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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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Trader Joe's Mango, Red Quinoa and Chicken Salad

Given that my last review covered both chocolate-covered potato chips AND pumpkin cheesecake, does it really surprise you that I thought to myself, "Hmm, maybe I should eat a salad?"

Salad can mean a lot of different things, of course. Perhaps it's a simple bed of greens and some light dressing. Maybe there's a flower-shaped radish around or it's heaped with croutons and Bacos (ugh) or it's every veggie in the book. Know what a traditional-style Pittsburgh salad is? Take lettuce, tomatoes, onions and other assorted veggies, toss together, then top with a half metric ton of cheese and a large mitt full of fries, top with some type of meat (sometimes steak, I prefer buffalo chicken) and then drowned in dressing (ranch or bleu cheese, usually, for me)..delicious, though not exactly healthy, and it
renders the consumer immobile for about three hours afterwards.

A faithful reader on our Facebook page (if you're not a fan yet, why not? Click the thingy at the bottom!) tipped me off to the TJ's Mango, Red Quinoa and Chicken Salad, which sounded both delicious AND healthy to me. Like other really long named items, I'm just going to shorten this to the TJMRQCS from here on out. On a solo shopping trip, I got two of these, one for me and one for Sandy, with the intention that we have them for a work lunch, and for $3.99 each, not a terrible deal.

Let me t
ell you: I love this salad. It's tasty in pretty much every way possible. Open it up, and the bowl is literally packed with baby spinach which is crisp and leafy and fresh, with some carrot strings and diced onion. That's it for the veggie portion of the salad - simple yet fresh and tasty, and there's a deceptively copious amount of it in there. The mango? It's aside in a little cup, chopped up and ready to go on, and firm and sweet. Perfect. The red quinoa? Lots of it. It tends to tumble down towards the bottom, of course, but while kinda easy for the palate to skip over, it's there serving its role perfectly, adding some weight and merit to the whole package. And the chicken? I'll admit, it looks a little funky at first, kinda like it got marinated in lemon-lime Gatorade, with nary a noticeable explanation for its isotopic appearance on the label. Read the back a bit, or channel your inward intrepid food adventurer like me and just chomp on down, and you'll realize it's yellow curried to add a rich flavor dimension. And unlike other TJ dishes that tend to skimp on the meat, there's a pretty good, I'd even say appropriate, amount. And lastly, the coconut chile dressing...man. It kinda caught me off guard the first time I sampled it. You see, it starts out sweet and mellow, like coconut milk, with some mango (and perhaps lime) flavor, bordering on almost too sweet, before it drops the people's elbow with a load of chile-laden spice that I wouldn't have anticipated. It's absolutely fantastic tastewise, though it's kinda like slightly-watery mayo in its composure, so it plops instead of pours. I suppose you can dip your forkful instead, but when you also have quinoa, that makes it a harder task to complete successfully. That's the only minus I can think of, because on the whole, I can quantify the TJMRQCS as one of the best salads I've ever had, at least in the prepackaged variety. And naturally, because of the leafy roughage, lean protein, and grainy goodness, the salad is filling and will keep you going all day.

So...what did Sandy think? Wish I could tell you exactly. I'm almost certain she would've loved every bite of it, as the only potentially undesirable bits would be the onions that she could easily flick aside and carry on. Sandy took hers to work, and somehow, for some reason or other, forgot to eat it... *smh*...shame shame. I guess the preschool fish sticks were just too tempting for her, and since she has this fairly strict and sensible rule about never eating something past its supposed "best by" date, the window for her to try it this week has unfortunately passed. Doh. Fortunately for me, Sandy brought it back home, and since I lack such a strict and sensible rule, and hate for such things to go to complete waste, I had a bit of it with my lunch today to remind myself yet again how good it is. It was only two day's past its best-by date, and still impeccably fresh and not one bit funkified, so don't judge me, alright?

I think I've decided that TJMRQCS stands for more than just Trader Joe's Mango, Red Quinoa and Chicken Salad. It also stands for "Trader Joe's Made Russ Quite a Craziscrumptilicios Salad," because that they did. I can give it only the slightest of knocks for the dressing's consistency, and given how minor an offense that is when weighed against the whole, it seems only right that we have a new entrant into the "What's Good at Trader Joe's" Pantheon.

Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, October 28, 2011

Trader Joe's Peanut Butter & Oat Bars

These remind me a little of Tiger's Milk bars. Remember those? They're little energy bar kind of snack things. I think they still sell 'em in 7-11's and such. I always liked Tiger's Milk bars. Funny name, though. It sounds like some bad line from Charlie Sheen during his heavily publicized psychotic period. "What are the three things in my tummy? I was hoping you wouldn't ask that. Um...let's see: bile, intestinal fortitude, and tiger's milk." Right, Charlie.
But anyway, I like them. They're filling and flavorful and reasonably-priced. At first, I thought I saw actual peanuts floating throughout the bars, however, after munching away for a minute or so, I realized I hadn't really crunched anything at all. It was all chewiness all the way. Upon closer inspection, what I first assumed to be peanuts proved to be peanut butter chips: perhaps not as healthy, but at least as tasty. I certainly wouldn't have minded a few peanut-halves. In fact, that's my biggest complaint about this mostly successful product. Why make something peanut-flavored and not add peanuts? It's not like peanuts cost $8 a jar like macadamias. And although the chewiness was nice, I'm always down for a little crunch-factor.

I can never predict what Sonia will think of products like these. Sometimes she thinks things are too dry, or that they make her too thirsty. Fortunately, she thought to bring a spot of milk with her when she tried these for the first time. No, not tiger's milk. Cow's milk, I believe. But at any rate, I recommend them. They're peanut-buttery, filling, and they have a nice flavor. Four out of five stars from me. Ditto from Sonia. Bottom line: 8 out of 10 stars.


Monday, October 24, 2011

Trader Joe's Milk Chocolate Covered Potato Chips and Trader Joe's Pumpkin Cheesecake

There's a lot of perks to being one of the world's foremost amateur-hack foodie reviewer of all things Trader Joe's. I love whenever Sandy and I walk into the local store, we're greeted by the cashiers ringing their bells to the glorious tune of "Ode to Joy" as one of the stock boys approaches us both with a lei to place around our necks and gives us a hint to where the stuffed elephant is this week. Well, okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration. What isn't, though, is the sheer influx of all sorts of recommendations to try this or try that. In fact, one of our best finds was pointed out to us by a friend of mine, and further confirmed by lots of Facebook comments to the general effect of "You gotta try the chocolate caramel sea salt bar! OMG!!!" I'll admit that I generally love all the recommendations we receive, even though it makes our "to try" list almost as long as the tax code but far, far tastier.

Anyways, one item that's come up over and over and over again is Trader Joe's newish Milk Chocolate Covered Potato Chips. I get the appeal. Sandy and I were making a quick trip for some chips and hummus before heading to a friend's get-together, she saw the new bright shiny display, and immediately looked at me, eyes wide open, strained cheeks, teeth slightly bared. I can be a little slow on the uptake, but the meaning was quite clear: Pleaseohpleaseohpleaseplease pleaseprettyprettyplease we should eat these in the car plllllllease. Well, okay. You can tell our rush to try them out as Sandy quick snapped the picture on my iPhone after quickly plopping them on a windowsill inside the store. And sorry, we neglected to get the nutriotion info snapshot as enough employees were already giving us the stink-eye. We'll remedy this soon.

I'm not sure they were worth the rush, hub-bub and hype. I mean, they're good and all, don't get me wrong. They're just not as good as I hoped. First off, they have way too much chocolate and not enough chip. You know how, if you order a plate of nachos, and there's always one or two that have all the melty cheese attached to them? Think of every chip in the bag, except it's chocolate. It's good, tasty chocolate, to be sure, but it's just too much. Also, consider the chips. On the plus side, they're big, crunchy, full of ridges and definitely noticeable even in the cocoa flux. I like them, but there's two problems: First, namely, there's not enough of them. And second, well, I don't think they're salted, which I was kinda expecting. These are like the polar opposite of the Sea Salt Brownie Petites, which were way too salty. Not to go all Goldilocks on you, but these weren't salty enough (the aforementioned sea salt/caramel chocolate bar? Just right).

Sandy and I pretty much agree on these: not a bad munchie, but there's better irresistible snacks at TJ's. Sandy goes with a respectable three, I'll go with half a spoon better.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Annnnnnnnnd....here's a quickie bonus review of Trader Joe's Pumpkin Cheesecake, another well-recommended item from our readers. Not that I'd recommend combining the chocolate potato chips and the cheesecake into one dessert...that's a combo even I wouldn't try...but if it's your thing, well, who am I to judge? This was another quick stop pick-up for a family dinner on a day when we didn't have a chance to make a homemade dessert. However,as you can see by the far-snazzier looking picture, Sandy had much more time to make it look all fancy on her iPhone. It's in the freezer section, and the instructions say something to the effect of thaw for an hour or two at room temperature and it'll be good to go. Well, like other TJ desserts of this ilk, the results left a little to be desired. We waited the two hours to slice it up, and there were still some frozen bits here and there, and it had the unmistakable just-frozen taste to it. That's not a huge minus to me. I quite enjoyed it, actually, as it was tart, tasty, and kinda creamy, though it could have been creamier (see: just frozen). And kinda like the pumpkin pancake mix, the cheesecake was sort of pumpkin-pie tasting, while probably erring on the side of not pumpkinny enough, which I can appreciate. The graham cracker crust was pretty good, too, and for $6.99, not a bad price for a family-sized dessert. Most of our clan liked it enough, with even an enthusiastic "five" rating from the under-six crowd, while the rest of us gave a few satisfied Mmms. Only my dad had any mildly negative flavor comments ("not pumpkin pie-like enough"), and if you knew how well he's been spoiled over the years by tasty homemade desserts, you wouldn't blame him. I'll go ahead and give it a four, I think, while Sandy sticks with a three for mostly texture-related issues (related to being just frozen, of course). I'd say it's worth getting for a easy dessert to share if you don't have the time for homemade goodies, just give it plenty of thawing time before serving.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Pilgrim Joe's Pumpkin Ice Cream

I bet Miles Standish, John Alden and the gang didn't have anything like this at the first Thanksgiving. They were just figuring out how to grow crops and take shelter in the New World, and I'm pretty sure the establishment of the Plymouth Rock Creamery took a back seat to surviving and whatnot. Nevertheless, the recipe for this colonial treat was apparently passed down from Pilgrim Joe to his descendent, Trader Joe, who has decided to offer this holiday treat to all of us.

I know, I know. It's a little early for Thanksgiving stuff. But really, pumpkin season begins in October—what with "Joe-o-Lantern" carving and pumpkin patches and the advent of the Great Pumpkin, etc. I've been enjoying pumpkin seeds, pumpkin cookies, pumkin pie and pumpkin ale since the beginning of the month. And Russ, incidentally, has been enjoying other season-appropriate foods such as pumpkin pancakes.

Despite my acceptance of all things pumpkin, I was sort of reluctant about this ice cream for some reason. Maybe it's because I recently tried Trader Joe's Lemon Triple Ginger Snap Ice Cream that Russ reviewed a little bit ago, and I knew that no other ice cream could possibly follow such an outstanding flavor. Wow. Yes, the lemon ice cream is THAT GOOD.

And sure enough, I'm just a little disappointed with this pumpkin flavor. It's certainly not that it tastes bad. If you like pumpkin-flavored desserts, you'll like this. I guess what I was pining for was a bit more in the texture department. It's just ice cream. If they would have thrown in some pumkin pie pieces, I think they could have nailed it. The bread/crust part of pumpkin pie really rounds out the creamy pie-filling and makes it a total dessert. Eating this ice cream, for me, was not unlike eating a bunch of cold pie filling by itself. Not terrible, but it could absolutely be improved by some additional textures and complementary flavors.

It's very pumpkinny. It's got the traditional spices, like nutmeg, that you'd want in a pumpkin-based dessert, and it doesn't taste fake...and it's not at all bland. This is another food that I kind of feel like a jerk for not giving it a great score. Because it is a great product. I just feel like it could have been even better. I've been spoiled by treats like the lemon ginger snap and Ben & Jerry's, which generally have a bunch of other yummy foods blended seamlessly into the ice cream.

In light of what it could have been, I give it a 2.5. Sonia was pleasantly surprised (and, she wasn't as impressed with the lemon ice cream, either) so she gives it a 4.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Trader Joe's Name Tag Classic Lager

Sandy and I could not do anything else other than look at each other and make a quizzical face. We were away for the weekend at a resort in Ohio this past weekend, at dinner Saturday night at the onsite restaurant, and when we requested a refill on our Sprites, our waitress brought them out...one at a time...in a Styrofoam cup...to pour right into our glasses...right in front of us. If we weren't the only ones there and would have been so obvious, we might have busted out laughing at the absurdity of it. I've never seen this before, and while a valid way to refill a drink, I suppose, it certainly made me feel a little more confident about our decision to pass up the "unbeatable price" and "tremendous value" of the time share spiel we had to sit through earlier that day.

Of course, the weekend wasn't a total loss. It's always great to have a little time away with your better half, and always funny when a buffalo almost gets its head stuck in your car window on a drive-through safari (true story). Plus, the fine citizens of Ohio have some privileges that we, the plebes of Pennsylvania, don't, like certain types of products available for purchase at Trader Joe's...uh, not that we did...the beer fairy came by again....yeah, that's it...

I shoulda told the beer fairy to not bother at all with the Name Tag Classic Lager. It's so bad that Trader Joe didn't even really put his name on it, though like the kid with muddy boots on standing on a messy carpet, it's obviously his fault. Look at the font used and the flower, and the familiar oval-shaped name tag logo....yeah, it's his. And it's bad. Listen, I went to Penn State, then lived near Pitt campus in Pittsburgh for a while, and have been flat-out broke at times, so I know what crappy beer tastes like. This, simply said, might be the absolute worst. The first ice cold sip I took tasted like literally nothing except a faint sickly sweetness at the end, which was kinda gross. Subsequent sips were tastelessly bitter and bitterly tasteless, if that's even possible. Finally, it got to the point where I could discern what this tasted like...precisely just like the metallic innards of the can. This putrid, super light, watery, nastastic spew was so utterly devoid of its own flavor it had no choice other than to absorb whatever it could from an aluminum can. To my memory, this was only the second beer I've ever tasted that, based on sheer nastiness, the remaining gulps were poured down the kitchen sink and not into my belly. This is terrible stuff, and to make it even worse, no hot chicks other than my wife appeared, no parties broke out, no one pointed out all the other "unmanly" things I'd done that day already (like stop and ask for directions at a gas station), no silver bullet train ran through the living room...nothing like that when people drink other crappy beers on TV. I just kinda sat there feeling numb and depressed over a horrible beer while making all sorts of grimacing faces. Sandy didn't have to taste it to know she wouldn't like it. Ugh. I think PBR or even something called Beer 30 Light that my younger bro mentioned to me the other night would be at least ten, if not twenty, times better than this. It's just that bad. At least it's cheap at $2.99 for a six pack, but I'm certainly more than glad we, uh, the beer fairy, procured us some other inexpensive TJ adult beverages, or otherwise the shopping trip would have been a complete disaster.

It's so bad, in fact, while deliberating a score, I seriously wondered if I should set a precedent by giving something negative Golden Spoons. But I can't do that, for two reasons. First, if this, or even this, doesn't garner a negative score, nothing can, even though I think this may be the absolute worst TJ's product I've tried yet. Secondly, some of this crap-veza might have a valuable use, and no, I don't mean giving the leftovers out to the random adults who insist on trick-or-treating in our neighborhood. I've found that bad beer often is a valuable ingredient when used in making a good crockpot full of chili, and as it's getting colder, I feel my first batch coming on soon. My brother and sister-in law, who also choked down a few gulps before ditching the can, pretty much agreed. For that, and that only, I think between the three of us we can muster a total of half a spoon from the three of us. For one of the very worst (if not THE worst) beer any of us ever tried, that has to be considered more than fair.

Bottom line: 0.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, October 17, 2011

Trader Joe's Halloween Joe Joe's

A while back, Russ reviewed the Candy Cane Joe Joe’s. Those things are so popular, they have their own Facebook fan page with nearly 2,000 followers! Russ wasn’t quite as enthused with them as some people seem to be, but they got an OK score from WG@TJs. And a long, long time ago, I reviewed the Joe Joe’s n’ Cream Ice Cream. Pretty good.

I’ve heard a bit of online chatter about these Halloween Joe Joe’s, available only seasonally, and they’re apparently a pretty big hit, as well. It’s kind of a holiday theme I see here: sandwich cookies with candy canes at Christmas, Jack-o-Lantern face cookies for Halloween (or should I say “Joe-o-Lantern,” haha), and then who can forget the Thanksgiving Joe Joe’s with cranberry sauce filling or the New Year’s Joe Joe’s: two thin chocolate cookies with layers of pork and sauerkraut in between. Yummy. Actually, those last two types of Joe Joe’s don’t really exist, at least not to the best of my knowledge. But my point is that there’s a whole line of Joe Joe’s products, including a few seasonal items that people wait eagerly for each year.
Now, I wasn't as courteous as Russ with this post, because I didn't think to take a picture of the nutrition information before I threw away the box. I will attempt to remember to do so in the future, as our readers have asked for that. And it's just one more practical way we can help people plan their weekly grocery store trips. For these cookies, I'm going to go out on a limb and tell you that these are not low fat, low calorie, or low anything. These cookies are full-on dessert items. Hopefully Trader Joe's used real sugar and other natural sweeteners like they usually do instead of something out of a test tube, but other than that, there's probably not a whole lot that was spared to make these a sweet treat type of food, as opposed to a lite, healthy snack.
As far as taste, well, they're chocolate sandwich cookies with vanilla filling. Very sweet. They seemed sweeter than most to me. And I have a sweet tooth. Sonia, who claims to like sweets less than I do, says that they were the perfect sweetness and better than Oreos. That's a bold statement. I don’t know if I can agree with that statement totally, but I will give them this: their “vanilla bean cream” filling actually tastes like vanilla bean…very natural—super sweet—but certainly not fake. I guess it might be better than the filling in an Oreo. And let’s face it, the filling is the best part. I thought the chocolate part of the cookies was pretty standard.
I don’t know what else to say about them, except maybe that they’re cute. Yeah, everything from the packaging, to the orange-colored filling, to the aforementioned “Joe-o-Lantern” face on them is remarkably well-designed and season-appropriate. Props to the designers.
Maybe in part because she's a graphic designer and has an affinity for cute things (such as myself), Sonia’s gonna give ‘em a 4. She’s a fan. They’re good…but there was something about them that made me feel like I had eaten too much after eating only about three. And that doesn’t happen to me very often. If not for the ounce of self-control I was blessed with, I could generally down an entire package of cookies like these before getting that “Oh, maybe I should stop eating” feeling. So I’ll give ‘em a 3.
Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Trader Joe's Beef-less Ground Beef and Taco Seasoning Mix

Nathan sure was right a few posts back. We really do like our desserts, and probably from the looks of me, a little too much. I guess it's not that surprising that Trader Joe's, in my estimation, has a lot of tasty sweets. But tasty fake meats? I'll admit it, as an avid carnivore, that's a shocker. There's the soy chorizo, the first item I ever reviewed for this blog, and still an every-trip pick up. The veggie sausage turned out a winner, even over the more famous national brand. Heck, I don't even really like corn dogs all that much, but the Trader Joe's Meatless Corn Dogs? Sandy and I got them a couple weeks ago, and dang it...tasty. Good call, Nathan.

So...Trader Joe's Beef-less Ground Beef. Once we saw it, based on our good fake meat history, Sandy and I figured it'd make a worthwhile purchase, despite its problematic name a la the soy chorizo. This time, it's all English, no fun with Spanish. See, the "Beef-less" kinda cancels out the "Beef" part of the equation, leaving this as simply "Trader Joe's Ground," as in, like, dirt. So, buying something that kinda resembles dirt, and its label practically says it's as much, so as I began making it the other night I was sure hoping it'd be something more suited for my belly than our garden out front.

Tell ya what: I don't think it's as good as the other fake meats listed above, but still, it's pretty decent. It comes fully cooked and vacuum-packed so for some quick tacos after a babysitting night, it made an easy choice. Consistency-wise, it's not quite regular ol' ground chuck, but it crumbled up okay enough, and I suppose it's moist enough that one could attempt to make meatballs and burgers out of it. Still, it's kinda obvious that it's fake when you chomp in. Rubbery or chewy or smushy isn't the right word...just fake-ish. But, the beefless beef tastes alright. It definitely comes a little seasoned on its own, but not overly, so it's the kinda thing to do with what you will. I think Sandy and I would be up for trying it out in some lasagna or try to make meatballs or do whatever else we want to the next time we go on some crazy meat-free kick.

Anyways, if you're making tacos when it's late and you're hungry, you need an easy way to spice up your carne dementira. So why not some Trader Joe's Taco Seasoning Mix? I'm usually the type who likes to spice my own meat and chili and all however I see fit by grabbing whatever off the spice rack and going all Bobby Flay on it so I'm kinda anti pre-made spice packs. I picked up a pack a weekend or two ago for making some homemade white chicken chili, though, because I wanted to pay some more attention to the pierogi I was also making, and man, that was good chili (even Sandy liked it!). And somehow I found another packet in my pantry, so I figured, why not for our tacos. This is some good good spicy stuff. It's heavy on the cayenne and chili pepper, with a good dash of black pepper, too. In other words, my kinda mix, except I didn't make it. It's definitely spicy, although, naturally, a little too heavy on the seasoned salt and salt in general.

In all, our tacos were pretty good and hit the spot while we caught up on "Glee." Yes, I watch "Glee," with my wife, so she'll let me watch football every once in a while with minimal grumbling...sometimes. It's not like I kinda sorta like the show or anything...but some of those kids got talent...okay, back to fake spicy meat. Sandy gave the beefless beef a three, mostly for texture concerns, while she really didn't say anything much about the seasoning mix except to say "mmm...spicy." I guess that means a four from her. Let's see, for me, I'll go with a 3.5 for the fake beef, I think, and perhaps another 3.5 for the taco seasoning mix. I kinda liked them both but for the beef, it just wasn't quite all there enough somehow, and I just like my own random spice combos over some prepackaged deal, however good it may be. In all, not bad for a quick fix, but sometimes the real deal just has to win.

Bottom lines: Trader Joe's Beef-less Ground Beef: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
Trader Joe's Taco Seasoning Mix: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, October 10, 2011

Trader Joe's Lamb Vindaloo

I'm sorry. I think lambs, in general, are very fun, cute, little animals. I, however, don't have any fun, cute, little stories about them whatsoever. So let's just get on with the business of talking about eating them, shall we?

Trader Joe's Lamb Vindaloo. As you can see, it's another frozen Indian entree that Trader Joe's has concocted for us. That means one thing if you want to eat it for lunch: a microwave. Hmm, microwavable lamb. As one of our fans aptly said, that's kinda a scary notion, so it was with a little bit of trepidation that I bought this for myself. Sandy though? She was all about giving it the old college try. Nuked peppers scare her off. Nuked lamb bits don't. Go figure. Lamb might be her favorite meat after bacon, so I'm sure that has something to do with it. We've tried pretty much every other Indian offering fom Trader Joe's, so we were hoping it'd be good

Tell ya what: it's different from all the other Indian dishes, and that's a good thing. As much as I'd enjoyed the different curries and tikka masalas and all, to me, after a bit, they began to taste very much the same with only a little differentiation between them all. Not the lamb vindaloo. I love spicy foods and have a higher tolerance for capsaicin-driven cuisine then just about anyone I know; where most of the other Indian dishes registered maybe a four on my 1-to-10 spicy scale, this registered a good solid 8. It didn't make me misty or anything, but it did my nose run a little, and had me plenty thirsty at the end. The sauce was red and rich and savory and had a good burn to it. This is definitely the spiciest thing I've bought yet from Trader Joe's. Loved it. The rice on the side, of course, was nothing special until some excess sauce (of which there was plenty) got involved.

The lamb, though? For what was there, it was surprisingly good, I thought. I got three decent sized chunks, and each bite wasn't fatty or stringy or gristly at all, but instead tender, juicy, and roasted to just about right. I haven't had much lamb in my life, but still, it struck me as good lamb. The down part? Well, just like pretty much every other Trader Joe "meat and something else" product, there wasn't enough of it. I've heard it said that a serving of meat equals something the size of a pack of playing cards (standard ones, not, as much as I would like it to be, those mega ones I swear Bob Barker had but couldn't find a picture of). The three bites I had, judging fairly, equaled maybe 2/3s of a deck. C'mon, I had an afternoon of insurance fustercluck solving ahead of me, I need me some more red meat than that some days, TJ's.

Anyways, before we get to the final wrap-up, you may notice the second picture I have put in this review. Some fans have requested nutritional info on the items we review. As a pharmacy employee (i.e., someone with a vested interest in having as much of the population on Lipitor as possible) and not a nutritional expert by any means, I don't feel too qualified to break it all down. I can, however, take a picture of the nutritional label and have you, the reader, decide if it's something you'd want to try or forego, figure out Weight Watcher points, rally against sodium, etc. I'll make it a point to include a picture of the label in all my posts going forward, and as I have time (and as I repurchase things), update some of the older posts, too.

Okay, let's wrap ths up. Sandy absolutely loved this. She had it for a work dinner last week, and when I picked her up, she raved about it all the way home. Sandy said the lamb was on par with a lot of other times she's had it, and loved all the spices. Like me, though, she didn't love that there wasn't quite enough of it, which was what knocked it down to a 3.5 for her. That seems a little low to me, but yeah, there isn't enough lamb, which makes the $3.99 price point seem a little high. Knock a little off the price, or better yet, sneak in just a couple more bites of tasty lamb meat, and it'll do better than the 4 I'll bestow upon it.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, October 7, 2011

Trader Joe's Garlic Potatoes with Parmesan Sauce

Things I love about garlic: it tastes good, it's good for you, it repels vampires. Things I don't like about garlic: its nickname is apparently "the stinking rose," too much of it can cause an upset stomach, it makes your breath bad.

But have you ever noticed that when you AND the person you're kissing have recently eaten garlic, you can't really tell that they have bad breath because yours is exactly the same? It's like they cancel each other out. That's why Sonia and I always have garlic at the same time.

"Hey Sonia, I'm eating some of these garlic potatoes, do you want some?"

"Um, no, not right now...I'm....<sniff, sniff>...well, actually maybe I will try some..."

Sonia will be the first one to tell you that she has a poor sense of smell. But garlic is just one of those scents that's pungent enough to punch through the poorest of olfactory appendages. So we both had some. Not that we made out while we were eating or anything. Even though the garlic-breath situation wasn't an issue, I just have this thing with kissing while eating. You remember that scene in Good Will Hunting when Matt Damon and Minnie Driver kiss at that diner, and Minnie Driver's character says, "I just got some of your pickle" or something like that? NASTY. I almost hurled. I don't even want to take the slightest chance of ingesting food that's been masticated by someone other than myself, even if it is my wonderful wife.

Anyhow, on with the review of the potatoes. We've seen TJ's do LOTS of stuff with potatoes. Everything from Russ's beloved Potato Tots to Trader Joe's Breakfast Scramble, TJ's has generally done more right than wrong with their potato dishes. Of all the items I've had from Trader Joe's that involve potatoes, I would say these are most similar to the potatoes in Trader Joe's Meat & Potatoes, but with more garlic, of course. But actually, not much more. The garlic in this product was certainly not overpowering. It's a subtle garlic flavor. They're a little salty, but there again, it's not overpowering at all. The product mentions parmesan in the title, but neither Sonia nor I tasted much, if any. And, well, the only flavor that's left is potato. You could certainly tell that you were eating potatoes, but they weren't bursting with flavor of any kind. They went well with ketchup...but, they really needed the ketchup if you know what I mean.

All in all, this is not a good stand-alone food. Even as a side-dish, most people will still want to dress it up with ketchup and maybe a little salt. The texture was nice. Similar to home-fries. No complaints there. But because these are little more than plain potatoes in a bag that you could chop up and cook yourself, Sonia is giving them a 2.5. I thought they were convenient, and they certainly didn't taste bad...their flavors were just kinda subtle. I'll be generous and give them a 3.5.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix and Organic Maple Agave Syrup Blend

Hooray it's fall. That means: ever encroaching dusks, cooler temps, leaves changing, playoff baseball, football on TV at least four nights a week (much to Sandy's chagrin), and Sandy hogging all the blankets every night (much to mine). Fortunately, for all involved, it also marks the return of all things pumpkin. Pumpkin pie. Pumpkin coffee. Pumpkin beer. Pumpkin bread. Pumpkin seeds. Peanut butter pumpkins. Pumpkin everything. I know lots of people who, like Linus, await the return of the Great Pumpkin every year, except instead of sitting in a field with a blockhead, they're just waiting for shelves everywhere to be stocked with pumpkin-related goodies. Me? Meh. I like them and all (especially my mom's pumpkin pie), but tend not to go berserk and light up Facebook with pics of the Dunkin Donuts Pumpkin Latte sign the first morning it appears like some of my dear friends (you know who you are). I can appreciate a good pumpkin-related treat here and there, as can Sandy, but I'm more eager for the holiday goodies up around the bend. Til then, though, pumpkin overkill, here we go.

Well, we already know thanks to Nathan that Trader Joe's makes a decent pancake mix. What's it like if we get in the seasonal mood and toss in some pumpkin? The Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix kinda scraps the "all purpose" facade (what do you mean, it can't fix the teeny leak in my roof?) and goes for the pumpkin jugular. Or so you'd think, if your Trader Joe's is anything like ours, where boxes are prominently piled near the entrance and hailed as the newest and greatest thing since, well, last week. Sandy and I decided to give it the old college try a few nights back to see if it was worth the hype.

First, the mix definitely smells pumpkinny, like pumpkin potpourri, almost. I'm half-tempted to sprinkle some in my car for air freshener. It smells good. Taste...well, almost. You get the sense of it, and there's a little tinge of nutmeg and cinnamon and allspice and ginger, and it's just enough to remind you that you're eating something slapped with the pumpkin label. But it could be a lot more, well, pumpkin-like. We've actually had it twice now. The first time, Sandy made some crepes for us and our friend Lisa, and while good, we all felt like there was something a little amiss. Maybe it was because they were thin crepes, we said. Well, to test our hypothesis, and to see just how easy they are to make, I, Russ, took it upon myself to make a batch of regular-style ones for tonight. I've never made pancakes before, and like my reviewing counterpart, while I can make lots of good food, there's some stuff I need some grace on kitchenwise. Anyways, my initial fears aside, it's enough to mix up with some milk, melted butter and an egg, and managed to not set off the smoke alarm and make some pretty darn respectable flapjacks for dinner if I may say so myself. This time around, our dinner was a little more pumpkinny, but it still sided more on the under-toned part of the scale.

And of course, you can't have pancakes without some syrup to drench them in. Trader Joe's does have some pretty decent maple syrup, but that Joe, he just has to experiment a little, doesn't he? Enter his Organic Maple Agave Syrup Blend. I'm by no means an all-out syrup snob, but generally speaking, I strongly dislike the fake Aunt Jemima junk and much prefer the real stuff (kinda partial to Vermont origin, but Canadian-born is acceptable, too). Okay, maybe I'm a semi-snob. Well, this semi-snob doesn't know all that much about agave syrup except Trader Joe's has another organic blue agave syrup that Sandy gets every once in a while to mix in coffee instead of sugar. That and usually it's Mexican. Our neighbors to the north and south apparently then tagteamed each other in making this syrup, and it's okay. It's not as thick as 100% pure maple syrup, of course, and is definitely more sugary and sweet than amber-y and maple-y. I suppose we should have figured that. For three bucks, it's okay I guess, but for another buck or two, you can do better at TJ's. Much better.

Still, make some pumpkin pancakes and slather on some maple agave syrup, and it makes a good meal. Kinda like the recently retired REM's discography (and exactly the opposite of this year's Philadelphia Eagles squad*), when taken altogether, it's greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe I'm trying too hard to get into the autumn mood, or maybe I just really really really liked the cinnamon honey butter that Sandy whipped up, but I liked the combination both times around more than I liked either the pancakes and syrup separately.

Sandy, who usually is more into pumpkin and funky goodies than me, had more or less the same reaction both times around. The pancakes could taste more like pumpkin, and the syrup could taste more like maple instead of maple/sugar goopy water. Without too much hesitation, she branded each with a three. I'm inclined to agree with her on the maple agave syrup (I'm betting it'll sit in the fridge for a long time) but, when thinking of my two pancake dinners in the past three nights and reasonably enjoying each one, I think the pancake mix gets a four. For me, I guess if I had to decide between "too much" and "not enough" pumpkin flavor, I'd go with "not enough." It certainly beats getting another rock in your trick-or-treat bag, Charlie Brown.

Bottom lines: Trader Joe's Pumpkin Pancake and Waffle Mix: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons Trader Joe's Organic Maple Agave Syrup Blend: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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*I can say this only because I'm from the Phily area and have been an Eagles fan since the Randall Cunningham era. Randall-freakin'-Cunningham. I will allow no other smack talk about my team from anyone else who is not an Eagles fan. I guess, though, that we can add "delusions of grandeur" to Vince Young's psychological issues.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Trader Joe's Lemon Bars

In general, desserts do very well on our blog. They often have an above-average number of pageviews from our readers, but even more often than that, they score above average in our 0-10 points rating system. In fact, the last two additions to the Pantheon have been desserts. The Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Bar and Lemon Ginger Ice Cream, both reviewed by Russ and Sandy, were the latest sweet treats well-deserving of our elite-eats label. Out of the past five Pantheon foods, three have been desserts. And Sonia and I enjoyed the Raspberry Macaroon Cake enough to give it a 9 out of 10.

I think all four WG@TJs reviewers have a sweet tooth to some degree or another. I know I certainly do. So when I did our TJ's shopping this past week, I managed to make half of my purchases dessert foods, much to the chagrin of my wife, who is slightly more health-conscious than I am.

But anyway, these lemon bars, like the Macaron aux Framboises, come frozen, and they require a thawing time of approximately 45 minutes. They're fairly small, but they're heavy and rich. When I popped the first one into my mouth, I wanted to shout "Lemony Snicket!"

I'm aware that's the name of an author of children's books and not something to shout after eating a citrusy dessert, but it certainly seemed appropriate at the time. I then proceeded to refer to the desserts themselves as "Lemony Snickets." "Sonia, would you like another Lemony Snicket?" and so on. And indeed, they are quite lemony. They're highly sweet and extremely tart. Their texture varies greatly upon the amount of time they've been allowed to thaw. Right at 45 minutes seems to be the ideal time for consumption. Before that, they're too cold and icy. Wait too long after that, and they get very mushy, to the point you can't eat them without getting messy or using a spoon, especially if it's hot out.

There was a curious sheet of white confection on the top of each piece. It was like a very thin layer of powdered sugar or something. It dissolved on the tongue instantly, and it was very sweet. Occasionally, the sheet would frustrate me by sliding off the lemon bar and landing on the floor or my lap, at which point it became nearly impossible to salvage intact.

I felt the bars had a nice balance of tart lemoniness and sugary sweetness. Sonia agreed. She pointed out that the bottom cake-ish layer could have been a bit firmer. It tasted great, but it was quite flimsy, especially once it had been thawing beyond an hour or so. The custard section was very creamy and good. Just what I was hoping it would be. We're going to give these lemon bars double 4's. I'd say they're a must-try for lemon-lovers.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.