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Monday, December 30, 2013

Trader Joe's Kentucky Bourbon

Listen, I'm not going to sit here and type up a review and pretend that I'm any sort of bourbon expert and attempt to give you a technical breakdown of Trader Joe's Kentucky Bourbon. That's just not in my wheelhouse, so if that's what you're looking for, check out a review like this one or this one. My sniffer's too stuffed to try and make up all those aroma descriptors anyways, and all those other terms...yeah, I can take a stab at what they mean, but it's better I don't.

But, courtesy of a good buddy of mine who doubled as a housemate back in my bachelor days several moons ago, I've drank enough bourbon to know what I like and to know what I don't. We'd go pick up whatever at the local state store (Pennsylvania's weird) and go thru a bottle every two or three weeks. What I like: good, balanced, strong flavor, with a little burn, and not too oaky. What I don't like: flavored and infused bourbons (like Red Stag when not used as a mixer) or bourbon that's oaky enough to pass off as some type of Ent secretion, or anything that tastes watered down or cheap. Just give me a good couple fingers of bourbon on the rocks, and I'm set.

That's almost precisely what TJ's bourbon is. There's nothing fancy or pretentious about it. It's very good, not superbly great, but honest, tasty bourbon. There's a little oak here, some sweetness there, and doesn't taste too medicinal like some of the cheap-o stuff tastes. It's a reasonably darkish amber color that also smells the part - a little sweet, a little boozy, etc. For the most part, it's a smooth, balanced flavor that goes down without too much trouble but does put a tickle in the back of your throat after a lingering finish, which I'll admit made me cough the first time. I'm kinda a wimp in that regard, but it's been a while. The ABV hits a more-than-respectable 45% so it's probably best to enjoy when at home and there's nowhere to go for a good while. The word on the webs says this is distilled by the good folks at Buffalo Trace, which I do remember as a bottle I liked to get back in the day, but not recently enough to do a straight-up comparison of the two.

The wife and I picked up the bottle when, on a whim, we hit up the Princeton, NJ shop over the weekend while visiting my folks. I've been to Trader Joe's in nine states (California, Utah, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Maine, Massachusetts and now New Jersey) but this was the first time I've stumbled across a TJ's with actual hard liquor and not just beer or wine in it, so we were pretty excited to crack it open with my folks and siblings and their spouses after all the kiddos finally went to bed one night. All of us guys had no problem with enjoying a glass or two on the rocks, while the ladies seemed to enjoy mixing theirs with Dr Pepper more. Good times were had by all.

If this were a $25 bottle, I'd be fairly content. If it were $20, I'd be downright pleased. But it's only $15! That makes me want to write my state senator to urge them to rewrite Pennsylvania's antediluvian alcohol bylaws so I could buy it without going on a nearly 700-mile roundtrip. Silly Quaker heritage. The general consensus of my brothers et al averaged about a four, so that's what I call it for them. For me, I just wish it were tad bit more distinctive somehow, but as is, I'm going 4.5. Nicely done, Trader Joe's. Nicely done.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Kentucky Bourbon: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons      

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Trader Joe's and the Astounding Multi-Flavor Joe-Joe's

I feel like that should have an exclamation point at the end of it: "Trader Joe's and the Astounding Multi-Flavor Joe-Joe's!" like some famous magician and his assistants or something. Trader Joe the Magnificent did indeed give us something magically-delicious and marvelously-packaged yet again. It's four new flavors of an old favorite, dressed up in chocolate coatings. 

Looking back through our extensive archives, I realized that we never reviewed just plain old Joe-Joe's, strangely enough. But if you're curious, I'll save you from using our newfangled and unimproved search tool toward the top of this page: we've looked at Joe-Joe's n' Cream Ice CreamDark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Joe-Joe's, Candy CaneHalloween, and Gluten Free varieties, and if I've missed any, I blame the search tool. But hey, at least this version of "Search This Blog" is functioning!

The package was filled with four individually-wrapped stacks of Joe-Joe's. Each of the four astounding flavors had a chocolate coating. The ginger cookies had a white chocolate coating, the peppermint ones were covered in dark chocolate, and peanut butter and double chocolate were covered in some kind of complementary milk chocolates.

Before I tried them, my main concern with the ginger Joe-Joe's is that they would be, well...weird. And they were. But not to the point that they were inedible. The white chocolate really saved them in my opinion. And I know a lot of our readers are dark chocolate snobs, so they might not feel the same. But I must point out that Sonia, who's definitely a bigger fan of dark chocolate than white chocolate, absolutely adored these cookies. She likes ginger in some scenarios, but she's not obsessed with it or anything like that. She felt that these cookies had just the right amount of ginger zing and just the right amount of white chocolate sweetness. She's definitely not wrong.

The double chocolate Joe-Joe's were just that: chocolate cookies covered in milk chocolate. And they're part of the reason my skin broke out this holiday season. Chocolate sandwich cookies covered in chocolate? Hmmm. Hey TJ's, dontcha think you should deep fry 'em next time? 

Sonia and I never bought the aforementioned Dark Chocolate Covered Peppermint Joe-Joe's by themselves, but based on Russ's review, I'm guessing the ones in this package are basically the same animal: tasty, minty, and holiday-riffic.

I think my favorite "act" in this incredible show of flavors was the peanut butter Joe-Joe's. They were rich, peanut buttery, and had a Reese's type thing going on. We've established that chocolate and peanut butter is pretty hard to screw up completely, and TJ's has displayed prowess with this particular combo in the past. And thanks to the commutative and associative properties of snacktasticality, we can offer this simple proof: peanut butter + chocolate + Joe-Joe's = yum.

There's a lot going on in this box, and it's a pretty good value for what you get. Again, neither Sonia nor I are really "sandwich cookie people," but we still can't see this box of magic getting fewer than four stars a piece.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Trader Joe's Edamame Rangoons

Toddlers. Yeeeahhh.

There was a time, several months ago, that as Baby M (from now on, we're just gonna call her M) was beginning to eat regular food, she'd inhale everything in sight. There was little to no persuasion involved. I mean, sure, she had her favorites like frozen waffles and whatnot. It was awesome, and after seeing some of the pickiness of her older cousins, I thought, hey, just maaaaybe we dodged a bullet.

Ha. Hahahaha. Nope.

These days, if it's not cheese, a cheap carb, or some type of fruit, good luck. We can occasionally get some fake chicken in her. Some dinners are a downright disaster with her. I'm scared she may be developing her own set of "food rules" like her mama has....is that kind of stuff genetic?

That's why both Sandy and I were a little bit surprised a few weeks back when we went shopping at TJ's. The sample that day was these Trader Joe's Edamame Rangoons. M loved them. I mean...wow. She gulped down the couple bites and spent the rest of the excursion earnestly, desperately, making the "more" and "please" sign, so we felt inclined to make the purchase for the three or four bucks for the box.

Naturally, when we finally made them the other night, she couldn't be interested less in them. Like I said, toddlers.

As for Sandy and I, well, they're okay. I'd suspect the rangoons would be much better fried than baked. The crownish top parts crisped up fairly well, though, in our oven, as did the rest of the wrapper despite our lack of the recommended parchment paper. A little cooking spray more or less did the trick.

It's the innards that are a little, well, iffy to me. The dominant flavor by far is the cream cheese filling. It's really sweet, much like what one would expect from a cheese rangoon (which are not terribly high on my list of preferred Chinese takeout cuisine). So, fairly typical so far, The edamame mixed in is mishmash of some whole and some squishy ones, kinda as if were a soybean paintball, and helps fill it all out a little bit. That "hint" of wasabi? It's more like a "whisper of the slightest suggestion, not meant to inconvenience anyone." I mean, it's just not really there. I looked at the ingredients and wasabi powder is listed last, so obviously it wasn't much of a priority.

So, yeah, they're okay. The rangoons made an decent-enough complement to our wonton/sweet-and-sour soup and rice dinner. We could buy them again and I wouldn't care. We could never buy them again and I wouldn't care. If they were marketed at Trader Ming vs Trader Joe, then maybe I'd hold them in sightly higher regard, mostly because I miss that dude. As it is, I think a 6 is more than fair. M is unavailable for comment.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Edamame Rangoons: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Trader Joe's Egg Nog Ice Cream

As I mentioned in a post long, long ago: I. LOVE. EGGNOG. To me, sipping a smooth glass of eggnog is like drinking liquid Christmas. Southern Comfort brand eggnog is still at the top of my recommendations list, but I'm also a fan of Hood now, too. And as I mentioned before, Trader Joe's brand falls somewhere in the middle of that list.

All of those brands come sans alcohol, including SoCo, and I've always thought that liquor kind of ruined the thick, golden goodness of the 'nog...that is, until I discovered Jägnog. Rum, whiskey, and bourbon are all too harsh to mix with eggnog. If you're debating what to mix with your holiday beverage, it's Jägermeister all the way. Trust me.

And if you're debating about which eggnog ice cream to go with, as much as I want to recommend this Trader Joe's brand, I simply can't get behind it wholeheartedly. I've only ever had eggnog ice cream once or twice before this TJ's pint, and the only other brand name I can recall having for sure is Turkey Hill. Given the choice between the two, I'd have to choose TH.

Sonia's only developed an appreciation for eggnog in the past few years, but she's come a long way since her days of eggnog-less-ness. She now recognizes it as the nectar of the gods that it is. She's also found a way to embrace our friend Joe's "Super Premium" eggnog ice cream even more than I have.

What do I have against it? Well, it's hard to put my finger on...but it's just kinda boring. I feel like the flavor lacks spices. The ingredients testify that there are indeed nutmeg and vanilla bourbon flavorings present, but it just doesn't taste that way to me. It's just a big vat of yellowish sweetness with a few flecks of something or other floating through it. And I guess all eggnog is bad for you, but ohmygoodness look at the nutrition information. 

It does taste like eggnog—but it's a very bubblegummy eggnog. I realize most eggnogs taste similar to bubblegum, but if they added a little pink coloring, I feel like this could pass as "Trader Joe's Bubblegum Ice Cream." And my biggest problem is the aftertaste. I don't remember TJ's Premium Egg Nog having any aftertaste at all, but this stuff lingers like pine needles through the living room carpet in January. Sonia says she didn't notice it. I'm curious if I'm alone here. Who's right? Me? Or my beautiful wife? Yes, yes, we know the wife "is right," but I mean who's really right? If you've tried this ice cream, leave a comment below to fuel our good-natured spousal disagreement.

Sonia gives this eggnog ice cream 4 stars. I give it 2.5.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew

I realize I may be placing myself into a somewhat narrow age bracket here, but do any of you remember Trogdor from Strong Bad's emails on Homestar Runner? Anyone? You know, "burninating the countryside" and all that? If you're not familiar or just feeling a little nostalgic, just go ahead and click that link. You can always come back to see my skills of a blogger here.

Now, see, when not burninating the countryside and/or the peasants, a dragon has to drink something, right? Running around breathing fire seems like a thirsty business. But I can't picture Trogdor drinking just some milk or water or some random juice. Nah. Maybe Mountain Dew. But I'd like to think it'd be a drink that offers a little refreshment while still giving a little bit of a burn on the way down, deep in the back of the throat, where your fire glands or whatever are, because you last thing you want is for those to get extinguished.

It's for this reason I picture Trogdor drinking something much like Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew. This isn't grandad's ol' ginger ale in a fancy lookin' swingcap bottle. It's much more fierce, and to me, requires some easy sippin'. Each sip starts out pleasant enough for most anyone - a little ginger, a little honey, a little sweetness, a little carbonation, all fairly well balanced. But then it descends. All those sweet little niceties give away to dropping a ginger bomb on the tastebuds that's full and rich (like most of TJ's triple ginger products) that leaves a burn on the way down. Sandy likened it to liquefied ginger candy (which, as much as I like ginger, I despised TJ's version) and initially she didn't like it. We're currently hosting a Chinese high school student, Jack, and when he tried it, he kinda shook his head and slowly backed away. The ginger shock was a bit much for me at first, too, but as I continued my glass, my appreciation for it grew. After a while, not that there's cinnamon in it, but there seemed to be a cinnamon-esque quality to it, though admittedly on the stronger side (not quite this strong though). I'd say the purchase of this ($3) comes with an obvious caveat: If you don't really like ginger, stay away. It's kind a deep-cut B side of a band like say the Doors - if you love the Doors, you'll probably love it; if not, then you don't stand a chance.

I actually have come to like it quite a bit. One suggestion to soften the blow: have it with dessert. One night we had it for a drink alongside some strawberry cheesecake, and the ginger brew seemed to be more of a good, crisp palette cleanser than fire liquid.

Plus, this sounds silly, but the bottle's pretty cool, too. Trogdor probably agrees. I feel kinda bad just recycling it, so I'm hoping to figure out a spouse-approvable second use. Not sure if it could be used for home brew or not, but maybe. Maybe some of you have an ideas. Feel free to share at will. 

I naturally forgot to ask the wife for her input, but I can tell she likes it well enough, but not quite as much as I do. Take our score from below and split as you see fit. And oh, no dumping the ginger brew on your keyboards.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Triple Ginger Brew: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Trader Giotto's Panettone Classico

Since panettones were originally holiday treats from Milan, Italy, I decided to write my praises for them in the Italian terza rima poetic style. It's in near-perfect iambic pentameter, too, just FYI. Wanna hear it? Here it goes:

This single panettone looked really great, 
And though the box suggested "eat alone," 
The look on my wife's face said "Heck no, Nate."

I'd suffer wrath from Sonia's shrieks and moans.
We shared this yummy treat from Italy. 
I like it more than all of TJ's scones

Its soft and flaky crust was buttery. 
The candied orange peels and raisins did 
Bring such great joy to us, my wife and me. 

Inside the bread the dried fruits deeply hid, 
But plentiful they were, not one alone. 
A grown-up taste, yet sweet enough for kids. 

I recommend this scrumptious panettone 
That comes from off the shelves at Trader Joe's. 

Sonia was actually not as impressed as I was, mostly because she's had panettones before. Kind of like Russ and the poutine I guess. It's much easier to impress us when we don't have anything to compare TJ's product to. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Sonia thought the orange peels made it taste too citrusy. I'm usually not big on eating orange rinds, but I thought they worked in this instance. 

So yeah, the last two lines in that third stanza aren't entirely true. Ever heard of poetic license? I give the panettone a 4. Sonia gives it a 3.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Trader Joe's Poutine

If you're not familiar with poutine, Canada's most popular contribution to gluttonous cuisine, it's simply fries and cheese curds topped with gravy, and occasionally some other stuff. Apparently, with its status as a cult favorite of sorts in Quebec, it's growing in popularity as McDonald's just recently announced they will start selling it Canada-wide. I'm certainly not doggy-paddling across Lake Erie or driving up to Niagara Falls (about four or five hours from the 'burgh) just to try a big ol' McMess, but I've had poutine a few other times, most notably at a pretty sweet little neighborhood restaurant. Although I'm not the biggest fan, I'd like to think that I have some sort of idea of what poutine ought to taste like, so when Sandy spotted a freezer bag full of Trader Joe's Poutine and put on her "OOOOOOOO PLEEEEEASE" face, well, I guess we just had to try.

Not gonna lie: We're both a little disappointed. The disappointment certainly isn't on the scale of something like, say those silly Chicken Parmypops or whatever they were called, but still. Each individual component kinda underwhelms. There's nothing too special about the fries, but to us they were the standout. They're the big, soft inside, slightly crispy outside type, though I wish they got crispier on the outside to withstand the gravy and cheese curds a little better. The gravy? Meh, which seems to be the norm for TJ's gravy. Those cheese curds though...listen, I may not know any better, so if I offend some cheese curd superfans out there, I apologize in advance. But these were not good. The bag kinda touts them as a "mild cheddar" but the curds are much closer in taste to a fresh mozzarella. That part's okay. The part that isn't is, these are big, rubbery, chewy chunks. The size doesn't bother me as much as the texture. If they were a little softer and creamier, the curds would stand a chance of being fantastic. Instead they just seem like cheese blubber, with emphasis on the blubber. Even my cheese-lovin' toddler tried to eat a little teeny piece, made a face, and spit it out. I wouldn't go that far, but I don't blame her either.

Plus, the part that gets me a little is the preparation. It's pretty standard oven-heating for the fries. But the cheese curds and gravy? You're supposed to keep them in the bag, heat a small pot of water, put them in the pot on the stove while continuing to heat. Most other TJ's dishes that come with a frozen packet of sauce or whatever don't have you actually "cook" the packet, and there's something about doing so that gives me the skeevy-jeevies a little bit. I'll trust that they're BPA-free, so that's not quite it. But there is something there.

Anyways, as I've stated, although we're not poutine experts, we're underwhelmed. I'd go as far to say that if this were my first experience with poutine ever, I'd be fairly unlikely to try again. That's the blessing and curse of TJ's - they make so many "exotic" dishes so well that when one misses the mark, it seems overly disappointing. If you really want to try poutine, scrounge up a couple extra bucks (TJ's version cost $4, we got "fancy poutine" for $8) and find some on a local menu somewhere, and probably skip the McD's too. Sandy kinda agrees and gave 'em a two, maybe more out of pity than much else. I'll go one and a half.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Poutine: 3.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Trader Joe's Milk Chocolate Orange

Since we'll be harping on about the joys of Christmas for the next few weeks, let me throw this out there now before it's too late: Happy Hanukkah! Who knew it came so early this year? For our kosher readers: if you can find it, check out the fruit and nut log before the Festival of Lights is over! 

And now, on to my mandatory semantical pondering of the day: shouldn't this product be orange chocolate? I mean it's chocolate that tastes like orange. It's not an actual orange covered in chocolate. Just sayin'. 

Leave it to a Japanese YouTube channel to enlighten me about real chocolate-covered oranges. And leave it to the Germanic peoples of northern Europe to give us Christmas classics like pfeffernüsse, which you can find at Trader Joe's, along with festive American offerings like chocolate peppermint cupcakes and eggnog.

Since I've furnished you with enough snarkiness to last us through December, I won't even mention TJ's advent calendars, although I will say that the chocolates in the one we bought this year taste vastly better than the first one we tried. I think the calendar we used in 2011 might have had chocolate from 2010 or 2009 in it. As much as I appreciate vintage wines, and in some cases aged cheeses, I don't think chocolate works that way.

But that was one of the strengths of this chocolate orange. The chocolate just tasted fresh. The orange flavor helped give it a little extra splash of tartness that tingled the tongue and enhanced the milk chocolate sweetness. Similar to Terry's famous chocolate orange, you must whack this one on the counter to separate the 20 thin slices. In fact, it's so similar to the Terry's oranges I've had, I'm wondering if this is just a re-packaging of Terry's brand...? Don't quote me on that. It's just one of my speculative musings about the secret world of Trader Joe's suppliers. Either way, this is a pretty good product if I can't tell the difference between TJ's brand and the original.

I guess this is something you're supposed to get as a stocking stuffer on Christmas morning. Sonia and I didn't wait. The review wouldn't do you much good after the holidays are over, now would it? Despite Sonia's slight aversion to eating plain chocolate, she managed to muster enough enthusiasm for three and a half stars. I think I'll give it four and a half.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 stars.
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And yes, that is Yoda in a Santa suit next to the chocolate orange under our Christmas tree.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Triple Ginger Snaps

Since it's December and Turkey Day has now passed, it's officially time to start enjoying the Christmas season and to look forward to all the goodies ahead. That's not to discount Thanksgiving at all - quite the opposite actually - I'm just a one-holiday-at-a-time kinda guy. I love the Christmas season for so many reasons, but most pertinently to this post, the cookies. And I must say this: this is entirely because of my mother, who each and every year, literally pours her heart and soul into making batch upon batch upon batch upon batch of dozens of different cookie types. Chocolate mint? Check. Anise seed? Check. Jelly thumbprints? Candy cane? Cranberry lemon creme? Homemade biscotti in dazzling arrays of flavors? Yes, yes, and yes, and yes to so many more. She will not settle for anyone placing his/her foot in her house without an absolute abundance of at least nine of their favorite ten varieties of cookies ready for mass consumption on a whim's notice. It's absurdly delicious and so, so appreciated, more than what I can put words to. Now that's something to be thankful for and eager about at the same time, so, yeah, it's all timely here.

Naturally, it's pretty unfair to hold some store-bought confectionery trinkets up to this measure. Regardless, in their own way, Trader Joe's this time of year shines, with some of their best seasonal work. And it's never a bad idea to take something so-so (which the Triple Ginger Snaps are certainly much better than) and coat it in dark chocolate just to see what will happen - sometimes it's absolutely transformative.

Sadly, the Dark Chocolate Triple Ginger Snaps are also a transformative experience, but that's not meant in glowing terms. Changes and twists aren't always good, and here's an example. You might think that this product is simply one of the regular ginger snaps coated in dark chocolate, but while that's technically true, I s'pose, it doesn't exactly tell the story. There's something about the dark chocolate that robs the ginger snap of its two main alluring qualities. First, in quite literal terms, it sugarcoats the balance-yet-spicy ginger bite from the snaps. It's too smooth, too unbalanced, too much chocolate and not enough ginger. I know how good those ginger snaps can taste - I want to taste them! And I want them to crunch the way their naked forefathers did. That's the second thing. My presumption is that in the non-choc'ed-up ones, the crystallized ginger adds slight bit of stiff occasional chewiness to an otherwise tough, crunchy cookie that works so, so well. That all gets lost with these guys, and so they're texturally pretty boring.

Other than that, well, they're a decent enough cookie. I mean, my arm didn't have to be twisted to eat them. But the sleeve of maybe about twenty of them lasted around the house for almost two weeks, so my tastebuds weren't exactly clamoring for them, either. Nor were Sandy's, who noted much of the above, shrugged, and gave 'em a three. That sounds just about right to me as well. They could worth a pickup for the office holiday lunch potluck - for about four bucks a box, you could do worse - but they certainly do not belong at the centerpiece of any holiday cookie spread. Don't believe me? That's fine. Just ask my mom.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Triple Ginger Snaps: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Trader Joe's Peppermint Sandwich Cookie Cake

This item has pork in it. 

There is PIG in this product. Granted, it's just pig bones. Or possibly pig skin. But PORK GELATIN is listed on the ingredients. Didn't think we'd read the ingredients, did you, TJ's? Well, we did (unfortunately, not until after we got the cake home). And this product just isn't tasty enough for me to overlook that fact.

Putting pork in peppermint ice cream is nearly as gross as putting bugs in yogurt. Yes, Dannon and certain other brands put bugs in yogurt. LOTS of bugs. I'm not implying they put bugs in TJ's yogurts either...just yogurt in general. It's called "carmine." If you don't want to eat lots of bugs, look for it in yogurt ingredients. That being said, bugs are high in protein, low in fat, and are probably a lot better for you than the chemicals that some companies put in yogurt. But...they're BUGS. Similarly, I suppose there's not a lot of fat in pork gelatin. But pig-flavored ice cream just doesn't sit well in my subconscious. After this sandwich cookie was out of the freezer for a bit, I swear it started to smell like pork rinds, but that was probably just my overactive imagination.

Perusing the packaging of this porky peppermint product further, you'll discover even more fun facts that utterly defy logic, like "Product of France." Product of France?? They import this stuff?? What made them think this was worth importing?? You're telling me there isn't a better chocolate-peppermint sandwich cookie stateside? 

The peppermint is stiff, and it isn't particularly creamy or sweet. It's just minty. The chocolate cookie is powdery and kind of spongy. It's not very flavorful. The bread part and the ice cream part don't blend together all that well, either. You'd be better off mixing any other pint of peppermint ice cream with a chocolate Twinkie. 

This "Pork Peppermint Patty" is proof that the answer to "What's Good at Trader Joe's?" is not "everything," and this post is proof that we do not work for Trader Joe's. AdSense makes this blog lucrative for us, not TJ's. But at the same time, don't get me wrong—this blog IS a labor of love...just like this funny music video about the first TJ's in Denver, CO, or this well-written article about the guy who holds the "End of the Line" sign at a Trader Joe's in Manhattan, or this excellent cookbook about stuff you can make with Trader Joe's products. TJ's fans are enthusiastic, to say the least.

But in the end, we must give you our honest opinion. Sonia scores this product 1.5 stars. I give it half a star.

Bottom line: 2 out of 10.
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And just so I don't sound like a Thanksgiving Grinch by leaving you with a negative review right before Turkey Day (or Turkey-Less Day, as the case may be), I'd also like to say that I'm very thankful for a lot of things, including most Trader Joe's products, and you, our readers. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Trader Joe's Belgian Dark Chocolate Bar

I've been known to exaggerate or flat-out make up stories time to time, but this one, I swear, is true: Back in college, between my junior and senior year, I worked with this one guy whose name I cannot remember, but he was rather, well, unique. Whenever he spoke (which was quite often), he spoke in this rich, silky, charming British accent that even made me swoon a little bit. The ladies loved it. So, one night when we were finishing a shift up, it was absolutely jarring and disorienting to hear him speak....with no accent at all. I think I just stared him stupidly, all wide-mouthed and whatnot, as he caught my expression and said, "Yeah, I actually grew up like 20 minutes away from here. I use an accent because the chicks dig it...it makes me sound mysterious and interesting." I asked him how well that was working out for him. He winked as he flipped his accent back on and said "Very well." That was the only time I ever heard him break character. 

I kinda thought about that guy as I reflected upon the consumption of the Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Bar. It comes down to appearance management, to make oneself seemingly different from the "ordinary," even when the "ordinary isn't even necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with a guy from Port Matilda as is, nor anything wrong with a typical candy bar. But let's embellish it a bit. See here.  First of all, this is "Belgian" dark chocolate. How's that different from regular dark chocolate? Going into the purchase, I couldn't tell you, but the fact it said "Belgian" made it sound much, much cooler. Then there's also Thing on the label, holding that To/From gift tag, implying this is one serious present-worthy chocolate bar.

Welllllll....I'm not saying it's a bad dark chocolate bar. It's pretty decent, actually. Think of a good, dark but not crazy-dark chocolate bar, and you'll have this. But there's the point. Perhaps it's my complete lack of Belgian cultural awareness outside of pricey Trappist beers and classic cinema, but I can't tell you what makes this different and/or sets it apart from, say, a Hershey bar made in the good U.S. of A. I'm aware of the fact that the package says it is made in Belgium, which as my wife strained greatly to point out to me, makes it a "Belgian" bar, but I wanted to know what made it Belgian, if you know what I mean. The package isn't even the colors of the Belgian flag. Maybe one or two of you kindhearted, patient souls can out there can point me in the right direction.

Regardless, it's one thick, hefty bar that made out of six segmented logs (so it's only half the bar pictured). It's not easy to bust them apart - Sandy accidentally thwacked it off the kitchen table and it merely, begrudgingly, broke in half. If you had to build a house out of chocolate, they'd be a pretty good exterior wall. Yet at the same time, they're not too cumbersome for biting and chewing. Must be some of that chocolately melt in your mouth, not in your hand magic.

I'm pretty sure I paid two bucks for it at the local TJ's shop. I'd gladly enough pay another two bucks for it again, if they didn't have one or two of our other favorites readily available and I really needed that chocolate fix. My beloved wifey deems it worthy a four. I'm a little behind that.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Belgian Dark Chocolate Bar: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, November 22, 2013

Trader Joe's Curried White Chicken Deli Salad

Are you a fan of chicken salad? Are you a fan of curry? If you can answer "yes" to both of those questions, then you'll love this stuff. Before I tried this, I imagined what the perfect curried chicken salad would taste like. And the product matched what I imagined. And I mean exactly matched. This is the archetype. This is the genuine article. This isn't the shadow of curried chicken salad on the wall of the cave, this is the curried chicken salad itself

Somewhere, some culinarily-inclined East Indian person must have married a Mennonite or Amish person from Lancaster County, PA, or somewhere else where people make near-perfect chicken salad, and the two went about creating the most amazing "fusion" dish I've had in a long time. It's every bit as good as, though in no way similar to, Bulgogi Tacos.

There's just the right amount of spicy curry, just the right amount of chicken, and just the right amount of everything else. I should have taken a pic of the product out of the container, but I inhaled the whole thing too quickly and I forgot. Upon first glance, looking at the salad, there appeared to be an excess of raisins, but it definitely didn't taste that way. They balanced everything out juuust right. The chicken was moist, bite-sized, and had a great consistency.

I ate this with a fork, straight from the tub. I could have kicked myself for not picking up naan bread while I was there. I bet this would have been killer with actual Indian bread, but it also would have made a decent sandwich with just regular old Sunbeam.

This might not be the most common purchase for us or anyone else, but I simply can't imagine curried chicken salad tasting much better than this. Sonia gives this product 5 stars. Me too.

Bottom line: 10 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Trader Joe's Turkey Gobbler Wrap

To start off, it's not like Trader Joe's Turkey Gobbler Wrap is a fairly unique product offering. Out here in Western PA, at Mad Mex restaurants this time of year, you can go get yourself a Gobblerito. I haven't partaken of that, nor I have tried Wawa's* Gobbler sandwich which is similarly boasted about. There's probably a zillion others out and around town right now, as if portable Thanksgiving leftover mashups are the new rage as everyone is finally getting sick of pumpkin-related stuff. To me, it looked like an just-interesting-enough easy lunch alternative to the usual same ol' same ol' TJ's trots out without fail or much variance. Really, as surprisingly good as they are, I don't think I can ever eat one of their tamales again. Too much.

TJ's take on the turkified Thanksgiving tidbits twirled into a tortilla is actually pretty decent. For whatever reason, I didn't have high hopes for it at time of purchase. It's a good sized wrap, certainly not the size of say a burrito from Qdoba (I've ridden in smaller minivans) but more like one that'd be par for the course from the local convenience shop. There was just enough turkey chunkage in each bite to keep me from feeling cheated - a little bit more would've been appreciated but not a dealbreaker. I think I just wanted more because the turkey itself was pretty good - nicely roasted, fresh, not too thick, not too thin. Nicely done. The stuffing was kinda nondescript (think more or less compressed StoveTop and it's close enough) but the dried cranberries....yum. Kinda like Lebowski's rug (warning, definitely NSFW), it tied the whole thing together into a wrap worth eating. Not sure if the cream cheese was really necessary - in fact, I'll say no, though there wan't a lot. The tortilla was replacement level at best, kinda a boring flour one, but not bad either.

However, let's talk about that "festive dipping sauce" mentioned on the label. What's "festive" about a tepid pool of grayish/brownish milky Frankengravy? It is Frankengravy as a quick scan of the ingredients states the sauce has both turkey gravy AND beef gravy in it. What the h-e-double bendi-straw is up with that? It's probably not a mortal sin to mix gravies, but it should be in consideration. Plus, despite that, about the only two things the sauce succeeds in is 1) adding a lot of unnecessary sodium and 2) making the nondescript tortilla soggy and not much else. I liked my wrap better without the sauce than with, but maybe that's just me.

Sandy hasn't tried this, not because she wouldn't, but because I bought just one and ate it all, so tough luck. A quick scan of some comments from our Facebook page reveal a lot of love for the gobbler wrap - Jes, a self proclaimed picky eater, states she loves it, as did pretty much everyone else. Kam, another fan, noted the nutritional info, though - yeah, it's pretty bad. Is it fair I grant this product a four on the behalf of you all? No objections? Fine, a four then. I'm thankful that this was pretty good as is, but it could've been better. Imagine, for example, big bites of turkey with mashed sweet potatoes with brown sugar and pecan crunchies, wrapped up in a wheat or multtgrain tortilla with cranberry dipping sauce. Patent that and make a million bucks. But for $3.99, I could've done worse. I'm going with a 3.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Turkey Gobbler Wrap: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* Wawa is an eastern PA/southern New Jersey chain of convenience stores. There's a Pennsylvanian culture war between them in the East and Sheetz here in the western parts. As someone who's lived in both of their prime turfs, I prefer Getgo over both - they make the best breakfast sandwich, pure and simple..

Friday, November 15, 2013

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffins

These should be called "Pumpkin Muffins with Cream Cheese" because as they are, it sounds like they're regular muffins with pumpkin cream cheese. But they're pumpkin muffins with regular cream cheese. Just sayin'.

Unlike the recently reviewed Pumpkin Croissants, the pumpkin seeds on these muffins didn't really add much to the product. In fact, I wish they had done away with them altogether. The cream cheese, while pleasantly creamy and rich, was just a single slab right in the middle of the muffin. 

Sonia kept expressing her desire for more cream cheese. I do agree with that sentiment, but I also must point out that my well-thought-out biting strategy went a long way in preserving the lone dollop of cream cheese until I was nearly done with the bread part of the product. The procedure involved biting straight in from the perimeter of the cupcake and placing the incisors just at the edge of the cream cheese center. In this manner, a proportional amount of cream cheese came with each bite, and there was even a tiny amount left in the core of the muffin which could be coupled with the portion of bread just beneath it. This method can be improvised, but for greater accuracy, you might want to employ the use of a compass and protractor. I would draw a diagram for you, but alas, I am not as talented as my cross-state blogging comrade when it comes to MS Paint illustrations.

I personally liked the bread quite a bit. It was moist and slightly pumpkintastic. I would have eaten it sans a heavy topping, but Sonia insisted that it required cream cheese or frosting to be palatable. That's unusual, since I'm normally the one pining for more sugar and fat.

All in all, I think these make a happily-autumnal snack or dessert. If moist pumpkin bread sounds good to you, check 'em out. Just don't expect a whole lot of cream cheese.

Sonia gives them 3 stars. I give 'em 3.5.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Cashew Brittle with Sea Salt

Have you seen those Jimmy Kimmel videos of parents who tell their kids that they ate all of their Halloween candy? It's so cruel yet just so hilarious. I'm not sure that I'd ever do such a thing to my daughter when she's old enough for trick-or-treating and a big pillowcase full of candy to gorge herself on within three days just like how dear ol' dad used to do.

But I have no problem doing that with Sandy. None whatsoever. So one night, as she was coming down from upstairs, I hid the last few remnants of our box of Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Cashew Brittle with Sea Salt in our utensil drawer. When she asked where it was, I simply said, "Umm, sorry, ate it all." Please note: this was entirely plausible, as let's just say I have a history. Her reaction: Perfect, from the initial eyebrow raising, to the lip mini-quiver, to a definite pout, to only semi-playfully punching me in the arm. By that, I mean it's a good thing I don't bruise easily. It's also good that I'm a terrible liar (I smile waaaay too much), so she only half-believed me and took it easy. To really sell this next time, maybe I need to go get that plastic surgery some poker players get to help disguise their tells. 

Long time readers may know of my crazed, professed love of Trader Joe's Peanut Brittle. Seriously, it got weird for a while. It's safe to say I'm not quite as enamored with this particular version. It's not that it's not tasty or anything like that. Quite to the contrary. Much like it's aforementioned brethren, there's plenty of pieces the size of Greenland mixed in with itty bitty shards. Each piece is also definitely thicker than most brittles, adding an even bigger-than-usual crunch, and the sea salt makes a nice little addition. That's all well and good.

But there's two issues: the nuts and the chocolate. By "nuts" I more precisely mean nut distribution - some of those mega pieces had scarcely a nut or two in them, and if they were in there, they were hiding pretty deep down where you couldn't see them - like I said, it's very thick brittle. Meanwhile, some of the postage stamp-sized pieces had five gazillion cashews in them, which seems impossible except it isn't. Must be Time Lord technology, being bigger on the inside and all. And the chocolate - well, it's certainly good chocolate, as is most if not all of TJ's dark chocolate selections, but it just doesn't add that much, and instead kinda muddies the flavor some. Think about it this way: you already have a bunch of salty nuts fossilized into a rock solid chunk of corn syrup - how much more do you really need to play up the salty/sweet angle?

All that being said, yeah, Sandy and I housed it over two nights. The box isn't that big where we feel too guilty about it. It wasn't a terrible pick up for the four bucks or so, and it stands a more-than-decent chance to be a repeat purchase, even if just for something like a worky-office-holiday-party-type thing. Sandy's between three and a half or four spoons, and I'm a smidge behind that.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Cashew Brittle with Sea Salt: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons  

Monday, November 11, 2013

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Soup

This might have been the most pumpkinnish product we've had so far. Not in terms of ginger, allspice, and nutmeg—although "spices" were present in moderation—I'm talking about the actual large orange squash-like vegetable (or is it a fruit?). I felt like I was tasting pumpkin for the first time. And for those of you who've been reading this blog for a while, you'll know that it's definitely not my first time eating a pumpkin product.

This soup had a very natural flavor. Similar to butternut squash soup in terms of taste, this dish was just creamy enough, flavorful enough, and spicy enough to not seem, well...weird. Unlike tomato souppea soup, and lentil soup, pumpkin soup was entirely unfamiliar to me up till now. And when I try something brand new to me, my biggest fear isn't really that it will taste bad. If it's simply unpalatable, I'll just steer clear of it next time. I'm most scared that it will taste so strange to me—that the flavor and texture will be so far outside my experience—that I'll somehow be unable to appreciate a perfectly good product because of my own personal shortcomings; my failure to expand my horizons wide enough to incorporate this unfamiliar substance into my realm of appreciation.

Fortunately, neither of those scenarios was the case here. It was just really good soup that happened to taste like pumpkin. And Sonia and I were both appreciative of the fact that it's pre-mixed. There's no digging through the cupboards to find that measuring cup and then wondering whether you should use skim or whole, or whether you can substitute almond milk for cow's milk, or any of that nonsense. The mix was already done, and it just happened to be perfect. Plus, the box was less than $2. 

Our only complaint would be to point out that by itself, the soup is a bit boring. Some crackers or grilled cheese sandwiches are definitely in order if you want to turn this stuff into a meal, but happily, both crackers and grilled cheese complement this product perfectly.

If you're averse to pumpkin or plain, creamy soups, this product ain't for you. But if you're on the fence about trying it, Sonia and I both think you should check it out. Double four's.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Croissants

As Russ so delicately pointed out in his last post: I, Nathan, am an old man. And in all my long years, I have never tasted such delicious croissants. Ever. Not even in France. Granted, the croissant I had in Paris was from a sketchy street vendor guy, and it was super inexpensive. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't bad...it just wasn't this good.

Apparently, Russ and Sandy had a similar experience with the Almond Croissants, a delicacy that Sonia and I haven't had the chance to try yet. But if they're anything like these pumpkin dealies, they're going to be at the top of our next shopping list.

Man, where do I start? Like their almond cousins, these croissants need to thaw for 6-7 hours. I'm pretty sure the next time I buy these things, that the full thaw time won't occur...because I won't have the willpower to wait. I'm going to justify a shorter thaw time with a line of logic that goes something like this: "Because there's more heat in the oven, thawing will occur much faster if I just stick them in the oven now, and leave them in for, say...a half hour longer." And they'll come out burned on the outside and raw on the inside or something like that, and I'll be slightly disappointed, as was the case with the Chicken Pot Pie Bites.

But barring that or some similar calamity, I can't imagine you won't like these. The crust was amazing. It came out golden-brown, full of air, flaky, and very buttery. The pumpkin center was just as good. It's like hot pumpkin pie filling, but perhaps just a tad thinner. It's not overwhelmingly pumpkinny. It's just enough to balance out the bread part of the product. The pumpkin seeds add a nice element of texture, and somehow, they're the best-tasting pumpkin seeds I've ever had. As a kid, after carving our annual jack-o-lantern, my dad and I would roast all the seeds from our pumpkin, dump a bunch of salt on them, and eat them. I think the pumpkin seeds in this case have a little bit of butter and sweetness on them. I was skeptical that they'd work with something so dessert-like, but they definitely did. I guess they take the place of the almond slivers that crown the almond croissants.

I think I'm overdue for a perfect score. I give these 5 out of 5 stars. Sonia gives them 4.5. Scrump-pumpkin-dilly-icious.

Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10 stars.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Trader Joe's Mini Pecan Pies

I'm not sure how old Nathan is, but he must be older than I thought, or at least he has a much more old school music taste than I do. While I consider myself having a fairly encyclopedic song knowledge base, when he referenced that "Sweet Little Lies" song a few weeks back for a previous review of Trader Joe's Mini Pie Medley, I couldn't place that song whatsoever. Still can't. And it's not the first time that's happened, either.

I do, however, know another song called "Sweet Little Lies" by Michael Franti (one of the best concerts my wife and have been to, despite Franti's recent and kinda disappointing career turn), which she and I nearly simultaneously broke out into upon our first bite of Trader Joe's Mini Pecan Pies: "Give me pies, pies, pies, sweet little pies/ I gots to feed my sweet tooth/ Give me pies, pies, pies, sweet little pites/ Ummmm.....Help me fit into a toll booth?"

We added that last line because man, look at the nutritional information for these guys. Or maybe don't. Make of it what you will, but.....daaaaang. All that for a couple little bites of a little pie, when I honestly could eat two or three and not feel guilty until I looked at that? I'm 31, balding, mortgage, wife, kid, regular chiropractic appointments....I need to start watching that stuff.

So the question naturally becomes, are the micro-pies worth it? An excellent question, and I kinda waver back and forth on it. In the end, I'd say probably not, because I can't decide how much I like them. I mean, they're tasty, but....probably the tastiest part is the actual pie crust itself. It's shortbread style with some sugar glazed over top to add some sweetness that lingers and lingers well after the taste of the nut filling has gone away. It's like they put a lot of effort into the crust, and succeeded, but only to cover up the deficiency of the insides. It's a fair amount of pecans, and tons of brown sugar, and it tastes a little nutty and sweet but there's something missing. I'm not sure what it is. I've admitted before that I'm a pecan pie snob thanks to my Aunt Brenda's traditional Thanksgiving pie, and I'm not sure what she does differently (maybe she just licks her fingers while making the pie), and I know that it's probably not really a fair comparison, but man....there is something missing, and I can't shake that thought.

Regardless, the pies make for an okay dessert pick up. Just eat lots of raw veggies the rest of the day. I think the six pack cost somewhere around four or five bucks, and heat up in the oven in about 10 minutes. There's also a thaw-on-the-counter option, but that's been not-so-great before, so Sandy and I skipped out on that. Just a word to the wise: give them a few minutes to cool off before consuming, because the filling gets white-hot and stays that way for about five minutes after baking. Right, dear? Sandy liked them plenty, saying she wished there was more filling in them. About the only way that could happen would be a bigger pie, as they are amply engorged with the nutty parts. She gives them a four. I counter with a 2.5,

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Mini Pecan Pies: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, November 4, 2013

Trader Joe's Thai Lime Shrimp Skewers

I've never been to a Thai restaurant outside of Pittsburgh, so I don't know if this is the usual protocol or not, but when you order your fried rice or curry or what have you out here, you're asked how spicy you want it on a scale of 1 to 10. There are certain things I may do in my life with a questionable percentage of my gluteus maximus invested, but heat is not usually one of them. I have to go ten. Sometimes, I get extra spice on the side. One particular time several years ago, an acquaintance whom I was dining with stated he could handle hotter food than I ever could. Game on. Ordered a ten, got extra spice, coated every bite with the hottest chile powder, peppers and curry paste, and didn't take a single sip of water, drip one tear, or heck, even cough. He tried to match me, and it was a cute effort, but it fell far short. That guy's still intimidated of me to this very day.

So, yeah, the Thai spices. Love 'em, though I'm also learning to appreciate other flavors and aspects of Thai cuisine, like sweet coconut undertones, and as experienced here and there, lime leaves. It's a good thing, because otherwise, these Trader Joe's Thai Lime Shrimp Skewers would've been a rather large disappointment.

If you have any preconceived notions that all Thai food is spicy, throw it completely out the window here. These are not spicy at all, in any way that any tongue, branch of science, or philosopher could ever discern. In yet another example of TJ's exemplary track record in overall shrimp quality, each one of these are firm, fresh, non-fishy tidbits that heat up quickly and easily. For flavor, instead of the usual spicy suspects, it's all about the lime, but not in a citrusy Warhead-esque way, It's more refined. Such is the way of the kaffir lime. Not sure how to accurately describe it - Wikipedia uses words like "aromatic" and "astringent" which sounds like a smelly zit remover description to me - but perhaps it's like a limey answer to lemongrass. The citrus is subtle, while the herbal taste isn't but it isn't overpowering either. It's just good.

However, it ain't all perfect. This is yet another silly pet peeve that I'm slowly becoming more cognizant that I have, but the tails on? Really? Haven't we evolved past this? I hate shrimp tails, especially because it's not always easy to get the last little shrimp nub in them. My toddler daughter also kept reaching for pile of tails, much like she usually does while making a scene trying to grab clementine peels, except she loves clementines and didn't care for this shrimp whatsoever. Also, these got cold really fast after finishing cooking them. I'm talking ice cold in about three minutes. That might be more me than my little crustacean cronies - anybody with some insight? I could also live without the skewer itself, but meh. Also, please just a little spice. Please.


All told, the shrimp skewers aren't a bad buy. They're definitely much better than our previous meat-unnecessarily-on-a-stick purchase. You get five sticks with five shrimp on each for either five or six bucks. That's less than a quarter each, and given that I saw a bar advertising 90 cent wings as a special the other day, I'm thinking a restaurant would charge much more. Sandy liked 'em enough to score them a four without much to say one way or the other. I'll counter with a three.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Thai Lime Shrimp Skewers: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons