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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Podcast Episode 1: Introducing Let's Talk TJ's!



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Friday, May 29, 2015

Trader Joe's Smoked Chile Cheddar Cheese

We cover a lot of bases pretty well here on WGaTJ's. Want to know what we think about any kinda beverage? Chances are, it's covered. Most snacks and desserts? Yup. Bacon-related in any way, shape, or form? Absolutely. Heck, even anything in the *ahem* fake meat realm? Yup, covered there too.

One area that we absolutely, sorely lack, though? Cheese. Definitely cheese. The edible kind, I mean, we got plenty of lame jokes. The cheese shelf at our local shop is literally only a few feet by a few feet, but it's stockpiled high with all sorts of stuff that admittedly, I usually pass on by. Some forays have been pretty successful, others not so much, but by in large Sandy and I keep to the bag of shredded cheddar or whatever we need for the week and move on by unless something really catches our eye. Apparently there's been a very elusive caramel-washed gouda out there recently that we just haven't been able to track down, much to our disappointment.

However...Trader Joe's Smoked Chile Cheddar Cheese. Try to tell me that doesn't sound delicious, and I will laugh at your folly. It probably helps that it is currently TJ's "spotlight cheese" making its existence all the more obvious folks like us.

This cheddar isn't perfect, but man, it's still pretty good. There's three kinds of peppers in play here - habanero, jalapeno, and pasilla, the last of which I haven't heard of till now. Pennsylvania suburban bringing up, y'all. With that peppery tango, you'd be right to think there's a potential fiery furnace awaiting any bite, and. well, that's only about partially true. The chiles seems to be somewhat unevenly marbled through out the chunk we procured, leaving some bites tamer than regular ol' pepper jack, but when you hit a vein, there's a lot. Yet even those bites seem to be tempered by the overall soft creaminess of the cheddar, which I did not fully anticipate being that way.

When I see "aged for three months" and "handmade in Vermont", I bank on many past experiences of plowing through as many cheddar samples as possible at the Cabot Factory Annex Store  in Waterbury, VT (right down the street from the Ben & Jerry's factory - tradiotnal first and last stops on the annual family vacation to Vermont) expecting a certain kind of kinda drier sharpness. Maybe not overly sharp, but still something, so the fact that this is fairly mild cheddar was a surprise. If it were sharper, the spiciness of the peppers would stand out a little bit more in juxtaposition, making a more distinctive flavor, methinks. Instead, TJ's opted for a smoother flavor meld which may be appreciated by the masses, but results in more or less an edgier pepper jack-esque concoction.

The other descriptors on the label, such as "cold-smoked" and "made from raw milk" might have some more sway over others than me, but there's not much (if any) difference I can discern from those factors. Feel free to fill us all in on the comments below. Still, for a very reasonable $8.99 a pound (our piece cost maybe $3.50), both Sandy and I were pretty happy, although our cheese-lovin' toddler was not exactly a fan. We tried to tell her no, but you parents of almost three year olds know how that can go. We've had only plain chunks but would love to shred some over some black bean soup or melt into a grilled cheese. I'm sure we'd buy it again, and perhaps this will help re-pique our interest into the too-oft ignored corner of TJ's-dom.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Smoked Chile Cheddar Cheese: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Trader Joe's Sour Gummies T's & J's

Ah, Sour Patch Kids. The American standard for tooth-rotting, roof-of-mouth-irritating, zero nutritional value, sugary, soury sweetness—an institution nearly as deeply-rooted in our junk food culture as Coke or McDonald's. As a boy, I'd go through a box of them during the course of a two hour movie at the theater. (Needless to say the local dentist made a fortune off of me). I remember my mouth watering as I'd tear open the packaging. Sour Patch Kids—the paradigm of sour gummy candy on Earth. Until now.

Sweetened with cane sugar and natural fruit flavors, Trader Joe's has offered us these "T's" and "J's" as their answer to the classic sour gummy candy. And it's a stellar effort, in my humble opinion. TJ's has done gummy candy before, and we've reviewed it here at least twice. But this product is truly my favorite. I don't just mean from TJ's...and I don't just mean sour gummy candy. I think this is the best gummy candy I've ever had. Strong words, indeed.

Let's start with the texture. The candy is nice and soft. If anything, I'd say it's just a hint softer and more pliable than your traditional Sour Patch Kid or sour gummy worm. Each piece is coated in the familiar "sour sugar" that graces the exterior of most classic sour gummies. It falls off just as easily—and it still irritates the roof of my mouth, although maybe not quite as much as other sour gummies...? That might just be because I didn't eat the whole bag in one sitting as I did in years past. The letters are nice and flexible, long and thin. If you're so inclined to suck on the candy and get that super tart start and then a sweet finish, I swear that since there's a bit of increased surface area on each gummy, that they dissolve faster and deliver more taste than your traditional Sour Patch Kids, which are basically just oblong slabs vaguely molded to resemble weird little zombie children. All that to say that I think these candies are optimized for maximum flavor-delivery from a geometry standpoint...amiright? Russ isn't convinced.

Flavor-wise, they taste more natural than most sour gummies. That might not be saying much, but there was always a weird glaze and aftertaste that would hang around in my mouth long after the box of Sour Patch was gone.  Also, TJ's choice of flavors is a bit more refined than your average pack of sour gummies: tangerine, grapefruit, lemon, and lime. It took me a while to figure out which flavor matched with which color. I figured out that the deep reddish color must be grapefruit. I think they were going for a ruby red vibe. The orange-ish color is tangerine. The colors of the lemon and lime flavors are nearly indistinguishable from one another, but I think one has a delicate green hue you can detect in certain light.

I really have no complaints about this candy. Sonia loved them too. There's even a resealable bag to keep them fresh (which does help one avoid the temptation to consume the entire bag all at once). If I were comparing this to Cookie Butter Ice Cream or Chicken Tikka Masala, I might not hold them in such high esteem. But I'm comparing them to every other gummy candy I've ever had, so I can't deny them a near-perfect score. Sonia agrees. 4.5 stars from each of us.

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Trader Joe's Quinoa Cowboy Veggie Burgers

Thanks to the Hawaiian-themed grocery store called Trader Joe's, vegetarian cowboys are now a thing. What vegetarianism and cowboys have to do with the overall tropical island theme of the store, I'm not quite certain. But we've seen at least one other vegetarian cowboy-themed product, not to mention candy fit for cowboys and cowgirls, too. 

I guess there's something earthy about cowboys—and there's something earthy about vegetarians and vegans as well. TJ's is just tying that all together for us. Or maybe they're aiming to challenge that stereotype of vegetarians being weaker than meat-eaters (I don't subscribe to that notion, by the way) by uniting it with the rugged machismo of the old western frontier. Regardless of all that, I'm fairly certain that more urban-dwelling hipsters will wind up eating this product than actual cattle-ropin' cowboys, if only because there aren't many TJ's in the middle of cattle country.

Yet still, it's an amazing product. It's like a spicy black bean burger with chunky salsa cooked right into the "meat." It's not really one of those fake meat burgers that's desperately trying to taste like beef, so if it's a true burger you're craving, I say look elsewhere. But if you're adventurous and wanting something new, I'd encourage you to check this out. It takes the whole veggie burger thing one step further in terms of taste and texture. Not only is there quinoa mixed in with the black bean base, but there are chunks of peppers, corn, and whole black beans in the mix. It's a complex, hearty flavor with a slightly spicy southwestern vibe. I ate mine with a slice of asiago cheese and it blended perfectly. I mused about which condiments, if any, to throw on, and decided to eat it plain in the end. I'm a big fan of ketchup and mustard on almost anything that calls itself a burger, but in this case, I'd add a bit of extra hot salsa, if anything—but that's just my opinion.

We cooked ours on the stovetop in a tiny pool of olive oil. It came out firmer and crispier on the outside than on the inside, and overall, the product was a bit soft. If not held together by a bun, it might have fallen apart very easily. There's more substance in the peppers, corn, and beans than in the base of the burger itself—but still, I can't complain, since the aforementioned chunky ingredients were plentiful throughout.

All in all, it's not a great approximation of an actual beef hamburger, particularly in the texture department, but a delicious vegetarian lunch or dinner nonetheless. At $3.69 for four patties, it's a good value also. I'm always on the lookout for something unique and new, and this burger didn't disappoint. All you rugged vegetarian cowboys, saddle up!

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Trader Joe's Brewed Ginger Beer

Need a cool, refreshing drink for a hot summer day, and something like maple water sound a little too silly and hipstery for ya? Well, how about some ginger beer?

Note: Trader Joe's Brewed Ginger Beer is neither ginger ale nor is it alcoholic. Ginger ale, although occasionally delicious, is your basic ginger-flavored soda, of course. Ginger beer, on the other hand, is a beverage produced with via brewing and fermentation and the whole nine yards. Here's a guide on how to make your own to give you an idea of the process involved.

As for the outcome: delicious. Both Sandy and I are pretty big fans. There's very little carbonation, if any, which makes for a cool, crisp flow. Although not as harshly ginger-tinged as some other TJ's brews, there's still a good, solid ginger bite underflow adding lots of bitterness. Yet, there's plenty of tart sweetness to counteract it all, thanks mainly to the limes and sugar.

The taste isn't perfectly balanced or smoothed over, though. The first bottle we drank, it almost tasted like we were drinking two different drinks at the same time. When we looked a little closer at the bottom of the bottle, we saw some cloudy floaty stuff, which I'm guessing was some sort of combination of the lemon/lime juice and ginger that kinda settled after fermentation. Although the bottle says nothing about doing so, for the second time around both Sandy and I gave the bottle a slight shake and swirl to try and mix it all back up, and we both agreed that it tasted a little more even after that.

Still, this is one pretty delicious drink for those warm, sticky nights up ahead. Plenty of ginger bite with some citrus-y zing is never a bad combo. If you insist on some boozy additions, I have heard (but not yet personally verified) that this ginger beer is a great choice for either a Dark & Stormy or a Moscow Mule. That's definitely on my agenda, and Sandy is even more eager to try that than me. And for this ginger juice, if your mind is on your money (or your money on your mind), you can buy these either separately for a buck each or grab a four pack for $3.99 - math geniuses, them. Definitely worth the try. Matching fours from the wifey and me.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Brewed Ginger Beer: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, May 15, 2015

Trader Joe's Maple Water

I would have taken a picture of this product out of the package for you guys, but if you want to know what it looks like, just head on over to your kitchen sink and turn the faucet on. Seriously. You can take that "water" part of the product name pretty literally. It might be ever so slightly thicker than tap water, but certainly not to the point that anyone could pick it up in a photograph. 

So apparently, this beverage is like water that just came straight out of a maple tree. It has lots of minerals and nutrients that were en route to branches and leaves and roots and stuff, but good ol' Trader Joe intercepted it and brought it right to the shelves of his stores for us to enjoy instead.

Taste-wise, it's not unlike water...but maplier. I know, I know, that's not very descriptive. But it's true. Now, if you're thinking of putting a bit of maple syrup in a glass of water to simulate this product, I don't know if that would do it. You'd need very little syrup, and I wanna say that putting any amount of maple syrup in water might result in a sweeter beverage than the one we have before us. It's barely sweet at all. In fact there's really barely any flavor at all. But I'd say there's a faint nuttiness about it. Sonia says it tastes like that Pedialyte stuff they give to kids when they're sick. She thinks the taste is very strange. And I have this crazy notion that just struck me—it kinda tastes like water with a hint of bubble solution in it. You know the slightly soapy liquid you made bubbles out of with a plastic wand with a circle at the end of it as a kid...? It tastes kinda like that—yet not quite as disgusting as that probably sounds.

This is one of those situations where we might actually have a beverage that could theoretically hydrate better than water. That's not my foodie-hack expertise talking. A doctor once told me that water has a tendency to go right through you, but other drinks "have some substance," like electrolytes. And doctors have magic pieces of paper on their walls that make everything they say more correct than the things normal dumb people say. Turns out maple trees and other plants crave electrolytes just like we humans do.

Despite the fact that drinking maple water is a practice that predates the cultivation of maple syrup, Sonia thinks this particular version of the product is nothing but a fad—a flash in the pan food trend that won't last. She prefers coconut water because there's a little more flavor...and it's less...well, watery. $3 is a lot to pay for a quart of water. As a wise person from The Impulsive Buy recently observed, "I read on the internet that maple water is going to be big in 2015. I also read on the internet that maple water is going to disappear in 2016."

Sonia gives this product 2 stars. I give it 3.

Bottom line: 5 out of 10.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Trader Joe's Pretzel Bagels

Personally, I'm kind of at an interesting time right now. Since late last summer, as I know I've mentioned a couple times on here, I've been following the paleo diet for the most part, and since then, between diet and running, I've dropped seventy pounds. Two weeks ago, I celebrated hitting the weight loss century mark since my known height from back in December 2012 - yes, 100 pounds, over a foot off my waistline, two shirt sizes, and lots of blood sugar/blood pressure/cholesterol points gone. Allow me this not-so-humble brag...daaang. I've always been the "fat kid" growing up, and dang it, it feels so good to not be that any more - even clinically speaking, I am at a "normal weight" now, and I continually have to shush my coworkers who claim I'm wasting away to nothing.

Of course, paleo diet means no carbs (at least not the bready kinds), but I'm going to try and shift myself into weight maintenance as opposed to weight loss mode. My clothes budget can't take it any more. So I'm going to try to reintroduce them, on a limited and controlled basis, and fall back on my caveman ways if need be if I go up a few too many clicks. Still, after avoiding and going to great pains to mostly avoid for so long, it's a difficult mindset to try and re-adapt to, that carbs (like most anything) are okay if you don't over-indulge.

With this mental banter banging around, when I first saw Trader Joe's Pretzel Bagels up on the shelf near the checkout, my first thought was "Hey that's not fair!" Pretzels are fantastic (usually) and bagels are divine, so combine the two and....but my brain wanted to tell me they weren't okay. I mentioned all this to my lovely wife, who sighed, rolled her eyes, grabbed the bag and tossed them in the cart, saying "You're gonna eat these, buster."

I wish I liked these more. I really do. They're not bad. But they don't strike me as overly pretzel-y or bagel-y, but instead are some weird doughy crossbreed trying to masquerade as both and failing. A good bagel and an acceptable soft pretzel to me are at least somewhat similar in texture to me - tough, golden outside with a dense and chewy interior, like a New York-style bagel or a Philly soft pretzel. Not these guys. I haven[t had the TJ's soft pretzel stick, but I'd imagine these are much the same, except in an O shaped form. It's so much more bread-like than either pretzel or bagel.

To really enjoy them, I have to say, you have to toast the bagels. It's a must. It's only by toasting that the exterior gets a little crispy, with the inside deflating to a chewy texture that somewhat approximates the proper experience. Indeed, when we made some ham and gouda melts for lunch on them, or some toasted breakfast sandwiches the following morning, they were pretty fantastic and added a lot to the meal. But if you were to take a bite of one right out of the package, really, it just tastes like normal bread with a super soft semi-pretzelesque exterior.

Other than that, although we enjoyed them, both Sandy and I have a few small quibbles. Sandy thought that, in line with the whole "pretzel" thing, they should have a little more salt to them. I agree that it'd be a nice touch. And also, and this just shows how petty I am, these bagels are not presliced. I hate slicing bagels, mostly because I have to decide between the perceived inconvenience of cleaning a cutting board or the risk of running a serrated blade across my palm. No, I will not buy one of those stupid bagel slicing contraptions.

Anyways, a six pack will set you back only $2.49, which is reasonable enough. Chances are good we'll get them again when we need a mix up from the normal slabs of bread. Sandy liked them a tad bit more than me, saying that all the way around, they tasted like a pretzel enough to her liking. She's going with a four. Maybe I'm just being too picky, or just wishing that one of my first forays back into regular carb-dom would be a little more satisfactory, but I'm going with just a three.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Pretzel Bagels: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Trader Joe's Gluten Free Whole Grain Bread

As I sit here composing this blog post, I am, rather hypocritically, eating a non-gluten-free slice of pizza. And although I was diagnosed with a low-level wheat allergy as a child, I have never been instructed to follow a gluten-free diet, and I don't suffer from celiac disease or any other condition that would necessitate a gluten-free diet, at least as far as I know. 

Yet I can feel my stomach puffing up slightly, causing mild discomfort, as I consume my early dinner. Weirdly, both Sonia and I experience this phenomenon when we eat glutenful grains and traditional wheat-based products. Not so when we eat gluten-free.

So why don't we eat gluten-free all the time, you ask—aside from the need to review glutentastic products every once in a while? Habit, mostly. Cost is also a factor. You can buy traditional whole wheat bread for just over a buck, but this loaf of gluten-free goodness, for example, will run you about $4.50. It won't break the bank, but unless it's absolutely necessary, it's hard for me to justify spending four and a half times as much for essentially the same product.

But to be fair, it's NOT the same product—particularly for those of you who eat gluten-free out of absolute necessity. I'm sure for you guys, a couple of bucks is a small price to pay to enjoy sliced sandwich bread—something the rest of us take for granted each and every day. And I would say this gluten-free bread is the closest we've had to actual wheat-based white sandwich bread to date. Both look similar, toast well, and make great sandwiches. Taste-wise, I think I actually prefer this gluten free bread. It has a great nutty essence about it that you won't get from cheap old Sunbeam or what have you—toasting it brings out this nuttiness even more. It's somewhat similar to a multigrain artisan bread in terms of flavor, but not quite as complex.

Texture-wise, it's definitely stiffer than traditional white sandwich bread, but not at all unpleasant. Sonia states that it's "fluffier" than millet bread or brown rice bread, which in her opinion, makes this product superior. I'll admit that the texture of this bread is closer to that of traditional bread, but I've always enjoyed the thickness and firmness of millet and brown rice toast.

This bread is great for making sandwiches, with butter and fruit spread, or even just by itself. We've got no major complaints about the taste or texture, and we love eating stuff that doesn't make us feel all bloated and weird. I'm sure celiac, IBD, and Crohn's sufferers have their favorite stand-by sandwich breads already—like Udi's and such. For all I know, this may be a repackaging of some third party's brand that many of you have already tried. But if you're on a gluten-free diet and shopping at TJ's, Sonia and I both think this bread is worth a whirl. As the back of the packaging points out, the best thing since sliced bread...is gluten free sliced bread. Four stars a piece.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Trader Joe's Sriracha Sauce

Kinda disappointingly, there's no great or even interesting story behind why the famed Huy Fong brand of sriracha sauce is also called "rooster sauce." it's just because they have a rooster on the bottle. Why? Who knows. Why is there a lemur on one of my favorite teas? Does it matter? probably not. But here's a cool tidbit I found: Huy Fong sells over 20 million bottles of sriracha sauce every year. Their advertising budget: $0. Sweet, spicy profit. Cha-ching!

So, there's no rooster on Trader Joe's Sriracha Sauce. Can't call it rooster sauce then. But there's a dragon, so...dragon sauce? I don't know. Sounds kinda lame. But better than an alternate name for rooster sauce that I'd rather not type out for fear of sounding too crude. We try to be family friendly here.

Anyways, the animal decoration of choice isn't the only difference between the typical and the TJ's version. First things first, there's the consistency. Not that sriracha is generally all that chunky, but there's is a micro-chunkiness to it, in some ways. Not TJ's. It's as smooooooooth as a freshly greased Justin Timberlake. No glop. No plop. It just squeezes right out of the bottle when provoked and doesn't even make that awful gassy sound that make me hate squeeze bottles. I'm not sure if the texural difference is an overall plus or minus, but the lack of farty noises when trying to enjoy my dinner is an absolute plus.

Then there's also the taste. Maybe I've dabbled too much in the sriracha-derived condiment world to remember what sriracha actually, truly tastes like in an unadulterated state, but...this stuff tastes sweet. Like, really sweet. Don't get me wrong, there's a good chile wallop that can be sinus-clearing worthy but...I taste a lot of sugar too. With sugar being a key ingredient in fermentation, and fermentation being one of the main steps for sriracha production, I'm thinking that perhaps there's something different going on here, but I can't quite figure it out what it exactly would be. Maybe it's a fume-free process - the factory neighbors would be grateful. Don't know.

Still, there's enough here to like overall. I've paired the sriracha with grilled chicken wings, eggs, sweet potatoes...all with good results. Sandy mixed some up with soy sauce, garlic, brown sugar, and probably another ingredient or two for a shrimp and broccoli stirfry the other night that was deeeeeeelicious. Good taste, with good flavor profile, just a little extra sweet with the heat. I will add that the following day after ingestion, there have been some mild digestive side effects that I will not elaborate on (yet again in fear of sounding crude). I will instead invite you to listen to this classic tune by Johnny Cash. Anyways, for no more than a coupe bucks for the bottle, this sriracha was a good buy which will be repeated.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Sriracha Sauce: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons  

Monday, May 4, 2015

Trader Joe's Peanut Butter & Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt

Although she never expressed it quite the same way, I think my mother might have had the same irrational fear as Russ. No, not the one about scurvy. The one about being buried alive. Because she was always a big proponent of cremation. I just never thought I'd see that day so soon. Two weeks before Mother's Day and just about a month before her birthday, I attended my mother's memorial service

So that's why I've been MIA for the past few weeks—a difficult few weeks for my family and me. Hopefully Russ has kept you informed and entertained in the meantime. At any rate, Mom's moved on to a better place, and the rest of us have to lumber on through this earthly life for a bit. Thank God for the good things, like TJ's food (most of it, anyway). And a special shout out to a couple people that were not only friends to my mom, but have also been fans and boosters of this blog—big thanks to Mrs. Erwin and Mariann M. (Bring a Trader Joe's to Chambersburg, Big Joe!) Just as all things must come to an end, my little break has reached its terminus. It's time to rejoin Russ and get back to reviewing the heck out of TJ's treats.

Today, we're looking at Trader Joe's Peanut Butter and Jelly with Nonfat Greek Yogurt. This sure ain't my mama's PB&J. It's slightly lower in carbs, for one thing (duh, there's no bread). And it's also not very sweet. Sonia claims she didn't taste any jelly. I thought I tasted something strawberry-ish and fruity, but it just wasn't particularly sweet—like not nearly as fructosey as fruit normally tastes when swirled into Greek yogurt. Usually the tartness of the yogurt sets off the fruit flavor and makes it seem extra noticeable, but not here. Peanut butter is definitely present, but it still doesn't overpower the Greek yogurt. I think the tart/sour Greek yogurt taste is the dominant flavor in this product.


I'll be honest, I was hoping for something a little more dessert-like—a tad more treat-esque, if you will. But then, I'm always looking to quell my sweet tooth. It's insatiable.

Texture-wise, Sonia thought it was pretty run-of-the-mill for non-fat Greek yogurt. I felt it was particularly soupy. I stirred and stirred and still had pools of peanut butter-flavored milk with large globs of Greek yogurt floating through it. All in all, this was a slight disappointment to Sonia and I, despite all the Instagram hype to the contrary. What do you guys think? We give this product 3 stars a piece.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.