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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Trader Joe's Rice Noodle Soup Bowls

I have a confession of sorts to make.

When it all comes down to it, I'm just not really a lunch guy.

Breakfast is usually my favorite meal of the day, especially if involving eggs and some good bacon. But sometimes, even just a bowl of delicious hearty cereal does the trick pretty well. Dinner, in any and all of its manifestations, is something I routinely look forward to and enjoy. But lunch? Usually, for me, it's kind of lame. Most of the time it means I'm still at work for a few more hours, and I'm munching on whatever I managed to grab in 30 seconds of half-awake stupor before running out the door, or some cheap greasy not-that-great chow that I went and fetched from some run-of-the-mill chain restaurant. I'd rather skip lunch altogether and either snack through out the day or hold out for one large mid-to-late afternoon meal, but since my work schedule doesn't look too kindly on that, I'm kinda forced into the lunch option. I think that's why I routinely look for the cheapest, easiest ways to do lunch, because if I don't like the meal all that much to begin with, I don't see the point in investing time, effort and money into trying to make it better.

Enter Trader Joe's Rice Noodle Soup Bowls.

For starters, they come in three varieties - Mushroom, Garlic, and Spring Onion. To review each flavor would be as pointless as reviewing each flavor of Ramen noodles - they all kinda taste the same, without all that much distinction. And, like Ramen, they're certainly not fantastic either - cheap noodles with some colored salt on them, and that's more or less it. Don't let the "Thailand" on the front fool you - these are about as authentically Thai as a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli is authentically Italian. They're not even remotely close to any Thai noodle bowl I've had at any restaurant anywhere - there's no sense of the complexities and layers of heat that good Thai cuisine offers. It's really just salt and parsley, a fancier Cup o' Noodles if you will. With a lot more packaging, to the point it seems downright wasteful. There's the outside cardboard sleeve, the plastic shrinkwrap, the lid on the bowl, the bowl itself (pretty sturdy in its own right), then inside there's a plastic baggie that's open half the time anyways that holds the foil seasoning packet, smaller baggie of either leafy green stuff or mushroom nanobits (depending on which variety you chose) and another little plastic packet of oil which I guess is supposed to add flavor to the broth. That strikes me as being packaging overkill - skip the cardboard sleeve and the bigger inside plastic baggie at the very least. Anyways, once you buzzsaw your way through all of that, dump it all together and splash in some water and nuke it for three minutes, the end result can be very inconsistent from one batch to the next. Without doing anything discernibly different and being very careful to fill the water to the lower inside rim, I've had bowls that were thick and full of noodles with very little broth, and others that seemed to average-to-skimpy in noodle-to-soup ratio.

Okay, enough with the negatives. I actually kinda like them. Here's why. They're certainly pretty easy to make, even with the most primitive of workplace kitchens at my otherwise state of the art facility where I work. The rice noodles, while not spectacular, do a decent enough job of tiding me over. Tastewise they're passable enough. But the number one thing they have going for them is this: coworkers have seen me eating them and have asked me how they were. My typical response has been "Eh, they cost a buck and they taste like it." That was just something offhand I happened to say without thinking about it much until I randomly found myself one day in the international food aisle of the local grocery chain. Perfectly identical rice noodle bowls (even down to the same three flavors of mushroom, garlic and spring onion) were $2.29 each. Even at the neighborhood Trader Joe's, they sell another brand of microwavable noodle bowls for $2 American a pop. These? One greenback. That's it. And while I'm willing to acknowledge I may be missing out on something, to me these are about as good as I can reasonably expect instant noodles to taste like, and even if the other brands are better, I doubt it'd be worth paying twice as much for them.

Chef Boyardee used to be my default quick-grab work lunch that cost a singleton. Not any more. I routinely snag at least three or four each shopping trip and Sandy grabs one or two for herself as well. I don't think it's that we're necessarily big fans of them, but we like the fact that they're cheap and simple, and they work well enough for lunch for us. Sandy was wavering between giving them a three or four before settling in the middle with a three and a half, stating she wished they were spicier and more Thai-like. For me, I have to dock some pointage for the wasteful packaging (though I've reused a couple of the plastic bowls for my desk to hold office supplies, and Sandy said maybe they could be useful at her preschool) and join with my wife in wishing they offered more spice and flavor, but the fact that I routinely purchase and munch on them for lunch says I can't dislike them too much, even if that's based more on value than overall performance. I don't know, sounds like a three to me.

Bottom line: 6.5 out of 10 Golden Spoons

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Trader Joe's Chicken Caesar Wrap

In the great state of Pennsylvania, there's a big convenience store turf war going on. From the west comes Sheetz. They've pretty well dominated the state in terms of 24-hour gas, food, and coffee operations. The unmistakable glowing red trim of Sheetz stores shines all through the night in a plethora of towns in PA and several surrounding states. Every time Sonia and I visit my parents in central PA, we stop by a Sheetz and order up some custom nachos or a made-to-order sandwich using their novel touch-screen system.

In addition to some national chains, the eastern part of the state has Turkey Hill minit-marts. But the Philadelphia area, where Sonia and I live now, is dominated by Wawa convenience stores. Sheetz has not yet been able to breach Wawa's line of defense. There are a staggering 200 Wawa stores within 20 miles of our apartment. It would be nice if we had access to both Sheetz and Wawa, but for now we'll have to settle for only having Sheetz on special occasions and westward-bound day trips.

Wawa offers a variety of pre-made sandwiches and snacks, and Sonia has completely fallen in love with their chicken caesar wraps. I agree that they're tasty, but I think there are plenty of other good chicken caesar wraps out there, including this one from Trader Joe's.

Upon tasting the TJ's brand, Sonia was crestfallen. True, it didn't taste identical to Wawa's chicken caesar, but I was impressed with its fresh, homemade qualities. Trader Joe's wrap had tomatoes, something that should have impressed Sonia more than me...she's a much bigger fan of fresh tomato than I am. The lettuce and spinach in TJ's variety were a dark, rich green and the chicken was all good, tender white meat. The one thing I will give her is that the dressing on the Trader Joe's wrap tasted a lot more like peppercorn ranch than caesar. Luckily, I like peppercorn ranch, but in Sonia's case...not so much.

Sonia's affinity for Wawa's chicken caesar and her dislike of peppercorn-esque dressings yielded one of our most lopsided scores ever, since I was quite pleased with Trader Joe's product, as usual. I give it a 4. Sonia was only half as impressed. She gives it a 2.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

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