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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Trader Joe's Choczilla Nut Pie

For a couple alleged grown-ups, my sister and I have a little too much of a weird things going with tyrannosaurus rex*. Every time we see each other, she and I engage in what we call a "t-rex hug" by stomping up to each other while snorting while holding up our arms short - umm, we even did that right in the middle of my wedding reception...yeah, I'm glad Sandy laughed that off. My sis and I routinely trade pics like this one or this one, and I was beyond ecstatic when she gave me this shirt for a Christmas present. Don't ask me why, but I love stuff like that (I think of it as an alternate icanhascheezburger-type thing) and by extension love the old Godzilla movies (even though they're now the reason why I hate ketchup, but that's a tale for another day). Comparison graphics like this one make me actually even more excited for the arrival of Lil' Russandro/a in late June.

So, yeah, needless to say, want me to buy something? Put a t-rex (or something close) on it. Add in the fact it's mid-evening on a Sunday, you're flying solo and have to find a dessert for an evening family meal, the shelves are depleted and your pregnant wife is demanding something chocolatey but not cheesecake-y, and there's something on the fresh baked goods shelf with a "Choczilla" on it, and even for a kinda steep $6.99, you got a deal.

Except, for something called a Trader Joe's Choczilla Nut Pie, it severely lacks enough of both chocolate and nut to stave off some disappointment. Basically, it's just a regular ol' pecan pie with dark and white chocolate stripes across the top and a small smattering of milk chocolate chips down below. Don't get wrong, it's good, but it's not even close to my Aunt Brenda's homemade pecan pie, the best in the world, against which whether fairly or not I judge all pecan pies. Hers is heavy and literally full of pecans. This? There's a thin layer at the top but mostly it's the mushy underbelly. That kinda helps the pie taste a little bit richer and perhaps a little more chocolately than it actually is. The crust is typical store brand fare, which I'm impartial on. And ohbytheway, don't bother squinting to make out the nutritional info. It's atrocious.

A better name for this would have been something like a "pecan pie with some chocolate" and if a reptilian mascot was really needed, use a gecko (they can shill more than just car insurance) or a snake or something. I'm really not sure what that'd have to do with pecans (maybe a mild chipmunk would be better), but I digress. My whole thing is, the name "Choczilla Nut Pie" conjures up an image of a thoroughly nutty, chocolately pie that this is clearly not, and honestly, although it's tasty, I'm pretty disappointed. It's definitely better than some types of chocolate pies out there, but overall the pie just lacks too much.

Sandy's in full agreement with me. "It could more of either and it'd be so much better. It's kinda weak as is, but still tasty," she said. I concur. If this were my creation, it'd be a full out chocolate pie with every kind of imaginable nut jammed in, and not just a slightly dressed up average-at-best pecan pie. I doubt this will be a repeat purchase for us, and based on that fact, I'll go a bt lower than the three Sandy granted it and go with a 2.5. Kinda like the arms of a t-rex, this definitely falls quite a bit short.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Choczilla Nut Pie: 5.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
*Apparently "tyrannosaurus rex" is both singular and plural. Who makes these rules? Jeez. That just looks wrong but so does "tyrannosaurus rexes" or "tyrannosauri regis" or anything like that.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Trader Joe's Sparkling Blueberry Juice

I loooove me some sweet beverages. I don't care what kind: sodas, juices, energy drinks, milkshakes, nectars, smoothies, frappuccinos, mixed drinks, dessert wines, chocolate milk, or eggnog. I probably drink more calories than I eat. And I'm proud of it. Maybe it's because I'm lazy. The whole act of chewing seems so tedious sometimes.

Why eat a bag of blueberries when you can drink one? TJ's Sparkling Blueberry Juice has got the same great blueberry taste and involves less masticating... No masticating at all as a matter of fact.

In another review of this product that I happened to stumble upon, the taste-tester said this product was "a bit strong." I totally disagree with that statement. Considering that the natural flavor of blueberries is at least a bit strong, I think the flavor of this product is actually a little on the mild side. Not bad. Just a bit mild. The deep, dark color of the beverage is a little misleading if you ask me. Anything with the word "blueberry" on the label should have a big, bold taste. Other than that it, tastes like real, natural blueberries. It's like blueberry juice mixed with some lightly carbonated water.

I also think this product could stand a bit more bubbliness. Carbonation is wonderful. It adds texture to a liquid. Think about it. Foods can have hundreds of different textures, but liquids are either thick or thin -- and they might occasionally have pulp or something -- but carbonation kind of adds texture and body to something that's generally pretty simple. Anyway, that's basically my only complaint. The mild flavor thing isn't really a complaint. Just more of an observation.

Anyhoo, I give it a 3.5 out of 5. I thought about giving it a 4, because it's a great subtitute for champagne (not that it actually tastes anything like champagne), and kind of has that Martinelli's sparkling, non-alcoholicky, fruity vibe. But I've given out a lot of 4's lately. Can't give everything a 4. If it were just a hair stronger or a tad more carbonated, it might have gotten a 4 from me.

Sonia gives it a 4. Her only complaint is that she wishes there were more. At $2.75 a bottle, TJ's could throw us a bone give us more than like 4 glasses-worth.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10 stars.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Trader Joe's Spanakopita

You know, I was planning to start this off by going off on some tangent about Greek food festivals here in and around the 'burgh (there's one pretty much every week in the spring and summer, which is awesome) but then I looked up what the word "spanakopita" means in Greek. I'm so disappointed. There's a part of me that gets excited when I find out that a food name like "burrito" can be translated as "little donkey" or, my favorite, that "gordita" can be taken as "fat little girl." Now I know that Greece has a rich tradition of mythology and also I've watched enough Popeye cartoons to know what spinach can do for a guy, so, really, I was hopeful. I figured it meant something like "Zeus vitamins" or "favored munchie of Apollo." Heck, I'd even settle for "Minotaur vegetarian option." But no, it means nothing like that . Spanáki (spinach) + pítta (pie) = spanakopita (spinach pie). While being straightforward, it's also pretty lame. Eh well. Regardless of its pitiful nomenclature, spanakopita is one pretty tasty treat that Sandy and I routinely enjoy at the aforementioned Greek food fests so when we saw that Trader Joe's offered a box that just might get us through the lean winter months, we figured it was worth a shot.

Well, it's nothing like your yiayia's homemade batch, but for what it is, Trader Joe's Spanakopita is decent enough. $3.99 gets you a box of a dozen good-sized triangles that bake up in the oven. Whoever invented the idea of phyllo is a genius. Though so inefficient as dough needing layers upon layers, the phyllo on those bake and brown up real nice, keeping crispy in spots it needs to be crispy, and a little mushily saturated when it comes in contact with the spinach filling. The spinich filling works alright, too. It's strangely reminiscent of my mom's homemade spinach soufflé (which, believe it or not, was a favorite dish of mine growing up) as there's a lot of chopped up spinach with some feta and ricotta (more ricotta than feta, which is a minus) with a pinch of onion and whatever Greek spices. It seems like there's an appropriate amount per wedge, too, so all in all, they're pretty decent for the bake-from-a-box variety.

That's not to say they'll be joining our pantheon, though. First, there's the relative abundance of ricotta versus the pittance of feta. I know you want to keep it cheap, Trader Joe, but c'mon now. There's only enough feta in there for it to be tasted but not really experienced, at least in our box. Secondly, the box. Look at the picture. It's so lame. Put some gods or cyclops or at least Socrates on there, for goodness sake. Also it refers to the dough as "fillo." I've seen "phyllo" (my preferred spelling) and "filo" but never "fillo." It's not the first time that TJ's makes a goofy error like that on a box, but combine that with the generic design and lack of feta, I can't help but think this is some cheapie knockoff frozen brand in TJ's clothing. Kind of like the Trojan Horse, I guess. One last gripe: the spinach filling kinda spewed partially out halfway thru the baking time, causing this burnt mess I had to scrunge off our baking sheet, which I hate doing. As a word of advice, put some tin foil under these suckers. You'll thank me.

It's time for the Golden Spoons...hopefully we won't *fleece* them...sorry. Sandy seems to like them well enough, but I was a little perplexed when she went with a four for them. "They're not as good as the real thing, but they're pretty good anyways," she said. Hmm. Apparently, they're also not as good as reheated leftover pizza crust to her either, as she opted for those over her third spinachy bite during our pizza and spanakopita lunch the other day. Not like I'm complaining for picking up her slack, but let's just say these don't exactly get my Zorbas dancing either. I'll counter with a 3.5.

Bottom line: 7.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Monday, January 23, 2012

Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Filled Cupcakes

After our last review, Sonia and I were feeling a bit gluten-deficient, so we ran out and picked up some cupcakes. Not gluten-free cupcakes. Regular old glutenful cupcakes.

Now, I was super hungry when I tried these for the first time. It was the day after we got them home from TJ's. The cupcakes were moist, rich, and delectastic. (Does that fictitious adjective work for you? I have mixed feelings about it. It's supposed to be a contraction of "delectable" and "fantastic," but it kind of loses some of its potency when I have to explain that. But probably most of you would have gotten it anyway...I think. But anyway, I digress). Yes, delectastic. And I'm not really the hugest fan of dark chocolate. I know dark chocolate is tres chic right now. Everybody loves chocolate, and dark chocolate is supposed to be better for you than milk chocolate because there's less sugar and more cocoa bean and more antioxidants and more magical unicorn juice and all that nonsense. But I'm actually a fan of white chocolate because there's more sugar and less good for you stuff—and perhaps one of the best desserts I've ever had was a white chocolate peanut butter cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory, which is one of the most unhealthy restaurants in existence. If you actually look at the nutrition information for what you're eating, you'll probably never go there again. But anyway, I digress again—for the second time in one paragraph. Maybe it's time for a new paragraph.

Ahem. My point was that I like sweeter chocolates better. But in this case, the dark chocolate was both rich and sweet. Sweet enough for me. It blended with the peanut butter beautifully. One of the best cupcakes in recent memory. And I've had some pretty tasty cupcakes in my day. Crumbs and Frosted Cupcakery come to mind. There are those who will tell you that Sprinkles is of the same caliber as those guys, but I'm not one of them. Nor is Sonia. I'm also hoping to check out cupcakes from the legendary Magnolia Bakery in Manhattan on our next trip to NYC. And for you gluten-free people who've made it this far into what has become a highly gluten-laden article, please please please check out Sweet Freedom Bakery in Center City Philadelphia next time you're there. Amazing. In fact, if you're kosher Jewish, vegan, or allergic to wheat, soy, corn, peanuts, eggs, and/or sugar, you can still check out their products. Seriously. I'm not sure what is in their stuff, but it's none of that stuff.

Definitely not the case with these TJ's cupcakes. In fact, I think I just named the entire ingredients list of these cupcakes in that big sentence near the end of the previous paragraph. But on with the review. I ate two cupcakes the first time I tried them. They were great. The following day, Sonia insisted that I have a third while she ate the final one. I didn't put up too much of a fight, even though my tummy was protesting because of the first two cupcakes. (I am gluten-sensitive, but not really gluten-intolerant). This third cupcake was definitely not as good as the first two. It might be partly because I wasn't as hungry, but I think a big part of it was that the cupcakes were actually beginning to get stale. It had only been about 24 hours, but there was a distinct difference. Those first two cupcakes would have gotten a 5 from me. That third cupcake would only get a 4. So I'll split the difference and give these guys a highly-respectable 4.5 stars out of 5.

Sonia gives them 4 stars. She says they're not too sweet, just sweet enough. She says its a perfect peanut butter to chocolate ratio. She's a fan. And she's an even bigger cupcake connoisseur than I am.

Bottom line: 8.5 out of 10 stars.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Trader Joe's Organic Fair Trade Café Pajaro Blend

I'm going to admit that I'm really not all that knowledgeable when it comes to coffee. I'm just not. I sorta know what a café au lait is because that has been one of Sandy's usual pickups out at the coffee shops. But a caffè americano? A latte? Espresso versus cappuccino? Can't help you there. Heck, I get confused about what Starbucks names their sizes. I'd be the world's worst barista, easily. For a good space of time, I was thrilled with whatever gas station brew as long as there was a good selection of the little colored International Creamers available.* So, yeah, I know I'm not exactly a threat to take over the title of Mr. Coffee, but I know what like. I like coffee that's dark, strong, and vibrant, that'll smack me awake as I settle in with a fresh French press-full for a long day's work at my corporately bland, super-bleachy lighted, muted cubicle (as you can see from the picture - hey, look, my reflection!). In other words, completely the opposite from the free work stuff that tastes like brown water that somehow spoiled. With the right stuff in my cup, there's a fighting chance that I won't commit a felony or curse out some ridiculous insurance company have to deal with (believe me, I've come close).

As a coffee novice, I generally like Trader Joe's selection. Two big winners for me are the New Orleans Style with Chicory and the Italian Roast, but even the cheapie Cup of Joe stuff does alright in a pinch. This past time around, it was time for something new, so let's get on with the Trader Joe's Café Pajaro.

In case you don't know Spanish or couldn't pick it up from the packaging context of the big ol' Toucan Joe, pajaro simply means "bird." So we're talking about bird coffee. I guess that's supposed to make consumers feel like it's a tropical treat. Eh, maybe. The coffee bean mix comes from farms in Nicaragua, Peru and southern Mexico, so it's at least a little exotic-y. The beans are definitely dark roasted but not scorched (like way too much other stuff out there). When brewed, the output is definitely dark, dark coffee that smells rather inviting. For me, a little half and half is all I need to get it right. Too much added sugar will cover up way too much of the natural flavor that's subtly sweet with some chocolate tones. The good thing is, unlike some coffee/cocoa crap I got at TJ's around the holidays, the chocolate taste is there but it doesn't muddy up the overall flavor. It's not quite as bold as I'd like (especially when compared to the TJ's chicory coffee) but it's certainly not weak or watery tasting at all. It won't be the best-tasting coffee you'll ever have , but the Café Pajaro makes for a good cup better than any at-work option, and for $7.49 a canister, a decent value. Definite bonus points for being organic and fair trade.

For the most part, Sandy's been off coffee for the past couple months. The few times she's snuck a sip here and there, she's grimaced and said "blecch" and not much else. Oh, good ol' pregnancy-induced taste aversions that ruin things you once held dear (like one time when we went out for Mexican food). If the baby doesn't like coffee, what can you do? Anyways that means I'm handling the judging of this by myself, like an adult. Hrmmm. It's decent enough but I like the aforementioned ones better, so let's be fair about it and say....

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Organic Fair Trade Café Pajaro: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons
*I once made the mistake of telling that to a talented barista buddy of mine. He immediately cringed and turned away. We've never talked about coffee since.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Trader Joe's Gluten Free Crispy Crunchy Chocolate Chip Cookies

We're always getting review requests here at WG@TJs. It's often for random individual products that people are too scared to try...but there are two categories in particular that people always want us to check out: vegetarian/vegan stuff and gluten-free stuff. Lately, it seems like gluten-free has been more popular than ever. Since Sonia and I are both sensitive to gluten, we've tried a handful of TJ's gluten-free products just for our own benefit. (We usually just go ahead and eat regular wheat products and suffer the consequences). But we're also trying to help people who really have to do the gluten-free thing out of absolute necessity.

And thankfully for sufferers of Celiac Disease, there are a few products out there that make gluten seem downright unnecessary. This is one of them.

Sonia and I were both amazed by the taste of this product. Really amazing chocolate chip cookie taste. They're very, very chocolatey, with a strangely home-made quality for being super-crispy, packaged in plastic, and well...wheat free. There's a picture of what appears to be some colonial type bakers cooking up a batch of these things. Who knows? Maybe the gluten-intolerants of the seventeenth century whipped up batches of crispy rice-flour cookies all the time. Or maybe they were burned at the stake because their intolerance of wheat was assumed to be some sort of divine retribution for witchcraft. Whatever the case, I'm happy Trader Joe stumbled upon this tasty recipe.

The texture is exactly as described. Crispy and crunchy. And how! It usually seems like it's harder to nail the texture of a gluten-free product than the flavor, as was the case with Trader Joe's Gluten Free Brownies. If you really like the crunchy feel of crispy cookies like I do, these are spot on—but I do have to admit that I'm an even bigger fan of gigantic, warm, soft chocolate chip cookies. We may have to wait a while for them to uncover the magical formula that can yield a gluten-free batch of those. Until then, I'll be happily crunching away on these puppies. They reminded us of the little Famous Amos crispy cookies you get out of vending machines. But better.

Overall, I was very impressed. I'll give them 4 out of 5 stars. Sonia does too.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Frites

I love fries. Fries, fries, fries. Here they go down, down into my belly...

Let's cut straight to the matter here: Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Frites. $2.29 a bag. Worth it. For your greenbacks you get a pretty sizable bag of tasty orange starchy sticks, more than plenty for two people. Last night for our weekly dinner with my brother, his wife, their toddler, and a mutual friend, it was a stretch to finish off two bags. And what a tasty couple basket-worths those were. Just a little bit of time in the over, and the frites crisped up great, a little greasy on the outside, good and kinda mushy on the inside just like a good sweet potato fry. Tastewise, they're definitely a little sweet, a little salty, and right on par. Some of our comrades doused theirs in a little ketchup (ugh, but that's a story for another day). For me at least, the TJ fries were good 'n tasty enough to munch on down just as is.

I'd say they're just about perfect. Really, for a good snacky bite, it's tough to beat some good sweet potato fries, and I have to say, unless these are brand-spankin' new, I'm kind of embarrassed that it's taken me this long to discover them. The only ever-so-slightly negative thng I'd say is, perhaps they're just a teeny teeny bit pricy (by like *maybe* a few dimes) if for no other reason that I know plenty of spots around Pittsburgh to get a hot bunch of sweet potato fries for $2.29, at least after 10 p.m. or so. But that just won't be as much of a constant possibility soon...

You see, Sandy's been craving fries like mad recently. She's always been a fan, but the past couple months have really kicked it up a notch. If the two of us had to run out to the bar every time she wanted some good tasty restaurant quality sweet potato fries (which, make no mistake, these TJ treasures certainly are), well, we'd run up quite the tab (for me, at least). And Sandy would be a little tired for that anyways after a long day of work...hmm, while craving fries...I guess that's what happens when you're expecting a baby at the end of June...well, must be true because I just wrote it! Needless to say, it's very exciting and a little daunting for us, but I'll try to keep it contained here.*

In that light, I can see these fries being a repeat purchase for here on out. It's probably a good idea to keep an emergency stash for when her munchies hit, and believe me, I'd be glad to help out with a couple sympathy handfuls. Sandy was definitely enjoying these fries the other night (especially the ones that got a little burned for a little added crunch) and kept reaching for them, so I was a little surprised when she said she'd go with a four for them. Just a four? Really? All things considered, it's probably best not to argue about it, so I'll compensate by grading them a little more generously than I would otherwise to give them a five. It's teamwork. I think that's how this all has to work.

Bottom line: Trader Joe's Sweet Potato Frites: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons
* I have a very limited soapbox (read: practically nonexistant) in the Trader Joe's world but...why not offer some type of babyfood line? You can even brand it Trader Joey and put a kangaroo on it. Boom! I should be in marketing.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Trader Joe's Sweet Bites

Because I'm a lazy fool, for one third of this review, I'm simply going to refer you to this link. It's our review of the Raspberry "Macaron aux Framboises" Cake, one of the constituent parts of this Sweet Bites product. I like how TJ's uses the words "raspberry" and "cake" in the title of the product on this Sweet Bites box. Framboises means raspberries, and I'm pretty sure Macaron is a type of cake, so for those of you who are bilingual, speaking both French and English, you're probably reading that product name as "Raspberry Cake of Raspberries Cake" or some other such redundant nonsense.

I'm sure there aren't that many bilingual French/English speakers reading this. I just wanted to write "Raspberry Cake of Raspberries Cake" because it makes me giggle. For those of you who are as lazy as I am, I know you aren't going to click that other link, so I'll just go ahead and let you know that we gave that cake by itself a bottom line of 9 out of 10. Not too shabby.

Next: the tiramisu. Er, no wait. They call it "Chocolate and Coffee Opéra Cake." But it might as well be tiramisu. I'm not a huge fan of tiramisu. It's overrated. So's this stuff. Pffh, "Opéra Cake," how arrogant. Maybe my tastebuds just aren't refined enough to appreciate it fully. Don't get me wrong, it's not awful. But when it's up against two big winners, its flavor is a bit too subtle—a bit too understated. And I'm not terribly into coffee-flavored desserts, anyway. Sonia gives the "tiramisu" 2.5 for being too soft. I'm not sure what she means by that, but I give it a 3 for being...not as good as the other two. Bottom line: 5.5 out of 10.

Finally, we come to the Caramel and Chocolate Cake. Sonia says she didn't taste the caramel, and that apparently made her angry. I guess she feels that TJ's jilted her out of some tasty caramel. I agree. I didn't taste the caramel, but I don't really care because the cake was freaking awesome. It was soft and sweet and full of some kind of yummy, creamy something. It wasn't quite a tres leches cake, but it was reminiscent of that level of deliciousness. Certainly, it was drier than a tres leches. By the way, tres leches is my favorite kind of cake. If you've never had a real tres leches cake, drive to the nearest Mexican bakery and buy one...even if it's in another state. Go! Seriously, it's worth it. You won't regret it. Sonia actually made a really good one this past week for Three Kings' Day. Sonia's cake actually overshadows all three of these Sweet Bites (I am writing that right now for the brownie points I'll get with my wife, but it really is true). So all of our scores may be a little low. But anyway, Sonia gives this one a 3.5. She says it would have been higher if she could taste the caramel. I give it a 4.5. I liked it just as much as the Raspberry Cake of Raspberries Cake. Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

And for our final score, I just average out all three of the sub-scores.

Trader Joe's Sweet Bites bottom line: 7.5 out of 10.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Trader Giotto's Butternut Squash Triangoli

What did one triangle ravioli say to the other triangle ravoli?

You have *acute* personality and I like your stuff!

Oh, goodness. My puns may have reached an all-time low. Believe me, that says a lot.

Assuming you're still reading this and not groaning any more, you're probably wondering about this particularly pointy pasta product and just good it may or may be, so let's bid arrivederci to the jokes and get on with the review of Trader Giotto's Butternut Squash Triangoli.

It's decent enough, I'd say. You'll find this in the fresh pasta section of the store (which for Sandy and me, it's too easy to skip over, which is a shame). Each bags yields a fair amount of the shapely shells for two pretty hungry adults, and cook up as fast as it takes to boil some water. The pasta portion is the yellow-kinda waxy and thin-semolina variety which is nether good nor bad - it's just kinda there to hold its supposed treasure, the butternut squash filling. And that part isn't bad either - it's texturally on par and lightly sweetened with crumbled amaretti biscuits (read: sugar and apricot) while remaining completely dinnertime appropriate. I kinda wish there was a little more than the dark little circle of it that remains throughout the bag-to-pot-to-plate process. Appearancewise, each triangoli is perfunctory shaped, with a roughly equilateral triangle of pasta dough filled with a perfect circle of filling right in the middle, kinda as if IKEA designed them (I still imagine they'd be called Triangoli, except with an umlaut somewhere). Regardless, they're pretty tasty and Sandy and I enjoyed them.

We could've liked them better, though. For one, they taste all exactly the same, which by the last few ones, the savory factor kinda wore off. This could've been remedied by some sort of good sauce to go with them, but the package doesn't really make any great recommendations: butter, olive oil, or "your favorite sauce." Well, Frank's Red Hot wouldn't be a good choice, methinks, and neither would any tomato-based ones, so Sandy and I opted for butter. Not a bad choice, but still pretty plain.

Regardless, for a Monday night dinner, the butternut squash triangoli weren't a bad option. Sandy chomped away on them while finishing up some work-y work nonsense for her job and I deliberately ate each one, slowly and carefully, as I continue to recoup from quadruple wisdom tooth removal. Ten year old me would have loved having nothing but milkshakes for a week...not so much when you're old enough to have a mortgage and emerging bald spot. Anyways, Sandy gave these Italian imports a "three, maybe three 'n a half....okay, three 'n a half" for their squashy pasta ways. I concur but, unlike the pasta itself, round down.

Bottom line: Trader Giotto's Butternut Squash Triangoli: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Trader Joe's Shrimp Corn Dogs

This is one of those items that I have to smile about every time I think of it. Not just because it's tasty, but because it's a silly idea. I wonder who came up with the concept, initially. I wonder whether there was some particular task assigned to Trader Joe's Research and Development department that might have read something like this:

"Corn dogs are awesome. Even fake-meat corn dogs are awesome. Your assignment: put different foods on wooden sticks and cover them with cornbread. Report back with your top three new corn dog discoveries. Go!"

The lucky jerk whose job it was to accomplish this task dutifully paraded out of his office with a handful of cheap wooden chopsticks or perhaps popsicle sticks—or maybe he just grabbed a couple of his cubicle-buddy's no. 2 pencils...he strolled down some boulevard, presumably in Massachusetts or Monrovia, CA, approached some random food trucks and plopped various foods on the sticks, then took them back to his "lab," dipped each item in a cornbread batter and then dunked it in a deep fat fryer. As he tasted each one, he taped his thoughts in a little hand-recorder:

"Hmmm...grilled cheese corndog...very yummy, but messy and impractical."

"Carrot corn dog...certainly edible...with a vegetable tempura-quality...but lacks the zing required of corn dogs."

"Doughnut corn dog...promising for carbivores and the health-unconscious...but we'd be sued for negligent homicide or something..."

"Burger corn dog...hrm...if they weren't circular, this might work..."

"Shrimp corn this is wrong, then I don't wanna be right."

He pitched the idea to his boss the following day, complete with prototype samples and an experimental predecessor to the sweet and hot chili sauce for dipping. The presentation resulted in promotions, bonuses, and accolades for the aforementioned lucky jerk, and thus, Trader Joe's Shrimp Corn Dogs were born.

Yummerific. The sweet and hot chili dipping sauce isn't hot at all, but other than that, no complaints. Another 4.5 from me.

Sonia says she doesn't like corn dogs. They should be able to deport people for such blasphemy. She's really only a 1st generation American. "Back to Oaxaca, Mexico with you and your misguided family, ma'am...until you learn to appreciate our culture!" She wanted to give them a 3. I told her that was too low. So she said, "Fine. 3.5." She added that there wasn't enough shrimp on the stick. I'll give her that. They should totally go with jumbo shrimp for version 2.0.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Trader José's 99% Fat Free Bean & Rice Burrito

Ah, the first few days after New Year's. I really don't know how common it is for folks to make New year's resolutions any more. All I know is, after last New Year's, it was darn near impossible to get into the gym where Sandy and I have been members until sometime in mid-March (while it was no-mans land all around November and December). I guess that goes with the typical "lose weight/get in shape" mindset that strikes each early January. My New Year's resolution this year was to stop putting up with my crummy wisdom teeth and so I got them yanked a day or two ago.* Now that's a fun way to start your year, barely able to eat or talk, and with an ample supply of Vicodin on hand. For some undetermined and probably at least half-inaccurate reason this makes me feel like I'm Gary Busey.

Anyways, back to the "be healthier" idea...yeah, I could go for that, too. I mean, you should see what all I ate over the holidays, mostly homemade (hence the not so many reviews recently). So I'm looking for healthier food options, like low fat, possibly organic stuff that tastes good and at least for work lunches, can be quick to grab in the morning and simple to make at meal time.

I think as much as microwavable burritos can fit into a semi-healthy diet plan, the Trader Jose's 99% Fat Free Bean & Rice Burritos work. They're $2.69 locally a pair and zap within a few minutes in the microwave. Of course you can also bake them for like 25 minutes but I have neither the time nor the oven at work for that. Once made, they're neither utterly terrific nor barf inducing. Inside the flour tortilla it's a warm bean mush with a little rice, the typical Mexican spices, and allegedly some cheese. I wish they had more rice, actually. There's no more than a small spoonful of it per burrito, and there's more than enough room for more rice while keeping the same amount of beany lava. As for the cheese, well, naturally it's the light variety, so it's not as present of a taste as I'd like...okay, I'll admit it, I really didn't detect it other than looking over the ingredient list. All that being said, they're semi-tasty enough, and definitely fairly filling. I'd say these TJ burritos are a couple steps above the drive-thru variety, but probably won't rock your world either. And of course, with all the sodium they don't make an ideal health food, but they're better for you than most drive thru/microwave options available, so I'll cut them some slack.

There's nothing overly wrong with these. It's just that nothing really sets them apart either. I'm not above buying them again, but for about the same price there's much better available at Trader Joe's. Like most of my lunch dish reviews, this is me flying solo on this, as Sandy works at a preschool with an edible lunch provided to her most days. Maybe this is the hunger pangs of not having solid food in a couple days talking, but I'll give these a little higher grade than I might otherwise with some matching 3s. You have no idea how grateful I'd be for some solid chow right now, even if it's a couple burritos that put the "meh" in Mexican.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10 Golden Spoons
* Once you use all the gauze the oral surgeon provides, they recommend using tea bags to help stop things up. For this, may I recommend the Cinnamon and Vanilla Black Tea? Makes for a tasty treat, and doesn't quite have the bite of the Candy Cane Green Tea. This is the kinda info you read us for.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Trader Joe's Pastry Bites with Feta Cheese and Caramelized Onions

Sometimes Sonia and I buy things from TJ's and I never get around to reviewing them for some reason. I eat the product, I analyze the product, I think about maybe writing something about the product, and for whatever reason, I just don't get around to the review. The following is a review of a product that we've bought no fewer than three times and never reviewed. I'm not sure why. I like them alright. I think we've always just had them as hors d'oeuvres for little parties and get-togethers, and I've always gotten distracted by our company or the other food we had or maybe just the general craziness of life. Whatever the reason, a review of these little guys has been a long time coming, and I'm anxious to share my thoughts about them.

For starters, the fact that we've bought them at least three times should tell you something. Our ultimate goal is to review as many TJ's brand products as possible (that goal of reviewing EVERY Trader Joe's brand product is looking more and more unrealistic every day) so repeat-buys are rare; reserved only for the really good stuff. Also, these pastry bites have been available at TJ's since before the inception of this blog until now. TJ's is known for discontinuing products at the drop of a hat, so for something to last for over a year and a half is no small feat. Not only that, but Sonia and I started out by reviewing Trader Joe's products in the Los Angeles area, and now we're reviewing them in the Philadelphia area. (The Shelly's are in Pittsburgh). And those of you who've ventured into Trader Joe's stores in multiple cities are probably aware that their delectable fares vary from region to region. So the very fact that this item has been readily available on both the west coast and the east coast should tell you that it's a popular product.

As mentioned in previous posts, I'm comfotable eating goat cheese with sandwiches, soups, salads, or any savory or salty snack, however, it should not be partnered with sweets or dessert foods in my humble opinion. As I have just learned, thanks to Wikipedia, feta cheese is made of mostly sheep's milk. Weird. All these years I thought it was a type of goat cheese. Apparently, it may be made with a combination of sheep's milk and goat's milk, but sheep's milk must be the primary ingredient. At any rate, I would put feta into that same grouping of cheeses that work only with non-dessert items.

Thankfully, these are not dessert pastries. And caramelized onions, though somewhat sweet, are still in a family of foods that belong with non-dessert items. Can you imagine eating caramelized onions with ice cream or cake. Yuck!

I think these pastry bites are the first and only food I've tried with both feta and caramelized onions. And I gotta tell ya, I'm feelin it. Totally. This is one of those combos like peanut butter and jelly in which its ingenious inventor should get the Nobel Prize for Food Discoveries or some such prestigious award. The onions are slightly sweet and very tangy. The feta gives it this wonderful, zesty savoriness. The pastry part of this hors d'oeuvre is very similar to other Trader Joe's brand oven-ready hors d'oeuvres like these Scallop Bites. It ain't the Ritz, as they say, but it's certainly not bad, either. It's a crispy, flakey, crown-shaped little bowl of yumminess. And in it sits more yumminess.
Sonia gives it a 3.5. I think her score might have been higher, but for some reason she is in a bad mood currently. She won't tell me why yet. But when I ask, "What's wrong?" her reply is an immediate "NOTHING," which, I've learned is not a good sign. Undoubtedly, I've done something wrong. I suppose I shall find out in the sweet bye and bye what it was.

I was torn between giving them a 4 and a 4.5, as these are some of the best snack-foods I've had from Trader Joe's. I finally decided to go with the 4.5 to counterbalance Sonia's inaccurately low 3.5. At any rate, we wind up with an 8. So be it.

Bottom line: 8 out of 10 stars.

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