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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Friday, August 26, 2011

Trader Joe's Italian Mini Ravioli

Perhaps you've seen one of our write-ups from The Daily Meal* that have circulated around the Interwebs to sites like Huffington Post and Shine by Yahoo! and the like. That might even be how you found our site. By far, my favorite part of those articles is perusing the reader comments. Needless to say, some folks don't share our taste buds (eh, to each their own) or think we're major dopes (we never said we weren't), which most of those types of comments give me a good laugh. The one type of comment that I didn't really understand was the ones that ripped Trader Joe's as being full of trendy hipsters and pretentious overpriced food. Listen, I'm not a TJ's apologist by any means, but that hasn't been my experience at all. If I wanted to pay a premium for my chow, I'd get it from the Sharper Image, or at least the big local chain that I paid double the bill at before I stumbled across TJ's. As far as being pretentious, etc...well, okay, it is a little but not overly so, at least not in Pittsburgh. I see more families with kids than doofy-haircutted-tight-Goodwill-pantsed kids prattering on and on about The Avett Brothers shopping there. That criticism, which I've seen repeatedly, doesn't ring true to me, and makes me wonder where those folks get their grub at (McDonalds? No wonder they're in a bad mood). TJ's isn't exactly above reproach, but in my mind, they do more right than wrong.

Okay, it's Italian Mini Ravioli time. This is pretty unpretentious, see? It's not even Trader Giotto-branded. And face it, it's mini ravioli. In a statement that I am completely unsure as to if it'll make people more or less likely to purchase it, one can choose to think of this as cook-at-home Chef Boyardee. The package contains a pound of the little good fellas and costs $2.something. That's not expensive at all.

As far as taste goes, they're alright. Sandy stated it fairly accurately when she said, "They're more than half good." I'll complement that thought by saying they're less than half bad. We boiled some up the other night to serve with some meatballs and sauce for a quick, easy dinner. Even though they were swimming and rolling over in the pot for a decently long while, when we sank our teeth in, they seemed kinda undercooked and therefore slightly hard/chewy. That's more our bad, I guess. The pasta tastes like the typical semolina offering, while the filling leaves a little to be desired. It's made of Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs that, while not being all that bad, strayed a tad towards salty and gritty. Still, they're decent, and we had no problems finishing up our bowlfuls, though we won't be stumbling all over ourselves to have them again, either. Next time we do, though, we'll probably go more of the chicken broth soup route because, to us, they seem like they might be a little tastier that way.

Sandy gives them a three, as she said she's had better ravioli, like the fresh packages you can buy at some stores. Maybe some of their downside lies in the fact that they're a dry good and made to last forever (maybe a good thing for us East Coasters this week...an earthquake and a hurricane? Can we just go back to ungodly humidity? Stock the shelter!). As Sandy explained, a three is better than half good because half the maximum she can award something is 2.5. And to think, she usually asks for me to figure out anything math-related (that's roughly akin to asking me for directions in a foreign country). I see her three and match it.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* Gonna be working on yet another collaboration with them soon! Keep tuned. One day, God-willing, this will lead to us being interviewed by Katie Couric.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Trader Joe's Tofu

I think the first time I ever had tofu, it was in an Asian restaurant. They served a salty miso soup with mysterious little white cubes that I later came to find out were the notorious vegan food sensation. I didn't mind it at all, before or after I found out what it was, though I think my enjoyment of the soup was heavily reliant upon its massive amount of sodium rather than the tofu.

Tofu is very neutral. It has very little flavor. The texture is neutral as well. It's not chewy, tough or gritty at all. A lot of people are very pro-tofu. A lot of others are highly anti-tofu. But I myself am appropriately neutral toward the bland brick of soybean curd. And in regards to it, I apply this vaguest of notions: "It is what it is."

In my opinion, tofu depends entirely on what's going on around it. In this particular instance, we served it with Trader Joe's Mélange à Trois. As clever a play on words as it is, I'm not sure why the label on a bag of vegetables should be alluding to group sex at all. Call me conservative, but by the same token, I find it utterly revolting when I see T-shirts that boast something along the lines of "I got crabs at some random seafood place." Mmm. STD's. How appetizing.

At any rate, Trader Joe's veritable orgy of peppers did spruce up our tofu quite a bit. It is ultra-convenient to have all three basic colors of bell peppers already sliced inside one bag. But the excitement didn't stop there. We also added some onions, hot sauce and Trader Joe's Organic Whole Milk Yogurt as a sour cream substitute. Yummy.

The yogurt is plain and simple, just as it should be. TJ's didn't do anything crazy or original. They sell it in a nice big container for a reasonable price. Good stuff. Some people are quite skeptical about using plain yogurt in place of sour cream, but it's worth a try if you're looking to cut a bit of unnecessary fat out of your meal. Although, substituting sour cream with plain frozen yogurt would be a different story entirely.

We served the whole concoction inside Trader Joe's Whole Wheat Flour Tortillas. I could have sworn we reviewed these before, but I guess I was thinking of the Reduced Carb Whole Wheat Flour Tortillas. These are similar, but with more carbs, I suppose. More carbs = more deliciousness. They're nutty and they have a good whole grain flavor.

The resulting tofu fajitas were surprisingly flavorful, flaunting a plethora of different textures. I certainly wouldn't have minded a bit of chicken in the mixture, but the tofu did an adequate job of giving the meal a good hearty base and some protein.

In the past, when I've reviewed multiple TJ's products like this, I would give a breakdown with a different score for each product. However, Sonia and I agree that each of these products, as well as the finished conglomeration of them, are all deserving of the same score. Four out of five stars from Sonia and four out of five stars from me for each product.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Trader Joe's Non Fat Plain Frozen Yogurt

Sandy looooooooves blogs. Loves them. I have no idea how many she follows but her Google Reader feed is usually so filled with posts and articles about how to make the new cool animal of the day out of popsicle sticks that usually any of our posts are something like #376 on her list. I have no problem with that. She's unearthed a guest blogger opportunity for me on one of her favorites, Children of the '90s, so check that, especially you baseball fans. The one blog that she continually rambles on and on about (other than this one, of course) is Hungry Runner Girl. Oh man. She could talk about it literally all day, about how cool the writer, Janae, is, how fast she can run, how far she can run (20+ miles a day?!?!), how much she can eat (I'll admit, it's quite impressive) and how pretty the pictures she takes are. But the one big thing they share is their love of frozen yogurt. There's this place in Utah that Ms. HRG goes to called Yogurtland that's a selfserve, pile-as-many-toppings-on, pay-by-the-ounce kinda deal that she continually raves about. There's similar places around the 'burgh like Razzy Fresh that while Sandy really enjoys, I'm not that into. Not that I've tried it, either. I don't know. I like delicious frozen treats as much as anyone, and have absolutely nothing against frozen yogurt, but that concept just doesn't appeal to me for whatever reason, and usually when Sandy mentions going out for a cold treat I'll steer the car towards Rita's instead. I'm probably just weird, with this frozen yogurt shop aversion and all, but hey, I'm the same guy who detests ketchup (that's a story for another day). So yeah, I got my food hang-ups, and that's one of them.

Anyways, since we never go out for some "fro-yo" (as Sandy loves to call it with all sorts of different intonations ranging from little kid to slightly ghetto), she implicitly insisted we bring some home from our last TJ's trip. She spotted the Non Fat Plain Frozen Yogurt, and I'm guessing with the idea of flavoring our own bowlful with whatever we see fit, that's what we got.

Well, Sandy loves the TJ fro-yo. Oh man, she does. Right after her first bite she smiled and said "Mmmm, it tastes very yo-ey. Me gusta." Right away she went into a whole litany of ideas as to what to top hers with, ranging from honey to one of TJ's new-fangled grindy guys to exotic stuff like cinnamon pear vinegar. She's been going through a whole yogurt kick recently so it's no wonder to me that she enjoys it. Me? Eh. I get that it's healthier than ice cream, and there's little bad that can be said about frozen treats. Except...the taste. I don't know. I've never had a frozen yogurt that tasted so, well, yogurty. The Ben & Jerry's-esque carton claims it's "pleasantly tart." I'd up that to "nearly overwhelmingly." It's so tart it's nearly sour like a yogurt-flavored Warhead. With my first bite, I took to wincing a bit while stomping my foot (that's my normal reaction to tastes that catch me off guard, don't ask) under the sheer tartness of it all. It's too much. I gave it a second go-around just before writing this and while taking a plain bite, I could brace myself better but still found it to be too much. I then tried to cover it up by dumping some Hershey's and peanuts on, and while it helped, the yogurt taste still hacked its way through like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. There's got to be something that will make it better - fresh fruit? - but it's just a bit too much for me. Got a suggestion? Leave a comment either below or on our Facebook page and I'll take it under consideration.

Sandy's all about it. She can't say anything wrong about it whatsoever and she probably can't wait to eat this every single night. Sandy gives it a whopping 4.5 out of 5. Me? Sigh. This won't be the largest disparity in our rankings ever, but it'll be close. Too darn yo-ey. I'm going with a 2, though I'm open to revising that if I can find the right stuff to go with it.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, August 22, 2011

Trader Joe's Shrimp with Spicy Green Curry

There's a greater sense of authenicity when one uses chopsticks while eating any kind of Asian cuisine. It's as if the experience gains an extra dimension. Most dining affairs rely heavily upon our senses of taste and smell, and of course, the presentation of the food appeals to our sense of sight. And one might argue that the chewing of the food, and feeling its texture in our mouths is dependent upon our sense of touch. That's true. But with chopsticks, we feel the food before we even start eating it. We get more familiar with it somehow than when we use a fork or spoon. That's why I love that Trader Joe's put chopsticks in the picture on the box of this green curry shrimp.

I did use a pair of wooden chopsticks I saved from a local Chinese restaurant. However, I guess I defeated the purpose of the chopsticks to a degree when I ate the dish straight out of the microwavable plastic packaging. An artfully designed blue ceramic bowl would have been much nicer. But there was a certain functionality with the plastic, dual-compartment tray. After microwaving, it was malleable enough to deliberately spill the curry side onto the rice side bit by bit. There's something a little incongruous about using wooden chopsticks to eat Asian food out of a flexible plastic tray. But nevertheless, I enjoyed it.

The jasmine rice is exactly the same as all of Trader Joe's jasmine rice, included in many of their Thai and Indian dishes. No complaints there. The texture of the shrimp was surprisingly good for a frozen meal. And the green curry added a truly unique flavor to the food. I don't recall the exact wording of it now, but the box described the green curry as something along the lines of "a mild curry, yet not without some heat." I'd say that's a fairly accurate statement. It's moderately spicy. It's a flavorful kind of kick. It agitates the insides of the mouth a bit, but does not do so in vain. It adds a wonderful amount of zesty taste.

My biggest issue with this product was the miscellaneous matter that found itself swimming about within the curry. There were little bits of vegetables that I found quite unnecessary, and finally there was an unidentifiable substance with a texture not unlike that of sand. Fortunately, since I swished the curry over onto the rice gradually, I didn't really take note of this sandy silt until I was nearly finished with the dish, since it had mostly settled to the bottom of the curry side of the partition.

Sonia did not partake of this dish with me. Thus, I shall follow our precedent for such an instance and simply double my own score. I give it three and a half out of five stars, with virtually all of the points lost due to the bizarre textures lurking at the bottom of the little pool of mostly-delicious curry.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Trader Jose's Pizza Al Pollo Asado

So, let's continue the inadvertent Mexican fiesta we have going on here from our last post, shall we?

A few weeks, maybe a month ago, Sandy and I picked up a pair of these Trader Jose's Pizzas Al Pollo Asado with the intention of each of us taking one to work for lunch so we could each give it a try and then write a review. I ate mine a day or two later. Sandy's pizza? It sat...and sat...and sat...and sat in the freezer. For weeks. I've written before about her tendencies to do such things, and like other times before, finally today I snatched it for lunch at work again. Considering the past couple days we've been too busy to shop and I've had a bag of vending machine pretzels for lunch, I think that's okay. I really don't think she can mind it that much...hmm, indeed, right as I was typing this, she walked in from a night out with the girls, saw the empty box on clear display next to me on the couch, and she neglected to say anything about it. I think I'm in the clear.

And, well, I should be, because honestly, while the pizza was okay, I was reminded today that it looks a lot better than it tastes. I mean, look at it, with its big, thick crust loaded with chicken, beans, cheese, and salsa verde. How can it be bad? Those are some of my favorite things.

Problem is, even for a pasty white Pennsylvania Dutch boy like me, I know how good and tasty and vibrant authentic Mexican food can taste from my two trips to the country. This...isn't quite there. First, the corn masa crust. Think of a cross between a corn tortilla and a semi-soggy chunk of cornbread, and that's more or less what it tastes like. In its defense, though, at work we have only microwaves, and I know that's a terrible way to "cook" pretty much anything, but that's what we (and pretty much everyone except home ec teachers) have at work to prepare food. I guess it'd be better from an oven. Still, not that great. The chicken, cheese, and beans? Indistinct, I'd say. I mean, it tastes okay, but it all melds together. At least it's real chicken bits, and a good number of them, too. The tomatillo salsa, however, is pretty good - really good, even, especially because there's a pretty legit kick to it here and there - but there's not nearly enough of it for my taste. I tend to like salsa overkill, though, so it may be sufficient for some folks.

Overall, I think it's on the verge of being better. Some more spices and flavors could really help set it apart. For one thing, I'd think some more lime flavor could go a long way. Trader Jose sneaks some in with some ever-so-delicioso sounding lime juice powder, but I didn't taste it, and found myself wishing I had some fresh-cut wedges to squeeze out over the pie. A little of that, and a little more of whatever Mexican spices make authentic dishes so intoxicatingly good, and definitely some more salsa verde (and chiles in the salsa), and this is much closer to being a pretty respectable quick-bite-for-a-gringo dish. It's shame in a way, too, because it looks so good that it's disappointing to me at least when the flavor just doesn't quite deliver. The pollo pizza also dampened my spirits when I was reading the box at work, and it mentioned how great it'd go with some cold cervezas...I don't think I could get away with that at work, Jose. Don't tempt me.

In trying to be fair, I've found myself wondering about my rating all afternoon. It's frozen from a box, so of course it can't be as good as the real thing, and when you can actually taste the salsa, it's really good. For a $1.99 work lunch, though there's much better options, they're not absolutely horrible. However, in addition to flavor issues, like pretty much any prepared microwavable things, well, assume what you will about the nutritional facts, and you'll be right. I settled on between a 2.5 and 3 for them, so one of each, por favor.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Trader Joe's Southwest Chicken Quesadillas

It's not particularly easy to slip a sub-par Mexican dish past us. Sonia's a full-blooded first-generation Mexican-American who's lived in L.A. for pretty much her entire life until very recently. (And there are some pretty good Mexican restaurants in L.A.) Sonia, her mother, and her aunt are all excellent cooks, and although I haven't tried her abuelita's cooking down in Oaxaca, Mexico yet, I am told that it will ruin me for all other Mexican food for the rest of my life.

So, needless to say, it's a totally unfair comparison to put frozen TJ's entrees up against truly authentic, home-cooked Mexican or Tex-Mex style foods. I'll try to keep that in mind while writing this review.

And fortunately, I've never had a really bad quesadilla in my life. I even enjoy the ones from Taco Bell. But again, that's apples and oranges if you're talking about comparing it with something that's home-cooked. But conversely, a freshly prepared, highly-fattening fast food quesadilla is still going to beat a frozen one in a taste test hands down—even one as cheap and ghetto-fabulous as one from Taco Bell.

So the only thing that's left that I can compare these TJ's quesadillas to are the microwave Healthy Choice quesadillas that I've had recently. Honestly, they're pretty similar in overall quality and taste. Sonia and I had a hard time putting our fingers on exactly what was lacking in this product, but we both agreed that something vital was missing. The ingredients didn't seem to mesh together properly. There was a slight lack of flavor, and the tortilla wasn't firm enough.

In its favor, though, the serving size was ample. The chicken wasn't particularly rubbery like we've seen with a few other TJ's frozen foods, and there were no ingredients that got in the way or detracted from the whole taste and texture of the dish. It just simply didn't have enough kick, pizzazz, and flavor to blow us away. Hot sauce and a dollop of sour cream helped it, but couldn't totally redeem it.

But hey, we're picky with our Mexican and Tex-Mex. If you're curious, it's still worth a try. To be fair, we should mention that we made it in the microwave when we could have made it on the stovetop. Leave us a comment and let us know what kind of results you got cooking it on the stove.

We give it three stars a piece.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Trader Joe's Beef Pho Soup

Well, friends, today is the one year anniversary of the inception of this blog. Thank you all for reading, for joining our blog, liking us on facebook, and following us on twitter. We do appreciate your support. Also, stay tuned for our next great reader contest winner announcement!

Perhaps it's fate that we should be reviewing this Vietnamese style pho (pronounced "fuh," like you were going to say a dirty word, but then quickly and wisely changed your mind) on our birthday. In Vietnam, it's traditional to eat a bowl of beef pho on your birthday.

Actually, no, I just made that up. According to this site, in fact, there are no actual birthday traditions in Vietnam, but rather, all birthdays are celebrated on New Year's Day. So...this is sort of an inappropriate dish to review on our birthday. Oh well. Such is life. Did you know, however, that we share our birthday with James Cameron, Madonna, Angela Bassett, Kathie Lee Gifford, Frank Gifford, and Eydie Gorme (whom my mother-in-law worked for some years ago) just to name a few? It's true.

OK, enough intro. On with the food review. For starters, based on TJ's track record, I was fully expecting there to be a lack of beef in this dish. They have a tendency to skimp on the meat in dishes like this one. But I've gotta say, that was NOT the case here. Now I'm certainly not saying there was too much beef, but I was pleasantly surprised that the soup had plenty of meat bits that lasted until the end. Although, that being said, I must unfortunately point out that another basic ingredient was in short supply: the noodles! Not sure how that happened really, but I ran out of noodles way before beef. And, the noodles seemed really tough to me. I followed the instructions, but it felt like I should have allowed the noodles to soak in hot water for another five minutes or so.

The broth was light and slightly savory, like a good pho broth should be. I've only had restaurant pho twice, and both times, I am told, I had it from average-at-best pho restaurants, but I must remind you that Russ and I are self-proclaimed foodie-hacks, not true licensed foodies. And I'm willing to bet that many of you have eaten even less pho than I have...so please bear with me. The veggies were fine: chopped up into little pieces and evenly distributed throughout the soup. Like the beef and broth, I had no major complaints about the vegetable bits.

The overall effect is a nice, delicate Asian meat and vegetable soup. The biggest let-down by far was the lack of noodles, and their slightly-stiff texture. I'd try this product again, but I'd heat the dish an extra minute and allow it to sit for an extra five. I'll give it three and a half stars. Sonia agrees.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Trader Joe's Buttermilk Pancake & All Purpose Baking Mix

All purpose baking mix. You can use this for any and all purposes you can possibly think of. Use it as engine lubricant, throw it on the slip n' slide in the backyard for the kids, or just drink it plain.

Or you could use it to make waffles instead of pancakes. That's what we did. On our many travels throughout this beautiful country over the past two years, Sonia and I have made waffles in the continental breakfast rooms of about a dozen hotels in at least 4 or 5 different states. Sonia fell in love with those ubiquitous, handy little waffle-making irons and the delicious golden-brown treats they render.

She found one online for a reasonable price and decided that she would buy it so we could pretend we were on vacation in a hotel getting a free continental breakfast each and every morning. First, she tried the waffle-maker with a cheap Target store-brand mix. The instructions only had her add oil and water to it. The batter wasn't bad, but it was thin and runny, and it was full of preservatives and fake chemical-type stuff. The finished product was cooked through a little unevenly, and it had a tendency to stick to the non-stick walls of the brand spanking new waffle-maker, which annoyed poor Sonia to the point of despair.

However, Sonia's hero, Trader Joe, came to the rescue with his more-natural, thicker, heartier breakfast batter option. Trader Joe had us add oil, water, and eggs to his mix. The Presto 3510 Flipside Electric Waffle Maker and Trader Joe's Buttermilk Pancake Mix yielded a happily golden, fluffy, and evenly-cooked breakfast dish, pictured right. We added butter and Trader Joe's 100% Pure Maple Syrup. Yummers.

To be honest, I kind of liked the Target waffles better. Weirdly enough, I enjoyed the contrast between the crispy, slightly-burnt edges and the soggy, softer insides. In comparison, TJ's waffles seemed dry and boring. Overall, Sonia would go with the Trader Joe's waffles if given a choice between the two, admitting that she did miss the crispiness of the Target batter. But she gives the TJ's batter a solid 4 star rating. Despite my preference of the other batter, I still enjoyed the Trader Joe's batter waffles. I'll give them a 3.5. It's definitely worth a try, and it's probably healthier than most popular pancake batters.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Brown Rice Marshmallow Treats

This past week, Sandy and I had the honor of helping host some friends of ours from Mexico City as they visited and worked with our church for a few days. On Thursday night, we threw a "make your own pirogi" party at our house, which once we all sat down and began talking over dinner with our visitors and some neighbors and friends from our church, the topic of American food quickly came up. We were asked what are good, traditional, all-American foods that we as a country and culture invented. Honestly, we came up fairly empty. Hot dogs? Burgers? We made them popular, but they were "invented" in Germany and other parts of Europe. Apple pie? I wouldn't believe that, in the arc of human history, it'd take long enough for us to show up to invent something so basic yet so tasty. I thought I had a sarcastic winner with that ever-so-delicious high fructose corn syrup (no thanks) but nearly simultaneously it was pointed out that it's more of an additive than an actual food, and my friend Josh blurted out Turducken, so that may be the winner. Honestly, aside from junk food like Cool Ranch Doritos, there may not be much else.

Except, maybe, the good old Rice Krispie treat. Okay, sure, yes, it's technically a junk food, too. But man, I've never heard anyone rattle off the evils of them, and never met anyone who doesn't like them. They're simple enough for a child to make with a little supervision, but tasty enough that every time I see them at a picnic I make a beeline. I love how the Krispies mingle in with the marshmallowy goo and create this semi-chewy, quasi-crispy square block of a dessert. And though there's lots of variations, for my money, the very basic and plain ones are best of all.

Which is why Trader Joe's is toeing some thin ice here with these Organic Brown Rice Marshmallow Treats.* You have to be careful when you're experimenting with a classic, especially when you're playing with the tried-and-true formula by trying to make it healthier. And honestly, I've heard that lots of folks don't particularly like these all that much, so I wasn't sure what to expect when we picked up a box last week.

Well, they're not my favorite, but they're not all that bad, either. You can definitely taste the difference with the brown rice (more grainy), which also affects the texture after a few chews (alas, also more grainy). Apparently science has advanced to the point where such things as organic vegan marshmallow-type things are possible by combining brown rice syrup, evaporated cane juice (isn't that just sugar? Am I missing something?), guar gum (which I presume to better than GWAR gum), and sea salt. I'd say altogether, they're more chewy, less crispy, and lighter and airier than the typical crisped rice 'n marshmallow love fest. Tastewise, they even seem a slight bit sweeter with a touch of vanilla. Each box has five bars inside, each about four or five not-so-big bites each, and seem to be low-calorie and low fat in comparison to most. I'd say they're not bad to tuck into a lunch or to grab for a quick, small snack for an energy boost.

It doesn't mean I think the treats all that great, either. For one, for $3.99, they're one item I'd say is definitely overpriced at TJ's (few and far between, but hey, it happens). And I guess when it comes down to it, I prefer my marshmallow and crispy rice treats to more closely resemble the outcome of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man crashing into a Kelloggs factory then these experiments in organic snack food science. I do appreciate the effort, however, so I'm not knocking that (and in fact I think TJ's ought to be commended for it), but there's just some classics you shouldn't mess with, like remaking "The Longest Yard" or "Bad News Bears." What the heck was it with 2005 and crappy movie remakes? When Sandy took a bite of one, said "Meh" and not much else, so that's roughly a three in her book. I'd go a little lower, as the added graininess in the texture throws me off a bit and the cost factor, but I'll give some props for the health-consciousness factor of these, and go with a three as well.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Trader Joe's Tropical Carrot Juice Blend

In a previous post, it was established that I have a fear of carrot juice. I've never been a fan of the original V-8 or any other vegetable juice. I like vegetable soup, salty and served hot, but cold vegetable juice seems to violate the natural beverage laws that I've come to accept. Fruit/vegetable hybrid drinks, such as V-8 Splash, can be hit or miss with me, depending on which ingredients they throw into the mix.

I'm assuming that the juices used in making this beverage are a bunch of tropical fruits with some carrots tossed in. Judging by the name, it's either that, or they've used some mysterious, elusive "tropical carrots," which are apparently sweet, fruit-like, and delicious.

But either way, I was pleasantly surprised by the taste of this juice. To me, it doesn't taste carrot-ish at all. I find most juice blends that sneak some carrot into the mix to be moderately palatable. However, I can still taste carrot in most of them. They usually find some clever way to dress up the carrot-taste with citrus fruits, but you can still detect that hint of vegetabliness. Not so with this juice. The carrot flavor is barely detectable, and it blends beautifully with the fruit juices. It's very tasty for a carrot/fruit juice blend.

So really, this is a genre of beverages that generally scores very low in my book, but this tropical carrot juice is a really solid effort on the part of TJ's. I would buy it again. I'll give it 4 stars out of 5. Sonia, although not as vehemently opposed to vegetable juices as I am, thought it unnatural for a carrot juice blend to taste so sweet. She found the flavor a bit strange, yet not undrinkable. She gives it a 3.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Trader Joe's Fiberful Handmade Dried Fruit Bars

This entry kind of goes as a companion to my post on Monday about Trader Joe's Organic 100% Natural Fruit Wraps. We'll be doing some comparing and contrasting since they're such similar products, sold in the same little section of TJ's.

The biggest difference between these two types of dried fruit bars is that these Fiberful ones are indeed full o' fiber, as the name so blatantly and appropriately declares. Six grams in one bar. That's not too shabby for such a thin, flat piece of snack food. And I'll be brutally honest, you can immediately detect the presence of fiber in the bars when you start chewing—there's definitely a gritty, almost dirt-like texture to these babies. Their fruit flavor wasn't bad. It was actually pretty similar to that of the other fruit wraps. But the problem was I simply couldn't enjoy the flavor while chomping through layers of sawdust and cardboard.

Here again, I find myself playing the bad guy. I know from just the small amount of online research I did that these bars are fairly well-loved by the general populace. And if you bought these fiber-rich snacks for the purpose of getting some extra roughage in your diet and you consider the incredible amount of fiber they've crammed into them, their texture is acceptable.

However, if you're not buying them expressly for the fiber, I would highly recommend you stick to the aforementioned Organic 100% Natural Fruit Wraps. Their texture beats that of these Fiberful bars hands down. I'd only recommend purchasing these if you're, ya' know...looking to, ah, give your digestive tract a little help...

And at this point, I would leap dutifully into a paragraph or two of potty jokes and bathroom humor, if not for the fact that I've learned my lesson the hard way that fart jokes do not generally go over well in mixed company. Furthermore, a food blog is the last place on earth we'd want to hear such filthy musings. So, for once, I shall listen to my better judgment and conclude this post here.

Sonia wasn't terribly impressed with these bars either. A 3 out of 5 from her.

I just can't give these a great score when I know there's a much better alternative right on the same shelf at TJ's. A 2.5 from me.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Trader Joe's Lemon & Triple Ginger Snap Ice Cream

Question our food knowledge, wisdom and experience as much as you want, but while both Nathan and I are proudly self-proclaimed foodie-hacks (i.e., a couple normal dudes), I am willing to proclaim myself an ice cream expert beyond dispute. Consider my credentials. Thanks to many family summer vacations in Vermont, I have been to the Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory* innumerable times (at least twice a summer), so I have seen firsthand how some of the best ice cream around is made, and have probably tasted close to every flavor there. In my college years, I went to Penn State, home of the world famous Creamery, which if you haven't had their ice cream, you're seriously missing out. It's one of Bill Clinton's favorites, and you know that fella likes his frozen desserts. Now that I'm in Pittsburgh, I'm not that far away from great local shops like Dave & Andy's and Oh Yeah! which I frequent every so often for a cone or dish of dairy bliss. Needless to say, I've had lots and lots of regular grocery store-type brands over the years as well, as my gut bears witness to. And Sandy? Aside from puppies, fireworks at a Pirates game, and I hope yours truly, she probably loves ice cream more than anything else in this world. If she could have it every meal of thee day, I know she would and not think twice about it. Give her a sub-par bowlful though, she won't be too shy to voice her displeasure. A sure win of a date for the two of us is to grab the pooch and go out for a scoop. Trust us, we're experts.

So when we both say that Trader Joe's Lemon & Triple Ginger Snap Ice Cream may be some of the best ice cream we've ever had, that says one heckuva lot. As Sandy said between mouthfuls the first time we gobbled some down, "There's nothing bad that can be said about this." So true, wifey. The lemon ice cream base is subtly lemony, kinda sweet and tangy, but not over the top citrusy - there's just enough lemon to let you know it's there, and certainly won't make you want to pucker up. I'd say it's the perfect amount, because it accents the triple ginger cookie dough dry-swirled into the mix in just the right balance. If you've had the Triple Ginger Snaps from TJ's, you know exactly how good they are - a heavenly mix of crystallized, fresh and ground ginger made into cookie batter for a perfect ginger-spiced cookie. It is a fairly dry batter, so it doesn't exactly mix seamlessly in the ideal creaminess that is the lemony ice cream, but the whole consistency works well enough and it's so incredibly tasty that you just can't knock it. Overall, the ratio of cookie dough to ice cream is just about right. There was a pretty large vein of batter we unearthed towards the bottom in our particular carton, which made it seem a little bottom-heavy, but believe me, the two of us didn't mind it at all. The side of the container says each carton holds the rough equivalent of 15 cookies worth of dough, which seems about right to me.

Sandy and I chomped our way through the whole quart of this in only two sittings. Yes, we know, that's bad for you. Ice cream will kill you. Shame on us, yada yada yada. Right. Pick this up, take a taste, and try to put it down. You won't be able to. It's more addictive than Teletubbies for a two-year old. You can't not eat it, unless you're weird and don't like superlatively fantasterific ice cream, or you're some type of monk sworn to abstain from any and all types of earthly pleasure, which in that case I'd say you're missing out.

If I had to give a list of the best ice cream I've ever had, there's no way that this isn't near the top. If you're not familiar with the idea of "pantheon," in short, it's the best of the best, the summit of the mountain, if you will, that once someone or something achieves that level, it's impossible to rank it against others who have achieved that status. It's the most elite of statuses, and not an honor to be taken lightly. It's a Hall of Fame within the Hall of Fame (think Billy Williams vs. Ted Williams). Anyways, if I had to make an ice cream Mt. Rushmore, this would be right up there with the Creamery's Peachy Paterno, Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia and Chubby Hubby, and the offbeat but incredulously good bacon and Trix** combo from Oh Yeah!. It's that good, and if it makes the ice cream pantheon, you best believe it qualifies for the WGaTJ's one as well. Five from me, five from my lady, and I wish we had five more cartons in the freezer. Probably a good thing that we don't.

Bottom line: 10 out of 10 Golden Spoons

p.s. - Don't forget about our reader contest! See what you can win then read the rules and regs. One week left! How good are your chances!?!?!?
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*Everyone who works at the Ben & Jerry's factory gets three free pints of ice cream a day. They're also owned by the same folks who own Weight Watchers. Talk about a sustainable business practice.
**Much better than the bacon and hops I had once, as well as the inadvertent wasabi that secretly snuck it's way into my dish once. Talk about an unpleasant surprise.

Trader Joe's Organic 100% Natural Fruit Wraps

I used to love those fruit roll-ups that were so popular in the 80's and 90's. They were the epitome of "fun food." And then Betty Crocker started doing crazy stuff with them like fluorescent colors and little shapes you could punch out of the sheet, and things just started to get out of control. After kids had stuck the roll-ups over their eyes, punched out the little shapes, and played with them on the table, the fruit was covered in a thin layer of dirt and little fuzzies. It was kinda gross and we all knew it, but the roll-ups still tasted good, so we shoved the bits of flattened fruit puree into our mouths, along with the millions of microbial invaders that had hitched a ride on the roll-up and our sticky hands. I figure it just strengthened our immune systems in the long run and perhaps prepared our bodies to fight off H1N1 and other such modern-day calamities.

Flu vaccination? Please. I've eaten fruit roll-ups off an elementary school classroom floor. My white blood cells can handle whatever the swine flu has to dish out.

And I also figure that eating more organic fruit can't hurt in the ongoing battle against viruses and germs. That's one of the many reasons I wanted to check out these fruit wraps from TJ's. Pretty much the entire ingredients list is fruit purees and fruit juices. Au naturel. And maybe it's my slightly more sophisticated palate, (it really hasn't changed that much since I was 8) but I think these taste way better than those old Betty Crocker fluorescent deals I used to peel off the plastic sheets in third grade.

I'm not totally sure why they're called "wraps," either. They're not wrapped around anything, they're just thin layers of fruit. I think people used to call this kind of thing "fruit leather." Maybe Trader Joe's wanted to steer clear of the whole inedible cow-hide theme entirely, so "wrap" seemed more appropriate.

At any rate, they're very fruity and they're incredibly moist. When you open the package, they're completely coated in a layer of what would appear to be apple juice—it wouldn't be much different if you dunked the entire wrap into a glass of fresh apple juice just before eating it. But no complaints there. You can hold the whole thing by the wrapper while you eat. No need to get your hands all sticky.

All the flavors I've tried are really good. There's not a whole lot of variation in the taste of each kind, but you can tell some difference. They're chewy, soft, and sweet. They do stick to the roof of your mouth and teeth sometimes, but you'll get that with fruit leather or whatever you want to call it.

Another solid, healthy snack offering from TJ's. Double 4's.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Jumbo Cinnamon Rolls with Vanilla Icing

Somewhere in middle America, in some dank, dark basement full of sharp kitchen utensils and 60's memorabilia, a narrow beam of hazy sunlight spills in through the window at the top of a cinderblock wall, illuminating the Pillsbury Doughboy, alone, languishing in a moment of self-pity. Deep in thought, the chubby fellow is sharpening his favorite pastry knife...and plotting his revenge...his revenge on Trader Joe.

Cost-wise and taste-wise, these cinnamon rolls are enough to send even the most agreeable of bakery mascots into a jealous rage. I really couldn't think of any other good bakery mascots...except for maybe that Bimbo Bear, and let's face it, a little something is lost in translation with that particular immigrant bruin—or rather, perhaps, a little something unwanted is gained in translation.

Now, I can't think of anything to complain about with these cinnamon rolls, except for maybe the high fat content, too many calories, etc. But hey, you don't buy jumbo cinnamon rolls in order to drop a few dress sizes. And no, I don't wear dresses. I was speaking to our primarily female audience.

So like I was saying, I can't think of anything to complain about...but Sonia can! Because she was the one who prepared them in the kitchen. She claims that she followed the instructions exactly, but that the packaging assaulted her as she attempted to remove the first two cinnamon rolls from the container, or something like that. She was only trying to take out the first portion of the dough, but according to her account, all six rolls ganged up on her and attacked her straight out of the package. She baked the first two rolls, but then she was forced to put the remaining four into sandwich baggies, as the cylinder the pastries originated from was destroyed in the debacle. She was thoroughly disgusted...so much so, that even the incredible taste of these huge, fluffy pastry rolls failed to fully atone for her traumatic experience in the kitchen. She docked a point and a half before she even tasted the finished product.

But I must say, the icing was good, although there's not exactly a plethora of it. We had to use it sparingly to make it last for all six rolls. But the pastries were soft, tender and sweet. There was a great balance of cinnamon throughout the product, unlike Baker Josef's Cinnamon Crumb Coffee Cake, which may or may not have been our fault...

I'm going to have to give them 4 out of 5 stars overall. Sonia gives them a 3.5, but her score would have been higher if not for the faulty packaging. Overall, I think these rolls are quite a success. Tell the Pillsbury Doughboy to pack it up and hit the road. And Trader Joe, watch your back!

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Espiral Vinho Verde

Wait, wait, what? I thought this was a Trader Joe's blog reviewing Trader Joe's products. Where's the "Trader" character name or cutesy packaging or anything like that? I don't see that anywhere near here. This looks like an actual, legitimate, bottle of wine that has nothing to do with TJ's. What's up with that, on this, the leading semi-authoritative foodie-hack review site of all things Trader Joe's?

Well, remember the , uh, "beer fairy" that was kind enough to drop off some TJ-brand cold ones a little while back? She was also kind enough to, uh, get us a bottle of Espiral Vinho Verde as well, which she left a note stating the shelf tag explicitly said this was exclusively available at Trader Joe's. And since there's sort of a precedent for this on our blog, well, I figure why not review it. Thank you, booze fairy, but I hope some day that the laws of Pennsylvania will allow you to retire.

This wasn't the first go-around with vinho verde for Sandy and me. Through the generosity of my folks and the marvels of resort timeshare networking, we spent our honeymoon exploring the southern coast of Portugal by day and relaxing in our hotel room at night with a bottle or two of wine and watching the Simpsons dubbed into Portugese with English subtitles. Now that's an experience. In short, if you have the chance to go to Portugal ever, go. We stationed ourselves mid-Southern coast in the town of Albufeira (Arabic for "castle on the sea") and since it was the cooler, winter months, we spent all of our time driving around our tiny Yaris to see different castles and cathedrals all the way from Sagres and into Seville, Spain. Trip of a lifetime, no doubt.

And the wine...delicious. I've heard that, by some measures, Portugal is behind only Russia as a drinking country (I think it's some type of per-capita ranking), and one of the favorite alcoholic refreshments is vinho verde. Literally, it means "green wine," although it's more generally classified as a white and certainly appears that way in color. I've heard it explained that the "green" refers to the very young age of the grapes used for making the wine, as they are smaller and much more tart than their older, bigger brothers and sisters.

For the Espiral Vinho Verde that the booze fairy got for us at TJ's, it's a fairly decent representative of the genre. Imported from Portugal, it's definitely a wine to serve well-chilled. If you take a good waft before drinking, the closest thing that came to mind for me is a freshly sliced, very fragrant green apple, as the tartness just smacks you in the nose. As you take a sip, the tart aroma and taste is even more powerful in a vivid flourish that ends on a slightly bitter note before the tartness reappears to linger for a while. Despite that, overall it is a fairly refreshing, crisp taste and experience that the label states is "medium dry" (I don't know enough about other wines to vouch for that, but it sounds about right, as it's certainly not sweet) which, like others of its ilk, makes a light but bold, unusual glass of wine. If you love tart, you'll love this. If not, you may not be as much of a fan, though for it's inexpensive price (from, uh, what I hear, five or 6 bucks) it's worth a try. We enjoyed a couple glassfuls with a simple lemon chicken pasta we made the other night, and I could see this pairing well with most fish and other seafood. Very summery, and packs a 9% punch to it.

Sandy's not huge into most types of wine, but she definitely appreciates the occasional glass of vinho verde. We were both pretty happy when we discovered that one or two of our favorite brands were available at the nearby state store. For this particular bottle, we both definitely liked it, but maybe slightly from the lack of fond memories associated with it, we can't rank it high among the clouds. As Sandy kinda said, using an example of a famous local product, "It's like getting a Primanti's-type sandwich in Mexico. It can be good, but it's not really the same, either." However, she did mention this was a little easier and smoother to drink as it had a slightly less tart bite to it than we've been accustomed to, and if we could actually obtain this at our local TJ's, I could see us picking it up often enough as the mood would strike. Sandy was content enough to give it a three. I think it deserves a little better than that, so I'm going to one-up that with a four.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Trader Joe's "this strawberry walks into a bar..." Cereal Bars

So, this strawberry walks into a bar...and then another strawberry walks into the same bar. Don't you think the second one should have ducked?

A strawberry, a hamburger, and a hotdog walk into a bar. The bartender says, "Sorry, we don't serve food here."

A strawberry and a Bohemian walk into a bar. The Bohemian gets thrown out, and the bartender says to the strawberry, "Now that's what you call a 'bounced Czech.'"

I could go on...

But if I did, you wouldn't read the rest of this "review," and I wouldn't blame you.

We've tried both the blueberry kind and the strawberry kind, and they're both tasty. You can see right on the box that there are plenty of "this stuff is good-for-you" claims to be made. Organic grains, B vitamins, low fat, etc. So they seem to be healthy enough. They're reasonably-priced as well. But how do they taste?

These cereal bars are surprisingly flavorful. After trying the blueberry ones and being perfectly satisfied with those, I was a little stunned that, if anything, these strawberry bars were bursting with even more berry deliciousness. I tend to enjoy blueberry products a bit more than strawberry ones, but there are always exceptions. Both products are soft and moist-ish.

If you've ever wondered why I employ terms such as "moist-ish," it's because when someone who disagrees with me leaves a comment something along the lines of "Hey, these thing aren't moist!" I can always counter with "I didn't say they were 'moist.' I said they were 'moist-ish.'" In the future, when and if I graduate from "foodie-hack" to "foodie," I can make more bold, confident claims about food, and when people leave such comments, I can simply produce my Official Foodie Certification card and just shut them down right then and there. That being said, I must clarify that only the fruit portions of these bars are moist. The cereal portions of the bars are dry, like the cereal portion of a cereal bar should be.

But really, I'm quite happy with their flavor, texture, and everything. There's a good cereal:fruit ratio, and the serving size is adequate. They're perfect for a quick, on-the-go breakfast, or just as a little afternoon pick-me-up. I'm gonna go ahead and say that you should check out both the blueberry and strawberry versions of these cereal bars. There are a couple more flavors that we haven't checked out yet, but we'll keep you updated. If you've tried the other flavors, feel free to fill us in with a comment below. I thank you in advance.

Sonia says these are worthy of a 4. I concur.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Our Next Great Reader Contest!

Maybe you're a college student who's kicked off the dorm meal plan. Maybe you know one. Maybe you're paying for one. Or maybe you just like quick, easy, inexpensive, tasty recipes made from the very best Trader Joe's can offer. And just maybe, you read Nathan's review of the latest, greatest, and most school spirited TJ's cookbook ever - The I Love Trader Joe's College Cookbook - and you're wondering how in the world you can get yourself a copy. You can go the old school way and go to an actual bookstore to get it, or click over on Amazon and buy it, but...well, you're going to be spending enough on books soon enough as is, why not get it for free? That's right, the What's Good at Trader Joe's team is giving away a copy of it on the house to one lucky reader. Let's keep it elective gen-ed easy with some very basic entry rules that even a freshman could follow:

1. Like our Facebook page and also the I Love Trader Joe's College Cookbook Facebook page and look, you're entered! I mean, you have to like us for us to give you something, and I presume you have to like this in order to want to win it, right?
2. Tag us in a Facebook post and you're entered again, but only if it's nice! (In case you're not sure what this means, here's a cheatsheet)
3. Like or comment on one of our posts on Facebook, or leave a comment on the blog page, and you got yourself another chance.

Contest runs from now til Tuesday August 16, at 9pm EST. One winner will be picked in a random drawing, and look for the Facebook announcement shortly thereafter. We'll also drop you a line so we can get your address, etc to ship it on out to ya. We'll give you 48 hours to respond and if you don't, we'll assume you're trapped in the creepy corner of the campus library and find another taker. We're only going to ship it to somewhere in the U.S.

Well, that's it, so good luck! This will not be graded on a curve.

The I Love Trader Joe's College Cookbook

Perhaps it's fate that State College, Pennsylvania, home of my alma mater PSU, will see its first Trader Joe's store open later this year. Maybe it's no coincidence that this blog, fueled by a love of Trader Joe's food, is helmed by a duo of proud Nittany Lions. And possibly it was no accident that this ingenious cookbook, authored by professional chef and food writer Andrea Lynn, is now available to Penn Staters and other college students around the country, to potentially save them from the same food-crimes that I myself fell victim to some 10 years ago there in Happy Valley.

During my college years, I lived in a big house on Beaver Avenue with five other guys, all Penn State students. To put it mildly, our house could have used an interior decorator's touch. But as a wise film professor once told me, "Your budget is your aesthetic." That statement was not only true for filmmaking, but it could also be applied to nearly every facet of living, and we, the inhabitants of 622 W. Beaver Ave. took that idea to heart, decorating our house as our ultra-low budget dictated. Our shelves were lined with light-up Santas, LP record covers of bands we'd never heard of, a few mannequin heads, and a five-foot tall styrofoam cactus from a Chi-Chi's restaurant. We took what we could get, and we made things look interesting, if not aesthetically pleasing. Our budget was our aesthetic indeed.

And eating habits were no exception. Our cupboards were a collection of college-fare clichés. Cans of tuna and Spam lined the shelves, topped by rows of easy mac, ramen noodles, and loaves of semi-stale bread. We were frightened of cooking and intimidated by grocery shopping. Taco Bell's 49¢ taco night was the sole representation of "international cuisine" in our diets. In short, we were poor, and we ate poorly.

However, today's collegian need not suffer such culinary woes—not even one who's strapped for cash—not so long as he or she has a Trader Joe's store nearby and The I Love Trader Joe's College Cookbook in hand. With incredible full-color photos and easy-to-follow instructions, the book guides readers through 160 pages of cheap and painless recipes. Even the most inexperienced cooks can whip up dishes like the Thai Red Curry Deviled Eggs, pictured right.

Don't think you've got the culinary skills? No worries, these are "dishes you can't eff up." The foods in this book are seriously simple to make. There's a system of icons indicating things like which recipes require no cooking, which ones take less than five minutes to prep, and which ones can be made using only a microwave. Most of the recipes only list 3 or 4 steps of instructions! It really doesn't get much easier than this.

There are even drink recipes in here: both non-alcoholic and otherwise (for college students that happen to be OVER the age of 21!) And really, I graduated from PSU a decade ago, but I am still opposed to spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and this is totally my kind of cookbook. It isn't just for university students. Think college kids, but also think bachelors, lazy people, fans of Trader Joe's, and lovers of all things streamlined and efficient.

Man, that pulled pork sandwich picture is making me hungry. And yeah, you guessed it—you can make it with a recipe in The I Love Trader Joe's College Cookbook, available now on Amazon.

Also stay tuned for our next reader contest in which you could win your very own copy of Andrea Lynn's I Love Trader Joe's College Cookbook! In the meantime, check it out on Facebook and click "like"!