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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Trader Joe's Enchilada Sauce

Okay, for at least one post, I'm done with super-long fancy named products. I needed something quiet, unassuming, and ego-less (it's tiring to type them out, making sure words are in the right order and whatnot), and Trader Joe's Enchilada Sauce is about the simplest, most humbly named product I could scrum up. They didn't even go for the Trader Jose name to market it under, but TJ"s did opt for ALL CAPS in its labeling design. Gotta do something, I guess.

Anyways, enchilada sauce. Mmm. It's no secret that Sandy and I love Mexican food, or at the very least bastardized Americanized versions of Mexican fare. We've been to the country twice, and while eating some terrific authentic cuisine in remote mountain villages and small mom-and-pop storefront shops in Mexico City (i.e., when we didn't go to Pizza Hut and Starbucks), we've also had some, well ... not to sound ungracious, but sometimes tortillas with rice were the most viable option. That's kind of like going to Italy and eating plain spaghetti noodles, or Ben and Jerry's and getting a vanilla in a dish, no cone. In a lot of ways, you're missing out on something potentially life-alteringly good, but there's just something to be said for the safe option if the other choices are unfamiliar. (Editor's note: This is a horrible analogy. Everything Ben and Jerry's makes is wonderful, and if you go to Italy and eat plain pasta, I will smack you. Just pretend being presented with a bowl of very fresh-smelling cow tripe and a platter of tortillas and rice. Yeah, thought so). That's why we like our Americanized Mexican-style food - it's Mexican enough to delude us into thinking it actually is, while still being tailored much closer to our tastes and preferences.

TJ's Enchilada Sauce is kind of like that. Don't get me wrong, it's good stuff. It's thick, a little goopy, I'd almost say creamy except it isn't, but it invokes creaminess in some way I can't quite explain. The reddish-orange fiery color gives off some visual cues that this might be some pretty spicy stuff. Strangely, no artificial colors are listed in its ingredients. Well, it has a good kick, and like any good meal-time edible accessory, it does its job - namely, it adds to and accentuates flavor without much, if any, subtraction. I used to love overly spicy sauces and spices until I realized how much of the time their heat masked the inherent good taste of the food I used them on. This sauce doesn't - it's not until you've had the first bite or two that you begin to experience the smoky, slightly heated sensation it gives in the back of your throat, but that's where it stays, leaving your tongue and taste buds free to sink into the actual dish. That's the cumin and cayenne doing what they ought - to be present, but not to interfere. We (well, okay, Sandy) made some pretty basic enchiladas with tortillas, black beans, soy chorizo, Mexican shredded cheese and the sauce to share with my brother and his girlfriend for lunch on Sunday, and it was fantastic. The leftover enchiladas were nearly as good reheated for my lunch today. Again, stupid work microwave.

But how good is the sauce really? How authentic, or at least how inspired? I didn't even consider that question until I asked Sandy for her Golden Spoon ranking. I was all ready to give it a four, maybe more (yes, sometimes I weight my grade based on Sandy's), and in a very wise moment, she said, "Well, it's good, but we have nothing to compare it to. I don't think we've ever had actual enchiladas before." I did a mental inventory, and she's probably right ... no, not probably, she is. I married myself one smart cookie. I probably don't know what enchilada sauce is supposed to taste like, and without reference it's somewhat tough to put it into proper perspective.

Of course, will that being the case for us, it's probably the case for a lot of Trader Joe consumers, and I'd imagine many if not most similarly palate-experienced Americans would overall be fairly satisfied with the enchilada sauce. The heat might be a little much for some sissies and little girls ... go eat your tortillas and rice then. Sandy and I definitely enjoy it - we actually had it for the first time about a month ago, and in anticipation of our Sunday lunch, we got two bottles to make sure we'd have some on hand for our next Tex Mex culinary romp. Some benefit of the doubt is involved, but Sandy gave it a three and a half. All things considered, that's a pretty fair grade, and since she blinded me with science in giving her assessment, I feel compelled to concur. As I said, una chica inteligente.

Bottom line: 7 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Trader Joe's Whole Grain Hard Pretzel Sticks

Okay, let me cut to the chase here:

These SUCK. Do NOT, under circumstance, get these. Whole grain pretzel sticks look like they might be a good premise, a good healthy snack. Well, they might be healthy, but they are horrible, horrendous, and just plain disgusting.

How bad are they? If pretzels were Willie Mays, these would be wearing a Mets uniform. If they were Sly Stallone, these guys would be "starring" alongside Dolly Parton in "Rhinestone." If they were the Beatles, ... well, let's just say Yoko Ono would be involved. These pretzels take something so good, so pure and enjoyable, and turn it into crap.

I mean, I love pretzels. Any kind of pretzel - sticks, rods, nuggets, those little grid-like guys, soft, extra dark, splits, sourdough, honey wheat, soft pretzels, flavored bits and pieces, pretzel buns, anything remotely pretzel-like. I went through high school eating two soft pretzels for lunch everyday (well, except taco day, okay). Sandy made awesome homemade soft pretzels a few days ago that once I polished them off I was begging for more. They are definitely one of my favorite snack food groups, partly because they're healthy compared to chips and cheesy doodles, and also because they're just good.

And these guys ... blah. I tried to like them. I really did. I wanted to like them. But there's nothing redeeming about them. They're bland, tasteless sticks of particle board. They're sparingly salted, which is okay, but there's no flavor to them otherwise, except burned. I took a look inside a stick I halfway crunched, and there's an orange-brownish ring surrounding a teeny white core. So they are just overbaked - I guess maybe that's to help them boast about their claim to be "hard", but they're really not - they're really not any more crunchy than any other pretzel stick. But they are much drier, which makes all the saw dust they leave in your mouth much trickier to swallow. After only two or three I needed a drink to literally wash them down.

I guess it's part of the whole grain curse. Whole grain foods, when made right, taste wonderful and nutty and delicious and help fill you up healthfully. But when made wrong ... man, I don't care how good they might be for you if they don't taste good. The marginal health benefits don't outweigh the taste experience for me. And these pretzels are about the best example I can think of for this.

I had Sandy try one. She munched down half a stick, made a face, went to the fridge and got out a jar of peanut butter to dip the other half in. That sounds like an epoxy recipe to me. "They're better with something," she said. I can buy that, but then that pretty much defeats the whole purpose of having a healthy snack. It's like making broccoli to eat healthy but dumping molten Velveeta on it - having to add something unhealthy to make an otherwise good-for-you food edible seems counterproductive and deceptive.

Anyways, I cannot find anything good about them. I considered returning them to the store, but maybe I'll save them for our dog when we run out of his treats. He wouldn't know the difference. Sandy is a little more forgiving than me, and she said she'd give them a two, "maybe a three," so that sounds like a two-and-a-half to me. Well, that's all they're gonna get. Absolute zero from me.

Bottom line: 2.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Trader Joe's Really Expensive Authentic Handcrafted Chicken Burritos

Work lunches have always been a little tricky for me. I don't want to go out and spend $5 or $10 every day on lunch. We also rarely have leftovers to pack, and I don't plan ahead to pack a meal at night, nor do I ever wake up with enough time to make a sandwich or anything in the morning. So generally this leaves me with options that are quick to grab as I run out the door, and that are easily prepared at the typical work lunch room (sink, fridge/freezer and microwave bank), and ideally cheap. By default, most weeks this has meant stocking up on Chef Boyardee goods with the pull-tab can lids ... mmm, tasty. Not. Coworkers openly mock me for it - "Hey, you got dinosaurs or ABCs today?" - as they chomp down on their delivery pizza and wings (coincidentally, these same ones complain a lot about "never having money" ... hmmm). A man's gotta eat, but after so many cans of mini-ravioli, you gotta find some other options too.

Fortunately, Trader Joe's seems to have some possibilities worth exploring.

One of the first canned pasta alternatives I stumbled upon were his Really Expensive Authentic Handcrafted Chicken Burritos (REAHCBs). They appealed to me for a few different reasons. First off, I love burritos and nearly everything about them - tortillas, meat, beans, cheese, whatever you can fill them with, and wrap it all up - delicious and vaguely Mexican, and I love any Mexican food that doesn't include cow stomach. Secondly, the directions seemed pretty short and simple to make - keep frozen, unwrap when you're ready to eat, cover them with a paper towel, and nuke 'em for a couple minutes. Quick and easy enough for a workplace meal. Thirdly, well, I didn't realize it until I started busting them out, but as a work place food, they look pretty impressive. One of the middle-aged ladies in the lunch room asked where I got them - "they look too good to be from the vending machine," she said. Judging by the look on her face, I could have probably told her they were from the Sharper Image and she would have believed me. As the guy previously most famous in the lunchroom for an unnatural obsession with the Chef, it felt good to have some recognition (however fleeting) as having the Cadillac of microwavable meals. Their pretty impressive name certainly helped.

Well, overall the burritos are pretty decent, but also somewhat tough to get a reliable gauge on through no fault of their own. I blame the work microwaves. The directions say to defrost for two minutes, then go on high for a minute - yeah, show me a work microwave that can you can trust to do just that. There's not even a defrost setting on ours, so I resorted to heating on high for about four or five minutes. The result was a burrito alternating between containing molten hot bean-y magma scorching the inside of my mouth and literal ice chunks which served as relief. The tortilla itself got a little chewy in the process too. But that's CVS's fault, not Trader Joe's, I think.

Taste-wise, the REAHCBs work for a lunch option. The filling is mostly typical bean filling with dark meat chicken chunks. It's flavored with some tomato, onion, and typical spices which give it a little kick, but certainly not taste bud overkill. When it comes to texture, I'd prefer if there were some whole beans or the occasional vegetable chunk in there to mix it up a bit. The tortilla is a decent flour one, but nothing terribly special either.

They're certainly not Really Expensive (I think they were $2.49 for the package) and depending on your appetite they can make one or two lunches. As for Authentic ... well, that can be a relative term. They're not nearly as "authentic" (or for that matter, "handcrafted") as some of the most delicious burritos and related Mexican food I've had in Mexican mountain villages where the women woke up at 4 a.m. to grind the corn and the chickens were clucking around three hours before being served up. But of course, that's not what I could expect either, so I won't hold it against them. Just that Trader Joe character can get a little boastful at times, that's all. At least he wasn't stretching the truth when it came to the "Chicken" and "Burrito" part.

I'll give them a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. With a better preparation method, I'm sure they'd be a little bit better, and I'm somewhat indecisive between giving a 3 and a 3.5 for them. But since Sandy hasn't had them (they have that killer word "tomato" prominently displayed), I'm solely responsible for their grading, so I'll give them one of each.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

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