chunky tuna from a can, from which my mom made tuna fish casserole (and later, began trying to sneak in homemade mac 'n cheese. That should be illegal). To my mom, who's probably reading this, you made so many other great meals growing up that I'm not going to hold it against you. I'm just providing some context for my readers. I meant it when I said you're the bestest cook in the whole world, and for more reasons than for you microwaving me a bowl of Smurf pasta when I was four.

Anyways, deepfry anything and it tastes better, right? That's what got me sorta hooked* on fish. During Lent, Sandy and I make a point of hitting up as many fish frys as possible at the local Catholic churches (best. fish. ever). There's lots of other great places to go in Pittsburgh for a good fish sandwich**, as it seems like an unofficially second official sandwich of the city behind Primanti Bros (don't knock 'em unless you tried 'em).

But, of course, that's not the only way to enjoy the meat that swims. In anticipation of our upcoming southern California vacation, and also because we're intent on using our new favorite cookbook for at least four or five dinners a week, we decided to make ourselves some fish tacos a few nights ago, and so needed to procure ourselves a hunk of tasty gilled goodness. With that, we perused the frozen section at Trader Joe's and ended up scoring us a big ol' piece of Mahi Mahi. Was it victorious?

I'd say so. The fish quickly defrosts and I was easily able to slice it up into smaller bits and pieces to get them coated with chili powder and other spices (see, I like a lot of things coated with chili, not just everything. Can we agree to disagree?) and quickly cook on the stove top in just a little bit of oil. With some tortillas, fresh greens from our garden, and some lime-infused yogurt/other stuff sauce, both Sandy and I were nomming in agreement: this was a really good incarnation of some rather tasty fish. The Mahi Mahi had big, light, fishy flakes and kept just moist enough throughout the whole process from package to belly. And tastewise, honestly, it wasn't overly fishy at all. Aside from texture, I almost would have guessed it was chicken. Despite being frozen, it struck me as being fairly fresh, certainly not right off the boat, but fresh enough for a grocery store purchase.

Definitely good. Sandy and I agree that we're going to have to get it again and try out some different recipes with it. The package claims you can grill it right from its frozen state and it'll end up just fine, so I want to see if I can vouch for that or not. And for $6.99 a pound, it's not an exorbitant expenditure, either.

We're both giving it a four for its taste and overall goodness. This is definitely the best fish I've ever bought at a grocery store. Not that I have a lot of other similar purchases to compare it against, but I've had fresh fish bought at the seafood counter at other stores and this seems to be very close in overall quality, which for something frozen says something. We'd recommend picking it up, no doubt.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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* As opposed to definitely hooked, which was my right index finger when I went fishing when I was five. Maybe that's another reason that it took me a while to warm up to fish.
** i.e., not a Filet-O-Fish. Barffffff.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Trader Joe's Potato Pancakes

I love lazy weekend mornings at home, and when given the opportunity, I'll definitely take advantage. Take this past Sunday for example. I slept 'til I was done, got out of bed a little bit after that, meandered downstairs to get caught up on the news, and waited for my lovely wife to come home from her early morning 8-mile run through zillion percent humidity (she's training for her next half-marathon in a month and halfish, crazy chick) before she tackled finishing up end-of-program-year summary reports for a swath of her preschool kids. Okay, it was a lazy weekend morning for one of us*, at least, and I'm relieved she wasn't too mad that I missed her text message to have coffee ready for her when she came home. Needless to say, it was up to me to make us some breakfast, which is one of the things I love to do the most, especially with a little Jack Johnson or The Head and the Heart for a soundtrack for a pretty laid back morning.

Sandy specifically requested some Trader Joe's Potato Pancakes to go alongside her scrambled eggs and coffee. Truth be told, we bought these I'm not sure how long ago and had them buried somewhere in the freezer. I'm pretty glad I didn't have to chisel them out. I'm not sure if I remembered we had them, but I'm thankful she did.

Potato pancakes, or latkes, are a very simple, straightforward dish. Some potato (some mashed, some smaller bits), a little matzah meal, a wee bit of onion, salt and pepper, fry them up in a little oil (technically you can bake them too, but that seems a little silly). And that's exactly what these TJ's latkes are. The term "frozen prepared foods" brings to mind the thought of being preservative and sodium laden bad-for-you junk that doesn't taste all that good. In this incarnation, that could not be further from the truth. As far as I can tell, the only thing on the ingredient list that your grandma maybe wouldn't put in her famous homemade ones is dehydrated potatoes. No tetrahyglycerides or pantoglompooperamides or other made up words. As far as sodium...yeah, okay, they have a fair amount, but no more than any other potato pancake.

And in short, delicious. The onions add a lot of flavor without being overbearing, as does the salt and pepper. Outside, they crisped up well when fried but inside the pancakes were of the right semi-mashed texture. These latkes are pretty well sized, too, I'd say a good three bites or so each, so there's plenty to enjoy, and made the two-and-a-half we had each (somehow we had five of them left from a box of eight) more than enough to go along with our eggs. If we had some good applesauce I would have been pretty tempted to make that pairing a go, but alas we did not. I'm not huge on heaping some sour cream on them, but I know that's pretty popular, and that would make a delicious treat for those who are into that. Even though we enjoyed them with breakfast, TJ's potato pancakes seem versatile enough to serve with any meal, and quick 'n easy enough to scarf down as a snack as well.

I think I'd put them right on par with ones I've had out at places like Eat 'n Park (if you're not familiar with them, think Denny's except much better), so they're good in my book. I'll bestow upon them a four and a half. As for Sandy, she definitely enjoyed them as well, but said she's had some better ones that were homemade from some of the Eastern European and Jewish families at her school. Yeah, no doubt those would be better. Also, as I tend to do when juggling a few different dishes at once, I accidentally semi-blackened one side of them, which didn't do them too much injustice except Sandy mentioned that she would have them enjoyed them a little bit more if I didn't. "That's not Trader Joe's fault, though; that's Russ Shelly's fault," she said. Well, at least I made your eggs perfectly and exactly to order, Princess. Sandy settled on meting out a good solid four.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10
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*Lazy weekend mornings for one is alright enough, but for two is even better.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trader Joe's Lemon Crisp Cookies

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I make fun of my wife some here and there. Sandy's good natured enough to take it in stride and usually get a little chuckle out of it. Well, today, I'm going to behave, be a good boy, and write only nice things about her. There's many reasons why I love and appreciate her, but recently she's been taking charge of a lot of menu planning, taking into account what we have on hand, what we have growing in our veggie garden (eagerly awaiting our tater experiment!), and what's readily available at farmer markets (making a lot of recipes out of this), and then breaking down what we need to buy at Trader Joe's or elsewhere. It requires a lot of planning, but more times than not the results are healthy, balanced, really tasty meals that don't cost a zillion bucks or take forever to cook. She's done a tremendous job, really, and I'm grateful that she takes charge on it because honestly I'd probably give up eventually and order a pizza or something.

It also makes food shopping real easy. Trader Joe's is increasingly becoming more of an every other week stop for us, and that's mostly for some staples like cereal and tortillas, along with the occasional take-to-work lunch and, of course, snacks. I had to make the shopping trip while flying solo last night, but Sandy gave me a list for what we needed for each meal, but for snacks, just wrote down "snacks." I tend to reach for the saltier variety when given the choice, but for whatever reason, decided to take a closer look at the cookie varieties this time around.

I'm so glad right now that I saw the Lemon Crisp Cookies, as I just polished off a good handful of these, for, uh, professional reasons right before writing this. Dang, these little cookies are so darn good. They're light, very munchy, irresistibly snacky, and qualitatively addicting. I love them. The cookie wafers crumble gently when you bite in and melt in your mouth with not-too-overbearing lemon flavor, and when combined with the chocolate drizzle and sugar dusting...they're equally appealing in both taste and texture. So good. And I love that the little clear plastic tub of them comes packed to the brim with who knows how many cookies inside. The chocolate can get a little melty on them so I found it helpful to actually keep them in the fridge (of course, that could do more with my just vanquished reluctance to turn on the A/C despite near triple-digit heat). They're extremely tasty and I feel continually tempted to snatch them by the handful and go at it Cookie Monster style.

Of course, there's a downside. It's only natural that something that tastes this good has to be so atrociously bad for you. The lemon crisps definitely have the potential to be a diet-busting trigger food. I'm not exactly a health nut, but if you're semi-concerned about things like saturated fat, sodium and sugar intake, steer clear. To make some cookies this irresistably good, I'd imagine that Trader Joe's put in enough butter to make Paula Dean blush and enough sugar for your dentist to get her drill ready. If you do a Google search for the nutritional info, well, anything I found was significantly lowballed. Just take a look at the label on them if you're truly curious.

Anyways, both Sandy and I like them. We both snuck a few while I was packing them for my lunch this morning, and even more when she broke out the camera to snap a pic before going up to bed for the evening. I *may* have snuck a few more since...it's so hard to be good sometimes. At least I'm not making fun of my wife. Noting the overall crumbly goodness of the texture and well-balanced taste, Sandy slapped these with a fourspot, only saying they could be just a wee bit more lemony and not be worse off for it. Me? I think, for a cookie, they're zesty enough as is and overall, makes a tasty little snack if you can control yourself around them. They're not the most addictive thing I've found at Trader Joe's, but they're definitely close. Just wish they'd be not as bad for you. I'll round up ever so slightly to give them a four as well.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Trader Joe's Maryland Style Crab Cakes

Sonia and I recently visited Baltimore's Inner Harbor to see the National Aquarium. After a day of walking around the bay, watching fish and other sea creatures, we had worked up quite an appetite. Appropriately, we decided on seafood.

Now, Marylanders know their crab cakes. They're so into crab there, they eat potato chips with crab seasoning all over them. And although Sonia suffers from allergies to many seafoods such as clams, oysters, and scallops, she decided to be brave and taste her first crab cake. This was actually her very first taste of real crab or lobster. Ever. She had been avoiding them, thinking them to be in the same class of animals as the aforementioned mollusks. Since I paid some attention in 9th grade biology, I was able to explain that crabs and lobsters are actually crustaceans, and that her allergy may not apply. (Fortunately, it didn't).

We ordered one individual appetizer crab cake from Phillips Seafood. It cost about $7.50! (That was at Happy Hour. They normally cost $15 a piece). It was pretty small. I could have easily downed 3 or 4 of them by myself, but that was all beside the point. We wanted a true gourmet crab cake from people who should know what they're supposed to taste like. And indeed it was very yummy. Absolutely the best crab cake I've ever had.

The following weekend, Russ and Sandy had dinner at our place for our first ever "blog summit" meeting and some good hangin' out. One of our many entree items wound up being Trader Joe's Crab Cakes. They were frozen, came two in a pack and cost something like $4. Trader Joe had his work cut out for him again. How would his crab cakes hold up with the taste of Phillips Seafood's still so fresh in our minds?

Sonia and I were both impressed. The differences in quality, texture and taste from the Phillips crab cakes were negligible. The only thing I could put my finger on was that Trader Joe's variety seemed flatter and slightly less like a pastry. If anything, I'd say TJ's had more crab meat. Also, the Phillips crab cake had a delicious cup of fine tartar sauce backing it up, whereas we had nothing but a little hot sauce with TJ's brand. But they were just fine as they were. Having had only two crab cakes in her entire lifetime, one of which she ate just yards from the shore of the Chesapeake Bay (basically the crab cake capital of the world) and that cost nearly a dollar per bite, Sonia decided Trader Joe's was a very close second, and she scored it a solid 4. I absolutely agree. I could certainly tell a small difference between the two brands, but I've had dozens of crab cakes in my lifetime from various grocers and restaurants, and I too must declare that Trader Joe's was the second best one I've ever had, falling just after the one from Phillips. My score, a 4 out of 5.

Russ and Sandy concurred with our assessment and also thoroughly enjoyed the crab cakes at dinner. Russ described them as "light and flakey, but juicy," and noted that Sandy would "give them an all around 'mmmmmm.'" 4 out of 5 Golden Spoons from each member of the Shelly clan.

That gives us a unanimous 4 out of 5 score. Not too shabby, Trader Joe.

Our collective bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trader Joe's (and Jose's) Lagers

Ah, beer. Probably like most folks ,I fairly distinctly remember my very first sip of brew. I was seventeen, off to college (I was a young'un all the way throughout my academic career, thanks to my birth date being right before the kindergarten cutoff date), and away from home for the first full weekend of my young, almost adult life. Long story (even by my standards) short, crazy week, and when one of my hall mates banged on my door and invited me out to his cousin's apartment for some drinks, well, I figured, time to see what the fuss was all about. The next night, we headed out and I was handed my first ever bottle of beer. I gulped, took a sip, swallowed, grimaced, and promptly said something along the general lines of "Ugh, this tastes like bleep*." The roomful of twenty-something people went dead silent, and my hallmate's cousin looked right at me, a stern look in his eye. "That's the best beer you'll ever have, don't you dare insult it again," he said through gritted teeth.

You see, the first cold one I ever drank of wasn't just any beer; it was a Yuengling, which in Pennsylvania is considered, at the very least, a good, solid beer no matter type of brew you're into. Back in my day, it was the gold standard among the college crowd. I have friends who have moved who swear they took it for granted when they lived here, but now that they can't get it where they live, they miss Yuengling more than anything else. For me, it's a staple in my basement beer fridge. Regardless to say, my initial reaction has drastically changed.

All this to say, I love beer. I am by no means an expert on it, but I love a wide variety from a good hoppy IPA in the summertime to a darker, heavier stout when the colder weather rolls in. One of the biggest questions I have heard from readers is, why don't we review the tremendous beer and wine selection that many TJ's offer? Unfortunately for both Nathan and I, we both live in the otherwise great commonwealth of Pennsylvania where by in large because of some archaic and nebulous laws, grocery stores are not allowed to sell alcohol (unless, as is becoming more common in the Pittsburgh area, they have a cafe attached). Beer is only available through distributors by the case or the very infrequent bottle shop. So, no cheap TJ booze for us...no two-buck Chuck...no great, cheap selection I've seen in out-of-state stores (like $3.49 for Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout)...no nothing. It makes it pretty tough to review when you can't taste it.

Anyways, I won't tell you how I happened to get my hands on a six-pack sampler of Trader Joe-brand beer**, except to say it must've been the beer fairy. Yeah, that's it, because it, uh, just magically appeared in my fridge one day...yeah. I'm going to run through the three types of beer in the Trader Joe's brand that haven't been reviewed yet (Nathan reviewed the light lager in his California days), with the caveat that Sandy and I are grading these on a curve. For me, I'm grading them based on that they're a store brand that cost (uh, from what I heard...) a buck a bottle, and more or less with the mindset of a good, typical lager like Yuengling being a 5. Sandy prefers beers that are, and I quote, "fruity and taste like Sprite" or different flavors of beers, like Atwater Vanilla Java Porter, so, in short, beers that don't taste like beers.

First up, Trader Joe's Vienna-Style Lager. I'm going to start by saying, not a huge fan. It's medium-ish, kinda amber in color, and overall fairly smooth flavor. The issue is, it's extremely, well, bittersweet isn't exactly the right word, but it's fairly sweet for most of the flavor before ending on a bitter note that settles in your mouth. This taste overrides any of the medium hoppiness or maltiness that the label purports this beer to have. I realize that's part of the style of some European brews, but honestly it's not a style that I've gotten into all that much. I'm having a tough time recalling what other brands it brings to mind to relate it to, but while certainly drinkable and refreshing, it doesn't quite do the job for me. As a plus, though, it's 5.9% alcohol for those who'd like to know. I churchkeyed the lid off, took a swig, and handed it to Sandy, who siphoned some off and promptly handed it back to me before unleashing a half-hearted "meh." Well said, darlin'. Her reaction tells me she'd give it a two overall as I doubt the second one of these we have will disappear at her doing. I think I'll be generous and say three to try and be fair to Trader Joe's here. I'm sure there's better Vienna-style lagers out there, but I doubt most any of them cost a buck.

Bottom line: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Next, we have Trader Joe's Bohemian Lager. Hmm, that's kind of a somewhat ironic name, as it tastes like a fairly conventional beer. It's a lighter, more golden colored beer that tastes pretty clean and straightforward, not much to it. There's some maltiness and a hint or two of some nuttiness that Sandy pointed out. Overall, there's not too much that's remarkable to say about it, except it's pretty smooth and refreshing overall. Still, while drinking it, I kinda found myself wishing I was drinking something else that was a little more complex. Maybe it's titled as being "Bohemian" because, conceivably, one could drink it without giving it much thought one way or the other. That's kind of how I felt. Oh, it's 5% alcohol, so about average, maybe slightly above for a basic lager. Sandy slowly nursed a bottle of this over dinner before it got a little too warm for her, and so she gave it to me to finish on up for her. This isn't an uncommon occurrence and she did say she liked it better than the Vienna-style lager, so she went ahead and gave it a three and a shrug. Again, keeping in mind it costs a buck, I'll give it a three as well...however, give me a Yuengling over this anytime.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Finally, we come to Trader Jose's Dark Premium Lager. I'm not sure how Trader Jose got the dark beer out of the bunch as when I think "Mexican beer" I immediately think "Corona"***, but like Nathan, I've given up on trying to make sense out of the different characters Trader Joe's has come up with. This, out of the three, is definitely the one I enjoyed the most. Part of it is my affinity for darker brews, and while this is a far cry from a Guiness or anything of that nature (of course), if you're familar with, say, Yuengling Porter it's about on par (not quite but almost there). Malty, smooth, fairly full-bodied and remarkably pretty tasty for a store brand. Is it going to change the world? Nah. I won't be pining for the beer fairy to show up with any more bottles of this cerveza, but if they were to appear somehow, I wouldn't mind either. Sandy simply sipped and stated a solid "Not bad," which is somewhat remarkable as this isn't one of her favorite styles. I'm assuming that means about a 3 in her book. For what it is and what it costs, to me, it's a good solid 4. Not terrific, but far from bad.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

So there you have it. In short, Trader Joe's is a fine place to procure cold, frosty beers, but in the end you'll be happier picking up some of the great deals on breweries like Samuel Smith and Rogue (I also remember there being a Kennebunkport Blueberry Beer we found at a Massachusetts TJ's last year that we liked) over getting the store brand. The TJ's offerings tend to be pretty tame and straightforward without too much to them. They're all better than Natty Ice or Milwaukee Beast, so at least they have that going for them. I'd say Pabst as well, but I have too many friends who like them a cold PBR to say anything too negative about it, lest they cut off my supply. But in all, for a buck a beer, you probably could do worse than these. Now, where's my Yuengling....

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* It's a family website
** See "archaic and nebulous laws" reference
***Yes, I know, there's other Mexican beers than Corona. But it's the first one you thought of, wasn't it?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Trader Joe's All Natural Uncured Chicken Hot Dogs

I know this is about a week or so late, but Happy Fourth of July, everyone. Since it was actually a fairly rainy night and we were beat from a long drive home from out of town, Sandy and I celebrated with a pretty low-key night at some of our friends' house eating ice cream and watching one of the most patriotic and thematically appropriate movies of all time, namely, "Independence Day." You know, one of Will Smith's finest movies ever when he and Randy Quaid save the world from aliens, and President Bill Pullman gives one of the most rousing cinematic speeches this side of "Braveheart." Or something like that. Great performances all around *cough* but the one actor who really surprised me was Brent Spiner. Who's Brent Spiner? Oh, c'mon, you know exactly who Brent Spiner is, even if you don't remember him from all his bit TV roles from shows like "Night Court" and "Law & Order." He's instantly recognizable as the powder white, perfectly coiffed Lt. Commander Data on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" where he plays an all-knowing, emotionless, and impeccably polite robotic android. His role on the show is as wooden as it comes. In "Independence Day," though? Spiner plays the role of head scientist at Area 51, where he's this long-haired, wild-eyed probable burn-out dude that practically bounces over the screen as he shows off his secret desert laboratory. In other words, Spiner plays pretty much completely opposite the role he's most famous for, until the alien he's dissecting wraps a tentacle around his throat and uses him as a puppet. Poor dude. All in all, the role didn't change my perception all that much of his acting abilities (i.e., meh), but there was a certain level of happiness in seeing Spiner in a different light.

Before heading over to our friends' place for the evening, Sandy and I managed to do one traditional American thing: grill up some hot dogs for dinner. Hot dogs, of course, are as American as baseball, fireworks, and Mom's apple pie, and if there's one thing to eat on the 4th, they would be it. That's not to say that I'm especially crazy about hot dogs, though. Most people seem to use them as a condiment delivery device, and I think it's because they're kinda plain tasting by themselves. Add in the fact that they're pretty unhealthy in almost every regard, and made from mystery meat, and while I won't always pass on them, I won't reach for them first.

Anyways, the hot dogs Sandy and I grilled up for the 4th were Trader Joe's All Natural Uncured Chicken Hot Dogs. On a shopping trip not too long before then, we got suckered in with a free hit at the sample counter and decided they were worth more of a try. They're definitely kinda interesting. The chicken dogs come fully cooked, and between that and being of a leaner meat, were slower to grill up than other hot dogs, especially because Sandy and I prefer ours to be grilled to the wrinkly, crinkly, E.T.'s been in the bath too long-esque point. I wasn't particularly happy about this discovery when it began pouring rain literally 30 seconds after I put them on the grill and finished up grilling with Sandy's pink rain coat hood hooked over my head to cover my shoulders and back. That was a sight for the neighbors, I'm sure. When they were finally done and we sank our teeth in, my thought was, "worth the effort." They're not out-of-this-world fantastic by any means, but the TJ's chicken dogs taste unlike any other hot dog I've ever had. Part of it is, they aren't pork or beef, of course, but they also have a meatier texture than expected, and while they emulate hot dog flavor, it's a different take as they're less salty and lighter-tasting. Pretty decent, I'd say.

Also, yeah, they're healthier. Nitrates have been linked to all sorts of bad stuff like cancer, and while regular hot dogs are supposedly chock-full of them, according to the packaging they're as nitrate-free as possible. I mean, if pretty much the only ones in them come from celery, and celery is good for you, it can't be that bad, right? And while not being perfect in the realm of sodium (what is?), they're healthier than most every hot dog out there in terms of fat and calories, so all in all, Trader Joe's Chicken Hot Dogs make a decent grill-time choice.

What does that whole nonsensical Brent Spiner intro have to do with this? Well, just like his part in "Independence Day" was an outlier in terms of his regular acting gigs but ultimately didn't change my opinion that much about him, these hot dogs are different from the norm but don't completely redeem my opinion of the genre overall. Sandy said that, although she liked these guys enough, she actually prefers other hot dogs over these. I guess it just took too darn long for me to sizzle these almost beyond recognition for her (just the way she likes them) that I gave up on doing so. She hemmed and hawed for a bit before settling on a 3. Me? I like them more than pretty much any hot dog other than Hebrew Nationals, but they're not a game-changer by any stretch of the imagination. That being said, I'll be getting these again when the mood strikes. I'll go with a 3.5.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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Photo courtesy of http://dukanblogging.blogspot.com. We neglected to take a pic of these guys before cracking the seal on them, and while looking for a pic we stumbled across this interesting blog. Take a gander sometime.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Trader Joe's Boeuf Bourguignon

Boeuf. I like this French word for beef. It reminds me of Saturday Night Live's Stefon talking about "New York's hottest club, Booooooooof...that's right Booooooooof, with nine o's."

We'll have to settle for one o, but our amis les Français have thrown in an e and a u as bonuses. And whether or not this item is Trader Joe's frozen section's hottest item remains to be seen...

I'm not even going to grumble about TJ's inconsistency with their international characters anymore. There's no reason this shouldn't be Trader Jacques' Boeuf Bourguignon (like the Ham and Cheese Croissant Sandwiches).

And before we get down to the actual food review, let me remind you that, as Russ stated in an earlier post, we're not food experts, nor have we ever claimed to be. But that's our angle. We're average "everyman" types that like to eat, and we'll give you our honest opinions. We are self-proclaimed "foodie-hack bloggers." After Yahoo's main page linked directly to The Daily Meal's article about us, I decided to promote us to "prominent foodie-hack bloggers." And as one critic who apparently critiques other critics' reviews so delicately pointed out, our blog entries are extremely self-indulgent and often contain several paragraphs that have little or nothing to do with the actual food (such as this and the three paragraphs preceding it). For that particular gentleman's highly accurate, yet mostly irrelevant observation, I amend our standing title to "prominent self-indulgent foodie-hack bloggers." If his observation is mostly irrelevant, then why include it in your title, you ask? Sheerly for the sake of comedy, my friends.

I've got at least a couple more paragraphs of non-food-related material that part of me wishes to insert here, but for the sake of the people who actually care what I think of this product, let's get started: The flavor of the delicious sauce is the highlight of this dish. I've honestly never had boeuf bourguignon before, but the sauce reminded me of a really good, really thick au jus from a French dip. The beef is tasty as well, but as usual, this entree could use a bit more of it. I was quite happy with the quality and the amount of vegetables, but Sonia didn't even think there were enough onions, etc. in the mix. She reminded me that the meal cost something in the ballpark of 6 or 7 dollars. Less than you'd pay in a gourmet restaurant, but still not cheap—certainly enough to buy us a belly-full of meat and veggies, we thought.

In my opinion, the complex, gourmet gravy makes this product worth at least one purchase. It might not be a Julia Child masterpiece, but for frozen food, it's pretty dang tasty. The price tag and the lack of meat might mean this dish doesn't make regular appearances on your shopping list, but I'd check it out if you're at all curious. I can't go lower than a 4. Sonia gives a 3.5 to the bourguignon, docking a point and a half for a decided lack of boeuf.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Trader Joe's Breakfast Burritos

If you look back over the last 10 or 12 posts, you might notice a trend: most of my reviews have been fairly negative. Strangely enough, the majority of Russ's posts have been quite the opposite. He's lucked out with a streak of mostly excellent products.

Despite the fact that Russ is the reviewer that actually gave a Trader Joe's product a zero, I'm slowly starting to feel like the group's Simon Cowell. And it certainly didn't help that Russ wrote up our group review of the Wild Blueberry Vanilla Chévre, and my score was by far the lowest out of the four of us. Now, I'm going to be honest: I like to complain, and I'm really good at it. I can almost always find something to complain about. Just ask my wife. (Although, she's a champion griper as well). But gradually, we're learning to be thankful in all circumstances. However, we have complaining down to such an artform, that even with things we're quite thankful for, we can still manage to find some fault to whine about. But seriously, we are grateful as well, that God has been gracious and put up with our terrible attitudes all this time.

Nevertheless, because of my duties as a foodie-hack blogger and grocery-informant, I must unfortunately continue on my sad tirade of moans and groans with this tragically tedious excuse for a breakfast burrito, and hopefully, I'll save a handful of people from being utterly disappointed with their morning meals.

Really, Trader Joe's? Really? C'mon. I'm just going to go ahead and say skip these and stick to whatever kind of breakfast burrito you can buy off the roach coach that pulls up to your office parking lot in the morning. It might not be healthy, but I can virtually guarantee it'll have more flavor. Sonia immediately proclaimed "These taste like cardboard." That says it all. They do. I'm not sure what process can prevent the natural flavors of eggs, potatoes, turkey bacon, and cheese from coming through at all, but TJ's has apparently discovered one. Honestly, to call these "bland" would be a gross understatement. I slathered my burrito with Cholula hot sauce and was able to finish it. Sonia finished hers, too, but only because she really doesn't like to waste food.

In the burrito's defense, the texture wasn't bad. It at least felt like a real breakfast burrito even if it didn't taste like one. You can certainly tell there's a tortilla with some potatoes and eggs and maybe some other stuff just by the feel of it.

Sonia said she can't give them more than half a star. Just because they didn't completely butcher the texture, I'll be kind and give them a 1.5.

Bottom line: 2 out of 10.

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P.S. -- I am having some technical difficulties with posting comments on this blog for some reason. We do appreciate all the comments you leave on our posts. I will respond to you as soon as the problem is rectified, or if you leave comments on our Facebook page, we're usually pretty quick to respond to those. Thanks!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Trader Joe's Wild Blueberry Vanilla Chèvre

This past Saturday night, Sandy and I had an absolute blast while meeting up with Nathan and Sonia for hopefully the first out of many more "blog summits" (i.e., excuse to get together, eat way too much good food and drink some good drink). Nathan and I are old college buddies and it was probably something close to 10 years since we'd last seen each other, and of course we didn't know each other's spouse. Aside from some great catching up, we talked a little shop and discussed some ideas for this blog which we hope to implement soon, and a fun upcoming reader contest, so be sure to keep tuned. And did I mention the food?!?!? Oh man. We met up at the Media, PA Trader Joe's (inside an old historical train station building, how cool is that?) and went up and down the aisles and snatched a whole array of goodies, went back to their apartment, and had a tremendous feast worthy of our success (except no Two-Buck Chuck involved).

You see, this is what I love about food. Not only does a lot of it taste good, but also it's great excuse for people to come together and spend some time at the table like we did. Think of some of your fondest memories, and there's a good chance food is involved somehow. It draws people together. There's something unique and powerful and fun about sharing a meal with family and friends that honestly makes me hate eating alone. Plus, it's fun to share about stuff that tastes good and even more fun to mock things that don't. It's with this passion for food and sharing that the four of us create this blog, and we're glad you're stopping by for a glance over.

This doesn't mean we're experts or anything, for sure. Nathan refers to us as "foodie-hack bloggers" which is about as accurate a statement as possible (just ask our readers and some of our commenters! You know we love you). Take the Trader Joe's Wild Blueberry Vanilla Chèvre for example. I don't even know how to pronounce it right, that tricky word chèvre. Is it like "chiv-ray" or "cheev-ray" or even like "cherve" (you know, kinda like you'd pronounce "Brett Favre")? I couldn't tell you. What I can tell you is this: Sandy's been itchin' to try it for a while, apparently Sonia has too, I'm willing to try most anything (apparently), and Nathan, well...he's a good man, but he's on record as saying this is the one thing he's most scared to try (I'm glad that, unlike me, he didn't think turn-around was fair play and insist on buying sushi). So, we decided, what the heck, let's get it for our summit for one of our multiple appetizer/side dish treats.

Also, I tell you, it's pretty good stuff. I kinda found myself wandering back to it over and over again over the course of our meal. It's good, solid and thick yet creamy and very rich. I'd relate it to a cross between cream cheese and cheese cake, except thicker and kinda tart (no, not tarty, Sonia. Tart). I think the cheese cake-esque qualities come in from the light vanilla flavoring and, of course, the blueberry glaze around the outside consisting of dozens if not hundreds of small berries and some pleasantly sweet but not sugary goop. Probably because we didn't know much better, we picked up an assortment of regular crackers to go with it, which made an alright taste pairing though it was so dessert-like I'm wondering if perhaps something like some graham crackers would have been a better match. Regardless, it was so thick that often just trying to swipe some off the knife blade onto the cracker broke the cracker. Perhaps we just weren't handling it with the proper delicacy one needs with handling goat cheese, I don't know. All I can say is, it made for tasty bite after tasty bite.

I'm going to break this down into couples for our rating. First, our wonderful hosts from the evening. Sonia seemed to really enjoy it and finally having the chance to try it. Despite our best efforts, there was about half of it left when we packed up for the night, and she smiled a big ol' Latina smile when Sandy and I said she could hold on to it (much easier than transporting across the state). She said she'd give it a four, with the only thing missing was just a little more vanilla flavor. Nathan? Well, he manned up and tried it, took a bite, grimaced a little bit, and said "It...still tastes like goat cheese. No thanks." Eh, more for us, goat cheese-hater*. That's apparently enough for a two in his book. So, for Nathan and Sonia...Bottom line: 6 out of 10

Sandy and I? We both sided with Sonia and really liked it. Sandy wavered between giving it a 4.5 and a perfect 5 but seemed to settle on the lower of the two, which is not anything to be ashamed of by any means. Just means it was pretty darn good but lacked a certain je ne sais pas to get a full pass. I agree. While I certainly enjoyed it (and by that I mean a lot), I don't see myself getting it too often. I'm guessing that's because in my book it's more of a "fancy get-together" -type treat than an every day one. Still, very good and I'd highly recommend it for a party or something of the sort, or if you're the type who likes munching some on chèvre without any special occasion involved, well, go at it. Like Sandy, I'm deciding between two scores...I think I'll go high and say 4.5 as well.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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*Nate's notes - Nathan would like you all to know that he is not a goat cheese-hater, and that he does, in fact, enjoy goat cheese in its "proper" context as a savory sandwich and salad food, rather than as a dessert-ish food.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Vintage Root Beer

In summers past, Sandy and I have had the privilege of going to some pretty remote towns in Mexico for a week to help out with some medical work and to get to know some of the local people. Honestly, I'm not even sure I can point to where we've gone on a map. All I know is, we flew into Mexico City, hopped into a 15-passenger van with 20 other people, and drove something like 10 hours over a mountain range or two, through endless desert stretches and then a rain forest, and wound up in a hot, dusty village on a mountainside where we'd set up shop for the week to go drive somewhere else an hour or more away to even smaller towns. Crazy fun. One of the best things about these trips (aside from, y' know, helping people/making a difference/learning from a culture different from our own) was, no matter where we went, no matter how remote, every single village had at least two or three small stores with a Coca-Cola sign out front. Go inside and there would be a cooler full of ice-cold Cokes, all frosty in their glass bottles. Late in the afternoon on a 115-degree plus day, after you get done chasing a bunch of 10 year olds around a soccer court, there's little that's more refreshing than that. Sandy and I would routinely seek a store out and for only a few pesos (something like the equivalent of 30 cents), we'd each have a Coke and seek out a shady spot to sit down and relax.

For those who don't know, "Mexican Coke" is much different than the Coke available here in the U.S. The biggest difference is, instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used a sweetener, Mexican Coke (and most other sodas in the world, for that matter) use real, honest-to-goodness sugar. HFCSs have been used commonly since about the late '70s-early '80s as an ingredient in pretty much every processed product known to man (In lunch meat? Really?) mostly because as a result of imported sugar taxes and farm subsidies, it's much cheaper to use in American food production. There's been all sorts of allegations that the prevalent use of HFCSs has been THE leading contribution in the spikes in obesity and heart disease rates in the past couple decades. There's arguments for and against that notion, and it could go on and on and on, and probably will ad infinitum.

My take? I just want to have a cold, tasty drink. Trader Joe's Vintage Root Beer makes a pretty excellent choice for that. Like other soft drinks marketing themselves under a "retro" or "old school" label these days, TJ's root beer is HCFS-free, just using sweet tasty cane sugar as nature intended. I find sodas made with real sugar tend to be lighter, fresher, and crisper tasting, and the root beer doesn't do anything to change that notion. It's smooth, too, because it's not nearly as fizzy as other soft drinks. To say that it tastes "flat" would be incorrect, I think, because that implies it lacks the carbonation it should have. TJ's Vintage Root Beer tastes more like what you could expect from a homebrew kit or festival stand (like the fresh birch beer I had on the 4th at a Pennsylvania Dutch festival) than a bottle of Barq's or can of A&W. It's light, refreshing and highly drinkable with real root beer flavors like vanilla and anise shining through, and even better served over ice. I'm not as sure it'd be a great choice for floats, though that could be more my own preference because I like the combination of fizz and ice cream. All in all, by itself, it's an excellent drink.

Sandy's not much of a soda drinker aside from the very occasional Dr. Pepper, but she said she really likes it, enough to give it a 5 for all the reasons above. I'm fairly certain she tried to sneak the last bottle while I was showering upstairs, and only very reluctantly shared it with me when I caught her in the act.* Me? Tough to say exactly. It's hard to impress me sometimes on some treats I grew up with in Eastern PA that those of the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage tend to make better than just about everyone else (if TJ's ever tries to make a shoo-fly pie or funny cake, God help them), which I consider root beer being among them. To me, it's not as good as home brewed at a festival, but better than most other types that are commercially available except for A-Treat brand. Now that's some great stuff...also, at $3.99 for a four pack, the TJ's strikes me as being a little pricey. If Coke can get a fridge full of bottles to some dusty Mexican village literally in the middle of nowhere and turn enough coin to sell them at barely over a quarter each, I'd think you could get a similar high quality bottle of soda for less than a greenback each in a major U.S. metropolitan area. Maybe that's just me. Eh. Enough quibbling for me, because for what it was, I definitely enjoyed it and I'm going with a four. All this writing about it definitely just got me thirsty for another one...

Bottom line: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* Yes, dear, this is a slight exaggeration. But only slight. By the way, notice how I wrote an entire review about soda and never once called it what you and all you silly Pittsburgh-born-and-raised folks call it?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Trader Joe's Chicken Pot Pie

No, Kittah, this is mah pot pie!

I don't think I'll ever eat another pot pie in my life without thinking about the stupid antics of Eric Cartman. I can't even remember what was so funny about that scene. There was just this fat kid eating a pot pie and his pet kitty cat kept meowing because it wanted some. He got really angry at the cat and started saying "No, Kittah, this is mah pot pie!" I remember the other guys in the dorm and I howled with laughter for some reason. I guess there's just something universally funny about a fat kid getting all worked up about protecting his food from a little cat.

A similar scene could have unfolded in our apartment last week. Except instead of Eric Cartman, the angry fat kid would have been me, and instead of a meowing kitten, it would have been my poor, sweet wife on the receiving end of my exclamation: "No Sonia, this is mah pot pie!"

That scene could have unfolded. That is, if Trader Joe had whipped us up a more respectable pot pie. Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it - the pot pie wasn't worth fighting over.

As you can see, the cover of the packaging brags about the "rich golden crust in oven or microwave." I'll certainly give it that: the crust wasn't bad - especially for a microwaved pot pie. Furthermore, as you can see, the cover of the packaging doesn't really brag about much else. Because that's where this product's bragging rights end. The vegetables were edible, but Sonia thinks they were tasteless. She kinda thinks the whole thing was bland. She dumped all kinds of hot sauce on hers.

Blandness wasn't the biggest problem for me. My major issue was the texture of the chicken itself. The pieces looked fake and felt funny. They were kinda chewy. If it weren't for that, I could have seen myself purchasing this product again at some point. I'm sorry to say it, but the only other chicken pot pie I've had in recent memory is one of the 80¢ Banquet ones from the freezer at Target...yeah, that's all I really have to compare it to (and our detractors say we're not real foodies). Now I know the Banquet ones are disgustingly not-good-for-you, and they're significantly smaller than TJ's version, but if we put those two head-to-head in a taste-test...um, I would go with the Banquet one.

Yes, I know that's pretty harsh. Really, if you don't mind rubbery chicken, they're not that bad...and there's always the possibility we just got one made with a batch of sub-par chicken. For the tasty crust and the not-bad vegetables, it earns a 3 from me. Sonia gives it a 3 as well, docking 2 points for an overall lack of flavor. So, we both thought it was just OK, but for different reasons.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Trader Joe's Lowfat Strawberry Kefir

"Kefir" is actually pronounced "Keh-FEAR," although so many people use the popular mispronunciation "KEY-fur," that it may soon be an officially accepted pronunciation. I wanted to say "Keffer" like it rhymed with "heifer," probably because I subconsciously associated yogurt with milk and milk with cows.

"What is Kefir?" you might ask. Well, up to this point, I've always thought of it as "drinkable yogurt." Trader Joe's version, however, declares itself "cultured milk." From a marketing standpoint, I'm going to go ahead and say that "drinkable yogurt" is probably the better way to think of this stuff. Let's face it, we've all left a half-gallon of milk in the fridge a week or so too long before...and, well, wouldn't that be "cultured milk" as well? I'm no dairy scientist, but isn't rancid milk essentially just milk that's been "culturing" a little too long? I guess this particular milk has been cultured with a unique strain of helpful probiotic bacteria and not the nasty little fellows that have raucous parties in our month-old milk cartons.

When you drink this Kefir, you can feel a tingling sensation on your tongue. I picture thousands of little one-celled characters square-dancing in the bottle and subsequently in my mouth and tummy. They're all wearing red and white plaid, which appears as pink to us, since we're watching the spectacle from a distance.

I don't know how they get the strawberry flavoring in there. I guess they just add the strawberry juice after the little square-dancing buggers have had their way with the milk. I'm not sure what deal they've worked out with the microorganisms to keep them from eating the strawberry flavors. I would think that after eating so much cream, the little guys would want some fruit.

At this point in the blog post, I'm quite certain I've lost all of the microbiologists and dairy science people, as they are no doubt disgusted by my ignorance of all things miniscule and microbial. It's probably quite pretentious to assume that any educated people are reading this at all and are putting up with my nonsensical anthropomorphism and talk of square-dancing probiotic organisms. No one except perhaps a few stragglers hoping to have a laugh at my expense...and possibly one or two who are interested in whether or not I enjoyed the product...in which case I should end this pointless tangent immediately.

I'll just go ahead and say this is very normal, average Kefir. I liked it. They didn't reinvent the wheel with this one. It's exactly what I expected. No more, no less. Smooth, creamy, strawberry-tasting. But since we know TJ's is capable of going above and beyond and doing so much more than their competition, simply meeting our expectations won't get this product anywhere close to Pantheon status. It's a 3.5 in my book. Good for digestion. A half-glass is a filling between-meal snack. No big complaints, but don't expect more than you'll get from any other brand.

Sonia gives it a 3. She thinks it's OK, and she knows it's good for her, but she's not a big fan of Kefir in general. She thinks all Kefir has a funny aftertaste, including this brand.

And, ah, word to the wise: don't read the second half of the ingredients list where they name all of the square-dancing microbial families...

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Caramel with Black Sea Salt Bar

Like any married man, I have certain habits and tendencies that really bother my wife. A lot. One of my absolute worst offenses that I regularly commit is, Sandy wants to hold on to some tasty snacky treat. I see it in the pantry for, oh, a week, or more and figure it's fair game and start helping myself. One time, I swear, she had this box of Girl Scout Tagalongs for something like three months just sitting on a shelf, not even touched. Finally one day, I get hungry, see them, and say to myself, "Self, this is a good treat for which I am hungry. This is past any statute of limitations for any claim of right of spousal exclusivity. Indulge." So I did, and man oh man did I get the stinkeye once Sandy discovered that I dared break its seal to snatch away three measly treats. Just recently, there was this bag of jellybeans that we had since Easter which she hadn't touched since Donald Trump looked like a possible presidential candidate. I took them to work one day for a snack, a couple weeks go by, and she randomly decided maybe on Sunday she wanted them. Again, the stinkeye. It's enough of a regular thing that she now freely admits that she sometimes hides a stash of treats for herself away, like candied nuts or Christmas hard candies, because unlike me, she "doesn't have to eat everything right away." Oh, that girl.

What does all that have to do with this particular (and peculiar-sounding) chocolate bar? You'll read soon enough. First, let me tell you how amazingly good this is. It's so good, one of my good buddies randomly called me one night and first thing out of his mouth, he inquired, "Have you tried the Trader Joe's sea salt/caramel/dark chocolate bar? Holy cow, it's amazing." I didn't think chocolate was something one dude usually called another dude about, no matter how tasty, but I kinda rolled with it. Last week, Sandy and I made an over-the-state-border Trader Joe's run to, uh, procure some other products I'll be reviewing in the upcoming weeks and we started our TJ's shopping after a good dinner out (where I had, among other things, a remarkably good peanut butter coffee porter). In the mood for a good dessert and after a successful crazy taste combination, I saw this on the shelf and decided, what the hay, worth a shot.

A few miles down the highway on the way back home, Sandy and I decided to bust it out. Oh man. First, the chocolate. I'm a guy who has cut his sweet tooth on many a Hershey's milk chocolate bar, so that's what I'm used to. The darker, higher percentage cacao variety has never held much appeal for me - I can appreciate some types but find others to be too bitter for my taste buds. The TJ's bar is 70% cacao so I wasn't sure what to expect. I can only say I was fairly surprised as it was some of the tastiest dark chocolate I've ever had, and any bitterness was more than covered up by the silky rich caramelaliciousness oozing out of each square. Pretty fantastic by it's own right, but amazingly enough, add in the sea salt...out of this world. I wouldn't have guessed it, but the sea salt seems to accentuate the chocolate and caramel with this smoky undertone that just heightens both tastes. In every bite there's the chocolate, caramel, and sea salt, all present yet balanced and very complimentary of each other. I have never had anything that's tasted quite like this. Between the two of us we quickly wolfed down the entire bar, which consisted of eight roughly one-square inch bites to snap apart.

So, back to my opening tangent...I have decided turnaround is fair play. That's right, wifey, it wasn't just dog food I was planning to pick up Thursday night at Trader Joe's. I have listened to you and decided this is something I want to savor again and enjoy over the space of a few days, maybe even a week or more, instead of plowing my way through it first chance I have. And since I couldn't just let you interfere with this plan, I was going to go stash it away somewhere and keep all for me. Anyways, that was my plan, but...dang local TJ's ran out. All the other kinds of chocolate bars but not a single one of these, and believe me, I looked and begged and pleaded to no avail. Obviously, somehow, you discovered what my secret plan was and collaborated with TJ's to make sure they weren't available. Or maybe...wait... you bought them all and hid them all away from me now, didn't you? Oh my gosh, yes, that's what you did. I can't believe you. It's a good thing you're cute, otherwise...dangnabbit, wifey wins again.

Sandy gives it a four and a half, the only demerit because it "gets messy." Keep in mind, this was on a warm day in a Subaru with an air conditioning system that only kinda works, so when she busted it out and started breaking up the squares, it was a little melty and left a small, tasty deposit on our fingers. If it kept cool or even in the freezer, I'd imagine this wouldn't be an issue at all. My take? I gotta give it a full-out five. Unlike other flavor combos I've tried from TJ's, this is so well executed and makes such an unexpectedly crazy good treat. Well done, TJ's, well done.

Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons