You usually can’t go wrong with food at Trader Joe’s. When they recently missed the mark with their Low-Fat Chicken Chow Mein I didn’t expect to run into trouble again, so soon, with another Asian, noodle-based dish. However, here we are. Trader Joe’s Beef Pho Soup is a total let down across the board and should be studiously avoided.
The flip side of delivering such high-quality results, time and time again, is that you set the bar high. Even in Trader Joe’s frozen food aisle, I expect anything I pick up to be better than average. That’s something to be proud of, but it makes your failures absolutely shocking by comparison. This beef pho soup is one such failure.
Before I go any further, it’s probably necessary to clarify that “pho” is pronounced “f’uh” not “fo”. It’s simple fact, but one that some pho shops – such as the Beverly Hills based “9021-Pho” – get wrong, while other shops – such as “Pho King” – get so, so right.
Pho, for those of you who have yet to enjoy it, is a hearty Vietnamese noodle soup – generally served in the largest soup bowls that you’re ever likely to see. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone drain an entire bowl of pho in one sitting. There are many, many variations on the soup, but all of them feature the same basic template – a clear broth (usually chicken or beef) heavily spiced with clove, star anise, coriander seed, fennel, cinnamon, black cardamom, ginger and onion, a hearty portion of rice noodles and some sort of meat (again, usually beef or chicken – though any meat can be used). Pho is then served piping hot with a heaping plate of traditional garnishes, such as chili peppers, cilantro, lime, bean sprouts, and Thai basil.
Grappling with the mountain of sprigs and garnishes, is part of the fun of eating a pho. It’s an Asian dish that retains something of it’s cultural uniqueness, despite it’s adoption on American shores. It’s a simple dish with complex underpinnings, yet the many restaurants I’ve enjoyed it at have all, without exception, delivered a hearty, spicy, and most of all delicious dining experience.
So it’s really, really shocking that Trader Joe’s fails to achieve what the dingiest, strip mall pho house can nail. The problems with Trader Joe’s take on pho are numerous, but it boils down to the fact that their pho is bland. So bland. Bland and limp. Bland, limp and lifeless. Conceptually, it’s like eating a gruel made out of C- report cards. I don’t know how you could decide to make a pho but forget to put any of the spices in, but Trader Joe’s has done it.
The first mistake I made was heating the dish up. In its frozen form, Trader Joe’s Beef Pho looks clever and smells appetizing. The marbled beef cubes look intriguing, the frozen noodles look elegant, and the scent of spices, while not strong, still suggests the fragrant, green richness of a true pho.
It’s really a huge a surprising let down, then, when you heat it up and everything goes limp and flavorless. From the bland broth to the thin, flavorless noodles, to the limp, mushy vegetables, there is literally nothing to recommend this soup. Trader Joe’s tries to cover up for it’s deficiencies by urging you to “add a squeeze of lime” on the box, but it would take far more than that to turn this pho around.
If you enjoy pho, you’ll want to avoid this soup and try any of Trader Joe’s other wonderful, delicious Asian cuisine options. If you’ve never had pho before, you’ll also want to avoid it. Instead, look for literally any pho restaurant in your town and eat there instead. Unless a gas main ruptures explosively while you’re in the building, it’s guaranteed to be a better experience.
Would I Recommend It: Only to jailers looking for ways to further erode the human spirit.
Would I Buy It Again: I’ll by the dehydrated kimchi before I buy this.
Final Synopsis: The only truly bad pho I’ve ever had.
People are willing to put dark chocolate on just about anything. While I applaud the adventerous spirit, the problem is that dark chocolate is not so universal as people hope. Just because the word “chocolate” is in there doesn’t mean it’s a confection. The strong, bitter, almost astringent taste, of a high purity dark chocolate is an acquired taste and should be introduced into a dish only with forethought. Thus it was with trepidation that I picked up Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Edamame.
I like dark chocolate, or at least I want to like dark chocolate. I certainly like it enough on its own. The trouble is, it’s hard to find it done right. One place I seem to continually encounter it is on roasted coffee beans, which has always truck me as very strange. Obviously coffee is a good thing. Coffee keeps America running. I, for one, recently fell in love with Trader Joe’s Cold Brewed Coffee Concentrate. However coffee beans are not coffee. They are the cast off husk that we extract that essential nectar from – the thing that gets in the way between us and the coffee. Why then does it seems to anyone likea good idea to cover the whole beans and eat them? It’s not like we eat them in any other way – nobody is throwing a handful of roasted coffee beans on their salad, or mixing them into their pasta. We grind them up and make coffee out of them or, in extreme cases, add it to steak rubs. We don’t just munch them down whole.
I bring this up because Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame are essentially an improved form of the chocolate covered coffee bean. There’s a shell of dark chocolate around a crunchy, munchable core of dry roasted edamame. What’s surprising to me is that really these things are pretty good.
“Now wait a minute”, you’re probably thinking.”Aren’t edamame just soybeans?” Yes, that’s true – but don’t let the rather long history of soybean bashing turn you against me right from the start. It’s true that soy beans are mostly used to make salty and savory dishes – for example, as soy sauce, miso soup, and tofu. However, anyone who’s ever had a bowl of salted, fresh soybeans at a bar or as finger food, served still in the their little green pods, knows that they also have a very mild taste with an addicting crunchiness.
The truth is, you’ll barely taste the edamame beans in Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Edamame at all. They could have just as well called these Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Crunchers. The flavor of the heavy, dark chocolate coating is so strong that you don’t get any taste from the dry roasted soybeans at all. All you get is texture – the crunchy body and satisfying grist of the light, sere bean. The added benefit is that this snack actually has a pretty good protein content. A 1/4 cup serving contains 7 grams of protein – 49 grams in the whole container.
The other thing that Trader Joe’s did right with their dark chocolate edamame is not actually using dark chocolate at all. Seriously. A
quick inspection of the ingredients reveals only a mention of “semi-sweet” chocolate. Semi-sweet is a far cry from dark chocolate, sometimes containing as little as 35% cocoa. Trader Joe’s doesn’t state the percent of cocoa in these beans, but a safe bet might be around 50%.
Normally I decry this sort of misleading wordplay, but in this case I’m actually not that upset. For one, semi-sweet chocolate is still “technically” considered dark chocolate, even if it wouldn’t necessarily be considered as such in the vernacular. Secondly, and more importantly, it’s actually a good move. Dark chocolate tends to be unpalatable quickly as the purity increases. By going with a semi-sweet dark chocolate, Trader Joe’s has succeeded in making a eminently snackable chocolate treat perfect for setting out at bridge groups, high caliber sporting events, and other informal social gatherings. A chocolate treat that isn’t too sweet, or too bitter.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, this is a fine use of dark chocolate.
Would I Buy It Again: Sure, I could see putting this out for guests.
Final Synopsis: Semi-sweet chocolate beans with a pleasantly crunchy center.
We continue our look at Trader Joe’s frozen Chinese-insipired food with Trader Joe’s Chicken Gyoza Pot Stickers. Unlike the Chicken Chow Mein from the other day, I like these gyoza just fine. In fact, I have a nearly bottomless stomach for a good gyoza, and Trader Joe’s certainly manages to deliver. I crammed hundreds of these savory dumplings into my face in Japan, and I’ll cram hundreds more if given the chance. Where the chow mein clearly lacked any sort of passion in it’s execution, these gyoza were made by a true believer. Despite coming to you frozen, these little dumplings are nearly as good as the real thing and, even better, seem to cook up perfectly every time.
There’s something wonderful that happens to mince meat and vegetables when they’re put inside the thin, crimped skin of a gyoza dumpling. Trader Joe’s combination of rich and flavorful chicken with minced vegetables combines brilliantly with the smooth, almost creamy texture of the tender skin. Whether pan fried or steamed, the gyoza seal in the flavors, keeping the insides moist and tender.
The name gyoza is directly taken from the Japanese, but that name is as meaningless to them as it is to us. The Japanese took both the name and idea from Northern China where gyoza go by the name giaozi or jioazi. Their true origin is obscured by the hazy reaches of history, but seems to owe their creation to Zhang Zhongjing – a legendary figure in Chinese history and the most prominent physician of the year 200 AD – as some sort of medical treatment.
The name Mr. Zhang bestowed upon his creation, jiaozi, translates literally “tender ears”. This is not, as you might expect, because of the lumpy, oblong shape of gyoza makes them look a somewhat ear-like. Instead, historic record suggests they were used to treat frostbitten ears. Whether this means that they were supposed to be fed to a person with frostbitten ears as a sort of medicine, or strapped directly to the head in order to warm the damaged extremities is unknown, as Zhang’s original texts were lost during the ravages of the Three Kingdoms period.
Medical use aside, the other big gyoza question is – what’s the difference between these things and Trader Joe’s equally delicious wantons?
While outwardly similar, the wanton is usually rounder than the gyoza, with a somewhat thinner skin and more heavily seasoned filling. When steamed, the differences between gyoza and wantons are more academic than anything – it’s when you pan-fry your gyoza that the differences really show up. A good pan-fried gyoza turns toasty brown on one-side while steaming up on the other. The result is a spectrum of textures, from crispy to soft, to add another dimension to the meaty filling.
Of course, no good potsticker would be complete without a killer dipping sauce. A simple mixture of soy sauce and vinegar (I like a 1:2 ration) elevates this humble dumpling to surprisingly levels of flavor and melt in your mouth pleasure. Ideally, you should use a mild rice vinegar, but any vinegar will work.
It’s a winning combination in my book, and a flawless execution of a delicious and versatile food that can be eaten as a side dish or main course. Trader Joe’s should be proud – they’ve done the gyoza proud.
Would I Recommend It: Yes – they’re perfect for entrees or sides.
Would I Buy It Again: I’m hooked.
Final Synopsis: Authentic tasting gyoza that cook up fantastically.
Most of the time Trader Joe’s manages to make their frozen food look quite delectable on the bag. For some reason, they just couldn’t manage it with their chicken chow mein. From the barren, spike-filled background on which it sits, to the uninspired “here it is” presentation of the dish, the whole picture wouldn’t look out of place inelegantly thumb tacked to the wall of that Chinese food place you never go in.
That should always be your first tip off. If the small army of marketers behind the promo picture, armed with the latest in unscrupulous food trickery and photoshop, can’t make it look good, it’s probably not very good.
From the get go you know it’s not going to be pretty, so the question really is, What do you expect from a frozen chicken chow mein? There’s plenty of good, fresh cooked chow mein out there, but this chicken chow mein isn’t that, and it never will be. This is simply a bag of frozen noodles and vegetables that you can cook up in about 7 minutes.
While there’s nothing amazing or exemplary about this chow mein, there’s nothing bad about it either. It’s there, you’re not going to do any flips over it, but it’ll get the job done – which in this case is nourishing your meaty bod.
There are no special tricks here, it looks like a pound of frozen chicken, vegetables and noodles and that’s what you get. The frozen broccoli, julienned carrots, onions, and strips of red pepper taste just like reheated frozen vegetables always taste – somewhat limp, somewhat muted. The same applies to the chicken, which is entirely ordinary cubes of white chicken breast touched up with some salt. All told they are entirely edible and perfectly acceptable for a no frill Tuesday night, but not something that is going to light up your evening.
The noodles are a cut above what you’d expect to get from a cup of ramen, but not by too much. Like the rest of the meal, they are just good enough to pass mustard without excelling.
A frozen chicken chow mein is meant to be a quick and easy meal, and that’s what Trader Joe’s delivers. Unlike some of their other, higher quality dishes like Trader Joe’s Kung Pao Chicken none of the ingredients are separated out for individual cooking. This is a bag you rip open and dump in the pan. As far as that goes, it’s good, but it never aspires to anything above that station.
And that’s precisely the problem. Trader Joe’s has a lot of excellent frozen dinners to offer, even in the “lonely bachelor food” category. Along with the aforementioned Kungo Pao Chicken, there’s Thai Sai Tung Curry, Hake en papillote or Pizza Veggie Burgers. The list goes on really. If you’re really hurting for chow mein, make your own or just order in. Otherwise, there are plenty of other options out there for your last minute dinner needs.
Would I Recommend It: Apathetically, perhaps.
Would I Buy It Again: No, I think I’ll stay a Kung Pao man.
Final Synopsis: It’s good for a frozen chow mein, so in other words, “meh”.
Trader Joe’s Seriously Stuffed Peppers struck me as a particularly intriguing novelty when I stumbled on them the other day. Not only do they sound like something your industrious grandmother might prepare for Christmas dinner, but they look exactly like that too. Each jar is tiny and cute, topped with a bit of homely parchment rubber-banded around the lid. Inside the jar a dozen or so cherry peppers are packed to bursting with a whole olive, some garlic, and a caper or two. That seemed like it just might be delicious, so I picked it up.
What I wasn’t ready for was all the oil! Not unlike the dolmas I bought a while back, these tasty, European appetizers are somewhat ruined by the enormous amount of oil they’re packed in.
First the good stuff. These stuffed peppers are pretty dang tasty. Based on the smell alone, I was prepared for an intense blast of pickled flavor, or a blazing hot burst of heat. The reality is nothing of the sort – instead they’re mild, slightly bitter, slightly nutty, with a flavorful, zesty tail.
The bitterness comes from the cherry peppers, which don’t bring any heat, but only a mild taste and toothsome texture, with just a hint of bitterness that suggests they’ve been cooked slightly too long.
Inside of these guys are the capers, olives and garlic. All three perform exactly how you’d expect – the olives and capers bring their salty, pungent taste and the garlic sneaks up behind you the moment you swallow to put a little bit of fire on the tongue. The result is very edible. Overall the stuffed peppers are much more mild than olives or capers are on their own, much more flavorful than garlic, and much more complex and interesting than simple cherry peppers. All together, they make for a nice little antipasta – perfect for throwing on the side of some pasta or lamb.
Almost perfect, I should say.
As nice as they are, I have a serious problem with how oily these peppers are. What I thought was a pickle brine at first glace, turns out to be sunflower oil – thick and viscous, with a slightly nutty taste and a smell that starts fills the room as soon as you open the jar. We are talking about a heavy, heavy oil here, and it coats the peppers in a permanent glaze. Drip, dab or wipe a pepper all you want, and it will still glisten with a fine oily sheen. I’m not kidding – my fingers are slipping all over the keyboard as I write this. My girlfriend as a jar of oil she uses on her air, a mixture of coconut oil, argan oil, and macadamia oil, that is less oily than the oil in this jar.
Evidence of the oil’s impact is visible in the nutrition facts – each 4 pepper serving contains only 60 calories, but 40 of those calories are from fat. That’s a huge amount of fat to cram into what are, otherwise, nothing but vegetables. The sunflower oil also imparts its own flavor on the peppers – imbuing the whole thing with a nuttiness that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the flavor profile.
I do like these stuffed peppers, and I’d love to snack down on them, but there really doesn’t seem to be a good way to do that. It’s tricky to fish the peppers out of the jar without them falling apart – trying to get the oil off of them without ruining their delicate construction is even harder. Leaving the oil on is always, an option, but the result is a big pool of oil on your plate or running down your finger. That’s not the end of the world, obviously, but it does limit how you eat and serve them.
Between the very pretty packaging and the beautifully stuffed peppers, this is dish looks wonderful in the jar sitting on your self. Unless you have a pressing need for antipasta, however, I’d recommend leaving them there.
Would I Recommend It: Not really – it’s okay, but not worth the hassle.
Woudl I Buy It Again: No, it’s much too oily for me.
Final Synopsis: Very nice as décor – not as good as food.
You’ve probably heard about the oncoming Breakfast Armageddon. Your traditional, western-style breakfast table of bacon and eggs – the hearty, workman-like breakfast of middle-class, middle America – is on an out of control roller coaster ride straight into the mouth of Hell. What I mean, of course, is that the cornerstones of breakfast – bacon and eggs – have seen unprecedented price spikes over the last 12 months (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics). Due to a conflux of calamities, including global drought and widespread swine pestilence, the price for a pound of bacon has jumped nearly 19% between May 2013 and May 2014.
Certainly I don’t want to be accused of fear mongering, but according to the computer simulators here at EatingAtJoes.net, if this trend continues a pound of bacon will cost $572.38 by 2029, at which point it will be cheaper to just start eating human. At the risk of appearing hyperbolic, I absolutely urge you to smash down the doors of your nearest supermarket and steal as much bacon as you can carry this very second. That, or switch over to Trader Joe’s Bacon Ends and Pieces!
I picked up this oblong little pack of scrunched up pork while weighing my grocery bill against the climbing price tag of Trader Joe’s truly, truly delicious Applewood Smoked Bacon. I’m on the record as saying that the bacon fad long ago become tiresome, and am the foremost proponent calling for a period of bacon tumescence, say a decade or so, at which point we can all start eating it again and sticking it in vodka and whatever. That said, TJ’s applewood smoked bacon makes me go weak in the knees when I smell it sizzling up in it’s own, rich fat on the skillet.
It was this battle of my animal id against my budgetary superego that Trader Joe’s so deftly diffused by producing their bacon ends and pieces.
As you can gather from the name, Trader Joe’s Bacon Ends and Pieces are the assorted left over bits of bacon that they didn’t see fit to package in their regular packs of Applewood Smoked Bacon. To a certain mindset, that means you’re eating Trader Joe’s trash, but don’t think about that. Instead, focus on the deal! In exchange for choosing the bacon rejects, and forgoing the niceties of traditional packaging, you get 12 oz of delicious, nitrate-free, applewood smoked bacon for only two bucks and change, less than half the regular price.
What I was expecting from that price, and the smaller package, was a bunch of irregular chunks of varying thickness. I was surprised to find that this wasn’t the case. On opening the pack, I discovered that the strips had been folded, but were otherwise the same size and shape as regular bacon. The big difference is in the fat/meat ration. While TJ’s regular Applewood Smoked Bacon is more or less uniformly fatty, these bacon ends varied between 50% – 80% fat. Obviously, this isn’t ideal. After all, I’m the yutz who usually buys turkey bacon. That said, a little carefully slicing with my kitchen knife before putting them in the pan left me with bacon that was as lean or leaner than what I normally get.
It’s important to note, by the way, that your results may vary. The bacon ends and pieces are a grab bag by nature. The fattiness of the pieces, and their size, is likely to vary from package to package.
I’m sure there are those of you out there who fear picking these up lest they be branded by the stigma of poverty. After all, isn’t this just poor people’s bacon? Well – yes, maybe. But don’t forget that what you’re buying here is not just a breakfast substitute, but a raw ingredient with a long culinary tradition. There are things you can do with bacon ends and pieces that you can’t do, or wouldn’t want to do, with the neatly packaged kind. As the internet has exhaustively noted, the applications of bacon are limited only by your creativity, but in particular the higher fat content of the end pieces makes them perfect for dicing up and cooking in stews and soups, adding to green beans and baked beans, or any dish that you want to infuse with a rich, smokey hint of savory bacon.
For my part, I poured off the excess bacon fat, then cooked my eggs straight on the still glistening skillet – giving them that extra touch of delectable goodness. If you’re happy with your bacon as is, by all means continue buying as usual. If, however, you’re looking for relief from the rising cost of breakfast, or are looking for some fatty goodness to throw in the stock pot, this bacon gets the job done.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, if you’re not concerned about your fat intake.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes for cooking projects, but they were too caloric for my everyday bacon.
Final Synopsis: Extremely delicious bacon, with more fat for less money.
We return again to the strange shores of vegan cuisine to take a look at Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs. We’ve looked at a good number of vegetarian and vegan alternatives to this meaty world we live in – from soy “ice cream” to chicken-free chicken nuggets.
In general, I find that vegetarian food really shines when it’s not getting hung up on trying to be the doppleganger of meat products, as with Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers, and just does it’s own thing. The worst sins of vegan cuisine seem to occur when somebody decides that, goddammit, yes, I need to make a turkey out of tofu. Vegetable dishes are good as vegetables, and meat dishes are good as meat – there’s no need for vegetables to be all things to all people. Nevertheless, I’m always excited to be proved wrong in novel ways, hence the acquisition of these “meat”balls.
TJ’s comes straight out and calls their meatless meatballs, “a delicious meat-free substitute for any meal” right there on the package, without even a hint of modesty. I wouldn’t go that far, but the meatballs do delivery a surprisingly rich and full, if not exactly meaty, flavor. The meatlessballs, for lack of a better word, replicate the texture and mouthfeel of a standard party meatball pretty closely. The bite of the ball is moist and a little chewy – holding together well, and breaking up much as a bit of ground beef would. Coated with a heavy sauce, or mixed into a plate of pasta you wouldn’t notice much of a difference. Taken by itself, however, the meatlessball tastes, and more importantly, smells very dissimilar.
A good job was done to season the meatlessballs in such a way that they are roughly approximate to a normal meatball, but there’s no hiding the sort of soybean-y aftertaste when eaten straight off the plate. There’s nothing here of the fatty, visceral taste of the meatball – instead there’s a thinner, somewhat vegetable blandness. This difference in taste is rather mild, however, which means it can be hidden very effectively under a good marinera or similar sauce. More problematic, for those seeking a true meat substitute, is the smell wich has nothing of the savory, fatty scent of a simmering meatball. Instead, it smells like what it is – a bunch of hot soy. It’s a strong enough scent that it might make you think twice about digging in.
When you pop this bag open, the first thing you should realize is that you
are getting a ton of these guys. These are cocktail meatballs, not the big honking ones you get in Trader Joe’s regular bag of frozen meatballs. The move feels like it may be a practical one, as even at their smaller size the meatless meatballs have a certain tendency to break up if played around with too much. On the plus side, they’re down right healthy compared to Trader Joe’s ordinary beef variety meatballs. Each six meatball serving has only 140 calories, 45 from fat, and 13 whopping grams of protein.
How do such meatless balls manage such a feat? Through the magic of textured soy protein, of course.
To level with you, I generally react to this sort of psuedo-meat like a horse being lead up to Frakenstein’s castle. There’s something strange and unnatural about it that makes me balk. Meat I get. It’s easy to get answers out of meat. “Hey, what’s this meatball made out of?” “A bunch of dead cow.” That’s a straight forward answer. The answers are harder with meatless meat products, because all of a sudden I’m being tricked, right from the start. Nothing is what it appears, but instead a complex masquerade of strange technical processes meant to fool me into thinking I’m eating meat. That’s vaguely sinister – and such weird yet innocuous phrases as “textured soy protein” only make me nervous.
Textured soy protein or “TSP” is, in fact, kind of weird and sinister stuff. It’s basically the styrofoam of the food world, used since the 1960’s by the Archer Dale Midland company to pad out meat with filler material. It’s what happens when you heat soy bean flour to high temperatures that it melts, then is extruded from a nozzle as “a fibrous, insoluble, porous network that can soak up as much as three times its weight in liquids” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Textured_vegetable_protein). Does that sound amazing? Not really, but they tell you not to ask about how sausage is made either.
That may sound like I’m being harsh, but I’m just trying to be accurate. In terms of texture and even, to a fair degree, taste these “meat”balls really are good substitutes for real meatballs. But to say, as Trader Joe’s does, that they’re a substitute for “any recipe” isn’t one I’d stand behind. Taken as a small asset in a larger dish, in a sloppy meatball sandwich say, they work beautifully, as they would for any vegetarian just looking to get a little variety in their diet. However, in a dish where the meatballs are showcased instead of hidden behind other, stronger flavors they’re unlikely to please the table.
Would I Recommend It: Not to meat eaters, possibly to vegetarians.
Would I Buy It Again: Not I, I’ll stick to TJ’s lean turkey variety.
Final Synopsis: Fake meatballs suitable for pasta but not soup.