Friday, June 28, 2019

Little Journey Organics Banana Baby Food Puree (Aldi)

Just when I was getting so good at remembering to take my own product pictures...

We’ve taken a look at several flavors from Little Journey Organics baby food line. And now, here’s another one, which stars my all-time favorite fruit in a solo role: banana.

I don’t believe this flavor was available when the line was first introduced, because it definitely would have been one of the first flavors I tried, but at some point it seems to have been added to their permanent inventory, because I've grabbed it for my son a couple of times over the past few months. Jealous, I grabbed one for myself on a recent shopping trip and got my vengeance by slowly drinking it in front of him as he reached for it and cried. (Haha, not really. I slurped it down while he was gone.)

Of course, banana should be the main flavor here, considering it’s the only fruit named in the title, and thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint in that regard. It has a rich, delicious banana flavor that’s similar to the taste found in the jarred baby food. It might be slightly more banana-y, but understandably nowhere near the taste of a fresh banana. The pouch does provide a better way to enjoy it, too, giving it a more smoothie-ish texture than those found in baby food jars, and without the added requirement of needing to track down a dang spoon, which somehow always seem to be in short supply in our house, no matter how recently we just did the dishes.

Most of the other pouches in their organics line have lemon juice added; I have to be honest that I’m not sure why (does that work as a preservative? Or just to add a little bit of tartness? Or maybe as an agent to blend all the flavors together?). I’m also not sure why this one doesn’t, offering up citric acid, and ascorbic acid (vitamin C) as the only two other ingredients. The amount of ascorbic acid must be minimal, however, considering vitamin C isn’t even listed in the nutrition facts, making me also wonder why that's included.

At any rate, this pouch offers up 110 calories, 26g of sugar (with none added), 1g of protein, 2% calcium, and a solid 60% potassium, assuming a 2,000 calorie diet. Aside from the potassium, none of those numbers are particularly exciting, but it’s still a healthier snack than a lot of other things out there. Meanwhile, the $.79 price tag—standard for almost all of the pouches in the organic line—once again represents excellent value compared to a majority of the competition.

Clearly, these pouches make great snacks for their intended demographic (kids), but they're also a great quick snack for parents, too. Some of them are too weird for adults (such as the turkey and ancient grains, or whatever the hell it was), and others too sweet for some (like their three-fruit combos), but the banana shifts away from that by providing a straightforward, no-frills flavor that should satisfy anyone who likes the titular fruit.

Overall: 8/10. It's nowhere near as tasty or wholesome as a fresh one, but Little Journey Organics Banana pouch offers up a nice banana flavor with an appropriately soft texture that makes a great snack for virtually any fan of 'nanas. The minimal ingredients (banana, citric acid, ascorbic acid) are another solid plus, along with a high dose of potassium, and no added sugars. The $.79 price tag for an organic product doesn't hurt, either. I always make sure to have some of these on hand as a snack for our two-year-old, but have been known to dip into his stash from time to time myself!

Monday, June 24, 2019

Southern Grove Sweet and Spicy Cajun Trail Mix (Aldi)

Overly salty, but otherwise pretty close to perfect.

Aldi seems to have an ever-growing collection of trail mixes, ensuring that they have you covered no matter what mood you’re in. On the sweet side, they have the Indulgent variant, which is far and away my favorite trail mix of all time. It’s a ridiculously sweet blend of almonds, chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, cranberries, and more…clearly not for everyone (like those on a diet), but as a sweet treat that’s almost kind of semi-healthy, it fits the bill quite nicely.

On the opposite end of the flavor spectrum, is Southern Grove’s Sweet and Spicy Cajun Trail Mix, which is far and away my favorite of their savory offerings. This one packs in peanuts, hot Cajun corn sticks, toasted corn, and almonds, all smothered in an intensely salty and moderately spicy seasoning. Counterbalancing this heat (and sodium burn) are butter toffee peanuts, and honey roasted sesame sticks, which provide welcome blasts of sweetness that (temporarily) override the overdose of salt.

The balance between the two, at least as far as flavor is concerned, is nearly perfect, not to mention addicting—once I grab one handful, I have a very hard time stopping. In fact, this is probably one of my favorite between-meal snacks, in that it’s “filling” enough to temporarily curb my appetite and hold me over until the next meal.

The biggest drawback, however, is the obvious one: the salt. It’s to be expected, because salt has always tended to be the main flavor in most trail mixes. You could even take that one step further and say it’s even more necessary here, to give the “sweet” more of something to counter. That being said, it’s way saltier than it needs to be, with a whopping 10% of the recommended daily sodium value per 1/3 cup serving size. Considering there are a whopping 26 servings in here, it’s pretty easy to eat more than that at once (I’ve been known to polish off whole bags in a little over a week, meaning on average I’m at least doubling the serving size each time).

And it’s the kind of salt overload you can feel: “sodium burn” kicks in relatively quickly, typically (for me, anyway) after a couple of modest handfuls. Yes, part of that is the spiciness, but there’s also the lingering feeling from intense salt intake that only gets stronger and stronger the closer to the bottom of the bag you get, where a huge gathering of the salt-based seasoning settles.

Also, do not eat this any time you plan on interacting with others, unless you have some toothpaste or gum handy, because this also wrecks your breath. My wife refuses to get near me after I’ve had some, because she says the taste lingers there for a long while (apparently, it doesn't taste as good secondhand as it does direct from the bag). That’s typical of spicy foods in general, but still, having to plan consumption around the potential for social situations can be a bit of a drag.

Despite those qualms--which are fairly standard for this type of product, but no less disappointing--this is still a terrific trail mix, and at $4.89 per 27 oz. package, the value proposition is just as good, if not better than, the product itself.

Overall: 8/10. It’s overly salty, and the spiciness might prevent you from getting laid if you eat within, like, 6 hours of getting close to someone, but other than those expected issues, this is a great trail mix. The sweet aspects do a great job of counterbalancing the salty, making the flavor combination rather addictive. The $4.89 price tag seems expensive at first, until you realize you're getting nearly two pounds (27 oz.) of sweet and salty goodness: I generally keep a bag at work and munch off and on throughout the work week, and tend to get around 2 weeks out of it. (If you actually have enough willpower to follow the serving size, and only eat one serving per day, you can stretch it out to 26 days.) Aldi has a great selection of trail mixes, but this one is my go-to when I'm craving one more on the savory side.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Mrs. Freshley's Delicious Deals Powdered Sugar Mini Donuts (Dollar Tree)

Crack-level addicting.

I love donuts, and I don’t think I’m anywhere close to the minority on that one. They’re an American tradition, like war and systemic racism, and probably the junk food that I enjoy the most. Enter Mrs. Freshley’s, the nationwide snack cake company that makes typical knockoffs of popular, existing snack cakes. I’m pretty sure their products are in supermarkets everywhere, but we’ll be focusing on the smaller packages of sweet treats that they release under the “Delicious Deals” moniker, which are available in Dollar Tree stores all across the land.

Examining the package contents, I noticed that the donuts are fairly small; maybe even a little smaller than the small size of most pre-packaged name brand supermarket donuts (although I don't eat them often and could be mistaken). Each donut is absolutely coated with white powder, to where you oftentimes can’t even see the cake part underneath, which is definitely a plus.

Despite the similar outward appearances to competitors, however, these somehow taste different than other supermarket powdered donuts. And by “different”, I mean better. Loads better. Like the powder is actually made up of part crack, or something. It tastes like eating powdered sugar straight out of the bag…just a “fresh” sugar taste, but then there’s something extra in the flavor toward the finish that I can’t quite put my finger on—perhaps the flavor of the cake shining through? Whatever it is, it takes the donuts into “addicting”-level territory for me, and I'm not typically one to get addicted to sweets.
We're talking addicting to the point where, if I stumble on these when I'm at Dollar Tree—and I rarely, if ever, actually have them on my list—I pretty much have to buy them on sight. And then dig into a package the moment I get into the car.

At $1 for four 4-count packs (16 donuts total), there’s some pretty good value to be had here, too. Again, they might be a little smaller than typical examples of these donuts, but getting four packs of them for a quarter each is certainly nothing to scoff at.. Just don't say I didn't warn you when you start stashing boxes of them throughout the house, and beg friends for money to continue buying them long after you've drained your entire life savings on a year-long supply.

Overall: 10/10. These donuts aren't just “excellent for the price”: they're straight-up excellent. I’m not one to get addicted to many things at the supermarket, but this is the one item I have to pick up almost every single time I’m at Dollar Tree. Despite looking like any number of other national brand powdered donuts, these somehow have a different flavor that just begs you to take another bite, starting off with the taste of “fresh” powdered sugar, before veering off into an unexpected finish that I can't quite put my finger on, but that is the reason I keep coming back to them. As much as I want to deduct at least a point, it's the perfect marriage of taste and value, so how can I?

As a counter-point, my wife isn't nearly as impressed with these as I am, and she likes powdered donuts probably more than I do. Who knew taste was completely subjective?

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Little Salad Bar Chicken Caesar Single Serve Salad Bowl (Aldi)

It tastes good, and packs protein, but better options exist.

In a previous review I mentioned that Aldi is now offering up single-serve salad bowls for those on the go, and while I made it a point to make clear that the $2.89 asking price is more than they charge for their (mostly excellent) multi-serving bagged salads, it still provides some convenience for those on the go (which is obviously the point).

There, with that preface out of the way, let's dig right in to what I thought of the Chicken Caesar salad variety of their pre-bowled salads.

The four compartments in this one house parmesan style cheese, and a cup of Caesar dressing, with two sections reserved for chicken. Just like in the other bowl, there is a “hidden” surprise for those people like me who didn't bother to fully read the package beyond the ingredients: a little fork! This is especially good for me, considering I took this to work with me for lunch, and always forget to pack plasticware myself; this thoughtful little inclusion saved me the hassle of having to waste precious break time scouring for one.

Onto the taste: The chicken is about as bland as you’d expect on its own, providing a little spongey texture and that’s about it. Thankfully, there is enough dressing to blanket the entire salad, thus allowing you to make sure to coat the chicken pieces in enough dressing to give it some flavor. The “parmesan style cheese” (as it’s alluded to on the packaging) tastes exactly like the parmesan cheese we’re all familiar with, and makes you wonder why that designation is necessary (unless it’s saying it’s not actually from the Parmesan region of France, although I can’t recall another product where this distinction was necessary).

The dressing is strongly reminiscent of the kind from their larger bagged Caesar salad, with a nice tangy kick, and a nice, thick texture. It really compliments the rest of the salad well, as it should, and stands out as the best, most distinctive part of the entire combination.

I guess whether or not this is worth it to you depends on two things: your tolerance (or “fondness”, as the case may be) for pre-cubed chicken pieces, because that’s all that’s different between this and their virtually-flawless large bagged salad; and the amount of convenience you require. Their bagged Caesar provides insane value: It’s almost a dollar less ($1.99 as of this writing), and with enough servings for at least two people, or one hungry one. Personally, I'm not against weird processed chicken pieces, but I wouldn't consider including it in anything an incentive to buy it, especially when it apparently jacks up the price (though the “convenience” angle also plays a large role). In its defense, the chicken does add 16g of protein, too, which is a solid amount for those on protein-based diets; I would think with energy bars everywhere now, there are more practical and inexpensive ways to get that, but if you're going to be eating a salad anyway, why not kill two birds with one stone?

As for the latter reasoning, if I'm going to be making something purely out of convenience, it's not going to be a salad: it's going to be a more filling frozen meal, or a heavier snack between meals to tide my appetite. Sure, I may be in the vast minority, now that everyone seems to be trying to cut back on calories and eating healthier, but even in that case, I would think the target demographic would be kind of weirded out by the weird cubed meat chunks. But maybe I'm wrong.

Long story short, I wouldn't get this again, and neither should you, because I'm the foremost expert on how to run your life.

Overall: 5/10. It's not a terrible product at all, but unless you have an intense craving for chunks of cold, pre-cubed chicken pieces, or are on a protein-based diet and want something other than a drink or protein bar (it has a respectable 16g of protein per bowl), there's just very little reason to pick this up, especially for the price. As an alternative, their bagged Caesar salad is phenomenal, and can be rationed out into multiple days' worth of sides (or meals) with a little extra foresight and time; in fact, this tastes a lot like that one, only with the addition of meat chunks, and a price hike of nearly $1 for the “convenience”. This isn't for me, but if it sounds like it's down your alley, then by all means go for it. The little fork that's included is damn cute, though.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Baker's Corner Hush Puppy Mix (Aldi)

There's enough batter in here for a lot of tasty hush puppies, if that's your kind of thing.
Hush puppies, in my opinion, are pretty dumb. They’re like an underground side dish…offered in enough places that you’ll eventually run into them and be reminded of their existence, but offered in so few that it might be months, maybe even years, before you do. My main qualm with them is that, even when prepared properly, they are completely boring, and there doesn’t seem to be many ways to dress them up (besides dipping them in sauces). This is why I go out of my way to avoid them, whenever possible.

However, one of the great things about being married, is that you will often find your partner frequently has tastes that go completely in the opposite direction of yours. Because of this, as well as the rule that married couples must constantly be in a state of “compromise”, common courtesy suggests that you will probably find yourself eating, or at least supporting the purchase of, things that you wouldn’t normally put within twenty feet of your mouth. So of course my wife, who is a huge hush puppy fan (I truthfully didn’t know such a person existed) just had to purchase a box of this from Aldi after stumbling across them (I was hoping she didn’t notice).

Seeing as how a box retails for just 99 cents, I wasn’t going to turn her down--if I did, I knew she would just end up finding something else she wanted that was twice as expensive. So I did what any loving husband would do, and tossed them into the shopping cart. At the very least, I figured, they would make a decent side dish, and I absolutely have to have a side dish with pretty much every meal (I get bored of being stuck with the same tastes over and over again, and side dishes help to break up the potential monotony of relying on a single flavor.)

For the price, I was honestly surprised at just how much batter is included. Preparation was pretty simple, too: just crack open the batter powder, add egg and water, wait until it fluffs up, form the fluffed batter into balls, and fry them in oil. That’s pretty much it. By the end, we had a whole plateful of puppies, which wasn’t bad at all given the mere 99 cent investment (plus the cost of an egg, and canola oil) that was required.

Now let’s take a look at the flavor: As a reiteration, these things are far from my favorite things in the world, but that’s mostly because all the ones I’ve had have been bland, grainy, and pretty straightforward. There’s something a little extra here in Chef Cupboard’s mix, however, with the addition of parsley, garlic, and onion, which certainly give it a flavor that’s different from any other one I’ve ever had. This certainly isn’t to say that I’m crazy about them (honestly, I could take them or leave them), and I still dipped them in ranch to give them a little extra boost of flavor, but these were still the best hush puppies I can recall eating, which has to account for something. Granted, I still find the flavor to be pretty dull compared to other, more popular side dishes, but as far as hush puppies go, these are pretty darn good.

They’re also not very greasy (unlike those found at certain “seafood” fast food restaurants), which is another plus. The texture was still pretty grainy, though, and even though the added spices and herbs were noticeable, they were still fairly weak, so don't go in expecting a taste explosion of any kind. For what it’s worth my wife absolutely loved these, so if you’re one of the 2% of the world’s population that remembers hush puppies exist more than two days out of the year, then odds are good that you will really enjoy these.

Overall: 7/10. I’m not a huge fan of hush puppies, and I don’t have a huge sample pool to compare these to, but the mix here from Baker's Corner makes the best that I've ever had. Now, that's still not saying a whole lot--I haven't tried many different kinds, and hush puppies would still be somewhere around my 367th choice as a side dish for any given meal--but these were a lot better than I was expecting out of a boxed batter. The texture is the same graininess you’ve come to expect, but there’s actually some flavor, courtesy of some garlic, onion, and parsley that manages to shine through. An even bigger achievement is the price: for 99 cents you get a ton of batter, so much so that the wife and I had enough hush puppies for two nights’ worth of side dishes. I would give these a 6, but my wife, who is a big fan of all hush puppies and does have a much greater point of comparison than I, gave them an 8, thus the compromised overall score.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Fresh Finds Kettle Cooked Jalapeno Extra Crunchy Gourmet Potato Chips (Big Lots)

Not the best jalapeno chip, but also not the worst.
I already reviewed the “Jalapeno Popper” chips, which are essentially cheesy jalapeno flavor, and I thought that was it for Fresh Finds’ spicier offerings…but a recent trip to Big Lots unveiled that I was mistaken. After searching high and low for some new flavors, I finally stumbled upon plain Jalapeno Kettle Chips under the Fresh Finds moniker. Well how do these compare to the rest of the chips in the line?

I don’t get plain jalapeno chips very often at all, but I have to say these hit the spot. I worked with a lady who brought bags of expensive name brand jalapeno kettle chips all the time, and the flavor of these is strongly reminiscent to those. They’re salty, but with a great kick of authentic-tasting jalapeno powder; and boy is there a lot of powder to go around! Despite this, they’re not super-hot, but there was a time I shoved a few chips in my mouth at the same time, and they all had so much taste on them that it went straight to my sinuses. But assuming you just take one or two at a time, unless you’re sensitive to heat, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Or at least, not a problem that a little water won’t take care of.

If you like your chips on the spicier side, this presents an excellent option. I think I would prefer the “Jalapeno Popper” chips just a little bit more, simply because you get the pepper taste, with the added benefit of delicious cheesy powder, but for those that might not like cheese, or just want something a little more simple and straightforward, these should do the trick. As with all of Fresh Finds’ chips, these retail for $1.90, putting it about in the middle of the pack in terms of value. Taking the flavor and quality of these chips into consideration, Fresh Finds is an excellent brand for the price, and one you should really check out if you happen to stop at a Big Lots store.

Overall: 6.5/10. I prefer the jalapeno popper chips myself (which, despite the packaging’s claims that it’s jalapeno mixed with cream cheese, it’s actually jalapeno and cheddar cheese), but for those that just want a simple, yet delicious pepper taste without added flavors, this will fit the bill. I don’t eat many jalapeno chips, but these taste very similar to others I’ve had in the past, but at $1.90 per bag, they manage to be way cheaper than the norm. Who’d’ve thunk that a Big Lots brand could be anything special?

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Gourmet Select Baked Onion Rings (Big Lots)

A decent little snack for the price.
I shouldn’t have to tell you the myriad of ways purchasing an obscure brand from Big Lots can go completely wrong. First of all, unlike places like Aldi, these aren’t brands that work with Big Lots under stringent standards…they’re usually things that Big Lots just happens to get for really, really cheap. This can also happen for a variety of reasons: the product could be discontinued, could have gotten new packaging or a new formula (so they’re getting rid of the old stuff), or it could have just sucked so bad that the company is trying to cut their losses, so they sell it to Big Lots at a deeply discounted rate.

That’s what tends to make purchasing stuff from closeout stores such a risky proposition--you can’t really tell why those items are there specifically. I have had some less-than-stellar performance out of a couple different mock “onion ring snacks” before, and that didn’t set the bar very high for the plain-looking bag of Gourmet Select Onion Rings that I saw peering out at me from a mid-level shelf from the ‘Lots. I normally wouldn’t have thought twice, until I realized I was hungry, was craving something salty, and saw the price was a mere $.50. Granted, the bag was only 2.5 oz., but the small bags of the national brand are actually 2.25 oz., and are at least double this. To wit: the large bags are 6.5 oz., less than triple this size, and are WAY more than $1.50, so this is a great deal no matter how you look at it.

Unless, of course, the taste sucks. Because no matter how much you save on something, it’s simply not worth it if it tastes like complete crap. And my first red flag (besides the shoddy packaging) came right as I opened it, discovering that each "O" was roughly the same size, and looked nothing like the national brand. This, when paired with the uninspired packaging, already had me fearing the worst: If these couldn’t even get the look down, just how bad did they skimp on taste?

Thankfully, not much at all. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the national brand, but these have a different taste that might appeal to those that don't enjoy the original. It comes in the form of some added sweetness (almost akin to a "sweet onion"), which won't appeal to everyone, but that at least helps it to stand out as its own product, rather than just merely a national brand knockoff. Each ring has a generous amount of seasoning, ensuring that it’s evenly distributed throughout the bag. Of course, some have more than others, but even the ones with the least amount had a strong enough onion flavor, so that’s definitely a plus. I will say that I still prefer the national brand, which has more of a straight-ahead onion flavor, but if you want something different, these are a good, and much cheaper alternative.

Overall: 7/10. From its bland packaging and differing presentation (just about all of the “O”s are thin, and are almost entirely the same size) I was not expecting much out of these at all. But as we all know, you can’t judge a book by its cover! Flavorwise, these add an extra bit of sweetness to the formula, while still maintaining a strong onion base; while that causes the taste to differ from the national brand, it’s still close enough to appeal to fans of those (like me), while offering enough of a change to stand out as their own product, rather than merely as a knockoff. And for $.50 for a 2.5 oz. bag, which is what I paid for these at Big Lots, the savings are substantial enough for those on a budget--or those who just hate paying inflated national brand prices--a try. If you tend to like baked onion ring snacks, then you should definitely give these a try.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Wicked Grove Elderflower Cider (Aldi)

Apple cider with a floral twist.
A little while ago, Aldi offered a Wicked Grove Variety Pack, which had four bottles of three different cider flavors: apple, green, and elderflower. I was very interested in the elderflower, but didn't have $13 that I was willing to spend on a collection of alcohol that I wasn't even sure I would like: the apple is the same kind that they have available all year long (and that was reviewed earlier), but I do not like green ciders, and wasn't sure what to expect concerning the mix of floral and apple, so I opted not to get it.

At first, I thought I had passed up the only chance I would have to try it, but lo and behold, Aldi offered a standalone six-pack of the green apple cider about a month later. And now, they have done the same thing to the elderflower cider, offering them in six packs for the standard Wicked Grove rate of $6.49 (in Ohio; prices in other states usually cheaper). I bought these the moment I saw them on the shelves, which was about five days earlier than the Special Buy cycle officially began (they tend to put products out early, for those new to the store), and eagerly sat down to a bottle.

I'm still not sure what elderflower is, but it seems to be a popular product as far as alcohol goes: St. Germain, a liquor made from the flower, has been gaining gradual traction in the U.S. market. My first experience with it was in the form of the brilliantly-named and equally-brilliantly conceived Elderflower Spherification Shooter, available at Veritas Tavern, a high-end restaurant in northern Ohio. That drink features an elderflower-flavored “bubble” in the midst of a small collection of vodka and possibly some other liquors that I don't remember—it's ingested by taking it all at once, and popping the bubble in your mouth, which allows it to mix with the other flavors to create a unique drink that's worth every penny of the $6 I paid for it. Obviously, my expectations weren't so high with a bottle of supermarket-grade cider, but I liked the sweetness of the flower, and was looking forward to seeing how it would translate when mixed with apple.

The aroma is quite delectable, with the main notes of apple accented by a floral scent that kind of caught me off guard. I didn't really do any research into elderflower before, but now I see it actually is a flower that is only picked during certain times of the year, and predominantly in European countries. The two smells actually blend together really well, and made me very interested in how the combination would translate on the taste buds.

There, too, it's a modest success; the straightforward sweetness of the apple pairs well with the muted floral notes of the elderflower, resulting in a refreshing drink that vaguely tastes like a sweet champagne. I could see this being used as a mixture for more grandiose conconctions, but right out of the bottle, it's delicious, and something I could easily see myself relaxing with on a hot summer day. I actually like it better than their regular hard apple cider that's available all the time; whereas that is just overly sweet, the elderflower actually mutes some of that sweetness, giving it a well-balanced flavor that is immediately drinkable.

The finish is a little off for me, though, as it goes down with a slightly sharp flavor that's not entirely pleasant. It's hard to explain, but it leads to a metallic aftertaste that lingers in the mouth and just isn't very good, a rather disappointing end to an otherwise pleasant cider experience.

Overall: 7/10. The overwhelming sweetness of their regular red apple cider is muted with the floral notes of elderflower to create a rather delicious combination. The finish misses the mark for me, though, with a metallic taste as it goes down, that leaves a rather bizarre aftertaste lingering in the back of the throat. At $6.49 per 12-pack, it's a great value, and my favorite of the two ciders I've tried so far at the German discount chain. I'm really hoping this isn't the last of the flavors that we'll see them roll out this summer, either. Note that they only carry their red apple variety all the time, meaning this one is a Special Buy, so if you see it and are interested in trying it, you better grab one before they sell out!