Saturday, August 17, 2019

Village Bakery Cinnamon Crumb Creme Cake (Aldi)

It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it's moist and delicious.
I love cinnamon. Don't get me wrong, I love sweets of all shapes and sizes and colors and kinds, but it's cinnamon that has my pick for underrated fave, if not something even more distinguished than that. There's just something about that simple, yet ultra-sweet mix of cinnamon and sugar that seems to dance on my tongue the way very few things do, enticing me into bite after bite when I should be done...it's like the dessert equivalent of Eve, tempting me with her forbidden fruits. So when I saw the Village Bakery Cinnamon Crumb Cake in an Aldi ad, I knew to resist it was an exercise in futility. After all, it had been a while since I last treated myself to the decadence of a cinnamon treat, making me well overdue to ransack my tastebuds with exquisite deliciousness.

Of course, being the cheapskate I am, the $3.99 price tag did give me some pause for thought, especially since it looks pretty small, at least when compared to other, “standard” cakes. Don't let the look fool you, though, because unless you're in a house full of cinnamon-obsessed crazies, there is plenty to go around. The cake looks as you would expect, with a nice layer of cinnamon streusel on top, finished with a hardened layer of icing.

Cutting into it with surgical precision revealed a rather nice surprise: deep layers of cinnamon on the inside, as well. I know that's a part of virtually all of these cakes, but all too often there seems to be way more of the “white” cake, with some cinnamon seemingly thrown in as an afterthought, but here, the cinnamon shade takes up over half of the inside cake, a welcome sight. As expected, the cake is moist and inviting, with utensils swiftly cutting through the bottom half, assuming they are strong enough to penetrate that thick cinnamon top.

Tastewise...well, let's just say it was even better than what I was expecting, which was just a standard, mass-produced cinnamon cake. After all, that's what this is, right? I don't think I would confuse it for anything homemade, but I do think it's a notch above standard supermarket fare, with an intense cinnamon flavor that, rather appropriately, steals the show. Some that I've had (which are still delicious...I don't think there's a wrong way to make a cinnamon crumb cake) seem to be afraid of being too sweet, and use the cinnamon more sparingly than they ought to; here there's gobs of it, but it's also perfectly counterbalanced by the remaining touch of “flavorless” (by comparison) white cake, which prevents the whole thing from becoming too overwhelmed with the common spice. Paired up with that “crystalized” icing—which did taste way better than I was expecting—it all threatens to become “too sweet”, as it did for my wife (who, for reference, is not nearly the cinnamon fan I am). But for me, it balanced right on the tippy-top of the “just right” fence; our two-year-old son, who was given a small piece for breakfast, would also agree.

Like father, like son, I suppose.

Overall: 8/10. This isn't a case of an item rewriting any rules—at the end of the day, this is just a standard-definition cinnamon crumb cake—but it's a case of one that does most everything right. It's not afraid to heap on the cinnamon, the way some cakes seem to gingerly approach it, nor is it afraid to layer on a generous drizzle of vanilla icing (that far exceeded what I was expecting, in terms of taste). Yet, despite all that, I never once felt it veered into “too sweet” territory (though my cinnamon-conservative wife disagreed). The texture is fluffy and moist, with the top providing a satisfying layer of “crunch”, both when cut into, and when chewing. Despite my initial hesitance, there is plenty of cake to go around for the $3.99 asking price (though, admittedly, there's no way I would buy them all the time at this price if they were offered all the time). Half-thankfully and half-unfortunately, it's only available as a special buy, so if you see it in-store, grab one (or two) while you can!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Season's Choice Spicy Onion Rings (Aldi)

These oddly taste like regular onion rings, with a heat that creeps up on you.
The last time these were available as a Special Buy from Aldi stores, which was a few months back, they only had them in BBQ and Black Pepper varieties. Well now, there's an added flavor: spicy. I don't really have the palate for things that are “hot”, and so this probably wouldn't be something that would normally be in my wheelhouse. But you know what? I love onion rings, and I already reviewed the other two varieties, so I reasoned that I might as well just go ahead and complete the trifecta.

As I noted in the other reviews, these flavored onion rings have a much crispier batter on them than Aldi's original whole onion rings, which is a giant plus in my book...each bite gives off a ridiculous crunch, and they cook up pretty quickly in the oven. So, for all intents and purposes, the appearance is exactly the same to the other onion ring options.

But what is unique to this one is its taste...most notably, just how spicy is this? And what does “spicy” even taste like? After all, the term merely means something that is “flavored with spice”, so there are millions of possible combinations out there. I was expecting them to be slathered with maybe a hot sauce, or sprinkled with some kind of red pepper, but these look chillingly like the normal onion rings...just by looking at them, you can't tell that they're hiding a dark, burning secret. As a matter of fact, you can't even tell that once you take a bite, at least not for a little while. I was anticipating a sriracha, or maybe just a basic hot sauce flavor to be cooked into the ring, but it's not. It tastes just like a normal onion ring...and then the spices kick in.

Again, I don't have the taste for hot things like some people do. I don't put hot sauce, or buffalo sauce, on anything and don't seek out to try products just because they're hot. I do like trying new things, and as long as something has good flavor, no matter how hot it is (within reason), then I'll like it. I may be breaking out in sweat and wiping tears from my face as I eat it, because I also have a very low tolerance for heat, but I'll still eat it.

With that in mind, I have to say that these are hotter than I thought they would be, at least initially. It never got to the point where I was frantically looking for milk or water to take away the pain, and the heat doesn't really linger for too long, but just four of these onion rings got my nose running slightly. In my opinion, it's just the right amount of heat, but it will probably be too weak for true fans of hot stuff.

One thing I noticed, which is consistent across the board for Aldi's onion rings, is that there are a pound of onion rings in each bag. However, since they vary in size from large to tiny, there can be as little as ten onion rings included, if you get mostly medium-to-large ones. Now, since it's by weight, it technically evens out to the same amount of onion rings no matter how many are inside, but I have to say there's something a little visually unsatisfying about only getting three or four onion rings in a serving, even if they are bigger than average. But maybe that's just a personal psychological thing.

At any rate, these are good, but not great, onion rings that may or may not appease fans of hot stuff.

Overall: 6/10. It tastes like a standard onion ring, until the heat comes from out of nowhere and attacks. I don't have a high tolerance for heat, and so I thought these were actually pretty spicy...I had four pieces (half of the bag we got) and it was enough to get my nose running a little bit. But the heat seemed to dissipate pretty quickly, so it wasn't a lingering sensation. Like the other varieties (BBQ and Black Pepper being the other two), the batter cooks up crispier and is more flavorful than their standard onion rings (which are still very good), but they are also fifty cents more per 16 oz. bag, coming in at $2.49. It's not a great onion ring, but it is a little different, and so I suppose they're worth trying at least once.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Fast Bites BBQ Rib Sandwich (Dollar Tree)

What you would expect, for better or worse.
I never eat barbecue ribs. Like, ever. In fact, I don't ever recall trying one before I met the woman who would become my wife, and I was in my mid-20s before she talked me into giving one a shot. I liked it, but not enough to end up anywhere near my list of favorite foods, and so I kind of tend to forget that ribs even exist.

One thing I still hadn't tried was a rib sandwich, so please refrain from asking me why I even bothered to grab a Fast Bites BBQ Rib Sandwich from Dollar Tree one day. In all honestly, it didn't really look or sound all that appealing to me, even as I was adding it to my basket; I guess I just figured that it was a change from my usual frozen meals, and a quick dinner (or snack) whenever I was too unmotivated to think about making something. Well then, it should come as no surprise for you to learn that it went straight to the freezer that night, where it sat, forgotten, for about a month.

Well, I finally stumbled on it again, as it somehow came to the front of the freezer after my wife put away groceries from an Aldi shopping trip. I wasn't really all that hungry for anything (I'm on medication that suppresses feelings of hunger; that's not at all the point of the medication, but rather a side effect), yet realized that I should probably eat something, and so I decided that I would just throw this down the ol' gullet, without the benefit of a side dish or other accouterments.

As the brand name suggests with “Fast Bites”, the whole point of their products are to provide quick, convenient sandwiches for lazy chaps like myself, as well as college kids, and anyone else that doesn't mind eating frozen meats of questionable origin. And as you could probably already tell from the fact that these are available at Dollar Tree stores, they are also very inexpensive, making them a double-whammy for those on a budget. Prepwork is so easy even I can do it: open one end of the plastic that the frozen sandwich is encased in, microwave for two minutes, let sit for one, and boom, you are ready to dig in.

My first observation is the bun: it feels kind of tough, a far cry from the soft, non-frozen buns that most people are accustomed to. The “meat” looks about as you would expect: as a piece of roadkill slathered in barbecue sauce and forced between two frozen slabs of bread. Thanks to modern science, it oddly smells pretty enticing, but that's probably because all you can smell is the sweetness of the barbecue sauce, and not the odor of the questionable meat product that you are about to dig into.

I have never had the McRib sandwich (oddly, my grandma swears by those things), but I just have a weird hunch that these probably taste very similar. The rib meat isn't as offensively gross as I was fully expecting it to be—it has a believable texture, and is easy to chew. The barbecue sauce, as the aroma suggested, is sweet, and just tastes like a standard barbecue: if you've ever had the barbecue rib TV dinners, then you pretty much know exactly what you're getting into. The bun is a little chewy, as it seemed like it would be from my initial impression, but is much softer if you dig in right as it's out of the microwave (it does get tougher and less palatable the longer it sits out). Either way, the bread is bland no matter what stage it's in, so don't expect it to add much to the flavor.

I must say that it was far less frightening of an experience than what I was expecting going into it. However, that doesn't mean that it was necessarily a “good” experience, or any sort of life-changing one: I think experiencing this once has probably held me over for at least the next couple of years--if not my entire lifetime--so I'm in no rush to get it again. But if I ever find myself in an urgent situation in an unfamiliar city, armed only with a dollar in my pocket, dying of hunger, and with no one else to turn to for help, and I happen to see nothing but this questionable rib-meat sandwich sitting in the dilapidated gas station that I have stumbled upon in a last-ditch effort to stay alive, I guess it's good to know that it's edible.

Overall: 5.5/10. It's not really “good”, but it's better than I thought it would be heading in. Fast Bites Barbecue Rib Meat Sandwich may not sound like high-class cuisine, and that's because it's not. However, it is a decent sandwich that only costs a buck, and can be ready in just three minutes (two minutes in the microwave, plus one minute sitting), so it gets some high marks for value and convenience. I'm not huge into ribs (I didn't try my first one until I was well into my 20s, and still have only had them less than a handful of times), but then again, that really means nothing considering these are a distant relative to the smoked ones you get at barbecue joints everywhere. The mass-produced barbecue is sweet, and assuming you've had any TV dinner with barbecue sauce in it, probably exactly what you are expecting. I think eating just this one has sated my very-limited interest in frozen rib meat sandwiches for a couple years, if not life, but I still have to admit that it's not all that bad, and a presumably decent option to tide over McRib fans between limited-time offerings.


Friday, August 9, 2019

Park Street Deli Veggie Alfredo Pasta (Aldi)

Behind this plain product name is an unexpected explosion of (too much?) flavor.
I grabbed this on a recent shopping trip, expecting to serve it to myself on one of those many nights my wife works, and I’m too helpless to do anything else—much to my surprise, we ended up eating it together for dinner that very same night I brought it home.

As the title of the product insinuates, this one is a fettuccine alfredo-style pasta dish, only with penne instead of fettuccine noodles, and various vegetables (mainly broccoli and red pepper) replacing any possible meat inclusions. I like me some meat, but I also like me some vegetables, so I was a little excited to give this a shot. What I wasn’t excited about was the $8 price tag, which seems a little high for such a (seemingly) small amount of pasta, but hey, sometimes you just have to live a little.

An unappetizing view of a half-eaten container.
Holy shit, my taste buds were not expecting that first bite: it’s a stunner. I feel like I can’t even properly explain this dish in flavor terms, because it’s so rich that it overwhelms the senses; it doesn’t quite taste like a standard alfredo, but you can definitely taste alfredo buried in there somewhere, while the vegetables actually provide more to the flavor of the dish, than just being there for a splash of color. I think my wife put it best when she compared this to the taste of a vegetable lasagna…they are quite similar, although this has the benefit of being coated in alfredo sauce!

The sauce is nice and thick, and definitely several notches above the typical “frozen TV dinner” sauce (though, granted, this one is refrigerated), coating each noodle with an abundance of sauce that doesn’t fall off when you go to pick it up or take a bite. There’s a disgusting(ly good) amount of cheese in here, too, with long strings of the stuff clinging desperately to each forkful right after you take it out of the oven, which also makes things appealing from a visual standpoint, too.

When all is said and done, this is an overwhelming dish, rich as all hell, yet so flavorful that you don’t want to put it down. Eventually, though, I had to once the mere thought of another bite started to make my stomach churn; not at all because it was gross, but simply because it’s so creamy and decadent and full of unhealthy stuff that a little bit goes a very long way. I can’t remember another time that I felt like my taste buds were “exhausted” after eating something, but that’s how this made me feel…there’s just so much going on that you inevitably succumb to it, no matter how hungry you are going in. And that $8 price tag certainly didn’t seem as bad when my wife and I had some for dinner, and there was still enough for me to take to work the next day.

I definitely wouldn't call it a "gourmet" dish, per se, but it's at least on par with a good chain restaurant pasta (which might be an oxymoron), and for a fraction of the price.

Overall: 7/10. This one is really hard for me to put into words, but Park Street Deli’s plainly-named Veggie Alfredo Pasta is an overwhelmingly rich dish, with a literal explosion of flavor that I was not expecting. It doesn’t taste like a standard alfredo, but I also can’t explain exactly what it does taste like, so I can be of no help here...it's one of those things you'll just have to experience for yourself. The vegetables (broccoli and red peppers) are well-cooked and provide actual flavor to the dish, rather than just being there for extra color or texture purposes. At $7.99, this dish certainly isn’t for everyone budgetwise, but with a quick prep time (it can be microwaved in 5 minutes), and more flavor than most pre-made mass-produced dishes, this is a welcome change from the normal alfredo. Just be prepared to test your limits, because a little bit of this goes a very long way.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Main Street Kitchen Creamy Chicken Rigatoni (Dollar Tree)


Well, this one went against my expectations...
I have had three other flavors of Main St. Kitchen’s frozen meals that I’ve come across in Dollar Tree stores, and was pretty much underwhelmed with all of them. Let’s continue that trend with their rigatoni with chicken, shall we?

Once again, there’s a generous amount of sauce on the noodles, but I’m not going to be fooled that easily this time…I know chances are it’s thin and will just slide off every time I go to take a bite. I’m also happy to see a strongly reduced broccoli presence as compared to the fettuccine alfredo, although the trade-off to this is the addition of some chicken to the proceedings. There are quite a few bite-sized pieces of meat scattered throughout…just the right amount, if you ask me. Mass-produced frozen chicken can get kinda weird if you dwell on it too much, but since the pieces are smaller, it's easier to force them down without much thought.

Tastewise, it’s the same disappointing blandness from the…wait a minute, no…this one is surprisingly good! I don’t know why, but I expected the sauce to be similar to an alfredo, since I clearly didn’t read the package beforehand (and am nowhere near a connoisseur of rigatoni). Instead, we are treated to a “basil parmesan” sauce, which is apparently much better suited for a frozen TV dinner than an alfredo is. It’s not nearly as thin as the alfredo sauce was, as it clings to the noodle and provides each bite with what tastes like garlicky goodness. It’s obviously nothing outstanding, but it’s—at the very least—on par with similar frozen entrees I’ve tried. And for $1, you can’t go wrong with that.

Like Main Street Kitchen’s other options, a mere dollar gets you a solid 9 oz. of pasta flavor, along with some reduced fat, cholesterol, and a heaping helping of protein, making it one of the healthier options inside Dollar Tree freezers. But you wouldn't know that from the packaging—I'm really surprised they don't harp on the “health benefits” more like these companies frequently do. Looking at the box, it just looks like your typical frozen option, instead of a somewhat better alternative to a lot of other ones. Considering DT has gotten blasted for catering junk food to low-income families, you would think they'd be looking at any possible way to reverse that trend.

Thankfully, though, unlike a majority of their other flavors I’ve tried, this one doesn’t taste like a diet option, and that is why I would definitely grab this one again in the future, and why it's earning my personal recommendation (which, translated to cash value, is actually less than $.02).

Overall: 7/10. It’s no different in taste when compared to similar frozen entrees…but considering the reduced fat, cholesterol, and strong protein content, not to mention the $1 price tag, that makes that statement more of a compliment than a concern. The basil parmesan sauce is shockingly pretty good, and is thick enough that the sauce doesn't fall off the noodle, a serious problem I had with their alfredo sauce. This is the top Main Street Kitchen product I've tried, and the only one I would grab again in the not-too-distant future. If you ever find yourself in Dollar Tree looking for a quick meal that (probably) won't completely destroy your health regiment, this is the one to get.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Main St. Kitchen Fettuccine Alfredo with Broccoli Frozen Entree (Dollar Tree)

If you enjoy eating food for the flavor, pass this right on by.

The last time I was in the market for some frozen foods at Dollar Tree, was the first time I laid eyes on Main St. Kitchen: its sleek packaging standing out among the sea of poor-quality meats and other frozen dollar oddities. Now, a month or so later, I was in the market again, looking to grab a quick meal for work. And wouldn’t you know it that they had introduced not one, but two new flavors since then, including this fettuccine alfredo with broccoli, the first and only option I’ve seen from them that completely omits any form of meat whatsoever. How would this one fare?

My interest was piqued right off the bat after pulling out the microwaved entree, when I noticed that the sauce is generously spread over the noodles, which look as they should (like fettuccine noodles). There are also quite a few good-sized broccoli chunks spread throughout, making the overall appearance look rather appetizing for a cheap frozen meal.

Unfortunately, the taste is the tradeoff for the appealing initial impressions: the sauce is thin and tastes virtually nonexistent. Somehow, even though there appears to be a lot of sauce on the entrĂ©e, most bites still seem to taste like plain noodle, as if the sauce is merely a mirage that disappears the moment you put it in your mouth—the end result is as bland and disappointing as that makes it sound.

Alas, the real “star” of this dish is the broccoli, which is never a good sign…for anyone, really. (Think about it: what dish has ever made you say “Wow, this broccoli is really good!”) It’s cooked well, with a nice texture, a light touch of “crunch” (though not so much that it feels undercooked) and even a little bit of juiciness. That the veggie in the dish is not only the only thing giving it flavor, but the sole thing that prevents it from being a completely bland mess of nothingness, is a testament to just how...bleh this whole thing is.

At $1 per 9 oz package, which is an ounce more than similar name brands, this is a fairly decent deal, and at only 220 calories per package, it’s also a surprisingly decent choice for those watching their figures, at least as far as Dollar Tree frozen meals are concerned. And it doesn’t just stop there: one package contains just 3g of fat, 10mg of cholesterol, 3g of dietary fiber, and a whopping 11g of protein, which is pretty excellent for a TV dinner. Of course, the salt content (500 mg) is still pretty high, but lower than most regular name brands.

If you’re on a diet, or just looking for a healthy option, this might suffice; anyone looking for things like “flavor” or “deliciousness” should keep right on looking.

Overall: 4.5/10. An uninspiring—though somewhat healthy—frozen meal whose main noteworthy quality is an almost complete lack of flavor (save for the broccoli). It does have much less fat and cholesterol than many other TV dinners, and is probably the healthiest frozen thing inside a Dollar Tree store, though, so it potentially fills a niche. The $1 price point is pretty good for non-discerning folk—but for anyone who actually wants to enjoy the taste of their sodium-packed frozen sadness should pick up almost literally anything else.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Kroger Chocolate Toasted Oats Cereal (Kroger)

It's better than I thought it would be, but completely unnecessary.
Ever since I was a kid, I've always been into cereal, a fascination that continues even to this day. There is, arguably, no more versatile food on the face of this Earth: obviously, it's great for breakfast, but it's also equally effective as both a snack, or even as a quick meal when nothing else sounds good. Since most cereals have quite a bit of vitamins (which will help to offset the high sugar content of some of the kids-based ones), it's also a healthier alternative than other snacks, which is why we seem to have at least a dozen boxes on hand at any given time. (And that's not even taking into account its other uses, such as an ingredient in milkshakes, a topping for ice cream, a healthier breading for fried foods, etc.)

And ever since I was a kid, I've always loved the name brand “O”s cereal. I think most kids like the apple cinnamon and honey nut variants—which I always did, too—but I was one of the only kids I knew that loved the taste of the original, even without added sugar. Even today it seems most adults have to add a spoonful (or more) of sweetness in order to force it down, but I'm fine eating it right out of the box, or with a cut-up banana for some more natural sweetness.

I guess I'm out of the loop (pun intended!) but now it seems the classic cereal is always constantly being “updated” for modern tastes. Instead of just a couple varieties, now it seems a new version of “O's” are coming out weekly: there's multi-grain, and yogurt, and frosted, and fruity, and banana nut, and peanut butter, and strawberry banana, and berry...it's all rather overwhelming and unnecessary, especially since most of those flavors are very similar to, and executed better in, other cereals. And that's a big reason why I have avoided almost all of them like the plague, not taking so much as a second glance at any of them in the store, unless it was to scoff at the latest stupid addition to the seemingly neverending line.

Well apparently my mom has an affinity for buying cereal when it's on sale, and then never eating it: a couple times a year, we get a dozen or so unopened boxes of all different kinds, across all different brands, both corporate, and private label. In this latest batch, we received a box of Kroger's Chocolate Toasted Oat's cereal, and I have to say I couldn't be less thrilled to try it.

Truth be told, I probably wouldn't have, were it not for my two-year-old son, who is far more open-minded when it comes to cereals than I am (but shares his daddy's affection for the stuff). After giving him a choice of cereals based on pictures, of course the one he settled on was one of a couple that I really had no interest in eating (we always share a bowl of cereal together when we eat it, which is how I'm “locked in” to whatever his choice is; it's one of our little traditions). Unwilling to break his fragile little heart over something so trivial, I sucked it up and decided to give it a shot.

It's still stupid, and I won't ever buy a box for myself, but I honestly have to say it's better than I ever thought it could be. Dare I say, it hit the same flavor profiles for me as the Count's cereal; you know, the over-chocolated cereal with marshmallows that seems to only be available around the Halloween season. It's obviously not as sweet or as chocolatey as that cereal, but take away the marshmallows and I think it's closer than anyone would like to admit. I guess think of it as a “diet” version of that, with a good amount of chocolate flavor coming through that isn't overly sweet.

The issue for me is that there are dozens of other chocolate cereals on the market, and many of them still do the whole chocolate thing way better. Like “Cocoa Small Stones”, and “Cocoa Spheres”, or the aforementioned chocolate vampire: If I want a chocolate cereal, I want a cereal that's unabashedly chocolate, and that leaves the milk a dark shade of brown when you get to the bottom, rather than a browner shade of white. But that's just me: if you're on a diet, or otherwise hate the sweetness of typical chocolate cereals, then I guess this might fit the bill a little bit better for you.

Again, it's not at all a bad cereal: it's just another pointless addition to the ever-expanded "O's" line that seems to want to incorporate every possible flavor, fad or not, in an effort to stay relevant and drum up some contemporary business.

Overall: 6/10. I never really cared to try this cereal, but now that I have, it's kind of bittersweet for me: it's certainly better than I thought it would be, but I still don't think I'll ever get it again. The chocolate is strong enough, but not overly sweet the way a lot of other chocolate cereals are. Then again, that's more of a bad thing for me: if I want a chocolate cereal, I want a chocolate cereal, not one that seems like it doesn't want to fully commit to the idea (to wit, the milk is only a very light shade of brown when you get to the bottom). Beyond that, it's still another pointless addition to the “O's” line of cereals that seemingly keep churning out new flavors every single week, when their original lineup (original, honey nut, apple cinnamon) is already pretty perfect. I got these for free from my mom, so I'm not sure of the value proposition when purchased from the store, but regardless, as decent as they are, I wouldn't pay a dime for these when there are much better chocolate cereals around.