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, January 18, 2017

Trader Joe's Crispy Crunchy Okra

Ah...dry, salty, crunchified plants. America has a love/hate relationship with you, doesn't it? 

Just look at the raging debate in the comments section below our Trader Joe's Kale Chips review. "I loved these!" "I hated these!" "Great review!" "Terrible review!" There's no "These were moderately enjoyable" comments. People are passionate when it comes to their opinion about kale chips. Broccoli florets, too—which I also enjoyed. Heck, I'm a pretty big fan of Trader Joe's Contemplates...Inner Peas for that matter. 
Also see: chiptastic parsnips and beets.

But now, it's okra's turn to get snackified. 

Appropriately, Sonia and I are still meandering around the Dirty South, where okra is a popular ingredient in many local and regional cuisines. Also known as "ladies' fingers," (not to be confused with ladyfingers) each of these plants is about the size of...well, a lady's finger. They're green, full of seeds, and normally somewhat slimy on the inside. But in this case, they're delectably crisp, arid, and brittle.

There are plenty of suggestions for ways to consume these crispy little fellows on the packaging—but I'll be honest, I never got a chance to try them any way other than popping them directly from the bag into my mouth. 

Sonia only had a handful, and that was plenty for her. She said, "They don't taste like anything!" After pressing her for more details, she mentioned that she thought they tasted like green beans, but even more bland. I can understand the comparison to green beans, but I think their flavor is slightly more squash-like than that. Plus, they're salty, and the tiny bit of rice bran oil gives them flavor as well.

I didn't enjoy them quite as much as the kale chips or the broccoli florets, but I did like them and would consider purchasing them again. At $1.99 a bag, they're the least expensive of the three, and they pack plenty of vitamins, protein, and fiber along with their salty snackability. I give them four solid stars. Sonia can't give more than two. It's a definite thumbs-up from me, thumbs-down from her. Fair enough.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Trader Joe's Soft Licorice Twists

I hold these truths to be self-evident; that not all licorices are created equal.

There's the common licorice currency of Twizzlers. Chances are, it's the first brand you think of when you think licorice. But...c'mon. You even been satisfied by a Twizzler? No? Me neither. Those chewy, mostly flavorless wax sticks always made better straws then snacks, IMHO. Then there's the mystery plastic baggies at candy stores - could be decent stuff, could be (speaking from personal experience) harsh, salty, impossible to chew hard rubber nuggets.

So when Trader Joe's introduces not one but two new sacks o' licorice - Trader Joe's Soft Strawberry Licorice Twists and Trader Joe's Soft Black Licorice Twists - it's worth the ol' college try.

Naturally, they're both pretty similar in appearance and texture. It's a medium single cable style, cut up in roughly one inch sections. The chew feels a lot like, well, Twizzler Pull 'n Peels, except in singular strand form. That's been the sweet spot for licorice squish, personally - harder is too much a struggle, any softer feels too mushy. So, both bags got that going for them.

For flavor, though, there's a decided difference, that's more than black and red. Both Sandy and I preferred the black. It's a very mild, pleasant flavor, with a decent amount of anise, like a good black licorice should. It's enough to get the point of the flavor across without being offensive to the masses. Even if you're not a fan of black jelly beans, like my wife, it's an agreeable taste. The strawberry though? Not as good. The tart edge of strawberry comes across but doesn't have enough sweetness to really back up and fully develop it. It's only a halfway flavor, if you know what I mean.

Regardless of flavor differences, I like the lack of preservatives, the natural coloring, and the fact that even after sitting out opened overnight, each bite I just partook off was just as soft as when the seal was first cracked. And the price was pretty agreeable too - half pound of  decent candy for $2.49. Didn't have the little kiddos try it, it might still be a little chewy for lil chompers. It won't be an every time purchase by any stretch, but as long as these are on TJ's shelves, Twizzlers will never be on mine.

Bottom lines: Trader Joe's Soft Black Licorice Twists: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons and Trader Joe's Soft Strawberry Licorice Twists: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, January 13, 2017

Trader Joe's Mini Greek Spirals with Leeks and Feta Cheese

Many of you have probably heard of the Norway Spiral. In the minds of the very sober and scientific-minded, it was obviously an interdimensional portal of some kind, ushering otherworldly beings onto our planet to initiate the apocalypse. That point isn't really up for debate. The apocalypse is just a bit behind schedule due to some unforeseen political circumstances and a few mathematical errors and omissions in the Mayan calendar. 

Then several years later, we learned of a Greek Spiral, whose purpose was quite obviously to usher five different cheeses into our reality, and to disappoint Russ and Sandy, thus temporarily distracting them from their true purpose and role in saving humanity from the aforementioned apocalypse.

Similarly, Sonia and I have recently been made aware of a swarm of smaller Greek spirals featuring only two cheeses, but containing leeks as well. These leaky leek spirals leaked Greek grease cheekily onto streaky sheets in our oven, but the final product was not particularly greasy in my opinion—at least not when compared to other similar Greek phyllo dough-based products.

The true purpose of this miniature Greek spiral swarm has not yet been uncovered as of the date of this food review's publication. 

It may have something to do with the leek's "unique combination of flavonoids and sulfur-containing nutrients" healing this food reviewer from his current ailment, which may, in turn, be fueling some more-imaginitive-than-usual musings about this fairly run-of-the-mill Trader Joe's pastry.

The dough is somewhat flaky and soft. The filling isn't particularly cheesy, but there's a mild feta-esque flavor present. And the onion-ish hints of the leek are most definitely in there, too. It's not an overbearing flavor—it's subtle, like all the truly great powers in the universe tend to be.

Three and a half interdimensional portals out of five from me. Three and a half from Sonia.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Trader Joe's Golden Spiced Milk Chocolate Bar

"Candy World! Dada, let's go play Candy World!"

Every night, right before bedtime, that's about all I hear from my four year old. She means CandyLand, of course. But Candy World sounds much more fun, doesn't it?

I think so. I think I'd like to live in an actual Candy World, like some Wonkified version of reality where everything, on a whim, could be candy. Sounds great. Love candy. Love chocolate. Love Trader Joe's, too. So if TJ's comes out with a chocolate bar, no matter how large, goofy, imitative of a classic, or potentially combustible, I gotta try it.

All that does not mean I have to love the new Trader Joe's Golden Spiced Milk Chocolate Bar.

This is not my first go-around with a TJ's spiced chocolate product. Admittedly, this new particular bar is a fair amount more successful than those caramels. But it shares some of the same pitfalls. Namely, ginger and chocolate are two flavors that need to be carefully combined for optimization. With this bar, toss in a healthy dose of cardamom, too. And I mean healthy. It's the first thing I smelled when I opened the wrapper, like Hershey-fied potpurri.

And honestly, it's kinda how it tasted, too.

The ginger and cardamom weren't overpowering per se, as I could still taste the milk chocolate enough to determine it was of fairly good quality. But the other spices - curry? Pepper? Heck, even the coconut? Nope, nada, none, except for a small bite I had that seemed particularly salty. None of that "warming" that the label speaks of on the front. The crisped quinoa did add a nice little gritty bite, a la crisped rice but a bit smaller, but in the end, I wasn't that happy with the bar.

Honestly, this chocolate bar may have been trying to do a little bit too much, but ended up not really excelling at anything in particular. It's okay, not great...perhaps I lack the proper sophistication to truly appreciate it and should stick to my Butterfingers like the plebe I am. Sandy enjoyed more than I did, noting her affinity for anything with cardamom. Still, even she could offer it only a lackluster three.

Eh well, just as I remind my four year old when we play Candy World, you can't win them all.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Golden Spiced Milk Chocolate Bar: 5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, January 9, 2017

Trader Joe's Korma Fish Curry

A handful of you might remember that not all that long ago, Sonia and I had been living without a microwave. We purposely neglected to replace it mainly to see how we’d do without it. But now that we’re living in our RV and traveling, we are now, once again, endowed with the ability to irradiate our foods from frozen to ready-to-eat in a matter of minutes—when we’re hooked up to shore power, at least. Oh, how I’ve missed you, nuked foods. May our romance blossom once again. For our reunion date, you prepared a delish fish dish for me. How sweet of you, Samsung MC1015BB.

This blog has explored quite a few different frozen, microwavable Indian products over the years. In my opinion, this is one of, if not the most consistent line of products Trader Joe’s has to offer. No, they can’t compete with a really good, authentic Indian restaurant, but considering the price and convenience, I’ve never found anything that compares.

This dish was no different. It’s the same basmati rice we’ve been seeing with most of these Indian meals. And of course, TJ’s curry is pretty consistently good. And the fish? Well, that was the wild card. Some TJ’s fish is spot on, and some…not so much.

But here we had a delicious white fish with a great taste and texture. Swai? It was soft, but not mushy, and it blended quite well with the thick, spicy curry. The packaging made the fish look like two or three “sticks,” for lack of a better term, but we got a large, triangular filet instead. If anything, it was more fish than I expected, just based on the picture on the box.

There’s a surprising amount of heat here, too, which Sonia and I both appreciated. The curry is potent, yet sweet, smooth, and coconutty. All three elements worked beautifully together, and we devoured our entrees quickly, wishing we had purchased another box or two to enjoy another day.

At $3.49 per single-serving package, it’s one of the pricier microwaveable Indian products at TJ’s, but it’s worth it if you ask Sonia or I. Four stars a piece.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Trader Joe's Truffle Mac & Cheese

Truffles. Not the candy kind. The fungi kind. They fancy.  Super fancy. I mean, they can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for a pound of them...but as far as I am concerned, they're just hoity-toity mushrooms. That *might* because I don't have much experience with them. See: that aforementioned price.

But mac 'n cheese? Please. I got two kids under the age of four: we live on that stuff. I know mac 'n cheese. So do you. So, when high class fungus meets everyday toddler fare, what do you get?

You get Trader Joe's Truffle Mac & Cheese.

Welll....not quite. Let's start with the noodles. Ain't no elbows around yeah. Nah, it's cavatappi. Yeah, it does kinda taste the same...but not really. It's heavier, sturdier, bitier, firmer, and all around just, well, more fancy. These particular noodles are definitely more towards al dente too, which is perfect.

And cheese. Ain't no weird orange powder packets here. It's a blend of five cheeses -  gouda, sharp cheddar, asiago, parmesan, and romano. All primo cheese, and unlike other five cheese concoctions, I can actually taste all five - the smokiness of the gouda, the sharpness of the cheddar, the impeccable tastiness of asiago, the mildness of the other two. Which is fairly impressive, because with my first visual impression, it looked like a watery mess, but after stirring and letting it set for a minute after nuking, the sauce settled into a decently thick creamy base. Not like your Italian grandma's, but it'll do for a frozen entree. The crimini mushrooms added a little touch of fungus among us, which I didn't mind one bit - Sandy however avoided. More for me.

So for the truffles...it comes to us in form of "truffle extract" as the last ingredient. There's more rice starch and salt in here than any actual truffle substance. Is that like a drop or two...at most? I don't know. But, in perhaps a mind trick in trying to convince myself that this is some fancyish fare, there does seem to a little extra oomph to the cheese sauce that is otherwise unexplained. Perhaps it's some of that semi-mysterious umami  potency that truffles are purported to have.

In short: a good dish. It just may be the best frozen mac n cheese I've ever had. I just wish it came in the two separate white ramekin-type deals that are pictured on the front, instead of the typical black plastic microwave tray, because, you know, fancy. Regardless, you can feel free to raise your pinkie with this one, folks. And it won't raise your budget at only a few bucks ($3 or $4), so go truffle hunting...and dig in.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Truffle Mac & Cheese: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Trader Joe's Crunchy Cinnamon Squares Cereal

"Cinnamon Toast Crunch Light." Or "Diet Cinnamon Toast Crunch." Take your pick. That's what this is. I mean, sure, there's still a good bit of sugar and calories here—in fact, calories per serving is identical in both cereals. The TJ's version will save you from about a half a gram of fat, but it's basically the same concept as the classic name-brand cereal from General Mills, except Trader Joe's specifies "cane sugar" rather than the slightly more vague "sugar" in GM's version.

Taste-wise, though, this offering doesn't offer quite as much flavor as actual Cinnamon Toast Crunch. I was expecting a much greater difference in the ingredients and nutrition information just based on the taste of this product. It's not a bad flavor. It's just not as pleasant as the classic cereal in the opinions of both Sonia and I.

Like classic CTC, both wheat and rice flour are used in the flakes, and the texture is pretty similar as a result, although I feel like TJ's version might be ever-so-slightly less dense.

Sonia noted that the particles of cinnamon detach from the flakes and distribute themselves throughout the milk and around the perimeter of the bowl. This might have something to do with the perceived flavor discrepancy. Does General Mills know the secret to stably fusing cinnamon particles to cereal flakes? Has Trader Joe's research and development team simply missed this fundamental principle of cinnamon particle physics? 

Is this Trader Joe's cereal just the General Mills cereal in disguise, and all perceived differences and discrepancies are simply in our heads?  Are our taste buds just messed up? Are we being too critical of this cereal? Are you being too critical of our review of this cereal?

The answers to these questions may never surface on this blog, but one thing's for sure—both this cereal and classic Cinnamon Toast Crunch pair up well with a nice ruby port.

Three and a half stars from Sonia, three and a half from me as well. (Just as a reference point, we'd give Cinnamon Toast Crunch four stars a piece.)

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Trader Joe's Buenalba with Paprika Cheese

Well, somehow, we all made it to 2017. 2016 was kinda a doozy of a year, wasn't it? As far as anything I had some semblance of control over, it was good...but you can't exactly blame the sentiment behind things like this fairly believable fake move trailer. And if you're someone who's pretty glad to leave 2016 behind, just remember to take what's good and keep moving forward. It's all we can do.

Like...*scrambles for an example*...a ha! Trader Joe's Buenalba with Paprika Cheese! Sandy just picked this up, on the second day of 2017, yet this particular cheese was Trader Joe's spotlight cheese way back in October 2016. And, like Betty White, fortunately it has survived into the new year.

Coming to us from the exotic stomping grounds of Don Quixote (La Mancha, Spain), TJ's buenalba cheese with paprika is raw milk based, from both goats and sheep. I've had other cheeses of similar origins, and have a wide variety of experiences from soft and mild to bordering on what I'd call "viscerally pungent." Definitely place this on the milder, not wilder, side of that spectrum. It's soft yet a little waxy, with a fair amount of creaminess after a few bites that still leaves a little graininess. Almost like bleu cheese, but a little different. That makes for a pretty interesting bite, in my opinion, and one I had to try a couple times to try and get the hang of.

The vibrant orange hue, along with the promise of paprika, makes for a pretty spicy looking appearance. Let me assure you: not the case. It's smoked "sweet paprika" (whatever that means) which, honestly, I didn't notice at first, it's so mild. And, this is gonna sound a little weird maybe, but...instead of tasting it, I more felt it. yes, I felt the paprika. There was this soft, gentle warming I felt after maybe my second bite had gone down the hatch that really, on a decently cold winter night, was very welcome.

Sandy and I enjoyed our bites by their lonesome, without an accompaniment. We're not enough into the pinkie-raising crowd to be able to suggest a good wine pairing, but you're into that kinda thing, you're probably smart enough to not take whatever some goofball TJ's blog would say about it anyways. For $10.99 a pound, it's a pretty decent cheese to take a flier on if you haven't yet. It certainly won't be the worst cheese you eat this year.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Buenalba with Paprika Cheese: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons