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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Friday, November 21, 2014

Trader Joe's Speculoos Cookie Butter Cheesecake

I was wrong. The next fiendish play in Trader Joe's diabolical plan to take over the world/make me fat (or fatter, depending on your perspective) wasn't Cookie Butter and Cocoa Swirl Ice Cream. It was cheesecake. We shoulda seen that comin'. But man. This stuff blindsided me like an 18-wheeler at a complicated New Jersey intersection with "jughandles" and no left turns and such.

Except way more awesome than getting T-boned by a semi. WAY more awesome. Apparently, this stuff showed up at the Marlton TJ's just last night, and like half the staff has already tried it. I'm lucky there were any packages left. Really lucky.

Because this stuff tastes like heaven. Imagine cookie butter. But cheesecake. I know that's not particularly informative. You've probably already gathered those two bits of information by now. But...it actually tastes like what you want it to taste like. It's basically really amazing plain cheesecake crowned with a cookie butter spread on top. And the crust is made of speculoos cookie material! It's cinnamony, it's creamy, and it's just about perfect.

It better be. Because it's seven friggin' dollars a box! But as a once-in-a-while or whenever-TJ's-can-keep-it-in-stock treat, it's worth it. Seriously. I speak the truth.

And, well, truth be told, I didn't wait the full two hours for thawage to occur for my first piece. But it was still amazing. Just as amazing as my second piece, which was fully thawed. The only difference was how cold and firm the first piece was. I'm pretty sure I'd be happy eating this stuff straight out of the freezer. Or off the blistering concrete on a hot summer day. I don't mean to sound desperate. It's just...BECAUSE COOKIE BUTTER CHEESECAKE.
The only thing I can think of that would be meaner than offering another incredible cookie butter product right now before the holidays would be something along the lines of Trader Joe's getting together with Big Pharma and offering prescriptions for cookie butter I.V. bags.

It's been a while since a perfect score, and Sonia and I are both on board this time. This is an incredibly delicious product. Even in light of its price tag and its not-so-much-for-folks-on-diets style nutrition info—this puppy gets a perfect 10.

Bottom line: 10 out of 10.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Caramel Sauce

We're just gonna slip in one more pumpkin product review before Thanksgiving comes, and then I think we'll be good until next October or so. We've taken a two week break since our last pumpkin product, but I suspect I'm still in that pumpkin-overload zone. Both Sonia's and my skin is a little more orange than usual, and we need to go ahead and move on—which we will. Soon. I promise.

Back when the Shelly household was only two members strong instead of four, they tried a fleur de sel caramel sauce that impressed Russ well enough. So just imagine dumping a decent amount of pumpkin butter in that caramel sauce, and that's pretty much what we have here. Also, we ate this pumpkin caramel with the same French vanilla ice cream reviewed alongside the fleur de sel. I can't imagine this stuff going well with anything other than vanilla ice cream, but maybe I'm just not using my imagination.

To cut to the chase, we both enjoyed this ice cream topping, but Sonia definitely liked it more than I did. It's sweet and it tastes like, well, pumpkin and caramel. Imagine that. I felt that the pumpkin spices burned my throat on occasion. And I don't mean they burned my mouth like hot sauce might. I really mean that they tingled excessively in the back of my throat...all that ginger, nutmeg, and cinnamon. I found myself coughing while eating this after a number of sauce-rich spoonfuls. But I think the takeaway here isn't necessarily that this product is too pumpkin-spicey—it's that you should use it sparingly. A little bit goes a long way. Sonia is always wise in that regard, and she rarely overdoes it with sauces, icings, or frostings. Maybe that's part of why she liked the product more than I did. But even when I used it in much lesser quantities, it sat very heavy in my stomach, and it just wasn't my favorite ice cream topping. It's unique, seasonal, and it certainly doesn't taste bad...it's just that it's not what I would go for in terms of pumpkin ice cream. I'd turn to the Pumpkin Pie Mochis—and I'm still anxious to try the elusive Ginger Pumpkin Mouthfuls—before I'd pick up another $3 jar of this sauce.

I always try to pick out my score for these products in my head before I know Sonia's score, so as to keep my opinion unbiased. In this particular case, I was shocked that her score was an unexpectedly-high 4.5. I had decided beforehand that I would give it 3.5 stars, but after I heard Sonia's score, I was tempted to give it even less, so as to pull it down out of the "really darn good" category, because in my opinion, it doesn't really belong there. But there it shall stand nonetheless.

In the comments below, let us know what you've done with this product other than put it on vanilla ice cream!

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Trader Joe's Southwestern Style Chicken Poppers

As mentioned in my previous post, the Pittsburgh branch of WGaTJ's is now a family of four with the arrival of Baby B. Toddler/Big Girl M is so pretty enamored with her little sister, which is awesome, and makes being back home and trying to get settled in so much easier. We've been home a bit now, with me taking off work for a while for all the late night snuggles and constant butt wiping. And naturally, I'm the main chef right now for the three of us capable of solid food, and fortunately we've planned well. Between a meat stockpile from a great local farm and a bunch of homemade freezer meals we've prepped well in advance thanks to my wife's cousin and her work, and along with a bunch of fresh fruit and veggies to help round out our meals, a couple Trader Joe's easy dinner options have taken real good care of us thus far.

That's how we got involved with Trader Joe's Southwestern Style Chicken Poppers. Let's see here....chicken, tortilla crumbles, cheese, peppers....hrmm, this sounds vaguely familiar...aha! There were those southwestern stuffed chicken breasts we had a few months back. These pollo poppers are kinda similar to those in concept, just in a much more snackable form with corn and black beans added in for a heartier bite. I suppose these cowboy croquets are meant more as an appetizer, but in our maverick ways, Sandy and I made them for lunch the other day, which we'll tip or cap to as a worthy enough meal.

Looking back now that a few days have passed, there's nothing overly memorable about them, which doesn't mean they were bad. The crumbled tortilla chip shell actually held up surprisingly well - no spouts or leakages during baking. And each bite consisted of an adequate enough distribution of white chicken chunks, corn, and beans, with a little jack cheese and seasoning (mostly, yeah, seasoned salt) mixed in, with some little traces of spinach in both the crust and filling. "Spicy" is not a word I'd associate with them, although if you're super spice sensitive, like the dragons in M's favorite new book (thanks, Uncle Dan and Maymay!), you *might* have a small issue with 'em.

In all, I'd pick these up again without much hesitation, which is a lot more than I can say for our previous clucky appetizer find. I'm sure with a little hot sauce or guacamole, I can make those flavors pop a little more. As is, though, not bad, not bad.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Southwestern Style Chicken Poppers: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Trader Joe's Giant Peruvian Inca Corn

Years ago, during college, I had the privilege of going to Peru for a week to help participate in some medical and humanitarian work. Tell you what: awesome experiences all week long. From getting schooled by seven year olds in soccer to teaching them English words like "poop" to having real, honest conversations with folks half a world and a culture apart from anything I had ever experienced before, it was fantastic. The food wasn't half bad, either. Fried plaintains every day for breakfast, lunch on the go (usually pb&j washed down with a Inca Kola*). and a homecooked dinner every night - usually chicken and rice with a variety of hot sauces to mix in - it was really good. Our last night before flying out of Lima, my gringo posse hit up a fancyish restaurant for one last Peruvian feast - oh man. I personally plowed thru a platter of anticuchos and rice, while most of my friends guzzled chicha morada, a bluish/purplish corn juice that I personally didn't care for. That worked out for me - as most of them discovered thousands of feet in the air on the way to Houston, it can have a decidedly laxative effect for the uninitiated.

That's been my one real experience with Peruvian cuisine. There's a pretty decent place in Pittsburgh's Strip District called Chicken Latino, where I can still fulfill my occasional anticuchos and Inca Kola hankerin'. Also, as a side, they have these ginomontrosities of corn kernels, which kinda taste more or less like normal white corn, just a lot bigger, like I suddenly grew a set of baby hands or something.

These Trader Joe's Giant Peruvian Inca Corn kernels are a lot like those, with an oddball American junkfood twist. Yes, I'm speaking of Corn Nuts, which I'll admit I'm not all that familiar with. And at first blush, these corney kernels taste much like a convenience classic I'm well acquainted with - namely, Fritos. I mean, it's corn, palm oil, and salt, so that can't be too surprising. After a couple crispy chomps, though, as the salt dissolves, the taste transforms to something a little more a-maize-ing...okay, not exactly "amazing" but definitely cornier. It's kinda like a Frito mixed with a super puffy popcorn widow. Not a bad snack, but kinda mundane after a while. I'll admit, it's not like I expected more flavor from them, but wanted it anyways, if only for remembering how good the chow in Peru was. I'm a little disappointed, but not overly.

Sandy, though? She loved these, and there's a perfectly good reason why. Notice the background of these pics, that bluish vinylish material that looks like a really uncomfortable hospital recliner? Well, that's exactly what it is! We have just welcomed our second daughter, Baby B, into the world in the past week or so, so I spent a lot of time in that chair, and these corny poofs made a pretty nice little snack on repeated occasion. Both Mama and Baby are doing wonderful, thank you. Snack and junk food after having a baby has gotta taste awesome, right? Although, Sandy even thought the severely oversteamed hospital broccoli tasted wonderful, so take her opinion as you will.

Anyways, I'd imagine we'll be picking these eternal kernels up again, if only mainly for her. Whatever she wants right now, she's got it. Sandy liked them well enough to give them a four, and while I'm not overly enamored with them, at least these are tied to some pretty nice little memories.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Giant Peruvian Inca Corn: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons  
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* Looks like Mountain Dew, tastes like Bazooka Joe

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Trader Joe's Uncured Turkey Cranberry Apple Sausage

It's November...you know that what means! Crunchy leaves falling. A cool chill in the air. The end of political attack ads for a couple weeks. And of course....it's almost turkey time!

There's a billboard around town here' in the 'burgh for the local gas station promoting the Pilgrim - a roast turkey sub piled high with cranberries, gravy and trimmings on a "stuffing bread." That sounds as awesome as it sounds gutbursting. There's all sorts of other turkey wraps and sandwiches around, including TJ's somewhat disappointing one from last year.

But a totally tubular Thanksgiving turkey treat, and not in the '80s' sense? For me, unheard of...until now, Trader Joe's Uncured Turkey Cranberry Apple Sausage.

Turkey as an alternate meat can either work pretty well or not so great when trying to emulate other protein products. See: turkey bacon. Pork sausage is usually pretty greasy, so a drier, leaner meat like turkey has to be done well to make an acceptable swap-out in my eyes.

Well, Trader Joe's tried. They really, really tried. But as an old wise little short green man once told me, "Do or do not. There is no try." So, TJ's did not. There's just enough not flavor or execution here. First, they're pretty dry. And then, the turkey itself is fairly bland. "Well, that's why they'd add some cranberry and apple, that oughtta fix that," you're now thinking to yourself. You'd be right except...it doesn't. In one of Sandy's sausages there was a deep, large well of red that I presume was the cranberry. That's the only discernible cranberry any of us had in the whole package of five we cooked up. There were little chunks of what I presume were apple (kinda gray/tan/light colored) but they didn't add much of anything one way or the other. In the end, they just kinda lacked.

To be fair, I suppose if one were to purchase and prepare these not with the though of festive fall flavors but instead a reasonably healthy sausage option, these links wouldn't seem nearly as disappointing. That's a more than valid thought. Sodium's kinda high, but uncured, low fat, heck, not even preservatives - they're practically paleo which works for me.

Sandy made a face when I mentioned I'd be reviewing these. "Ugh, if we never got those again, that'd be more than okay with me - I just didn't really like them," she said. She seemed to verbally waiver between around a two, so that's what we're going with for her, which sounds just 'bout right to me.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Uncured Turkey Cranberry Apple Sausage: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons    

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Trader Joe's Cheese Blintzes

Apparently blintzes are Eastern European in origin and were brought to the states by Jewish immigrants from that region. And they're apparently traditionally consumed on big holidays like Hanukkah. And at the risk of sounding like another very articulate Pennsylvanian, I'll refrain from using the word "apparently" for the rest of this post.

I'm actually like 1/16th Jewish through my father's mother's branch of the family, by way of Germany. And Hanukkah starts in just over a month. So they may not have the seasonal appeal of pumpkin or pecan, but I just want you all to know that it's not entirely inappropriate for me to review these tasty wrapped pastry pancakes now, particularly for those of you who want to try some foreign-inspired cuisine this holiday season.

The blintzes, or "blini," are wrapped in a crepe-like shell that fries up nicely in a pan with oil or butter. I found myself heating them for a few extra minutes than what the instructions indicated, but maybe I wasn't using enough heat. As I've mentioned before, I'm not particularly skilled in the kitchen. But at any rate, they turned out to be pretty scrumptious. I just waited until the middle was soft and the outside medium-brown and then took them out of the skillet.

The filling is something like a sweetened cottage cheese, although much more tasty than that probably sounds. It was like the illegitimate lovechild of cottage cheese and cream cheese, with a little sugar all up in the mix. Although these little guys are rolled up like some funky foreign hot pockets, the overall effect is like a dessert crepe. I haven't tried it yet, but I bet these would be killer with some homemade fresh fruit jam or pie filling on top.

Sonia's down with these kosher blini, despite a slight aversion to the texture of the cottage cheesiness. She gives them three and a half stars. I'll raise her half a star. Four from me. Can't stop the blintz.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Rolls

Back in the summer of 2011, Sonia and I were involved in an embarrassing debacle involving a tube of aggressive cinnamon rolls. We were accused of being inexperienced, un-American, and unintelligent. Admittedly, I did erroneously state that there were six rolls in the tube, rather than five, multiple times throughout the post. But the comments on that review weren't just typical trollery. Maybe they hurt my pride so much because they actually pointed out legitimate criticisms along the lines of "Why were you and your wife expecting to store some of the rolls in the tube after opening it?" and "Why did you run out of frosting when most people have a bunch left over?" Perhaps I don't feel the proper amount of shame for my gluttonous frosting hoggery. Perhaps I should have paid more attention in Home Ec when we baked pre-packaged biscuits in the oven—an assignment for which I received an S- for "barely satisfactory." The look of scorn shot at our group by our instructor should have been sufficiently severe castigation all by itself, but she also forced us to eat our culinary abominations in front of the rest of the class. I should have learned my lesson then. 

But in our defense, Sonia and I really didn't grow up baking these things—Trader Joe's brand, Pillsbury, or otherwise. Sonia's family was a family of immigrants. And they chose to spend their hard-earned dollars on more familiar foods like churros and conchas, neither of which involve perplexing packaging or exploding tubes. My family was plagued with food allergies to wheat and sugar, among many others. So ready-to-bake pastries were unheard of in my childhood home. All this to say, please don't judge us too harshly when I tell you that we experienced the same difficulties with the packaging of this product. That's still Sonia's biggest complaint. She doesn't like the tube dealie.

But at any rate, the product within was good. And there were five little pumpkin rolls, not six. The bread was slightly cinnamony, but not particularly pumpkinny. The icing was by far the most pumpkin-riffic element of the product, with a taste falling somewhere in between melted pumpkin ice cream and pumpkin butter. The texture of the pumpkin icing was not unlike that of the sweet white frosting that came with those notorious cinnamon rolls. And like the original cinnamon roll icing, we used every last drop of it—and probably wouldn't have minded a tad more. It's a product most pumpkinophiles will surely enjoy.

In the end, though, I'd probably pick the original cinnamon rolls over these, while Sonia enjoyed these pumpkin-flavored ones a bit more—and our scores reflect those sentiments.


Nathan: 3.5 stars.
Sonia: 4 stars.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Trader Joe's Pecan Pie Ice Cream

On several occasions I have declared my absolute love of pecan pie, especially my Aunt Brenda's. And in my brazen youth, I have crowned myself as an ice cream expert, and though I am older, wiser, and not as brash these days, I still think I know what I'm talking about...sorta, at least, anyways.

So a) why was it such a surprise to see a bucket of Trader Joe's Pecan Pie Ice Cream nestled in the freezer? 2) Why have I never tried this? and d) Why, so soon after throwing me a bone, does TJ's have to do THIS to me in the midst of my diet? Arrrrrrrrgh.

Once spotted, there was no question that this quart of potential frozen yummy nirvana was coming home. I locked eyes with Sandy and put up the requisite hesitancy, might have even lightly stomped my foot some in some oddball show of supposed defiance, but no, really, this was going to my freezer and to my belly no matter what.

It's pretty decent stuff. Take your not-so-basic French vanilla ice cream (TJ's is spectacular!), add in some big swirls of pecan pie filling in all its brown-sugary / molassesy magic, and a couple pecans and a small handful of shortbread pie crust crumbles, and there you go. Tasty combo? No doubt. But notice the problem? While the pie filling portions are tasty and appropriately plentiful (so much better than the caramel ice cream reviewed way back in the day), there's just not enough nuts and pie crust for my liking. Realistically, to me, there's about half of what there should be. Digging through a particularly rich filling vein the other night, there were only three, maybe four partial pecans and no discernible crusties. Obviously, nuts are kinda pricey and all, but a few more would really be killer - the ones in there maintained their nutty texture extremely well, offering a great crumbly crunch amidst all the creaminess. It's all possible that with the rest of the ice cream being so rich, with shortbread such a comparatively muted flavor, that only the bigger bits were noticed - in that case, make 'em bigger, TJ's!

All that being said, after it being in the house for a couple nights, with some great restraint there's at least half of the quart left in the freezer, and gosh darn it, I'd love to house every last little bit of right now, then blame its disappearance on the teenage exchange student living with us, who mysteriously drank all of our coffee cream the other day. Apparently I now have this thing called "willpower." Hrmmm. Amazing.

For the wifey's take, she's kinda opposite of me: she thinks there's an acceptable amount of pecans while not enough crust, while I'm vice versa. Maybe we mined the wrong scoops and shoulda switched bowls, I don't know. We both agree that, potential blasphemy aside, the pecan pie ice cream is so much better than any pumpkin ice cream TJ's can offer, except those delicious little cookie sandwiches. Overall, for $4.49, we're fairly happy.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Pecan Pie Ice Cream: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons