Tuesday, June 19, 2012

This Week's Trader Joe's Winners and Losers: Appetizer Edition

Hi LilyOnTheLam.com Readers:

Can I really call this blog post "Trader Joe's Winners and Losers" when I am not going to anoint any of the products as "winners"?  How about "Five Trader Joe's Products - Some Suck Less Than Others"?  Is that a good title?  I'm trying to go for truth in advertising here, people.  Help a sister out!  

Well regardless of the title of this blog post, today I am writing about five Trader Joe's items that could fall into the "appetizer category."  (OK four appetizers and 1 box of crackers ... to be exact.  Sheesh, this being honest thing gets tiring!  I may have to throw in some lies to get my energy back up ... ummm... I am the world's most fantastic dancer.  I am a happy go lucky person in the morning, no matter how little sleep I get!  I always look at the positive and could never be referred to as crusty, crochety, old or bitter.  Ahhh ... yes, a good dose of lying restores my soul!)

Drumroll please ... five Trader Joe's products from less sucky to most sucky ...

Trader Joe's Mini Cheddar Chipotle Potato Bites with Bacon, Sour Cream and Chives:

This was totally an impulse purchase.  I had been trying to live starch-free when this frozen box of cheddar chipotle potato bites jumped into my Trader Joe's shopping cart.  Cheese, bacon, sour cream, chives and potatoes?  Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes, please.

This product was both surprising and disappointing ... I know enough science to be dangerous, but not enough to actually be useful.  I know that when food is frozen, moisture in the food product can cause the cells to burst when frozen - so when this food is heated, you're left with mush.  Because of this, I expected the small potato halves in the "potato bites" to be mushy and bland.  They were not!  They were amazingly fluffy and flavorful.  It was like I had baked fresh raw mini potatoes.  I would not have guessed that the potatoes had been frozen.  However, the toppings inside the potato half failed to deliver.  When I read the box - "cheddar, chipotle, sour cream, chives and bacon..." - I was expecting a spicy punch of creamy, bacony and oniony goodness.  The filling was creamy, but pretty bland.  I could not taste chipotle at all.  I didn't see any bacon but I detected some hickory smoked notes.  If I were serving these at a party, I would top them with bacon bits, diced jalapeños, diced scallions and a scoop of sour cream that had powdered chipotle peppers stirred into it.  The fluffy potato shells were great, but you'd need some heavy doctoring of the filling to make it party-worthy.  If you're having a potato skins craving, I'd recommend just making your own because as-is these mini potatoes did not cut it for me.  The promise of the box failed to deliver!      

The description on the box had me hooked!
The frozen potatoes do not look as appetizing as the box picture
Frozen potatoes ready to pop into a pre-heated oven

The Result:  After baking per box instructions
Five potato halves for 110 calories - not bad, if only they tasted better!
Would I buy these potato bites again?  Sadly no.  They weren't awful, they just weren't as flavorful as the description on the box had implied.  If you want to taste a mini potato half that is fluffy and tastes fresh and don't mind doctoring the filling, then yes try this product.  But if you want great chipotle cheddar potato bites without adding any additional ingredients, skip this product.

Trader Joe's Mini Chicken Tacos:  I had these amazing braised beef tacos at Ike's Restaurant at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and obviously those tacos were still on my mind when I went to Trader Joe's.  I saw these mini chicken tacos and I had to have them.  Classic mistake!

OK positivity first - there were some nice large pieces of tender white meat chicken in these tacos.  It tasted fresh with a nice spice blend.  Nutritional information-190 calories for four mini tacos sounded like a good caloric deal.  Unfortunately these mini chicken tacos were ridiculously bland tasting.  It was definitely missing something.  I wanted to put smoked sea salt on them.  However 4 mini tacos already has 10% of my sodium RDA, the thought of putting salt on processed food was not appealing to me.

The tacos out of the box
Tacos before baking

Tacos after baking- you can't see it here but an amazing amount of oil cooked out of each one.

Inside of the baked taco - look at the big chunk of white meat chicken

If you covered these mini tacos in hot salsa, jalapeños and quality guacamole, I think you'd have an OK party appetizer.  Of course, you could take a piece of zucchini, cover it with hot salsa, jalapeños and guacamole and I would think that was an OK party appetizer as well.  You'd do better buying some tortilla chips, covering it with shredded rotisserie chicken, cheese, chili powder and baking it - you'd have more flavor.  Sorry Trader Joe's, another appetizer item I won't be buying again.  It wasn't terrible, but it was just too bland for a repeat purchase.

Trader Joe's Spinach and Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms.  When I purchased these, the Trader Joe's cashier told me to make sure I pre-heated the oven before putting the frozen mushrooms in the oven.  She said it makes all the difference in the world.  I appreciated the tip and made sure my oven was very hot and well pre-heated before I slid in the stuffed mushrooms.  Now while the baked mushroom was probably the only item in this blog post that actually looked like the lovely picture on the box, I wish it had tasted better.  Bland water-logged mushy mushroom with flavorless, too wet stuffing.  The mushroom caps should have been pre-cooked to get out some of the water and the stuffing mix should have had a sharper cheese and bread crumbs to soak up the excess moisture.  I wanted to like these stuffed mushrooms, but to me it was like eating a flavorless warm, water-laden sponge.  Not what I would want to serve at a cocktail party.  

The mushrooms out of the box, frozen.

I made sure to pre-heat my oven!


Result - finished product

I definitely would not buy these stuffed mushrooms again.  Sorry Trader Joe's!

Trader Joe's Roasted Gorgonzola flavored Oven Crisp Crackers.  This was another impulse item.  The thought of a thin crisp cracker flavored with sharp gorgonzola cheese sounded delicious.  But again the promise of the box failed to deliver.  These crackers (140 calories for 31 crackers) were very thin and crispy.  However where the heck was the roasted gorgonzola flavor?  The crackers were coated in a heavy, tasteless powder.  It reminds me of the same seasoning on White Cheddar Cheez Its.  So if you like those, then maybe you'll like these crackers.  But to me they were really tasteless.  I was expecting a sharp bite of gorgonzola.  Instead it tasted chalky and bland ... and after a few more crackers, I had a "dirty sock" taste in my mouth.  Perhaps that was supposed to be gorgonzola?  I liked the crisp crunch but the powder seasoning just made these inedible.  I threw out the box.  I wouldn't serve these to any guests, nor would I buy them again.

The Worst of the Items: 

Trader Joe's Pizza Al Pollo Asado - Corn Masa Crust with Grilled Chicken Breast, Refried Beans, Jack Cheese & Tomatillo Salsa.

Like all Trader Joe's pizzas, I made sure my oven was well pre-heated.  I am not a big corn meal fan, although I love arepas.  So this pizza with a corn masa crust and refried beans as sauce had me curious.  I figured I'd either really like this pizza or I'd really hate it.

Well as you may have guessed by the title, I really hated it.  The edge of the pizza "crust" was solid with a bit of a crisp texture.  However 93% of the crust was soggy and could not hold up.  It was like a pile of bland, tasteless polenta - waterlogged and soggy.  The refried beans were just bad.  No flavor other than "off-putting."  Not enough chicken.  Not enough cheese and I couldn't identify any tomatillo salsa at all.  I like the concept of this pizza, but it was inedible.  I threw it out after two bites.

Before baking

Post baking
 The corn masa crust needed to be a lot thinner - so that it could crisp up and actually hold the ingredients.  The refried beans could have used some cumin and chili powder.  More chicken, more cheese and more salsa would have made this pizza edible.  Unfortunately, this pizza will not be gracing my shopping cart again.

I feel like this is a really negative Trader Joe's blog post.  There are so many products at Trader Joe's that I really love, so I hate to just have a sucky, suckier, suckiest blog post ... but here it is.  For a more positive Trader Joe's review post, check out my previous blog post on one of my favorite Trader Joe's products here.  

If you have tried the Trader Joe's products mentioned in this post and have an alternate view, please post it in the comments section.  My taste buds do not speak for the entire country!  Your feedback is always appreciated!

P.S. Hey Trader Joe's Fans - please take a moment to read my blog post about a strong survivor (JoinQueena.com) who needs your help.  Thank you!