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 22, 2017

Trader Joe's Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend

Let's see...Blueberry. Cranberry. Cinnamon. Cheddar. Asiago. Jalapeno. Pretzel. French toast. Maple. Chocolate chip. And that's just real quick, off the top of my head, bagel varieties I personally enjoy, that are not represented in those self-important "everything" bagels.

That said, everything bagels rule. There's just something about all that taste - the salty, the garlic-y, the onion-y, with the extra little crunch from seedss - that make them my go-to bagels more times than not. Unless I'm too tempted by that asiago...I'm always tempted by asiago.

Now, imagine if you could make literally anything taste like an everything bagel.

While others dream, TJ's does. Introducing Trader Joe's Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend. It has everything an everything bagels has....except, namely, the bagel. That's a big something to miss from something calling itself everything, isn't it?

Use it on everything. Well okay, maybe not everything everything. I can't imagine it working well on, say, fruit or chocolate cake or in milk or, well, lots of other things. But imagine what it could be good on: eggs, quiche, various meats, steamed veggies, potatoes, in soups...that list also goes on. By itself, the salt seems very strong, but really it's the garlic and onion that really drive the flavor. It's potent and pungent and will last and last. Yes, you can get that distinctive "everything bagel breath" without stopping by your local Einstein Brothers, Bruegger's, or bagel shop of choice. As of time of writing, I re-sampled some getting close to an hour ago, and I can still taste it, and I had better do one heckuva good brushing job if I want a smooch from the Mrs anytime soon.

Good stuff. I've heard some folks toss around the words "breakfast game changer" when sprinkled on eggs. A coworker of mine marveled about the everything roasted chicken she made with this spice blend. Sandy loved it on some butternut squash soup, and for me, a light sprinkle on some roasted pork made for a good mix up from my usual spice choice. "Light" is the operative word, as it's very salty. I like how the seeds, garlic and onion retain a lot of their crunch, as one would expect from a freshly toasted everything bagel, so it seems a very accurate representation. A nice bonus is, it won't cost you everything either...it's just $1.99! A little goes a long way, so enjoy.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, March 20, 2017

Trader Joe's Joe's Dark Coffee Squares

Yes, there are two "Joe's" in the title of this blog post because there are two "Joe's" in the title of the product being reviewed. Seems redundant to me. But then again, my last review had the name "Joe" in it three times. 

And as Russ pointed out in his last review, there has most definitely been a caffeine-laden incursion of coffee-themed commodities at Trader Joe's lately. After 2016's moderately-fruitful mango endeavor, TJ's decided to follow it up with a cascade of coffee—an even more universally-appreciated flavor. In fact, coffee is the second most traded asset in the world. In order to top that, for 2018, Trader Joe's will have to introduce a line of crude oil flavored food products. Good luck with that, Big Joe.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Because there are plenty more coffee items to examine right now in 2017, like these fascinating coffee squares.

Like the Mocha Joe-Joe's, they feature chocolate elements as well as real ground coffee beans. And to me, once again, the taste heavily favors coffee. The texture is not unlike a typical chocolate bar. It's a smooth, creamy effect, with a bit of that "melts-in-your-mouth" kind of vibe. 

Lacking a candy shell, these squares would easily melt in your hand if not for the convenient, if perhaps a bit wasteful, individual packaging. The bag itself is resealable, with a ziplock at the top—so there's no way you'll find these squares going stale...or doing whatever chocolate does when it's exposed to the air. Speaking of packaging, Sonia noticed that the bag has the same fonts, color schemes, and art work as Trader Joe's Dark Roast Coffee. Interesting. She's got a great eye for design like that.

The squares are fairly filling. One piece at a time is probably enough for the average Trader Joe's shopper. They make a nice after-meal treat. Or I suppose you could even have a couple for breakfast if you're running low on actual java (or Rockstar or black tea or whatever your preferred vehicle of caffeine ingestion may be). 

In the end, I didn't like these as much as the Joe-Joe's, probably because they're so rich, with the coffee flavor coming through a little too much for my personal taste. It makes me want to chug a big glass of water just thinking about the richness of them. But for people with a taste for true coffee flavor, these would be perfect. $2.99 for fourteen squares. 

Four and a half stars from Sonia. Three from me.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Trader Joe's Monsooned Malabar Coffee

In case you haven't noticed, it's absolutely coffee season at Trader Joe's. Just in the past couple weeks, we've hit up amazing coffee brownies, coffee cookies, heck, even coffee flavored cased meats. And there's a lot more we haven't officially gotten to yet - but just you wait. Coffee is 2017's answer to 2016's mango, apparently.

And yes....I just realize now this will post on March 17th. St. Patty's Day. If you were hoping for something a little more Irish, check out this or this - or for the imposter green, this. My bad.

Anyways, in this coffee season, and on a day we all could use an extra cup...how about an actual coffee?

Introducing Trader Joe's Monsooned Malabar Coffee. Doesn't that sound fancy and exotic? Um, I guess. There's some huge ol' write up on the back about the history of coffee being transported on ships and being exposed to the elements and how that affected the coffee and how this can of java purports to mimic all that. Well, alright, I'll take their word for it. How's it taste?

Not amazing. Not bad. As an avid black coffee drinker, I like to think I can taste the nuances of different beans and roasts and whatnot. I'm just not picking up much here. But that's not a complaint. I like my coffee to taste, first and foremost, like coffee. That's how this brew is. Medium roast, fairly even and smooth for the whole sip. The can states there's a "woodsy aromatic" which I'm not completely buying but it smells like good coffee.

That's my take. But for a better one, take Sandy's. Up until the past few weeks, her coffee cup consisted of 10 parts creamer and sugar to 1 part coffee. Now, she drinks it plain and straight too. Obligatory Airplane! reference. She adjusted rather quickly, actually, and for all the coffees we've tried at home over the past few weeks, this may have been her favorite thus far. She stated it's because the Monsooned Malabar tries to be a good coffee on its own merits, instead of relying on additives to even it all out, if that makes sense.

And yes, in the spirit of St Patty's Day, you could probably "Irish it up" a bit and it'd work  quite well.

Worth a shot. We're both pretty happy and most likely will buy again, especially with how the two of us drink coffee almost nonstop on the weekends here. Decent stuff at a decent price - $6? $7? Typical price range for TJ's coffee, so we're going with a typical TJ's coffee score.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Monsooned Malabar Coffee: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Trader Joe's Mocha Joe-Joe's

Dunking these puppies in coffee is something akin to an Americanized Tim Tam Slam. Just as the center of a Tim Tam liquefies in the hot beverage, so too does the creamy center of these mocha-flavored sandwich cookies. And it would disintegrate and fall directly into said mug of hot coffee if not for being slurped up by some fat Yank who should no doubt be eating fewer sandwich cookies.

But if you're gonna splurge and eat sugary sandwich cookies, these are the ones to reach for. I'm not even that big into sandwich cookies in general. And I've mentioned many times that I'm not really a coffee person. But these magical Joe-Joe's are pretty delicioso if I do say so myself.

Sonia, the coffee connoisseur, agrees. She had a mug of coffee made within seconds of getting these cookies in the door, and moments later, these Mocha Joe-Joe's were swimming in java. I must admit, they taste pretty amazing when dunked. I'm guessing hot chocolate would work, too, but for some reason, coffee and these cookies just go a little too well together. Seventy cups to kill a person? I don't think I'd ever go that far. But I think I've already had enough to give me a headache, thanks to these yummy dunkables. They're so good, they hurt.

When consumed sans café, they still taste pretty coffee-esque. They do contain real ground coffee beans, but "cocoa" appears even higher on the ingredients list. I guess coffee beans are the more potent of the two, because these cookies are heavy on the coffee side of the mocha equation. They're a little earthy, but they're still very sweet. Flaunting the texture of other classic Joe-Joe's, they're the newest experimental flavor at Trader Joe's, but far more successful than those Mango fellows from last year, if you ask us.

$2.99 for 22 cookies, kosher, tasty, and über-dunkable. Four and a half stars from Sonia, four from me.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Trader Joe's Ancho Chile Chicken Sausage with Roasted Coffee

Trader Joe's Ancho Chile Chicken Sausage with Roasted Coffee.

Ancho. Chile. Thank God. I have never been so relieved to read those words on a shelf label before.

You see, for the past week or so, Sandy has been talking about this new chicken sausage product from TJ's that one of her friends told her about. But she kept telling me it was anchovy sausage with coffee, not ancho chile. Even if it were anchovy sausage, out of ob-blog-ation to you all, i'd still try it....but so, so begrudgingly. My excitement level for the potential purchase bottomed out near turkey meatloaf muffin level, with even less expectation, and so as to ensure an honest, unadulterated review of my opinion, I refused to Google anything about a TJ's anchovy coffee chicken sausage, lest it would prejudice my opinion any more about them before trying. You gotta admit, that sounds like a garbage disposal nightmare cuisine.

Ancho chiles are supposed to be pretty mild, with like a southwestern-y feel to them. There's more flavor to them than heat. That's more or less the feel to these sausages - really, in some ways, think of a slightly spicier sundried tomato chicken sausage, and theat's a decent approximation to the flavor. More of the spice seems to derive from the pepper and garlic than anything else. Pretty decent flavor.

I haven't mentioned the coffee part yet...because I'm not really sure what it adds. The little brown specks are certainly visible, and there's a slight coffee-ish aromatic. I'll wager that the coffee seems to mute the rest of the flavors a little bit, but in a more or less unobtrusive way, if that makes any sense. Everything seems mixed about right and evenly, with the good textural bite held together by the casing that crisped up nicely while broiling.

For whatever reason, when eating these for dinner the other night, I kept on having an incomplete vision of Guy Fieri pimping these for a Chili's commercial. It seems the kinda product/kinda thing he'd do...sounds "edgy" and "cool" and like a one way trip to Flavortown, but really, it's neither great nor bad. These sausages kinda are what they are, without much more to say about them. Just thank God that assuming TJ's QA is at least somewhat up to snuff they are anchovy-free. The four pack was $4.49, so not an awful deal, not as weird as they sound, and would be a welcome re-purchase for our household.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Ancho Chile Chicken Sausage with Roasted Coffee: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, March 10, 2017

Trader Joe's Strawberry Raspberry Oatmeal

It's another riveting Friday here at WG@TJ's, as we bring you a spine-tingling review of everybody's favorite breakfast item: OATMEAL!

It's a breakfast that doesn't even possess the flair of an Egg McMuffin, or...I was going to say one of "Uncle Herschel's Favorites" from Cracker Barrel, but I was stopped in my tracks when my Google search yielded the Urban Dictionary definition of that phrase. I'm not even going to link to it here...because it's filthy. But if you're so inclined, I mean, I did promise you something "spine-tingling" today...although it might be more along the lines of "boorishly lewd" to many of you...I know it was for me. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Ahem. Back to the oatmeal.

This selection is different from a lot of other pre-packaged oatmeal, in that it's not quite as sweet. There's a moderate amount of brown sugar, but the natural flavor of oats is definitely the dominant taste. Certain bites contain enough freeze dried strawberries and raspberries to taste tart and fruitastic, but by and large the flavor of this oatmeal is quite subtle. Perhaps a bit too subtle. Some people might use the word "bland."

That was Sonia's take, too. She rarely adds sweeteners to products other than black coffee, but confessed this might be one of those products that needs a little bit of agave or stevia or honey or simple syrup or whatever healthy sugar is in right now.

We made the oatmeal with a mixture of about 2 parts water, 1 part half and half. I usually prefer just plain old milk, but we didn't have any on hand, and this mixture of water plus half and half is what Sonia usually uses for oatmeal. We ALWAYS have half and half on hand because Sonia uses it with her morning java. And it works. The oatmeal usually has a fair amount of creaminess, and it adds a touch more flavor and substance than just water.

For $1.29 per cup, there are quite a few other oatmeals at TJ's that might be a better value. Here are the "Search This Blog" results for "oatmeal." I couldn't tell you which of those products are currently available, but there are definitely a handful of offerings on that list that scored better with our team. This one gets three stars a piece from Sonia and I.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Trader Joe's Grass Fed Buffalo Milk Butter

Ladies and gentlemen, consider the American buffalo. A strong and mighty animal, a national icon, revered by generations and immortalized by legend, songs, and even our currency. They're also scary as heck. Source: One stuck his/her head into my open car window at one of those drive-thru safari-type deals in central Ohio. Now, I know that buffalo are not carnivorous beasts but I feared my arm would get chewed off, and hearing the air shuffle in and out of a buffalo's nostril from like six inches away is intimidating at the very least. I'm glad that when I drove off, it didn't take my car door with it.

There's also all sort of buffalo meat products, some of which covered on this blog, like burgers and jerky and whatnot. Lean, meaty, tasty. Just like a good animal should.

And apparently, there's also now Trader Joe's Grass Fed Buffalo Milk Butter.

Returning once again to my albeit limited knowledge of buffalo, I know that buffalo are mammals. Mammals make milk. That also means that buffalo have nipples, which I never thought of until now, but came to mind because one of Robert DeNiro's greatest cinematic lines ever. Baby buffs need to eat somehow, I suppose....still. Buffalo nipples. No thanks.

Moving on....with buffalo milk you can make buffalo butter. That's what TJ's did, because, well, why not, right? If that doesn't sound exotic enough, it's "lightly salted with pink Himalayan salt." Hoo boy.

Despite all that, this butter tastes not all that different from regular butter. There's no overriding "weird factor" at play here. Maybe the only weird thing is how normal it is. If anything, the butter tastes a little milder, and maybe a touch less salty, but there's nothing abundantly different with it. We're primarily Kerrygold fans in our house (please, no "vegetable oil spreads" for us), and there's a difference: that aforementioned mildness.There's an extra something to Kerrygold which isn't there with the TJ's buffalo butter, but that's not meant as a pejorative. I can only taste the difference because, for the sake of the blog, I sampled both straight off a spoon* and I'd say is a tossup which one I like more. That's some praise.

I will add that the buffalo butter isn't too prone to spreading. It's hard when chilled, and even if kept out for a bit, the butter never really spreads that much. It's not a big deal for me, as the only time I spread butter is on top of something fresh out of the toaster, and this butter melts nicely when given the right conditions.

We like it. Seems healthier than regular butter - less cholesterol? I'm a guy reaching my mid 30s. Yes please! - without sacrificing too terribly much. I'm not sure if this "our new butter" or not, but I've caught both my wife and my kids eating it just straight*, a smidge here, a tidbit there after using it on toast or a waffle. I don't get it, but it's part of the package deal. The small tub was only a few bucks and worth the pickup. Sandy's only real complaint was it's tub form, making it more difficult to measure for recipes and the like. No other real complaints one way or another.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Grass Fed Buffalo Milk Butter: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons
* Eating butter straight is disgusting. I only sampled some straight off a spoon for the purpose of this blog....people like my wife and kids do this willingly. Ugh. Cold lardy spread with nothing else? Gross. Really gross. Don't do it. Ever.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Josephsbrau Spring Prost

Following in the footsteps of other Gordon Biersch-produced, Trader Joe's-distributed, seasonally-inspired Josephsbrau brews, here we have a delightful vernal offering of Maibock style lager.

I retained enough of my high school and college German to know that "Mai" means May, and that these beers are traditionally served at spring festivals in that particular very merry month. And while we're still just getting into the swing of my other favorite month that starts with "M," it is feeling significantly warmer than Sonia and I are used to this time of year since we're still exploring the Carolinas—a great deal farther south than we've been at this time of year for the past six years or so. All that to say, it feels appropriate enough to be consuming spring-themed products at this particular juncture.

I have certainly heard of bocks and Maibocks before, but I've actually never heard of a "prost" prior to laying eyes on this product. They probably deliberately avoided the word in our German classes because teaching it to us would have been construed by certain overprotective parents and/or uptight faculty as encouraging underage drinking, since the word is inextricably intertwined with beer, and is used to say "cheers" auf Deutsch.

As far as the actual product goes, I think I enjoyed this one the most of any Josephsbrau beverages that I've tried thus far. It was somewhat foamy, with a larger-than-usual head, and it poured a color I'd put somewhere between mahogany and amber. It tasted nutty, caramelly, and moderately bitter. I found it slightly smoother and more drinkable than most beers, and I'd happily purchase it again at $1.17 per bottle. Sonia tried it and was similarly pleased, but perhaps not quite as much as I was.

Three and a half stars from her. Four from me.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Sea Salt & Malt Vinegar Caramels

Salt and vinegar....a winning combo. I've always liked eating as many salt and vinegar chips as possible before getting overwhelmed by stinging lips. Kinda akin to too many Sour Patch Kids, but in a different way. With Lent upon us here in Pittsburgh, I'm looking forward to dumping some on our Friday night fish dinners - we take them seriously out here - just look at this appropriately black and gold map. Oh the sacrifice.

But while salt and vinegar taste mighty good on chips and fish (as well as fish 'n chips)....with dark chocolate AND caramel as well? What in the...I mean, I know that balsamic vinegar and caramels can be a thing, and a tasty one at that, but this? I'd never try that on my own. But TJ's has, with the introduction of Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Sea Salt & Malt Vinegar Caramels.

It's a mad idea. Possibly brilliant, like the guy who "invented" pet rocks. He made millions. Or idiotic and sloppy, like when I tried singing "Chandelier" at karaoke. One two three, one two three drink indeed.

In actuality, it's somewhere between. The caramels cost $5 for a long skinny boxed tray of seven cubes, so a semi-premium price. Each bite was small, one large or two regular bite sized, with an ample sprinkling of coarse sea salt on top. So, obviously, this is going to be a salty chocolate. And it was, with the sodium being the predominant flavor until striking that caramel reservoir. That caramel...it was smooth and mellow and sugary, but then it hit. The vinegar. But it wasn't unpleasant at all as I feared may be the case. Instead it came in, slipped in a sweet tangy essence, and almost immediately dissipated. There weren't any lingering after-effects or anything that'd make you gag or run for a drink of water. All of this was held together by the representative dark chocolate - the right call for a muted cocoa variety which I'd estimate at about 65% dark. Not unpleasant at all.

Just one of them is really enough, though. I only ate two to try and get a handle on the taste, as did Sandy. I gave the others to coworkers, who all said the same thing: "I like them, but....I'd never buy them." Which is odd because it's exactly how Sandy and I feel. There's nothing wrong with the caramels, and they're actually pretty good for what they are, but I cannot see a compelling scenario where I'd willingly repurchase them. Maybe for a high-fallutin' pinky-liftin' wine-sippin' extravaganza which, well, I've never been to one and will probably not start now. They're good, and glad I tried, and kinda glad I can say I've eaten vinegar flavored chocolate candy now (sounds straight out of Willy Wonka that way), but if I never had another one again, I wouldn't be disappointed at all.

Seems to me they're a fun novelty type item that aren't nearly as weird as one may think, and certainly make a somewhat unique treat. Chances are if you like salted caramel chocolate combos, you'll have no problem with them. Emphasis on salt. No wonderful or perfect way to score them, so absent of unabashed love or repulsive hate, we're going with a three each. Have you tried? If so, comment away!

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Sea Salt & Malt Vinegar Caramels: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Trader Joe's Mini Chocolate Hold the Cone! Ice Cream Cones

These are like little ice cream cones for dolls. Or, if you're a dude, you might prefer action figures. Not that they made food-themed accessories for G.I. Joes... But hey, I just thought of something: what if G.I. Joe actually IS Trader Joe? Like, he retired from active military service and then used his international contacts from around the world to ship various foods to his trading post..? They're both elusive to the media, they stay out of the limelight, they have extensive foreign connections, and they're both named JOE. Coincidence?

At any rate, these cones look and feel like they should be eaten by toys...or very young children...or very small people. But make no mistake, they are made of actual ice cream. And they will melt if you let them. But they won't. Because it takes about three seconds to eat one.

They're snackable, if perhaps a tad gimmicky. The chocolate ice cream is sweet and flavorful. The coating is firm, crisp, and chocolatey, and the cone is nice and fresh for a cone that's been frozen, ostensibly for weeks or months, and heavily packaged. Eight in a box, $2.99 for the set. The vanilla flavor was unavailable at the particular TJ's we shopped at last week, although I'm sure we would have enjoyed them at least as much as the chocolate variety.

These would be great for parties. They're more hors d'oeuvres-ish than your average Nutty Buddy ice cream cone or Drumstick or what have you. And I guess you could make the "built-in portion control" argument if you have a nasty ice cream addiction or something, but they're simply not practical for everyday snacking. For that reason, Sonia gives them only three and a half stars. See the picture above for hand to mouth to cone size ratios. Keep in mind, if anything, Sonia's hands and mouth are slightly more diminutive and daintier than a normal person's—er, I mean the average person's. 

I can't punish these little fellas for not being something they're not even trying to be. They're yum-tastic and perfect for group snacking. Four stars from me.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.