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Trader Joe’s Beef Pho Soup with Rice Noodles and Vegetables

Trader Joe's Beef Pho Soup 1

That doesn’t look too bad… right?

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.

Trader Joe's Beef Pho Soup 2

Surely that will be edible… won’t it?

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.

 


The Breakdown

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.

Trader Joe's Beef Pho Soup - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Beef Pho Soup – Nutrition Facts

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Trader Joe’s Gazpacho

Trader Joe's Gazpacho

IT’S GAZPACHO TIME!

Beautiful July is on us again, and with it so too has come the promise of an infinite string of perfect barbecues at sunset, – the golden moments of life. And of course, I can never think about big, blow out BBQs without thinking about GAZPACHO!

No, I have never had gazpacho before, and certainly never at a barbecue, but the two are inextricably linked in my mind because of, like so much in my life, The Simpsons.

As I know, and I’m sure you now know, gazpacho is tomato soup – served ice cold. Despite what you may have heard from the shouting of beligerent drunks, Gazpacho is actually a Spanish dish tracing its origin back to the Andalusia region of southern Spain. Nowadays it’s eaten throughout Spain and Portugal as a go to cool-down dish during hot summer months.

If your pop culture tastes run a little higher brow than mine, you might also remember a good gazpacho scene from the movie “Violets Are Blue” (1986). In it gazpacho is described as “salad in a blender”, and that’s probably as good of a definition as any. In addition to the aforementioned cold tomatoes, Trader Joe’s Gazpacho contains cucumbers, green and yellow bell peppers, and onion – all finely diced into a robust concoction of chunky vegetables. The important thing to remember about gazpacho, and the thing that makes it different from any other vegetable soup out there, isn’t just that you serve it cold, but that it’s actually made cold. This is a raw soup – uncooked from start to finish, and as a result it’s bursting with full-bodied, vegetable flavor. Not just vegetables, actually, but fruit as well.

Many gazpacho traditions coexist, including varieties that include strawberries or muskmelon. Trader Joe’s doesn’t go so far as to throw in any fruit chunks, but they do dress up their soup with a good dose of orange juice – as the second ingredient behind tomatoes. That’s still just enough to add a subtle citrus tang to the soup, and to add the faintest touch of sweetness to the soup. Other seasonings going into Trader Joe’s Gazpacho are garlic, jalapeno pepper, and a touch of sherry vinegar, all of which work to give the soup bit of a spicy, acidic edge.

This soup isn’t hiding any surprises. Having never had gazpacho before, I found that it tasted exactly like I expected a cold soup, tomato based soup to taste. This is a soup of overwhelming vegetable flavor, and it doesn’t pull any punches. There’s no saltiness, no real sweetness, just that zing of sherry vinegar layered on top of many vegetables.

If you like strong tomato soups, you’ll like this. There’s certainly a little more than just tomato going on in the background, but overall it begins with tomato and it ends with tomato. Personally, I wasn’t exactly blown away by it. The gazpacho wasn’t flawed in anyway, but the simplicity of this cold, straightforward soup didn’t manage to catch my heart. While I didn’t mind eating it, I did keep thinking about how it might taste better if I heated it up and maybe dressed it up a little. I could have done, but at that point I might as well have just picked up one of Trader Joe’s other great soups, their minestrone for instance.

 I’m willing to admit that that’s a personal failure, however. If you crave a dish of heart vegetables, or want to beat the heat with a flame-free meal, this gazpacho is certainly worth a shot.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Sure – it may not blow you away, but this is a hearty, healthy soup.

Would I Buy It Again: I don’t think so, there are too many other soups to try.

Final Synposis: A cold tomato soup, with a little zing thrown in.

Trader Joe's Gazpacho - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Gazpacho – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Soup

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Soup

Everything else aside – this is probably my favorite Trader Joe’s font.

Well folks, it’s time to face facts. It’s November, and that means that Trader Joe’s pumpkin madness is drawing to a close for another year. Still, there’s time for one final pumpkin post before holiday food mania sets in upon us, and that post I’m reserving for Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Soup.

On the pumpkin weirdness scale I think we can agree that pumpkin soup is not as out there as pumpkin greek yogurt – there is, after all, a rich tradition of squash-based soups. Nevertheless, I’ve never actually seen a purely pumpkin-based soup before now. The soup itself not much more than pumpkin puree mixed with water and a few spices – essentially a watered-down verision of Trader Joe’s pumpkin butter (which is to be expected, given the soup recipe listed on the pumpkin butter jar). That simplicity means that the soup tastes almost exactly like you would expect it to, like a big mouthful of pumpkin, but with one slight surprise – it’s notably, quite sweet. There’s no sugar added, so that sweetness comes from the natural sugar in the ripened Wisconsin pumpkins that go into the dish. A sweet, vegetable soup is not necessarily the taste I would have been looking for, but the mellowness of the pumpkin and the richness of the flavor keep the sweetness from becoming too overpowering, but its still a taste that takes some getting used to. The tongue may also detect the mild presence of some typical pumpkin spices (nutmeg and clove, mainly), but these don’t add much to the basically pumpkin taste.

Straight from the box, it’s a very basic, not particularly impressive soup. The soup has almost the exact same texture and consistency of a bowl of Campbell’s Tomato soup, and it  shares the same the same simple, workman like nature as well. Few are the individuals going to a bowl of unadorned tomato soup for the soup alone, not when there’s a can of minestrone at hand. Tomato soup is only going to show up on the table when it’s been paired with the right dishes, or fancied up with addition ingredients, and the same is true of this pumpkin soup. Eaten straight the soup is okay, though maybe slightly to sweet to have broad appeal, but if finessed into a more robust soup or stew you might really have something here.

Trader Joe’s seems to sense this themselves, offering a couple of easy soup augmentations on their webpage – suggesting topping it with a dollop of sour cream, or giving it some Indian flare with a bit of coconut milk or coconut cream and curry powder. You can delve deeper into the twists and turns of pumpkin soup with the Trader Joe’s approved Hazelnut Frico Soup-Topper recipe, or check out some of the third-party innovations like this pumpkin and chicken stew.

The takeaway from all this is that there’s not much reason to pick up this soup unless you’re going to do so with an experimental attitude. The soup is not by itself a compelling buy, but could become the compelling center of an ambitious dish.

I should spare a word for the one thing about the soup that did impress me – the really clever box design. Trader Joe’s packages this soup in tiny, soft-sided 17 oz. boxes that, in addition to being long-term shelf stable, also folds out into a convenient spout with the application of a quick squeeze to all four corners. Clever, Trader Joe’s, just don’t forget to keep putting that much thought into the food.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Only if you already have a recipe already in mind.

Would I Buy It Again: ‘fraid not – slightly too sweet for my tastes.

Final Synopsis: A functional, sweet pumpkin soup in search of a delicious recipe.

Trader Joe's Pumpkin Soup - Nutrition Facts

Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Soup – Nutrition Facts


Trader Joe’s Cioppino Seafood Stew

Trader Joe's Cioppino Seafood Stew

The giant, over-sized cioppino bag.

Seafood can be done well, and seafood can strand you in the bathroom for 24 hours – so when someone, even Trader Joe’s, offers to make me a stew from assorted castoff bits of seafood I take pause. Nevertheless, it is my duty to report on such things to you, dear reader, and so I found myself face to face with a bubbling bowl of Trader Joe’s Cioppino Seafood Stew.

Cioppino, despite it’s robustly Italian-sounding name, is actually an American creation – springing into existence on the docks of San Francisco in the 1800’s. It owes it’s name to a derivation of the Italian word meaning “to chop”, a naming convention that is less than totally unique.

In this case, the chopping was done to whatever the fisherman had left over once the good bits of their day’s catch had been accounted for. This fish, bivalve and crustacean medley was then chucked into a pot and simmered in a tomato and wine base until delicious. This colorful history played through my head as I stared at the floppy, opaque bag Trader Joe’s was peddling – images of unsavory, marine castoffs swimming through my head. As I ripped open the bag and poured its contents into my stew pot, I discovered my fears were for naught. Once again, the TJ’s chefs have saved what may have been a questionable concept in lesser hands by the strength of their delicious recipes. Rich, red and flavorful, Trader Joe’s Cioppino Seafood Stew is as hearty as it is delicious.

It’s the base that makes it work – a heavily seasoned tomato stock cut with red wine that verges on the edge of being too salty without going over. It’s a good stew base through and through, a gut-warmer that invites slow, deep sips.

The seafood itself is a nice mixture of deboned cod, and shelled shrimp, scallops, mussels and clams. Strictly speaking, this is a departure from traditional ciopinno, which is made from local fish plus shrimp, crab and squid, still bone-in and in shell, as suits the tuff wharf walkers of San Fran. Even better, despite the plentiful helping of seafood in the stew, it doesn’t suffer from a debilitating fishy taste.

I didn’t find much to dislike with this stew. One quibble is that the bag contains 80% of your daily sodium intake between two small servings. Speaking of which, the bag is ridiculously oversized for the contents it holds. Despite the appearances, you’ll be able to cook up the entire dish in a pint-sized sauce pan with room to spare. Trader Joe’s calls this two servings. Not where I come from, TJ.


The Breakdown

Would I Recommend It: Get your cioppino on, those of you not suffering from high blood pressure!

Would I Buy It Again: It’s the perfect excuse for me to buy a bread bowl.

Final Synopsis: A tasty, salty seafood stew that does it all right.

Trader Joe's Cioppino Seafood Stew - Nutritional Facts

Trader Joe’s Cioppino Seafood Stew – Nutritional Facts


Trader Joe’s Spicy Seaweed Ramen

Trader Joe's Spicy Seaweed Ramen

The words that have children across America hankering for more!

Goodness, that’s a string of words you don’t often encounter in modern western society. Spicy Seaweed Ramen. A spicy ramen, made with seaweed. It’s hard to imagine that the Trader Joe’s marketers are expecting this one to find very broad-based support. It’s not exactly like suburban kids across the nation are whining to their parents about their seaweed-based Asian soups being overly mild. In any case, Trader Joe’s has thrown their hat into the ring with this new dish – and scored a solid hit.

I love ramen. I’m eating ramen right now. But ramen has something of a schizophrenic existence in America – supermarket ramen and restaurant ramen. In recent years ramen has managed to earn itself back something of the sophisticated glamor shared by it’s cousins soba and udon. But it still has to contend with its dark past – with the cups of brittle styrofoam found in supermarkets and college student cupboards everywhere, with the ubiquitous “Cup of Soup”.

For many Americans, perhaps even for you, good reader, “Cup of Soup” dehydrated ramen noodles was the first way they encountered this popular Asian dish. It certainly was for me – and I managed to eat so many between freshman and sophomore year of college that I haven’t touched another one to this day. It’s not just an American phenomenon either. Japanese supermarkets have entire aisles dedicated to variations on super cheap, dehydrated ramen bowls – some with barely redeeming qualities, some too horrible to describe. So as curious as I was about the spicy seaweed aspect of this soup, I was even more curious about the Trader Joe’s take on supermarket ramen. Would they succeed where none others have? Would they manage to introduce a tasty, ready-to-make ramen for the masses?

The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up a pack of Trader Joe’s Spicy Seaweed Ramen is that it’s no mere sachet of dry noodles. The ramen is precooked and held in al dente stasis in a plastic pouch that comes packaged with a healthy quantity of soup base, and a a small packet of crumbled seaweed. Cooking is quick and easy, a simple matter of introducing the pre-prepped noodles to boiling water for five minutes or so, followed by the addition of the rue and topping.

The soup comes off the stove top looking and smelling delicious. The spicy looking red yellow broth swims with little goblets of hot oil, and the aroma of red pepper threatens the nose with a small but waiting fire.

There’s more bark than bite to the ramen, however. The spiciness is exactly what you’d expect from a mass-market supermarket variety – a little bit hot, but sure to be palatable by all but the most milquetoast. Even I was able to slurp down the noodles, and I’m a well known chili wuss. The noodles, by the way, are tender, toothsome and tasty. I’m not sure how they do it there at Trader Joe’s, but I’m consistently satisfied by the texture of their precooked pastas (see: Minestrone, Couscous ChoppedSalad).

It’s a tight package – quick, easy to cook, tasty and unique, that leaves very little to nit pick. That said, I have spent some time roaming the Exotic Orient, and seaweed is a something I consider a tasty snack. It’s presence in this ramen dish is slight, the dark green flakes are immediately absorbed into the broth and become something more like a dusting of oyster cracker crumbs then anything else. Personally, I thought Trader Joe’s went a little too light on the seaweed – Its cheap, guys! Give us a second packet! – but it’s mild presence here is unlikely to offend the xenophobic or PB&J set.

A final quibble, the broth is fairly straight forward and uninteresting. This is surprising given the lengthy list of ingredients going into it: clams, anchovies, soybean paste, shrimp, kelp, and more. A really excellent soup tends to tease your tongue with the broth, but this ramen doesn’t manage to aspire to those lofty heights.

Would I Recommend It: I would. Get some!

Would I Buy It Again: A good, international soup at a reasonable price? Absolutely.

Final Synopsis: Well done Trader Joes. Now lets see about some new flavors.


Trader Joe’s Minestrone Soup

Minestrone in a 28 oz can? Is Trader Joe's plunging into madness - or simply ahead of the curve?

Minestrone in a 28 oz can? Is Trader Joe’s plunging into madness – or simply ahead of the curve?

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.

Trader Joe's Minestrone Soup - Nutritional Information

Trader Joe’s Minestrone Soup – Nutritional Information