Let’s talk wonder.
As a fully-functional adult, I assumed my soul had been successfully numbed to the tingle of effervescent wonder I experienced as a child. It was much to my surprise then that I found myself gob-smacked, properly gob-smacked, when I walked into the Wonka Candy Company’s flagship store in downtown Los Angeles the other night and discovered a glittering, whimsical showroom torn straight from the pages of childhood fantasy.
Elaborately waistcoated chocolateurs glided about between ornate candy displays, curtains of heavy purple velvet, and delicate confections that looked more like art than candy. Clearly a well researched decree from the marketing department had lead a team of skilled Imagineers, or even Visioneers, to design room said room for the explicit purpose of actually induce levity in adults. Well done, corporate America. However, what most stirred the rusty ventricles of my full-grown, deadened heart were the glass globes displaying prototype chocolate bars representing the furthermost edge of whimsical chocolate research. Amid the glittering confections and novelties sat the Peanut Butter and Jelly Chocolate Bar – an innovation that struck me as being as brilliant as it was outré.
“The market will never be persuaded to adopt it!” I declared to the world at large, so stunned was I by the audacity of the thing, so sure I would never see it in any normal store.
Reader, you might well imagine my surprise when just this last week, as I meandered through my local TJ’s, my roving eye chanced to fall upon Trader Joe’s own Peanut Butter and Jelly Milk Chocolate bar. Shocked? I practically dumped in my pants.
So I bought one. And how was it? It was…good. Kind of. The thing about this particular chocolate bar, whimsy aside, is that there’s not a whole lot of alchemy going on. The bar doesn’t synergize into something more than the sum of it’s parts – it’s exactly the sum of it’s parts and no more. The milk chocolate tastes like milk chocolate, the peanut butter tastes like peanut butter, and the raspberry jelly tastes like reasperry jelly. End of story.
The bar is well put together certainly. The peanut butter and jelly are layered in discrete, unmingled layers just beneath a thin sheath of chocolate. Both condiments run the whole length of the bar in equal proportion ensuring each bite delivers an equal mix of all three ingredients. And while that’s good, it’s still not great.
Part of the issue is that the PB&J, in being kept so totally unmixed, taste just like the PB&J you had in so many sandwiches as a youngster. Now peanut butter is good and jelly is a fine condiment as well – but have you sat down to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lately? Make yourself one today. Use some Jif peanut butter and some Welch’s raspberry jelly. Take a bite, tell me what you think. Not bad, right? But not exactly great either. Not something you’re going to rave about.
It’s a noble feat, delivering such a whimsical chocolate bar to store shelves, but not a resoundingly successful one. The bar is passably good, but uninspired. Trader Joe’s does great chocolate, they do some great peanut butter and peanut butter replacements. Perhaps if this bar had been formulated with some more exquisite ingredients it would be more than just a novelty candy bar.
Perhaps it’s my deadened adult heart. Perhaps it’s that the child in me to that once so loved PB&J sandwiches has been defeated by spreadsheets and traffic jams. Or perhaps I have grown up and moved onto bigger and better things. In either case, this whimsical bar doesn’t justify a second purchase.
Would I Recommend It: If you’re curious go ahead, but keep your hopes low.
Would I Buy It Again: No sir, I wouldn’t.
Final Synopsis: Might as well spread some Jiff and Welch’s on a Hershey bar.
A telling fact about myself, a fact that I’ve hidden up to this moment, is that I really love salads. I can quite happily munch on a salad every day of the week and go to bed happy – if, of course, it’s a good salad.
There are, of course, very many bad salads in our world. Whether they be terrible over-priced salads that loom out at you from fast-food drive-thru menus, or a restaurant’s “house” salad that’s little more than iceberg lettuce with italian dressing on it, or even a pizzeria salads.
However, because of the miraculous age we live in, a futuristic age of reality-bending technology and hyper-advanced demographic marketing, there are also incredible salads out there. Salads with globs of Gorgonzola and candied pecans and poppy seed dressing and more calories than an entire pizza.
If god truly loved us, I would be able to eat salads like this daily and not have to worry about my arteries bursting like sausages, but as it stands I must daily endeavour to find a delicious salad that’s also healthy. Ladies and gentlemen, Trader Joe’s won new space in my heart with their lovely Field Fresh Chopped Salad with Grilled Chicken for doing just a thing. Let’s get into it, shall we.
A truly good salad takes seemingly incompatible elements and makes them work in a lovely fashion. Trader Joe’s manages this with, in addition to grilled chicken and lettuce leaves, couscous, currants, asiago cheese, pecans and a sweet basil dressing. The salad balances these sweet, salty, tangy and mild tastes into a satisfying equation of harmonic simplicity. In other words, a delicious eat.
I will admit this is the first time I’ve ever eaten couscous and currants together, but the combination is flawless. In fact, not only is the salad delicious, it’s also tremendously unique. In a world where you see the same salad variations repeated endlessly on menus everywhere this is a breath of fresh air. Actually, it’s surprising that TJ’s decided to simply label this a “Chopped Salad” when so much more is going on. Although it fits the technical specifications of the genre, a vaguely Mediterranean salad that has been chopped, this one shows so much more ingenuity in ingredient choice that it deserves one of the more overwrought names TJ’s likes to hand out to it’s products.
Other qualities that should not go un-touted: the package includes a perfectly proportioned amount of dressing for the quantity of salad, and comes along with the always useful packaged-in fork. Overall it’s the perfect item to take on a picnic, have for lunch at your desk, or compliment your dinner steak.
Would I Recommend It: If you like salads half as much as me, you’ll love this one.
Would I Buy It Again: Without hesitation.
Final Synopsis: A tasty, clever salad you’ll want to see more places.
Ever since the first time I saw a coconut, that summer evening when my father came through the door with this large, brown, sloshing nut, gathered us kids around and proceeded to dismantle it with a power drill, I’ve been drawn to the enigmatic drupe of the tropics. As the power drill story illustrates, however, it’s not very easy to incorporate coconut into one’s diet. As such, I’m a sucker for new approaches to the fruit, and was eager to taste test this brand new item.
Unfortunately, Trader Joe’s Lightly Sweetened Coconut Strips is a close miss at best. Coconut is one of those polarizing foods that cab lead people to violent dispute. I myself have mixed feelings on coconut. I want to love it, I want it to be everything I hope it to be – exotic, refreshing, tasty – but sometimes I’m forced to face facts and admit that it falls short. Which, in this case, it does.
The coconut strips falter in two big departments – taste and texture, texture being the more grievous error. The taste is not bat exactly but the sweetness comes on too stridently. Though only “lightly” sweetened, the added sugar overpowers and clashes with the mild, subtly salty, tropical taste of the coconut flesh. The texture, not to mince words, is a little bit like a firm eraser. There’s such a thing as a pleasant chewiness and a firm tooth feel, but this offers neither. The texture is much too tough and rubbery to make chewing on the thick strips enjoyable.
Overall, the coconut strips feel like a rough draft of a better product. The potential for a delicious snack is in there somewhere, but as it stands this is the sort of party food that everyone tastes once and doesn’t come back to.
Would I Recommend It: Not really.
Would I Buy It Again: Perhaps, if someday my craving for coconut manages to overpower my good sense.
Final Synopsis: Too tough, too sweet.
Before I bought these, I stood in the aisle for a few moments staring at the bag and trying to contemplate exactly what freeze dried grapes would be like. Not raisins, I was sure of that. Raisins are, of course, not freeze dried but slowly dehydrated over a period time by heat –generally laid out in the sun by red-bonneted Andalusian girls, if the iconography of Sun-Maid is to be believed. So I knew they wouldn’t look like raisins – but what would they be? For the life of me, I couldn’t image how you could both dry out a grape, and have it not look like a raisin. This irresolvable thought it my head became compulsion enough to pick up the bag and take it to the check out.
Probably a lot of you won’t be surprised to hear that a freeze-dried grape looks almost exactly like an ordinary grape in size, shape and color. The freeze drying process, a process by which the temperature of the grape is dropped to -100 degrees Fahrenheit, then a near total vacuum is created around it causing the frozen water inside to vaporize directly into a gas (all done in a hefty piece of machinery unimaginatively called “freeze dryers”), simply removes the water from the grape, while leaving its form and structure intact. The big difference is that instead of being plump and juicy, the grape is now hard and crunchy. Overall, the texture is very similar to that of a malted milk ball. It’s beyond my knowledge to tell you how a juicy grape, which is more than 81% water, manages to stay the same size after all the water has been whisked out of it, but I can tell you that it makes for a tasty, if very odd snack.
Why freeze-dry grapes? Beyond the novelty of doing so, I’m not sure there’s a good answer. They do taste sweet – but, not particularly sweeter than grapes or raisins. On the other hand, as a result of the freeze drying process they are considerably harder to eat. The freeze dried grapes are sticky and tacky to the touch, due to extruded sugars crystallizing on the skin, making them hard to eat by hand. The actual eating is difficult as well – crunching down on a freeze dried grape pulverizes it into a sweet, crunchy dust (again, similar to malted milk balls) but unlike malted milkballs the sugar fuses quickly with your natural saliva to cement itself to your teeth. Despite the sweetness, and the novelty of the format, after three or four of the grapes I found myself entirely able to put them away and move on to something else.
It’s not these freeze-dried grapes are bad or unpleasant in any way – both the tackiness and binding nature of the fruit are forgivable sins, they just seem to be unnecessary. Grapes are easy to store, transport and eat, as are raisins. Both also lack the tendency of freeze-dried grapes to grow soft and soggy if left out of an airtight container for more than a few hours. This same quality makes it hard to imagine using the grapes in cooking or baking, apart from perhaps, grinding them up and using them as a replacement for sweetener or a topping of some sort. The obvious route might be to try adding them to a bowl of cereal, but in such a circumstance I can’t help that feel that I’d rather just add some raisins, or have some regular grapes on the side.
A final quibble is that for three bucks, you’d hope to get more than 1.2 ounces of product. If they were priced to compete with their cousin the raisin these would be a reasonable alternative, but as they stand Trader Joe’s would be better off positioning freeze-dried grapes as novelty products instead of simply sticking them on the dried fruit shelf.
Would I Recommend It: Only to the shopper who craves novelty.
Would I Buy It Again: If I can think of a reason to, sure.
Final Synopsis: An interesting, but not compelling, crunchy grape snack.
A pint of paint, probably pale blue, is the first thing I think of when I see this can. But did you know it’s actually a soup?
This entry may not seem as daring as some of the stuff I’ve reviewed, and that’s true, but on the other hand, is this not the quintessential Trader Joe’s review item? I’ve glanced in the direction of Trade Joe’s Minestrone soup hundreds of times since I first started coming to this off-beat grocery store, and every time I’ve had the same reaction – “Is that soup?”
Can I be blamed really? An utterly ordinary soup, the kind done by every soup brand does some lackluster take on, packaged in an overly large can that flagrantly disregards the only rule of soup can packaging – show me what the soup looks like – in favor of a single, enormous letter “M”.
To my thinking, if you’re selling a product that’s totally concealed inside its packaging, and you’ve not putting a picture of it on the front, it must be ungodly disgusting. Even bottom of the bottom shelf brand Armour put a picture of their “Potted Meat Food Product” on the front. So does Epicure Cured Ox Tongue with Gelatin – and it looks as bad as it sounds. How much worse must TJ’s minestrone soup look then? The answer, to my surprise, is that this minestrone looks and tastes delicious.
The field of canned minestrone soups is not exactly an illustrious one, but this minestrone is king of it. The soup is hearty and well-balanced, chock-a-block with the expected vegetables (green beans, peas, peppers, potatoes), and supple pasta all suspended in a thick tomato broth. And the amazing thing is that they managed to do it all right. The veggies are not too hard or soft. The pasta is pleasant to nibble on. The broth is well-balanced in proportion to the other ingredients, and while substantial doesn’t dominate the flavor. Simply put, it’s clearly the result of someone thinking about what makes a good soup. Even more to the point, this canned soup, heated in my microwave, was better than any minestrone I’ve had served to me in the last decade.
The only criticism I have, and it is a very mild one, is that the soup lacks meat. I know that the recipe for minestrone is nebulous at best, but the addition of some tasty beef cubes would have made this soup irreproachable. Interestingly, even though the broth is tomato based, the soup doesn’t receive the vegetarian stamp of approval.
Would I Recommend: Yes, to soup lovers everywhere.
Would I Buy It Again: I plan on stocking my larder with it throughout winter.
Final Synopsis: Weird can – great soup.
Another automatic buy for me, this ludicrously long-named treat is – brace yourselves – the best bit of chocolate I’ve ever eaten at Trader Joe’s. I’ll get into the details a little bit later, but suffice to say this quirky round of chocolate is akin to the sweet, strange girl you had a crush on in high school – the one who wore high yellow stockings and the choker and the long tresses of coppery-red hair.
I can only hope you are so lucky to have a local Trader Joe’s that stocks this fine treat. That said, if you do, and if you take my recommendation and try some yourself, you’ll be putting your poor little heart out on the line – much the way you did when you finally worked up the courage to ask that cute, quirky girl out on a date. The cold hard fact of the matter is that Trader Joe’s has already decided to discontinue this delicious chocolate.
Damn. Isn’t that always the way? Just the same as when she shook those red tresses and told you her family was moving out of town tomorrow. But that’s another story.
Before I get too mired in regret here, let’s explore the unique delights of this organic, stone-ground salt and pepper dark chocolate.
Now, my reservations about dark chocolate are well documented, and never in my life have I heard of such a combination with two common table seasonings, but if Trader Joe’s can keep dishing it out, I can keep taking it.
This is one of those miraculous cases where utterly incompatible sounding ingredients couldn’t compliment each other better.
Let’s start with the chocolate itself. First off, this is the first instance of Mexican dark chocolate I’ve ever encountered – and I have to say I liked it. It has the graininess you associate with Mexican chocolate (thanks to the stone-grinding process which minimally refines the cacao beans), and the heavy, complex notes of casual bitterness and subtle fruitiness you associate with dark chocolate. A good start – and intriguingly packaged in flat rounds wrapped simply in paper.
The addition to salt to dark chocolate is far from a new innovation, but adding black pepper to the mix is a bit of a revelation. The combo is so obvious it’s shocking I’ve never seen it before – given the craze for mixing everything and anything with chocolate nowadays. The mixture is far too delicious – a host of different tastes, bitter, sweet, salty and peppery, working in conjunction to drive you to taste a little more.
I buy dark chocolate bars primarily for one reason: I tend to gobble down chocolate and it’s almost impossible to gobble down something as bitter and textured as dark chocolate. TJ’s has created one overpowering exception to that rule with this concoction – as soon as I snap into a pleasantly gritty round of this stuff, I know I’ll be finishing it in one sitting.
Did I mention it’s all organic to boot? Well-played TJ’s, well-played.
Would I recommend it: Yes, but get it fast!
Would I buy it again: Alas, if only…
Final Synopsis: For the dark chocolate aficionado, this bar’s a must try.
Mango, goddammit, they had to bring me back in with the mango.
The mango in question is the mango in Dark Chocolate Covered Coconut Mango Bites. For those of you who just joined us, mango drives me crazy. The Strong Anthropic Principal postulates that the purpose of the universe is to give rise to man so that it may experience itself. In my mind, the universe gave rise to man so that he may assist in the propagation of mangoes. Mangoes. Mangoes mangoes mangoes. I’m also fond of coconut.
This particular item was an automatic purchase for me – I don’t even remember the conscious impulse to pick them up. They were just suddenly there, in my hand, waiting to be purchased. Not, mind you, just because of the mango in it. If I were to give into my desire for mango at every turn I would find myself physically unable to push my cart out of the supermarket doors. I must maintain an unshakable iron will on that front. No, in this case it was the decision to enrobe the combination of these delectable exotic fruits in dark chocolate.
As I’ve pointed out before, dark chocolate is rather in vogue at the moment and undeservedly so. Dark chocolate simply cannot be applied to any given desert with same cavalier attitude of milk chocolate. More than one customer, I’m sure, has bitten into a piece of dark chocolate covered whatever and only then recalled, all to late, that dark chocolate is a fundamentally bitter and highly nuanced treat that plays well with very few others.
The existence of Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Coconut Mango Bites was then either a further effrontery or a well-considered entrant into the world of taste. Given the sometimes uneven track record of Trader Joe,I was compelled to find out which.
The short answer is more the latter than the former.
Imagine your standard drugstore box of Valentine’s Day chocolates – the soft, rounded bricks of nougat covered in a chocolate shell. In terms of form, that’s what you’re getting here – just without the satin and lace. The texture matches this more common cousin exactly, smooth paste with a touch of coconut grit, and the taste isn’t far off either. Don’t come expecting a mango-flavor blast – they knew what they were doing when the gave it final billing in the product title. I’d describe the taste as only somewhat fruity and if the name had been left out of the title all together, you’d be hard pressed to identify it as such.
Obviously that’s a let down for me, but this blog isn’t about my personal feelings – it’s about whether something is worth eating or not, dammit. And this is worth eating. The dark chocolate’s bitterness is nicely matched with the sweeter candy center. It’s nowhere near as decadent as a Russell-Stover confection log, and that’s to its credit. This is a treat that slides over the tongue easily without the baggage of overbearing sweetness, a delicious morsel you can enjoy after lunch as easily as dinner. It’s a moderately sweet sweet, a sweet for people who find most sweets too sweet.
Would I recommend it: Yup.
Would I buy it again: Yes, mango or no.
Final Synopsis: This is one case where going for dark chocolate was the right move.