Sunday, November 25, 2018

Chef's Cupboard Chunky Baked Potato With Cheddar and Bacon Bits Canned Soup (Aldi)

It's decent, as far as mass-produced canned soups are concerned.
I have denounced at least a couple of Aldi's other soup offerings over the years, and yet here I am, sitting with a bowl of yet another one. Why, you ask? I wanted something simple to make, and if soup is one thing, it's very simple to make. We were at the end of a shopping trip and I realized I didn't have much in the cart for “just me”, that is, lazy stuff that I can make for myself when my wife is gone for the evening. I thought of the usual suspects-- a frozen pizza, TV dinner, sandwiches—but I'd had too many of all of those things lately. And so I ended up staring down several cans of soup, with wildly varying degrees of acceptance: that one looks too gross, that one only looks okay, etc. until one of them spoke back to me and said, “I am the one you should take home with you.”

The voice belonged to Chef's Cupboard's Baked Potato with Cheddar and Bacon Bits Soup. Potato soup by itself is a relatively straightforward affair, simple to make and hard to screw up. It's generally pretty light in flavor on its own, so this seemed like a solid combination, as the cheese and bacon bits could liven things up a little bit. Obviously, they were going for a “baked potato” kind of combination, which I wasn't expecting to translate entirely into soup form, but it seemed like it would at least be edible.

When I transferred it from the can to a bowl, I was kind of dismayed at how soft and liquidy it was. I expected the soup part to be a little bit thicker, like a chowder, but I guess “soup” is generally more runny than “chowder”. It also comes out a rather unappetizing hue of light brown...not quite in the color realm of “poop”, but kind of reminiscent of vomit, especially with the potato chunks. I'm not doing a good job of explaining this right now, am I?

Thankfully, this soup tastes better than its appearance lead me to believe, even if the cheddar flavor is pretty much nonexistent. Still, the bacon bits are clearly there, as are large chunks of potato, and the soup itself is more or less how I imagined it at the store: potato soup with bacon bits. Because of canned soup's natural propensity to be filled with salt, I did stop to think that the bacon would only add more, threatening to make this a sodium-filled mess. I'm sure it is (didn't even stop to look at the nutrition info, honestly), but it doesn't taste like one. Many soups give me that “sodium burn” from excessive salt, but I didn't really feel that with this, nor did I feel the threat of it coming on. Again, I'm sure there's a lot of sodium in here, but it's at least not super-noticeable on the tongue.

It's a shame that there's not really much in the way of cheese, because that could have really given the soup some added “oomph”. While the bacon bits are noticeable, they are so small, and swimming in so much soup, that they don't really add much to the flavor, which is kind of a letdown. With enough added cheddar to make an impact on the flavor, this might be something special; even as it is now, though, it's one of the better canned soups that I've had from Aldi. And you can always just grab a package of cheddar cheese while you're there and add some yourself.

Overall: 5.5/10. Canned soups aren't really my thing, but as far as they go, this one is pretty good. Sadly, the cheddar flavor is pretty much nonexistent, and so this reminded me simply of a potato soup, but with the addition of bacon bits. The bits don't add much flavor, but they do add a little extra texture in an otherwise dry, bland landscape of potatoes and soup. To its credit, it doesn't taste nearly as salt-filled as many other canned soups, so it earns points for that, while the $1.49 asking price is pretty reasonable for a heaping helping of the stuff. It's not going to win any awards, but it's something perfectly edible that you can store in your pantry and forget about it...until you're too lazy to go grocery shopping for a week and need to eat it out of desperation.

Chef's Cupboard Gourmet Butternut Squash and Red Pepper Canned Soup (Aldi)

More of a bisque...and a surprisingly delicious one at that.
I’m not really a soup fan, especially pre-canned ones, nor am I much of a fan of butternut squash. But after having a couple of teeth removed due to a massive infection beneath the gumline (perhaps a little TMI, but I don’t care if you don’t), I was naturally on a soft food diet for a few days. It’s times like these that make you realize just how few soft foods you have laying around the house at any given time.

Wanting some soup, but not really feeling like going out to get some, my wife was generous enough to offer me her Chef’s Cupboard Butternut Squash and Red Pepper soup. I was initially hesitant, for the specific reasons mentioned in the first sentence, but finally conceded when my laziness got the better of me. And boy am I glad I gave this a chance.

First off, I'd classify this more as a “bisque” than an actual soup, which is an idea I can get behind. And it’s a pretty darn good bisque, one that’s surprisingly rich, with the perfect texture: creamy, but with substantial thickness. As for the taste, there’s definitely some squash in there, as you can tell from the chunks floating around, but it’s balanced well with the red pepper, giving it some added flavor that the blandness of squash could never do on its own. The end result is a delicious, surprisingly addicting soup. Given all my qualms with it in the beginning, I’ll confess that I had no problems polishing off an entire bowl, and would gladly eat it again. If only laziness was always this rewarding!

Overall: 8/10. A very delicious, creamy bisque-like soup that won me over despite not really caring for butternut squash. The squash flavor is balanced well with the red peppers, and the end result is a perfectly-textured bisque that is thick, but not overly so. This unfortunately isn't always available, instead being relegated to "Special Buy" status, so if you ever see it in stores, gobble it up while you have the chance!

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Season's Choice Curry and Vegetable Risotto (Aldi)

Sometimes, taking a chance yields expected results.
Well throughout some previous reviews, we learned that risotto is not a food I’m all that familiar with. Now I have to confess that Indian cuisine is something I’m far less experienced in. We even have a well-received Indian restaurant a few seconds from our house, but the fancy has never struck my wife or I enough to actually go and check it out. But since I tend to be more open-minded about foods, and my wife was off on vacation visiting her parents out-of-state, I figured this would be as good a time as any to see what vegetable and curry risotto was all about.

It might just be the culture shock, but I have to say that I’m not very crazy about it. The vegetables and rice are very good, but the curry just kind of ruins it for me. Again, I doubt that a frozen meal is going to feature 100% authentic curry, but I must confess that I don’t know exactly how typical curry tastes. It certainly did grow on me slightly from the beginning to the end (I ended up downing the whole container in one sitting), but it has a rather awkward taste that’s hard to describe…it’s neither sweet, nor bitter, but it also just doesn’t taste very good.

There’s still something intriguing about this dish, though, as the vegetables and rice are fantastic together (even the zucchini was delicious, and I usually don’t care for that). Part of the reason I ate so much is no doubt because I was rather buzzed and looking for something to toss in my stomach, and this fit the bill. But by the end, I have to admit that I didn’t nearly hate the curry as much as I did on the first bite, so that has to be saying something. However, would I purchase this again?

I can’t say I would, because it‘s way outside the limits of what my palate is used to, and while it did the job of filling up my stomach, it wasn‘t much of a pleasurable experience. But this experience has certainly opened my eyes to the potentials of Indian cuisine, and at the very least, I vow to make a trip to the Indian restaurant down the road at some point in the fairly near future. Maybe if that wins me over, I’ll be more apt to pick this up again. But as it stands, Season’s Choice Vegetable and Curry Risotto just isn’t for me, though if you enjoy curry, and you enjoy vegetables, and you enjoy rice, then it will probably be for you.

Overall: 5.5/10. Well you can't say you don't like something until you try it; I can officially say that curry is not my cup of tea. But if it's yours, then you will probably like this. The curry is strong, and balanced out by a solid combination of vegetables and rice that are pretty good for a frozen meal. If you don't like curry...well, this certainly won't change your mind.

Season's Choice Quinoa Crunch Southwest Veggie Burger (Aldi)

I think I'll just stick to their regular veggie burgers.
As you all probably know by now, my wife leans toward the vegetarian side of life. She'll eat meat if it's around and she's hungry (or if she gets a craving for a burger or steak), but generally avoids it, especially in pre-packaged foods. Even though I am not one, I’m always looking for things in Aldi ads that will appeal to her. My latest find is Season’s Choice Quinoa Crunch Southwest Burger, a veggie patty that, unlike their Veggie Burger and Chipotle Black Bean Burgers, are a limited time Special Buy at Aldi stores. I liked the Veggie Burger and absolutely love the Chipotle Black Bean, so these had some pretty big shoes to fill in my book.

I probably could have gotten a much better crunch on these if I had the patience to make them in the oven…but I don’t, so I settled for a much limper patty, courtesy of the ultra-convenient (and quick) microwave prep method. The dusting of quinoa on the outside is evident right from the get-go, as the texture eschews the standard softness with one that feels like the breading on a typical chicken sandwich. Again, it didn’t add much of a crunch to mine, since I prepped it in the microwave, but it still added a rougher texture that I actually found more inviting than some of the smooth vegetable patties out there.

Honestly, I was expecting a lot more out of these. There’s a slight “southwestern” flavor in there, I guess, courtesy of some spices that seem to be thrown in as an afterthought, but given the intense taste explosion of Season’s Choice own Chipotle Black Bean Burgers, I was bracing myself for something special. Instead, we get a typical veggie burger, with some added crunch, and a price tag that’s somehow $1.20 more than their typical, year ’round veggie burger offerings (is quinoa really that expensive of an ingredient?).

This isn’t at all to say they are bad, because there’s some decent flavor in there. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that, had I not had the Chipotle Black Bean Burgers before, I probably would have liked these a whole lot more. But I have, and there’s no denying that those offer much more intense flavor for over a dollar less. For this reason, I really don’t think I could see myself buying these again, at least not in the near future.

Overall: 5/10. This is just a case of Aldi shooting themselves in the foot: There’s technically nothing wrong with Season’s Choice Quinoa Crunch Southwest Burger, besides a rather weak flavor that I’d hesitate to call “southwest”, but the texture, featuring some crunchy quinoa (that, not surprisingly, didn’t get crunchy in the microwave, but which I have a feeling probably would have in the oven) is more akin to an actual meat patty. Still, I had these shortly after trying their black bean veggie burgers, which provide a whole lot more flavor for about a dollar less per package, and so I was expecting a lot more out of these. Not a bad vegetable product, but not one I'm really eager to try again.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Nature's Nectar 100% Juice Mango Tangerine (Aldi)

This is a nice, flavorful change of pace from more "standard" juice fare.
Lately, I’ve been trying to be a little more health-conscious, especially when it comes to juices. Nothing too extreme, because I figure every little bit helps (so I don‘t require anything organic), but whereas I used to just purchase whatever was cheapest, now I don’t mind spending a couple extra quarters to get full juice content. This way, I at least tend to avoid the plethora of added sugars that come with the “juice cocktail” territory.

I’ve been pretty impressed with all of Aldi’s juices (most, if not all, of which are released under the “Nature’s Nectar” brand name) and make sure to have a little something on hand at any given time, either for straight-up enjoyment (apple, grape juices), or as a mixer in cocktails. So when I see them offering new varieties and flavors, I don’t usually hesitate to pick them up. Enter Nature’s Nectar 100% Mango Tangerine Juice.

I’ve only recently become a mango fan, after having tried one when I was very young and hating the taste and texture. It wasn’t until about two decades later that my wife talked me into giving them another shot. I still don’t love them, but I like the texture and the taste enough for it to be a “left-of-center” option when I tire of all the standard fruits. I wasn’t sure how it would pair with the tangerine (or the apple and white grape concentrates that are also contained herein), but I figured it would be good.

“Good” is an understatement, because this stuff smacks you right in the mouth the moment you start to chug some. I always find that many juices tend to have subdued flavors, especially ones where the main ingredient is “filtered water” (as it is in this one, which makes me wonder how it can be 100% juice if it’s swimming in water, but that’s a question for another day). This stuff attacks the taste buds immediately, with a mix of tang and sweetness that exhausts me before I have a chance to drink too much. And, in case you are confused by this odd description, I mean that in a good way. It’s got a good balance of tart and sweet that really quenches the thirst, but is strong enough that I don’t need to down a whole bottle to feel like I’m getting any flavor…the taste even lingers for a while after taking a swig.

This used to be only available occasionally as a Special Buy, but Aldi has since added it to their permanent stock, meaning that it should always be available whenever you crave the thirst-quenching combination of mango and tangerine. Which, after you try this, just may be more often than you think. Also, quick thought off the top of my head: this would also make an excellent mixer in a cocktail, and could probably stand up to even stronger liquors.

Overall: 8/10. A very strong, fruity flavor is balanced with a delicious tanginess that attacks the taste buds upon the first sip. I think a lot of juices tend to taste a little subdued, especially when they’re made from concentrate, but this stuff has a very strong kick that quenches my thirst without having to drink a whole lot. One of the best Aldi juices I’ve had, and that’s saying a lot considering I can’t recall ever having a bad one. Even better, it's a part of their permanent inventory, so it's available for year 'round chugging!

Nature's Nectar 100% Frozen From Concentrate Orange Juice (Aldi)

Not great, but still good to have on hand as a backup for when you run out of refrigerated juice.
I won’t bore you with personal details, but let’s just say that my wife and I have been looking at ways to cut costs recently. Whereas we used to be able to spend whatever we wanted at Aldi, now we’ve been reduced to using gift certificates my parents bought for us, and keeping our food budget to the bare minimum. One of the ways that we decided to do this, was to purchase frozen orange juice, instead of the pre-bottled kind, which would save us at least a couple of quarters per shopping trip.

The end result was a mixed bag: She ended up loving the frozen kind, which isn’t surprising considering I found it to be more tart than OJ in a bottle (or carton), and she’s all over anything that’s tart. On top of it being too sour for me, I also thought it tasted more watered down than normal, which could be a side effect of having to add water to the non-concentrated pillar that comes out of the container. Even sniffing it doesn’t result in the smell of fresh oranges, like it does in the containers, despite the assurance on the container that this is 100% orange juice.

The only situation where I can see this coming in handy, and where we will still probably continue to purchase it, is as a backup for when our regular juice supply runs out. Having a two-year-old means we go through juice (and milk, and food, and diapers...) at an alarming rate; it's actually not uncommon for me to buy multiple juice containers, and then less than two weeks later realize I'm pouring the last drop, with no chance to get to a store. For this reason, it's a good thing to have on hand, especially since it obviously keeps much, much longer than refrigerated juices.

Outside of that, there are some areas where I don’t mind cutting costs, but I don’t think this is going to be one of them. While the frozen kind is just 99 cents, certainly a respectable price considering it makes a good pitcher’s worth, there’s something that’s lost in the translation. Maybe my wife added too much water, but even then, the pre-bottled containers give you plenty for around a dollar more. And as broke as we are, I don’t think a dollar or two is going to completely break the bank. Not a fan.

Overall: 5/10. It’s still 100% juice, if the label can be trusted, but I thought that it was too tart and watered down for my liking, though for what it’s worth, my wife really enjoyed it. We purchased this to cut back on some costs, but I’m going to pony up the extra buck or two and purchase the pre-bottled (or cartoned) kind instead, which tastes a lot fresher, has more sweetness to it, and provides around the same amount of OJ. It was an interesting experiment, but not one that I'm terribly interested in. Its one redeeming quality: this is great to have on hand as an emergency backup for when regular juice supplies run out, especially with a demanding two-year-old in tow.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Mama Cozzi's Tomato Mozzarella and Pesto 16" Extra Large Thin Crust Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

This is a tasty special buy.
My wife was sick a little while back, and nothing sounded good to her. Understandably, this means she didn't feel like cooking, and I wanted something that we could both possibly eat, so I grabbed this instead of my favorite Mama Cozzi take and bake variety: sausage and pepperoni. I figured that the tomato and mozzarella would keep the flavor a little lighter, while the thin crust would cut back on the heavy starch. She said it sounded good, took a couple of bites, and then got sick later (an event clearly unlinked to this pizza). So much for that. On the plus side, that just means I got to eat the whole thing, spread out over two days.

I have to say that this exceeded both of our expectations, and my wife was actually bummed that she couldn’t keep it down. The tomatoes are juicy and wonderfully flavorful…I’d dare to say that they are pretty close to the taste of “fresh” tomatoes, at least as far as refrigerated, factory-made pizza is concerned. The mozzarella is also good, although I don’t think there has ever been a time in recorded history that mozzarella cheese has ever been less than “good”. The pesto sauce, which is a wise replacement for a tomato-based sauce, is also good, and is also rather generously used.

This obviously won’t replace your favorite local pizza shop that uses only locally-sourced fresh ingredients, and has bizarre toppings like “tuna” on the menu, but my wife and I both agreed that this was equally on par--and in many cases, better than-- any similar pizza you can get from a chain pizzeria. The cracker-thin crust also works really well here, keeping it relatively light by cutting out any excessive dough while blessing it with a delicious crunch. It's one of those rare instances where I can’t see it working nearly as well with a traditional crust.

All in all, this is a pretty good pizza, and at $6, there’s definitely value to be had. While I prefer the taste of thin crust pizzas, I generally lean toward the traditional crusts simply because I feel like you get more for your money, but this is one variety where the cracker-thin crust really helps with the flavor. If you see it, and it is a special buy so you might not, you should definitely pounce on it and see for yourself, assuming you like this kind of thing, of course.

Overall: 8/10. If you're looking for a nice, meatless pizza variety, Mama Cozzi comes through with her tomato and mozzarella take and bake, which layers on generous helpings of both titular ingredients. The tomatoes are as close to “fresh” as refrigerated tomatoes can be, while the mozzarella is good as always. A nice, homemade flavor for $6? Count me in. The wife, who is much harder to please than I, even agreed that this is on par, and if not better than, similar offerings from the pizza chains. And for around half the price, too! It's a special buy and not always offered, so if you see it you should be sure to check it out—you probably won't be disappointed.

Mama Cozzi's Sausage and Pepperoni Extra Large Thin Crust Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

As delicious as it is salty and greasy.
In the midst of a large fight with my wife, in which she left to clear her mind and hang out with family members and friends for a little while, I was abandoned at home with very little food in the house, and very little money in the bank account to get any. I brandied about the idea of getting a “hot and ready” pizza from Little Caesar’s, which I don’t mind eating once in a while, but since I already had to pick up a couple other groceries from Aldi, I just decided to pick up one of their take and bakes. Best of all, with a recent price cut just in time for the “big game”, most of their extra-large pizzas, which are two inches bigger than a similar pizza from Little Caesar’s, are the same price. Sounded like a no-brainer.

Now I’ve had Mama Cozzi’s plain pizzas before, and as you can see from some previous reviews, I eat far too many of these things. While I think they tend to “hit” more than “miss”, we really have to be in the mood for them in order to get them. But I was hungry and wanted something that I could just quickly toss in the oven and forget about, and this fit the bill.

Unsurprisingly, cooking this pup was very easy: as with all of their pizzas, you simply take it out of the plastic and place in the oven. I don’t know if I tend to get pizzas with a ton of toppings, but usually the pizzas I end up with take anywhere from 13-20 minutes to cook, on 400 degrees or higher. That’s why I was pretty taken aback to see that this pizza requires a mere 7-9 minutes at 375. Given the amount of meats involved, I was expecting it to take longer.

Anyway, I don’t know if I was just super-hungry, but this pizza really freakin’ hit the spot. I grabbed a slice right out of the oven, in all its drippy, greasy glory (and this thing is greasy), and all the flavors just blended really well. The pepperoni is pretty standard, which is to say that it’s delicious by default, but the sausage is really where it‘s at. They use large chunks, rather than the standard small crumbles, and each one is bursting with flavor. It really takes it above the normal store brand take and bakes. The crust was also nice and buttery, and was delicious enough on its own that I didn’t even need to dip it in ranch (which I always tend to do). I left it in the oven for slightly longer than the recommended 9 minutes, but the outer edges were nice and toasty while the middle was a little flimsy, which I like. There’s also plenty of the meat toppings to go around, especially at this price point.

The biggest drawback is that all the toppings are just dumped in the middle of the pizza by default, so some time has to be spent moving everything around. Since it isn’t a frozen pizza, it’s not so much of a big deal, as none of the toppings are stuck to the pizza, but it’s still kind of an annoyance to have to do that. Cheese lovers will also probably be disappointed, as they seem to cut back a little bit on the cheese.

Overall: 9/10. I don’t know if I was just hungry, but this really hit the spot. After about 11 minutes in the oven, this puppy was ready to go in all its drippy, delicious glory! The cheese is lacking a little bit, and there’s “some assembly required” if you want toppings all throughout, as the factory seems to just dump them all in the middle of the pizza, but it doesn’t take long to spread them around. The crust was buttery and delicious, without the necessary addition of ranch, which I always like to dip my crusts in. The sausage is excellent, while the pepperoni is just pepperoni (there’s also a bunch of small pepperoni bits on top of the standard circular peps, which really bring out that flavor). Of course, it’s pretty salty, but I didn’t even notice because the meat flavor was even stronger. One of my fave take and bakes that Aldi offers, for sure.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Mama Cozzi's Take and Bake Pepperoni Calzone (Aldi)

As far as Aldi's non-pizza take and bake offerings go, this is one of the best.
One day while perusing the Aldi ad, I saw that they would be offering some calzones. I made a mental note to be sure and grab those, but it got lost amidst all the other great things they were offering that week, and so I completely forgot (if only there was something invented on which I could take notes of these things so that I wouldn't forget...) They probably would have totally slipped off my radar had we not gone out of our way to a different Aldi other than the one we frequently patronize, in the hopes of finding some fresh sushi they were advertising. We never did find the sushi (bummer), but on the upside, I did happen to see these, which weren't at our usual store. I grabbed the pepperoni, while my wife stuck with the cheese. 

As is the standard way I hear about something, my wife texted me to give me a rundown of her experience with her cheese calzone. First was something along the lines of “I'm making my calzone,” so that I would be aware she was preparing it, followed up by one telling me how she was going to get marinara for it, because there wasn't any inside (?) There was also one in there about how she was worried there would hardly be any filling inside. Finally, she took a bite and raved about the taste, even including a picture of how ridiculously stringy the cheese inside was. We're usually pretty much on the same wavelength when it comes to foods, so that was a good indication that I would like it, but it's certainly not a guaranteed thing. So one day after coming home from work, and in desperate need for a snack, I microwaved this bad boy, threw it on a plate, and added some marinara.

Oh my word my wife was not lying: these things are fantastic. They cook up almost pillow-soft and are easy to dig into with a fork, or with your hands (though I find them too awkwardly-shaped for comfortable handling with fingers). One of our biggest concerns was that it would be 90% bread, with some cheese and meat thrown in as an afterthought, but the inside is absolutely loaded with thick, stringy cheese and delicious pepperoni. A word of note, however: there is NO sauce of any kind on the inside, which I think I mentioned a little earlier. I don't eat calzones very often at all, so maybe I'm wrong on this, but I always thought most of them came standard-equipped with sauce in the middle. Thankfully, we had some pasta sauce on hand, and it worked fantastically with this, giving it the added tomato flavor we were expecting. (EDIT: A little internet research revealed that no, they do not typically come with sauce of any kind in the middle, and are meant to be dipped in marinara; if this is the case, it's curious that there isn't at least a cup of marinara included for dipping.)

I have to admit I was absolutely dreading this experience, because, while Mama Cozzi's take and bake pizzas are mostly excellent, their other take and bake offerings (breadsticks, wings, mini sausage calzones) have largely been awful. I'm not sure if this is singlehandedly enough to restore my faith in all their non-pizza products, but it's a huge step in the right direction; at $1.99, there's also some amazing value. There really is a lot of meat and cheese on the inside, and the whole thing is large enough to fill up someone with a lesser appetite (I ate it as a snack and it held me over until dinner with no problems). If there are any left when we go back, I'll make sure to pick up a couple more because these blew away my meager expectations.

Overall: 8/10. I've had many different Mama Cozzi's refrigerated (take and bake) products, and while the pizzas are largely fantastic, their non-pizza offerings have bordered on the terrible. Needless to say, we did not have high hopes for these at all. Unexpectedly, these things are absolutely fantastic, cooking up nice and pillow-soft, and loaded with stringy cheese and pepperoni. It should be noted that there is no sauce inside the calzone (something I just learned is standard), and none included for dipping, so you'll have to bust out that old jar of marinara sauce you've had in your pantry for months if you want to add to its flavor. Best of all, they're only $1.99, which is excellent value given how loaded they are—it worked perfectly for me as a bridge between lunch and dinner, but for those with smaller appetites, it could easily function as a main entree. Great stuff, but unfortunately relegated to Special Buy status...if you ever see them, be sure to grab them!

Mama Cozzi's Pizza Snacks Combination (Pepperoni & Sausage) Pizza Rolls (Aldi)

This picture is actual size.
Holy hell has it been a long time since I’ve had pizza rolls. Knowing my wife would be working a lot of closing shifts in the coming months, I made sure to stock up on these, as a no-nonsense, quick snack/meal for myself when she wouldn’t be able to baby me with a fully-cooked dinner. The idea came to me right as we were getting ready to head for the checkout, and I saw another customer with them in her shopping cart--it wasn’t until I actually grabbed them that I realized just how long it had been…we’re talking at least five years. Prior to that, it was probably another five years, way back into my single years, when I regularly ate them out of convenience.

Spreading them out on my flimsy foam plate quickly revealed that not much has changed in pizza roll technology over the years--they’re the same dough-covered pouches that they’ve always been. Mama Cozzi’s pizza rolls are pretty decently sized…at least as large as the national brand. They look depressing when frozen on the plate, and don’t look much less depressing after they are cooked. I kind of expected them to change color to a more inviting golden brown, but there they were, as pale and colorless as they were when I loaded their frozen doppelgangers on the plate just 90 seconds earlier.

These combination pizza rolls taste a lot like the pepperoni pizza rolls I used to remember…there’s a lot of sauce taste in there, and maybe a little bit of pepperoni, but I’m not really sure I could detect any sausage at all. Like I said, it’s been years since I’ve had these, but just tasting them for the first time made me feel like I was being reunited with a long lost friend…these taste pretty similar to every other pizza roll I’ve ever had. I guess that’s kind of a good thing, although I was a little disappointed at just how unfilling twelve pizza rolls were…and that’s double the recommended serving. After I was done, I felt just as hungry as I was before I came up with the bright idea to microwave some of these.

While saying they cook up “crispy” would be a massive stretch, the edges did get slightly crunchy after 90 seconds in the microwave, which was actually more than I was expecting. The texture is also on par with the pizza rolls of yore…that is to say, they’re soft and relatively chewy. Quite simply put, if you like the national brand of pizza rolls, you will love these carbon copies, but they won’t win over any new followers.

Overall: 7/10. A throwback to my depressing years as a bachelor, Mama Cozzi’s Combination Pizza Rolls look and taste exactly as I remember them, which certainly functions as praise in that they are close to the national brand. But being reunited with pizza rolls, something I haven’t eaten in several years, wasn’t nearly as gratifying as I thought it would be. Even though these are a half-ounce each (according to the packaging), even eating twelve (double the recommended serving) wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy my apparently abnormal craving for food, and so I was back at the drawing board a few minutes later, with only an extra dose of sodium and fat to show for it. Still, if these are your thing, they’re good for what they are, and at around $2.49 for a pack (that contains about 40 pizza rolls), the price is about as good as you are going to find for these.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Southern Grove Indulgent Trail Mix (Aldi)

It seems to be American culture that, whenever there’s a new health craze or popular healthy item, some company will come along and find a way to turn it into junk food. This way, they can take advantage of people who might not realize that what they are eating is not at all good for them, simply because it bears some resemblance (or shares a title) with something that’s good for you. Case-in-point: trail mix. The original combination of nuts, raisins, and crunchy chocolate candies is relatively plain, but very portable, relatively filling, and packed with energy-providing calories perfect for hikers, children, or really anyone on-the-go that’s in need of a quick snack.

So of course companies decided throw as much unhealthy shit they could think of into a bag, put the word “trail mix” on it, and watch the sales grow.

I wouldn’t have gotten caught up in all of this trail mix BS if it weren’t for my need to GAIN weight. Not to delve too deeply into personal details, but I was losing quite a bit of weight (around 3 lbs a month) taking some medication that was an appetite suppressant (as a side effect, not the point of the medicine, haha) and was desperate to try to find something that I could just shovel down my throat. After initially sucking up the cost, I found that one bag lasted me at least two weeks, even when snacking on it quite frequently, and so I decided to keep a bag around as often as possible to at least encourage a maintaining of weight.

I stuck to just the savory kinds (hot and sweet Cajun, Asian, etc.) because I was just looking for a snack, not what basically amounted to a dessert, until that fateful day my manager brought me a quarter of a bag of Southern Grove’s Indulgent Trail Mix. She was wanting one of the healthier kinds, must not have paid any attention to the packaging, and was off-put by all the extra sweets in it. I took one bite…and that was it. An addiction was born.

This is a phenomenal mix, featuring plenty of everything you could ever want: We’re talking almonds, cashews, peanuts, dried fruit, peanut butter chips, chocolate chips, and white chocolate chips. If that sounds like it would be too much, well that’s because it is. And yet somehow, it’s not enough; each bite brings about a different flavor profile, and I have yet to find one that I don’t like. I’m not usually crazy about dried fruit (or fruit of any kind, for that matter) mixed with chocolate, but here it marries together well, with the chocolate pretty much overtaking the weak fruit flavor, something I will not complain about.

The best thing about it is that they do not cut any corners as far as the chips are concerned. That may be a disappointment to those that are looking for a healthier, or more nut-oriented snack, but it’s perfectly in my wheelhouse: every handful delivers a load of peanut butter and chocolatey goodness that just melts in your mouth and coats everything else in rich unbridled deliciousness. I liked it so much I had two bags going at once in the two areas I most frequent at work, so that I would have some no matter where I was. Is that dedication, or terrifying? I don’t know, but if you have to ask, I can tell you’ve never tried it before.

The biggest drawback is the price tag (a large bag retails for $4.89) but it’s not really a drawback at all when you realize just how much you’re getting. This is a large bag that should easily last you at least a week with moderate daily snacking...if you go through it quicker than that, then you should probably check yourself in to rehab.

Overall: 10/10. Rich delicious goodness in a trail mix disguise. This definitely isn’t the healthiest one for you, but cashews, almonds, and dried fruit combine with peanut butter, chocolate, and white chocolate chips to create a product that, for once, is aptly named. This is the most addicting trail mix I’ve ever had, a perfect combination of ingredients that, although the flavor profile might change with each handful, flows together so beautifully that every bite is delicious and holds unexpected surprises. The chips melt quickly in the mouth, and coat everything else in a delectable sweetness that demands more handfuls. The cost is easily justified considering there are a ton of servings contained within: I tend to get around 2 weeks out of one bag, with snacking consisting of a handful or two a couple times a day. Virtually flawless stuff.

Fit & Active Chocolate Mocha Protein Shakes (Aldi)

A Special Buy item that really needs to be added to permanent inventory.
I love protein shakes. I’m not sure that I really “need” them--I don’t work out excessively or diet, or even use these as meal replacements--but I like the idea that I’m at least getting some vitamins and minerals in an easy-to-drink, delicious chocolate product. Sadly, the only flavors on hand were vanilla (not my favorite) and chocolate mocha (not my favorite, as I hate coffee); but I generally like chocolate flavors, so that was the one I went with.

The one thing I did not think about--I assumed the flavors were artificially created--is that, this being mocha, it might have actual caffeine in it, which it does. I have a certain sensitivity to caffeine, and while the myriad of energy drinks I’ve reviewed certainly indicate I don’t mind drinking it for a good reason (i.e., to stay awake during early morning hours at work), if I would have noticed it sooner, I probably would have just gotten the vanilla instead. I took a couple swigs of this in the early morning after a workout, and having just woken up, there was no way I needed a caffeine or energy burst that early in the morning…that’s what the workout was for.

Onto the taste: As can be expected, this stuff is actually pretty good. There’s definitely some mocha in there, but just as I expected, the chocolate flavor is the dominant flavor, with the mocha simply providing some support. So if you’re a huge coffee fan, you might be a little disappointed. If you’re a chocolate fan, chances are you’re going to really like this. True to form, I only had about half a bottle, and so the 30 or so mg of caffeine I ingested gave me some brief, but noticeable jitters (there is about 65 mg per entire bottle). Of course, if you drink coffee or any other sort of caffeine-filled beverage on a daily basis, you probably won’t even notice such a small amount.

As with just about every meal replacement shake I’ve ever had (which aren’t many), there’s a chalky texture. It doesn’t bother me that much--in fact, I actually kind of like it--but I’m sure some will be put off by it and so it’s worth mentioning. Also like every other meal replacement shake I’ve had, it didn’t replace jack for me…I was still hungry after drinking it, and have even been known to drink one as a beverage with a (small) meal, so if you’re actually wanting this to replace a meal for you, you might also have to add in an extra dose of your own willpower (or it might naturally work…of course; these things work differently for different people).

But whether you enjoy it as just a vitamin-loaded snack, a post-workout refresher, or as a meal in and of itself, it doesn’t really matter, because these taste pretty darn delicious, and at a surprisingly decent price point, too ($3.29 for four 10 or so oz. bottles). I just wish they carried these all the time; I may have to settle for getting their regular diet shakes, which function in a similar way (and have the plain chocolate flavor, which I love).

Overall: 7.5/10. A delicious shake that provides a nice helping of both protein and caffeine, while still delivering in the flavor department. The chocolate is the dominant flavor here, with a slight hint of mocha trailing behind. Value is here in spades, with a four-pack retailing for a mere $3.29...a good price for protein shakes, which seem to be rather exorbitantly priced. A great deal, but unfortunately only occasionally available as a special buy. If you see it, be sure to pick it up!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Clancy's Buffalo Blue Cheese Krinkle Cut Kettle Chips (Aldi)

If you love buffalo sauce, then these might just be for you.
I have grown to really like blue cheese; for the first quarter of my life, I couldn’t go near the stuff. But through my wife I’ve really grown accustomed to cheeses that I wouldn’t otherwise eat, and now blue cheese has become one of my favorites. Her love of buffalo sauce has not rubbed off on me, however…I’ve never really liked that stuff. It’s not the heat that bothers me so much as the taste…most of them just remind me of cheap hot sauces, and those don’t appeal to me at all. 

So then why would I even waste the time, and money, by getting these? Simple: Chip technology has certainly evolved in the last few years, but it can only go so far. While companies dream up big names and ideas for their chips, you can only be so accurate when you’re dealing with powdered seasonings. For example, a brand of “hot dog” chip I tried tasted like relish and other condiments, with no actual meat flavor to be found. One marketed itself as a bacon cheeseburger slider and tasted more like something you would find in a sewer, missing the mark completely.

Those are bad examples, but there have been some pleasant surprises: One called “jalapeno popper” had no hints of cream cheese to be found anywhere, but did taste like a good jalapeno chip with added cheddar cheese. Alright, so that’s about the one example of an unexpected positive that I can think of off the top of my head, but the point is, I didn’t want to pass up the potential for a new classic simply because I didn’t think it would appeal to me. As the saying goes, “You never know until you try it.” And try them I did.

These chips are absolutely loaded to the gills with powdery seasoning, although a close look at the packaging reveals neither buffalo, nor cheese (of any kind) amongst the ingredients. It’s all “natural flavoring”. The buffalo is pretty spot-on, with the typical kind of buffalo taste that I dislike, but with a background hint of blue cheese that softens the flavor a bit, thus making it slightly more palatable to me. It’s not a bad tasting chip, though I’m pretty disappointed that all of this is accomplished through fake flavors—the Aldi chips I’ve had, and I’ve had many that have cheeses in them—usually at least have one kind of cheese powder, so the fact even the blue is faked is a huge letdown.

Like the other “Krinkle Cut” (their spelling, not mine) chips I’ve had out of Clancy’s line, these are extra crunchy and have a great texture. The price is also in-line with their other offerings, coming in at a very reasonable $1.79 per 8.5 oz. bag, giving you plenty of chippy goodness for the price. Unfortunately, the flavor is nowhere near extraordinary, nor anything of note, and it tends to get old pretty quickly. If you love buffalo, you might want to give these a shot; otherwise, there’s not much here to recommend.

Overall: 5.5/10. Buffalo is certainly the overwhelming taste, and it’s pretty accurate, despite the fact that there’s no actual buffalo or blue cheese in these chips (they’re all made with “natural flavors”, which are anything but). The blue cheese is slightly detectable in the background, and helps to soften the flavor of the buffalo, but I was really hoping for more of a balance between the two. The buffalo does bring a decent amount of heat, and each chip is loaded with seasoning, but as I said earlier, I’m not really a huge fan of buffalo, and with the blue cheese only playing a supporting role, I wasn’t really a big fan of these. The $1.79 price tag is right (per 8.5 oz. package), but it's not something I would personally get again. If you’re a huge fan of buffalo sauce, you’ll probably find more here to like than I did.

Journey to Greece Rosemary & Feta Kettle Chips (Aldi)

There's nothing even remotely Greek about these, but it's a pretty good chip.
As soon as I saw these in an ad, I knew these were down my alley. Rosemary is an underrated herb that I find myself enjoying the more and more I try it, while feta…well, feta’s a cheese, and you really can’t go wrong with most cheeses. You also can’t go wrong with $1.79 per 8.5 oz. bag, so that really sealed the deal. 

Upon first laying eyes on these chips, I have to say, “wow!” One major complaint I have with most of the Aldi chips I’ve bought is that it’s hard to tell if you’re going to get a bag that’s loaded with seasoning, or one that skimps on it—the quality generally seems to be hit-or-miss, especially on the Special Buy’s. Since this is my first bag, I can’t say for sure if this is still the case or not, but this one definitely made a great first impression on me: each chip was absolutely loaded with dehydrated parsley flakes and a ton of cheesy goodness on top. If all the bags come out like this, then you're also getting a lot of flavor for the price.

The rosemary comes through first, along with a helping of salt, and gets things off to a good start. The feta follows close behind, and although it’s not as strong as rosemary, there’s enough of it to be noticed. As with most chips, it’s hard to differentiate between specific cheeses since they tend to use powders and other variances to achieve the flavors—I would classify it more as a “white cheddar” based on taste (though “natural feta cheese flavor”, made with actual feta cheese, is the last ingredient in the list—but that’s not really a knock because it’s quite delicious.

Now, in terms of accuracy, I'm questioning just how “Greek” these chips are: I'm not a culturally-savvy person in the least, and have only had Greek food once (that I can recall). These do not taste remotely Greek at all; in fact, they taste like they were tailor-made for American tastes. I don't think a lot of people really purchase chips in the hopes that they are authentic, but I was expecting there to at least be a unique flavor in there that would challenge my palate, but based on flavor, these are American chips, through and through, though at least different enough to be a welcome variance from the typical barbecues and sour cream and onions of the world.

Overall: 7.5/10. This is a pretty tasty chip, and one that's different from the standard, popular chip flavors that permeate supermarket shelves. However, the “Journey to...Greece” branding is rather curious, because this tastes like a chip that was tailor-made for American tastes (it probably should have been released under the Specially Selected label). The price is pretty spot-on, though ($1.79 per 8.5 oz. bag), and the chips I got were absolutely smothered in dehydrated parsley flakes and cheesy seasoning, so there was plenty of flavor to go around. Definitely worth a try, just don't expect anything actually, you know, Greek.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Season's Choice Country Potatoes with Haricots Verts & Wild Mushrooms (Aldi)

For the uninitiated, "haricots verts" is basically a fancy way of saying "green beans". (I had to look it up, too)
I bought these, as I frequently do with special buy items, on a whim from Aldi a couple months back. And like many things bought on a whim, they just kind of sat in our freezer for a while, being passed over in favor of other things that we knew we would like. Much of my wife’s hesitation stemmed from her dislike of mushrooms, while my hesitation stemmed from a few recent frozen potato purchases not quite living up to expectations. The last few that we’ve had were very dry, and without a lot of flavor, a fatal double-whammy that I figured would end up characterizing these, as well, especially the more and more I put off trying them.

Well finally one day my wife was gone for the night, I needed something quick and easy, and so I threw these in the microwave as a side to my main dish (potato-encrusted cod). Before we go any further, a word to those that may be a little confused: haricots verts (pronounced are-ee-coh vair) is basically French for “green beans”. Of course, there are some slight preparatory differences between the two, like the French tend to cut theirs thinner and cook them a bit differently, but that's the gist of it. So these are potatoes with green beans and wild mushrooms, which checks off with what can be seen in the product image. Why they chose to go French on just the green bean description on the packaging is rather confusing, especially since this dish is neither fancy, nor French, but there you have it.

True to my style, which is a mix of laziness and convenience, I opted to cook these in the microwave instead of the stovetop. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a large enough bowl readily available to make the bag all at once, so I just threw half in a cereal bowl and microwaved them for half the suggested time. In three-and-a-half minutes, I had a well-heated bowl of boring-looking potatoes, although I must confess that there were way more green beans and mushrooms in here than I was expecting (which is a good thing). I also must confess that, despite my own reservations towards mushrooms, this is one of the best frozen potato products I’ve ever gotten from Aldi.

The flavor is very strong, with the flavors of the green beans, and even the mushrooms (which sometimes can go unnoticed in frozen dishes), each standing out on their own. The potatoes also manage to be delicious, partly because they are seasoned with spices, and also because they are swimming in some kind of “sauce” that resembles a broth. It sounds kind of gross, I’ll admit, but it prevents the potatoes from being dry, which is always a plus in my book, while also providing a blast of extra flavor.

Overall: 7.5/10. If you're confused as to what “haricots verts” are, they are essentially French green beans. So this side dish consists of potatoes, wild mushrooms, and green beans. I wasn't sure what to expect, considering I am not fond of mushrooms at all, but this is a surprisingly delicious side dish that can compliment a wide variety of meals. It also avoids the issue of dry potato dishes (see above) by having all of it swimming in a thin broth of juices, which add to the flavor while keeping the potatoes moist and inviting. This is not an item I would typically try, but it's one of the more surprising things I've tried at Aldi, and certainly one I would get again in the future.

Season's Choice Garlic and Herbs Homestyle Wedges (Aldi)

Akin to what eating the Sahara desert would feel, and probably even taste, like.
My wife and I were perusing the Special Buy cooler, looking for something different beyond the usual fries and onion rings to have as a side for our meal, when we found these. They looked good, and the price was right (somewhere around $1.99 if my memory serves me well) so into the cart they went! However, it was not without some slight reservation.

My biggest complaint with just about every kind of potato wedge that I’ve ever had, is no matter how good the seasoning is on the outside, the middle is always dry and boring. And the middle of a potato is the biggest part. So you might have a flavor explosion upon putting it in your mouth, from the seasoning that adorns the exterior, but by the time you swallow, the boring, unseasoned potato innards have now replaced all forms of flavor. Was I right to worry about these, or did Season's Choice have another trick up their sleeve to prevent this from becoming an issue? The answers: I was right to worry about them, and no they did not.

Thankfully, there is a lot of seasoning on the outside, which get things off to a great start. But I still had to dip mine in ketchup to keep any kind of moisture and consistent flavor throughout…on their own, they were completely and utterly bland. As with others I've had in the past, once the flavor from the skin wore off, the middle was just an excruciating exercise in dryness; it was just chewing on grainy potato texture, with no flavor payoff as a reward.

I would maybe (read: probably not) get these again down the road, but not for a while. I would be more apt to use them in some kind of recipe…something that calls for potatoes that might benefit from the extra kick of the seasonings. Come to think of it, dressing these up with some bacon bits and sour cream might have done wonders to give it some extra flavor (then again, you could just get a bag of potatoes for around the same price of these, so that's a comparatively expensive idea). But just on their own, straight out of the bag, there’s not much here to enjoy, or to recommend.

Overall: 4/10. They’re seasoned potato wedges, alright. And just like every other supermarket potato wedge I’ve ever had, no matter how much seasoning there is on the outside (and there is quite a bit), it’s still completely dry and flavorless on the inside. That’s unfortunately the case here; I had to dip them in ketchup toward the end, simply to give them some moisture and consistent flavor throughout. The price is pretty decent, at $1.99 per 22 oz. bag, but it will be a little while, if ever, before we pick these up again.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Fusia Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce (Aldi)

As long as you don't expect this to be a knockoff of the "rooster" brand, this is good stuff.

There are those that believe thee original sriracha, manufactured by Huy Fong Foods, Inc. is the ONLY product that has the right to be called sriracha.  In fact, it even has the nickname “rooster sauce”, for the titular animal that appears on the front of the bottle.  I’m not a huge fan of hot stuff, which is to say, I don’t go around pouring hot sauce or anything of the ilk all over everything the way some people do, but I actually read about it in a Deadspin article of all places.  It discussed how the condiment was taking off, and suggested different ways of using it.  I don’t usually get caught up in mainstream media’s blatant advertising campaigns, but it just sounded so good, I had to track it down.

And so I did.  It wasn’t hard--even back in 2012, it was still fairly popular and available in almost any supermarket.  Over the course of the next year or two, my wife and I used it mainly as a condiment on tacos, giving them a delicious added heat that was far better than fast food hot sauce packets.  Eventually, we ran out, as is the case with everything.

But a year or so ago, we saw that Aldi was actually carrying their own off-brand of sriracha.  I was excited to try it, but my wife--who had gotten so accustomed to the flavor and heat of the original--was not.  I still bought a bottle, figuring that if it sucked, it was only a couple of bucks, and then used it a couple of days later in tacos.  Neither of us were completely sold, but I ended up liking it a lot more than my wife, who flat-out rebuked it.  She wanted nothing to do with the stuff, because it tasted nothing like what she was used to.  I was hesitant to agree, but was also leaning in that direction--it was okay, but not similar enough to really compete with the “rooster sauce”.

Well that’s the beauty of private label products.  Oftentimes, they are modeled after a national brand, often appearing exact (or as close as possible) to the originals, because that’s what consumers tend to clamor for.  They know if it tastes like the main brands do, only offered at a discount, people will gobble them up like candy.  But other times, for whatever reason (can’t get the formula for the original, etc.) they just kind of go their own way, creating something that stands on its own merits.  Likewise, sometimes consumers get so used to the taste of something that they can’t stand the thought of it tasting different, no matter just how good it is; it takes some time to re-calibrate taste buds that are expecting a certain taste, and come up with something totally different.  People just don’t have the time, or patience, for that these days.

Well let me just say that we inadvertently did our own study, and have discovered that our initial hatred was probably borne out of specific taste expectations from having gotten used to the original version: just yesterday we both came to the realization that this stuff is actually really, really good.  The test was accomplished simply by not touching the “rooster sauce” at all, and instead only enjoying Fusia’s version for over a year, which has eroded the flavor of the original out of our minds, and allowed us to focus on this as its own product.  The flavor is perhaps even more pronounced here, with the clear flavor of peppers dancing on the tongue before giving way to the sauce’s signature heat.

The heat level seems to be very similar between the two sauces--in fact, if memory serves me correctly, Fusia’s is actually a little bit hotter.  I remember the first time we used it, we both put on as much as we were used to with the national brand, and were surprised at just how hot it was here.  It’s not going to win over any heat connoisseurs, but the extra little kick means that even less goes a long way.  In all, we’ve had this bottle at least a year, probably even longer than that, and it’s still keeping “fresh” in our pantry.  If you have never tried the “rooster sauce”, or have an open mind to trying a sriracha that doesn‘t try to be like the national brand, and you happen to see these on store shelves, pick yourself up a bottle.  And if at first you don’t like it, give it time to win you over.  You just may be glad you did.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Purchasing this as a replacement for the national brand (aka “rooster sauce”), we both initially hated this.  But having not had the original for over a year, and instead settling on this for our sriracha needs, we both came around and realized that not only is this not as bad as we initially thought, but it’s actually really pretty good.  It doesn’t taste a thing like the other stuff, which we at first wrote off as its main reason for failing, but upon closer inspection, Aldi’s version actually has a more pronounced pepper taste.  If memory serves me correctly, I’m pretty positive this has slightly more heat, as well, but even if I am wrong, the spice level is very comparable.  If you can go in with an open mind--or, better yet, if you’ve never had “rooster sauce”--then this is a great pickup to add to the pantry.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Specially Selected Mild Black Bean and Corn Salsa (Aldi)

I guess you could say the flavor of this salsa is jarring. Get it...because it's in a jar? Still not laughing? Fuck you then.
It’s not very often that I buy supermarket salsa. The simple reasoning behind this statement is that my wife LOVES to chop up vegetables, and since that pretty much sums up the entire prep work required for salsa, it goes without saying that she loves making the stuff. And let’s be real here: fresh salsa is loads better than any form of the canned or prepackaged stuff.

So I tend to avoid the canned salsa’s at the grocery store. But she’s never made a black bean salsa, nor even hinted about any interest in making one, so when I saw this at Aldi, I knew I had to pick it up and give it a shot. As it turns out, it was a good call; even my wife was interested in trying this (probably to see if it’s even worth taking the time to replicate; if she loves this stuff, I guarantee she’ll never allow me to buy another jar, because she’ll just make it herself). I have to admit that I was very nervous about heading into a tasting of this stuff; I always equate beans with salty dryness. It’s almost the food equivalent of sea water. I like beans, but they can get very, very boring by themselves, and I wasn’t sure how well they would work in salsa form.

As it turns out, this stuff far exceeded my expectations. I was preparing myself for at least a modicum of blandness, but the black beans blend with the tomato surprisingly well, even giving it a sweetness that I wasn’t at all expecting. It basically tastes like a “southwestern” salsa, thanks to the bean and corn additions, though it’s close enough to regular salsa that most people that enjoy that will find their tastebuds pleased here, too. It's a fantastic combination, and one that I would definitely revisit again in the future. Pair up with Aldi's blue corn tortilla chips for a tasty, cheap, and relatively healthy snack that won't break the bank.

Perhaps best of all is the ingredient list, with “xanthan gum”, which is the last thing mentioned and a common additive in foods these days, being the only “unnatural” thing in the jar. The rest consist completely of vegetables and spices, which helps to explain why this tastes a lot fresher than other processed salsas. Of course, it’s still nowhere near my wife’s fresh stuff, but as far as supermarket salsas go, this is one of the better ones. It’s pretty much a guilt-free snack, with a rather large amount of sodium (as we should expect in every pre-packaged food these days) the only real health hit. Definitely worth a shot for anyone in the market for salsa. Other varieties are available (such as a delicious mango) on a seasonal basis.

Overall: 7.5/10. A tasty salsa for the price, and one that tastes fresher than most jarred salsas. The ingredient list, which consists almost entirely of beans, vegetables, and spices is a large reason for that. I equate beans with “boring” in almost all cases, so I didn't expect there to be much flavor, but these have a great “southwestern” style flair that pair well with tortilla chips (as a salsa should). Of course, this isn't going to touch a freshly-made salsa, but this will save you (or someone else) the hassle of making one, and at a price somewhere around $2, if memory serves me correctly, it's a pretty solid value.

Specially Selected Roasted Garlic with Tomato and Basil Cheese (Aldi)

Eh...tastes like cheddar to me.
It’s virtually impossible to be married to the same person for more than five years, and to not be completely changed, at least in one area. Before I married my wife, I was not at all a fan of cheese. Well, not REAL cheese (save for mozzarella)--sure, I could enjoy that fakey pasteurized cheese, or 7-11’s nacho cheese out of the machine, but when it came to actual cheeses, I didn’t like them. Hell, I never had a grilled cheese sandwich beyond 10 years old, simply because I hated the ones my mom made so much (using the aforementioned fake "singles" and sandwich bread) that I idiotically assumed all of them tasted like that. I guess I conveniently forgot that there are just as many varieties of cheeses as there are breads...millions. It wasn't until my wife threw together a grilled cheese sandwich that I actually liked that I began to realize that.

Slowly, though, my wife’s affinity for cheese has seeped into my life. At once repulsed by the thought of blue cheese (a cheese that my aforementioned mother still can’t stand), a good wedge salad is now one of my favorite things in the world, all thanks to my wife, who turned me on to them. She also taught me that there were more varieties of white cheese than just mozzarella, so now I’m equally keen on provolone (still a white "beginner's cheese" but one I wouldn't have tried otherwise). It goes without saying that she has massively influenced my outlook on cheeses (among other things).

But there’s one area where I must confess that I still feel out of touch: cheese blends. Blending cheeses with various other flavors, ranging from chocolate, to wine, seems to be the big thing these days, and to me, it’s more akin to a fancy wine in that all I can taste is my money being poured down a drain. But this blend, featuring several flavors that I love, including tomato, basil, AND garlic, seemed to be more down my alley. So my wife and I grabbed some wheat crackers to go along with it, and were off on our merry way.

And you know what? This cheese did nothing to change my outlook on “weird” cheeses. I can clearly taste some cheddar, which I’m assuming is the “base” cheese, but beyond that, I would have no idea what the remaining flavors were, had they not been clearly spelled out on the packaging. I didn’t detect an ounce of tomato, basil, OR garlic, much to my chagrin. As far as I’m concerned, we paid $2.99 for a block of cheddar cheese with some added color to insinuate that we were getting something more. I’m not upset about it, because cheese and crackers are pretty much always a good snack, but we could have gotten a much plainer cheese for a fraction of the cost, and been just as happy.

If you’re an absolute cheese freak, then this may be worth the cost for you. Otherwise, I’m not so sure.

Overall: 5.5/10. I liked this, as a cheddar cheese, but really couldn’t taste the garlic, tomato, or basil, which honestly kind of defeated the whole purpose of buying a garlic, tomato, and basil cheese. My wife and I put these on crackers, and while the cheddar shone through, and was certainly delicious, we could have just gotten a plain cheddar for less than $3 a wedge. If you have a serious palate for cheeses, and can differentiate between minute tastes, than this will easily be worth it for you; for me, it just felt like a partial waste of money. Kind of like people that pay thousands of dollars for old bottles of wine, only to discover all they bought was a bottle of old grapes.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Aftershock Red Sugar Free Energy Drink (Big Lots)

A solid energy drink, though I also got a four-pack for $1.20, which always helps...
As most shoppers of Big Lots can attest, it can be feast for famine when it comes to certain products; sometimes they have them, and other times they don’t. Beyond that, even if they have a certain kind of item, they might not always have a good brand, or an affordable option; I don’t think there is any one aisle in the store where this theory is more apparent than the drink aisle. And, drilling the list down to even further specifics, energy drinks.

Unlike other things within their stores, there are no specific energy drinks that Big Lots carries in stock at all times. So if they haven’t had a buyout recently, then there’s generally very few (if any) to pick from. Ditto this if they receive in particularly good deals; I don’t seem to be the only one that frequently eyes Big Lots for my energy drink needs, because most brands don’t seem to last much longer than a couple of weeks.

Well, my local store was in the midst of another energy drought, offering up nothing except for questionable carbonated juices that happened to have the word “energy” on the label, but that had very little in the way of B vitamins or caffeine. I was about to give up hope, until I saw a four-pack of Aftershock Red energy drink. Upon closer examination, I saw that they were sugar free; I hate the way that usually effects the taste, which made me pause for thought, but I do appreciate that the crash tends to be minimal. Then I saw the price tag and all hesitation flew right out the window. $1.20 for a four-pack of energy drinks? That’s pretty darn good, even for the smaller 8.4 oz. cans (which is what these are).

Now, I have railed against “standard” energy drink flavors again and again (see above for latest example), decrying them for their similar tastes. Just by looking at the packaging, there was really no doubt in my mind what these were attempting to knock off, so I was expecting a regular energy drink flavor similar to the drink that “gives you wings”. True to form, that’s what I got. But what really surprised me is that, even though these are sugar free, there’s none of the usual artificiality or metallicness in the flavor that’s usually apparent in “diet” drinks. In fact, I would say that this tastes pretty much like a regular energy drink, which is pretty impressive considering that it’s made with sucralose, as opposed to gobs of sugar and/or high fructose corn syrup.

As I have to mention in every one of these reviews, I’m pretty sensitive to caffeine, so your mileage may vary, but I got a pretty good kick out of each can. Caffeine content is actually relatively low (at 79mg per 8.4 fl. oz) so those that drink a lot of coffee or other energy drinks might not get the same results that I did, but it did get me going for a couple hours. So it’s got taste, it’s got performance…and did I mention a four-pack was only $1.20? Easily one of the best deals I’ve ever gotten from a Big Lots store, but it’s a shame they are no doubt sold out by now.

Overall: 8/10. Even though these are sugar free, they taste pretty darn close to regular energy drinks, which is a pretty impressive feat, as much as I typically detest normal energy drink flavors. And they also gave me a pretty good kick, even with the rather modest 79 mg of caffeine per can (which they say is about the amount in a single cup of coffee); for the millionth time, I’m pretty sensitive to caffeine, rarely drink soda, and never drink coffee, so if you do, or aren’t, any of these things, then you might not feel it as much as I did. But where it really stands out is the price: $1.20 for four 8.4 oz. cans? Come on, that’s a steal that’s pretty much unheard of. Even at twice the price, it would be worth it, but when four cans are cheaper than one of most name-brand energy drinks, that’s worth an extra point or two. If you see these at Big Lots, jump on them; it’s one of the best deals I've ever gotten from there.

Outlaw Energy Original Energy Drink (Big Lots)

Such an outlaw, that he tastes exactly like every other "original" energy drink out there.
Reviewing energy drinks is as tedious for me to write them, as it has to be for you to read them. It’s shocking, and something I never quite realized, at just how similar all of the “original” ones taste. Sure, there are slight differences with flavor profiles--after all, they’re not going to taste EXACTLY the same, but what is it about the combination of apparently required energy beverage ingredients that forces all of them to taste so similar? 

Outlaw Energy is no exception. While their “Passion Punch” tasted like a tropical fruit utopia (made up entirely of chemicals, with no actual juice anywhere to be found), the original tastes just like you would expect an “original” version of an energy drink to taste like. It’s not as tart as, say, Red Bull, but the same basic flavor profile is very similar to all the rest. If you’re new to energy drinks, you might get a kick out of it, but I found it completely boring. The only thing it does have going for it, is a hefty amount of caffeine (250 mg per can; slice that in half for an 8 oz. serving), so it really does kick you into gear. But so do any other number of energy drinks, so take that with a grain of salt.

Perhaps its best selling point (and, apparently, the ONLY reason it sells) is the $.50 price tag at select Big Lots stores. So it definitely gets marks for giving you a quick kick for just a few coins. But like I said, so do any number of their rotating beverages. Oh, it also has a cool, textured can!

God, all this feels like déjà vu.

Overall: I’m just going to go ahead and let YOU decide the rating for this. Here are the facts of the case: 1.) It tastes like every other “original” energy drink (a taste that I’m so accustomed to, I find boring); 2.) it has quite a bit of caffeine content (250 mg per 16 oz. can), so there’s a good chance it will give you a good boost of lasting energy; 3.) it retails for only $.50 at select Big Lots stores, presumably while supplies last; 4.) the can is textured. Start with “10” points, and deduct 4 points if you’re unimpressed with fact #1, and subtract two points for every other fact after that that leaves you disappointed. Total everything up, and there’s your final score!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Rip-It Tribute Active Mandarin Lime Energy Drink (Various)

Nothing is more patriotic than using troops and the idea of war to sell a canned beverage.
Thanks mainly to a bad batch of Rip-Its that I bought once from a local general store (they were well within their expiration date, but straight-up tasted like mold), along with some rather uninspired flavors, I have gradually found myself starting to hate the brand as a whole. And this is despite their affordable dollar price-point, which is even more appetizing considering a lot of energy drinks are way overpriced, so I try to stick with the budget ones.

We purchased this at the same convenience store in Tennessee that provided us with Spider Berry Bite energy drink (also for a dollar; see review here)--overall, they had more Rip-It flavors than I had ever seen before. A lot of them looked pretty lackluster and uninteresting, which honestly makes my apparent choice even more baffling: out of all of the cans that they had to offer, why in the hell did I pick the camo can? That most obvious and execrable of all PR campaigns, where a company “supports” sending American civilians off to die—maybe they even donate money to some kind of veterans assistance charity for added artificiality—urges us to also support the protection of "our freedom" (read: massive profits of war industry) and then show off their boundless bravery and patriotism by throwing some camouflage on their worthless products, despite the strong possibility not one person behind the marketing stunt ever served in any active military campaign. Cool.

Rant aside, this one just honestly just looked to be the most appetizing of the bunch, and it wasn't even until later that I even saw what the flavor was (I just assumed it would be something “green”): “Active Mandarin Live Wild Lime.” Okay. That's clearly trying to sound “tough” and “masculine” to appeal to the same mindset that mindlessly gobble up buying camouflage-branded products, but if you read between the lines and unnecessarily-exaggerated addition of "patriotic" words, you're basically left with “Mandarin Lime”. I must say that sounds pretty good.

Like a lot of Rip-It flavors (okay, maybe all of them) the aroma of this is over-the-top to the point of absurdity: it smells like “lime” alright, but an exaggerated, candy-like version that bears very little resemblance to the actual thing. The taste is very similar, as it's very artificial, and appeals to the tastebuds the way many fast foods and junk foods appeal to us: because they're specifically manufactured and painstakingly created to do so.

For all the hate I seem to be pouring on it, I have to say that it actually wasn't THAT bad: in fact, it's probably the best Rip-It flavor that I've had up to this point. At the same time, though, that statement is also showing why I get less and less excited to get them every time: they may only be one dollar, but there's little more here than sugar and caffeine. It's almost like a melted lime Jolly Rancher, a statement that I'm sure will make it appeal to a certain crowd, but it's a fairly-close description. Sure, sometimes a sugary drink with kick may be all you want, but even around this price point, you can tend to fare a lot better elsewhere (like Big Lots, where energy drinks are frequently in the $.50 range). I'm not recommending it to anyone, but there's far worse out there.

Overall: 4/10. It's like lime candy was melted down into a lime soda...there's an absurd, over-the-top presence of lime throughout that foregos believability in favor of in-your-face artificiality. It will appeal to some tastebuds (teens and kids mainly), but it's not really my favorite kind of thing. Nor are camo-laced products, which suggest we should support and be okay with sending troops (i.e. mostly young adults) off to die for the sole sake of boosting war industry profits while placing it under the guise of "protecting our freedom" (Really, how free are a country's citizens if said country is spying on them at any given time? And that's just what we know is happening). Sadly, this is one of the better flavors of Rip-It that I've ever had, a statement that is quickly making me realize that I should probably never buy another one again.

Spider Widowmaker Berry Bite Energy Drink (Various)


Not bad for a widely-available budget energy drink.
Well here we have a little review that kind of goes against the grain from other ones. Typically, you will note, I stick to private labels from major discount/closeout retailers (specifically, Aldi, Dollar Tree, and Big Lots). That's never really been a concrete rule of mine, just something I've done to keep the focus kind of narrowed, both on behalf of myself, and readers. Well this time I'm throwing that idea out the window, to focus on an energy drink that I purchased somewhere in Tennessee, in a convenience store in the middle of nowhere. For a buck.

Now full-sized (this one is 16 oz.) dollar energy drinks aren't really anything all that new: the Rip-It line generally retails for a buck and is widely available inside Dollar Trees', and other stores. But convenience stores aren't typically a good place to find a deal like this, so I figured I'd write about it, since it clearly fits in with the overall theme of the blog. After all, you never know when you might be stranded in the middle of nowhere with your car broke down, craving caffeine and with only a dollar in your pocket (and hopefully enough change for tax in your glove box).

As is usual with cheap energy beverages (and sadly, even most expensive ones) despite the “Berry” mentioned in the flavor title, there is no actual fruit juice. There is the strong smell of artificial berry right from the reminded me of a berry candy, and sets you up for something really sweet. It is very sweet, and my heart skipped a beat when I looked at the nutrition label (after the fact) and saw that there's a whopping 30 grams of sugar per serving—a closer look, however, revealed an oddity that I can't say I've seen before: each 16 oz. can is an individual serving. Most energy drinks will divide them into two 8 oz. servings which can make high sugar content appear lower to those that don't pay attention. So really, while 30g is pretty high, the average per can is actually closer to 60g, making this far lower.

The taste matches what most will be expecting: a sweet blast of fake berry flavor that might be too sweet for some. I liked it, and if I were ever to stumble on it again (I have never seen it around me at any store in Ohio), I would probably pick it up, though I would probably try one of the other flavors of Spider first. But you can't really shake the fact that, at a dollar, and from a convenience store, this is a pretty good deal. And I would argue that I actually prefer this to anything I've tasted in the Rip-It line, and also prefer this to just about any energy drink from Aldi (save for maybe their Ultra White), so there's also that.

These are good for the price; any higher and you've just gotten gypped.

Overall: 6/10. It's exactly what you were expecting going in: a very sweet, artificial berry flavor made entirely out of “natural flavors” and exactly zero juice. That being said, it's at least not a standard energy drink flavor, and I actually liked the berry taste. It's easily drinkable and provides a nice energy charge (I drank a little more than half a can and was pretty amped up a shortwhile later). The sweetness is also balanced with some sucralose, so the crash shouldn't be as strong as it would be with sugar making up all of the sweet content. The main reason the score is so high is because of its price point: I picked up a 16 oz. can of this for a $1 from a Tennessee convenience store, which is pretty solid value. Also of note: the nutrition facts consider one whole can a serving, so you can half them by drinking half the can, or see what you can expect by downing the whole can. I'd probably try a different flavor of Spider if I stumbled on them again, but if this happened to be all they had, and I needed some energy, I would probably pick it up.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Kirkwood Breaded Chicken Breast Patties (Aldi)

To whom it may concern: Bring back the boxed version of these!
I wanted a cheap dinner the other night, so we headed over to Aldi. I was planning on grabbing the four-pack “of questionable quality” chicken patties in a box, only to discover they didn’t offer them anymore. That’s a shame, I thought, considering they were only $2. Then, my eyes caught a bag of chicken patties that were slightly more expensive ($3.49), but turned out to be the most inexpensive ones they offered. I settled on getting those, figuring I would probably get fewer patties for the buck, with with slightly higher quality.

As it turns out, these are pretty much the exact same chicken patties as the previously boxed kind, at least in terms of appearance. While at first, I was slightly disappointed (I had assumed I would be getting fewer pieces of better-quality chicken instead), working out the math in my head helped to calm me down: I counted nine patties in this bag, for $3.49. The original boxes had four for $1.99. So this way, you get more for less, which made me a happy camper!

I somehow forgot to grab lettuce or tomato, so I ate these on a bun with Aldi-brand dressing as my only condiment. That revealed the first problem: They were slightly smaller than the average hamburger bun; in other words, these things are pretty small. Even worse than that, I don’t think they are as good as the boxed kind, which at least tasted like they had a lot of spices in them; I would have compared those to the chicken sandwiches at the world's most popular fast food joint. These just remind me of something you would get at a school cafeteria; they are virtually tasteless on their own, and make the mistake of putting the emphasis of flavor on the questionable meat, which doesn’t much taste like chicken. A little seasoning or other flavor additions would really go a long way to making these a little more appetizing.

If you need a counterpoint, they are really inexpensive; a family of four could probably get a couple nights’ mileage out of them. And if you dress them up with some lettuce and tomato, or get creative with them, then you could probably take the flavor up a notch. But straight out of the bag, these are just lackluster patties that taste approximately of chicken; as such, there’s really not much here to enjoy, and even less to get excited about. Bring back the boxed kind!

Overall: 4/10. There is some excellent value to be had here, as I got nine patties in my bag for $3.49...but how can something provide value when you don’t want to eat it? The original versions of these patties used to be sold in four-pack boxes. While those were far from anything gourmet, a little mayo and a bun would at least provide a passable snack; dressing them up with lettuce and tomato took them up a notch to “fast food quality”. In order to provide more for a lesser price point, it seems that all forms of seasoning and taste were removed from this bagged version, instead leaving you with a virtually tasteless sphere of chicken-textured sadness. I used to get the boxed version a few times a year; I last bought a bag of this kind over a year ago and have never purchased them since (as you can tell, this review has been sitting in the backlog for quite some time...) Not even worth it, no matter the price, though to be fair some lettuce and tomato (or your favorite veggies of choice) could probably make them slightly more edible.