If you love Trader Joe's — the colorful shirts, the name tags, the friendly atmosphere, all its quirky products — then you've probably done product recon on What's Good at Trader Joe's?, the four-member team review site that has been rating the store's best and worst products since August of 2010. Nathan Rodgers, his wife Sonia, and their friend Russ Shelly and his wife Sandy set out almost two years ago to review the cult grocer's some 4,500 products. They've been going at a pretty good clip, and with this installment of The Best and Worst Products at Trader Joe's are narrowing in on having reviewed 10 percent of its products (more than 275 reviews covering about 325 products). That's no joke.
While the reviewers are fans of Trader Joe's, they take reviewing seriously — their first review was even negative. Here's their process:
• They rate products on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the best.
• For any post, two people rate the product.
• Reviewers give their overall impression and up to five points each.
In previous installments on The Daily Meal, the good folks at What's Good at Trader Joe's reviewed at least four or five products in each category. Best breakfast, best appetizers, best vegetarian, best frozen treats — there's as wide a range of categories as you'd expect. But Nathan, Sonia, Russ, and Sandy have had some fun with the categories, too, including things like "Spousal Discrepancy," "Biggest Winner Versus Expectation," and "Worst. Stuff. Ever."
Consider the best of the best in the 15 categories as they've ranked them so far for The Daily Meal:
• Vegetarian: Veggie Sausage Patties (9/10)
• Breakfast: Organic Mango Passion Granola (10/10)
• Appetizers: Heat & Eat Falafel: (9.5/10)
• Biggest Winner Versus Expectation: Baker Josef’s Chocolate Cake and Frosting Mixes (10/10)
• Worst Stuff Ever: Turkey "Meatloaf Muffins" (0/10)
• Frozen Treats: Lemon and Triple Ginger Snap Ice Cream (10/10)
• Gluten-Free: Gluten & Dairy Free Homestyle Pancakes (8/10)
• Seafood: Oven-Ready Breaded Cod Fillets (8.5/10)
• Fruit Snacks: Pear Sauce (8.5/10)
• Spousal Discrepancy: Non-Fat Plain Frozen Yogurt (6.5/10)
• Healthy Beverages: Organic Low-Fat Probiotic Smoothies (8.5/10)
• Tasty Juice Blends: Strawberry Kiwi Juice (10/10)
• Coffees and Teas: Spicy Chai Latte (8.5/10)
• Miscellaneous Drinks: Vintage Root Beer (9/10)
• Beverages to Avoid: Spiced Cranberry Cider (3/10)
Of course, there's love and hate for Trader Joe's, and readers have also weighed in. For more about the products above and past reviews by Russ, Sandy, Nathan, and Sonia, visit their great site, read the full stories, or check out the new page dedicated to their progress:
New products reviewed in this go-round by the team fall into five categories: Unusual Good Finds, Best of the Rest, Easy Dinners, Sugary Impulse Buys, and Biggest Disappointments. Without further delay, new reviews from Russ Shelly and company from What's Good at Trader Joe's?:
Unusual Good Finds
There’s a lot you’ll see at Trader Joe’s that you just won’t readily see somewhere else. Needless to say, there are more homeruns than strikeouts, so we’re always on the lookout.
1. Trader Joe’s Edamame Hummus (8.5 points)
A unique take on the classic formula, the edamame hummus certainly tastes the part while retaining a smooth, creamy texture. It’s even better when matched with the TJ Quinoa and Black Bean Infused Tortilla Chips, or perhaps our next entry.
2. Trader Joe’s Falafel Chips (8.5 points)
Things we knew could make good chips: potatoes, corn, rice, beans, heck, even kale... but falafels? Oh yeah. This could be the start of the revolution right here. They’re even better with some spicy hummus or guacamole.
3. Trader Joe’s Shrimp Corn Dogs (8 points)
I can hear the cynics from here: "Yeah, batter up anything and deep-fry it on a stick, people will eat it." Yeah, well, read the product again, slowly: Shrimp. Corn. Dogs. That is not a misprint.
4. Trader Joe’s Edamame Tofu Nuggets (8 points)
Finally, a vegetarian nugget option that, instead of trying to emulate meat, is its own, unique product. Although Asian-inspired, these paired well with any sauce we dunked them in. Fantastic.
5. Trader Joe’s Lamb Vindaloo (7.5 points)
Right, lamb and vindaloo aren’t all that unusual for those familiar with Indian cuisine... but to have a frozen entrée of it that’s absolutely delicious, straight out of a microwave, of all things? I mean, it’s microwavable lamb. Now that’s unusual, and that’s before what your coworkers will think of your lunch. Amazing, but it needs more lamby bits.
Best of the Rest
We can’t fit everything in tidy little categories. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of all sorts of random goodies we’ve found. No, the turkey meatloaf muffins are nowhere close to being on here.
Roasty, toasty, creamy, crunchy, crispy, smooth, goopy, oily, sticky, salty, nutty, seedy... and absolutely amazing. Tasting is believing.
2. Trader Joe’s Vegetable Thai Kao Sai (9/10)
Forget that it’s a microwavable dish; it’s authentic enough to be on par with some of the best Thai restaurants out there. If you like creamy, coconutty, spicy, and obscenely delicious curry, make this your next lunch.
3. Trader Joe’s Organic Popping Corn (9/10)
TJ’s popcorn is one of the best incarnations of the stovetop classic we’ve found yet. Nearly every kernel pops into a big, fluffy piece that’s versatile to go with any seasoning while remaining melt-in-mouth soft. Make up a batch with Trader Joe’s Coconut Oil for an especially good treat.
4. Trader Joe’s Coconut Water Fruit Floes (8.5/10)
Beat the heat with this icy sweet treat. There’s some variety with the different fruit floes and popsicles that Trader Joe’s offers, but these are easily our favorites.
The only thing this salsa lacks is just a tad more heat. Other than that, it’s impossible to argue with this smooth, smoky, full-flavored salsa offering. It’s our favorite Trader Joe’s salsa, and it’s not all that close.
6. Trader Joe’s Arancini Bites (8.5/10)
You know those breaded mozzarella sticks all the kiddies like? Imagine those, all grown up and dressed real nice, with a respectable haircut and a sense of responsibility. The arancini bites are exactly that, except even better.
We're all not Martha Stewart, and sometimes even she needs the night off. All these are easy enough for a college kid, but tasty enough for the whole family... if you decide to share, that is.
1. Trader Joe’s Reduced Fat Battered Shrimp (9/10)
Unlike so many other brands, Trader Joe’s shrimp in various forms consistently have been high-quality winners. Slide some of these in the oven with some fries or perhaps Trader Potato Tots, and you’ll see exactly what we mean.
2. Trader Joe’s Vegetable Masala Burgers (8/10)
Believe in Meatless Mondays? Believe in these, too. Dress them up like a regular burger, or experiment with something a little more exotic. No matter what you do, you can’t go wrong.
3. Trader Jose’s Chicken in Red Mole (8/10)
Real mole’s pretty darn involved. This full, spicy, smoky dinner-in-a-bag is easy enough that you can assemble IKEA furniture while making it. How do we know? That’s exactly what we did. We’re international like that.
4. Trader Joe’s Corn Penne Pasta (8/10)
Gluten-free folks deserve some darn good pasta, too, right? Cook these up like any other noodle, toss on whatever sauce, veggies, meatballs, whatever and BOOM. Dinner’s served
5. Trader Joe’s Macaroni and Cheese (8/10)
While certainly not as good as homemade, this is way better than the more famous blue box. For a fun, spicy twist on this American classic, dash in some Trader Joe’s Habenero Sauce... if you dare.
Sugary Impulse Buys
You know that row, with all the frozen goodies down below and the candies up above? That’s Temptation Lane right there, partner. There’s way too much to choose from, so we might’ve missed one of your favorites, but we’re the ones with the blog.
1. Trader Joe’s Speculoos Cookie Butter (10 points)
Butter — good. Cookies — even better. Combine the two, and yeah, we’re tempted to never eat a solid cookie ever again. Words fall short.
2. Trader Joe’s Journey to the Center of the Cookie (9 points)
These warm, gooey, choco-swamped, fresh-outta-the-oven, awesome-with-ice-cream cookies were our constant temptress when we (Russ and Sandy) gave up sweets for Lent. Don’t ask us how we made it through.
3. Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Wafer Cookies (8.5 points)
Combine dark chocolate and peanut butter and wafers and cookies and what’s the result? An empty bag in minutes. Those with low willpower, avert your eyes.
4. Trader Joe’s Gummy Tummies (8 points)
If they only more closely resembled penguins (as advertised) instead of frumpy bird-shaped hags... regardless, the Gummy Tummies are soft, squishy, and sweet yet not too sugary. They just might be the perfect gummy.
5. Trader Joe's Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds (7.5 points)
We tend to think these are a tad overrated, but that doesn’t mean they’re not any good. If these nutty treats were left off the list, our fans would be storming the castle with pitchforks.
Don’t confuse these with our worst rated items. It’s not like you really need us to tell you that the Name Tag Classic Lager isn’t any good. Instead, these are the products that failed the most to live up to our pretty reasonable expectations, with a suggestion of what to get instead.
1. Trader Joe’s Breakfast Burritos (2 points)
Breakfast: The most important meal of the day, and should be the hardest to screw up. Somehow, TJ’s did. It ought to be impossible for eggs, potatoes, and bacon to be so bland and nondescript, but yeah, you’re better off with cardboard. Much better option: Trader Joe’s Breakfast Scramble.
2. Trader Joe’s Chicken Breast in Poblano Sauce (2 points)
You say poblano, I say po-BLAND-o, and yeah, you’re better calling the whole thing off. Absolutely void of any redeeming qualities. Blecch. Much better option: Trader Jose’s Chicken in Red Mole.
3. Trader Joe’s Sweet Potato Gnocchi (3.5 points)
Really? Just look at the end result. That’s gnocchi??? As one of our readers suggested, they look a lot more like Trader Meow’s Dijon Hair Balls, and after a while, they seem to taste only marginally better. Much better option: Trader Joe’s Sweet Potato Frites.
4. Trader Jose’s Pizza Al Pollo Asado (5.5 points)
Usually, Trader Jose dishes do well for us. If it weren’t for the soggy, crumbly, plain ol’ nasty corn masa crust, this pollo pizza would be delicious. Doesn’t matter how you make it — it’s a mess. Much better option: Trader Jose’s Mini Chicken Tamalitos.
5. Trader Joe’s S’mores (5.5 points)
A s’mores-inspired ice cream sandwich should be a surefire slam dunk, so when the end product is a melty mess that lacks in both the graham cracker and chocolate department, well, we’ll pass. Much better option: Trader Joe’s Sublime Ice Cream Sandwiches.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.