Sunday, June 26, 2016

Specially Selected Triple Chocolate Ice Cream Bars (Aldi)

Pretty tasty stuff.
I’ve actually never had the ice cream bars that these are knocking off (a hint if you’re truly lost: they share the same name as a brand of condom), and the only person I know that tried them thought they were overpriced for what they were, and said they would never buy them again.  Even at Aldi, where they were available for $2.49, I thought they were a little steep, so even though the very sight of them made my mouth water, I postponed buying them.

Well, after Aldi pulled the trigger and marked these down a mere fifty cents, from the regular price of $2.49, down to $1.99, I caved in.  Not that the fifty-cent reduction really made much of a difference in terms of value, but it gave me the nudge I needed to “get off the fence”, so to speak.

It wasn’t until we took the box home that I noticed our $2 investment only contained three ice cream bars.  Who in the hell offers products that can’t be evenly split these days?  Especially when said product is an ice cream bar?  Did focus groups really draw the line at, “I’d pay $2.50 for three, but $3.29 for four is exorbitant.”?  It just seems like an odd thing to do, especially since desserts tend to be shared.  Anyway, still eager to dig in, we opened the box and each took one out, taking us immediately to Disappointment #2: These things are not the “enlarged to show texture” monster-size as depicted on the front cover box.  I say that mainly in jest, because the picture displayed on the outside is bigger than the box itself, so they wouldn't be able to fit one inside, let alone three.  But what is a problem, at least initially, is that the picture, while clearly and obviously exaggerated, does hint that each bar will be pretty large--but they are not.  "Teeny" would be quite an understatement, but they are smaller than the average fudge bar, and with those you get tons in a package, and still for under $2.  They do manage to make up for some of that by being thicker than the average ice cream bar, but I expected bars that cost 83 cents apiece (at full retail price) and are made up largely of ice cream, to be a lot larger than they are.  Whatever.  Though there were some red flags going off, we still weren’t completely deterred, so we dove right in.

Wow…it doesn’t take but a bite for the decadent flavors to sink into your mouth; the sweet, supposedly Belgian chocolate (not saying it ain’t, just saying there are enough lies and half-truths on packaging to fill an encyclopedia-sized volume) strikes a perfect chord with the semi-bittersweet ice cream to create a blissful harmony of deliciousness.  But if you read the name of the product, and chances are good that you have, you know there has to be more.  After all, this is a triple chocolate bar, and I’ve only named two kinds of chocolate.  Well, you would be correct, because inside the ice cream are irresistible morsels of milk chocolate chips.  Altogether, these bars are ridiculously good, and definitely a notch or two above the average fudgecicle, whose price I just compared them to in an earlier paragraph.

About halfway through eating this tasty treat, at least one of my concerns disappeared:  The size of the bar was no longer relevant, because these things are really rich; I had a problem downing all of it, especially with no milk to help wash it down (though this was my fault; I was simply too lazy to get up and take the ten steps required to reach the fridge).  Thanks to a Herculean effort on my part, though, I managed to eat it all…and then another one a couple of nights later.  If they were any larger, I'd be completely overwhelmed with chocolate by the time I got to the end.  For the record, though, I'm no chocoholic, so for those of you that enjoy chocolate more than I do, these might still leave you wanting more.

I still have a small gripe with the price…I know, it’s at least a dollar cheaper than the name brand is, and it’s really, really good, but I’m accustomed to getting a lot more than three of an ice cream product at this price.  It is a special buy, and therefore only available occasionally at Aldi stores, but even if they were available year-’round, I would only pick them up a couple of times per year, as sort of a special treat.  That, and they’re simply too rich for constant consumption, at least as far as I'm concerned.  But they are very good, and should be considered a required buy for even casual fans of chocolate.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Only three bars per box?  For $2.49?  Those were my initial thoughts, but trying them at least eased some of the pain (so, too, did the markdown they took, lowering the price to a slightly-better $1.99):  Rich, Belgian chocolate on the outside, met with a semi-bittersweet chocolate ice cream, and some deliciously rich chocolate chips.  They also allayed my thoughts that the bars were too small; all the chocolate makes them incredibly rich and almost hard to finish without some milk to wash them down.  I'm not always a fan of these "chocolate overload" products, because they either seem to be too sweet, or too bitter, but these strike a solid balance between both sides of the spectrum, making these a delicious little treat, and the perfect example of why a product should be relegated to Special Buy cycles.

Specially Selected Milk Chocolate Coated Butter Cookies (Aldi)

Not as good as Godiva's, but palatable for far, far cheaper.
I had never heard of anything like these until I stumbled on them at, of all places, a Godiva shop inside a mall.  For whatever reason, I bought them (they certainly weren‘t cheap, and thus would normally be off my radar), and instantly fell in love with the creamy chocolate and perfectly buttery biscuit.  Imagine my surprise when a couple weeks later, I saw a similar product at Aldi!

That was two years ago.  A lot of things have changed since then, most notably the aforementioned Godiva shop closing down, taking with it my memories of their delicious (if ridiculously overpriced) dark chocolate shakes and these very biscuits.  Thankfully, however, Aldi has not shut down, and my wife suggested that we pick these up during a shopping trip.  Not usually one to argue against chocolate, I happily ceded, eager to try them for the first time in a rather long time.

While the taste is nowhere near the level of decadence reached by the boutique chocolatier‘s version (and how could it be?), this is still a pretty delicious little cookie.  The chocolate is made of Utz-certified cocoa; I have no idea what that means, but it’s promoted on the packaging, so it must be a big deal and make sense to a lot of other people.  My biggest gripe has to do with the chocolate, though:  There’s something not quite smooth about the taste; it strikes me as being slightly bitter.  I could understand that if these were dark chocolate, but the fact that it’s supposedly the generally sweeter “milk” variety kind of baffles me.  On the texture front, it gets high marks: it’s a very soft chocolate, and starts melting in your mouth almost instantly.  The butter cookie is also very good on its own; it’s not very crunchy, but it’s not too soft, either, and has a flavor typical of what you would expect of a butter cookie.

I don’t find these to be as addicting as some chocolate products can be, but that ended up being a good thing for me:  After eating one, or two at the most (which is the actual serving size), I was satisfied and had no problems putting them down, at least until the next day.  Of course, that won’t be the case with everyone, but for me, it’s a good little snack when I just want a little bit of chocolate, and don’t want to get carried away.

Overall: 6.5/10.  They’re rather large, and fairly inexpensive, though you only get eight in a package, which is kind of a bummer.  I thought the chocolate, which had a great consistency and texture, and starts melting in your mouth right away, was a little too bitter for me; maybe it’s the interplay between the chocolate and the cookie, but it just tasted a little “cheap”.  Not nearly the best of the chocolate butter cookies I’ve had, but passable for the price, and serviceable as an occasional treat.  It should be noted that these are constantly available as part of Aldi's permanent inventory, so they'll be there whenever you fancy them.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fit & Active Sesame Lo Mein (Aldi)

If "cheap" and "edible" are your only criteria, this will fit the bill pretty nicely.
This bowl has a few things that I’m not super crazy about, but just for the sake of covering the whole line, I opted to get it. As you may have noticed from a previous review, I enjoyed the Southwestern Fresca version (though my wife surprisingly did not) and although I wasn’t really looking forward to this one, I was hungry and figured there wasn’t going to be a time where I’d be more open-minded to this, so I jumped on the opportunity. 

This basically is a stir fry, with noodles in it. The teriyaki-style sauce has a little bit of a kick to it…I can’t tell if it’s added spices, or if it’s just a lot of salt, but I’m pretty sure it’s the former, but then there’s also some sweetness to it, which I really enjoyed. The vegetables, for the most part, steam up nice and good in the microwave, and so they taste fairly fresh, taking into consideration the fact that this is a frozen meal.

I don’t like that the sauce is so watery, though…there’s a puddle on the bottom that is kind of off-putting, and that makes the mushrooms extra slimy and gross. They taste okay, but the texture alone makes it feel like you’re eating a slug, which generally isn’t a good thing. The water chestnuts are also pretty bland (which they are naturally), but offer a decent crunch, which helps to offset some of the general sogginess of the rest of the dish (thanks in large part to the noodles). I’m also a big fan of pineapple in Asian dishes, and so the couple slices of pineapple included help to give it a nice little touch of depth, courtesy of the added sweetness.

I’d have to say that, in the end, this was better than I thought it would be, and I would more than likely get it again. I think the Southwestern-style wins in a head-to-head competition between the two products, but if you want something a little less spicy, this provides a capable alternative with a good amount of teriyaki flavor.

Overall: 6/10. I would take the Southwestern Fresca variety of this same product just about any day of the week, but the Sesame Lo Mein provides a pretty well-balanced flavor. The sauce is way too watery for my liking (there was a puddle of it sitting at the bottom, which was not very appetizing), but it has just a little bit of kick to offset the sweetness, so it tastes pretty good. Since this is a steamable dish (pop it in the microwave film and all), it suits the vegetables well, which cook up nice and are pretty flavorful given it's a frozen meal. Neither teriyaki nor lo mein are high on my list of favorite things—I was only called in to eat this after my wife hated it and I didn't want it to go to waste—but I have to say that it's better than I thought it'd be. Taste gets repetitive and the soggy texture is kind of off-putting, though. Edible and inexpensive.

Fit & Active Southwestern Fresca (Aldi)

A pretty solid dish for the price.
When I saw these in an ad, I knew my wife would want to check at least one of these out. I had my eyes on the Southwestern Fresca; not surprisingly, she opted for the Sesame Lo Mein. Also not surprisingly, she was disappointed with her dish; it was with this mindset that I approached mine.

Prepwork is as easy as it can possibly be. I remember actually having to slice open the plastic film covering the food, if not removing it outright. But that was in the old days of television dinners…nowadays, you literally just pull it out of the plastic packaging, and toss it into the microwave as is, film and all. Around three minutes later, and you have yourself a tasty little meal (or in my case, snack), perfectly steamed and ready to eat.

Contrary to my wife’s opinion about hers, I actually really liked mine. There is a nice spicy kick, thanks to the southwestern sauce, while the combination of noodles, vegetables, and beans was surprisingly delicious, not to mention a little more filling than I was expecting. I let her try a bite, as well, and she was pleasantly surprised, mentioning that it was way better than her Sesame Lo Mein. The vegetables taste somewhat fresh, though there’s little doubt that they’ve been frozen, but they still manage to be very flavorful.

For $1.69 (in a 9 oz. package), I think this is some pretty good value, and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick this up again. There’s a lot of flavor, not to mention a decent amount of food, for the price, and the 3 minute microwave time makes it a meal suitable for an on-the-go lifestyle. If you’re looking for a quick bite to eat, this is a good option, though there is still quite a bit of sodium (26% of the recommended daily allowance per package), so I’m not sure that it’s entirely for “Fit & Active” folks, like the brand name implies. But to counter that, there is also quite a lot of dietary fiber (a whopping 44% worth), as well as a healthy dose of Vitamin A (50%). In other words, you could do a lot worse, especially around this price point.

Overall: 7/10. I’m honestly thinking about grabbing a couple this weekend, to make sure I get a couple more before they sell out. This 9 oz. package packs some serious flavor for what amounts to peanuts ($1.69). The sauce provides a nice blast of heat, while the beans and veggies combine to be a surprisingly tasty tandem. There’s quite a bit of sodium in this, but that’s also counterbalanced with about half of your daily dietary fiber and vitamin A recommendations, so those leading active lifestyles will no doubt work off a lot of the “bad“ calories. The quick convenience of preparation also makes this the perfect snack for those that are too busy to prepare a sit-down meal. Pretty good stuff for the price, and well-above average as far as frozen meals go.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Millville Crunchy Granola Raisin Bran Cereal (Aldi)

You won't come across a raisin until the bottom of the bowl...then you'll come across all of them.
I eat cereal all the time, but I’m not the biggest fan of raisins.  Yet, for reasons unknown, I still get cravings for raisin cereal every once in a while.  Usually, I get the typical “raisins with bran flakes” version by default, because I don’t really pay much attention to them.  But my interest was piqued when I saw Aldi offered a “Raisin Granola Crunch” cereal under their Millville banner, and so I opted to give it a try.

As the “crunch” in the title suggests, the flakes in this cereal aren’t your average, run-of-the-mill bran flakes:  They seem to be coated in some extra sugar, making them much sweeter, and also more milk-resistant.  This is actually a key for me; in the bran version, the cereal gets mushy almost the instant the milk hits it, so I like that this stays crunchy a lot longer.  I also liked the touch of extra sweetness--I could have just as easily eaten this cereal without any raisins at all, something that tends to happen anyway…

I’m no scientist, but for whatever reason, all the raisin bits drop to the bottom of the bowl.  This might also be an issue for raisin bran, though I do not recall that being the case.  Do most people eat cereal by scooping along the bottom of the bowl after every bite?  I just skim the surface of the milk, getting the flakes that are closest to the top; I’ve had two full bowls of this stuff and while I like it, I always end up with ten or so raisins hiding out at the bottom, while getting virtually NONE with the actual cereal flakes.  I hate being wasteful, so I always manage to force them down, but the raisins are my least favorite part, and I was hoping to kind of mask the taste of the fruit with the sweetness of the cereal…needless to say, that doesn’t really happen.  Which kind of defeats the whole point of the cereal.

Overall: 5.5/10.  In theory, this cereal is a great idea, giving the cereal flakes a sugary coating that’s more resistant to milk than the typical “bran and raisin” cereal, while also adding a little bit of sweetness.  But in execution, it leaves something to be desired.  While the sweetened slivers of cereal are absolutely delicious, all the raisin bits fall directly to the bottom.  Maybe I eat cereal differently from most people, but I don’t scoop the bottom of the bowl for every bite, instead opting to skim the top of the milk to just get the cereal bits on the surface, then slowly working my way down.  This leaves me with about a dozen raisins at the bottom of the bowl when I would otherwise be done, which is no good since I do not like raisins.  I will probably stick to the regular “bran and raisin” cereal the next time I have a craving for this kind of thing.

Millville Apple Rounds Cereal (Aldi)

If they don't taste like apple, then what in the hell DO they taste like?!
The one thing I always think of when I see a box of Apple Jacks, or even in this case, a private label knockoff of them, are the old commercials from the mid-’90s, which always featured a grown-up concerned this his or her child, and group of friends, enjoyed the titular cereal.  “Why do you like these things?  They don’t taste like apple!” the adult would say, to which the child would respond, “That isn’t why we like them!” The befuddled adult would then add another line to the interrogation. “Then why?”  There would always be a lengthy pause as the child seemed caught off-guard by the question, until he would inevitably respond, “We just do!”  Then everyone would laugh.

As a kid, the commercials had an almost rebellious feel to them:  Here were kids that liked something their parents didn’t approve of, for no specific reason.  They were eating them because they wanted to, and no amount of argument from the parents were going to change any of that.

Twenty years later (Good Lord, where has time gone?), and it’s good to see that some things never change:  These damn things still don’t taste a single thing like apple.  On the other hand, other things do:  The rebellious nature of the commercials has lost its appeal to me, and now I find myself on Team Grown-Up, wondering what in the world the appeal of this cereal is.

Anyway, like many of the products that end up in my cart on any given shopping trip, the only reason I grabbed a box of these is because it was on sale…for 99 cents.  Where I come from, you just don’t turn down any full-size box of cereal that can be had for just a dollar, so I decided to throw it into the cart.  If nothing else, it would manage to be a nice blast of nostalgia.

And that blast of nostalgia is about where it stops.  I remember them being a lot sweeter back in the day, though some of the sweetness could have just been lost in the translation from national brand, to private label.  The cereal O’s get soggy real quick, so eating a bowl of the stuff is more a race to finish it before it becomes inedibly soft more than an exercise in enjoyment.  While we’ve already established there’s no apple flavor, there’s really not much of a flavor period, beyond a slightly-sweetened mess of undetectable flavors, most of which are probably provided by artificial colors and chemicals.

I guess I can’t complain too much because I only wasted a dollar on these, but “waste” is certainly the word I’m looking for.  Even next time I see it for this cheap, I’ll know I can pass right on by.

Overall: 3/10.  Proof that some things should stay in your past.  Sure, these don’t taste a thing like apples, something that was a gleeful part of the national brand’s ad campaign years back.  But what DO they taste like?  They’re nothing but awkward-tasting, semi-sweetened “O”-shaped cereal bits with random flecks of red peppered throughout, for absolutely no reason.  They’re edible, which accounts for the three points, but they’re nowhere near enjoyable.  Also get soggy way too quickly, meaning you’ll be frantically trying to finish the bowl before it becomes a soft mess of grotesquerie.  All this being said, unpicky kids will probably love it.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Season's Choice Premium Veggie Eggplant Fries (Aldi)

I went into this with strong reservations...and came out a believer.
Let me just get this observation out of the way: I feel like the name “Veggie Fries” is a little misleading, as I think of a mix of vegetables combining to form a single fry. What these really are, are fried eggplant fries. Now I’ve never been a fan of eggplant at all, but my wife is, so we grabbed a box of these just to see what they were all about.

The first thing I noticed is how BIG these things are. I expected small shoestring-size fries, with a teeny-tiny bit of eggplant in the middle. But a lot of these are actually monstrosities, with a few of them reaching six inches long! Of course, you’re also going to get some smaller ones, but all of them are loaded with a generous amount of eggplant. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your appreciation for eggplant. Or, it could even change your mind about the vegetable altogether…

If there’s one thing that usually drags down frozen breaded items, it’s that the breading either adds nothing to the overall flavor, or it ends up being too soggy; surprisingly, neither of those happen to be the case here. The breading is surprisingly flavorful on its own, with a delicious blend of spices in it. It would make a fantastic onion ring batter! There’s also a substantial amount of eggplant in each fry; I thought this would be a negative, as like I said earlier, I‘m not a fan of eggplant at all, but the combination actually manages to be pretty good. In fact, I would even go so far as to say these are restaurant quality--not four-star restaurant quality, but I could easily see something similar to these being sold at a chain restaurant, for twice the price. Not being a fan of eggplant (something I’ve mentioned three times now, just for reiteration), I did dip them in peppercorn ranch, which made them absolutely addicting; just to test it out, I tried them without ranch and was similarly surprised at how edible they were.

A box of these retail for $3.99, which is rather steep for a box of fries, but these certainly manage to be worth it; there are plenty of fries per box (there were enough for two big helpings that managed to fill up both my wife and I) and the sheer size of most of them set them apart from typical French fry offerings. If you happen to see these being offered--they are only available occasionally as a Special Buy item--don’t hesitate to scoop these up. Unless you’re allergic or absolutely despise eggplant, no matter your opinion of the vegetable, you just might find enough here to change your mind.

Overall: 9/10. I don’t like eggplant at all, but these are absolutely fantastic. The $4 price tag seems a little excessive at first, but the average size of each fry is about three inches, with a girthiness to match, so you really get a lot of fry for the buck.  I dipped mine in ranch, which really took them to the next flavor level for me, yet they were delicious right out of the oven with no condiments.  I'd have to say these are easily restaurant quality, and I guarantee you'd be paying a helluva lot more than $4 for at least half the amount if you were to get these while dining out.  It might be a little splurge, but since they are only available once or twice a year, it's one worth taking, if you can afford to.

Specially Selected Stone Baked Garlic Cheese Flatbread (Aldi)

Sheer perfection. Greasy, drippy, cholesterol-ridden, heart-stopping perfection.
I loooooove garlic bread. Like, any kind. From those offered at pizza shops, to the frozen “Texas Toast” ones offered in supermarket freezers, to the homemade ones my wife makes using white bread, butter, and seasonings, to those covered in cheeses. Oh, the ones covered in cheeses…the combination of cheese and garlic is a match made in heaven, and rarely does it come together so well as it does in Specially Selected’s Garlic Cheese Flatbread, available as a Special Buy from Aldi stores.

Now let’s get one thing out of the way: If you are dieting, don’t go anywhere near this. When cooking directions specifically tell you to put a second tray down in the oven to catch dripping grease, you know you’re in for something that’s going to clog your arteries. But if this is what death tastes like, I would gladly welcome it. The cheese is delicious, while each piece is absolutely dripping with garlic sauce. Get a nice ranch or marinara to dip it in, and you can take it to the next level. I’ve seriously had many garlic and cheesesticks from too many pizza shops to count, and a vast majority don’t even come close to touching these.

Add to that the ridiculous price tag of just $1.99, and these are an all-around winner. If you need something to compliment your next pizza, or just want a generous amount of cheese and garlic, pick this up immediately--since it’s a Special Buy, once they sell out, it’s gone until the next time. Thankfully, this is one of the items offered the most, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long before it becomes available again, but when you’re dealing with a product this delicious, even a few weeks can feel like a lifetime.

Overall: 10/10. I hate giving perfect scores, but this one deserves it. A generous helping of cheese, and a ridiculous amount of drippy, messy garlic atop a flatbread…what’s not to like? Oh yeah, and it’s only $1.99, which means it’s both delicious, and completely affordable on any budget. Most pizza shop cheesesticks I’ve had don’t even come close to matching this. This is one of the few products I make sure to grab just about every time it’s available…so will you.