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.

Kirkwood Chicken Breast Nuggets (Aldi)

These are pretty good, as far as frozen nuggets go.
Here are one of those products that we always seem to have on hand, yet I have never even thought of reviewing before.

On their own, these aren't anything to write home about. There's obviously the taste of chicken once you bite in to the middle, but the breading itself is a pretty boring combination of spices that are in no way spectacular, and even then only come off as passable. And yet, I have to be perfectly honest here, I really like these things. They taste excellent when dipped in barbecue sauce (well, just about any kind of sauce), and cook up quickly in the microwave, making them a perfect meal of convenience. Or, if I have more time, I like tossing them in the oven to crisp up the breading a little bit.

Perhaps best of all, a bag of these are somewhere around the $4 range. If you're thinking that's pretty high, I would have agreed with you initially, except that you get around 48 nuggets per bag. I always eat these paired with something else (fries or onion rings, usually), so I generally eat seven or eight at a time, meaning I get at least 6 servings out of an entire bag. If my wife eats some, she generally eats fewer than I do, so the serving count only goes up. Even at the rate of six, that brings the cost per serving down to around $.67. And that doesn't sound so bad, does it?

Our one-year-old son has also taken a liking to these, and that provides even more value. I think every parent knows just how expensive children can be, and how they make a limited budget even Keeping a bag of these in the house ensures that he always has something to eat, and while it's not a huge part of his diet, it's a good change-up for when he gets sick of everything else, or a good go-to when he wants something more filling than, say, a vegetable pouch. (It's also adorable watching him try to dip nugget pieces in sauces, as he tends to get more on his finger than the actual item he's trying to saturate).

I probably did a terrible job of explaining why they are so good, but the fact of the matter is, from a taste standpoint, even I'm at a loss. I had never really thought to taste them without sauces (I dip almost everything in some kind of condiment), and upon doing so just for the sake of establishing a flavor, realized that they are incredibly bland. And yet we eat them relatively frequently (we usually buy a bag once every month or two) because they are perfect for a quick bite if we are busy, lazy, or both, and a good occasional meal to have on hand for our young child.

Overall: 7/10. Even though these don't taste all that great on their own (they are underseasoned and rather bland), who really eats chicken nuggets without dipping them in some kind of sauce? With a choice condiment (may I suggest BBQ sauce?) these things really come alive, and are a fantastic accompaniment to any meal. They're also perfect to have on hand for lazy nights where no one feels like cooking, as a small snack between meals, or as a quick lunch option for baby. The $3.99 asking price might sound like a lot, but there are almost 50 nuggets in each bag, which equals out to a good number of servings (as a comparison, I average seven or eight nuggets per serving, which equals out to a mere $.67 per sitting). As far as frozen nuggets go, you could do far worse.