Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Massive Trader Joe's Post

Two months ago I was out for a walk and passed by the Rose Palace. (For those of you not familiar, that's a large building in Pasadena used primarily for the construction of floats for the Rose Parade.) And I came upon the above site. I thought Sweet, my next Trader Joe's post will start off with this picture. But then I kept postponing the thing.

After Thanksgiving I said to myself "I'll just keep trying new Trader Joe's products and so a massive post as a Christmas present to my readers." But then I ended up doing some work for an old acquaintance for the two weeks prior to Christmas and I never got around to it. (Although the TJ's posts aren't anything special in terms of writing or photographs, they actually do take quite a while to put together.)

Next I said "I'll do a big post in the New Year." And twice I had it scheduled but cancelled it. Now, finally, I present to you the Trader Joe's post I started in November. It's gotten a lot larger since then.

A few weeks ago my mom asked me to pick up a bunch of Trader Joe's frozen pizzas for her. She thought they look so good on this blog and they would be easy to keep in the fridge for nights when she doesn't feel like making much effort with dinner. So I picked up a half-dozen of them and stuck them in my parents' freezer. When they lost power for four days after the windstorm at the beginning of December, I took a couple of the pizzas they had left. You know, so they wouldn't go to waste.

I cooked the four cheese pizza in the oven in a remarkably short period of time. It felt like it might have only been five minutes. And it was delicious. I haven't had one of these in years - just cheese sounded too boring to me. But it was remarkably flavorful.

I'm not a big fan of Trader Joe's spanakopita. They just don't seem to cook evenly enough; some of the pieces inevitably contain ice crystals, while others are burnt. The flavors - mostly spinach, but with a touch of cheese - are fine, but overall these always disappoint me.

The 3 cheese pizza is fine, just not as good as the 4 cheese version. No surprise there.  So I decided to jazz it up a little. So I added some TJ's sweet long red peppers - basically bell peppers with a little bit more flavor - and arugula to the pizza. It was very good... but still not as good as the four-cheese pie.

I got this for Elizabeth to take to work, and she said she would probably only eat half of it then I could eat and photograph the other half. But then she forgot about it and left it in her bag. So she had to throw it out. It's a good thing she's hot.

I pretty much have never reached for a TJ's item as quickly as I did when I first spotted the crab and langostino rangoon. Crab, langostino, and cream cheese in a wonton? That sounded awesome. I cooked them in the oven, they were ready in less than fifteen minutes.

First things first: they are much bigger than I expected. I cooked the whole box - one dozen of them - for Elizabeth and myself to share, and we couldn't finish the plate. I don't even think we finished half of the plate. So unless you're cooking for a few people, I don't think you need to cook the whole box.

But they were very tasty. I would not hesitate to purchase these again.

I've enjoyed TJ's pork bao for a couple of years now, so when I saw the spicy shrimp version I was intrigued. I will cut to the chase: they were awesome, better than the shrimp bao I have had at many dim sum restaurants, even. The thing with which I was most impressed was the spiciness of the filling. I know it says right on the box that they are spicy, but I've gotten used to not believing such claims. But these had spice to them and were tender, juicy little pieces of shrimp.

Elizabeth had these, not I. She said they were okay but not very good. I thought they looked terrible, which is why I didn't try them.

These were another item that, unfortunately, I did not like at all. They were so dry, with only a hint of sweetness. I love Rice Krispy Treats that are made from scratch and still a bit warm. But these were almost stale and I don't see myself ever getting them again.

I am not really a big fan of Trader Joe's wraps. They rarely taste fresh and the tortillas often are the main offender: on many occasions they have been a mushy, gummy mess. That being said, this buffalo chicken wrap was really good. I feel confident calling it the best TJ's wrap I have ever had, in fact. The chicken did not taste old (talk about damning with faint praise, I know) and the sauce was quite tasty, and even a little spicy. The blue cheese sauce - not something I usually care for - was a nice complement, and so were the crunchy pieces of celery. This is the only TJ's wrap I have eaten in the last year where I actually went back and bought another one later. And it too was very good.

Okay, how should we judge Trader Joe's sushi? If we want to judge it by local sushi standards, it is not very good. This should not come as any great surprise to you, I hope. But if we want to judge it against supermarket sushi... well, it's still nothing special. Too often you get rolls that have been sitting in the cold case for more than a couple of days, and when that happens the flavors are impossible to determine.

I always look through the wraps, salads and sandwiches at TJ's to find the one whose expiration date is furthest in the future. I cannot stress strongly enough how important it is to do that with their sushi. There was a time when I got these Spicy California Rolls at least once a week, but that was many years ago. These days I probably get it less than once every couple of years.

Every once in a while, maybe three or four times per year, I see an item at TJ's that looks fabulous, that looks like it was created just for me. Shrimp corn dogs with sweet & hot chili sauce is a perfect example of that. I love shrimp, I love a good corn dog, and I love sauces when they're sweet & hot.

But I did not love these. They have promise, but I think they need to be fried. I followed the instructions and baked them in the oven. The corn batter ended up rubbery, the shrimp was tough, and, after one bite, each corn dog fell apart. The shrimp slid right out of the flaccid batter without any resistance.

I imagine I will try them again - they have too much promise for me not to - but I will never bake them in the oven again.


Bibimbap is a Korean dish of rice, veggies, chili paste and meat. I decided to give Trader Joe's frozen version a try, not expecting much. I microwaved the bowl for a few minutes, mixed it together and took a bite. It was better than I was expecting - especially the sauce - but I can't really say it was particularly good. But I'm not sure if frozen bibimbap could ever be better than average. It's too hard for the flavors to meld together when frozen separately and then microwaved.

I do not like Thai chicken pizzas because I do not like the taste of peanuts. And most pizzas using the name Thai often have a peanut-based sauce on them, and sometimes chopped peanuts. But TJ's Thai Chicken Pizza had its peanut sauce in a little plastic container. In a plastic pouch is an Asian slaw and the instructions are to toss it with the sauce. I figured I could get the pizza and discard the sauce, right?

I mixed up my own sauce of vinegar and garlic chili paste and tossed the slaw in that, then threw it on the pizza. It was quite nice. The sauce on the pizza was subtle and the chicken was surprisingly tender. I had never had this pizza before, but I will get it again. 

Despite what I wrote above about never really enjoying TJ's wraps, I do keeep trying them when I see a new flavor. And I love tarragon chicken salads, so this one was an easy call. It wasn't as good as the buffalo chicken wrap, but it was definitely in the upper half of all the TJ's wraps I have tried. Near the top actually.

But as usually happens with Trader Joe's wraps, the calorie and fat content astound me: 680 calories and 34 grams of fat? Seriously? A McDouble may not be health food, but those only have 390 calories and 19 grams of fat. I can eat almost two of them and be in the same range as one TJ's wrap.

No surprises here, folks. If Welsh cheddar with chives and shallots sounds good to you, you will like this cheese. I sure did. But if it doesn't, stay away. Which I'm sure you don't need me to tell you.

I love TJ's Toscano with cracked black pepper, it's become one of my favorite cheeses for nibbling, so when I saw they have taken the Toscano and soaked it in Syrah, it was an easy call. And it is every bit as delicious as the cracked pepper version.

You don't see me write about Trader Joe's salads a lot, because overall I'm not that big a fan. They rarely taste fresh to me. But I still try new ones when they look like they might be good. This one caught my eye: five-spice chicken, rice noodles noodles, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, peanuts, mint, cilantro, and a chili-lime dressing. (I don't like the taste of peanuts, but TJ's usually puts the peanuts in a separate pouch so it's easy to remove them from the equation.)

I felt the salad could have used a lot less noodles, but overall I liked it. The chicken had a distinct flavor and the dressing was really good.

I had pretty low expectations for TJ's frozen "chicken & vegetable wonton soup." I did not see how the dumplings would cook in the microwave at the same time as the broth and veggies. I was spectacularly wrong. This soup was delicious, due mostly to how much I enjoyed the dumplings. With an appetite like mine it's not enough to be a full meal, but it's a great afternoon snack.

Chipotle Caesar Salad with Chicken
Another salad that looked good was the Chipotle Caesar Salad with Chicken. (As Elizabeth says, when something is labeled "chipotle," the odds that I will try it go up by about 400%.) There were two things I loved about this: the chipotle Caesar dressing, a slightly-spicy, creamy Caesar dressing, and the jicama croutons. I love jicama, I think it's a a very underused ingredient, and the sweetness and crunch was nice in the salad. But the lettuce and the queso fresco were not very fresh and the chicken was rubbery and just sort of "there." I will not be getting this salad ever again.

Italian Truffle Cheese

Blacksticks Blue Cheese

Pita Bite Crackers
I tried all of these a couple of weeks ago when Tim, Tracie and I opened a 1975 Mouton Rothschild. Both cheeses were great. The Blacksticks is a golden blue cheese, unlike any I have had before. If you like blue cheese, you will be impressed with the subtle flavors of this. (But, as usual, if you don't like blue cheese, you will hate it.)

The truffle cheese was amazing: buttery, truffle-tinged deliciousness. I immediately starting planning a sliders recipe in my mind.

And the pita bite crackers were a nice vehicle for delivering the cheese to my mouth.

Panko Breaded Tilapia Fillets
I love tilapia, but I have never been a fan of breaded fish that you have to cook in the oven. It always seems to turn out greasy and never crisp. (Or, if it is crisp, the fish is so overcooked it is almost inedible.)

But Trader Joe's panko-breaded tilapia is an exception. The breading got really crispy, and the fish was moist while still being hot enough to burn my tongue. I would not hesitate to try these again, although next time, instead of eating them with fries and slaw like I did here, I will make a salsa like the one pictured on the box. 

Turkey Meatballs
I ate TJ's turkey meatballs last summer when my friend Zach and I made our Asian Turducken Pizza, but that was part of so many other flavors that I wasn't really able to gauge how they tasted. So this time I got a bag and put them in the slow cooker for a few hours. There is not a whole lot of flavor to them, but that's not terribly surprising, as they are much lower in fat than TJ's beef meatballs. However they are tender, and if you like turkey - I love it - you will enjoy these.

Mini Chicken Tamalitos
It doesn't get any better than freshly-mades tamales, especially when they're prepared for you by someone who has been making them for a long time, someone who knows exactly what they're doing. Frozen "tamalitos" are a far cry from that, obviously. But I like white meat chicken and I thought these sounded interesting, so I picked up a box.

Elizabeth and I decided to split some for lunch one day. I steamed them for about a dozen minutes and opened them up. The masa was better than I thought it was going to be (I admit my expectations were pretty low) but the chicken and sauce provided a consistency too reminiscent of cat food. And there was no flavor to any of it. These weren't bad - although they needed a few shakes of Valentina - but they weren't very good. I wouldn't mind having a couple of these again as an appetizer, but they certainly aren't enjoyable enough for a meal, and at any rate I don't think I will ever purchase them again.

That's it for this post. I won't let this much time go by again between TJ's posts.


Anonymous said...

That Tintern cheese sounds amazing!
I really wanna melt it over those turkey meatballs!

Ali said...

My boyfriend and I picked up the shrimp corndogs with pretty much the same reaction - these things were made for us!

We baked ours and they held up a lot better than yours did. They didn't fall apart and the shrimp weren't perfect, but I wouldn't have classified them as tough. I considered frying them but just didn't want the hassle that night. I may try to do so in the future.

We also loved the sauce, although I doctered it up for a little additional heat.

Stephen said...

Ah, the Rose Palace. The 2nd, or
3rd of May, 1969, would have been a good day to walk by it as well: http://ledzeppelin.com/show/may-2-1969

SuperLarge said...

More '60s fun at the Rose Palace:

JustinM said...

And the fun in that is where, exactly?

Michelle said...

What an awesome post. Thanks!

SuperLarge said...

*ahem* - who had which poster in college again?

JustinM said...

Mannequin Two: On the Move?

Jessica said...

I clapped with glee (in my mind) when I read the title of your post! Yay! Thanks Justin.

Bekah said...

Simply awesome post. If only our TJ's could keep the shelves stocked. It's crazy. And forget about the frozen section. Thankfully, I hear they are opening another one soon.

JustinM said...

Anon: That sounds good.

Ali: That's good to hear. I will try them again for sure. I definitely wan't to try them fried.

Stephen: I like Zeppelin, although I never got into them as much as I did other bands like the Stones, Who, or Creedence.

Jessica: I definitely thought you'd like this. There was only one other person I thought would like it as much as you.

Bekah: And that would be you.

Nosh Gnostic said...

Saw Lee Michaels and Frosty at the RP.
Weird show as Frosty decided to play drums bare-handed. It was cool!

JustinM said...

In 1970? My God how old are you?

Nosh Gnostic said...

Really, really old!

Natalie Baruch said...

Yay! More trader joes posts please! :)

Banana Wonder said...

wow that was epic!! next time i go to trader ho's (yes i meant that) i am picking up some shrimp bao and crab and langostino wontons. also, i noticed you guys have different cheeses that us in the pac nw.. we dont get that chive cheddar which ive tried down in so cal... just doesnt make it up here. wahwah. excellent post! you have outdone yourself.

Berroci said...

The crab rangoon, buffalo wrap, and spicy Caesar salad—those all look great. I'm beginning to think that even the bigger New York stores don't stock as many products as the west coast ones; I briefly worked at a TJ's a couple years ago and I remember them telling us otherwise, but I really haven't seen the majority of the new stuff here.

Trader Joe's sushi has always been a mystery to me. Even much more mediocre supermarkets typically stock better sushi, even if the rice is still rubbery and the fish half-flavorless. At Trader Joe's, though, the rice is gummy beyond belief, there's too much of it, and all the ingredients taste artificial. I guess they're just willing to sacrifice freshness for longer shelf life. (Walgreens seems to carry whatever the real brand name of the sushi is, though I can't remember what it's called.)

JustinM said...

Well put. The sushi is okay - I guess - as filler, but in terms of quality sushi, it's just not good.

Rodzilla said...

I love these posts because they double as shopping list. I'm with you on the Tintern, and now I have a ton of ther things to pick-up.

A. Trofka said...

I find the awfulness of Trader Joe's sushi sort of comforting. When I first walked into a Trader Joe's in 2002, I snapped it up, carried it back to the dorm in anticipation, then tasted it and was completely surprised by how awful it was. (If a Cub Foods or a mall food court could have passable sushi, why couldn't TJ's?) Now, after slowly giving up on it over the course of a few years, I look at it in the refrigerated case and I think, "there it is, just as bad as that night in '02." It keeps existing, people everywhere keep being disappointed by it, and my life seems to have some kind of continuity.

JustinM said...

I can appreciate that. It's like me trying the Jack in the Box tacos or BK Whopper every few years, finding out that I still hate them, and then trying them again a few years later.

Anonymous said...

This made me laugh because I have thought the exact same thing on many an occasion. I actually picked up a spicy cal roll 2 days ago, put it in my cart, walked one row over to the frozen aisle and suddenly was awash with a realization that there is no way this is going to be any better than it was the last time I had it more than a year ago. I returned the offender to it's home in the sushi section and resumed my shopping with a clear conscience. As I continued to shop...I couldn't help noticing sushi in other shoppers carts. I had to actually stop myself from asking them "why????????"

K.Lee said...

I love TJ's! I'm enjoying some of the spicy california roll right now, actually. I like them for supermarket sushi. I'm REALLY picky about my sushi (no avocado. Nori on the inside or not at all. No crunchy vegetables.) so my options are limited, but I really enjoy this one.

I definitely need to try those rangoons!

Unknown said...

Being myself a fan of TJ's I thouroughly enjoyed your post! I usually buy their langostino tails to concoct some yummy pasta with seafood and arugula. Thanks for the new ideas!