Now that the season of pumpkin madness has subsided, and the cooling winds of dark November have arrived, I can finally catch up on a backlog of other, truly out-there Trader Joe’s products that they tried to slip onto the shelves without anyone noticing.
The craziest addition has to be Trader Joe’s Ghost Pepper Potato Chips. This new addition to the snack section may well be the biggest let down of any Trader Joe’s product to date.
|What it is:||Not very spicy potato chips.|
|Price:||$2.29 for a 7 oz. bag|
|Worth it:||No, not if you’re looking for spicy chips.|
If Trader Joe’s has a failing, it’s that it sometimes over promsises. That’s unavoidable for a group that dreams as big as they do – bringing us such exotic oddities and far-flung favorites as frozen Kouigns Amann, Tamil Uttapam and, of course, the wonders of Scandanavian Cookie Butter. I’m deeply grateful there’s a mainstream grocery store that regards the average American consumer highly enough to gamble their business on such unusual products. On the other hand, sometimes they come out the gate with what sounds like a great idea but absolutely fail to deliver on it. It’s like the Marketing team gets really excited and doesn’t listen to what the R&D guys are telling them. The result is packaging that signs a check the contents simply cannot cash.
That’s absolutely the case with Trader Joe’s Ghost Pepper Potato Chips. It’s commonly known that the Ghost Pepper is the absolutely hottest pepper in the world. Not just hot, and not just really hot, but like legendarily, pinnacle of the pepper pyramid hot. It’s weird that most people seem to know this, but they do. Every now and then the populous at large latches onto some bit of esoterica that seems like it should otherwise be languishing in obscurity. Keep your jalapenos and keep your habaneros, the people say, if you’re looking for pure, tongue-blistering, utterly unenjoyable HEAT, you want a ghost pepper.
Just in case you need a refresher on the spiciness of peppers, there is a more-or-less scientific scale that was devised to measure the relative hotness of peppers. Called the Scoville Scale, it measures the spiciness of peppers in so-called Scoville heat units, or SHU’s. A nice sweet bell pepper comes in at 0 SHUs. Banana peppers are about 100 units, a good jalapeno pepper is about 1,000 SHUs. The pepper referred to as the “Ghost Chile”, on the other hand, weighs in at 2 million SHU’s or more. Just by way of comparison, some law-enforcement grade pepper sprays only contain about 500,000 SHU’s. Four times hotter than pepper spray – that’s the ghost chile for you.
So what in heaven and hell could Trader Joe’s have been thinking when they released the absolutely mildest, gentlest “spicy” potato chip I’ve ever tasted?
I’ve spoken at length before about my light weight, or “chili wuss”, status when it comes to spicy foods. Pace brand Mild salsa is sometimes a little too hot for me. As a rule, I avoid the jalapeno potato chip. If I happen to munch down a couple by mistake I usually have to take a long break to fan my mouth. My brothers and cousins can all pile them into their mouths by the truck full, but even the gentler brands often leave me sweating.
I bring this up because even I find these ghost pepper potato chips contemptuously mild. They’re only spicy in so far as they suggest the notion of spiciness. If you smell the bag, you might think “Oh, these smell like they might be slightly spicy”. Savor that feeling, because that illusory impression is as spicy as these chips get. Bite into one of these cross-cut “lattice” style chips and you’ll catch just a hint of peppiness that immediately fades out and leaves you with basic, plain ol’ potato chip taste. I’ve had BBQ flavored potato chips that are spicier.
That’s not to say these potato chips are bad – they’re just bad at being spicy. The potato chips themselves are very satisfying to snack on – the thick, waffle-cut chips are very crispy and crunchy and entirely munchable. I found the mild spiciness to actually be a nice alternative to the spicier mainstream brands, in the same way that Trader Joe’s Sriracha sauce is a nice, less-spicy alternative to Hoy Fong Sriracha sauce. Finally, an only-sorta spicy potato chip I can enjoy! I just never thought I’d find them under the guise of ghost pepper chips.
If TJ’s had billed these chips as “Mild Jalapeno Flavor”, or “Potato chips – With Just A Touch Of Heat”, I would be writing a very different review right now. But by calling them Ghost Pepper Chips, and then doubling down on all their website and product copy about how insanely hot they are, Trader Joe’s is just making a fool of itself. Do not be suckered in by this marketing gimmick – unless you’re looking for a mildly spicy potato chip, these will disappoint you.
Would I Recommend It: Only to people who like not-particularly spicy potato chips.
Would I Buy It Again: Yes. I’m going to ignore that these say “ghost pepper” in the title and just put them out for parties.
Final Synopsis: It would be hard for these potato chips to be much less spicy.
You guys know me – I never miss a chance to talk about rooibos tea. What a surpise, then, to see that Trader Joe’s has brought out a new Pumpkin Spice Rooibos herbal tea! The tin looks very nice – but this is rooibos tea we’re talking about. Is there anyway it can live up to the pretty packaging? Frankly, no – not at all. While it’s an improvement on other types of rooibos tea, it’s still just not that great.
|What it is:||Bland rooibos tea with cinnamon and pumpkin herbal spices|
|Price:||$3.99 for 20 tea bags|
|Worth it:||No, rooibos tastes like cardboard|
Generally, when you spend enough time with a food product, no matter what your initial reaction is, you tend to warm up to it. I’ll share a story with you. The Japanese produce a food called natto, which is a “fermented” (read: partially rotten) slag of soy beans. Natto is typcally served in these little styrofoam bowls, about the size of a cassette tape, and when you crack one open all you see is this beige, lumpy, nobby, sticky, slimy mass of tiny, fetid soy beans. You’re then supposed to stir it up with chopsticks, which makes the gooey beans froth up into a white, stringy mess – almost like a thick tangle of spiderwebs mixed into the beans. I’m not even going to describe the sound or smell it makes when you stir these up. The taste is, as you can probably guess, gross and slimy and sticky. In short, it’s a food that offends all 5 senses – a foul-looking, foul-smelling, foul-tasting, gross sounding mess with a repulsive texture. Sometimes people like to crack a raw egg into it.
After living in Japan for a time, and being surrounded by the natto-eating Japanese, I eventually came to enjoy natto myself. It took about 18 months of extended exposure, but even to this day I will still pick up natto from local Asian market and have it for breakfast. My point is that, after extended exposure, I was eventually able to appreciate the acquired taste for natto and even came to enjoy it. Yet despite numerous tries and repeated attempts, I am absolutely unable to apprecieate rooibos tea on any level. It’s simply the lamest drink on the planet.
Maybe the difference is that natto, for all it’s shortcomings, is at least a taste. Rooibos tea, on the other hand, tastes like wet cardboard. That’s not meant to be a put down on rooibos, it’s simply the most descriptive phrase I can think of. Rooibos tea tastes exactly like wet cardboard – and coming from a guy who ate his fair share of pasteboard story book covers as a child, I know what I’m talking about. Of course, what else would you expect from rooibos tea? After all, the rooibos bush, from which it is cut, basically just a dry collection of scrubland twigs, and rooibos tea is just some of the twig shavings from that bush.
Yes, twigs! You’re boiling twigs! Look at what you’re doing people! And sure, I suppose you could say that we’re just “boiling leaves” when we make ordinary tea – but the difference is that there’s a long history of delicious edible leaves (Uh, Spinach? I’m looking at you!), and no record at all of delicious twigs. In fact, I’d say anytime you find yourself eating or drinking twigs, that’s a sure sign that you’re doing something wrong.
Look, it’s absolutely telling that Trader Joe’s keeps coming out with versions of rooibos tea that are rooibos…and something else. Trader Joe’s Rooibos and Honeybush tea was certainly an attempt at trying to make these twigs more palatable, This new Pumpkin Spice Rooibos tea does a much better job of it, adding to the rooibos cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and pumpkin flavor. Trader Joe’s is definitely onto something here! These traditional pumpkin pie spices add a delightful scent to the tea, and lend it a spicy, nuanced flavor tea. They just need to follow the trend and next time leave the rooibos out entirely. A pumpkin spice herbal tea that doesn’t also taste like wet cardboard? That’d be incredible. As it stands, this tea is palatable in so far as you can ignore the rooibos part. Everything else but that is nuanced and pleasantly invigorating and seasonal.
I’d certainly praise this as the best rooibos tea I’ve ever had, but that is faint praise indeed. If you’d like to drink a nice cinnamon spice tea this isn’t exactly that, but it’s close enough that it may satisfy you. However, I would strongly advise you to try some of Trader Joe’s much stronger Vanilla and Cinnamon Black Tea or delectable Spiced Chai instead. If you prefer an herbal tea, then definitely go with Trader Joe’s Herbal Blend Harvest Tea – a seasonal blend so good that I literally count the days for its return. Or go ahead and try this pumpkin spice rooibos – just don’t come complaining to me when you throw out the tin before you finish it.
Would I Recommend It: No, there are better teas at TJ’s.
Would I Buy It Again: No man, it’s rooibos tea.
Final Synopsis: A good cinnamon herbal tea, undermined by bland rooibos.
I’ve been hammering Trader Joe’s pumpkin-flavored frozen treats hard recently. We looked at TJ’s Pumpkin Ice Cream, we’ve looked at their (even more delicious?) mini pumpkin and ginger ice cream sandwiches, surely you’re thinking we’ve got nowhere to go from here.
|What it is:||Pumpkin ice cream balls, wrapped in tender mochi.|
|Price:||$3.49 for 6 mochi|
|Worth it:||Yes. These are awesome!|
That’s where you’re wrong, friend, because I’ve saved the best for last, with Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Mochi Ice Cream. Just go out and buy some right now and then eat them in your car. Frequently commenter Mara revealed recently that Trader Joe’s mini pumpkin ice cream sandwiches winked at her so delectably that she had to eat the entire box in the parking lot. This is an activity I understand all too well. What I’m saying to you now is, when it comes to Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Mochi Ice Cream that’s not even optional. In all seriousness I want to open the box up, in your car or on the bus or while roaring down the road on your ‘roided up hog, and pop one in your mouth. Don’t even wait, just do it.
What Trader Joe’s has done is taken their delightful pumpkin ice cream to the next level. Any ice cream is improved by enclosing it soft mochi, but TJ’s pumpkin pie ice cream – with it’s warm, delightful notes of cinnamon and nutmeg – really becomes something amazing.
Mochi, for those who may not be familiar, is a traditionally Japanese food. What it is, literally, is rice. Cooked rice that has been pounded over and over again until it forms into the sticky, chewy, malleable and unspeakably tender blob called mochi. In Japan it’s closely associated with festivals and big holidays, and is used in all sorts of sweets or just eaten by itself. The masterstroke of mochi, though, is in using it to hold little pockets of ice cream. A thin layer of soft, gently floured mochi (to prevent sticking) is wrapped around a good sized scoop of ice cream. As a result, you can hold it directly in your hand without worrying about it melting, while also enjoying the pleasant chewiness of the mochi-ice cream combo. It is, essentially, the Japanese take on the ice cream sandwich – only better.
Most Trader Joes’ carry the Mikawaya brand of mochi ice cream in a variety of common flavors (vanilla, strawberry, and green tea). Only Trader Joe’s, however, offers something as crazy as Pumpkin Pie Mochi. Surprisingly, TJ’s doesn’t just use their premium pumpkin ice cream in these mochi, but instead has formulated a slightly different version (referred to in the name, as you may have noticed, as pumpkin pie ice cream). The main difference seems to be that the mochi ice cream freezes harder than the notoriously soft pumpkin ice cream, although I’d swear that the pumpkin pie ice cream actually tastes a little more pumpkin-y than the pumpkin ice cream itself. (This is another instance of a weird quirk at TJ’s where offshoot products sometimes taste more authentic than the progenitor product. Cf. TJ’s Sriracha hot sauce vs. TJ’s Sriracah Ranch) It’s also worth noting that they got the fat content under control in these mochi bites – only 20 calories from fat per ball.
In any case, you can’t go wrong with these. If you’ve never had mochi ice cream before, do yourself a favor and pick one up. If you have had mochi ice cream before, you’ll want to add these to your arsenal. Of all the pumpkin products I’ve had at TJ’s this October, these mochi balls might be the most surprising and delicious.
By the way, one last tip – if you’ve never tried it, leave one of these out for a few minutes to melt slightly. The mochi will safely keep all the ice cream inside. Taking a bite of a partially melted ball that’s approaching room temperature is a heavenly experience.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, a great combination of chewy and chilly.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yes, I’ll be crushed if they don’t have them again next year.
Final Synopsis: Mochi improves any ice cream.
If you’ve made it this far through October, and you haven’t tired Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Ice Cream yet, I would be surprised. Who could resist the unusual appeal of that bright orange tub winking at your from the frozen food section? It may only come around once a year, but Trader Joe’s sweet and creamy Pumpkin Ice Cream is an annual must.
|What it is:||Cinnamon and nutmeg flavored ice cream.|
|Price:||$3.99 for 1 quart|
|Worth it:||Yes, it’s hard to stop eating!|
The fact that Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry strawberry ice cream, but it does carry pumpkin ice cream encapsulates the feeling of the store better than anything else I could write. Of all the products Trader Joe’s shoehorns pumpkin into it, brilliantly or otherwise, Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Ice Cream must have the broadest appeal and biggest fan base. Classic and unexpected at the same time, pumpkin ice cream just seems like a natural accompaniment to any harvest time festival you can name – from corn husking to Halloween.
I’ve written before that you never quite know what you’re going to get with a Trader Joe’s pumpkin-infused product. Sometime it will be absolutely bursting at the seams with pumpkin taste, while other times it will be pumpkin-y in name alone. Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Ice Cream falls squarely into this second camp. It might be rich, creamy and decadent soft serve – but is it pumpkin flavored? Not really. Even in spite of the inclusion of “pumpkin” as one of the ingredients listed ingredient (as one part of the “pumpkin base”), there isn’t much pumpkin flavor to be found. Savor it on your tongue, let it melt there, and you’ll detect maybe a hint of pumpkin-ness around the edges.
More correctly, Trader Joe’s should call this Pumpkin Pie Spice Ice Cream, which is much more what it tastes like – like a very creamy vanilla ice cream infused with cinnamon and nutmeg, tempered with a hint of cloves and ginger. It’s a broad, warm, mouth-filling taste – the soft, mellow flavor of the cream taking all of the bite out of the spices but keeping their warm, harmonious flavor.
Trader Joe’s compares this ice cream to pumpkin pie filling on the side of the carton, and that’s not really true at all. There’s nothing like the rich taste of pumpkin in this confection – but that’s not to be held against it. I, for one, would love to have a slice of warm pumpkin pie with a scoop of this ice cream decadently melting across the top.
Long story short – there isn’t much pumpkin to this pumpkin ice cream, but that’s not the end of the world. Think of this as “cinnamon and nutmeg” ice cream instead, and you won’t be disappointed.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, sweet and tasty.
Would I Buy It Again: Sure, I’ll get some more next year.
Final Synopsis: A soft, creamy, cinnamon and nutmeg ice cream.
Fresh madness, straight from the howling bowels of Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Innovation Labs (TJPIL), but oh, what sweet madness this is.
Take a quick poll of your friends and co-workers and ask them to name a spice they naturally associate with pumpkin. Ginger? Did they say ginger? Probably not – not unless they’re in the habit of whipping up their own pumpkin pie spice from scratch. Despite the seeming disconnect between pumpkin and ginger, it does make a subtle appearance as a traditional pumpkin pie spice, along side cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar.
|What it is:||Small, pumpkin-ginger ice cream sandwiches.|
|Price:||$3.99 for a 12 tiny sandwiches|
|Worth it:||Yes. Pumpkin and ginger works, baby!|
For some reason, the TJPIL decided to pass right by those more likely ice cream companions and go straight for the ginger. And you know what – I’m delighted that they did. Trader Joe’s Mini Ginger Pumpkin Ice Cream Mouthfuls are exactly right – a perfect balance of sweet pumpkin ice cream with a dash of tingling ginger, sandwiched between two soft, ginger cookies.
I think we can all agree that it’s hard to screw up an ice cream sandwich as it is. Cookies are great, ice cream is great – putting the two together is pretty much going to be a grand slam. And yet, TJ’s mini ice cream mouthfuls go above and beyond. This seasonal ginger pumpkin variety is a fall addition to their mini ice cream sandwich line, which already includes a mint ice cream version for the summer. All of the varieties show the same attention to creamy delicious detail.
Miniaturizing ice cream sandwiches down to finger food form is actually a bit of a brilliant idea. Often times the “worst” part of an ice cream sandwich (“worst” here, in the sense of the “worst” part of winning the lottery, or the “worst” part of all your wildest dreams coming true) are the bits where they cookie is too thick and dry, the ice cream to far away. With these mini ice cream mouthfuls, you never find yourself in such a predicament. Like the inverse of Trader Joe’s Mini Pumpkin Pies, or Chicken Pot Pie Bites, you actually get less crust and more filling.
Speaking of that filling – Trader Joe’s uses they’re usual, delicious pumpkin ice cream. If you haven’t had it, rest assured that it tastes far more like sweet and creamy than pumpkiny. On the other hand, there’s plenty of ginger in these frosty bites. If pumpkin puts you off, you might well still enjoy these. If ginger puts you off, however, you’ll probably want to give the a pass.
As for me, I couldn’t get enough of these. Each box holds a dozen of the little bites, but I could have eaten twice as many and not been satisfied. Ginger and pumpkin ice cream – who knew they’d work so well together?
Would I Buy Them Again: Sure, if I could trust myself around them.
Would I Recommend Them: Absolutely, very tasty.
Final Synopsis: Tiny ginger and pumpkin ice cream sandwiches that taste even better than they sound.
Every year I tell myself, “Trader Joe’s couldn’t possibly have more unusual pumpkin products than they had last year”, and every year I’m proven wrong.
This October, it’s Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Tortilla Chips that literally stopped me in my tracks. Yes, corn tortilla chips made with pumpkin. Like pumpkin panettone and pumpkin yogurt before them, no one was asking for this – but Trader Joe’s was going to damn well make it.
|What it is:||Cinnamon-spiced, pumpkin & corn tortilla chips.|
|Price:||$3.99 for a 12 oz. bag.|
|Worth it:||No – the flavors don’t really work out.|
Pumpkin tortilla chips are, basically, just your ordinary, run-of the-mill yellow corn tortilla chips – only with pumpkin puree and pumpkin seeds mixed in. Not content to stop there, Trader Joe’s then dusted each chip with a sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Although no added-sugar goes into them, the tortilla chips are kind of vaguely sweet, tasting almost slightly of churros, but with a vague pumpkin aftertaste.
The pumpkin I can understand – as a mild member of the squash family it can work pretty well along side corn. Cinnamon and nutmeg, on the other hand, are very noticeable flavors. They don’t always play well with others. In particular, I’m thinking of chips and salsa, and nachos, the most common applications of the tortilla chip. Would you be likely to add cinnamon and nutmeg to your melted cheese or salsa dip? Probably not.
In fact, I decided to give these chips the benefit of the doubt and try them with Trader Joe’s pumpkin-based Harvest Salsa. Even in this case, even with a harmonious pumpkin taste in the salsa, the cinnamon and nutmeg threw off the whole flavor balance. The sweetness and spices clash with everything else. This not-quite-right combination of spices reminds me a lot of what Trader Joe’s just tried with their Pumpkin-Spiced Salted Caramels. In that case, the strange combination of flavors was intriguing enough to push me into “like” territory. I can’t say the same thing for these pumpkin tortilla chips, which are a their heart still just ordinary chips. Nothing special about these, just something “off”.
If you wanted to use them with anything, you would need to brainstorm some pretty out-of-the-box ideas. For example, they might go well at a party with a sweet caramel or frosting dip – maybe kind of cinnamon dessert dip? The chips may even work well with highly seasoned Middle Eastern or Greek dips, such as Trader Joe’s Muhammara or cool Tzatziki.
All that aside, I feel I should note that the weirdest part of these chips is the product copy on the back. “We’re out of our gourds with excitement,” Trader Joe’s writes. “We’re ready to squash any sentiment to the contrary. Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Tortilla Chips stand alone as the preeminent permutations of that perennially preferred plant, pumpkin.”
That is some amazing, over-heated copy – combining multiple puns with a lengthy bit of alliteration. The TJ’s copy writer was definitely firing on all cylinders that day. My question is, why would you want to waste such effusive praise on such a merely average product? This is a classic, one-season-and-done novelty if I ever saw one. That product description could work on literally any pumpkin product – why not save some of the puns for the big ones – like Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Pie Spice Cookie Butter, for instance. I don’t know, it just strikes me as a waste of a well-turned phrase here.
Really, Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Tortilla Chips are a great example of “Yes, we can do it, but should we?” Yes, you can sell everything, quit your job, and become a tugboat captain, or gain hundreds of pounds in a bid to be the World’s Fattest Man, but should you? In this case, Trader Joe’s clearly has the power to put pumpkin into any product they wish, but there are some products that don’t really benefit from it.
Would I Recommend It: No – unless you had the perfect dip in mind.
Would I Buy It Again: I don’t see a need for that.
Final Synopsis: Cinnamon and nutmeg corn tortilla chips are novel, but not novel enough.