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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Trader Joe's Vintage Root Beer

In summers past, Sandy and I have had the privilege of going to some pretty remote towns in Mexico for a week to help out with some medical work and to get to know some of the local people. Honestly, I'm not even sure I can point to where we've gone on a map. All I know is, we flew into Mexico City, hopped into a 15-passenger van with 20 other people, and drove something like 10 hours over a mountain range or two, through endless desert stretches and then a rain forest, and wound up in a hot, dusty village on a mountainside where we'd set up shop for the week to go drive somewhere else an hour or more away to even smaller towns. Crazy fun. One of the best things about these trips (aside from, y' know, helping people/making a difference/learning from a culture different from our own) was, no matter where we went, no matter how remote, every single village had at least two or three small stores with a Coca-Cola sign out front. Go inside and there would be a cooler full of ice-cold Cokes, all frosty in their glass bottles. Late in the afternoon on a 115-degree plus day, after you get done chasing a bunch of 10 year olds around a soccer court, there's little that's more refreshing than that. Sandy and I would routinely seek a store out and for only a few pesos (something like the equivalent of 30 cents), we'd each have a Coke and seek out a shady spot to sit down and relax.

For those who don't know, "Mexican Coke" is much different than the Coke available here in the U.S. The biggest difference is, instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) used a sweetener, Mexican Coke (and most other sodas in the world, for that matter) use real, honest-to-goodness sugar. HFCSs have been used commonly since about the late '70s-early '80s as an ingredient in pretty much every processed product known to man (In lunch meat? Really?) mostly because as a result of imported sugar taxes and farm subsidies, it's much cheaper to use in American food production. There's been all sorts of allegations that the prevalent use of HFCSs has been THE leading contribution in the spikes in obesity and heart disease rates in the past couple decades. There's arguments for and against that notion, and it could go on and on and on, and probably will ad infinitum.

My take? I just want to have a cold, tasty drink. Trader Joe's Vintage Root Beer makes a pretty excellent choice for that. Like other soft drinks marketing themselves under a "retro" or "old school" label these days, TJ's root beer is HCFS-free, just using sweet tasty cane sugar as nature intended. I find sodas made with real sugar tend to be lighter, fresher, and crisper tasting, and the root beer doesn't do anything to change that notion. It's smooth, too, because it's not nearly as fizzy as other soft drinks. To say that it tastes "flat" would be incorrect, I think, because that implies it lacks the carbonation it should have. TJ's Vintage Root Beer tastes more like what you could expect from a homebrew kit or festival stand (like the fresh birch beer I had on the 4th at a Pennsylvania Dutch festival) than a bottle of Barq's or can of A&W. It's light, refreshing and highly drinkable with real root beer flavors like vanilla and anise shining through, and even better served over ice. I'm not as sure it'd be a great choice for floats, though that could be more my own preference because I like the combination of fizz and ice cream. All in all, by itself, it's an excellent drink.

Sandy's not much of a soda drinker aside from the very occasional Dr. Pepper, but she said she really likes it, enough to give it a 5 for all the reasons above. I'm fairly certain she tried to sneak the last bottle while I was showering upstairs, and only very reluctantly shared it with me when I caught her in the act.* Me? Tough to say exactly. It's hard to impress me sometimes on some treats I grew up with in Eastern PA that those of the Pennsylvania Dutch heritage tend to make better than just about everyone else (if TJ's ever tries to make a shoo-fly pie or funny cake, God help them), which I consider root beer being among them. To me, it's not as good as home brewed at a festival, but better than most other types that are commercially available except for A-Treat brand. Now that's some great stuff...also, at $3.99 for a four pack, the TJ's strikes me as being a little pricey. If Coke can get a fridge full of bottles to some dusty Mexican village literally in the middle of nowhere and turn enough coin to sell them at barely over a quarter each, I'd think you could get a similar high quality bottle of soda for less than a greenback each in a major U.S. metropolitan area. Maybe that's just me. Eh. Enough quibbling for me, because for what it was, I definitely enjoyed it and I'm going with a four. All this writing about it definitely just got me thirsty for another one...

Bottom line: 9 out of 10 Golden Spoons

* Yes, dear, this is a slight exaggeration. But only slight. By the way, notice how I wrote an entire review about soda and never once called it what you and all you silly Pittsburgh-born-and-raised folks call it?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Trader Joe's Chicken Pot Pie

No, Kittah, this is mah pot pie!

I don't think I'll ever eat another pot pie in my life without thinking about the stupid antics of Eric Cartman. I can't even remember what was so funny about that scene. There was just this fat kid eating a pot pie and his pet kitty cat kept meowing because it wanted some. He got really angry at the cat and started saying "No, Kittah, this is mah pot pie!" I remember the other guys in the dorm and I howled with laughter for some reason. I guess there's just something universally funny about a fat kid getting all worked up about protecting his food from a little cat.

A similar scene could have unfolded in our apartment last week. Except instead of Eric Cartman, the angry fat kid would have been me, and instead of a meowing kitten, it would have been my poor, sweet wife on the receiving end of my exclamation: "No Sonia, this is mah pot pie!"

That scene could have unfolded. That is, if Trader Joe had whipped us up a more respectable pot pie. Fortunately - or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it - the pot pie wasn't worth fighting over.

As you can see, the cover of the packaging brags about the "rich golden crust in oven or microwave." I'll certainly give it that: the crust wasn't bad - especially for a microwaved pot pie. Furthermore, as you can see, the cover of the packaging doesn't really brag about much else. Because that's where this product's bragging rights end. The vegetables were edible, but Sonia thinks they were tasteless. She kinda thinks the whole thing was bland. She dumped all kinds of hot sauce on hers.

Blandness wasn't the biggest problem for me. My major issue was the texture of the chicken itself. The pieces looked fake and felt funny. They were kinda chewy. If it weren't for that, I could have seen myself purchasing this product again at some point. I'm sorry to say it, but the only other chicken pot pie I've had in recent memory is one of the 80¢ Banquet ones from the freezer at Target...yeah, that's all I really have to compare it to (and our detractors say we're not real foodies). Now I know the Banquet ones are disgustingly not-good-for-you, and they're significantly smaller than TJ's version, but if we put those two head-to-head in a, I would go with the Banquet one.

Yes, I know that's pretty harsh. Really, if you don't mind rubbery chicken, they're not that bad...and there's always the possibility we just got one made with a batch of sub-par chicken. For the tasty crust and the not-bad vegetables, it earns a 3 from me. Sonia gives it a 3 as well, docking 2 points for an overall lack of flavor. So, we both thought it was just OK, but for different reasons.

Bottom line: 6 out of 10.

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