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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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Trader Joe's Natural Buffalo Jerky

I was going to buy more turkey jerky, but I was afraid I might gobblegobble it all up.

Then I thought maybe I'd get more salmon jerky. I wonder what in the heck spawned that idea.

Then I recalled my coworker promised me some kangaroo jerky, and that made feel very hoppy. 

But I got me some Trader Joe's Natural Buffalo Jerky anyways because, umm, Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo? Right. I have no idea what that means, and I'm not even an intimidating American bison from Western New York State.

Nah, I bought the buffalo jerky because of the high recommendations of you, our faithful readers, and needing a shelf stable, tasty, protein-laced snack for work as part of a diet/exercise regimen I'm trying out (down about 4 pounds in a week!). As much as I'd love to have a Foreman grill at my cubicle, I don't think I could swing that. I'd rather fight for a yoga ball to sit (a la the mayor in "Portlandia") on instead of our 0 WAR* office chairs anyways.

You know, I swore I had this a few months back while on a massive jerky tilt, and thought I wasn't too terribly impressed. I remembered dry, tough stringiness without much flavor. Maybe that was just an exceptionally sad sack, or equally as possible, my brain checked out completely, because this is good, good, good jerky. Darn good. Each chunk I sampled was actually soft and tender, like 90% dehydrated slices of buffalo steak rather than jerky. No stringiness. No tough little bits to dig out from molar crevices. Just soft, sweet buffalo meat.

And I do mean sweet. Apple cider vinegar was a brilliant call as it shines through, yet it's balanced out by a little smokiness and slight bit of sugar. Very tasty. Just...it says "spicy" on the package. I don't expect a Tabasco-laden karate chop to the taste buds, but there's not quite enough, at least not upfront. Some sneaks back up the windpipe, but just even a scant shake of black or even crushed red pepper, just to give a little hint of heat, would've really taken it to the next level. Still, I'm very appreciative of the flavor which, even though there's a good bit of sodium each serving, is still much less than many competitors.

Alan, my loyal jerky companion (who actually did supply some kangaroo jerky, which was also tasty yet strangely reminiscent of a Hebrew National hot dog) agreed, giving a description that only he can. I quote: "More buffalo tender than jerky.  Consistent meat, no filler, smooth like the first hit off a Marlboro Red.  Perfection transcended upon the combination of sugar, soy sauce, and apple cider vinegar.  Creeper spice, nothing on initial tasting, but snuck up behind and bit the tongue."

I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want: the term "creeper spice" to catch on. Wonder which one she was. Zig a zig ha!

Seriously, though, good jerky, probably the best I've had in recent memory. Price isn't too bad: $5.99 for a 3.5 ounce bag. You'd be hard-pressed to spend less elsewhere, even at the online mecca of Amazon. Just needs that extra kick of spice, and it'd be a Pantheon shoo-in. As is, it knocks at the very door.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Natural Buffalo Jerky: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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* Sorry, baseball nerd talk....it's almost Opening Day! And yes, our office chairs are Ryan Doumit...at best. Which is kinda appropriate if you think about it.       

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Trader Joe's Spicy Ranchero Egg White Salad

I think the most common problem I've come across in three and a half years' worth of Trader Joe's reviews is blandness. TJ's foods seldom taste bad in my opinion, but they occasionally taste like nothing at all. I don't know that we've run into that problem much in recent history, but it has been an overarching trend since the beginning of this blog. TJ's foods are at least as "healthy" as food in mainstream grocery stores. And for some reason, I feel like they seldom offer foods with terrible textures—granted, many TJ's products are far from perfect in the texture department, but the "feel" of their foods is usually at least acceptable. So yeah, I think a lack of flavor is one of the few negative trends we've discerned among Trader Joe's brand food products.

That's what we've got here. After eating a forkful of this product, I smacked my lips and desperately tried to taste it. Eggs? Mayo? Anything? There might have been hints of vinegar or something, but I couldn't really tell. So just as I was about to give up and take another forkful, a mild to moderate tingling came over my tongue. "Ah, that's the 'spicy' part mentioned on the packaging," I thought. Sonia swears she actually tasted bell peppers. There might have been traces of pepper like from a pepper shaker, but I didn't notice the taste of any vegetables. To me, this egg salad was like a bit of hot sauce with an unusually complicated texture.

But I liked the texture. Sonia didn't. She thought the eggs were too firm. I agree that they were firmer than normal egg whites, which was weird, but I found that to be a welcome surprise in an otherwise totally unremarkable product. You can also feel little bits of vegetabley things and a semi-velvety sauce. It had a nice mouthfeel. And FYI, "mouthfeel" is not one of my many made-up words. Food rheologists use it all the time...apparently.

Although someone will inevitably disagree, we're gonna go ahead and tell you that this isn't a great stand-alone food. Neither of us could eat it straight out of the tub the way we could the Curried Chicken Salad. Truth be told, this egg salad isn't terrible when eaten with other foods because it's so neutral. It just adds a little tingle to whatever you're having. You can't even taste the 360mg of sodium in each serving. But in the end, Sonia and I both say "fail." 2 stars from her, 2 from me.

Bottom line: 4 out of 10. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Trader Joe's Thai Style Citrus Chicken Salad

Another month, another dietary page being turned here at the Western PA bookend of the WGATJ team. I'm not gonna really bother rehashing most of the past because, well, it's kinda boring and ultimately fairly mixed results at best. Our newest thing: the 21 day fix. I'll admit, as is our custom, I was pretty skeptical while Sandy very gung-ho about it. She did the first go around and lost about 10 pounds in three weeks, and I'll you what: there was nothing wrong with how she looked before, but now, let's just say, extra fine. Meanwhile, my weight loss/get in shape DIY plan has kinda plateaued after some decent results (lost about 35-40 pounds since my pregnancy-sympathy-cheeseburger-fueled peak), so I'm now giving it a try. Not the hugest fan so far. If you're not familiar, it's basically a repackaging of portion-control ideals mixed with exercise videos led by over-ecstatic half-naked people with a side of near-contempt for carbs (understandable) and dairy (whiskey tango foxtrot?). There's also an overpriced shake you can drink every night that if you try hard enough you can forget it has a very distinctive Alka-Seltzer aftertaste.

Anyways, we were both in need to find a lunch that easily fit into our diet, and would be hopefully tasty to boot. Our local Trader Joe's used to have only a small handful of salads to choose from; now, there's close to twenty, and so an early A.M. trip to scope them out seemed like a worthwhile endeavor. That's how we both came away with our own Thai Style Citrus Chicken Salad to give a whirl.

I'll give it this: it's a pretty flavorful little package that's pretty fun to crunch through. Almost everything is literally crunchy: the cabbage (there's a few types), the carrots - with lots of flavor assist by cilantro and scallions and the like. It all seemed pretty fresh, especially by prepackaged salad standards. Big plus: the little lime wedge that comes with to squeeze out for a little extra flavor. And the dressing kinda helped tie everything together with a gentle yet potent citrus flavor, and a little goes a long way, especially with adequate lime implementation. That's a bonus as most of the fat, calories, and assorted bad stuff are all in the dressing. I used maybe half the packet and that was more than enough. If you're looking at the word "Thai" and concerned about spiciness, don't be; there's next to none to be found here. It's much more flavor than heat.

The problem is, there's not a whole lot of it, even by fairly restrictive portion control standards. There were five miniscule nibbles of chicken in it - I'd estimate at best it'd be an actual quarter serving. Okay, I'll be generous: a third. The rest of the salad amounted to large handful of assorted veggies. Even Sandy, Ms. Portion Control Squadron Commander herself, said it seemed a lot more like a side salad than a main entree. Even after eating an apple and a couple handfuls of baby carrots, and drinking lots of water, I was downright hangry by dinnertime. For $3.99 a pop, I'd hope for more.

It's worth trying, but come prepared. There's some other fresh salads with some cous-cous and other tasty looking mix-ins that I'll probably try out before getting this particular salad again. Get a respectable amount of bird and some more veggies in there, and then we're talking. It's not like there isn't room in the container. Halve the dressing packet if you really need to. Eh. Good thing that what's in there is pretty tasty and flavorful. Though, upon inspecting the ingredients, I don't really recall tasting any papaya in there, but I could be wrong. Sandy gives it about 3.5, while I go a little lower.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Thai Style Citrus Chicken Salad: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Trader Joe's French Toast

Dear Trader Joe's,
Really? Just French Toast? Meh. You guys do strange stuff way better than normal stuff. Since you seem to be having a difficult time coming up with unusual things to do with your French Toast, here are some ideas: Gluten Free French Toast. Dark Chocolate Covered French Toast. French Toast on a Stick. Pumpkin French Toast (seasonal). French Toast Joe-Joe's. (Bite sized French toast flavored cookie sandwiches with maple syrup flavored filling). French Toast Ice Cream (Mini French toast bites suspended in French vanilla ice cream with ribbons of maple goo swirled throughout). I apologize if any of these products already exist or are in the works. In that case, I guess you can just
chalk it up to "great minds thinking alike." I realize most of your products originate from third parties, but it's really tempting for me to imagine this carnival-like think tank full of foodies and food scientists at Trader Joe's HQ—like a cross between Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and that time Bart visited MAD Magazine...like the culinary equivalent of Google. If that is, in fact, what your corporate offices are like, you must hire me immediately. I would prefer your East Coast Headquarters in Boston. Consider this my cover letter.
Best, 
Nathan M. Rodgers

But seriously though, plainness aside, Trader Joe's French Toast might be a viable option for French toast lovers that don't have time to whip up a batch on their own. This product was definitely one instance when the microwave worked better than other cooking options. The toaster, though simple and convenient, made the French toast too hard and kinda dry. French toast is better when it's on the soft side and almost mushy. There weren't many weird artificial ingredients, which is always nice, but the product wasn't exactly bursting with flavor in my opinion. Butter and syrup definitely helped, although it's still not the best French toast I've had. But we can't be too hard on it since it's pre-packaged and can be ready in a few short minutes. I think in this case, we're looking at 3.5 stars from Sonia and 3 stars from me.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.
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6.5 isn't a terrible score. Don't be too hard on yourself, Big Joe. We still love you. How much do we love you? We love you 500 posts worth. That's right, the team here has collectively posted 500 different reviews, often reviewing two or more products in one article. Don't believe us? Go ahead and count 'em. We probably would have given up long ago if it weren't for you, our faithful readers. Thank you so much for your input, comments, shares, likes, pageviews, and follows.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Trader Giotto's 5 Cheese Frusta

Remember that longlost album Nathan referred to a long time ago, TJ's and DJs? I was cleaning out the attic the other day and came across the B-sides mix and found this rare gem of a song which I'd like to share. Apparently through some power of temporal paradoxes and balls of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, even though this is an old, old song, it refers to a brand new Trader Joe's product, Trader Giotto's 5 Cheese Frusta. Ladies and gentlemen, without any further adieu, here's our take on the Young MC classic, called "Frusta Move":

This here's a pie from our guy Giotto
Delivering flavor? Yeah, that's his motto
His name's on it means tastebud lotto
Satisfaction is nearly auto
Okay busta let's talk frusta
Five cheeses on it? I say "me gusta"
Edges folded up like a flat pizza taco
Makes it more handy to go on a walk-o
Need some munchin' or a luncheon
But no need for a high class function?
If you get ten minutes and an oven
Then get ready for some pizza lovin'
It's so easy, gets so cheesy
All melted up but not too greasy
If you want a pizza with kinda a groove
Don't just sit there, frusta move!

Oh hey, just frusta move!

If you're fishin' on a mission
To find the best bite you can be dishin'
Just keep on walking down the frozen aisle
Cuz this ain't it by a mile
Taste's not poppin', needs a toppin'
Cheese is okay but it's best for proppin'
All five kinda melt into a single
Taste got all tangled in the mingle
It's alright for a small bite
Don't hate me, just being' forthright
There's some worse ways to spend two bucks
But this is one pie that sure ain't deluxe
Crust gets crunchy, makes a munchie
Eating this sure beats getting punchy
Disagree and think my rhyme's not smooth?
Not a problem, hey, frusta move!

If you want, you got it, you want it, hey baby you got it - Frusta move!

Bottom line: Trader Giotto's 5 Cheese Frusta: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
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Pictures courtesy of TraderJoes.com. No, we're not affiliated, but our new camera ate the pics I snapped. Please, Big Joe, don't be mad, we like you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Trader Joe-San's Wasabi Peas

“The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

This is one of those "unsexy" bagged products that we generally avoid reviewing, at least while there are still weird, complicated dishes left on TJ's shelves that are as of yet unreviewed. But honestly, these understated little snackable morsels are what drew me to Trader Joe's in the first place, some 10 years ago. And not just the wasabi peas. When you're sitting on a park bench next to some local yokel that hasn't discovered Trader Joe's yet, and he sees you snacking on Orange Flavored (Dried) Cranberries, just think of the power you have over him when he realizes you're not snacking on raisins. Imagine that transcendent moment of mindblowing revelation that guy has—this poor schmuck who just realized that "craisins" were a thing—when he realizes you're snacking on orange flavored dried cranberries. Similar mind-altering epiphanies occur when that same dude who thinks you're crunching on peanuts realizes you're eating peas covered in wasabi mustard. If you're in NYC or L.A., you're probably thinking, "Yeah right! As if there are people who don't know about Trader Joe's Wasabi Peas yet." But trust me, in middle America, those people exist. They're still the majority in a lot of small towns. And I'm not belittling them. I used to be one of them. They're good, God-fearing Americans that aren't fortunate enough to have a Trader Joe's yet. 

But for the rest of us, the indoctrinated city-dwellers, Trader Joe's is nothing new. Sometimes when I'm meeting someone for the first time and I'm telling them about how I rob banks for a living, I often slip in something about my hobbies: this blog, for example. And I swear, on more than one occasion, the person has nodded his head, recollecting a life-changing event involving a stranger on a park bench with a mysterious snack bag, and said something along the lines of, "Yeah. That's cool. Trader Joe's. I love their wasabi peas." There's something iconic about these wasabi peas. And I'm not going to erroneously assume that TJ's is the only place you can get wasabi peas. But I might make the bold assertion that TJ's is the leading force in the world for making wasabi peas mainstream. They didn't invent the orange craisin. They brought the orange craisin to the masses. Actually, maybe Ocean Spray did that. But that doesn't support the point I'm trying to make. So never mind.

As for the peas themselves, they're very crunchy. They don't taste much like peas to me. It's more of a nutty flavor. They're similar to peanuts in terms of size and crunchability, too. Their wasabi level is not unlike that of the wasabi seaweed. Wanna freak out a Canadian tourist? Eat wasabi seaweed next to him on a park bench. Say, "They don't sell this at Tim Hortons, eh?" 

Can you tell I'm bitter about the USA not even medaling in hockey?

So if you haven't checked these peas out already, go ahead and do so. Find your favorite park bench and blow someone's mind. Be warned, though, it's difficult to eat a bunch at one time. Try them on a salad or in soup. They're tasty-ish, but the novelty factor does wear off eventually. Sonia gives them 3.5 stars. Me too.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 stars.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Trader Joe's Orange Flavored Cranberries

Here's a semi-apology in advance of the rest of today's review. Admittedly, Trader Joe's Orange Flavored Cranberries are far from the sexiest foodstuffs that have been reviewed on this here blog. Originally, I was planning a longwinded exposition on the unexpected and unlabeled sheer cherry-ness (no, not cheeriness, but definitely cherry-ness) and the rare implementation of the double ampersand on the Blueberry & Pomegranate Flakes & Clusters Cereal, but Nathan beat me to it by about 8 months. Though we lack a perfect track record, we try avoid doubling up on product reviews. Wanna see where we goofed? Check this and this review of strawberry lemonade, or this one and this one going over the malabari parathra. Since it's been over a week since last stopping at TJ's (the shame!) when we loaded up on a lot of old trustworthy reliables, I had to scour the depths of my pantry to find something, anything to get reviewed, so here we are. At least I'm not making up fictitious conversations abut cans of coconut milk again.

Regardless, these are some pretty good little fruity guys. I kinda want to refer to them as "Nature's SweetTarts" but that's probably a little bit inaccurate on a few different levels. Meh. I've never had (or don't remember) ever having Craisins, but these are probably pretty similar. There can't be too much difference from one dried cranberry to the next. If you're not too familiar, think raisin, except a little tougher and chewier, and tasting like, of all things, a cranberry. Go figure.

Tell ya what, though: These are some serious flavor-packed dried berries. It's much more than what I expected. It kinda takes a few bites to really get the orange flavor flowing, but once that citrus tide hits, it's there to stay, in just about equal power to the cranberry. Think super juicy mandarin for a good flavor comparison. I honestly can't eat more than a small handful or two before being done with them - the juxtaposition of sweet and tart is just too potent for mass consumption by their lonesome. But mix them in some muffins or trail mix or a salad or whatever else you'd like, and they'd make a pretty welcome flavo-burst, methinks.

One thing I wonder, though, and I didn't notice them until I snapped the picture of the ingredients and nutritional info: for all this orange flavor, there's no Vitamin C. I'm no expert on such things, but if there's "natural orange and citrus flavor", that means something like some juices, and doesn't that have to transmit some Vitamin C? Unless it's something like some "natural" orange flavor Fun Dip or something. That just strikes me as a little odd.

Anyways, TJ's orange cranberries are a fairly regular resident of our pantry. Sandy regularly makes oatmeal for a breakfast on the go on weekdays, and she usually opts for plain oatmeal with some of these and a smal handful of almonds. I thought she picked these up all the time because she really, truly enjoyed them, but come to find out, that's not the case. " Eh, I usually get them because they're about the cheapest dried fruit I like," she said. I think a sackful costs about two bucks for a seemingly generous cup and a half, so it's not a bad deal. She gives them a three, while I see that and raise half a spoon.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Orange Flavored Cranberries: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons   


Monday, March 3, 2014

Trader Joe's 100% Cherry Juice

Not to be confused with Trader Joe's Cherry Cider, this beverage is, as the bottle claims, 100% cherry juice from concentrate. And while its "cider" cousin is much sweeter and more Juicy Juice-esque, this beverage isn't nearly as tart as I thought it might be. It is, however, the "adult" version of the Cherry Cider, and no, I don't mean that it's endorsed by Ron Jeremy or anything like that. I mean they both kinda taste like cherry, and they both contain nothing but 100% juice, but sugar-craving sweet-toothed children would probably enjoy the cider beverage more, thanks to the sweeter juices blended into that one. This 100% cherry drink is a great balance of tart and sweet. And no, I have never seen a Ron Jeremy film, with the exceptions of Boondock Saints and Ghostbusters, but I did see him in person once at the Jiffy Lube on La Brea and Melrose, and one of his friends used to speak at our old church a lot. No kidding.

At first gulp, this beverage tastes just like a cherry Jolly Rancher. But the finish isn't quite as syrupy sweet. There's a slight aftertaste, but I usually detect some aftertaste after eating actual cherries, so I guess that's to be expected. Plus with the juice, you don't have to worry about spitting out pits. But at $4 for a quart, this stuff ain't cheap. I'm guessing it takes a whole lot of cherries to make a quart of juice, though.

Sonia liked it too, maybe even a bit more than I did, but she doesn't think this will be a regular purchase in our household. It's too much money for too little juice, and honestly, I'd just as soon drink the Juicy Juice-ish stuff anyway. I love me some sweet beverages. And while this drink is definitely sweet, I'd say it's geared for grown-up palates only. 

Now we have Cherry Cider, Cherry Juice, and we're eagerly awaiting the unveiling of TJ's Cherrystone Clam Beverage. Just kidding. I'll give this juice 3.5 stars. Sonia sees my 3.5 and raises me half a star.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.