What's good at Trader Joe's? What's not? These are questions that fans and detractors of the store are very passionate about. Last August, Nathan Rodgers, his wife Sonia, and their friend Russ Shelly and his wife Sandy decided to systematically review every product to find out.
The team reviewed 75 products on their site, What's Good at Trader Joe's?. They then rated them for The Daily Meal in five categories (drinks, desserts, sauces and soups, international entrées, and snacks), setting off a firestorm of comments from both "TJ's" fans and "Traitor Joe's" haters. "The frozen chocolate croissants from TJ's are amazing," noted one. "I hate TJ's produce," said another. "It tastes like science."
The last laugh is on haters. Several confused readers wrote requesting stores be built in Wilkes-Barre, Penn.; Memphis; Kansas City; Dallas-Fort Worth; and the Pacific Northwest. And some of these wishes may be fulfilled. According to Trader Joe's, stores are planned for Kansas City; Chicago (South Loop); Leawood, Kan. Louisville; Mt. Pleasant, S.C.; Pittsburgh; Spokane, Wash.; State College, Penn.; and Staten Island.
With 2011's midpoint nearing, it's time to check in again with the trio to get an update on the best and worst products. You have to wonder, given the time they've spent in the store and all the products they've considered, is there anything the What's Good at Trader Joe's folks are scared to try? "We don’t really have a top five list for what Nathan and I are scared to try, but I can tell you our top scary items," Russ confided.
"The Blueberry Vanilla Chèvre kinda scares me a little," Nathan admitted. "I'm down with goat cheese on salads and sandwiches, but I've never thought of it as a dessert food.”
"We’ve had fans swear by it, though," said Russ. "For me, the thought of trying any Trader Joe-brand sushi is a kneeknocker. I’ve heard horror stories from sushi aficionados, and the one time I’ve had sushi in my life, at a pretty respectable restaurant, I wasn’t much of a fan. I can’t imagine the Trader Joe’s sushi being worthwhile or remotely enjoyable."
And with that, it's time for some best-ofs. Below are Russ Shelly's picks in five new categories with his brief reviews and ratings on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best), including a category likely to stir things up: "Worst. Stuff. Ever."
Top 5 Vegetarian
1. Veggie Sausage Patties (9 points)
I’m a meatatarian by nature and nurture, and sausage is by far one of my favorites. These veggie patties come extremely close to matching the real thing. If meat grew on a tree this is how it would taste. (Photo courtesy convertedcarnivore.com)
2. Trader Jose’s Mildly Spiced Vegetable Burritos (8.5 points)
I was amazed at how good these were. I love meat, and I love spicy, but there’s something about these that make them surprisingly and undeniably good. The burritos definitely have more of a kick than expected, too.
3. Paneer Tikka Masala (8 points)
One of my wife’s favorites, and it’s up there for me too. The masala sauce is intoxicating, and it ties together a very good, somewhat off the beaten track microwave lunch.
4. Lentil Soup with Ancient Grains (8 points)
This stuff seems straight from another time from another part of the world. It’s thick and chunky and extremely filling. This ain’t no canned soup. We make a beeline for it when shopping.
5. Apocryphal Pita and Roasted Garlic Hummus (8 points)
Pitas and hummus make a classic vegetarian pairing, and this combo should not be missed.
Top 5 Breakfast
1. Organic Mango Passion Granola (10 points)
Finally, a breakfast cereal worth waking up for. It actually puts a smile on my face early in the morning and keeps me full until lunch. The Mango Passion Granola truly has my respect.
2. Breakfast Scramble (8.5 points)
Quick ‘n easy potatoes, onions and eggs, and shockingly good out of a microwave. Tough to beat for a hot meal on a busy morning without a drive-thru involved.
3. Frosted Maple and Brown Sugar Shredded Bite Size Wheats (8.5 points)
A tasty twist on a cereal classic. The maple and brown sugar flavor make for an easy morning for the taste buds and the biscuits are crispy crunchy to the last spoonful.
4. Organic Lowfat Yogurt Wildberry Probiotic Smoothie (8.5 points)
Quick and portable for a quick grab. They could be a little bigger, especially if you wake with the hunger of a bear coming out of hibernation, but for what they are, they’re pretty darn good.
5. Heart Healthy Whole Grain Blueberry Instant Oatmeal (7.5 points)
Some mornings only oatmeal will do. Sorry Wilfred Brimley, this stuff is tough to beat.
Top 5 Appetizers
1. Heat & Eat Falafel: (9.5 points)
Ridiculously easy. Ridiculously satisfying. And ridiculously good paired with some TJ’s hummus. They’re spicy, homey, and have instant comfort. They’re restaurant quality for a fraction of the cost.
2. Thai Joe’s Coconut Curry Chicken Stix (8 points)
The stix are good enough to rival spring rolls at many Thai restaurants. For being a one-trick pony, Thai Joe did pretty well for himself here.
3. Parmesan Pastry Pups (7.5 points)
Not a lot of Parmesan, but good pastry, and thankfully, no pups involved. A good twist on the classic pig in a blanket, especially since the mini-dogs are beef.
4. Scallop Bites (7 points)
More delishy than fishy. These certainly make a decent seafood snack, and would be sure to please a crowd.
5. Mini Chicken Tacos (7 points)
A little plain, and not for those who are weirded out by miniature foods. Still, a pretty good facsimile, however smaller, of a pretty decent taco.
Top 5 Biggest Winner Versus Expectation
1. Baker Josef’s Chocolate Cake and Frosting Mixes (10 points)
Nathan and Sonia’s biggest pleasant surprise was the Baker Josef's Chocolate Cake and Frosting Mixes. Neither one of them is really a "chocolate cake person," but they might be if all chocolate cakes tasted like this one.
2. Green Plant Green Food Beverage (6 points)
Okay, it’s not highly rated, but it was definitely one of the biggest pleasant surprises for me. It looked disgusting and I had to swallow hard before trying it, but the green beverage actually turned out to be fairly good overall. I definitely thought I’d score it much lower.
3. Heart of Darkness Mango Passion Fruit Blend (8 points)
After the very unsuccessful Organic Mango Nectar, we were a little hesitant to try this one, but it's really tasty. A bit oddly inspired, to be sure.
4. Chicken & Cheese Tamales (8 points)
Frozen microwavable tamales that actually taste good? That’s possible? In a word, yes.
5. Omega Orange Carrot Juice (7.5 points)
One of the most uniquely delicious tasting juices we’ve ever tried. It’s so good, it doesn’t taste healthy.
Bottom 5: Worst. Stuff. Ever.
1. Turkey “Meatloaf Muffins” (0 points)
Easily one of the worst things I’ve ever put in my mouth since being old enough to know better. And that says a lot. To date, still the only 0 we’ve ever granted. My wife Sandy was smart enough to never even try them. I wish I was as wise.
2. Fat Free Spicy Black Bean Dip (2.5 points)
If you like hummus-fied dark super vinegary matter, you’ll like this. Not spicy at all and we cannot verify if there are really black beans or anything other than vinegar in it.
3. Satay Peanut Sauce (3 points)
Tastes fishy. Literally. That’s not even close to what satay peanut sauce is supposed to taste like.
4. Chile Spiced Mango (3 points)
Way too much chile and not enough mango. Flavor combinations can’t be this one sided.
5. Trader Joe-San’s Green Beans (3 points)
A little too out there texture-wise, and very inconsistent from one bite to the next. Pretty bland as well.
(All photos courtesy What's Good at Trader Joe's)