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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Trader Joe's All Butter Shortbread Cookies

When I was a young, strapping lad, I nearly qualified for the Olympics in the very popular event of Underwater Basket Weaving. They called me a phenom in the sport, but an unfortunate sprained left thumb prevented me from fulfilling my dreams. Now, watching the 2012 London Olympic games reminded me of those days and the dietary restraints that I, and indeed all such athletes (except for that robust-looking American sharpshooter lady) must deal with. In celebration that I no longer must repress my sweet tooth to such a degree, I decided to indulge on these shortbread cookies while enjoying the spectacle of the fittest humans in existence competing on the world's biggest stage and performing feats of athletics that even great warriors such as I could scarcely perform in my prime.

Apparently, each tiny cookie has approximately 11% of your daily saturated fat. Each cookie. Talk about indulgent. The good news is, they taste like they have 11% of your daily saturated fat. In other words, they're worth it...almost.

Sonia wanted them to be "softer." I'm not sure what she means by that. They're not hard. They're made of shortbread, and they have the consistency of shortbread. Really buttery shortbread. We both wanted them to have more fruit filling because we both like raspberry and apricot fruit stuff. But fortunately for raspberry and apricot-haters, a love of those two fruits is not requisite for loving the taste of these cookies, because you can barely taste the fruit. There's a slightly gelatinous texture in the center of each cookie, but any fruit flavor that might be there is slathered in a pound of butter and lost in the sweet cookie goodness.

In short, these guys are a nice treat for a party or something, but if we had these in the cupboard on a regular basis, I'd weigh 300 pounds. And honestly, I'm not sure if I'd want to waste my precious allocation of fat and calories on something with such a one-dimensional flavor. A big boost in the fruit department would have helped these cookies immensely. I give 'em a 3. Sonia gives them 3.5.


Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 stars.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Trader Joe's White Cheddar Popcorn

Growing up, my family definitely went through a Smartfood* popcorn phase. But it wasn't just my folks and us four kiddos. Our cat loved it, too. I'll admit, I don't recall if it was Greta or Cleo, but whichever feline it was, she couldn't get enough of it. She'd almost beg like a dog for it, and if you dropped a kernel on the floor, you had no chance (we were all strong proponents of the five second rule). Know Cartman's cat and his chicken pot pies? Totally plausible, except for our cat it was Smartfood. Back then, Smartfood would put little customer stories on the back of their bags, and so we wrote the company about it, along with some photgraphic evidence. I don't believe our story was ever deemed baggy-reading-material-worthy (probably because I wrote it, and it was way too long. Go figure.), but they still sent us a whole case of Smartfood. A whole freakin' case. We ended up eating so much of it (we also believed in not wasting food) that by the time the last little crumbles in the last sackfull danced down into our tummies, I don't think we ever bought it again. I certainly haven't.

Anyways, sorry to continue the snack food phase we're doing here, but as the pile of other folk's ceramic dishes and Tupperware on our kitchen table attest to, we're being very well fed right now as Sandy, Baby M and I are adjusting to being a family of three. Such a blessing. I'm loving all the homecooked meals made in somebody else's oven. We would've had kids earlier if we knew we'd be eating so well.

My one buddy (same guy who tipped me off to the best chocolate bar in the world) and his wife stopped over a few nights back, and, among the homebaked bread, fresh fruit and chicken avocado spread (delicious!), they snuck in a bag of Trader Joe's White Cheddar Popcorn. Even though it's not something I wouldn't have bought on my own, I figure, it's in my house, it's a freebie, it's probably good, so why not review it?

I'll start with the good...not that there's really anything bad. It's perfect texture-wise - kinda pillowy, kinda Styrofoamy, and very munchable. That I like. Cheddarwise, it's alright, too. Kinda sharp but...there's just not enough. I seem to remember Smartfood being coated all over the place, with the white powdery residue caking onto your fingers no matter what you did. These kernels have one foot in the plain world, the other in the cheddar world. It's true as we get towards the bottom of the bag, that may change. I suppose one could choose to have the snooty, pinkie-in-the-air attitude that the popcorn is so much more refined this way. I choose not to, and that's coming from a guy who hasn't had white cheddar popcorn in years, and pretty much hates the orangey cheesy variety. Maybe I miss Smartfood more than I thought. Maybe I'll check the vending machine at work sometime and find out.

There's nothing all that bad with the popcorn. Sandy and I will eat it all and be happy enough. It's just there's not enough right with it. I think that may be a classic Trader Joe's problem with some products - they pull off enough unexpected surprises that it's a bit of a letdown when one of the more basic items is average at best. Sandy said she'd like it more if they were either more or less cheddar. I think I'd side on the "more" side. There's enough other Trader Joe popcorn varieties that you'll find another one or two that might fit the bill a little bit better. Put the two of us down with some matching 3s.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's White Cheddar Popcorn: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* Why the heck is it named Smartfood anyways? It's packaged powder-cheese popcorn for goodness sake. While not a dumb idea, that doesn't seem overly intelligent, either. Does buying it make you a genius? Did Einstein invent it? What a silly name. Next thing you know they'll name something Skinny Fries...wait, what?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Trader Joe's Skinny Fries

They're called "skinny" fries, perhaps not because they are skinnier than fast food French fries in size and shape, but presumably because they will make you skinnier if you choose them over fast food French fries. They're crispity and crunchity, and their flavor is vaguely reminiscent of an actual fry, but unfortunately, they taste like a reduced-guilt option.

They're very light. Not only low in calories, but each individual fry seems to carry no mass—as if they would float out of your hand if prompted to do so by the subtlest breeze. Although, paradoxically, there does seem to be a fine oily residue on each fry. They taste a bit like natural potato, and they taste a bit like vegetable oil. They're lightly seasoned with sea salt, and they do contain some wheat flour, but I must say I couldn't really taste it. 

If you're looking for something along the same lines, but actually want a bit more flavor, we recommend Trader Joe's Veggie Sticks. Not quite as light, but they're certainly not going to give you a heart attack—at least not by themselves. The Veggie Sticks are extremely similar to these Skinny Fries in taste and texture, but the Skinny Fries fall just a bit short in each category, especially flavor. 

Honestly, if I were going to choose a light, fluffy snack, and it had to be on the bland side, I'd probably choose a rice cake over these Skinny Fries. If I wanted something in the direction of an actual French fry, I'd go get some actual French fries (Trader Joe's has multiple oven-ready varieties). And if I were looking for some potato-crisp, fry-esque noshables, I'd go with the aforementioned Veggie Sticks. I just can't see us ever having occasion to buy these Skinny Fries again. They're not bad, but there are just too many better alternatives out there, in my opinion.

Maybe if you're a fan of the Veggie Sticks, but want to shave a few more calories off of your afternoon snack, these might be for you. We don't want to beat them down too hard, but we also can't muster a lot of enthusiasm for them. Sonia gives them 3 stars. I give them 2.5.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 stars.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Trader Joe's Ridge Cut Potato Chips

It's been a busy, 'round-the-clock-type week here at the Western PA division of WGaTJ's. In case you're new to the blog or missed the announcement in Nathan's recent pad thai post, Sandy and I have just welcomed our first child into the world, a beautiful little girl who I'll just refer to on here as Baby M*. All of us are doing well, and have been getting in the rhythm of feeding, diapers, appointments, visitors, more diapers, me going back to work, calls from family, more diapers, swaddling, napping...and oh yeah, diapers. I've been doing okay with those, and actually kinda enjoy them, which isn't bad for a dude who's changed two of them in his life until about the past week and a half or so. I am so happy and so in love with my girls.

One of the best perks of having a newborn is the number of family and friends who've stopped by with homemade dinners for us. It's outstanding, and honestly, most of their stuff is much better than any Trader Joe's offering. However, that didn't preclude us from making a Trader Joe's stockpiling trip a few days before we knew Lil' Baby M would be coming. From some of our favorite snacks and easy-to-make dinners to another sack of puppy chow for our now-even-more-paranoid pupster, we spent more than what we usually do, but it'll be worth it.

And I'm glad we tossed in a bag of Trader Joe's Ridge Cut Potato Chips into the cart. These crunchy crispers make a great between-meals snack that's helps keep us going between all the mac 'n cheese and enchiladas. These chips are thick cut and super crunchy - once or twice, my beautiful wife has glanced at me from across the room and said to stop munching so loud. To my recollection she's never said such a thing in the nearly five years I've known her now. A lot of them have the peel still on, which is an added plus for me, and aren't too salty. Sure, there's enough salt in them, but to me, when most products make a point of having sea salt in them, they go out of their way to showcase the saltiness, like these brownie bites for example. Not these chips - they taste like potatoes first and foremost. I'd imagine these being perfect for dipping but we haven't explored that possibility for two reasons: 1. We don't have any great chip dip options in the house and 2. We're not huge dip people to begin with. That's okay with us, these are pretty good as is.

Sandy's a fan as am I. "They're crunchy. I like crunchy, although I like kettle-cooked chips a little bit better," she said. Yeah, those are pretty tasty too, but I like these ridgy guys just about equally as much. I'm kinda split, though, on their crunchiness factor. On one hand, they're so crunchy that, perhaps partially due to sleep deprivation, after a few they make my jaw kinda tired and hurty. Not enough to keep me away, though. On the other hand, it's sorta like a form of portion control, and so I kinda liken them to sourdough pretzels in that regard. Sandy gives them a four, as do I.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Ridge Cut Potato Chips: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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*If you have to ask, the "M" stands for Mini-Me. Sorry, that's all you're gonna get :).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Trader Joe's Vanilla Soy Creamy

This product is yet another way to combat those 100+ degree temperatures out there. Cold, creamy treats seem to taste even better when you come in from the heat and humidity. And since the AC in my car is broken, everything cold tastes and feels just that much better. Did I mention that the driver's side window in my car is also broken? When I come in from that summer heat, you could put a slab of dirty ice in front of me and it would probably get at least 3 or 4 stars on the WG@TJ's scale.

Sonia bought this soy ice cream because she feels that she's becoming increasingly sensitive to dairy. She loves this stuff and thinks it tastes just like regular dairy ice cream. I couldn't disagree more with that sentiment. It's an extraordinarily different flavor and a slightly different texture, in my opinion. But I won't disagree that it's pretty tasty.

I'm actually not all that big a fan of plain vanilla dairy ice cream. It's boring. Give me the weird stuff. Give me the Ben & Jerry's that has 30 different natural flavors, give me the rocky road, give me the sexy flavors named after rock stars and late night talk show hosts. Cookies and cream is about as plain as I'll go on a regular basis. But, that being said, if you put this frozen dessert head to head against a traditional dairy vanilla ice cream, I'll take this Soy Creamy any day—because of its uniqueness.

It's soy-ish, but I mean that in the best way possible. It's very creamy. I personally think the flavor is as much like plain soymilk as it is like vanilla. But as those of you who've used soymilk on sugary cereal may know, sweetened soymilk makes as dessert-ish a treat as any. And the thickness is comparable to dairy ice cream.

All I can say is that if you're a fan of soymilk and soy-based foods, you'll likely be a fan of this. It is plain-ish, but you can go ahead and add chocolate syrup or whatever you please. (Sonia tried it with Nutella and dry oats and was pleasantly surprised).

If you've had soymilk or other soy ice cream and you absolutely hate it, I would go ahead and try this stuff instead.

Sonia gives this Vanilla Soy Creamy 4 stars. I give it 3.5.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10 stars.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Trader Joe's Organic Woodfired Sicilian Style Pizza

Editor's note: I finished writing this just a few hours before my wife went into labor. I am now too sleep deprived to change some of the personal info-bursts in the last paragraph. All of us are doing great! Okay back to the review as originally written ....

Alright, folks, sorry, I got nothin' here. Absolutely nothin'. There's not a single thing I can write about pizza in general that I haven't already written, nor any funny tangential stories in which a pizza plays any sort of integral role. Nor do I have any tales relating to words "organic" or "woodfired" (although I'm a direct descendent of someone found guilty and killed during the Salem Witch Trials, my great * 17 grandfather was hanged, not set ablaze), and I used the only good line I know about Sicilians in my little Facebook blurb, so here we are. Like I said, nothin'.

Except, I guess, a recommendation for this particular pizza pie. It was at the TJ sample station for our pre-lunch trip over the weekend and just a little taste was enough for Sandy and I to pick it up for 5 bucks.

There's a lot of good things to like about Trader Joe's Organic Woodfired Sicilian Style Pizza. Let's start with the crust. It must come already baked for a while, because our frozen guy had some blackened/burny bits on it already. No matter. Pull it out of the oven, slice it up, and bite down...it's convincingly woodfired-oven tasting, with the crispy crunchy crackeriness that's light and airy yet so satisfying. Fantastic, kinda like using the lavash bread as a pizza crust, except ths is much better. The pearl mozzarella is a nice touch, and the red peppers taste nice and roasted up. There's also a little oil packet that comes with the pizza that you're supposed to squeeze on top about halfway thru the baking process. I tell you what, we have some chipotle olive oil around the house, and the oil that comes with the pizza has a much bigger kick. It adds a great spicy, aromatic flavor without being overkill. In all, it's one pretty darn tasty pizza that's Linka good value for its size (about 12 inches) and taste...I think you could expect to pay at least twice as much at a restaurant, and it'd be a toss up if it'd be better than this pizza or not.

Sandy's a fan as well. "Mmm. Spicy. I like it...Mmm. Crunchy. I like it. Almost as good as ice," she said when I asked for her opinion. That last little bit about ice? She's been literally eating a seven pound bag of ice at least every 2 or 3 days (sometimes in one day) for over a month, solid, now. Pregnant women can do some crazy things, especially towards the end (which we are), and I guess it beats her chowing down dirt in the backyard, so I'll take it. For her to say something is "almost as good as ice" at this point is high, high praise. Sandy says a four. Me? The crust and oil flavoring put this one towards the top for me. I like when the little things are done right. I'll go with 4.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Organic Woodfired Sicilian Style Pizza: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, July 13, 2012

Trader Ming's Pad Thai and Peanut Satay Noodles

So...I have to start this entry off with a congrats to Russ and Sandy, the other half of What's Good at Trader Joe's, on the birth of their first baby, an adorable girl, born on 7/11/12. Awesome. Everybody's healthy and cute and ready to eat more Trader Joe's food. Rock on.

You might not want this stuff to be the first TJ's food in baby's mouth. Number one, I'm not sure infants are supposed to eat semi-spicy, highly-salty, instant-type noodles. But since Sonia and I don't have a kid yet, there's absolutely no way to be sure. Number two, they're really not that good.

Sonia preferred the Satay. I preferred the Pad Thai. Make no mistake, this stuff is not nearly as disgusting as Trader Joe's Satay Peanut Sauce. That stuff tasted rancid. This stuff just tasted...not that good.

Both dishes were void of texture, except for some very cheap noodles in a slimy sauce. They weren't rubbery, which in my opinion, would be the worst-case scenario. They weren't tough. They were just there. There was no meat. There were no vegetables. No crispy ricey things. Just noodles. And sauce. We both decided they needed a little something. So we added the only other thing we had in our freezer: Lean Cuisine Fajita Spring Rolls, which by the way, they do not sell at Trader Joe's.

And some people say we're not real foodies.

The spring rolls added some vital texture to the dishes and made them edible. Sonia stuck with the Peanut Satay. She said the Pad Thai tasted sour. I thought the Peanut Satay tasted sour, when it should have been, like, nutty and sweet. Both of us put Sriracha on our noodles. It helped. But in any case, I think I'll opt for ramen in the future.

On the right is displayed the nutrition info for the Pad Thai. Let it be noted that I was not able to display the nutrition info for the Peanut Satay opposite the Pad Thai because Blogger is being difficult right now. But I'll go ahead and tell you that there are somewhat fewer calories in the Peanut Satay. If anything, that's evidence to support my case: more calories = more deliciousness if you ask me...the Pad Thai is slightly better. Sonia's tastebuds must not be functioning correctly.

At any rate, she gives the Pad Thai 2.5 stars. And 3 to the Peanut Satay.

I give 3 stars to the Pad Thai. And 2.5 stars to the Peanut Satay. At $2 per box, I guess you get what you pay for.

Trader Ming's Pad Thai Noodles. Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 stars.

Trader Ming's Peanut Satay Noodles. Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 stars.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Trader Joe's Peanut Butter Tracks Ice Cream

This ice cream isn't bad, but it feels like Trader Joe is trying to imitate Ben & Jerry with this one.

Dairy Free Mochi is unique and Trader Joe-esque. Stuff like Pilgrim Joe's Pumpkin Ice Cream is simple enough to avoid comparison with Ben & Jerry. And, of course, the Lemon and Triple Ginger Snap Ice Cream is by far the best example of what we've seen Trader Joe's do with ice cream. It isn't particularly simple, but it somehow gives off an air of delicateness. And, while somewhat indulgent, it's more of a dessert you'd expect to find at the end of a five course meal in a fine-dining establishment, as opposed to something a gluttonous fat man would scarf down in between the tilt-a-whirl and the tractor pulls at the East Bumblehump County Fair.

This product, however, is a shade closer to the latter. Fortunately for this item's score, I'm no slender sophisticate, and I've enjoyed the aggravated roar of a souped up Massey Ferguson or two in my day. But I do have to say, despite its terrible name, I prefer Chubby Hubby to these Peanut Butter Tracks any day of the week.

I guess the name is a play on "moose tracks." Moose tracks has little peanut butter cups in vanilla ice cream, and that's exactly what this is. I suppose the peanut butter cups are intended to resemble muddy footprints of the large woodland mammals in a blanket of white-ish snow. There's also supposed to be swirls of caramel. Sonia and I both agreed that TJ's skimped on the caramel. But to me, that was of little concern.

I did enjoy the copious quantities of little peanut butter cups, and the vanilla wasn't bad...but it wasn't stellar either. My biggest complaint is just that the whole thing didn't blend together as perfectly as Ben & Jerry's stuff. There's just something so ingenious about their flavors. Somehow Trader Joe captured that kind of cohesiveness with his Lemon Triple Ginger Snap ice cream, but not with this. This really isn't even as good as other brands of moose tracks that I've tried.

But again, it's cold, it's sweet, and there's enough peanut butter in it to make it somewhat rich and filling. Sonia says it's worthy of a 3.5. I think 3 stars is generous enough.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 stars.

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Honey Mints

Imagine, if you will, if you're a musical producer looking to make a smash album, and so decide to get together two classic acts, like say Neil Young and Pearl Jam, knowing how well they'd mesh together. Then, you decide your collaboration needs something just a little bit more, so you call Kanye West into the mix. Or, for a moment, pretend you're a movie director, looking to make a blockbuster. You call upon DeNiro and Pacino (or, if you prefer pure hunkiness, Ryan Gosling and Lenny DiCaprio*), but needing one more actor to round things out, you call Zach Galifianakis' agent. Or, for your all-time Olympic fantasy team draft, you choose Michael Phelps, Carl Lewis, and the Jamaican bobsled team. It's not that there's anything wrong with each individual member of these threesomes (in fact, they're all good in their own way) but while two seem to mesh, the remaining third...just doesn't. It's kinda one of those "one of these things isn't like the other" set-ups.

To be honest, that's more or less how I expected these Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Honey Mints to be. Dark chocolate with mint makes a great, classic combination. But adding honey? Really? Honey's good and all, but while I could see it pairing okay-ish with chocolate, honey and mint together just doesn't sound all that great to me on the surface, and adding chocolate doesn't help it out.

Good thing is, I can be wrong, and I'll admit it. These are actually fairly good lil' candy disks, despite my initial hesitation. They're made from just three ingredients - chocolate liquor, honey, and peppermint oil. And, unlike you'd expect with the third party mentioned in each threesome above, I really didn't notice the honey too terribly much. If anything, the honey adds just a little sweetness, which, with the cocoa coating basically being baker's chocolate, is a good thing, while not interfering with the mint too much. In fact, if given one of these on a blind taste test, I wouldn't be guess there'd be honey at all in these. Each candy is a soft, melt-in-your-mouth bite that's pretty satisfying that strays almost towards the little-bit-too-rich side, which for me is good enough to keep me interested in eating just one or two of them at a time, as opposed to one or two handfuls.

Sandy likes them quite bit, too, and for more reasons than the "cute package" they come in. In making the obvious comparison, she says she likes them more than York Peppermint Patties, and that's enough to make them a good, solid 4 for her. I'm not sure if I'm willing to go that far, but I do appreciate these as an alternative that, perhaps because of their simplicity, taste a little more "natural"** than the competition. I'll go with a 3.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Honey Mints: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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*I know he's a pretty good actor, but is he still considered a hunk? I know he was in the Titanic era, but really, I have no idea where Lenny's considered to be on the scale these days.
** This, of course, being a completely relative term that I tried to shake out of my head, yet it keeps coming back for no real good apparent reason. Maybe it's the lack of processed sugar that's getting to me.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Trader Joe's Wild Blueberry Pie

Since the Fourth of July is right around the corner, we'll go ahead and review this American picnic classic: blueberry pie. Perhaps it's not as stereotypically American as apple pie, but it's made with real Maine blueberries, and if you serve it on a traditional tablecloth like the one in the photo to the left, you've got an authentic slice of Americana, complete with red, white, and blueberry pie.

Upon first bite, I was a little disappointed with the texture and taste of the crust. It's a poor imitation of homemade, it lacks uniqueness, and while I wouldn't call it "stale," it's way too stiff to feel like it's even approaching "fresh." Plus, it's entirely bland.

The blueberries were a shade more exciting. Hundreds of perfect little blueberries in a subtly-sweet, semi-syrupy sauce saved the flavor of this pie. Coming straight out of the fridge, however, there was still an overall firmness that left me feeling like I was munching on something that fell a great deal short of the high standards I hold TJ's to.

Sonia microwaved her second piece for twenty seconds or so, and claimed that it greatly improved the pastry. I followed suit, and wouldn't you know it—the pie took a giant leap in the direction of delicious. Still, the crust couldn't be redeemed entirely, but the smoothness of the blueberry elements all but made up for it.
Could be if you tried this pie at an actual outdoor picnic that the hundred degree temperatures would have a similar effect as twenty seconds in the microwave. But served cold or warm, it's still a far cry from fresh-baked. However, keeping in mind that it's ready-made, sitting on a shelf, and only about $5 for a whole pie, we'll be merciful when we give our scores.

Sonia and I are on the same page with this one. 3 stars a piece. Not bad.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.