Well, it happened – a fall from grace I never saw coming. After and unending streak of not just good, but down right delicious salads, Trader Joe’s has finally served up a stinker. A salad that’s not just kind of bad, or hard to get down, or somewhat unpalatable. No, I found Trader Joe’s Kale and Edamame Bistro Salad actually inedible. Inedible! There’s almost nothing from Trader Joe’s I’ve found inedible – and that’s coming from the guy who actually finished off Trader Joe’s gelatinous Shrimp Nuggets. I’ve even managed to finish of things I don’t like (like that tub of marinated beets). But with this salad I just couldn’t do it, and it wasn’t for lack of trying either. I really wanted to like this salad. Salad is one of my favorite foods in the world. For me, discovering a new salad is like unearthing a small, rare treasure. How could this have happened?
Before I launch into my criticism here, I’m perfectly willing to admit that it’s probably my fault that I didn’t enjoy this salad. Trader Joe’s has such a stellar record with their salads that it’s hard for me to accept that they could put out one so completely unpalatable. The far more likely scenario is that I’m an uncultured heathen whose crude taste buds failed to appreciate the higher art the salad was devised by. I’m fully expecting to see some resounding condemnations of my review in the comment section and, frankly, I welcome them. I’d rather live in a world where I’m a confused nitwit than a world where Trader Joe’s puts out lame salads.
Okay, so on to the salad.
It’s awful, guys. Nothing in it really seems to work. I should have maybe been tipped off to this by the name – a combination of kale, soy beans, and sweetened cranberries just sounds like trouble. On the other hand, there’s nothing about roasted squash, quinoa and wheatberries that sounds like they’d be particularly delicious and I enjoy that salad so much that I’m actually eating it now, as I type this.
The first problem with the Kale and Edamame sald is, I think, the kale. There’s no other green in the salad but kale. I like me some kale in my salad – I loved TJ’s Cruciferous Crunch for exactly that reason – but kale needs to be used sparingly. It’s wonderful for texture and body, but when you make your salad out of nothing but kale, like TJ’s did here, it feels like you’re eating a pine tree from the tip down.
If you can get past the kale, you’ve still got to deal with the gangs of edamame soybeans, cranberries, grape tomatoes and scallions. These tastes just simply did not go together well for me. The sweetness of the cranberries fought against the waxiness of the beans, and the scallions practically reeked, overpowering the other tastes. The big, button-sized beans and whole tomatoes didn’t help either, it just made it so I had to take lots of giant mouthfuls.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, was the salad dressing. The package bills it as a lemon herb dressing, and I had hope for it. The dressing looked thick and creamy perhaps, I reasoned, it would have just the right flavor to balance the rest of the salad’s intense elements. Sadly, it did not. The lemon herb dressing lacks sweetness, or tanginess or depth. What it delivers seemed more like mustard to me than anything – harsh and astringent, clashing with everything else in the bowl.
It was after the addition of the dressing, when I found myself sitting there chewing a huge mouthful of chopped kale covered with lemon juice and pungent herbs, that I simply put the fork down. I couldn’t go on. I need at least one good element in a food to muscle my way through it, one ray of light. In the case of Trader Joe’s Kale and Edamame Salad I couldn’t find any.
Would I Recommend It: No, just no.
Would I Buy It Again: It was such an unpleasant experience that I might have to get it again, just to convince myself it was real.
Final Synopsis: Trader Joe’s worst salad.
Wow, guys – I could not have been more shocked when I saw Trader Joe’s Matcha Green Tea Latte Mix on the shelf the other day. There it was, just as I had envisioned it, the elegant solution I had lambasted TJ’s for overlooking the first time around.
If you missed it, Trader Joe’s first take on powdered green tea mix was the oh-so-close-but-oh-so-very-far Tropical Sweetened Matcha Green Tea Mix. It was a perfectly serviceable instant tea mix, ruined beyond the point of salvage by the addition of indefinably generic “tropical” flavors that were cloyingly sweet and rather revolting. This time around, it looked like Trader Joe’s decided to leave out the “tropical” and the “sweetened” and just give us a elegant, refined, affordable tin of instant matcha green tea.
Or did they?
The sad fact is, we have been duped again. At least TJ”s “tropical sweetened matcha” sounded unappealing. This new Matcha Green Tea Latte sounds and looks delightful, then it kicks you in the butt and pees in your mouth.
Where Joe went wrong the first time around was with the heaping spoonfuls of sugar they ladled into the otherwise refined and subtle green tea mix. For some reason, they decided to do the exact same thing again. Let’s check out the label: ingredient number one, cane sugar. In this case, that means a hefty 18 grams of sugar per three tablespoon serving.
“Oh, only eighteen?” I think I hear someone saying, “Well that’s not so bad, is it?” Oh, I don’t know, why don’t we compare that to an equal quantity of pure sugar. Three tablespoons of 100% golden brown cane sugar weighs in at 28 grams of sugar. We can do a little bit of factoring and determine that our matcha mix is about 66% sugar, and 33% tea and other stuff. That other stuff, by the way, shouldn’t be overlooked either. Of our remaining 33%, “tea” places third behind two other ingredients – coconut oil (#2) and good old fashioned maltodextrin (#3).
As long as we’re hanging out back here in the nutrition facts, we might cast an eye to the calorie content. There are 105 calories in 3 tablespoons of pure sugar, and 160 calories in 3 tablespoons of TJ’s matcha mix. How’d they manage to be more caloric than pure sugar? Why, with all the added fat of course – 10% of your daily fat in take in each serving. “What’s fat doing in my powdered tea mix”” you might very reasonably be wondering. Why, ruining it of course!
When Trader Joe’s left the word “sweetened” out of the product name, I foolishly assumed that it wouldn’t be sweetened. My mistake. What I should have been focusing on instead was the word “latte” which slipped in there. A latte, as we all know, is a beverage that has been mixed with milk – usually frothy, steamed milk, but in this day and age it gets applied rather more liberally than that. For instance, Trader Joe’s is using it here to refer to powdered milk mixed with sodium caseinate, a milk protein derivative. Technically, infinite shelf life powdered milk substitute counts as real milk. In reality, however, your green tea latte will taste less like a real latte and much more like tea with a whole ton of non-dairy creamer dumped all over it.
Overall Trader Joe’s Matcha Green Tea Latte Mix is just a rather unappealing product. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – there’s plenty of room out there for a simple powdered green tea mix, and deep down under all the nonsense at play here there’s a core of a nice matcha. Unfortunately it’s adulterated beyond the point of wasting your time or money on.
Trader Joe’s, I’m not sure who’s asking for this, but please stop listening to them.
Would I Recommend It: No, please don’t encourage Trader Joe’s to do this again.
Would I Buy It Again: Maybe as a gift for someone I wish ill upon.
Final Synopsis: A perfectly good green tea mix – ruined by too much sugar and artificial creamer.
As promised we continue Frozen Indian Food week with Trader Joe’s Channa Masala. Sure, the name might not be as hypnotically rhythmic and soothing as Aloo Chaat Kati Pouch, but this spicy, tasty, cheap and tangy chickpea dish has just as much to offer on the flavor front.
As you might guess from the above description, this dry and tangy dish comes from the dry and tangy regions of Northern India. Rajistan in the north west of Indian, and the neighboring regions, are dominated by the great Indian Thar Desert and something of the sere nature of this region has permeated the food that comes from here.
The Thar Desert (bordered to the south by the Great Rann of Kutch) is, of course, famous for having the best desert name of all time, just above Gobi and Mojave. The Thar Desert’s other claims to fame, of course, is as the setting for Rama’s attack on Lanka with his army of vanaras, when he and had to use his agneyashtra-amogha to dry up the drumakulya, leading to the creation of the Marukantara, but that may just be my opinion.
At any rate, masala, as we maybe all probably know, is the general South East Asian term for a mixture of spices, while channa, or chana, is the Hindustani word for chickpeas. That, and exactly that, is what you get in Trader Joe’s Channa Masala – a bunch of garbanzo beaans mixed into a sauce of onions, tomatoes, peppers and some usual Indian spices (namely, cumin, fenugreek, tamarind, mango powder and cilantro).
What that means is, you get a damn good side dish with a bunch of different flavors going on. The garbanzo beans cook up in a couple minutes in the microwave, and come out with just the right texture – a nice toothsome bite that is neither too hard nor too mushy. The sauce starts out with a savory, slightly charbroiled taste that gives way to a nice low burn as you eat. Where things start to get a little weird is around the edges of these flavors, where a noticeble, delicate sourness comes in. This hint of sour is the result of the mango powder and tamarind spices, and turns the whole meal into something more considerable than a simple bean side dish.
Trader Joe’s claims they make their Channa Masala from a traditional Indian recipe, and while that’s the sort of claim I usually write off immediately as marketer-speak, it really seems to be the truth in this case. This is a solid, and simple dish perfect for pairing with a more substantial entree – the Aloo Chaat, for example, would give you a complete, rather good Indian dinner in about 6 microwaveable minutes.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, these are some tasty beans.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes, this is an excellent solution for my go-go lifestyle.
Final Synopsis: A cheap and easy Indian chickpea dish.
Aloo chaat kati pouch, aloo chaat kati pouch, aloo chaat kati pouch.
With this new foray into Indian street cuisine, Trader Joe’s hasn’t only delivered another short, sharp blast of tasty and convenient, on-the-go snack food, but also a nearly hypnotic chant that will resonate pleasantly in your brain for days. Go ahead, try saying it out loud a few times. Aloo chaat kait pouch. Aloo chaat kati pouch. Pretty soothing, wouldn’t you say?
One of the charming idiosyncrasies of Trader Joe’s is that, yes, they do have down and dirty, microwaveable bachelor food, but that it’s all Indian for some reason.
I talked a little bit about the myar sack full of bbq’d Punjab Eggplant (quite tasty, by the way), and I’ll probably write about their chaan masala later this week (so, you know, buckle up your seat belts for that). Like most of Trader Joe’s other frozen Indian cuisine offerings, those items are your typical slap-it-in-the-microwave-for-3:00-and-hope-for-the-best style meal. Trader Joe’s Aloo Chaat Kati Pouch takes this level of casual cuisine to a whole new level.
The pouches are, for all intents and purposes, Trader Joe’s high-end, Indian-inspired Hot Pocket. There can be no doubt about this. When you open up the box you get two frozen dough pouches and two cardboard crisping sleeves. The resemblance is shocking. Trader Joe’s must have either spent considerable resources reverse engineering the Hot Pocket formula, or they simply poached top Hot Pocket talent from HotPock Inc. In any case, if you’re an American citizen, this product should be incredibly familiar to you. Simply pop the crisping sleeve in the microwave for three minutes, and you get out a pipping hot “pouch”.
As derivative as the packaging may appear, Trader Joe’s actually has a solid, authentically Indian grounding to spin this approach out of. Kati pouches, or as they’re more generally known, kati rolls, are a food innovation that came out of Kolkata in the 1960’s. Kati is the Bengali word for bamboo skewers. These skewers are colloquially associated with kabobs that would often be rolled up in a paratha (sort of like naan) dough wrap. The wraps caught on, and led to the rise a whole class of kati street food – essentially anything wrapped up in a nice crispy bit of soft, buttery paratha.
While TJ’s might still be open to accusations of biting on Hot Pocket’s style, it’s doing it’s own amazing thing with the taste. Aloo Chaat translates to something like “Street food style potato dish”. What that means is you get a tasty, corriander spiced mash of potatoes, chickpeas and onions, served in a snackable form. Despite the somewhat low-brow connotations of food pockets, Trader Joe’s really goes the extra mile to try and make these hot pouches tasty – including spicing the mixture with dates, shredded coconut, tamarind and even dry mango powder. The result is a slight tang of complex fruitiness that lingers on the edge of the stronger spiced potato flavor. I dare say that if it was served by itself, as a frozen side perhaps, where you would be able to dose it with condiments and seasonings as desired, it would be hard to find fault with this dish. However, constraining it in the pocket takes away something of the elegance of the dish, and limits your ability to add anything to it – forcing you to take it as is.
There’s two ways to look at this. If you’re looking for fine Indian fare, the aloo chaat is probably going to disappoint you when compared to an excellent samosa or chicken masala. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for some quick and easy street food style snacking, this aloo chaat is certainly going to satisfy your taste buds better than the competitors. Overall, it’s an intriguing take on an obscure Indian classic, and a winner in my book.
Would I Recommend It: If you’re looking for microwaveable on-the-go snacks, this is a winner.
Would I Buy It Again: I usually eat my meals sitting down, so no.
Final Synopsis: A tasty American spin on a fast and easy Indian street food.
Trader Joe’s 14 Shrimp Nuggets is the kind of product that makes you wonder if they really know what they’re doing of there, or if all the strokes of genius are merely the result of haphazard monkey slaps on the proverbial bank of typewriters.
Shrimp nuggets are a strong case for the latter. Let’s start with the words they put right there on the back of the box: “Shrimp Nuggets are filled with large pieces of shrimp bound with shrimp paste.”
Boy, that gets your mouth watering doesn’t it? Shrimp chunks and shrimp paste? I practically feel spoiled. Also, TJ, I love you but you’ve got to realize that specifying the exact number of shrimp nuggets you’re getting does not make it sound any more appetizing.
I get on Trader Joe’s case a lot for products, like their chocolate “nibs”, that are more or less the sweepings of the factory floor repackaged for human consumption. Let’s talk about the positive side first – this is some of the cheapest shrimp around. You can get this 10 oz box of shrimp/shrimp derived product for just $4.99. The flip side of that, of course, is that there’s a reason the shrimp in these nuggets is so cheap. There’s only one thing you chop up and extrude into nugget form, and that’s food products that are too small, imperfect or low-quality to market any another way.
That’s exactly what Trader Joe’s is doing here – chopping up bits of shrimp that would otherwise be, ironcially, too shrimpy to sell in their normal bags. Honestly, I applaud this sort of activity. There was quite the little uproar when videos of the “pink goop” that McDonalds allegedly makes their chicken nuggets from surfaced on the web. Sure, that’s gross. On the other hand, I think we can all agree that chicken nuggets are pretty tasty. If someone figured out a way to make them from what would otherwise amount to organic waste matter, I think they should be applauded for taking Native American traditions to heart and using every part of the beasts they slay.
That brings up back to Trader Joe’s 14 Shrimp Nuggets. If these things were tasty as hell, all would be forgiven and I’d gobble them down by the fistful. The problem is, these shrimp nuggets are not very good.
Here are my two main issues:
- They are really oily.
- Chunks of shrimp embedded in a gelatinous paste has a weird mouth feel.
As far as taste goes, they are pretty much exactly what you would expect – think fish sticks but with shrimp. The trouble is, the only way to bake these up, also like fish sticks, is in the oven. Once you’ve done so, you’ll notice that the nuggets are now sitting in a big puddle of oil. Why? Because of all the palm oil in the bread crumb coating – the same reason these back in a shocking 15 grams of fat per serving. With 3.5 servings per box, that’s 80% of your daily fat intake for the 14 nuggets together.
Point number two is, I hope, pretty self explanatory. The shrimp pieces in these nuggets are large, as promised. However, that makes for an irregular eating experience. Where a chicken nugget or fish stick is homogenous all the way through, these shrimp nuggets are an aggregate of various sized bits of shrimp that make them various squishy and chewy.
If you’re a huge fan of seafood in processed stick or nugget form, these would probably appeal to you, but as far as I can see these shrimp nuggets seem only to exist as an outlet for otherwise unusable shrimp.
Would I Recommend It: Not really. Not terrible, but not very good either.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope. I like my shrimp intact, thanks
Final Synopsis: Lumps of shrimp in oily nuggets.
Those word geniuses at Trader Joe’s have done it again, by gum! I never thought they’d top Avacado’s Number, and while Trader Joe’s Cruciferous Crunch may not have dethroned my favorite math-pun named guacamole, it comes close. After all, who in this wide world of popular appeal and lowest common denominator chooses to name their product after a tongue-tangling Latinate family? Trader Joe’s, that’s who. Keep up the good work, whoever it was at Trader Joe’s who was in charge of that! Some R&D wonk, maybe!
The Cruciferous Crunch Collection, as is not at all clear from the title, is a bag of shredded kale, Brussels sprouts, green cabbage and red cabbage. It is, in short, the nightmare scenario of every little kid sitting down to the dinner table. Back in the day that would have been me panicking at the site of kale, however since growing to adulthood I’ve developed a certain fondness for robust salads. To the modern day me, this bag of greens is a god send. The texture and heft of your greens are aspects of salads that go criminally under appreciated. Every time you’ve ever sat down do a cold plate of watery iceberg lettuce, someone has taken the texture and heft of their salad greens for granted. The absolute bastards.
Trader Joe’s Cruciferous Crunch mix brings vibrant tastes and textures to your salad, shading the other elements with the nutritious, nutty flavor of kale, the crunch of crisp shredded cabbage, and the dense chewiness of sliced Burssels sprouts. Throwing an handful of two of this mix in with your bed of baby spinach, romaine or, dear I say it, arugula, is the easiest thing you could do to upgrade your entire salad experience.
A word or two must be spared for the outre name of this bag of greens. Cruciferae is the Latin family name for a whole range of of dark, leafy greens – from broccoli to wasabi – and refers to the cross shaped leaves of the plants. Confusingly, cruciferous plants are also known under the more generally used family name brassicaceae, for no good reason other than to make trouble for botanists. I assume Trader Joe’s opted for cruciferous over brassicaceous because it’s marginally easier to pronounce, and because “Cruciferous Crunch Collection” sounds better than “Brassicaceous Bunch Bag”.
In any case, I would certainly assert that the bag is amazingly named, and that if you’re at all a fan of good, satisfying salads this is an essential addition to your fridge’s crisper drawer.
Would I Recommend It: To salad makers everywhere.
Would I Buy It Again: I already have.
Final Synopsis: An awesome name for an awesome bag of salad greens.
Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Fat-Free Brownies is one of those crazy products that wants to have it both ways. Similar to no-fat “cheese” products, low-carb bread, and methadone, reduced guilt brownies are one of those paradoxical products that attempts to negate its own existence. Everyone knows that the fat free versions of fatty foods are never as good as the real thing. It’s just one of the fundamentals rules of the universe, put in place by God as a daily reminder that no, life will never be fair. The sad question we must ask ourselves when we pondering whether to buy a box of reduced guilt anything is not “are they good”, but “are they good enough”? In this case, the answer is yes, if you’re prepared for a little weird.
Let’s talk about what’s right with these brownies first. There are several things Trader Joe’s does wonderfully right with these brownies. The most surprising quality of these brownies is that they actually deliver on the “reduced guilt” qualifier. The box prepares about a dozen normally sized brownies, each of which contains only 130 calories, zero of those calories from fat. There’s still the 26 grams of carbs to consider, but seeing as that Trader Joe’s is only promising reduced guilt, not guilt free, I’m willing to call that a success.
It’s also worth noting that the only ingredient you have to add to the box mix is fat-free vanilla yogurt. It takes a little bit of elbow grease to blend the yogurt with the dry mix, but once you’re finished all you have to do is pop the pan in the oven. It doesn’t get much easier than that.
To compare real brownies to reduced guilt brownies is a sorrowful thing, and I wouldn’t normally do it if there were any other choice. A good brownie is a delicious, wonderful little bit of chocolate heaven. A reduced guilt brownie is what you cook up when that heaven is barred from you, but you still hang around trying to stare in through the gates. The hope is always that maybe, maybe these reduced guilt, no fat brownies will be just as good as regular brownies.
Trader Joe’s Reduced Guilt Brownies are surprisingly tasty, all things considered, but there is a weirdness about them that is slightly off putting. The weirdness is two fold – taste and texture.
Taste is what you might expect, the intensity of delicious chocolate flavor that you expect from a brownie is much more muted in these. It’s still recognizable as a brownie, you just won’t be swooning over them. Texture is the bigger issue. The brownies are still dense and moist – but they’re also strangely spongy and yoken. There’s nothing egg-y about these guys, seeing as that no eggs go into it, but nevertheless the overall consistency and tooth feel of the brownies reminded me of a porous bit of omelette.
It’s certainly a long cry from the perfect brownie, but given the very reasonable nutritional profile, the flavor and texture you get is ultimately good enough to justify the purchase.
Would I Recommend Them: If you have a sweet tooth and a restrictive, but not too restrictive, diet I would.
Would I Buy Them Again: I prefer to go no brownies, or real brownies all the way.
Final Synopsis: An erstaz brownie that is just healthy enough to be worth the bother.
“Chicken meat with vegetables in a flaky pie dough”, promises the box of Trader Joe’s Chicken Pot Pie Bites. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this description, but I’d suggest switching the word order around. Flaky pie dough with chicken and vegetables is considerably more accurate.
If you come to pot pies mainly for the flaky, buttery crust then this the pot pie for you. It will suffice for you to stop reading this post now and pop on down to your local TJ’s. If, on the other hand, you come to chicken pot pie for the chicken, or other intra-pie materials, then this is going to be a much tougher sell.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Trader Joe’s Chicken Pot Pie Bites. The filling is made with yummy little bits of chicken, creamy sauce, peas, carrots, etc – all the stuff you’d expect, and all done well and tasty. As already mentioned, the crust is very good – in fact, it’s probably the best pot pie crust I’ve ever had. Crispy, buttery and flaky, never dry or tasteless, it’s a fine crust on a fine pot pie. The only problem is that there’s just so much of it. The pot pie bites are served up to as 12 individual tiny pot pies, each with their own complete pot pie crust. In theory this is the perfect pot pie upgrade for our take-it-anywhere, always-on-the-go mobile age. In practice it ends up being a whole lot of extra crust that undermines the entire nature of the pot pie.
You would imagine that in order to make a 1/12th scale pot pie, you would simply implement the culinary equivalent of a shrink ray and reduce all the pastry’s ingredients by 1/12th. In practice this doesn’t work. If you tried to make a pot pie crust that was 1/12th the thickness of an ordinary pot pie there wouldn’t be enough structural support to keep all the insides in and you’d end up with a just a little spot of burnt stew on a baking pan.
There’s a limit to how far down you can scale the crust. The problem Trader Joe’s encounters here is actual similar to the same reason giant insects don’t rule the world. Exoskeletons work really well for keeping bugs together as long as they’re relatively small. Start scaling up the size of an ant and you need a thicker and thicker carapace to keep it from falling all to pieces. The thicker the shell, however, the less room for the important stuff inside, hence the impossibility of ants the size of cars. Simply put, attempting to scale things at a 1:1 ratio breaks down pretty quickly in the real world.
In order to maintain the structural integrity of their mini pot pies, TJ’s has to use nearly the same thickness crust they’d use on a full sized pot pie. This means when you bite into a tiny pot pie, you’re getting something like 50% crust, and 50% filling on a good bite. This brings me back to our main point – if you’re a real crust fiend the talk of so much crust has probably got you pretty hot and bothered. If, on the other hand, you enjoy the traditional ratios of pot pie filling to pot pie crust these are going to be more interesting to you as a novelty than as real repast.
There’s a wonderful history of pot pies that is as long and colorful as it is dubiously apocryphal. Unfortunately, I don’t really have the time to get into it in this post. We’ll have to suffice with noting that the ancient Romans purportedly served pot pies filled with live birds at their banquets, a practice that, as the LA Times notes, “must have startled unwary guests.” Associated Press’s Tom Hoge, I would imagine that’s an understatement.
Sadly, we no longer live in a time where the diner must approach his pot pie warily lest he be overtaken by screeching, disoriented birds. Nevertheless, Trader Joe’s continues to enliven the pot pie tradition with novelty – even if in this case it’s more of a miss than a hit.
Would I Recommend It: Only to inveterate pot pie crust lovers.
Would I Buy It Again: I’ll buy a regular sized pot pie next time.
Final Synopsis: Good little pot pies that are as much crust as filling.