Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fast Food Review: Del Taco Chipotle Value Bean & Cheese Burrito

I decided to try the new Del Taco "Chipotle Value Bean & Cheese Burrito" because it was only 59 cents. I don't like beans but I can handle refried beans; I was hoping that's what would be in these. But it was actually slow-cooked beans. I know that might be a plus for some people, but not me. So I didn't try it.

I asked Elizabeth to take a bite and tell me what she thought. These are her words:

"It was good. I don't really like chipotle peppers though - at least not as much as you do. But overall I thought it was a pretty good burrito.  It was small but what can you expect for 59 cents? And you know, I think I'm starting to like the Angels much more than the Yankees."

Okay, I made up the last sentence.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Another Trader Joe's Extravanganza

My post last month on a bunch of different Trader Joe's items has turned out to be one of the most popular posts I have ever written. Several people have mentioned, either in comments or emails, that I should do them more frequently - one person wrote that I should even do a weekly post on TJ's items. I don't know if I eat enough new items in a week to make that work. But I will see what I can do. Here are some other products that are either new, I haven't written about before, or wrote about a long time ago.

Is there anything better than a great piece of garlic bread? (Actually, yes. I can probably think of hundreds of things: beer... pizza... buffalo shrimp... early Van Morrison albums... seeing a 20 year-old kid pitch in a minor league baseball game and saying to your dad and best friend "That guy is going to be a star one day" and then 8 years later watching him throw a no-hitter. But it's just an expression.)

You might not think it would be possible for frozen garlic bread to be great. That's because it's not. But Trader Joe's is not bad. It's not quite as good as the Fresh & Easy garlic bread I used to eat all the time (before they decided to eschew it in favor of "cheesy" garlic bread that isn't as good) but for something that you store in the freezer, I was impressed with the quality. It took fifteen minutes in the oven and came out hot and smelling fragrant. (In retrospect I should have used the broiler for the last two minutes, though. Next time.)

As I have written before, Trader Joe's frozen pizzas are a great deal: for $3.99-$4.99 you get a pizza better than almost any you find at a supermarket for twice that price. This "Sicilian Style" pizza contains roasted red peppers, Provolone, and pearl mozzarella. It's ready after less than ten minutes in the oven.

The roasted red peppers are wonderful, but there just isn't enough cheese. (I learned long ago that a sprinkling of fresh cheese on a frozen pizza goes a long way towards improving the taste, but I did not add any here.) Of course, it's still quite good, thanks in no small part to the included packet of organic olive oil with red pepper flakes, which adds a fantastic spicy kick to the pie.

This isn't my favorite TJ's pizza, but I like it and eat it at least a couple of times per year.

Sometimes I really want the tang of a good Caesar salad, but I'm just not in the mood to make the dressing myself. TJ's bag of Caesar comes with a packet of croutons, shredded Parmesan cheese, and dressing. In theory, it should be exactly what I want.

Except the dressing is awful. I'm talking one of the two or three worst Caesar dressings I have ever had. It's an oily mess devoid of any real Caesar dressing flavors.

Of course, the reason for its failure is right there on the bag...

Fortunately I had some anchovy paste and lemon juice in the fridge. A few drops of both to the dressing, with some fresh cracked pepper, and it was remarkably better.

With my alterations to the dressing, this salad was more than passable. But if I'd had to eat the dressing as it was, I would not have enjoyed the salad at all.

It's rare that I eat breakfast. I know I should... I just don't. I'm not usually hungry until close to noon, no matter what time I wake up. (Of course when I actually do eat breakfast I feel better and eat less junk during the day. Whatever, I said I know I should eat it more often.)

When I saw a breakfast scramble of eggs, potatoes and onions, I decided to give it a try. I like all those things. It cooked in the microwave (not my favorite way of cooking anything, but according to the packaging that was the recommended method) in under two minutes.

It was more on the bland side than I was expecting - the only noticeable taste came from the onions. Everything cooked properly, which I was not expecting, but it was just lacking flavor. So I added a few shakes of pepper sauce. It helped, but overall I wasn't a big fan. The package contained 380 calories, not a lot, but too many for something whose only real upside is its convenience. I might as well drink a couple of Guinness for breakfast. (Or make my usual egg whites with roasted peppers, which I guess might be slightly healthier.)

Vidalia onions are one of the great foods in life, as sweet as candy but still containing that unmistakable onion flavor. When I saw that TJ's was offering them as beer-battered onion rings, I grabbed a bag as quickly as I have ever pulled a product off of a shelf (or, I suppose, out of a freezer).

In 20 minutes in the oven - ten on each side - they come out crispy, tasting as good as any baked onion rings I have ever had. (I considered frying them, but I ate them as part of a dinner I made the other night and I was cooking things on the grill, in a pan and in the wok; I was too busy to fry something.) These lose their crispiness as soon as they cool slightly, so you want to eat them quickly.

I will absolutely be buying these again soon, perhaps even making them the centerpiece of a meal.

I have had dozens of frozen barbecue chicken pizzas over the years, and I cannot think of a single one I love. But Trader Joe's comes the closest. Unlike most similar pizzas, whose barbecue sauce tastes like a sugary paste, this actually tastes like sauce. The chicken is okay - although that is high praise for chicken on a frozen pizza - and the red onions are actually great.

Like the Sicilian pizza, this one takes less than ten minutes in the oven. I added some chopped fresh cilantro to it as well, a nice touch. If you have a barbecue sauce that you like in your fridge, perhaps a drizzle of that over the top would help. (I did not have any and was too lazy to make one.) This is not as good as my favorite pizzas from TJ's - the Margherita and the Parlanno - but it is still very tasty.

I've written of the vegetable bird's nests before, as well as lamenting the fact that I thought they'd disappeared. It turns out the had not disappeared for good; they have reappeared in a new packaging. (I do not know if anything about the recipe has changed, but I do not believe so.)

There have been many, many Asian appetizers from Trader Joe's that I have loved over the years, but these are probably my favorite. For three bucks you get eight discs of tempura-battered carrot, onion and kale. You can cook them in the oven but I always pan fry them quickly for that extra crunch.

Two packets of a soy dipping sauce are included. Normally I loathe the versions of soy sauce that accompany snacks like this, but I actually love this tangy, ponzu-like sauce. I have cooked these vegetable bird's nests as appetizers for at least a dozen friends and every single person has enjoyed them and asked where I found them. One friend even asked if I got them at a local Japanese market in San Gabriel. Nope, in the freezer at Trader Joe's.

Every once in a while I read a description of a new Trader Joe's product in one of their ads and I think Wow that sounds good... and then I get to the store and see the product and think Wow that doesn't look very good. Usually I still buy the product. Sometimes my initial instinct proves correct. Other times my second reaction is right.

This happened again with these garlic potatoes with Parmesan sauce. I was excited to try them, but something about the bag seemed wrong to me. I couldn't quite describe it, but it just seemed kind of tacky. When I unwrapped the package to cook them, it became more clear: I had assumed that the "Parmesan sauce" was going to be a separate packet of sauce that needed to be added to the potatoes. It turns out that the potatoes are simply covered in a slimy film. Apparently this is the "sauce."

I cooked them in the wok for a few minutes. The potatoes themselves were actually better than I expected, but the cheese flavor was disappointing. Overall the dish was lacking. I will try these again however, and add some additional Parmesan and perhaps fresh parsley.

I actually have a couple more new TJ's products in the fridge that I never got around to eating this week. So perhaps I will cook them this weekend and do another Trader Joe's post next week after all. Have a good weekend.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

NBC Seafood Restaurant

I met up with one of my best friends from high school, Zach, yesterday for a few beers. We had planned on doing something for dinner and we were running through the list of possibilities. I asked if there was another Chinese place he could recommend down in the Alhambra/Monterey Park area - we've been going to places like that for more than a decade.

"There's tons of them," he said, before searching through his phone for a place that I had not been. Finally he just decided to call his parents and ask their advice. It turned out they wanted to come with us, as did his sister, Jenny.

"Sweet," Zach said, "now we can try more dishes."

We swung by his parents' house to meet up with his family and we all headed down Atlantic Blvd to Monterey Park. We circled through the parking lot, as large as a football field, and parked in a corner.

It was busy inside but not overwhelmingly so. A band was playing; apparently they set up every Wednesday. We took our seats.

"Dude," Zach said, "you're the only white person in here."

The menu was large and I looked at all of it, but there was no doubt in my mind that I would not even be offering any suggestions; I would be deferring to whatever the rest of the table wanted to order. I watched several of the dishes go by and everything looked good. I figured the best idea was to let people order their favorite dishes and then pick off of those.

Well, I guess there was one thing I wanted to order: Tsingtao.

I was complimented.

We started with the chicken and sweet corn soup, one of the best versions I have ever had. It was boiling hot, the chicken was tender and the corn was as sweet as the grilled corn I'd cooked myself the night before.

The Chinese broccoli - someone suggested that we have a vegetable - was very good, although I had difficulty eating it with my chopsticks; it was slippery. I have had this before many times though this was the most flavorful version. There was some debate as to what the sauce was; all I cared about is that I enjoyed it.

The deep fried crispy chicken was as crispy-skinned as you will ever get but the underlying chicken was moist and flavorful. I normally would not have added the pepper salt but Zach suggested I give it a try and he was right, it brought out an additional depth of flavors.

A couple of years ago Jenny introduced me to the chow mein at Tasty Garden in Alhambra. I'd never been a fan of noodle dishes but I quite enjoyed it. This chow mein was even better and I had at least three helpings of it. It was nicely balanced; the sauce was muted and the crispy noodles did not dominate the rest of the flavors.

The beef with scallions was my second favorite dish of the evening - not too salty, tender beef, plenty of scallions. I have had enough similar dishes over the years to recognize when lousy beef is being used, and this was quality. As an added bonus, twice I bit into big slivers of ginger, one of my favorite flavors.

My favorite dish of the evening was the cod with sweet & sour sauce. Sure, the sauce was sweeter than I like, but the batter on the fish was light and crispy and the fish was cooked perfectly throughout. I could have eaten this whole order by myself.

Action shot number one: Zach finishing off the chicken.

Action shot number two: Jack finishing off the cod.

I've never liked oranges but I was slightly impressed as Zach demonstrated the technique his Chinese grandmother taught him for eating them, leaving almost nothing on the rind. 

It was a very fun meal at NBC Seafood. I left as full as I have been in months, if not years. I would be interested in returning some day for dim sum.