The only real rule I have for myself with this blog is to review only those things which are unusual enough to catch one’s attention, but are too unusual to warrant an immediate purchase. This plan has guided me down some terrible alleyways and up some delightful avenues. Why then, am I bothering to review Trader Joe’s Southwest Chicken Quesadilla – one of the safest, least intriguing foods out there? After all, isn’t the quesadilla such a staple of kid’s food menus for its tremendously simple execution and supremely inoffensive recipe, namely melted cheese in a white flour tortilla?
Yes, all that may be true, but I was drawn to this product for one very simple reason – the “Taos Joe” brand name.
One of Trader Joe’s charming quirks is their penchant for tweaking their brand name to reflect the “ethnic” nature of some foodstuff or another. There is Trader Josef and Trader Jose, Trader Giotto and Trader Jacques, just to name a few.
Things get a little nutty after this, as Trader Joe starts breaking the pattern altogether with Arabian Joe and Trader Ming. What strikes me as particularly strange, is that Trader Joe’s sort of stops there. Despite having a huge range of Thai, Indian and even African cuisine, there are no labels that reflect these cultural roots. Why, Joe?
While this is all charming and clever, it also irks me deeply because of their erratic application of nomenclature. Why, in god’s name, is this guacamole not a Trader Jose product, but this guacamole is? Perhaps only Joe himself knows.
At any rate, the sight of a Taos Joe product stopped me cold. What I like most about the name is that it’s a sign of Trader Joe’s true commitment to this gimmick. A less devoted brand might feel tempted to just stick their quesadillas under the Trader Jose name, but not so TJ. Evidently they felt that the somewhat subtle difference between Southwestern and Mexican cuisine demanded the creation of the entirely new “Taos Joe” label.
Actually, come to think about it, that’s even more irksome. Going through all the trouble of generating a brand name just for southwestern food makes the absence of, say, a Greek brand feel like more of an intended slight than a simple overlook. Is it madness or brilliance? You be the judge.
That more or less brings us to the quesadilla itself, about which there’s not a lot to say. This quesadilla is a pretty comfortable quesadilla – it’s thick, cheesy, soft and tasty in that sort of way that melted cheese usually is. If you’ve ever had a quesadilla, you pretty much know what you’re going to get from this.
That said, Trader Joe’s does manage to work in a couple nice additions that elevate it above a microwave-it-yourself affair. The best addition are the titular seasonal vegetables – a phrase which in this case means corn, red bell pepper, jalapeno pepper, and strangely, spinach. The jalapenos, along with the blend of monterrey jack and pepper jack cheese, give the quesadilla a barely detectable blip of spiciness, but not so much that it really does anything for the dish.
The vegetables and white chicken are diced to rather small chunks, and spread evenly throughout the quesadilla. This gives it a nice body and something to think about other than the cheese while chewing, but doesn’t really effect the overall cheestastic taste of the dish.
Not getting too fancy with it is actually to Trader Joe’s credit. People don’t usually turn to a quesadilla because they want challenging food, but because they want something pleasant and reliable. This quesadilla may not hit any culinary heights, but it does satisfy on a basic, comfort food level.
In the end, it’s a pretty solid dish – some chicken, some vegetables, plenty of cheese, and microwavable in about 3 minutes. Perfect for a quick and easy frozen dinner any time.
Would I Recommend It: Sure, this is a pretty good quesadilla.
Would I Buy It Again: Probably not – it’s got lots of cheese, but not a ton of excitement.
Final Synopsis: A perfectly good quesadilla, suitable for whatever.
Occasionally I sit at the table gnashing my teeth and staring balefully at a plate of vegetables. My complaint, I think, is a common one – there simply are not enough vegetables in my vegetables. I, and no doubt you, will be relieved to discover that Trader Joe’s has taken a direct approach to resolving this problem by splitting some poblano peppers open and stuffing them to over flowing with corn, beans, wheat berries, quinoa (and a bit of cheese) in Trader Jose’s Vegetable Stuffed Poblano Peppers.
Essentially we are dealing with a chile rellano made with more veggies instead of meat. Why this rellano like product, not even labeled as such, is handled under the Trader Jose’s label while this one is not shall remain a mystery for all time – knowable only to the augerers in Trader Joe’s occultism department.
This veg-and-cheese medley makes for a tasty filling and manages to avoid the heavy lingering vegetable aftertaste common to other veggie-only dishes. This is notable given that the veggies in question are massive, whole kernels of corn and insolent, lounging beans – an almost aggressively vegetarian dish showing off its full vegetable pedigree on its face. That said, the strongest taste is that of the meaty, thick-skinned poblano peppers that require a knife to saw through. The poblanos have lost much of the fire they pack while raw but not all of it, making this a mild dish with a faint edge of tongue-tingling heat.
I microwaved my Vegetable Stuffed Poblano Peppers in leiu of the 25 minute oven prep, and found that the peppers came out somewhat tough and resistant – far from the tender bell pepper skin of Trader Joe’s Stuffed Peppers with Seasoned Turkey and Rice. Worse, the poblanos were laced through with a bitter tinge, a common feature of poblano’s that have been overcooked. Was this my fault? Perhaps, but I adhered to TJ’s box-side directions so I’m going to pass the buck on to them.
A final intriguing touch is the addition of wheat berries and quinoa in the stuffed peppers – two quasi-grains not commonly associated with Mexican cuisine. I wrote about these trendy, health alternatives to other grains here. In the stuffed peppers their presence is largely undetectable, masked by the other stronger tastes, but lending a pleasant quality to the texture of the sauce.
I mentioned Trader Joe’s Turkey and Rice Stuffed Peppers already, and I can’t help but comparing this dish with that one overall. Do Trader Joe’s Vegetable Stuffed Poblano Peppers stand a chance of replacing this favorite of mine? By no means, the tender, savory, seasoned turkey stuffed peppers beat this newcomer across the board. A decent stuffed-pepper stand-in for the vegetarian crowd perhaps, if they found this one too cheesy, but no match for taste and texture of the stuffed red peppers.
Would I Recommend It: To vegetarians in need of a hearty stuffed pepper only.
Would I buy it again: Almost certainly not.
Final Synopsis: A vegetarian-friendly chile rellano that’s basically mediocre.
Once again, I am shocked that Trader Joe’s Chile Rellano is not on the Trader Jose label. What’s the point of positing the existence of a Hispanic doppelganger if you’re not going to ham-handedly slap him on all your Spanish-inspired cuisine?
For that matter, why have a Trader Jose, a Trader Giotto, a Trader Josef and so on, but not a Korean Trader Jae, an Egyptian Trader Jahi, or a Thai Trader Jayavarman? Why the narrow window of ethno-specificity Trader Joe’s? Edward Said called, he wants to know where you got your Orientalism.
In any case, I better start off this review by disclosing that I’m not really all that into chile rellanos. My list of favorite Mexican food looks like this:
Table 1-1: Mexican Food Preference Chart
- Smothered/”Wet” Burritos
- Fish Tacos (soft)
- Nachos (supreme or ultimate)
- Sweet corn cake mash
As you can see, chile rellanos don’t even crack the top 5, so TJ’s was already embarking on an uphill battle when they created this product then let me go home with it. Strike 1 and 2, Trader Joe’s. Dubious but willing, I tucked in.
The Trader Joe’s Chile Rellano is a roasted poblano pepper, nice and mild, stuffed with monterey jack, slathered in spicy tomato salsa, dusted with bread crumbs and topped with cheddar. When that much melted cheese comes into play, it’s hard to make an unpalatable dish – and as you might imagine these rellanos go down easy.
While most rellanos contain meat of some sort, take note that this one is a vegetarian dish, meaning it is little more than a meat-free, tube of cheese.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re a vegetarian looking for sustenance amid the barrens of the modern grocery store. If you’re looking for that meat free Mexican food fix, here you are. The salsa is admirably spicy, delivering a short sharp burn with each bite, and the roasted pepper is toothsome, if somewhat tough to cut. The vegetarian rellano also boosts a surprisingly high protein profile, 22 grams to the serving, which might give you some sense of how much cheese we’re talking about here.
For my part, I found the meat-less rellano less than filling. As a component to a larger Mexican dish it would certainly be more effective – as plate compatriot to an enchilada, perhaps, or a taco. However, if I’m going to ingest that much straight up cheese I have other ways I’d prefer to go about it. (See table 1-1).
Would I Recommend It: To Mexican craving vegetarians, no one else.
Would I buy it again: I don’t see it happening.
Final Synopsis: This cheesy pepper is alright, but nothing special.