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Monday, March 23, 2015

Trader Joe's Baconesque White Cheddar Popcorn

Here's a recent realization: Trader Joe's is as bad as Target. You know what I mean. You go to Target for some toiletries, some cleaning stuff, and maybe a snack, and instead you walk out with an extra hundred dollars worth of stuff you never intended to buy - that cute kids outfit, the clearance rack finds, the hey-look-this-is-on-sale junk. Happens to us over and over again. There's so no such thing as going to Target for just one or two things, there's at least a couple extra things that will somehow sneak into your cart.

Same way with TJ's. Case in point: I made a quick stop there on Thursday morning last week to simply get some cheesecake bites for my wife's work function that night, and a bag of apples for me. That's it, I said, nothing else. When our shopping list at TJ's is the shortest is when we tend to get the most stuff, somehow, and I was going to stick just those two things, but wait a second....

How can I pass up Trader Joe's Baconesque White Cheddar Popcorn? Look at that awesome packaging! And it contains bacon! Or at least bacon-like substance! And it's popcorn! If Sandy knew I passed this up, boy oh boy, would I be in trouble, right? Fortunately, at $1.99, it's a pretty mild splurge.

And darn it, is it one worthwhile one. Sandy and I cracked this open in the car, and in the less than 10 minutes we spent in transit between TJ's and her work, early in the morning, we ate half the dang bag. No lie. It was kinda strange, though - when we first ripped the bag open and gave it a whiff, hoping to partake in a deep olfactory experience of all that is "baconesque" - we were met with little to nothing. Instead it smelled just like regular white cheddar popcorn, which is a yummy smell, however, by definition is baconly barren. But once we popped in our mouths, that's where the bacon experience began. Granted, it didn't taste exactly like some bacon right off the griddle (it's impossible to replicate that), but it had a lot of the same essence - the smokiness, the saltiness, a little mesquite. Combine that with the white cheddar (typical of the genre) and it makes an intoxicatingly good flavor combo that's balanced out. I for one really enjoyed how the smokiness cut through the cheesiness and added depth to the flavor profile. Although a serving contains a lot of salt, I'm kind of surprised each bite didn't taste saltier than it did, as it didn't taste like sodium overloadium. Each kernel was appropriately fluffy and firm, without too many (if any) widows.

My goodness. This is such a brilliant snack idea - why did this take so long? And it's easy too. About the only better idea than bacon popcorn would be something like popcorn bacon - hey, they have popcorn shrimp and popcorn chicken, why not an easily assessable and mobile munchable bacon? I suppose bacon jerky could fill that void, which if you can stand the heat, TJ's has a ridiculously delicious one. Hmm...maybe if there's a way to get actual bacon in here...I digress.

The bacon flavoring does one heckuva bang up job. And the bonus is - the deeper into the bag you get, the more baconlicious it gets. Trust me, the last handful I dumped straight from the bag into my mouth was close to pure heaven, and it'd be worth all sorts of domestic unrest for me to get it. If a Partially Popped Popcorn version comes out, hypertension, here I come. The Baconesque will be one of those danger purchases for us regardless - it'd take a miracle for a bag to last more than few hours around here, and to put that in perspective, we've had those cookie butter cheesecake bites haf finished in our freezer for over a week now. This is some seriously good, borderline Pantheon-worthy popcorn. Proceed at you own risk.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Baconesque White Cheddar Popcorn: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Trader Joe's Crispy Cookies Filled With Belgian Chocolate

Russ and I have reviewed so many of TJ's foods, that I'm starting to think that one could project a score for just about any Trader Joe's brand product just by looking up previously reviewed products here on our blog. Take for example, these cookies. Just break down the product into its constituent parts and then type each one into the Google Custom Search Box individually. First, type "Belgian Chocolate" and you get Trader Joe's Belgian Dark Chocolate Bar, with a score of 7 out of 10. Then search "Crispy Cookies." You get Trader Joe's Crispy Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies and Crispy Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies, both with scores of 8 out of 10. With this knowledge, one can safely assume that most TJ's "crispy cookie" products will be in the ballpark of 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons or stars (depending upon which of us is reviewing the product) and that Belgian Chocolate will score in the ballpark of 7. So let's make a simple equation: 

(Trader Joe's Belgian Chocolate + Trader Joe's Crispy Cookies) ÷ 2 = 7.5 stars

Obviously, if you were calculating the score for a product with, say three constituent parts, you'd look up three different search terms and divide by 3 instead. And some types of products will lend themselves to this system more readily than others. I'm thinking it will be easiest and most accurate with snacks and desserts, simply because we often concentrate on those. Just look what happens when we step outside of our snacky comfort zone—when we try things like Sushi Sensations and Pad See Ew. Maybe less fatness, but also less happiness.

Now most of you who've been reading a while and know my sense of humor have probably figured out that I'm only semi-serious about this method of pre-calculating scores. Most of what I write on this blog is tongue-in-cheek. And of course, TJ's offers plenty of healthy-esque things that are tasty as well. But at least in this particular case, it's a system that would have worked quite well. We're seeing exactly what we've seen before in terms of crispy cookies: great crispy, crunchy texture, nice moderately sweet flavor, all in a classy presentation and practical packaging. I'm not sure if the Belgian chocolate is technically dark chocolate or milk chocolate in this case, but if it's milk chocolate, I'd say it's on the darker, richer end of the spectrum. Less sweet than a Hershey's bar, but more sweet than unsweetened cocoa powder. The rectangular shape lends a bit of class to the whole production, and at $2.79 per package, it's comparable to other less-sophisticated name brand cookies. 4 stars for these opulent oreo opposites from me, 3.5 stars from Sonia, who states that they're much better when dunked in coffee or hot chocolate.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Trader Joe's Sushi Sensations

Like those Snickers commercials allude to, when you're hungry, you're not yourself. Case in point: Mid-Sunday evening, the family and I standing in the brand-spankin' new McCandless Crossing Trader Joe's in Pittsburgh's North Hills. Nice store, grand opening weekend, it's kinda busy, we're getting the lay of the land, and all of us are h-u-n-g-r-y. All we want is an easy dinner, but we can't figure out what. M, our increasingly rambunctious two and a half year old, wants "nuggets and mac and cheese." Easy enough for her...but we eat that way too often to have that sound palatable for us. For whatever reason, I have a real hankering for onion rings, but they're nowhere to be found. Sandy's eying up the wraps, as am I, but they're pretty well picked over. We don't feel like pizza. We don't want to put much of any effort besides maybe roasting some veggies into dinner. Nothing frozen catches our eye. And the rumble in our tummies just grows and grows.

And then...

Listen, I have no idea what propelled me to even consider Trader Joe's Sushi Sensations. It's not that I'm against sushi. It's just that I've never heard anything good about Trader Joe's. Google "worst things to buy at Trader Joe's" and their sushi will almost always be mentioned. Years ago, in an article on The Daily Meal, I even said I never, ever wanted to try their sushi. Yet, here it was, in my hand, mulling it over....and even more amazingly, Sandy even said she'd eat some with me if we also got her a buffalo chicken wrap as a back-up. I've never seen her near sushi in the seven-plus years we've known each other. This was going to be an interesting night.

Well...there are some positives. I guess. In true amateur foodie-hack fashion, I'll admit, I'm neither a huge sushi fan nor anything close to an expert. But even I could tell this wasn't exactly top-notch fare. There's four types of sushi laid out for sampling here: Shrimp Nigiri, California, Spicy California, and Tempura Shrimp. There's also some dipping sauces: a slightly spicy "dynamo" (not to be confused with the juice), some sweet, some wasabi, and a packet of soy sauce, as well as a small bucket of crispy Panko bread crumbs. The nigiri were reasonably okay, though nothing special, as well as the shrimp tempura. Some common complaints regarding TJ's sushi is the quality and texture of the rice - there wasn't too much (if any) sliminess present, and the shrimp had a good firm texture and taste. Each paired well with the variety of the sauces (although we skipped both the plain soy and the wasabi) and the breadcrumbs also added a nice, little touch.

If those were the only rolls in there, we would have been reasonably fine with dinner and given a middling to solid score. But...the California rolls. Ugh. This is what California rolls are supposed to look like. These TJ impostors? Not close. Instead, the filling and the insides looked like some sort of cross between seafood salad and cat food - just a mishmash o' mush shoved inside some seaweed and rice. And I mean "mush." I didn't realize that the sticker with the nutrition label and ingredients was missing, and I can't find a picture of one online, but the filling tasted like all sorts of fake seafood-type junk smushed together. If there was a shred of authentic seafood in either one of those rolls, I;d be shocked. The "spicy" and regular had no discernible taste difference either. Sandy took one bite of one of them and nearly spit it right out for the texture being so offsetting. I'll admit that I was able to eat the rest...I must've been really, truly hungry and the sauces and breadcrumbs helped cover a lot.

For a couple deliriously hungry sushi novices like us, the Sushi Sensations platter made a somewhat passable dinner, but barely. This is what you get when you pay $6.49 for a large sushi plate - we should have figured and gone for something else. At least I can say that I've overcome my fears and tried it out, all to say you'll probably want to stay away. This is not going to be purchased again.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Sushi Sensations: 3 out of 10 Golden Spoons