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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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Trader Joe's Gluten Free Chocolate Cupcakes with Buttercream Frosting

Of all the gluten-free baked goods we've tried so far, I would have to say the Macarons and the Snickerdoodles have been the best.

In the case of the macarons, there's a texture we're not used to eating all the time. It's a uniquely "macaron" or "macaroon" texture. And, personally, I've had way more macarons from TJ's than from anywhere else. But in the case of the snickerdoodles, they approximated a very "normal" texture without using gluten. It's harder to imitate something that's usually made with gluten than it is to just make something different.

So making a gluten free cupcake seems like it should be pretty close to impossible. But I've gotta say, they came incredibly close.

Once again, they nailed the flavor of a chocolate cupcake. I personally liked the frosting, too, although Sonia thinks it was too heavy for her tastes. I must admit, it was thick and very buttery. But it had a nice vanilla taste, and it blended well with the chocolate cake.

The cake part was super-moist. It broke apart in the same way any chocolate cake would, but once you started chewing it, there was just a tiny hint of what I might call "starchiness." It's like portions of the cake crumbs wanted to stick together just a hair more than with a glutenful cupcake that perfectly "melts in your mouth." But that's nitpicking. Really. The effect was very subtle, and if I hadn't already known that these were gluten-free cupcakes, I might not have noticed it. I think it's gotta be the "potato starch" that you can see there in the ingredients list photo, which wound up looking like the culinary equivalent of an American Apparel ad. I washed it all down with a tasty caramel latte, and my tummy was a happy camper. And sure enough, my stomach didn't puff up the way it does when I eat regular cupcakes. I should probably do this gluten-free thing full time. With products like these, I wouldn't feel like I'm giving up the world.

The checkout guy at Trader Joe's exclaimed, "Enjoy the cupcakes. They're excellent!" when I bought them. He's certainly not wrong. Sonia's only complaint was the heaviness of the buttercream, although I was a fan of the icing. And my only complaint is the oh-so-barely-there weirdness of the cake texture. Definitely, if you're eating gluten-free out of necessity, these cupcakes will be your friends.

Sonia gives them 4 stars. I think they're worthy of a 4.5.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Trader Joe's Dried Kimchi

I've mentioned my feelings about kimchi in one or two previous posts. It scares me. It's foreign, it's fermented, and it's cabbage. It's just a bit intimidating. 

And it's not just kimchi that terrifies me, but all forms of fermented cabbage, like sauerkraut.

But you can't say I'm not a trooper. I've eaten sauerkraut on hotdogs and with porkchops. I've tried kimchi in fine Asian restaurants, mostly Korean barbecue places. And I've tried multiple different kinds of it. I did appreciate some of the varieties a little more than the traditional cabbage-based one, but none so much that I'd snack on them on any normal occasion. I just can't get into it.

Recently, an excellent article about fermented foods by Ellen Byron went up on the Wall Street Journal site. (If that link takes you to a "Get the Full Story" screen, that means they've placed the article behind their paid subscriber wall). And it really got me thinking. It got me thinking that if a delicious condiment like Sriracha is actually fermented, a fact I was previously unaware of, that maybe I should give this whole kimchi thing another whirl. 

I thought that maybe the dryness of this Trader Joe's product would cut down on the grossness of the kimchi. When it's all wet, I just can't get it out of my mind that it's cabbage being broken down into a liquid slowly by millions of little bacteria. So, after postponing the consumption of the dried kimchi as long as possible, I finally decided to be brave and open the bag. There were dozens of chunks of dried kimchi with a dusting of a powdered version of the traditional red spices you'd find on any regular kimchi. It looked and felt like the bag of kale chips I reviewed a while back. The taste, however, was very different from the kale chips.

Chalk it up to my aversion to kimchi if you must, but I simply can't recommend this stuff like I did that delicious bag of dried kale coated in a weird nacho sauce. This stuff STILL TASTES LIKE ROTTING CABBAGE!

I found it a shade more palatable when I ate it in a bowl of ramen instead of straight out of the bag, but in the former case, it gets wet again. I imagine that the millions of little bacteria responsible for the sourness of the cabbage have been in suspended animation for months, and then when I drop it into my bowl of warm soup, they come to life again like a package of Amazing Live Sea Monkeys and begin swimming about, devouring bits of cabbage and ramen, rushing to establish a culture of their own in my bowl before I can gag them all down and digest them.

My wife Sonia, who generally appreciates regular kimchi, felt like TJ's Dried Kimchi was mostly flavorless. I disagree. I think it tastes sour like authentic rotting cabbage. And I also tasted the spices, which I might have actually enjoyed if they were sprinkled onto, say kale, instead of ... rotting cabbage. Neither Sonia nor I could ever feature ourselves buying this again, but perhaps for slightly different reasons. I can only recommend trying this product if you're a big fan of regular cabbage-based kimchi. I know you kimchi fans are out there, and I wish I could join your ranks. But this is one food I fear I may never fully develop an appreciation for.

Sonia gives it 3 stars. I give it 2.5.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Trader Joe's Chicken-less Strips

A few months back, the wife and I decided to become more or less vegetarian, or perhaps more accurately, pescetarians who don't dabble too much with other types of meat. That's not to say we're perfect, like the other night when we were in such a rush to get down to PNC Park for the MLB debut of the next great Pittsburgh Pirates savior AKA Gerrit Cole that we kinda forgot about the whole "we should eat dinner" thing, were dissuaded by obscene concession lines and even more obscene prices ($9 for fries?)   and so were left with Wendy's late night drive thru afterwards. But we're working on it, and our efforts have paid off. I've personally dropped about 30 pounds and 20 points worth of systolic blood pressure (from high normal to perfectly normal) at least in part to our new diet. It's fantastic.

The kinda funny thing is, since beginning this a few months back, I swear we've eaten more fake meat options than we ever ate actual meat before. Maybe it's just how we try to placate our inner carnivore. From old stand-bys to new favorites, TJ's sure has a few worth checking out, and with most if not all being absolutely tasty (even veggie corn dogs, for crying out loud), we bought Trader Joe's Chicken-Less Strips on a recent trip.

And hate to say it, but these poultry fake-outs are the worst we've had from TJ's. It doesn't make them flat-out awful, but they're certainly a disappointment. Sandy and I decided to try them in more or less their purest of forms, which meant sauteed then served in a mixed greens/strawberry/almond salad. Every other bit of our dinner was delectable, but any bite with chicken....ugh. It wasn't quite the flavor, because they tasted like chicken, and indeed lightly seasoned, although I wouldn't label them as "delicious" or "tasty" or "pleasing." It may have been more the texture - it lacked the fleshy goodness of real, authentic chicken and was certainly fake and a little rubbery. Whatever it was that turned these guys, it wasn't good. Actual chicken strips would have made our salad an absolute killer. With these fakers instead, our dinner was much more ho-hum. Sandy even left a small pile on her plate and said "No mas", and instead of helping myself to them, I wasn't too bothered by throwing them away.

We'll be gracious, though. It's entirely conceivable our opinion would have been different if we have chosen to make fajitas or fried rice or some other type of dish that would help hide the flavor and texture deficiencies a little better. So there's some potential there, and while we're not completely enamored, both Sandy and I haven't completely written off the possibility of a repeat purchase. Based on that, and that alone, a score that hovers between "meh" and "not so great" seems fair at this point.


Bottom line: Trader Joe's Chicken-less Strips: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons    

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Trader Joe's Barbeque Popped Potato Chips

Picking up on the success of PopChips, TJ's has, predictably, offered their own version of a "popped" chip. And I must say I'm just as much a fan of Trader Joe's brand as I am the original. They're neither baked nor fried. They're simply popped in a pressure cooker of sorts. The back of the bag says they take potato slices and "apply heat and pressure." The same could be said for the butt of my pants every time I sit down—minus the potato part of course—but that's never generated anything as snacktacular as these little BBQ chips.

The chips are very round and flat, and they're super-crunchable. They're light, airy, and they do taste slightly of actual potatoes. You know, I really wish they would call them POPtato chips. I think that's the proper way to market these fellas. "Poptato Chips." Yep. I will expect my check in the mail, TJ's. You're welcome for the idea.

But the best part about these little guys is their barbecue flavor. It's really tangy, and it mixes well with the potato taste. Somehow it's way better than the taste you would get just by dumping a bunch of barbecue sauce on a baked potato. Just recently, I had the misfortune of sampling a really, really revolting BBQ flavored chip, so these, in contrast, seemed even more tasty than they might have without the Honey Barbecue Ribs Chips as a reference point.

TJ's has done potato chips in the past, but these aren't traditional chips. Plus, these guys won't weigh you down. They're relatively low in fat and calories for a potato chip, and that's something my gut and I are always thankful for.

Sonia was blown away by them, too. 4.5 stars from her. 4.5 stars from me.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Trader Giotto's Lobster Ravioli

The first and foremost thing that drew me to pick up Trader Giotto's Lobster Ravioli was their appearance. For whatever reason, I didn't take a great picture (actually, no picture at all) of these big ol' guys with the crazy red thck red stripes on them. Perhaps I've lived a fairly sheltered life as it relates to stuffed pastas, but I've never seen such a thing as striped ravioli, or if I have, I've haven't remembered, so it doesn't count. These, though...these are loud and proud and not afraid to express their semolina selves to the world. You go, ravioli. Although, it's not like different colored pasta taste all that radically different from regular, so I'm not sure of the practical use. About the only reason I can think of is somehow a game of Ravioli Crush Saga broke out and you need to know which one you can count on wiping out an entire row. A pretty similar game is the one Shelly household obsession right now. Another one, to not the same degree, is "Kitchen Nightmares" on Netflix, and on a recently watched episode, Gordon Ramsey picked up a handful of (you guessed it) red striped lobster ravioli (dried) and unleashed a string of bleeps so superfluous that I'm not even sure what words 90% of the bleeps were bleeped for. It was amazing, and it also shows that havng red-striped lobster ravioli is at least some sort of common practice.

The second thing that tempted me into buying them was the thought of tasty, chunky, lobstery, yummy bites wrapped up in some pasta and served with a little sauce. In my mind, that's what lobster ravioli is, though I have no experience to base that on. I should've figured diferently, because that's not exactly what's inside. Instead of big ol' lobster chunks, it's probably something that Ramsey would call lobster babyfood as it's all mashed and pureed up, and mixed in with all sorts of other stuff. Ours were a tad salty and a wee bit gritty, but overall  pretty decent. I liked the fact that, at least on a flavor and texture basis, they weren't too ricotta-like. There's just enough lobster in each one to be the dominant flavor and gets complemented well with the little shake of mozzarella they had. We served them up with a little vodka sauce, but I'm thinking perhaps a light butter or lemon pepper sauce would've been a better match. Regardless, while not overly impressive, and certainly not as fancy as their appearance initially made me think, the ravioli made a decent enough quick weeknight meal, and was close to worth the $4 we dropped on the sack of 'em.

Sandy also would've prefered bigger chunks of actual lobster in them. Then again, that'd probably jack the price up, but I could be on board for that. Other than that, she didn't have to say, which eans about a three, which sounds right about right to me as well.

Bottom line: Trader Giotto's Lobster Ravioli: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Trader Joe's Blueberry Scones

Apparently scones are not pastries, since they are not made with yeast. I've always been aware that they were British, and that they originally went with "afternoon tea" or perhaps "luncheon" or "elevensies" if you're a hobbit. 

But I was not aware that Scots and Brits often pronounce the word as "skon." Although the common American version with the long "o" sound is also acceptable, according to British dictionaries. Phew! I'm glad I won't have to change the way I pronounce it.

And these Trader Joe's scones are pretty darn American if you ask me. They're glazed, they've got blueberries, and they're satisfyingly sweet. Maybe even a little bit too sweet to be a scone.

They're dense. And they're filling, too. In a good way. They go great with coffee, but I would think their taste is a little too strong to go well with most teas. I could be wrong because I don't drink tea all that often.

But we'll go ahead and call these a success. Now, for your next assignment, Trader Joe, I'd like you to devise a gluten-free scone. Go!

And while you're working on that, we'll go ahead and give this product 4 stars from me and 4 stars from Sonia.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Trader Joe's Tropical Fruit Juice in a Box

This stuff looks and tastes kinda like Juicy Juice. It's definitely a step-up from the Pomegranate Lime Juice in a Box that we reviewed in 2012, but it's not quite as amazing as some other juice blends we've taken looks at over the years.

It's very guava-dominant. If they had labeled the drink "guava juice," I think it would have given consumers a little bit more of an idea what they're getting into when they buy this product. However, the main juice present is "pear juice" according to the ingredients list.

In the past, I've stood atop my soapbox and preached the virtues of pear juice to my audience, so I'll spare you another lecture on that subject. But if you missed the original, just click here to partake of my pear madness and peruse a post about one of the most perfect pear products you can purchase. Long story short, pear juice makes a great sweetener. And the drink won't necessarily taste like pear, especially if there are other juices present.

And it's not too sweet, either. It's just right. It's been good for these hot pre-summer days here in southeastern Pennsylvania. Very refreshing.

And I certainly don't have anything against guava. Guava is great. But I think I would have rather had pear be the dominant flavor. That is to say, they should have added nothing but pear juice and just a few drops of other fruit juices to make it interesting. Or pineapple could have been the dominant flavor. Or passionfruit. Or peach.

When it comes right down to it, I guess guava is fairly low on my "fruits that I like list." It's on the list for sure, it's just that there are lots of other fruits that are higher. So I guess my bottom line here is that if you like guava, you'll like this beverage. And how much you like guava will likely determine how much you'll like this Tropical Fruit Juice in a Box. Am I right?

Or am I right? (Leave a comment below and let me know how right you think I am).

And even though it seems inconceivable, if you think I am not right in my Theory of Guava Affinity, you may leave sentiments to that effect in the comments, as well.

Sonia and I give this product double 3.5's.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 stars.