Friday, September 2, 2011

Trader Joe's Again

I told you last week that I had a lot of Trader Joe's products to write about and I would break them up into two different posts. I never thought anything could make people happier than when I write about a new fast food product... but damn, these Trader Joe's reviews come pretty close, judging by blog traffic.

Ah meatloaf. When I was a kid - I don't remember exactly how old, maybe 11 - my mom made a big batch of meatloaf. It was one of the most delicious things I have ever had, and I slathered it with ketchup. I might have eaten two pounds of the stuff. Not surprisingly, I threw up. Like a Taco Bell-and-tequilla experience when I was just short of my 18th birthday, I still taste the meatloaf coming back up all these years later.

So I went two decades without eating meatloaf again. Every once in a while one of my friends would order meatloaf somewhere and I would look and think 'Wow, that does look pretty good.' (I specifically remember a meatloaf and mashed potato plate my friend Hatcher ordered at my beloved, long-gone Breadcrumbs on Colorado Blvd that looked REALLY good... but I just wasn't ready to eat meatloaf.

Then, in May, at Green Street Tavern for Elizabeth's birthday, I decided to take the plunge and try meatloaf again. It was a wild boar chunk of it, served with boar bacon and garlic mashed potatoes, and it was fantastic. A few weeks later at the same restaurant I tried the wild boar meatloaf sandwich, and called it the best sandwich I have had all year.

So when I saw these meatloaf muffins at TJ's, I decided I definitely had to try them. After a few minutes in the microwave - never my preferred method of cooking, but the one that was recommended - they came out hot and steaming. The Parmesan mashed potatoes were a little on the dry side, but otherwise quite tasty. And the turkey meatloaf was really good. Sure, it was a little rubbery, but it's turkey so there isn't a ton of fat in it. It's hard to make these the centerpiece of a meal, they just aren't very big and I'm not sure I could eat more than two of them, but having two with lots of vegetables on the side does the job. These aren't going to go into my regular rotation of Trader Joe's items, but every once in a while when I get a craving for that wild boar meatloaf from Green Street Tavern but don't want to go out, these meatloaf muffins will do the job.

As I get older, my tolerance for mediocre fries has waned considerably. There was a time when I would order fries with my dinner no matter what kind they were. And no fast food meal was complete without an order of fried potatoes. Now, there are almost no fast food fries that I enjoy, very few restaurant fries as well, and no oven-cooked fries. I certainly still love Belgian fries as much as any food in the world, and there are several restaurants in town whose fries I love (Quadrupel, Green Street Tavern, Wolfe Burgers, etc.) but more often than not these days I am likely to order potato salad or cole slaw or onion rings or any other available side.

But when you see a product called "Handsome Cut" fries, I mean, how can you pass that up? Like most oven-cooked fries, I cooked these a little longer than the instructions called for - these were probably in the oven close to half an hour. I took them out, dusted them with paprika, and made a black pepper aioli.

They were very good. They weren't crispy - I don't remember the last fries I cooked in the oven that I would call "crispy" - but they weren't soggy or starchy. They actually tasted like real potatoes. These are unquestionably my new favorite oven fries and I will continue buying them. (Well, until Trader Joe's stops carrying them, which we all know will happen eventually.)

As you can probably tell from my writing about TJ's - and as I can definitely tell from the way you read these TJ's posts - there are many things I love about the place. The frozen pizzas (I've already had several people email me and say they definitely want to see me do a massive post on all of Trader Joe's frozen pizzas), the wines you can get for $3.99 that win informal wine tastings, the cheese selection, the flowers, etc.

But one thing I haven't really written about are the salty snacks you can get. The honey-mustard pretzel bites, the pretzel crisps, the "Longboard" tortilla chips that look like mini surfboards. All good, and all around two dollars per bag. When I saw these "Skinny Fries" - air-popped potato sticks - I decided to try them out.

Well, they are probably my least favorite of the bagged snacks I have tried. They aren't bad, they just don't have any flavor whatsoever. Maybe it's just me, maybe you will taste something here, but I don't get them. They are mostly air, there is no potato flavor. They are definitely low in calories, but then again so are vegetable sticks, and at least those have flavor.

Tzatziki sauce is one of those things you either love or hate. And I don't mean some people love it and some people hate it (although that is undoubtedly true). What I mean is that it varies so much from sauce to sauce that it can be one of the most delicious things you've ever tasted or absolutely vile stuff that upsets your stomach within seconds of eating it. Most of the time, when I have it at restaurants or from a store, I hate it. Of course, when I have someone's homemade sauce, where they've actually put care into what they're doing, I've been tempted to eat an entire bowl.

Trader Joe's tzatziki sauce is one of the best I have ever had from a store. The yogurt isn't overpowering, the cucumbers are thin and crunchy, and there is a noticeable garlic taste. I am by no means an expert on Tzatziki, but I enjoy this, although I don't love it. But it does add a nice flavor to the otherwise flavorless skinny fries.

I've never had a s'more. Some people find that strange, but I've never liked chocolate. The idea of combining it with anything has no appeal to me. So like I did last week with the strawberry popsicle, I will turn this over to Elizabeth:

"The graham cracker was more like a soft cookie or cake than a cracker. There was a distinct flavor of coffee to the ice cream; that was a surprising flavor for something that I was expecting to taste like a s'more. Inside were chocolate chips and a marshmallow layer. I liked these but they weren't fantastic; I don't think I would get them again. I certainly did not fall in love with them like I did the strawberry or peach pops. And there are several new things I would rather try than buy these again, especially the Oreo cookie sandwich with mint chocolate chip ice cream in the middle. I am sure I will review that, too, since Justin won't like it."

Often, when Elizabeth and I are at TJ's, we see a product, never more than 4 or 5 dollars, and say "Yeah, let's give it a try." Sometimes the product isn't very good, but sometimes we are pleasantly surprised. (And every once in a while we are shocked at how good something is and we say "Wow, why didn't we get this sooner?")

Rosemary chicken breasts with rice pilaf was one of Elizabeth's picks. I've never been a big fan of rice pilaf but I certainly love rosemary chicken. One night when we didn't get around to eating dinner until late, I looked in the fridge for options and said "Let's split this." (The package contained two chicken breasts and weighed a pound and a half; it was certainly large enough for two people.)

After baking it in the oven for twenty minutes I took out the contents and divided it onto two plates. I wasn't crazy about the rice. It was dry and had a weird texture, but please take this with a grain of salt: I honestly can't remember any rice pilaf that I have ever truly enjoyed. But the chicken was delicious: juicy, a small-but-noticeable amount of rosemary flavor, and no tough, inedible pieces. I would certainly be glad to eat this again if Elizabeth wants to. (I doubt I would ever pick it up on my own, though; I would much rather get a chicken breast from the butcher and just make some rice on my own.)

Trader Joe's frozen, bagged chicken entrees have been a part of my life for a long time. When I was young and single I ate their orange chicken at least two or three nights per week; I had a system down for mixing the sauce with cilantro, crushed garlic, chili flakes and water chestnuts that was better than any Panda Express entree I've ever tried. These days I eat their tempura chicken several times per year.

I'd seen pictures of the citrus glazed chicken for months but never tried it. I wondered if I was missing something great here, so last week I picked up a bag. It contains rice and cashews, and specific instructions how to cook it all. I thawed the sauce packet under hot water while the rice was cooking in one skillet and the chicken and vegetables were cooking in another. After about seven minutes of sautéing the latter, I added the thawed sauce packet and mixed it around for thirty seconds. Elizabeth and I decided not to add the cashews.

The rice was fine - pretty bland but I preferred it to the rice pilaf above - but the chicken and veggies were delicious. I couldn't detect any citrus, but Elizabeth could (she's always better about detecting tastes and smells than I am) but the chicken was tender and the veggies almost tasted as good as fresh veggies. There isn't a lot of chicken in the bag (especially compared to the orange or tempura chicken bags, which are both full of enough chicken for two people to share and still have leftovers) but there is certainly an adequate amount. As long as you like rice, this bag is definitely big enough for two people. I will absolutely try this again, but I don't like it as much as the tempura chicken.

This product isn't unique to Trader Joe's, I've seen it many other places, but not for the same price as I got it at TJ's: less than two dollars. There's not much I can say about it other than the fact that it was a great snack in the afternoon when I wanted to nibble on something without making any effort.

If you've been to Trader Joe's, you certainly know how friendly, sometimes exuberant, some of the employees can be. One day I was purchasing a jar of this tomato-less corn and chile salsa and the cashier said to me "Oh this stuff is so good," to which I nodded in agreement.

"Have you ever had our mini chicken tacos?" he asked.

(Of course I have, I have been snacking on them for years. I wrote about them in my June Trader Joe's post.)

"Sure," I said.

"Okay," he replied, "you have to try them with a mix of this salsa and sour cream."

That sounded easy enough, so Wednesday night that's what I made for dinner. I baked the mini tacos in the oven for 15 minutes and mixed up sour cream and the salsa. When the tacos were done I placed them on the plate and drizzled them with salsa verde. They were indeed delicious. I had no idea what ratio of salsa to sour cream I should create, so I aimed for 1:1. Next time I will definitely use a higher proportion of salsa. It wasn't bad, it just would have been better with a little more of the salsa kick and a little less of the sour cream smoothness.

Okay, that's all of my Trader Joe's reviews for this week. I'm sure there will be more in the future.


Matt T said...

I like Trader Joe's........I really do. But after I found a snail shell in my frozen pasta dinner last week.......they are on my skip list for a while.

Matt T said... was a piece of a shell about the size of a penny.....not a whole shell

Fritos and Foie Gras said...

Salsa and sour cream is stuff of the GODS!

The English Major said...

TJ's makes a chocolate candy that's essentially a pre-made, two-bite s'more. Graham cracker with a marshmallow top covered in chocolate. Throw them in the microwave for a couple of seconds and it's basically the best thing ever (though I am impatient and just eat them cold).

Also, Trader Tso's Sauce (yuk yuk yuk) is awesome.

Anonymous said...

is the salsa in the refrigerated section? ive never seen it at my tjs

Jessica said...

As always, an enjoyable informative read. Keep em' coming. Enjoy this long holiday weekend!

SuperLarge said...

As a result of your last TJ's post, I picked up a box of the strawberry faux-Otter Pops and I've been a happy camper all week.

JustinM said...

Matt: One of many things I dislike about pasta: there is always a 90% chance you will find a snail shell in it. (I may be off on the percentage, though.)

Fritos: That's what I thought!

English Major Well I certainly won't be trying that, but thanks for the info. I'm sure that sounds great to some people here.

Anon: The salsa is room temperature, on the shelf.

Jessica: My pleasure. You have a great weekend, too.

Super Large: Liz likes the peach even better, actually.

Popp2479 said...

I was wondering what sauce you were using with the Trader Joes Handsome Cut Fries? Also I love those fries they are very tasty and not greasy at all.

JustinM said...

A homemade black pepper aioli. I made a quick aioli with crushed garlic (soaked in vinegar) and mayo, then added in plenty of fresh cracked garlic.

I agree about the fries, they are probably the best oven-cooked fries I have had.

Popp2479 said...

Oh cool thanks for the reply. How is that sauce on calories? I am trying to find a more healthy substitute for ketchup.

JustinM said...

Well, mayo is an emulsion of eggs and oil, so it's going to have a lot more calories than ketchup, which has relatively few calories. There is low-fat mayo, even fat free, though neither tastes as good.

What is it about ketchup that you don't find healthy? The amount of sugar, I'm guessing. There are sugar-free ketchups, though to be honest I have never tried them.

Do you like mustard? That's usually just mustard seed (or powder) and vinegar, so most mustards have almost zero calories.