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Friday, February 25, 2011

Trader Joe's Turkey "Meatloaf Muffins"

Let me explain something.

I love meatloaf. I think meatloaf belongs on the pantheon of great meats, joined by bacon, a good medium-rare steak, and buffalo chicken dip. If I go out to dinner at a diner, meatloaf is a given, a nearly sure-bet to satisfy. If the meatloaf there turns out to be bad, I have a hard time trusting any of their other food. I have been known to judge entire establishments based solely on their meatloaf. There's practically nothing more that I love than a homemade meatloaf dinner, and practically no sandwich I love more than a slab of meatloaf and a slice of American cheese on white bread. It's so simple and good. It should be a given that it's good. I would be a happy man if I could eat meatloaf every day for the rest of my life.

All that being said, I have never bought anything at TJ's that I was so apprehensive about purchasing and (even more so) consuming.

There were so many red flags going off in my brain about this. First off, they're called "meatloaf muffins," with the quotation marks clearly on the package. Listen, you can't put quotation marks around the word meatloaf - it's either meatloaf, or it isn't (though it could still be, technically, a loaf of meat). And then they're called muffins as well. The picture on the box led me to interpret that the mashed potatoes served a frosting-esque purpose, which, alliteration be damned, makes them a cupcake. Cupcakes have frosting; muffins are mere naked cupcakes. Look it up. Add to that the fact that the meatloaf is made out of ground turkey. I'm a fan of turkey burgers and all, but for some things, only some beef cuts it. Meatloaf is one of them. End of story.

Anyways, I finally worked up the courage to try these out Thursday night when Sandy was babysitting. She had no desire to even attempt one of these bad boys. I can't blame her, I was so skeptical myself. I told myself I was going to try to like them, that there had to be something good about them. It's Trader Joe's, it's meatloaf, how bad can it be? I wanted to like them, at least a little, so as to not cast a shadow over the Trader Joe name.

Oh man.

First, Trader Joe's takes the whole "muffin" concept a little too far. They come in a plastic muffin tray of sorts, and since they're frozen in, I had to get a knife to cut around the sides to get one of these meat cakes out. Secondly, their "preferred method" of preparation is two minutes on high in the microwave. Under no practically no circumstances should meatloaf be microwaved, let alone as a "preferred method" ... it just does something to it that I can't explain but it makes not nearly as good. I microwave it anyways, because if Trader Joe says this for the best, well, okay. Anyways, the microwave dings, I get my fork (even though muffins are supposed to be a hands-on food), and take a bite.

Again, oh man.

Usually, Trader Joe's does a great job of selecting products, but when they fail, they do so epically. Consider these the Titanic. These are so bland and tasteless. In fact, what I tasted the most was the spinach they squeezed between the meat and mashed potatoes. Of course, the spinach was limp, watery, and kinda gross by itself. The potatoes were definitely of the powdery box variety, kinda grainy, and barely hinted of the Parmesan flavor they were advertised as having. And the meatloaf ... I weep. It was just bad, completely devoid of any semblance of flavor. I tried a little chunk of it by itself, tasted nothing, but when I looked closer, I saw it was still pinkish. It wasn't even fully cooked. I know you can get away with that for steaks and burgers (in fact, it's encouraged) but to my knowledge, meatloaf is not something to be consumed in a semi-raw fashion. Honestly, the "meatloaf" (definitely use the quotation marks for this junk) reminds me of canned cat food, in semblance, presumable taste, and texture. Just awful. Put it all together in a four-bite sized morsel, and it's a dinner-time catastrophe. I'd almost rather have eaten Spam from a can, it's that bad.

I was going to eat another one, just to make sure they were gross (and if so, if hot sauce could salvage them), but my eyes slid over to the Nutrition Facts panel. Over 20% of my fat, cholesterol and sodium intake for my day in just one of these? I'm no prude when it comes to this stuff, but if I'm going to eat something that horrendous for me, it has got to be worth it. I settled for the timeless bachelor option of a bowl of cereal and a beer. Combine that info with their price tag ($6 for a box of four = $1.50 each), and let's just say I'm glad TJ's has a good return policy. I have nothing even slightly redeeming to say about these. At least TJ's has enough other really good stuff so I can't dismiss them completely as a company, but if this were my first ever purchase from them, I'd never go back.

In conclusion, to paraphrase the classic Meatloaf song, I would do anything for 'loaf,' but I won't do these. Ever again.

Bottom line: 0 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Trader Joe's Rice & Bean Chips

When talking about finances and stuff while undergoing some premarital counseling with a great couple from our church, Sandy and I realized that we wouldn't exactly be the richest kids on the block. I mean, we wouldn't exactly be just scraping by, but it was fairly apparent that we'd have to clip some coupons and look for some ways to save when we could, especially if we wanted to do some things we said we wanted to. One of the ways we figured we could save was on food costs, and it quickly became a joke between us that we'd have to eat a lot of beans and rice, or mac and cheese, and when we got sick of those we could have rice and beans or cheese and mac instead. It's a good thing we like them, we said.

Well, it's also a good thing we finally discovered the goodness of Trader Joe's. Shopping there saves us easily (at minimum) about $30 a week on average versus the big local chain even when we shopped the specials and stuff. Now, we still eat plenty of beans and rice (and for that matter, rice and beans) just because we really do like them, and we're usually looking for some ways to chomp them down in some different, tasty forms. So when we spotted these on our last go-around, we figured they'd be a likely winner and a worthy purchase.

A likely winner and a worthy purchase indeed.

Unlike a lot of actual rice and bean dishes which can be heavy and filling, these are pretty light, crispy, almost flaky chips. They're made primarily of rice flour which gives them a unique texture and taste - if you've ever had a rice crust pizza, think of that crust and a tortilla chip having a love child, and that's about what they are. TJ's mixes in some corn flour to make them a little more chip like. The package proudly claims that they're made with adzuki beans. I found a website that proclaims them as the "Mercedes of beans" ... that's kind of interesting, because the name conjures up an image to me of an semi-beat up Aerio plastered with bumper stickers, not the Benz I'll be rolling up in after the Lord buys it for me despite me not having any friends who drive Porsches. But they're good. They're the beans commonly used in red bean ice creams if you're familiar with those (I'm not), which I understand are semi-sweet and nutty. I got the sense of nuttiness from them but not really the sweetness, which is probably a good thing. Between the crispiness of the rice texture, the nuttiness of the beans, and the slightly salty spiciness of whatever they put on these guys, they made a great snack.

Which isn't to say they were perfect. One of the things I look for in a chip is how well they work with salsas and dips. These were really made to be eaten on their own. They're about one inch square so they're not conducive to any load bearing of much consequence in the salsa department. That doesn't mean I didn't try, and at least with the salsa we had on hand, the flavor of the chip kinda screwed with the salsa to make it an awkward mishmash of taste jousting on my tongue. Still, they're pretty good and flavorful as is, so no need to dress them up too much.

Sandy broke these out for a girls night she had this past weekend. With the ones I wolfed down before she booted me out down the street to help a friend drink his PBR, I'm surprised they survived until the next dawn, but was definitely glad they did. It's even more surprising given that Sandy voted them a fivespot in our Golden Spoon ranking. I'll chip in with a more modest 3.5 ... they're pretty good, but just not quite pantheon-level great. No shame in that.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Trader Joe's Heart Healthy Whole Grain Blueberry Instant Oatmeal

Certainly, there are several important things to consider when selecting a brand of oatmeal. "Sure, this one tastes good," you reason, "but does it have plant sterols?"

Well, you're really in luck because TJ's Heart Healthy Whole Grain Blueberry Instant Oatmeal tastes pretty good, and it has the flaxseed, inulin, and plant sterols you need to keep you going throughout the day.

And if you're one of those poor clueless saps that hasn't caught on to the plant sterol craze yet, just peruse the box for more hints as to what the heck they are...

Aha! Here it says they're plant sterol esters. Thank goodness. I was beginning to think they were plant sterol amides.

And then on the back, we finally note that a healthy dose of .65g of plant sterol esters per serving will reduce LDL-cholesterol and do other cool things to your body. No more searching high and low for those last six and a half tenths of a gram of plant sterol esters to round out your daily diet.

So, after securing your doctorate in biochemistry, with a solid background in botany, you can start to understand what's in this instant oatmeal and then progress toward more practical reading, such as the cooking directions, which are delightfully simple, written in layman's terms, and perfect for idiots like me.

It tastes earthy. Which is good, I guess. Must be the plant sterols. We wish it had more blueberries. All in all, not bad, though. Sonia gives it a 4. I give it a 3.5. Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Trader Ming's Szechuan Style Spicy Beef & Broccoli

When we lived in Hollyweird, California, there was this little hole-in-the-wall joint people referred to as "Dollar Chinese," because back in the day, you could get any entree for $1. Then they changed the name and management like 8 times in 5 years, and prices gradually rose above the $1 mark, and recently they went above $2 per item I think...but you could always get obscenely cheap Chinese food there. For a while it was "Hong Kong Express" and then it was "Shanghai Surprise" or something (Surprise! There's cat-meat in your eggroll!) and finally "Great Wall Express."

When it comes to cheap Chinese food, for some reason orange chicken is the only dish that people can routinely get right. The orange chicken at Dollar Chinese was indeed palatable. However, if you chose anything else, it was generally understood you were taking your life into your own hands. The next-safest entree was considered to be broccoli-beef. At Dollar Chinese, for me anyway, it was a little too daring...I only tried it once and learned my lesson fast.

At a place like Panda Express, they can make a decent broccoli-beef, but I still think their orange chicken will beat it every time.

All that to say, I haven't had many broccoli-beef dishes in my day, and the ones I have had probably weren't the greatest representations of the dish, but I must say that Trader Joe's Beef & Broccoli is most definitely the best I have had so far. The sauce was amazing, spicy, and tangy. (Sonia actually thought the sauce was a bit too tangy). There were plenty of big, healthy pieces of broccoli, and overall, I was pleased with the beef. There were just a few pieces that were way too big. These huge, monstrous beef chunks wound up slightly unevenly cooked. But I'm probably nit-picking again. In general, the beef was crispy and well-done. I don't recall the other broccoli-beef dishes I've tried containing breaded beef, but TJ's brand was covered in a sort of thin batter not unlike the coating on the orange-chicken. I liked it, though.

We served it with Trader Joe's Brown Rice, which is always good, by the way. Sonia gives the dish a 4.5 out of 5. I give it 4.5 out of 5, as well. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Trader Joe-San's Green Beans

There are some things that, when it comes down to it, I really don't quite get. For example:

- Justin Bieber's hair cut
- Why some comment trollers think it's a good use of time to argue about politics on every news article. I don't understand what the Westminster Dog Show has to do with what's going on in the Middle East. At the end of the day, you've accomplished what, exactly?
- The fact that Sandy grew up right outside of Pittsburgh and she doesn't care about the Steelers or Penguins one iota, I grew up just outside of Philadelphia and was raised (and still am) a die-hard Phillies fan, yet we're so excited for the Pirates' home opener we both took the day off from work to go.
- Why every Jack Johnson song sounds the same but is yet so good,
- Any math problem more complicated than "3x + 1 = 7."

And I guess I don't get these Trader Joe-San Green Beans either.

Don't make the mistake of thinking these are some sort of fresh vegetable product. The fact they're in the snack aisle should be a pretty good clue that they aren't. They certainly resemble green beans in appearance (except they're lightly dusted with some indiscernible junk), and they taste a fair amount like a green bean (again, except for whatever they coat these guys with, it's not salt). But the end product just isn't so good. Take a good hearty crunch to taste for yourself.

I'm not too texture-adverse when it comes to most foods, but these kinda weird me out. The only kind of parallel I can think of is, imagine sitting down, getting to ready to eat something that resembles a delectable-looking ribeye, only when you take a bite it tastes like steak but is made of Jello. They're that disorienting for me. Green beans are supposed to be firm yet a little soft, a little juicy, fleshy, and just good. They certainly aren't supposed to mummified, crispy shells of themselves like these are. To get them this way, apparently they get fried up in canola oil ... I don't really get how it works. Some of them seem to be fried up a little differently than others, so when you bite down, they can seem a little sandy or quartzy on the inside, which is not good at all. Others seem to not be fried as much, so the insides seem lighter and crisper, which make them semi-passable. But overall, they're inconsistent and discombobulating to my palate, and really don't seem to be a viable snack option on a regular basis to me.

Sandy doesn't like them all that much either, though the texture thing doesn't seem to bother her as much, which if you know her, that's an amazing statement to make. It's more the taste that gets to her - "I've had better," she said. "I don't know how to say it, except the other ones had more flavor." I'm presuming that means some saltiness to them, which these pretty much lack. I really can't figure out what the semi-greasy semi-dusty coating they put is supposed to add to the flavor. Anyways, Sandy gives them a two, and she has a little more faith in them than I do, because I can't justify giving them more than a one. I'd be surprised if we pick them up again.

Bottom line: 3 out of 10

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Long Awaited WGATJ's Reader Contest!

Hello fellow Trader Joe's aficionados,

It's been a great week here for the blog, started off by our nice little write-up by the good folks at The Daily Meal, which has been picked up by other blogosphere outlets like Oregon Live. So, we figure it's time to give a little somethin' somethin' back to you all, who help make such a thing possible. So without further ado, we are proud to announce:

The WGATJ's first ever reader contest! (please, hold your applause 'til the end)

The prize: $10 Trader Joe's gift card to tickle your taste buds and bring peace to your soul. Or least a full belly.

The rules: Okay, this is virgin territory for us, so we're going to keep them simple:

1. Like our Facebook page, follow our Twitter account, or just follow us on the Blogger page, and you get an entry. So chances are, you already have a chance.

2. Comment on or like one of our reviews via Facebook ... another entry. Same thing for the blog main page if you leave a comment there.

3. Put up our link about us/tag us on Facebook or Twitter gets you another entry. If you have a blog, put our link up there. Drop me (Russ) a message with "Reader Contest" in the subject line when you do just to make sure we see it. Each time you do, another entry.

4. Make me homemade cookies using only Trader Joe's products: 10,000 entries.*

5. Finally, no way to really quantify this, but if you know any other TJ's fans who would like our blog, invite them to follow us through whatever means. This will help make more contests like this possible in the future.

This contest will run for the next two weeks, up through Saturday, March 5th. We don't quite have the budget to resurrect Ed McMahon to drive up with a huge check for you, but once we pull the winner's name, we'll announce it and follow up with you to mail it out to you.

Sound good? Alright then ... ready, set, GO!!

*Not an actual contest rule, though if you made me cookies, that'd be pretty cool

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Trader Joe's Spicy Chai Latte

I've never done Tai Chi, but I've had my share of Chai Tea.

I'm aware that joke isn't original. I can't remember where I heard it or who said it, but I'm pretty sure I'm just copying someone else. Nonetheless, it shall stand as the opening line of this blog entry. Thanks for not calling me out on my unoriginality.

As I was saying, I have had plenty of Chai Tea in my time. In general, I really like it. Trader Joe's brand is no exception. In fact, for the cost of one Starbucks Chai Tea Latte, I can have about 10 or 12 from TJ's, and I like the taste at least as well. There aren't any weird colors or preservatives, and it comes with a convenient little measuring scoop that can be used with other products long after your TJ's latte is gone. It's like a happy little souvenir of your trip to Chai-land.

It's slightly spicy, slightly sweet. I could stand it just a tad sweeter (but I probably shouldn't have it that way...there's diabetes on both sides of my family). I really do like it just the way it is. Sonia likes it even more than I do. It's everything a good chai should be. $3 a can. Serve it chilled for an iced chai latte.

Rock on, Trader Joe. Yet another winner. 4.5 stars from Sonia, 4 stars from me. Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Trader Joe's Trader Potato Tots

Xerox. Kleenex. Scotch Tape. These are all pretty commonly known, pretty commonly used terms we use that are actually trademarked brand names. Like, somebody asks you for a Kleenex, and you know to pass them a tissue, whether it's that brand name or not.

But tater tots?

Excuse me, I mean Tater Tots™.

Yes, Ore-Ida actually trademarked the term Tater Tots™ to refer to those little, crispy, semi-greasy, hot, salty, irresistible cylindrical logs of tasty, potatoey goodness known by any good red-white-and-blue-blooded kid ever subjected to cafeteria food in the past fifty years. And to most adults, too. I have yet to find anyone who doesn't like a good, heaping serving of tots, and if I were to find someone, I'd assume they either grew up in a cave on the moon or were a Cyborg. Most likely, both.

Anyways, that trademarking thing is a little unfair sometimes, I think. For instance, Trader Joe's wants to make Tater Tots™, and can't call them that for legal reasons, although they are universally colloquially known as such in the parlance of our times. So they have to come up with another name and the best they can do is "Trader Potato Tots." Yeah, try saying that five times fast (it's even tougher with your mouth full of them). So many things wrong with that name. I mean, what else would you make a tot out of that would lead you to specify it was made from a potato? I've never heard of a broccoli tot or kumquat tot or carrot tot or anything like that. I'm fine with "tater tot" because it's natural and easy to say; "potato tot" is not. And do I want to know what a "trader potato" is? For some reason that conjures up the image of a potato made out of tofu to me, which I don't think is possible (and may be more technically a "traitor potato"), which just isn't right. Don't mess with the goodness of a potato, especially in one of its finest incarnations as a tot. The best alternative for a name I can think of is Trader Tots, though I'm a pharmacy technician and not a trademark lawyer, so I don't know if that's consider too closely named to Tater Tots™.

Anyways, forget all that and let's start chomping. And chomping. And (I wish) more chomping. Needless to say, Sandy and I love these. We usually bake them up (if we had a deep fryer, we'd deep fry everything, even bacon) and plow them down as soon as they're cool enough to bite on down. They seem pretty much unsalted, so sometimes we sprinkle some on, or douse them with a little hot sauce. Sometimes, we just grab them by the handful and mash them on down the trachea. That's usually the nights we make them after going to the gym. The only thing semi-negative thing about them is, Sandy and I have been trying to watch what we eat, and we figure portion control is a good thing, so we try to eat only one serving of whatever we eat. According to the nutrition label, one serving of these guys is only ten tots! Find me anyone, other than my wife and a crotchety, stingy blue-haired cafeteria lady, who thinks eating only ten tots is a good idea. Impossible. If Trader Joe said I could eat more on the label, then I would be allowed. Sigh. On the plus side, you get a two pound bag for only about $2, which at our consumption rate makes them last a while, though certainly not by my choice.

I'm not describing much about what they taste like, because imagine an ideal, good, tasty tot, and yup, that what these taste like. Tots are a classic taste that's so comforting, so good, and honestly, so hard to mess up. Kinda like meatloaf in that regard, though I've had bad meatloaf (never yours, Mom or Megan), and have never ever had a bad tot. So our ranking reflects more of our general feeling towards tater tots .... which is total love. Five from the Mrs and you can take five from me ... uh, Sandy, I'm talking about Golden Spoons, you cannot take half of my allotted tots, you give those back right now! Sandy!!!!!

Bottom line: 10 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, February 14, 2011

Trader Joe's Old-Fashioned Donut O's

I don't know if donut holes came in molded plastic containers like this one back in the olden days, but the ingredients list for these little guys is certainly a throwback to the days that pre-date hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and other deadly garbage...there are a few strange chemical type words farther down on the list, but the main ingredients are all simple things I recognize.

In fact, the main sweetening ingredient is grape juice. It's an interesting choice for a pastry, but it works. I was a bit wary at first because of the grape juice, and because the front of the package declares that the batter is made from sour cream. Again, an enigmatic choice for a donut hole ingredient.

When I first looked at these donut o's, all covered in powdered sugar, I thought they resembled Munchkins from Dunkin Donuts. So my habit-driven brain primed my tongue for the sweet, familiar taste of a Munchkin. Initially, I was disappointed.

But after walking away from the donut o's for an hour or two, I realized that what I had tasted was something both classically delicious and brand new. Trader Joe's made no attempt to copy the taste of Dunkin Donuts or Entenmann's or Krispy Kreme. They aimed for sophisticated palates and created something inspired by the bakeries of yore. They made a simple, subtle dessert delicacy, the likes of which I have seldom had the opportunity to enjoy.

I went back for more, and so did Sonia. We polished off the box in a little over a day. If you're wondering, they do NOT taste like sour cream, or grape juice, or any common donut. They have a unique flavor that's difficult to describe, and an incredible texture that would rival many fresh-baked pastries. They're relatively low calorie and low fat.

If you really want a sugary-sweet, lard-laden donut, go to Dunkin. If you want to try something different, definitely check these out. Sonia rates them a 4.5 out of 5. I agree. 

Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Kettle Brewed Green & White Tea

Imagine you're in a bonny wood listening to a sappy balladeer named Green Tea play a bad folk song on an out-of-tune guitar. Then in the middle of his song, a lithe male acrobat in a spandex onesie, White Tea, springs into action, doing gymnastics in front of the musician. And finally, amidst the music and the acrobatics, imagine an angry, minty leprechaun running out from behind a nearby tree, heading straight for you, jumping way up in the air and kicking you in the teeth.

Drinking this beverage is a similar experience, except not as bold...well, the mint part is that bold, but nothing else.

It needs some sugar. Or honey. Or Stevia. Or even corn syrup, but for heaven's sake, TJ's, don't leave it the way it is, please.

I can drink some other green teas without sweetener. But this product doesn't really have a green tea's just that minty aftertaste that lingers like the hurt from a bloody lip.

Sonia generously gave it a 3 out of 5. I'm not sure why. When I asked her if she would ever buy it again, she quickly replied "NO!"

I give it a 2. Bottom line: 5 out of 10.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Trader Joe's Organic Lowfat Yogurt

So we tried Trader Joe's Organic Lowfat Vanilla Yogurt the other day. It was very natural tasting. It tasted like it was straight off the farm. And really, we're not used to that taste. We're used to super-processed yogurts with fake ingredients, preservatives, and added colors. The au naturale version tasted a bit funky to be honest with you. We looked at the "use by" date just to make sure. We still had a week or so until it expired.

I think if we were totally accustomed to that completely natural taste, this would have been absolutely amazing yogurt. It's certainly not bad. It just might take some getting used to for those of us who are in the process of trying to break a lifetime of bad eating habits.

Then later we tried the strawberry version of Trader Joe's Organic Lowfat Yogurt. Same thing. Very natural. Not only the taste this time, but the overall look of the yogurt seemed very peculiar to us. It was fruit on the bottom style yogurt. Except now, instead of a vibrant crimson emerging from the bottom of the cup, a dull, sort of muted red-brown color came up. Well, after doing some research, I became increasingly thankful that the color we stirred up from the bottom was not that familiar brilliant red...

Did you know that most leading yogurt brands use an ingredient called "carmine" to color most flavors of their yogurt? Did you further know that carmine is made from bugs? That's right. There are bugs in your yogurt. I'm not a big fan of bugs in general, and I'm really really not a fan of eating them. I know there are FDA regulations that allow for X number of spiders per cereal box and all that, but to intentionally color a product with bugs seems downright disgusting to me. It's enough to keep me from buying all those fancy yogurt flavors now. I think TJ's should change the name of their yogurt line to "Trader Joe's Organic Bug-Free Lowfat Yogurt." Their slogan could be this: The protein comes from the farm fresh milk, not from thousands of little red beetles.

Yogurt was never vegan-friendly, and now we know that it really isn't even a vegetarian food, as tiny red insects count as animals, right? That's enough to make you switch brands. One more reason to get more stuff from TJ's.

So, to summarize, the yogurt is bug-free and natural-tasting, but it's not the flavor-extravaganza we're used to...Sonia gives 3's to both of them. I give them 3.5's.

Trader Joe's Organic Lowfat Yogurt (Vanilla). Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Organic Lowfat Yogurt (Strawberry). Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Trader Joe's Chile Lime Chicken Burgers

Not sure where the inspiration for these chicken burgers came's not like this is a classic meal anywhere that I know of. It's an interesting idea. We know the chile lime formula works well with nuts, corn on the cob, mango, cucumbers, and even some soups. But does it work with, of all things, a chicken burger?

Well, I'd say it works marginally well. I must admit we didn't go to any great lengths to fix these burgers properly. No guacamole like you see on the box. We didn't really even have hamburger buns. We just used some gluten-free brown rice bread we had in the fridge...which you can get at Trader Joe's, by the way. We did try them first without the fixins, but in the end I think we topped them with ketchup and mustard.

At $3.49 for 4 patties, it's not a bad value. But the flavor left a bit to be desired. You could taste a little chicken type flavor, but the chile and lime kind of failed to come through. And that, unfortunately, was the primary reason we wanted to try these exotic-sounding burger substitutes. There's definitely a hint of lime, but the chile was extremely subtle...a little too subtle for both of our tastes. Now, if you were to add some chile and lime of your own, you might get a more pleasing result. But that kind of defeats the purpose of buying chicken burgers that are supposed to be chile-lime to begin with. There's very little spiciness, and not much tang, either.

If you're looking for a reasonably priced chicken burger, these might be a viable option for you, but just don't expect much from the "chile lime" part of the product. Sonia gives Trader Joe's Chile Lime Chicken Burgers 3.5 out of 5 stars, and I give them the same score.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Trader Ming's General Tsao Stir Fry Sauce

There are nights, usually Fridays but not always, when Sandy and I simply look at each other because we're so hungry and feel like making next to no effort to get dinner made. For these times, there are four main options: a) popcorn b) freezer pizza c) pizza from the neighborhood shop, Eddie's Pizza Haus or d) China Lin delivery. A lot of those times, we choose China Lin. Popcorn isn't much of a dinner, we'd have to run out of the house for either pizza choice, and Chinese food is just good. I just love the idea of being able to make a phone call and have whatever kind of food delivered right to your door. It's not quite the food replicators from Star Trek, but, you know, it's about as close as we can get. It's always kinda awkward ordering from there, from having to repeat your order a couple times over the yelling lady taking it, to it being delivered half of the time by a ten year old kid. I'm always amazed that they always have it to us within twenty minutes, even though it takes half an hour to get to our place from anywhere because of all the stop signs in the neighborhood (if you're familiar with Morningside, you know exactly what I mean). Anyways, I almost always without fail order the General Tso's Chicken, just because it's so darn good. I've had one or two other things from there, and they seem a little sketchy, but the General Tso's always delivers.

Anyways, my sister got Sandy and I a Trader Joe's cookbook for Christmas this past year, and as we skimmed through it one night, we saw a recipe for General Tsao's Chicken Lettuce Wraps. Until this point, we were somehow completely ignorant of the fact that Trader Joe's Asian accomplice Trader Ming had some of the General's stir fry sauce, because I know we would have picked it up before if we were aware of its existence. This immediately became a must-buy for the next trip.

I tell you what: we had high hopes for it, and it did not disappoint one bit. The sauce itself is a good, rich, goopy concoction (think barbecue sauce for its composure) that had every bit of flavor that I have come to love and know from General Tso chicken. It starts with the sweet and tangy but a good level of spiciness kicks in to give it a good, full bodied taste. The one aspect of flavor that really stood out to me was a combination of garlic and red pepper that gave off a lot of heat and flavor without overpowering the rest. Fantastic stuff. We mixed it in with some chicken I pan-fried up then shredded, wrapped in some lettuce leaves, and served with rice. It was so good Sandy and I started pouring and mixing in with our rice, and before we knew it, we kicked the whole bottle. It was so good I couldn't help but scrape out what I could with my finger just to savor the flavor a little bit longer.

On our subsequent shopping visit, Sandy just picked it up and put it in the cart when I was probably sneaking as many free samples at the sample counter as I could, and didn't even know we got it until I began putting stuff away at home. As soon as I saw it grasped in my hand, my first thought was "Good call, wifey." Sure, it takes a little bit more effort to make something than to just call someone help to bring it right to you, but for the $3 (or cheaper) for the sauce that's right on par with the best that delivery can offer, it's worth it to spend the twenty minutes over a stove instead of stalking old high school friends on Facebook while waiting for Short Round to knock on your door. Because of this great discovery, I'd imagine we'll be ordering out less for Chinese food, especially since two dinners plus tip easily runs at least $20 if not more. Trader Ming, thank you for bringing this into our lives.

Sandy rates this stuff a strong and vibrant five. Her only complaint, as with anything truly good, was there wasn't more. I rate it almost as high, but can't quite give it a five for two reasons. First, I'm going to miss the free Tupperware that comes with delivery. Second, I've always seen it spelled as General Tso, this stuff is spelled as General Tsao, so I'm a little confused as to which one is actually correct (or if either one is, or if they both are ... I get confused easily). But I think despite these slight misgivings, I will enjoy it immensely, and I'm already looking to our next knockoff Chinese feast, so a four and a half rings true to me.

Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Trader Joe's Pear Cinnamon Cider

"If it's clear and yella, you've got juice there, fella. If it's tangy and brown, you're in Cider Town."

A bit of Ned Flanders wisdom there...tangy and brown indeed. But this isn't apple cider. This is pear cider. Pear Cinnamon Cider to be exact. Tasty.

Now, I've always been a fan of cider. And I'm also a big advocate of the pear. It is, in my humble opinion, the most underrated fruit in the whole pantheon of sweet natural foods. I've got no problem with apples. It's just that I think they've had their day in the sun. Now it's pear's turn to shine. And this cider is a great place to start.

If you look at the ingredients on a lot of those 100% juice drinks that Dole and Ocean Spray and some of those other folks put out, especially the non-citrus flavors, you'll notice that quite often pear juice is one of the main ingredients, even if it's not one of the fruits mentioned in the title of the beverage. That's because it's naturally sweet. They don't need to use sugar or corn syrup if they use pear juice. Those juice brands unjustly deny the pear its due recognition, and instead attribute the flavor of the beverage to more popular fruits.

I've tried heating this, and it's not bad as a hot cider. But I think it's best when chilled. It has a really nice balance between the pear's sweetness and the cinnamon's spiciness. It's just a really refreshing drink. But it does have that sort of Autumnal vibe going on. Definitely want to have this again in 8 months when the leaves are just starting to turn colors.

Before I tried this, I had an idea in my head of what the perfect cold cider should taste like. Up to this point, all of the ciders I've tried throughout my life have been mere reflections - or shadows, if you will - of this: the ultimate cider. No other cider developer has come this close because most have striven to perfect a cider that comes from an apple. This beverage proves that cider was meant to come from a pear.

Sonia doesn't even like cider generally, but she really liked this. She gives it a 4. As a cider-lover, I say it's as close to cider perfection as you're gonna come this side of eternity. I give it a 5. Bottom line: 9 out of 10.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Trader Joe's Baked Jalapeño Cheese Crunchies

So, this morning, for the first time since getting them from the Pennfield Middle School vending machine in roughly seventh grade, I ate an Andy Capps Hot Fry. One of my coworkers inexplicably bought a bag of them somewhere and was eating them for breakfast. It wasn't even 8 a.m. yet. I saw this, recalled not really liking them that much even in my more pimply faced days, and was just intrigued enough by the sight of my otherwise normal, relatively sane coworker munching down on them. This wasn't the first time I've seen people eating this type of stuff for breakfast. Six or seven summers ago, I came to Pittsburgh to work for the summer at an innercity youth day camp, and there was a sizable contingent of kids who would ignore the breakfast made for them and instead plow through small, quarter-priced bags of Flamin' Hot Cheetos. Anyways, I hate those, and when I crunched down on that Andy Capps Hot Fry, I was pretty glad to have some boss-bought chocolate chip cookies on hand to get that taste out.

And right around then, I remembered why I like TJ's Baked Jalapeño Cheese Crunchies so much.

Don't get me wrong, I love hot, spicy stuff. Ask any survivors of my death chili, they can attest to that. But too often, when attempted to be formulated into crunchy snack form, as in the case of the Capp fries and Flamin' Cheetos, the results are not so good. Instead of actual heat, they're just overly salted with red junk, or even worse, blasted with vinegary crap. I can pass up that stuff any time and not feel anything amiss in my life.

TJ's crunchy guys get the job done, and they do it right. The smallish jalapeño bits add just enough heat to be noticeable without trying to assault the tastebuds. Definitely some bits are more blasted with the green goodies than others, but it's balanced enough. I'd say they'd be agreeable to most palates heatwise, which I think is one of the major strengths of them. It's easy to be too spicy or not spicy enough, and alienate an audience either way. It's much tougher to try and strike the right balance, and Trader Joe does just that in this instance. As far as other flavor goes, it seems they opt to feature the jalapeño more than whatever type of cheese is on there, so if you're expecting a Cheeto clone in this regard, well, you may be disappointed. But in pretty much every other way, they're very Cheeto-like in appearance and crunch, which makes it pretty easy to gobble down more than intended. As a plus, there's no fake orangey dusty residue to scrub off or get all over your paperwork later. They're just a good, honest, crunchy, semi-hot snack.

Both Sandy and I like these quite a bit, and get them fairly often. With them being baked, they are a decent alternative healthwise to chips while still being a little naughty ... so yeah, they're a winner in these parts. Anything that tastes good and can make a claim to be healthyish (or at least "healthier" than an alternative) without sacrificing taste and goodness is something we'll continually deem worthy of our grocery dollars. That's how we roll.

When I asked Sandy for her rating, she simply said "Mmmmmm .... four." That seems a pretty worthy rating. If the cheese flavor was a little stronger, it'd be enough to bump the rating up another notch or two, but they're good enough as is to not quibble too much.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Trader Joe's Chicken Tikka Masala

Loved it!!!

How about calling this Trader Jograj's Chicken Tikka Masala? It tastes just as authentic as the food from the best Indian restaurants I've been to. And that's saying a lot. I really like Indian food, and there are some killer Indian restaurants back in L.A., so my standard was set pretty high.

TJ's really went above and beyond with this dish. Everything down to the Basmati rice was phenomenal. The texture of the chicken is excellent, there's a good amount of sauce, and the real kicker is that they got the flavor right. The Indian spices that give Chicken Tikka Masala that unique taste were all present in the proper amounts and proportions. There might be some Indian restaurants in this country that can do slightly better with fresh ingredients and a hefty price tag, but if you're looking for better frozen, microwaveable Indian food than this, I think you're searching in vain.

Our side dish was Trader Joe's Channa Masala. This item is a noble effort on TJ's part, indeed, but I'm not quite as impressed with it as I was with the chicken. There's plenty of tasty masala sauce, and the chick peas are plentiful (or "Garbanzo beans," if you prefer), but they were a little too hard. They tasted fine, but they were just a bit stiff. I know I'm being pretty picky. It's a pretty tall order to ask for microwaveable Indian food that's on par with a gourmet restaurant. I think TJ's did the impossible with the Chicken Tikka Masala, and they came darn close with the Channa.

Trader Joe's Whole Wheat Tandoori Naan bread is in the same league as the masala dishes. It's almost too good to be true. Some huge Indian food connoisseurs might tell you the naan is better at their favorite 5 star Indian eatery, but again, we're talking about a grocery store product that's a fraction of the price that can be heated in the oven or microwave. I really can't complain. It's whole wheat, so it's good for you. It's a bit thicker than the naan I'm used to from Indian restaurants. I wouldn't say that's a weakness for it, though. It might not be identical to the most authentic naan's, but it's puffy and thick, and that gives it a heartier quality.

All in all, I'd say if you love Indian food, you'll love Trader Joe's, er, Trader Jograj's offerings. I highly recommend them...even if you're not familiar with Indian food, TJ's might be a good place to try out different dishes without making the same monetary investment you would at a fancy restaurant.

Trader Joe's Chicken Tikka Masala gets a 5 out of 5 from me. Sonia gives it a 4.5. Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Channa Masala, the Garbanzo bean dish, gets a 4 from me. 4 from Sonia. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Trader Joe's Whole Wheat Tandoori Naan gets a 4.5 from me and a 5 from Sonia. Bottom line: 9.5 out of 10.

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