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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Trader Joe's Beef and Pork with Cracked Pepper Snack Stick

My toddler, 21 months old, is completely irrational and makes no sense. Surprise!

I mean, M (as I'll call her) will happily eat long as Sandy and I don't make it or give it to her. My dad makes her bacon? Right down the hatch. Go over to my brothers to grill some burgers or hot dogs? Yumz. Even the sketchy-lookin' chicken at her school? If given the opportunity, yes. Heck, she even happily munched on some Spam my folks gave her last summer on vacation as Sandy and I took off on a date night. We make her anything meatlike at all? With only one notable exception, she won't touch it and will make a grimacing, pouty "meat face" as she turns her head away and firmly says "NO!!!"

That's pretty unlike me. I'm casually working on a spreadsheet for all the different animals I've consumed, and part of me is jealous of Nathan's situation growing up. Give me meat whenever I can get it, and if it happens to be in some sort of snacky, shelf-stable form, I'm all for it as well. Kinda hard to grill a steak at the cubicle, y' know.

Enter Trader Joe's Beef and Pork with Cracked Pepper Snack Stick. Ay yi yi, that's a mouthful. Imagine, in another world, how different those old Randy Macho Man Savage commercials would be with this name. Seems like a brand new product, costs a buck, lacks the usual TJ ampersand, and looks like yummy snacky meat to try out at work, so made for a natural pick up.

Pretty good, if you ask me. It's more the "summer sausage" style of meat stick versus the beefy mush of a Slim Jim (not hatin', just sayin'). It looks like about the normal snack stick size of about 8 inches or so. And listen, I'm not gonna sit around and make the argument that this is a healthy snack, because it's not exactly. But, for the relative world of snack sticks, it does seem like a healthier pick up than the ol' gas station standby - less fat, less calories, less sodium.

And the taste doesn't suffer much for it, depending on how much cracked pepper is in your stick. I've had two - the first one I sampled, there wasn't a lot, so it seemed like an okay, not great, couple of bites. Stick No. 2 had much more pepper, which not only added a healthy amount of spice but kinda wakened the rest of the flavors too, like the salt and garlic. For a little satiety staying power, grab an apple or a cheese stick and some water - before consuming, I was pretty hungry, and this helped hold me over for a couple hours. Might be good to toss in a backpack for a light hiking trip.

Sandy's not big on these kinda snacks, so again I'm turning to my coworker Alan, who apparently is honing his TV pitchman skills when he stated this: "A meat stick overflowing with juiciness…this meat was good! The casing had sea salt brine that gave excellent flavor that one would seek from a meat stick, the cracked black pepper provided a nice subtle spice, add some garlic and you have one tasty piece of meat. I thoroughly enjoyed eating my meat as I am sure you will too!" He added more cracked pepper would be his only request. We're both wavering between a 4 and 4.5, so here's one of each.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Beef and Pork with Cracked Pepper Snack Stick: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Friday, April 25, 2014

Trader Joe's Southwest Salad

This is probably a little hypocritical for me to ask, living in the city that perfected the art of putting french fries on everything, but what's happened to a just a good, plain, healthy salad? You know what I mean. My goodness, I was making another sneaky salad trip to TJ's and was looking through the selections, trying to find something healthy-ish and appealing. Some of those salads, I may as well have just gone through a drive thru and stuffed my face with a couple McDoubles (800 calories and 50% of my fat from a salad!?!?). It's all the meats and dressings and thisses and thats that just pile up. Salad is supposed to be healthy and taste good.

That's why I picked up Trader Joe's Southwest Salad. Out of all the salads I haven't tried yet from TJ's, it seemed to potentially straddle the line between healthy and flavorful the best. Even with all the dressing, 200 calories and a couple grams of fat didn't seem to be too bad, and beans and corn with a little "southwestiness" tossed in are usually a winning combo.

Well, I said usually. Let's see, where to begin....When I opened the package, it immediately was apparent that this wasn't the freshest of salads I had selected. That's not necessarily a huge deal - it was about on par with other prepackaged salads I've had - but usually Trader Joe's has that ball knocked out of the park. Not this time around. It just all seemed kinda limp. The romaine, an okay mix of slightly-almost-wilty green leaves and white watery ribs, was okay but not great. Those little chunks of red and green pepper lacked any real flavor and were kinda unnoticeable. Never heard of Cotija cheese before, and after having some, not sure if I ever tasted it either - it's just kinda there taking up space. The corn and beans are pretty close to the canned variety, without any spices or anything to make them stand out. The onions lacked any semblance of commitment.

Did I just describe the salad or my teenaged years?

Anyways, lack of flavor on a sald is what the dressing is there for, right? Right. So....where's the dressing???

Oh, that's right, it's packed in there...underneath all the salad! That's right, you have to unearth it and hope to not knock any of your meal on the floor. The packaging genius who came up with that idea probably bags his milk on top of his bread.

And there's no other way to say it - the dressing sucks. The weird capitalization of "tangy Ranch Dressing" should have keyed me into the fact this is probably from someone who has no idea what ranch dressing is supposed to be like. Listen, I'm no dressing expert, but ranch means creamy. Instead, it's some weird vinegar-y stuff that's in the packet. I mean vinegar-y in both appearance and taste, although tastewise it's not overpowering. That's neither ranch nor "tangy Ranch" and it's just not very good.

I realize I'm going close to full Goldilocks here saying last week's salad had too much in it and this week I'm going to be saying this has too little. Here's some recommendations for addition: A little actual southwest-y kinda spice. Some lime. Some avocado or guacamole (packaged in a little cup on the side, of course). A little salsa. Maybe some chicken, but not a deal breaker. Something, just anything, that would give it a chance of a date on Friday night instead of being holed up in a dim room playing video games while listening to Creed.

Okay, definitely talking about the teenaged years.

I don't hate the southwest salad, but I'm not impressed either (obviously). It just lacks in too many departments, and for the $4 I spent on it, it seemed a little overpriced for what it was. I guess it'd be okay for small side salad, but at least with my appetite, counting on it for a full meal was a bad decision. Maybe that's why I sound so grumpy. No salad for the wifey, so it's just me, and I'm going double 2's.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Southwest Salad: 4 out of 10 Golden Spoons    

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Trader Joe's Sukiyaki

Although some might argue that it's not fair to compare a pre-packaged frozen dish purchased at a grocery store to similar food served in a restaurant, I think there comes a time when one should go ahead and make that comparison. In particular, when the price tag of a pre-packaged frozen food item starts getting up into the range of what you'd pay while dining out, then I say compare away. This bag of sukiyaki was $6.99, and the portion size was just about what one might expect from a restaurant. Sure, it was enough dinner for both Sonia and I, but most entrees we buy at restaurants turn into two meals for us as well. And while you might pay an extra dollar or two for this type of thing at a Japanese restaurant, you're also having it prepared and served by someone else, and there are usually some extra bells and whistles like rice or miso soup on the side.

So the question I'm asking myself is, "Was it restaurant quality?" 

Yes and no.

First, I'll start off with something positive: the sauce. The sauce was amazing. Excellent. Delicious. It was savory, thick, rich, and slightly sweet. Containing real sake rice wine and mirin, it was bursting with flavor. I've never had anything quite like it. The dish wasn't spicy at all, but I didn't find myself wanting to dump sriracha all over it like I usually do with non-spicy Asian foods. I don't think a bit of sriracha would have ruined it, but I didn't want to upset the flavor of this amazing sauce. It permeated all of the ingredients and added to their natural tastes. The veggies were plentiful and had nice textures. There were big pieces of carrots, napa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, and something called burdock. 

The noodles were made of mung bean flour. They were flat, long, and clear. I've had similar noodles in Asian dishes before, and each time I have them, I'm surprised how chewy they are. I usually wind up gnawing on them for a bit before I get so frustrated that I simply swallow and wind up taking down a much longer strand of noodle than I intended to. Surprisingly, there wasn't a lack of meat—one of the more common problems we've found with TJ's frozen food bags. The worst part was that the beef was much more chewy than the noodles. It was fatty, too. There were big chunks of white fat all through the meat, and it was quite rubbery. In this case, I would have preferred tofu chunks—or at least very lean beef. The meat tasted fine, especially once it soaked up all that yummy sauce. It was just too chewy. I ate the food with chopsticks, and I found myself attempting to bite a piece of meat in half with my teeth while yanking on one end with the sticks a couple times. As I stretched and pulled on the beef, sauce dribbled down my chin, and I even lost my grip on the chopsticks at one point—allowing the slab of meat to dangle from my lips like a dog running off with a piece of raw bacon. It almost ruined the experience for me. Almost.

But I'll be danged if that's not some deeeelicious sauce. I give this product 3 stars. It would have been much higher had the meat and noodles not been so rubbery. Sonia gives it 3 stars as well for the same reasons. She also thinks there are too many onions in the mixture. I guess I'm just a bit more into onions than she is, because I disagree on that point. But double 3's it is.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.