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, October 31, 2013

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Bread Pudding

Because I'm quite certain there's no pumpkin in coconut cashews, and also because I'm pretty sure pumpkin seeds do not constitute a pumpkin product, and also because my last 2 posts have been relatively pumpkin-free, and because my wife and I have suffered from severe pumpkin-withdrawal over the last 2 weeks, and finally, because it's Halloween, I have decided that it's high time to take a look at something pumpkintacular once again.

It's pumpkin-flavored bread pudding. I remember the first time I heard of bread pudding. I was like, "Wait...you mean it's bread and it's pudding?" I was overjoyed. "What's next?" I thought. "Ice cream and cake? Cookie butter and cocoa spread?" It's kinda like that Ford Fusion commercial where they say "I like 'and' better," which is quite obviously a rip-off of the Old Country Buffet commercial where the people visit "The Land of &."

Well, I just visited the Land of Bread and Pudding and Pumpkin, and I'm thinking about transferring my citizenship there. It's pretty awesome. And to add to all of the awesomeness, I must mention that I didn't even turn on the oven to prep this product. I got lazy and used the microwave, even though I've sworn off such barbaric practices in previous posts, even if the instructions list it as a viable heating option. But in this case, it worked pretty well. Our microwave is cheap and old, so it didn't heat completely evenly, but I often wonder if heating the bread pudding in the oven might have dried it out a bit.

Ours was crazy moist, like bread pudding's supposed to be. Both Sonia and I agree that it's actually a bit better served at room temperature rather than warm, despite the instructions contradicting us. Because remember, the WG@TJ's crew is always right. The product tastes bready and custardy, and the whole thing has an air of pumpkin pie. It's just solid enough that you can eat it with your hands or out of a napkin, but it's also melt-in-your-mouth soft, and you could theoretically eat it with a spoon.

This stuff goes great with coffee, it tastes a good bit like pumpkin, and at least in our case, it stayed moist for the whole 12 hours it lasted on the counter under some saran wrap. Sonia gives it 4.5 stars. I give it 4.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10 stars

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Trader Joe's Coconut Cashews

I've admitted before that sometimes I don't look too closely at a product or label before deciding to buy it. It usually happens when I get sent all by myself by the spousal powers-that- be to go find a "good, easy dinner" or a "yummy looking snack" with few, if any, other qualifications. With such an open-ended directive that can be easily interpreted a myriad of different ways, you think it'd be hard to mess up. Nuh uh. Not me. That's how we ended up being forced to consume such sorry excuses for food like those nasty vegetable rolls linked to above, or the ginger napalm shards, or other similar disappointments. It's like when given the most freedom to get something right, I am most likely to swing and miss. Fortunately, the only realm of life this is particularly true in is grocery shopping at Trader Joe's, so I'll consider myself one lucky hombre.

This somehow leads to Trader Joe's Coconut Cashews. Now, I understood that these were cashews with a coconut twist, so I'm not quite that dumb to think that maybe I bought some meat macadamias or pizza peanuts or alcoholly almonds or some other alliterative nut product. The name kinda speaks for itself.

But, I didn't really look at the nuts themselves, or the ingredient list, to see how the cashews arrived at their coconutty incarnations. Perhaps it was the spirits of the season, but I was imagining cashews wrapped up mummy-style in shredded coconut, or perhaps put more appetizingly, shredded coconut all piled up pinata-style, with the reward for busting through that layer being crunchy, tasty cashew goodness. Not the case. These guys are just cashews with coconut powder, coconut milk, and sugar kinda spooged on them with some coconut oil to boot. I have nothing particularly against any of those ingredients, but man, given the option, I'd take shredded coconut ten times before I'd settle for one of those. There's a certain crunch to toasted coconut which could've been pretty interesting with roasted cashews, in my opinion, that I was hoping to try out but wasn't able to.

That's my biggest beef, but it's not my only. I'd like them a little more for straight snacking if they had just a hint of salt on them, just to play up the salty/sweet angle a little bit. No dice. And while my better half has suggested they may be good for making some curry or fried rice, I'm not terribly convinced they'd be any better than regular plain ol' cashews and adding your own coconut milk. Maybe I'm just a little grouchy that I paid $6.99 for the not-quite-a-pound sack and I'm not that particularly wowed about them. If I'm paying that much for something, I'd like to be impressed.

All that being said, I'll snack on them a little here and there, but I'm not foreseeing these nuts as a repeat purchase. They're not nasty nuts by any stretch, but they're underwhleming at best, to the point I'd say I'd rather have plain. Sandy's a bit more enthused about them than I am, as she's been adding them to her morning oatmeal and smushed some up for some baked apple/oatmeal dessert she made tonight, so I was a little surprised when she said she'd give them just a three. "They're crunchy and sweet and....well, not much else," she said. Since I'd say she's about twice as happy with them as I am, I shall have my score reflect that. It's probably lower than what they actually deserve, but well, as the saying goes, our scores can range from soup to, well, nuts.   

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Coconut Cashews: 4.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, October 28, 2013

Trader Joe's Pita Crisps with Cranberries and Pumpkin Seeds

Well, hello friends. In case you haven't noticed, Sandy and I have been pretty busy lately, so I've been a wee bit negligent in my posting duties as of late. I could go into all the reasons why...packing, double closings, moving, painting, two out of town weddings, unpacking, new shift/promotion at work, a toddler who's learning to walk....the list goes on. I'll just take the cue from Dr Evil and move on. Just thanks to Nathan and Sonia for shaking off their pumpkin-induced haziness every now and again to keep this up and running.

Fortunately, we have found time every once in a while to eat, and have found some good stuff in the meantime. On the same late night, blog-writer card pullin' trip in Salt Lake City (complete with customers in lingerie! - apparently this is why - semi-NSFW) we found the Cookie and Cocoa Swirl, we found these Trader Joe's Pita Crisps with Cranberries & Pumpkin Seeds. Unfortunately, we haven't spotted them yet back in the 'burgh, so this is a wee bit from memory, but I think it'll be accurate enough.

These were a mixed bags of sorts, fairly literally. Let me explain. Most, if not all, of the ones I consumed tasted pretty salty, which if I'm noticing it, that's saying something. Sandy said hers weren't at all and instead were actually sweet, especially the bites with cranberries. Maybe I was just breathing in more of the air as we munched these driving around Antelope Island State Park. I don't know. The saltiness didn't catch on 'til a few chips in, but once I did, my satisfaction level with them began declining kinda sharply.  Other than that, they were a decently okay munchie snackie. The pumpkin seeds didn't add that much in either texture or taste, as they were unshelled, understandably, I guess. Imagine a basic multigrain pita chip, with its overall multilayer crispiness and crunchiness, with an occasional cranberry tossed in, and that was about it.

The inclusion of the cranberries were a little problematic, though. Most pita chips go well with any type of hummus or salsa or whatever kind of dip. Because of the berries, these begged for something a little different, and for whatever reason, cream cheese came to mind. Perhaps to be all seasonal and whatnot, pumpkin cream cheese? Maybe. But the thought of snacking, bag of chips in one hand, block of cream cheese in another is just so unappetizing to me that I just ate them straight and tried to not dwell too hard on potential condiment sidekick options.

Well, whatever. They made an okay enough of a snack for driving around a big stinky lake staring at buffalo while M (now that she's walking, she's not Baby M anymore!) alternately snoozed and smeared a blueberry/fruit sauce pouch snack literally all over her head and car seat. Kids these days....Sandy liked 'em enough to go with a four. That's too rich for my blood. I'm going 2.5.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Pita Crisps with Cranberries and Pumpkin Seeds: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons    

Friday, October 25, 2013

Trader Joe's Scary Sugar Cookies

I was once again ensnared by clever, festive packaging at the Trader Joe's checkout display. Also, this review is a desperate attempt to keep my promise to stay away from pumpkin products for a bit. Halloween theme? Yes. Pumpkin? No.

Not to be confused with Halloween Joe-Joe's, these terrifying cookies are shaped like bats, ghosts, and...well, pumpkins. But the pumpkins aren't pumpkin-flavored, they're just pumpkin-shaped, so this still doesn't count as a pumpkin product.

But let's get down to the review, shall we? We have fairly run-of-the-mill sugar cookies here. They aren't particularly bad for you compared to other desserts, but there's nothing very special about them either. I'd say these are on par with every other store-brand sugar cookies I've ever had. They aren't exceptionally rich or buttery, and they don't have any special zing: no fruit-juice sweeteners, no cookie butter or cocoa swirl filling. They're just sugar cookies. And not even particularly good ones.

The bats have a hint of chocolate flavoring. They were my least favorite. I couldn't really tell a difference between the ghosts and the pumpkins. They were all a shade on the bland side. Each frightening cookie has a couple dabs of icing for eyes, mouth, etc. But the icing adds virtually nothing to the flavor of the cookies, although I do wish there were more of it, because it would have added a welcome variation in texture and made them slightly less boring. 

If it sounds like I'm being critical, it's because I want TJ's to go above and beyond any other grocery store, because I know they can, and they routinely do. Most people, especially folks who might be new to Trader Joe's probably won't be so disappointed with these cookies, because honestly, they're not bad. They're soft enough, sweet enough, and spooky enough for any average seasonal dessert food. But in the end, I just want more for my money. If I wanted to pay $4 for painfully average sugar cookies, I would have gone to Giant or Ralph's.

I give these scary cookies 2.5 stars. Sonia gives them 3 stars, stating that their taste is fine, but that they're too crumbly.

Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10 stars.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Trader Joe's The Bagel Spinoza

Benedict de Spinoza was a Portuguese-Dutch philosopher. I'm going to pretend I sort of knew that before I wiki'd it. I only took the intro to philosophy course in college to fulfill my gen ed requirement, and on the final exam I simply regurgitated the limited tidbits they had shoved down my throat over the previous 3 months and somehow wound up with an 'A.' Perhaps it's another result of my philosophical ignorance, but I'm not sure why this man has bagels named after him. My guess is that it's because he was Jewish, and bagels are pseudo-traditional Jewish cuisine. Funfact: Spinoza was later expelled from Judaism because of his controversial ideas about God and the Hebrew Bible.

Who knew that centuries later he would make up for his heresy by offering the world these soft, delicious bagels? They're actually much softer than most bagel brands I've tried. Although, I must say that some of the best bagels I've ever had have been somewhat rigid. Not these. They're fluffy. Good, but fluffy. They're plain, just the way I like 'em. Check out Everything Bagel Slims and Everything Bagel Chips if you're looking for something with a bit more complexity in the flavor department. In this case, though, I think their simplicity is their strength. Nothing but a scrumptious white-bready flavor.

Even though I've made a promise to avoid the topic of pumpkin for a few posts, I must at least mention that these are the bagels we ate with the pumpkin cream cheese. They were a great combo. Recently, a reader mentioned that he was not thrilled with the pumpkin bagels from TJ's, so I must recommend these, coupled with the aforementioned pumpkin cream cheese, as an alternative. But don't worry, that's it for pumpkin...at least for now. I haven't been able to make it back to TJ's lately to be tempted by their plethora of palatable pumpkin products, although my last visit to Target involved the purchase of Pumpkin Harvest Salsa. It's a conspiracy, I tell you.

Sonia says she liked these bagels because they were soft and fresh, but she wonders if maybe we just got a bag that happened to be brand spanking new. The bagels didn't last around our place long enough for us to find out if they got much stiffer over time. She gives them a 4.5. I think they're worthy of 4 stars.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10 stars.

Friday, October 11, 2013

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

Why did the pumpkin roll into a bar? It fell off the wagon.

Why was the jack-o-lantern scared to enter the bar? It had no guts.

Why did the pumpkin walk into a bar and then divide its circumference by its diameter? It wanted pumpkin pi.

These jokes are even worse than my strawberry walks into a bar jokes. And those were pretty bad. Plus, if any of you are like me, you're getting sick of pumpkin already. Thank goodness Russ's most recent review gave us a brief reprieve from What Pumpkin Products Are Good at Trader Joe's? But hey, this will be the last pumpkin review for a bit. Promise. Unless of course we see a really cool pumpkin product at TJ's that we've never had before. In that case, all bets are off.

So let me just cut to the chase here. These are pretty typical cereal bars. I think they taste like pumpkin, Sonia does not. She thinks they smell like pumpkin, probably due to the presence of pumpkin spices, but says they could just as easily be fig or apple. I totally disagree. They're just as sweet as a figgish flavor, but again, we have cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice present; unmistakably pumpkinesque spices. 

And unlike any other pumpkin product we've reviewed this season, the main ingredient of this product is actually "pumpkin filling," which in my opinion virtually guarantees a satisfactory pumpkinosity level. (Special thanks to reader stevenp for allowing me to steal the word "pumpkinosity.") Granted, the main ingredient in the pumpkin filling isn't "pumpkin," but pumpkin isn't the main ingredient in anything. "Pumpkin" isn't even the main ingredient in a pumpkin! Water is. And that's your science lesson for the day, kids.

For her perceived lack of pumpkin, Sonia only gives these 3 stars. But then, Sonia smells like a giant piece of pumpkin pie this time of year. No, she doesn't have pumpkin spice perfume. There's just enough pumpkin in her system that the excess is coming out of her pores. I can't give this a lower score than I gave to the other "walks into a bar" bars. It's still a moist, bready, snacky, yummy breakfast bar, and this one has a fun, seasonal theme. So 4 stars from me.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 stars

Monday, October 7, 2013

Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie and Cocoa Swirl

This is Shandra. This is not an awesome (or even "passably good") picture, courtesy of my new cheapo cellphone, but Shandra, and in fact the whole Salt Lake City Trader Joe's, is pretty awesome. As is our habit when we're out of state, Sandy and I were strolling thru late Sunday night, hoping to see anything new or different from our Pittsburgh base, and just as we sidled up to the sample station for a little cherry cider, she came running across the store to her coworker manning the slab, jar of Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie and Cocoa Swirl in hand, positively shrieking "OHMIGAWWD THISISNEW OHMYGAWDD WEGOTTATRYTHISRIGHTNOW OHMYGAWDD!!!" She cracked it open right in front of us and said "You guys want to try?" It's like she knew who we were! Except, ummmm.... she didn't. Anyways, I'll skip some of the nittygritty play-by-play, but the jar she grabbed was the last one and since it was opened we couldn't buy it but she asked her manager, the very nice impressively bearded Greg, who personally climbed thru the truck that was in the middle of being unloaded just to procure us a jar that we could, in fact, purchase. It kinda helped that he had heard of us, but no matter, we appreciate it all! I, for one, also appreciated the two women who were wandering around the store in knee high socks and what I'll generously call a two piece bathing suit. "Poor girls, having to choose between food and clothes," Sandy said. You never know what you'll see or experience at Trader Joe's, I guess. It's all part of the fun.

So.....Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie & Cocoa Swirl. The very existence of such a product begs the question: "How much awesomeness can one jar contain?" Unfortunately, neither has the English language coined the proper words to describe nor has the technology been invented that can compute such things can adequately attempt to answer. It's.....just go. Right now. Go get your own. You'll see.  

For those of you still here, let me flail and fail at trying to describe. It's a perfectly unparalleled union of two of the greatest inventions the junk food industry has ever produced: the mega-nommerific speculoos spread and Nutella, of which I can sing its praises all day. It's almost liked I wished this munchie matrimony into existence, because I've spread both cookie butter and Nutella on the same piece of toast before, and had the thought in the back of my head, "wouldn't it be great if these were combined into one thing?" It's mostly because I'm too lazy to use and/or wash two knives. And by "Nutella", I mean legitimately the real deal, hazelnuts and all. If it's not actual Nutella in this product, then it's pretty much the most convincing knockoff/imitator ever this side of Frank Abagnale Jr. Except for the occasional crispie here or there, it's a smooth mix that perfectly straddles the balance between the gentle gingeriness of the speculoos and the dark, decadent tones of the cocoa portion. My goodness. It's....again, just go. Trust me.

It's tough to imagine a more perfect condimental match than these two tasty lovebirds mashed into one. I've previously posited a "chocolate gum theory" that states that two things that are good separately are not necessarily good when combined. That is far, so far away from being the case here. Maybe it's just my sweet tooth going into overdrive but man....this is just a perfect product. Sandy agrees. After one taste she knew exactly what her score was going to be, and I could tell it just from the look in her eyes. A perfect five from her, and you can count on a perfect five from me as well. I almost feel like I'm shortchanging it, but ten's the max and them's the rules. For something like three bucks for the jar, you simply cannot beat it.
  

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie & Cocoa Swirl: 10 of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Trader Joe's Country Pumpkin Spice Granola Cereal

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate:
The first one said, "Oh my, it's time we ate!"
The second one said, "There are spices in the air."
The third one said, "And lots of TJ's fare."
The fourth one said, "Let's munch & munch & munch."
The fifth one said, "Let's have something with crunch!"
OOOhh OOOhh went the wind
And out went the lights
And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.


Then the five little pumpkins came upon a bowl of country granola. The first one said, "Hey, let's eat this stuff." 

And the second one was like, "Yeah, and let's put some pumpkin in it!"

"Pumpkin makes everything better," said the third one.

The fourth pumpkin added, "Especially around fall time!"

But the fifth pumpkin shook his head and said, "Dudes, I'm not into cannibalism. In case you hadn't noticed, we are pumpkins."

"True that, Number Five," replied pumpkin Number One, nodding.

Just then, pumpkin Number Two spied some innocent raisin people nearby. They were a deep purple color, had wrinkly skin, and were very tiny, even compared to little pumpkins. Number Three had a sinister look on his face. He knew what Number Two was thinking. Suddenly, Number Four said it: "Let's throw them in instead."

...And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how this granola came into being.

I recently made the observation that pumpkin-flavored products can taste very similar to cinnamon raisin products. That certainly applies here, where "raisins" are one of the main ingredients, and we see "dried pumpkin" after "vegetable oil" and "coconut" on the ingredients list. There's more coconut in this product than pumpkin, folks. It's not a terrible granola and raisin cereal, but I didn't find that happy homegrown harvest flavor I was looking for. There are hints of allspice, nutmeg, and ginger...and maybe just the subtlest ghost of actual pumpkin, but I personally wouldn't have minded a tad more pumpkin and nutmeg.

Sonia agrees about the pumpkin, though overall, I think she enjoyed the hearty oats and wheat base of the cereal even more than I did. She gives this product another 4. I give it another 3, and the five pumpkins are just happy they didn't have to sacrifice one of their own.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Spice Coffee

Maybe it's because I don't like coffee that much, or maybe it's because my taste buds are overloaded with pumpkin, but I wasn't particularly thrilled with this coffee. Sonia enjoyed it, however, and insists that this product is the first Trader Joe's pumpkin item this season that does have an adequate amount of pumpkindiculous flavor. 

I feel the opposite. I was happy with the pumpkinicity levels of our previous selections, but not with this one. We recently tried a Krispy Kreme pumpkin coffee beverage that was really sweet and really punkinny. It was a hit with the whole family. It tasted like candy. This coffee...well...tastes like coffee.

It reminded me a little of the Gingerbread Coffee we tried one chilly Yuletide long ago. Neither selection tastes bad, but both need a fair amount of sugar and milk to be palatable, in my opinion. There's a hint of pumpkin spice, but other than that, I just taste normal old coffee, complete with bitter earthiness and a bit of acidity.

But I'm no coffee connoisseur. I'm slowly earning my stripes as a pumpkin-flavored-thing expert, but I'm not sure how that will help me in life outside of this blog.

A few weeks into this fall season, and I think Sonia and I have overdone the pumpkin thing a bit. I'm starting to wish there were more fall-themed items that did not involve pumpkin. There are always harvest apple type dealies. And apparently, some sausages are associated with autumn. So maybe on our next Trader Joe's trip, we'll look for more stuff like that. But you folks who are jonesin' for more pumpkin, don't worry, we've still got a couple more pumpkinlicious product reviews coming down the pipeline. Plus, apparently Sonia is not ready to give up this nasty pumpkin habit. Even as I compose this post—I kid you not—she just sent me an email with the subject line: "Made with Real Pumpkins!!" Apparently Yogurtland is jumping on board the pumpkin bandwagon.

Sonia gives this coffee 4.5 out of 5 stars, stating that she likes the way the pumpkin spices and the medium roast flavor blend together. I give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 stars.