Trader Joe’s never seems to run out of things to cover with dark chocolate, for good or ill. That said, chocolate of any stripe is pretty dang good, so I was intrigued by Trader Joe’s new Dark Chocolate Covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt – little squares of graham cracker coated in a thick, dark chocolate shell and dusted with a trace of sea salt.
|What it is:||Chocolate covered graham crackers with a sprinkling of salt.|
|Price:||$3.99 for 8 ounces.|
|Worth it:||Yes. Dark chocolate and sea salt go well together.|
Personally, I’m of the opinion that you need to be careful using dark chocolate. It’s really nice when used in the right context, but you can’t simply go around replacing it for milk chocolate in any confection that crosses your mine. Milk chocolate is a sweet, pleasurable treat. Dark chocolate on the other hand, especially when you get to 70% pure and above, is a refined nibble with a bitter edge. You can’t just mix it with peanut butter, for instance, and expect everything to turn out alright.
Fortunately, these dark chocolate covered graham crackers fall squarely in the “tasty” column. All the parts here play really well together. The dark chocolate is doing the usual dark chocolate thing – semi-sweet as it melts on the tongue, with a long bitter back. Being clever sorts, Trader Joe’s doesn’t use a very high concentration of dark chocolate. Although they don’t tell us exactly how much on the label, it tastes like maybe 60% dark chocolate or so.
Underneath this is the bit of graham cracker. Trader Joe’s alleges that there is some honey on the cracker, but it really doesn’t make much of an appearance. In fact, almost none of the graham cracker taste really shows up – unless you’re the sort that likes to hold it in your mouth until allllll the dark chocolate melts off before swallowing. Really, the crunchy cracker is just there for the body and texture, giving the little chocolate-covered cookie something for us to snap into.
However, the real hero here isn’t the dark chocolate or the graham cracker, but the judicious use of sea salt. Although you’ll only find a few big grains of salt on each cookie, that’s all you really need. The semi-sweetness of the chocolate mingles delightfully with the high, salty notes and transforms the dark chocolate’s bitterness into complex, tongue-teasing treat.
More than anything, Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Covered Honey Grahams with Sea Salt reminded me of Trader Joe’s previously released Milk Chocolate Jumbles. These were a very similar snack using toasted quinoa for the body and milk chocolate for the thick shell, but made the same use of a light dusting of sea salt. The Jumbles were quite a bit sweeter, but otherwise a very similar chocolate-and-salt taste.
The take away? Putting a little sea salt on your chocolate is a downright delicious idea. Whatever else you do with it, a little fancy chocolate and salt marry very well together. In fact, as long as we’re mixing chocolate and salt, why not take this all the way to the top? It sort of makes me want to pick up another of Trader Joe’s great Fireworks Chocolate Bar and some of their Cypriot pyramid-shaped flake salt and just go nuts.
Would I Recommend It: Sure – if you like chocolate-heavy snacks that are more than just chocolate.
Would I Buy It Again: Maybe. I liked the toned down sweetness compared to the richer Jumbles.
Final Synopsis: Another great pairing of chocolate and sea salt.
Holy cow – what? Trader Joe’s Rosemary and Thyme Maple Toffee Sunflower Seeds? Wait, Seriously?
Every time – every time – I see something like this from Trader Joe’s I think to myself, “We’ll this is it – Trader Joe’s has gone as crazy as they possibly can.” Surely we won’t be seeing anything as crazy as partially popped popcorn kernels again. Or fried broccoli. Or a BBQ rub made from coffee grounds. And yet here we are – holding a bag of sunflower seeds in our hands, sunflower seeds that have been seasoned with rosemary, thyme and maple syrup. That’s really what these are – no tricks. Here’s the product copy, straight from the website:
“We took great care with our supplier to balance the natural herb flavors of rosemary and thyme with salt. Next, the seasoned seeds are coated in a mixture of maple syrup and salted butter, just before they are fire-roasted in small batches.”
Look at that, just look at that – you can practically hear the desperation of the copy writer as he strains himself to sound casually breezy. The struggle as he tries to convey that this is just some toffee and rosemary and whatever, no big deal – while he knows perfectly well that he’s never once in his life even heard of anyone doing this to any food product, let alone sunflower seeds.
I don’t know – maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m the one who’s gone crazy because I’ll tell you this much right now – these rosemary, thyme and toffee seeds are actually pretty good. Could a sane man dare utter that sentence? That very excellent question is beyond the scope of this blog post…all I can say right now is that Trader Joe’s is as skillful as they are brazenly daring. How else could you explain the delicately balanced mixture of spices, sugar and seeds that makes these snacks compulsively snackable?
I don’t know about you, but when I think rosemary I’m thinking, like, Rosemary Chicken levels of rosemary. BAM!-in-your-face, yup-that’s-rosemary, levels of rosemary. Trader Joe’s has been very careful not to give us that sort of rosemary here. There’s a bit more rosemary than salt on these seeds, but not by much. It’s just a hint of rosemary, along with an even more subdued touch of thyme, that you’ll taste behind the sweet and warm taste of crispy toffee.
If you think about these sunflower seeds as toffee-coated candied sunflower seeds, you’re on the right track. A handful of crunchy, sugary, maple toffee is what you’re going to mainly taste when you pop these in your mouth, followed by the familiar mildness of sunflower seeds, and only then will you notice the subtle but persistent touch of these two herbs, rosemary and thyme, which lingers long after the sweetness has faded. The seeds benefits from the light touch, and they’re easy to munch down, but in the end it’s still a strange taste that takes some getting used to.
Why Trader Joe’s even bothered to put rosemary and thyme in this mix at all, I don’t know. It seems like the logical move would’ve been to do something like cinnamon and nutmeg, or just to keep the herbs out of it all together. As it stands, this makes for a weird snack. Sweet and savory tastes rarely mesh well – and while these sunflower seeds are pretty good, the tastes ultimately clash more than harmonize.
Trader Joe’s has presented us with an intriguing new combination of flavors with these sunflower seeds, but it fails to make a persuasive case for its own existence.
Would I Recommend It: I wouldn’t – while they’re not bad, they’re probably too idiosyncratic to really catch on.
Would I Buy It Again: I really doubt it. They get points for daring though.
Final Synopsis: Candied sunflower seeds with just enough rosemary and thyme to make them weird.
Trader Joe’s has unleashed some strange jerkies on the world already – the unusual salmon jerky and addictive sriracha bacon jerky both spring to mind – but Trader Joe’s new South African-inspired Biltong Beef Jerky has got to be my new favorite. With a more nuanced and flavorful mix of spices, and thicker, more robust slices of beef, this jerky elevates a classic snack to a new level.
Biltong, as the bag will tell you, is from the Dutch bil and tong meaning, literally, “rump strip”. The Dutch name reflects the origin of the recipie. The notion of drying cured meat strips had been native to South Africa since time immemorial – but the arrival of Dutch settlers brought the notion of spicing the meat with black pepper, coriander, sugar, salt and vinegar – putting the jerk into the jerky, as it were.
The result is something extremely beef jerky like… and yet not. At first blush, beef jerky and biltong jerky are damn similar – after all they’re both beef, they’re both spiced and dried – but they vary in small, interesting ways. The first thing you’ll notice is that the biltong is narrow but thick – about half an inch wide and nearly that thick. It’s a much more orderly snack than your usual, raggedy, crumbly pile of wafer thin beef jerky – easier to eat and easier to share.
This same thickness gives the biltong jerky an amazing chewiness. Where ordinary beef jerky tends toward dryness, biltong tends toward juiciness. One strip will give your jaw muscles a full on work out. Once you’ve popped a strip in your mouth, however, you’ll quickly notice something else.
The blend of spices and flavors marinating the biltong is subtly different from most beef jerkies. While Trader Joe’s plays coy with the exact mix in their description – calling it a “family secret” – the result is a taste that is less intense than ordinary beef jerky (which, as we know, often tends toward extreme flavor profiles), and since it hasn’t been smoked the flavor of the meat itself is more apparent. Aside from the expected saltiness of the biltong, there’s a gentle pepperiness along with a faint fruitiness (thanks to the apple cider vinegar used in the curing process) and perhaps even a hint of floral notes – from Trader Joe’s Flower Pepper perhaps?
In any case, the resulting biltong is a whole new take on ordinary beef jerky – with thicker juicer slices, and an equally savory, if more subtle, flavor palette.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, a definite must try for jerky fans – enlightening.
Would I Buy It Again: Absolutely, I love a good jerky.
Final Synopsis: Beef jerky’s slightly more refined older brother.
It’s hard to know what to say about Trader Joe’s Baconesque White Cheddar Popcorn. It’s unusual certainly – the most unusual popcorn I’ve had since Trader Joe’s last weird popcorn experiment (or maybe the one before that) – but unusual in a very different way. This popcorn is, weirdly, exactly what it says – a vaguely bacon-y kind of popcorn. Not bacon popcorn, not popcorn with bacon bits, bacon flakes or even real bacon flavor, but a bacon-esque popcorn. Popcorn, in this case, that has been infused with a fake bacon smoke flavor. That fake bacon flavor is mingled with an intense white cheddar cheese powder results in a bizarre, slightly off-putting, but addictive snack.
I’ve written before on my opinion of bacon-mania. Although longer lasting than many of the food fads that have swept the nation, it stills shares the same quality of food fads everywhere – whether it be bacon vodka, or chocolate covered bacon, novelty comes first and quality is the afterthought. So when I see a new bacon gimmick on the self I’m immediately skeptical.
Does Trader Joe’s Baconesque Popcorn actually qualify as bacon though? Kind of… but not really. Normally I’d criticize a product for something like that, but in this case that’s what they’re actually advertising right on the bag. They promise fake bacon flavor and they deliver fake bacon flavor – should they penalized for that, or just stared at agog? They make it abundantly clear that in lieu of real bacon or bacon flavoring you will be getting “natural smoke flavor”. A psuedo-flavor that is sort of like putting your nose right above a sizzingly BBQ.
“Natural smoke flavor” is the same thing as “liquid smoke”, which really is actually made from smoke. It’s usually made by burning hickory or mesquite wood and capturing and concentrating the resulting smoke in a liquid medium. The resulting taste is a general sort of heavily-cooked meatiness. There isn’t anything screamingly bacon-y about it, certainly nothing resembling the heady, savory tastes of Trader Joe’s incredible Apple Smoked or Black Forest bacons. It tastes much more like these pieces of popcorn were mixed with a few heaping handfuls of Baco Bits – those hard, granuated bacon imitators people put on baked potatoes and what have you.
This strong and perplexing taste is combined with the equally strident taste of white cheddar – every bit as mouth blastingly cheesy as you would expect as if this popcorn was bright orange. The combination of extremely fake bacon flavor with extremely strong cheese flavor makes for one intense popcorn snack.
I personally found the roller coaster ride of flavors interesting enough to come back to bag more than once – although each time I limited myself to just a kernel or two. This would be extremely hard stuff to munch down like your standard movie theater popcorn. It’s much better treated like a tin of sardines or a plate of olives – as an over the top flavor to be sampled in small quantities.
Would I Recommend It: Probably not. The fake bacon taste is somewhat off putting.
Would I Buy It Again: I might, I like a snack that demands you muse on it rather than gobble it down.
Final Synopsis: Like cheesy popcorn with a bunch of Baco bits mixed in.
Trader Joe’s Partially Popped Popcorn? Trader Joe’s Partially Popped Popcorn! Not only has TJ’s brought us a new product that sounds absolutely insane, but judging by the exclamation marks, they’re very excited to being doing so.
Trader Joe’s Partiall yPopped Popcorn is, astoundingly, exactly what it sounds like. Ever tried to pop a bag of popcorn in a microwave? You know htose partially popped kernles that are lawys left on the botto? That’s what this is. An entire bag of nothing but popcorn rejects. Essentially, Trader JOe’s has hit on the idea of selling you some of the trash you would normally throw out.
But wait. Is it trash? After all, who among us hasn’t found themselves idly trying to munch on some of the half-budded misfit kernels when all the good popcorn is gone. Is it true that not only have you tried to eat these kernels, but that maybe, every now and then, you have found one that was semi-popped in just the right way, formed just enought that it crunched beneath the teeth with an enjoyable, salty little crunch?
Friends and readers, I’m shocked to see myself write this, but Trader Joe’s Partially Popped Popcorn is not just good, but strangely addicting. –addicting in the weirdly compulsive way that leads you to repeatedly chawing on those partially cooked kernels in your own Pop Secret bag. The difference here is that the kernels in this bag are all precisely cooked as to be half-popped, fully roasted and pleasantly chompable, without any molar-busting, underdone seeds in the mix. The result is more like a roasted Corn Nut than anything else. They have about that same level of sturdy, hard-shelled integrity, that gives way to a crunchy, salty core after a brief moment of tense, inter-dental resistance.
A nutty crunchy, salty, snack – that’s what these really are at the bottom of it, despite their strange origins. Maybe Trader Joe’s isn’t peddling us their rejects, so much as they’ve discovered a previously untapped resource.
Would I Recommend Them: It’d be hard to, without being laughed at.
Would I Buy Them Again: Yeah, I would. I love Corn Nuts.
Final Synopsis: Basically smaller, off-brand Corn Nuts.
Trader Joe’s Sweet & Salty Kettle Popped Popcorn Chips with Whole Grain, Chia Seeds, Flax Seeds, Whole Quinoa and Sunflower SeedsPosted: March 12, 2015
Trader Joe’s doesn’t care if everyone else is giving their food products catchy, memorable or even easily paresable names. No, what they’re going for is completionism, and they aren’t going to stop adding words to their product name until it contains as many ingredients as they can get away with. Thus is the case with TJ’s Kettle Popped Popcorn chips – a sweet and salty hybrid snack that dares ask the question, “What would happen if you tried making tortilla chips out of kettle corn?”
I may slight Trader Joe’s for their gaffs, but I love them for just these feats of daring audacity. Obviously no sane person would try to take fully popped sweet and salt kettle corn, then try and compress them down into flat discs. Leave the popcorn to the popcorn and the chips to the chips, the average consumer might say – their sense of normalcy firmly ingrained by the stream of mundane products churned out by mainstream grocers. Not only has TJ’s just made chips out of popcorn, but they went ahead and started throwing in whole fistfuls of quinoa, sunflower seeds, and chia seeds in as well. I’m going to give them full points for thinking outside the box on this one.
That said, are they any good. Well, as you might imagine from such a hybrid snack, it does many things serviceably, but nothing amazingly. While shaped like chips, they certainly don’t behave like chips. That is to say, these popcorn chips can’t be dipped or dunked. Their popcorn nature makes them much to fragile for that. The only thing that the chip nature is good for is to give a home for all the seeds.
The scattering of quinoa, sunflower, and flax seeds give the otherwise ordinary kettle corn a nuttier taste and a sort of extra intriguing crunch. However, because the chips are so fragile they tend to break up immediately in the mouth, so there isn’t really much time to appreciate it. I like the idea of mixing in those seeds, but unlike, say, Trader Joe’s Super Seeded Tortilla Chips, these just don’t hang around long enough to have much of an impact. It almost seems like a waste of the seeds, and an unnecessary source of additional fat.
The kettle corn itself is quite tasty – just the right amount of salty and sweet that makes it such a treat. However, it begs the question, why wouldn’t I just buy a regular bag of kettle corn if that’s what I was after? The only real advantage, as far as I see, is that it’s easier to be aware of how many “chips” you eat. Regular popcorn is such an amorphous collection of tiny things that I tend to eat more than I realize- munching down kernel after kernel. In chip form it’s easier to realize “Whoops – that was a dozen chips, better lay off.”
Ultimately, Trader Joe’s Kettle Popped Sweet and Salty Popcorn Chips are an interesting new snack, but fail to make a strong case for buying a second bag.
Would I Recommend It: No, just go pick up some regular kettle corn.
Would I Buy It Again: I’d give it a pass.
Final Synopsis: Tasty kettle corn, compressed into an unnecessary disc shape.
I really feel like Trader Joe’s Inner Bean fails on multiple levels. Namely, two levels. It isn’t a very tasty snack, and the name is confusing gibberish that makes people angry. Nevertheless, there is something interesting going on here, and that is worth looking at.
Let’s lay out all the problems first and see if we can figure this out. First, What does “embrace your inner bean” mean? I assume Trader Joe’s must have a reason for putting a perplexing quasi-pun on the package, but I can seriously not understand why. Yes, I know that they sell a similar snack called “Contemplate Inner Peas”. Yes, I get that this bean snack is a spiritual successor to that pea snack. The crucial difference is that while “contemplate inner peace” is a phrase you might expect someone to be familiar with, “Embrace your inner being” is confusing even with the whole bean part left out. It’s just a very, very strange name that tells you nothing about the product except that it involves beans somehow and that, apparently, Trader Joe’s has very high ideals for them.
Even if TJ gave this snack a purely descriptive name, like “Trader Joe’s Air-Puffed Bean Snack”, it would still have some hurdles to clear. What, after all, is an air-puffed bean snack? Well basically, as you will see if you buy this bag, a Cheeto that is made from milled black beans instead of corn. The result is something that does not look or taste very much like Cheetos at all.
Despite the airy content of each crisp, these bean snacks are surprisingly rigid and dense. If you want to chow down on some of these you really have to commit to the bite. In fact, the extreme structural integrity of these ostensibly grab-‘em-‘n-munch’em fun snacks inspired me to construct a small but sturdy tower from the bean treats and see how many cans of Coke it could support. Stacking the bean puffs into a Lincoln-log style cabin, I was able to stack nearly 3 cans of coke before the structure collapsed – a feat that I doubt even Flamin’ Hot Cheetos could replicate.
Taste-wise, Embrace Your Inner Beans are much more approachable. The beans have been seasoned with salt and a dash of pepper that scratches that salty snack food itch. These crunchable bean nuggets will pass snuff for any typical junk food chip at first blush. They’ve got that sort of generic, fried starchiness common to potato chips, Cheetoes, Bugles, etc. However, this taste quickly gives way to the tell-tail mealy, bean taste common to lentils everywhere. It’s not a bad bean taste – it’s just a bean taste. If you’re okay with that in your snack food, then that’s not a problem. If, on the other hand, you don’t want to be reminded of beans while pigging out, this is something to be aware of. They are, more than anything, like a dry crispy version of salted edamame.
Taste aside, there’s one area where these bean snacks excel, and that’s in the calorie count. If you wanted to sit down and pig out on this entire bag, it would only cost you less than 400 calories, while simultaneously packing in 15 grams of protein. Calorie-wise, that’s equivalent to less than 1/2 of one fun-sized bag of Cool Ranch Doritos. Despite the name, despite the hard exterior, these beans are amazingly healthy for a fried food, and still manage to satisfy that gluttonous little voice that demands salt fat all day long. Trader Joe’s has a wide variety of “reduced guilt” or “healthy” alternatives to more fattening snack foods, but generally speaking, it’s a trade off that isn’t worth it. In this case, Trader Joe’s Embrace Your Inner Beans hits that sweet spot of “healthy enough” and “tasty enough” – and that’s a rare combination.
Would I Recommend Them: Yes, these are a good healthy snack… if you’re okay with beans.
Would I Buy Them Again: No, these are too bean-y for me.
Final Synopsis: Like healthier, bean-based Cheetos.
Trader Joe’s Crispy Crunchy Mango Chips are the answer to the unasked question of “What would happen if you just kept on dehydrating mango?” The result? These dehydrated, crispy (and, yes, crunchy) mango chips bring you all of that sweet mango flavor, without getting your fingers sticky.
Crispy Crunchy Mango Chips are just the latest addition to Trader Joe’s “Crispy Crunchy” fruit snack line. Previously we looked at TJ’s Crispy Crunch Jackfruit Chips and ruminated in an abstract way if it was possible to cook jackfruit bonda with them. While the jackfruit chips didn’t blow me away, the second I saw this new mango variety I knew I had to pick them up. Long time readers of this blog know that I have a certain, pathological addiction to that sweet, heavenly expression of nature’s golden teet also known as MANGO. I will lie for mango. I will steal for mango. If you get in between me and that luscious fruit, I’ll even kill for mango. These may be simple tenets to live by but they’ve served me well or, at least, ended up getting me a ton of mango.
I’ve held off on reviewing any mango based products for a while now (more than a year?!) because once those floodgates open, they’re hard to close again. In this case I relented, simply because dehydrated mango chips weren’t something I’ve ever seen before.
Trader Joe’s Crispy Crunchy Mango Chips take whole slices of thick, succulent, juicy mango and dehydrates them down into little, withered, french fry-sized sticks. Surprisingly, this is actually much better than it sounds. The resulting chips end up being light and very crispy, with plenty of satisfying snap and crunch. These wouldn’t be great qualities in and of themselves, if it wasn’t for the intense mango flavor that is packed in each chip. Through the dehydrating process, TJ’s managed to retain and concentrate much of that sweet mango flavor. Snap into one and you’ll be shocked at how flavorful each bite is. They’re not as sweet as the actual mango itself, but they bear far more resemblance to it than you would expect – certainly much more than your average apple chip or banana chip bears to their progenitor fruits.
The fact that there is some slight reduction is sweetness is actually a good thing. A ripe mango can be so sweet that eating even one is overpowering. By moderating the sweetness, these chips become much more snackable. In fact, they approach the perfect index of snackability – packed full of flavor, sweet, crunchy, easy to eat, and portable. It’s easy to munch on just one of these chips at a time, nibbling one down and enjoying the experiencing before going back to the back for the next one – a much more enjoyable experience than jamming handful after handful of Lays potato chips into your mouth.
I’ve never regarded dehydrated fruit chips as a particularly high-level snack . I’ve always felt they’re only really sold to people seeking a moderately healthier form of junk food. Since that defeats the purpose of junk food, and dehydrated fruit is often expensive, I’ve never really sought them out. These mango chips have turned me all around on the issue. These aren’t just another half-hearted substitute for genuinely tasty chips, they’re a superior snack food in their own right – more savory, more healthy, and more enjoyable than any bag of lays you’ll ever find.
Would I Recommend It: Yes, these are a superior snacking experience.
Would I Buy Them Again: I’d pick these up over a can of Pringles any day.
Final Synopsis: Tasty, simple, dehydrated snack food with loads of mango flavor.