Thursday, August 25, 2011

Trader Joe's Revisited

You folks really seem to love the Trader Joe's reviews, so here's some more for you. (I actually have a lot of them, so I thought I would break it up into two segments; the other one will be here next week.)


The woman at check-out asked if I'd tried this pizza yet. "No," I said, "I haven't seen it before."

"It just came out yesterday," she replied - perhaps she thought I'd come in the day before, purchased one, ate it, and returned the next day for more - "and it's really good."

I took this with a grain of salt, because in somewhere between 400 and 600 visits to Trader Joe's over the years, I have never once had someone tell me a product wasn't good (not that I expect them to or fault them; I understand it's their job). But it turns out she was underselling the pizza: it is not only fantastic, it might possibly be the best-tasting cheese I have ever tasted on a frozen pizza. And there are five of them: Mozzarella, Grana Padano, Manchego, Provolone, and Pecorino. The arugula was about as good as you can expect from frozen and baked leaves.

And there are cherry tomatoes on the pizza. Come on, Justin, I thought to myself. You're in your 30s now. Give 'em a try.

So I did. And I didn't like them at all. But overall I loved the pizza.

There are very few foods that I enjoy more than battered fish. But previously-frozen battered fish is, without exception, a disappointment. You can bake it in the oven, which releases the ice crystals from the frozen fish and turns the batter soggy. Or you can fry it, but frying it properly so that the frozen fish is cooked but the batter isn't overcooked is quite difficult.

Still, I'm up for the challenge if that ends with a higher-quality food, so I fried these pieces. But they didn't get done enough in the center. One of them was okay, but the other was still cold. I've had Trader Joe's fish sticks before and I find those much better than these battered fillets. But I don't have any pictures of the sticks. Maybe next time.

I have a policy for jarred tartar sauce, and it's the same policy I have for two other things I'm doing at the moment - sitting around the house in my underwear and cheering for the Red Sox: I will do it, but only as a last resort. Making a basic tartar sauce could not be simpler: mayonnaise, lemon juice, relish. Bam, you're done. And it will taste better than almost any jarred sauce you can buy. (And if you don't want to make that little effort, at least buy some fresh tartar sauce at Whole Foods or, if you're in the San Gabriel Valley, Fish King.)

But having said that, TJ's tartar sauce is really good. Probably the best jarred sauce I have ever had. It's got a small amount of dill and a noticeable amount of jalapeno, though that adds more flavor than spice.

(By the way, the reason I'm doing the two things I mentioned earlier is that: 1) it's probably 105 degrees in my living room, and 2) the Red Sox are playing the Rangers, who are in a pennant race with the Angels. Yes, I could go into the bedroom and watch the game in the cool, 65-degree air-conditioned room... but that's a smaller, non-HD television. I like being cool but I like HD baseball more.)

In my teenage years, and right up to my mid-20s if I'm being honest, I did not think there was any food in the world better than the mini dumplings at Yujean Kang in Pasadena. I thought they were magical and I would have paid any price for them. Then I discovered Trader Joe's mini dumplings and realized I could make them myself.

Sometimes I steam the dumplings but on this occasion I cooked them potsticker-style: in a little oil in a pan for a few minutes before I added some water and covered the pan. These are great. The chicken and cilantro flavor is noticeable, the dumplings are very low in calories, and very inexpensive. They make a great snack, or two people can split a bag as a meal if you add a side dish like rice or veggies.

For this snack, I steamed a few of the dumplings and added sweet chili sauce and hot mustard. It was great.

I'm sure I've written about the Pizza Parlanno before but I'm including it again, because it is my favorite Trader Joe's pizza: Italian sausage, uncured pepperoni, roasted peppers and onions. Usually the meat on a frozen pizza is nothing special - often it's just bad - which is why I mostly go with the cheese pizzas that are featured here. But the sausage and pepperoni on this pizza are the best-tasting meat I have ever had on a frozen pie. I don't know how they do it.

When Elizabeth and I get frozen TJ's pizzas for dinner we cook two of them (or sometimes three if we want to have leftovers) and split them. But when this one is involved, I always end up eating most of it (which is fine with her as long as I let her have most of the Piadina or Tarte D' Alsace).

As much as I love Trader Joe's, their wraps often - usually, even - fall flat with me. It's not really their fault; there is only so much you can do when all the ingredients, including the wrap, have been sitting in the cooler for a day or more. It's just never going to be anywhere near as good as a freshly-made wrap.

But the Vietnamese wrap is probably my favorite, and the only one that I eat on a somewhat consistent basis. (Meaning at least once every couple of months.) Chicken, mixed greens, carrots, and jicama, all wrapped in a green tortilla and served with a ginger lime dipping sauce that actually tastes of both of those flavors.

If you have a deli or wrap restaurant near you that you like, I am sure almost anything they make is as probably better than this. But for what it is - and only $3.99 - it is not bad.

 I don't like these pops but my Elizabeth does, so I will turn this over to her:

"They are very good. They taste like mashed up strawberries, not artificial at all. And it's not too sweet or sugary."

The Pizza 4Formaggio always gets overlooked by me. I can't tell you exactly why. Maybe it's the too-cute name; maybe it's just that it doesn't have any toppings but cheese. (Then again, the long-gone frozen goat cheese pizza from Trader Joe's might have been my favorite when it existed, and that too was just cheese.)

On Monday night we were at TJ's and decided to cook pizzas for dinner. I got this one instead of the Pizza Parlanno so that I could have a new pizza to photograph and write about. (Yes, my desires are sometimes trumped by my need to blog.)  I wasn't expecting it to be anything great. But it turns out that it was fantastic. The cheeses all complemented each other wonderfully. I'm going to get this one again and add some fresh herbs next time.

Or maybe one of these days I will cook every single frozen pizza Trader Joe's offers and just do a post on that...


Nosh Gnostic said...

I wonder just how many frozen pizzas they do offer at any given time???

Q: What's the deal with frozen confections and otters (or seals, or whatever that thing is?)

Anonymous said...

thanks pp! love your tj's posts.

Fritos and Foie Gras said...

Those chili wontons look dynamite! And also...I am very much looking forward to seeing the every frozen pizza post!

JustinM said...

Nosh: I'd say at least ten or twelve, if you count the smaller ones and the thin "tartes." I will have my buddy Tim ask Elizabeth about the frozen pops tonight and let you know.

Anon: No problem. There will be another one next week, probably Friday.

Fritos: Well if you want it, then I guess I have to do it.

Julien said...

You have to love the things cashiers say without thinking, like drones. "Have you tried this before? Oh, you haven't? Well, luckily for you, you happen to be here the first time it's ever seen the light of day."

Stephen said...

Kelly and I LOVE the mini dumplings at Yujean Kang's in Pasadena as well! It is fantastic to know about the TJ's alternative. I have tried many times to duplicate the ponzu-ish sauce at Yujean Kang's. Have you had any luck in this regard? I think that they use cilantro in it, but beyond that I have struck out in trying to replicate it. Thank you.

JustinM said...

Yes, I mix equal parts soy, vinegar and sugar, and a little bit less than an equal part of water (I do it to taste) and then add cilantro and red pepper flakes. It's not exact, but it's close enough.

(BTW I just did a Google image search for "Yujean Kang's mini dumpling" and a picture from this blog came up on the first page. I totally forgot that I wrote about the place a year and a half ago. I need to go back and take better pictures, as that was two cameras ago.)

Stephen said...

AWESOME on both counts. Thank you very much for this. Yujean Kang's has always been a favorite. It used to be a pretty regular birthday dinner stop in the mid to late 1990's. We still go now and then, but it really seems like he has lost some of his passion for the job. I worry that it will not be around much longer.

JustinM said...

Totally. When I was in high school (I graduated in '96) it was a constant birthday dinner or special occasion place. And in my mid-20s I would go there at least once a month. But over the last four years I have only eaten there three times, and all three were just kind of going-through-the-motions meals. Still good, but staid.

The wine list, of which I know he used to be proud, was sad (and they were out of several) and the food just had a Panda Inn-quality to it.

But I read this in the Weekly yesterday, which I might try.

Jessica said...

Thanks for this post! Love the TJ's reviews!