Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Custom Made Meals Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Peppers (Aldi)

A little too rich.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. We don't usually buy the meat special buys (because the store is usually full of so many more things we are interested in) but the instant I saw this in the ad, it became an immediate “must buy”.  I'm a fan of anything cream cheese, and their (frozen) jalapeno poppers are absolutely fantastic (even though they are a completely different line), so I put two and two together and figured there was no way these could disappoint.  

I was wrong.

That's what I'd be saying if they did disappoint, but as it turns out, I was pretty much right: These are pretty fantastic, at least in the flavor department, and at least for a little while.  Think a fresher, more upscale version of jalapeno poppers, and you would pretty much have the flavor down: The bacon blends well with the cream cheese and pepper, all of the flavors combining to form a stomach-bloating combination that's almost overwhelmingly rich.  Eight came in the package, and we each had three before we had to toss in the towel.  I'm not sure these are that great as the side dish that we used them for, but they would be absolutely perfect as finger foods at a party.

The bacon does stay a little limp, which I guess it has to in order to hold everything together, but I was missing that crunch.  My wife did overcook them to try to char them up a bit, but they were still pretty limp and flaccid.  The jalapenos themselves taste pretty fresh, with some nice crunch and even some juices left inside. They provide a nice kick in the heat department, and a noticeable blast of fire right after the first couple of bites, but by the second or third one, my tastebuds had calibrated to it, and the heat didn't bother me.  The cream cheese has the dual role of providing creamy comfort for the heat, while simultaneously offering up its own decadent flavor, and it certainly doesn't disappoint here. But it's also the main reason for its richness: there's so much cream cheese per pepper, that it doesn't take much to sit like a brick in the stomach.  I'm one of those people that never thought there could be such a thing as too much cream cheese, but it's an appropriate critique here. If they would just dial it back a bit, I think these would be a near-perfect snack.

These are pretty pricey, coming in at $6.49 per lb., and aren't actually from an Aldi brand.  Our package was $6.57 for eight poppers...much more than you'd pay for the frozen kind, but also expected, considering these are "fresher". Each popper is also a good size (they take at least two bites to finish off), and pack in a rather surprising amount of flavor.  These were definitely a splurge for us, both in terms of financial and health hits, but it was a digression that I don't regret taking at all.

Overall: 6.5/10. Think a fresher, more upscale version of frozen jalapeno poppers, and you would be on the right track.  All of the flavors combine to form a complex, almost disgustingly rich combination that overwhelms the taste buds...then sits like a brick in the stomach.  There's too much cream cheese (something I never thought I'd ever say), and the bacon stays pretty limp, no matter how hard you try to char them, but they are certainly delicious in short bursts. These would be better suited as finger foods at a party, rather than the side dish we used them for.  They're a little pricey ($6.49 per lb., with most packages hovering around the 1 lb. mark), and aren't actually from an Aldi brand, but you definitely get your money's worth in the flavor department.  Would definitely get them again, though not anytime soon...gotta let my tastebuds (and stomach) recover first.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Happy Farms Preferred/Emporium Selection Garlic and Herb Spreadable Cheese (Aldi)

Despite not being cream cheese, this still tastes rather good on bagels...

I saw the word “cheese” on the packaging, saw the container, was hungry, and somehow erroneously assumed this was a cream cheese spread. It wasn't until I brought it home that I realized it's just cheese, rather than “cream cheese”, and so it probably wouldn't work very well with the bagels that I purchased to pair this up with; crackers clearly would have been an even better option, a little tidbit my wife unnecessarily confirmed. Oops! (If only I'd have seen the other varieties available, I probably wouldn't have made that same mistake, as the others are all clearly cheeses.)

It seems to be a little thinner than cream cheese, but I’m not complaining too hard about that, because that makes it even easier to spread.  Just going by mere looks, it resembles onion and chive cream cheese, with little flecks of green spread throughout (which, in this case, obviously represents the “herb”). It's an inviting appearance, and even though I'd be putting it on a vessel that it probably wasn't made for, at least eased my mind knowing that it would still probably taste pretty good.

Its similarities to cream cheese are not just visual: It tastes pretty similar to that kind, too.  It’s been a little while since I’ve had the chive cream cheese, so I can’t say with utter certainty how exact it is, but it’s definitely within the same flavor profile.  The herb flavor might be a little more muted here--I tried a small bite right out of the container and didn’t get the flavor explosion I was hoping for--but after spreading just a thin layer on a bagel, the taste really shone through; as you probably would expect, it has a nice savory taste that actually paired surprisingly well with the bagel, but it’s soft enough that it could really work with anything, from crackers, to crisped breads, or anything else you like to dip. 

A 7 oz. container retails for $1.99, which is a little more than their standard cream cheese varieties, but still a reasonable cost, given that it's not cream cheese. I'd get it again, though I would be sure to pair them up with a cracker, or something else that it's probably better suited for. I'd also be interested in trying some of the other flavor combinations (horseradish and cheddar, peppercorn parmesan, and sharp cheddar) which, if I would have noticed, would have given me a much larger clue that these were not suited for bagels.

Oh well, you live and learn.

Overall: 7/10.  This is a pretty tasty cheese spread that tastes very similar to the popular “chive” kinds.  It reminds me a lot of cream cheese (which I somehow confused this for), but it's a little thinner, hence its description as a “spread”; that makes it much easier to put on crackers, breads, or anything else that you may want to lather this savory stuff over.  The flavor is a little weaker than cream cheese, but not by much; I still got a good kick in the taste buds just from spreading a thin layer of this on a bagel.  And at $1.99 for a 7 oz. tub, you really can’t knock the price. I would get this again, but would probably try a different variety, and would be sure to pair them up with crackers instead.

NOTE: These used to be sold under the "Happy Farms Preferred" brand, but are now being offered under "Emporium Selection". It's the same product, and even the same packaging, otherwise.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Simple Truth Organic Fruit n' Punchy Flavored Water Beverage (Kroger)

There has never been a better case for regular drinking water.

MARKETER #1: I have a great idea for a kids’ drink that I think will take the world by storm.
MARKETER #2: Really? What is it?
MARKETER #1: A flavored water beverage! Most kids don’t like drinking water so this way we can trick them into thinking they’re drinking juice, or something.
MARKETER #2: Brilliant! What’s it going to taste like?
MARKETER #1: That’s easy...what’s one taste that every child likes?
MARKETER #2: Uh...fruit punch?
MARKETER #1: No, think a specific product.
MARKETER #2: dogs?
MARKETER #1: No, think of...who would drink hot dog flavored anything?
MARKETER #2: Well every kid loves a good dog.
MARKETER #1: I’m talking something that would be the perfect base.
MARKETER #2: I don’t know…I give up.
MARKETER #1: (beat) Cough syrup.
MARKETER #2: (coughs) Excuse me? What?
MARKETER #1: Cough syrup.
MARKETER #2: What child likes the taste of cough syrup?!
MARKETER #1: What do you mean? I always have.
MARKETER #2: That’s because you inherited your mother’s Robitussin addiction. No other kid likes cough syrup...I used to want to stay sick just so I didn’t have to force it down.
MARKETER #1: We’ll see, Jackson....we’ll see.

The above reenactment has to have more (simple) truth to it than even I realize, because there’s really no other way to explain how something like this not only gets released into the market, but also how it gets marketed toward kids. KIDS, of all know, those picky little things who always want something sweet or, at the very least, something that tastes good.

Hell, I hate water, and I’d gladly force down a gallon of it just to never have to see one of these pouches again. This is basically the kids version of La Croix, that maligned blend of club soda, with a hint of fruit so small, you’re basically better off just drinking club soda. The only difference is, they do seem to at least try making the shitty cough syrup flavor a little sweeter - you know, for the kids this is marketed toward - so there’s at least some mystical sweetness that was added to the “organic flavors” (that’s seriously a legal ingredient?) on the ingredients list.

We still tried to be good parents and, actually without trying it ourselves first, gave one to our child who made a disgusted face before saying, “I don’t really like that.” Neither do we, bud. Neither do we.

Overall: 0/10. I’ve certainly had worse-tasting products over the years, so perhaps a “zero” seems a bit harsh. Except that this product fails on just about every conceivable level. So, we have a water-based product that tastes like shit and is barely even sweet, so let’s market it to kids. Then, let’s slap an “organic” label on it so we can charge even more for giving kids the pleasure of trying to force it down (because, you know, adding organic lemon juice concentrate to filtered water instead of regular lemon juice makes such a fucking noticeable difference.) About the only reason I’d even think about keeping some on hand is as a form of punishment: “If you don’t calm down right now, you’re getting the berry water.” Hmm...maybe they were on to something after all.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Kirkwood Parmesan Garlic Encrusted Chicken Tenders (Aldi)

An under-the-radar gem.

It had been a while since I tried these things, but even though we didn’t have a whole lot of money, I decided to spend the extra couple of bucks to get these over their (pretty solid) chicken nuggets.  Hey, a guy can only eat the same things for so long before he gets tired of them, you know?  The last time I got these it was easily over a year ago (quite possibly two), but I’ve always remembered the taste…and if you know me at all, you know my memory is absolutely godawful.  But did they live up to my high expectations?

One thing I want to mention before we get too far into the review, is that these are NOT COOKED.  In other words, they are raw.  In yet more words, unlike their chicken nuggets, these are not made to be tossed in the microwave for a “quick meal”; you have to cook them in the oven, lest you want to risk getting seriously sick. So if you're looking for something quick that you can just nuke and eat, you should probably get something else.

The upside to the increased cook time is that you're forced to make them the way they were meant to be made: The breading cooks up nice and crispy, the parmesan and garlic are pretty evident in each bite, and the chicken actually looks like chicken.  I like ripping my strips into smaller, dippable pieces, and these tear perfectly, without any resistance.  The pieces are also pretty generously sized, so you don't need a whole lot to get filled up.

Of course, as can be expected, they are pretty darn salty, so expect to get some sodium burn if you eat too many.  The taste also gets kind of old after a little while, at least to me - even though I was very hungry, I only made three, and that was a perfect amount.  Any more, and I wouldn’t have been unable to finish them, on account of the repetitive flavor (this can be fixed by having a side with it, to give your tastebuds a little break).  But if you’re looking for a change from the usual chicken nuggets – or want to try a different chicken option beyond their semi-famous chicken patties (which are said to be a close knockoff to Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, if prepared the right way) – this should offer you another solid example of Aldi doing chicken right.

Overall: 8/10.  Surprisingly, the parmesan and garlic flavors come through, in a delicious chicken tender that’s restaurant quality (not gourmet restaurant, but easily equal to, or better than, any fast food joint‘s similar offerings).  The breading is tasty, and the chicken also looks and tastes as it should (sad that‘s a plus in frozen foods these days).  The biggest “downside”, if it can be called that, is that these are raw, so they require cooking in the oven; don’t grab a bag thinking you’ll just toss these in the microwave, because they take between 25-30 minutes to fully cook.  The plus side is that the breading is crispy, and the chicken inside is warm and juicy, two qualities you just aren't going to get out of microwaved tenders. These are a nice change of pace from the typical chicken nugget, and while the $5.49 asking price may give you pause for thought, you can easily get three or four servings out of a single bag (even more if these are for kids or people with smaller appetites). Just make sure you serve them with a side, as the garlic is pretty strong, and does get a little repetitive after a while. 

Friday, March 19, 2021

Unbranded (Worthy Promotionals) Oh So Soft Toilet Paper (Dollar Tree)

"Oh So Soft?" More like "Ass-Rippingly Rough".

According to my research (and the packaging), this product is manufactured by Worthy Promotionals, based out of Alabama. I don’t know why a promotional company would be interested in entering the toilet paper business, but I have a reason it might have been in response to the nationwide TP shortage that we experienced months ago...if so, that might explain why four roll packages of their products are being sold at Dollar Tree, for less than their wholesale cost.

Anyway, I picked this package up because the rolls are actually larger than the individual rolls in DT’s “Soft and Strong” toilet paper, which means it should last a while longer. Plus, who doesn’t want a nice cushion for their privates when wiping? As a man, I certainly don’t require it, but it’s a nice luxury to have.

I don’t know what they were comparing their product to in order to designate it “Oh So Soft”, but it couldn’t have been anything less than sandpaper, because this is probably the roughest TP I’ve ever used in my life. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t really have a need for my toilet paper to be super soft (like my wife does), but this is equal to, or maybe even worse than, the stuff they use in gas station restrooms. It's that uncomfortable.

On the positive side of things, it does feel pretty sturdy, which means the only thing tearing will be your asshole when you use it...I guess that constitutes a plus? I mean, if it’s going to suck, the least it can do is not cause other messes. Another “feature” (a weird term for a toilet paper roll) that I actually do like is that the toilet paper sticks to itself until you unwind it from the roll. It’s kind of weird and annoying, but that means if you drop it while you’re using it, the roll won’t leave a trail of toilet paper all over the bathroom as it rolls away from you...not a situation that happens often, but I think we’ve all had it happen to us at one point or another.

There is another hint that these were kind of thrown together on a whim by a company that normally doesn’t deal in toiletries: the plies are very loosely glued together. I didn’t have any completely separate while in use, but there’s clearly a flappable gap between the two plies that hints at a rush job to take advantage of an undersupplied market. I will say that the toilet paper itself is uniformly wrapped pretty tightly around the cardboard roll...some brands look like they’re just haphazardly rolled on there (Aldi Daily Basics, I'm looking at you), but these at least look like they were competently wound.

Unfortunately, the positives are just moot points that merely prevent the score from dropping lower...they aren’t nearly enough to salvage this from the “do not buy” pile. But if you are going to get it, might as well grab it from Dollar Tree instead of CVS, where they are currently retailing for $3.99 ($1 per roll!) I can at least rest a bit easier knowing that I only paid a dollar for it ($.25 per roll!). Also make sure you grab some ointments or soothing creams you can put on afterwards.

Overall: 2.5/10. The “Oh So Soft” moniker is incredibly wrong, because this stuff is some of the roughest I’ve ever used. I’m not a delicate man who requires his toilet paper to be super soft, but I’d at least like to be able to use it without having to check to make sure I’m not bleeding afterwards. The plies are also very cheaply glued together, with noticeable separation apparent as you take pieces apart. At least the rolls are tightly wound and appear to be pretty tough, as I haven’t had any pieces rip or tear during use. And they are much larger than the rolls in other dollar store brands. Don’t buy these at CVS for $3.99 when you can get them at Dollar Tree for $1! But don’t get them there, either. Just don’t get it at all, really.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Specially Selected Stone Baked Mushroom, Mascarpone and Authentic Italian Cheese Pizza (Aldi)

Mushrooms aside, this "imported" pizza has a unique flavor all its own.

I'm not even going to try to remember what lead me to even consider this pizza. Actually, I guess I will: my wife loves mascarpone, but hates mushrooms. I don't really care for either of those things all that much, but I guess I just figured my wife might be interested in taking off the mushrooms and eating the rest. She wasn't, but if she was, the mushrooms are large, and don't take up a whole lot of surface space—they'd be real easy to pick off, especially before baking.

The texture is actually a big plus. Well, not so much the mushrooms (which we'll get into more in the next paragraph), but the rest of the pizza features an enticing interplay between the soft, crispy crust; the hardened Italian cheese on top; and the rich, creamy “sauce” that must just be mascarpone. I'd compare the texture to a breakfast pizza, as the sauce is—at the risk of making it sound disgusting—more the texture of a gravy than a typical pizza sauce. Kind of like a crème fraiche, though not quite as rich.

As for the taste itself, it's...interesting. Yep, that's the perfect word for it. Actually, the mushrooms are absolutely gross, and don't belong anywhere near the pizza. While I wouldn't at all consider myself a fan of the earthy fungus, I'd say that I actually have a stronger tolerance for them than my wife, who generally avoids them like the plague. As for me, I tend to avoid them, but if something appeals to me that has mushrooms in them, and it's done well, I don't have a problem eating them. (I'll bore you with a quick story: The best mushroom anything I had was at a restaurant, now sadly closed, in Athens, OH a few years back for our anniversary dinner. It was a creamy mushroom soup that was so irresistably good, I even downed the huge chunks of mushroom that had settled to the bottom of the cup. My wife, on the other hand, still wasn't all that impressed with the dish (but loved the rest of the meal overall).) Here, they don't provide much else other than a slimy texture and the added taste of feet. Seriously, I can't even see mushroom fans appreciating this's like they had a leftover vat of the unpopular vegetable, and just chucked it on a random cheese pizza. The flavors clash and don't really flow together at all.

The “rest of the pizza”, however (as apparently the pizza must be judged on two separate sets of criteria), offers up a pretty unique flavor that I would probably get again. Not really anytime soon, mind you, but again. The flavors are all pretty “neutral”, and don't veer off into any flavorable realms of distinction, yet between the texture and the tastes that are there, it creates an intriguing experience that you won't get with any “standard” pepperoni pizza. There are always pizzas that say they're imported, or that look like they're trying to be different, but end up tasting like something created for American palates; the “imported” verbiage is usually merely used as a way to jack up the price, and give the item a sense of heightened, exclusive quality. This one, however, I believe actually was “imported from Italy”, because it has the taste of a completely different culture.

I may not have enjoyed it 100%, but I definitely respect it.

Overall: 6/10. This is a weird pizza that I wouldn't quite say I “enjoyed”, but that is probably one of the Aldi's more memorable pizza offerings. The mushrooms are completely miscast for the role here, providing nothing but their trademark slimy texture, and the taste of feet; the tastes don't “flow” together in any way. No thanks. However, the rest of the pizza makes up for that by offering a unique flavor that doesn't go off into any extreme territory, but it just tastes...different. Even without the mushrooms, which seem to be tossed on as an afterthought. It claims it's “imported from Italy”, a claim I almost always ignore these days, but this one actually tastes like a different culture; it might be a bogus claim like many others seem to be, but it's certainly unlike anything else on the frozen pizza shelf. Just make sure you pick off the mushrooms first.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Earth Grown Vegan Mozarella Style Sticks (Aldi)


Tastewise, they're good, but a snotlike texture knocks them back down to Earth.

Oh man, I don't know why I do these things...vegan mozzarella cheese sticks? Oh wait, excuse me...mozzarella “style” sticks, because there is, of course, no actual cheese in them. Why would I grab a package of these when regular cheese sticks exist? Those succulent, breaded beauties stuffed with delicious's enough to make my mouth water. And yet, here I find myself staring at a bag of cheese sticks, only with no actual cheese in them, that I myself purchased with the intent to try. The “why's” just keep slapping me in the face at every turn.

For $3.49, you get a bag containing roughly ten small mozzarella “style” sticks, which seem to be about half the size of mozzarella “actual” sticks. However, these do appear to be a little bit thicker, so that might even things out a little bit. At any rate, it's a price that's higher than most “normal” cheese sticks, but at about the right markup for what you would expect to pay for a vegan version of any product.

I have to say, right out of the bag these actually look pretty good. The breading has the same parsley, or basil flecks that are featured in some of the better mozzarella “actual” sticks that I've had, and that actually got me a little more excited to give these a try. Also cool: these take just 10 minutes in the oven (at 400 degrees fahrenheit), with no flipping required. That's pretty quick! 

Okay, maybe these won't suck after all.

After the ten minutes were up, I pulled them out of the oven, and noticed one had even “exploded”, leaking a white gooey substance that I wanted to believe was actual cheese, from its open cavity. The effect is actually pretty convincing, and I found my mouth was starting to water despite a voice in the very back of my head reassuring me that I was in for nothing other than severe disappointment. “But, it looks so real,” I stammered, trying to not only convince myself, but also the voice lodged in the nether regions of my brain. “So do holograms,” it retorted, in a response that was apt, but not nearly as intelligent as it thought it was. Still, my brain's nether regions had a matter how good these looked, there was no way they could touch the real thing.

And they don't. The star of the show, though, is the breading, which is appropriately crunchy, and tastes like the breading in just about every standard mozzarella “actual” stick out there. I have to admit, at the risk of sounding like a completely ignorant moron, that I have no idea if the typical cheese stick breading is already vegan...if so, that would explain why these taste so on-point. If not, then it's quite an impressive feat.

The same, however, cannot be said for the cheese, which, as expected, is the weakest point. However, the flavor isn't really its biggest offense: that's actually close enough to the “real thing” to earn some points from me, with a taste kind of akin to a white cheddar cheese byproduct—kind of like Kraft white cheddar cheese singles. I know, that's not really a taste you would equate with a $3.49 cheese stick—and it's not something that's going to fool a non-vegan person—but in the world of veganism, just the fact it slightly tastes like real cheese at all is quite a decent feat.

Instead, the most disappointing thing about the cheese is actually the texture: it's kind of slimy, like white snot. I mean, I don't expect the texture of a vegan product to be exact to the “real” thing, but this is almost off-puttingly...well, “off”. Did it have to be slimy? I really would have liked to have been in on tastings in the Earth Grown test kitchen to see what other potential textures there were. Sandpaper? Yes, take that one! Dry? Sure! I would imagine there would have been at least one or two other possibilities that were better than “slug”...and somehow, they decided to go with “slug”. 

Overall: 5.5/10. As someone who really has no interest in vegan products, nor any need to really get them, you can take my opinions with a grain of salt (and probably should). However, I found these to be a pretty decent knockoff of “actual” cheese sticks, with excellent breading that's very close to the real thing, and a cheese flavor that's passably realistic, although not one that will fool anyone. However, the whole facade is partially done in by the texture of the cheese, which is unappetizingly snot-like. I mean, I don't expect it to be as stringy as real cheese, nor did I require it to be the exact same texture, but of all the possibilities, I did not expect it to be slimy. It's not a big enough deal to ruin the entire experience, but it does take what was a surprisingly decent vegan alternative down a notch or two, and makes me second guess the idea of recommending it at all. Unless, of course, you have to eat these for some (likely medical) reason, in which case, they are probably your only option inside Aldi stores.

NOTE: Just to get a second opinion, I asked my wife to try one without giving any verbal or visual clues whatsoever as to what I thought about them (she wasn't even home at the time I cooked them). She took one bite, seemed to enjoy it for a second, then put the remaining cheese "style" stick back on the tray, slightly distorting her face in disgust. The word she used to describe it? "Slimy". She even said if the texture were different, she could have eaten them because the flavor is pretty good overall. So there you have it...opinion validated!

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Meijer Chocolate Fudge Toasted Tarts (Meijer)

Either Kroger's got me on a really good day, or these got me on a bad one. Or both. Or neither.

We took a look at Kroger’s version a couple of months ago, and that was actually when I first realized, at the ripe old age of 36, that I do not dislike chocolate flavored toaster pastries. That’s right: I never really had them as a kid, instead mostly sticking to the fruit flavors, and always just assumed that they would be gross. They weren’t, and now here we are again with another private label version, this time in the form of Meijer’s.

This one gets some good marks for texture: the brown-colored pastry—which seems to pack a slight amount of cocoa flavor, thus giving it some slight redeeming value over the bland “regular” flavored one—is very soft, almost giving the appearance of a freshly-baked product. We obviously know it’s not, but it’s appealing nonetheless. The hardened icing stretches mostly from one side of the pastry to the other, although I feel like there’s always a section of pastry that goes untouched…and it’s usually in one of the corners, where there’s also no filling, sometimes leading to dry bites of nothingness if you don’t properly plan the eating of your pastry (to be fair, though, that’s also an issue I’ve noticed in the name brand, so it’s not just limited to this one). Meanwhile, it’s topped off by the random bits of white shit on top that must be what, powdered sugar? Sugar crystals? I don’t get the point of them, but they’re in every fudge version, so whatever.

Flavorwise, it’s…decent, I suppose. I seem to remember at least more of an actual “cocoa” flavor in Kroger’s brand—here, the flavor is a straight ahead fake-as-hell chocolate that’s really not all that enjoyable. Actually, the more I taste it, the filling is kind of reminiscent of brownie batter, but with all of the best qualities removed; instead of the richness of actual batter, you get what’s essentially a brownie batter paste, which is about as appealing as it sounds. It's just a real cheapy, artificial cocoa that's high on sugar, but low on virtually everything else.

The icing on top delivers the usual bit of added sweetness, and an additional helping of artificial chocolate flavor, while those dumbass white things just sit there like idiots and really do nothing, except give the pastry a hint of white privilege. I was reminded of the chocolate inside the s’mores toaster tarts, which made me nauseous the last time I tried them; true to form, downing both pastries became tougher and tougher the farther I went along (my hunger won out, though; I was able to finish them).

Were the Kroger pastries really that much better, or did I just approach these on a bad day (or, alternatively, the Kroger ones on a good one)? I may never know, but these have kind of soured me on the whole idea of chocolate toaster tarts once again, ruining my short-lived acceptance of them, and reminded me why I veered away from them my whole childhood.

Overall: 4/10. These just did not sit well with me: the chocolate is incredibly fakey, reminding me of the same “chocolate” flavor inside the s’mores toaster tarts, and the cloying sweetness (and my general disinterest) seemed to grow with each passing bite. That’s somewhat of a shame, because the texture is pretty much on par with the national brand, but the taste lets it all down. Is Kroger’s version of this (which I actually liked) that much better, or did I just get these on a bad day (or theirs on a good one)? We may never know the answer, but as it stands, I’m not really too keen on eating these ever again.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Elevation Maxx Blueberry Protein Bar (Aldi)

Not sure how clean of an ingredient "natural flavors" are...

Well, another trip to Aldi, and yet another different kind of protein bar that I get to try! I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again: It’s really weird that they have so many different kinds of protein bars, yet only one kind and size of ketchup. Why not just have a small handful of different options available as part of their permanent inventory, and then switch things up by having a different “Special Buy” protein product every week or every other week? I don’t know, just seems like a waste of space, but they must be selling pretty well (and they do have their own dedicated endcap), so what do I know?

This time, we have a blueberry bar, as part of Elevation’s Maxx line. What is the Maxx line, you may ask, and how does it differ from the other options available on the “Elevation” endcap? Fuck if I know. Once again, I’ll re-mention something I’ve already harped on in a previous post, and probably almost verbatim: staying on the “too many options” theme, a lot of these bars all seem to serve the same basic function: delivering extra protein. Why do we need six different lines, in different product sizes, in different counts, and all at different prices? Again, I’m sure the grocer who’s been in business for several decades probably know a bit more specifics about their decision than me, but I can still be irked if I want to be.

Anyway, I picked this one up on a whim, and that “whim” was encouraged, at least partially, by the brand new packaging that Elevation seems to be undertaking. Whereas the older boxes had a product photo and accompanying text that tried to make things feel more upscale (and that tried to make them look like competitor products), this one features a simple blue box, with a product picture on it (in the wrapping), and white text. It’s a very simple design, and while I can’t say for sure if it has the “upscale” appeal that they’re going for, it’s certainly more modern and feels more “hip” and “updated” than the previous packaging.

Well, enough with the formalities…let’s finally dig right in here, shall we?

I’m starting to feel like an old man, because I thought for sure I’d had these before (or something like them), but just taking them out of the wrapper, and I’m positive I haven’t. The bars are pretty thin, and look somewhat gross, with dried blueberries and nuts popping up visibly on the surface. The rest is just a non-descript mess of a brownish substance…this can’t possibly end well, but against my own will, I force myself to take a bite anyway.

These bars are pretty good size.

Holy hell, these are actually good! The “non-descript” remainder of the bar is very soft and chewy…the taste reminds me of the “fruit strips” that Aldi used to sell (and maybe still does), where fruit is basically smashed down into a thin, chewy strip. Given the appearance, I expected the blueberry flavor to be very straightforward, unsweetened, and maybe even virtually non-existent, but it’s surprisingly sweet, and pretty strong.

“Almost too strong…” I thought to myself…this does not seem like an “all-natural” bar. And despite the bar’s claims that there are only “8 clean ingredients”, all it takes is a quick glance of the packaging to realize exactly what I had suspected: natural flavors are one of the “clean” ingredients. While I wouldn’t really consider them “dangerous” (they are in virtually everything, after all), I’m also not sure that I would really consider them “clean”. Even though their inclusion here clearly benefits my own tastebuds, I still feel like it’s a little misleading on their part.

Outside of the flavor boost, the rest of the ingredients are pretty legit: dates, egg whites, almonds, cashew butter, dehydrated blueberries, pecans, and peanut butter all around out the list. Not bad at all, I would say.

The last variable is the price: and once again, it’s pretty expensive, although it’s one of the least pricy options available in the Elevation line. Each four-count box is $3.49, which puts them a little under $1 per 1.83 oz. bar. Again, keep in mind that you're only getting 4 bars for the price...with so many options in Elevation's growing line of bars (and shakes, and powders, etc.), that's one thing that can be easy to overlook. 

Overall: 7.5/10. First off, despite being marketed as a "healthy", all natural bar, note the inclusion of "natural flavors", which is something I wouldn't really consider to be "natural"...but hey, maybe that's just me. Beyond that, this bar is fantastic, with a strong blueberry flavor (probably thanks to the "natural" flavoring), a good amount of protein, and a pretty brief ingredient list. One other drawback: there are only four bars per $3.49 pack. Again, this is a reasonable price (and reasonable value) when compared to Elevation's other offerings, but just keep in mind that you're only getting four bars for the price (instead of the five or six found in other Elevation products). Outside of these small issues, these far exceeded my expectations in terms of taste, and manages to be one of the Elevation products I would gladly buy again.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Pidoko Kids Power Burst Speed Break Apart Cars (Amazon)

Absolute garbage.

As I established in an earlier post, our four-year-old son has a fascination with car crashes, and watching cars break apart. We fed that interest with “computer car crash” videos (movies and clips made with the computer program and crash test videos (yes, the ones used to rate cars on their safety), but of course he eventually wanted cars that would do it in “real life”. Rather than head to the junkyard to buy a bunch of “beater” cars that we could destroy, I decided to do it the safer way, and find toys that we could break apart.

There really aren’t too many options for what we were looking for, but of course those lovely Chinese folk had a couple options. I purchased the version from Chuchik, simply because they were cheaper—after about a month of remaining obsessed with these cars (to the extent that he would actually throw fits when staying at his grandmother’s house, wanting to come home just so he could play with them), my own mother decided to buy some to keep at her house. Lo and behold, she ended up buying these cars from Podoko, which are really the only other option for authentic, “break apart” cars (at least as far as Amazon is concerned).

One thing you got to give Podoko: these look really cool. There are some really cool designs—like skulls—that really help to give each of the six included cars their own “personality”. Even better: all of the pieces can be used on any car, allowing you to “mix and match” the pieces to create your own “Frankencar”. It’s really a cool idea, and having so many cars (each with their own design) really gives you dozens upon dozens of combinations and possibilities for each vehicle. Kids who are creative and crafty, who aren’t even into the crashing aspects, could probably keep themselves entertained just seeing what sorts of cool cars they can make using all of the available parts.

At least, in theory, because looks are about the only thing these cars have going for them. Putting them together is a complete chore. And even when you do manage to get the cars “together”—which pretty much just means getting them in “well enough” so that they don’t just pop apart while you’re putting them together—the cars still look all disjointed, with small, but noticeable, gaps in between each part.

At least they look cool.

And yes, we turned the switch to “off” so that the front bumper (which is what triggers the “crash” mechanism) wouldn’t be activated while we were assembling them. (You can also keep this setting locked to play with them as normal wind-up cars, for kids who aren’t really interested in the crashing aspect.) And yes, we read the instructions, following them step-by-step until it was completely clear that not even the manufacturer is aware of a fool-proof way to assemble these. In fact, the few times I did manage to get one assembled (only to have my impatient son destroy it less than five seconds later, thus destroying whatever small sense of semi-accomplishment I managed to muster), it was entirely by improvisation; I basically forced the pieces in, to the extent that I was initially afraid I was going to break it (by that point, I already didn’t give a shit if I did).

There is simply no reliable (and efficient) way to put these together. And when you have a child clamoring for his toy, you know time is of the essence. My parents tried for a long time before me, and just thought it was a matter of inexperience—even my wife (who’s better at making things than I am) couldn’t figure out a good method for putting them together. Even more frustrating is that, before you do get everything to stay in place, chances are good that the whole thing will fall apart once or twice before that happens, filling you full of blood-burning rage. 

In the end, this is one time where I’m grateful that my cheapness actually ended up getting me a better product, because at nearly $30, these are a complete rip-off. Which is precisely why they ended up in the trash the same day my parents gave them to me (and at their insistence…they didn’t want to see these things ever again, either).

Overall: 1/10. They look pretty cool, and despite my initial impressions, actually seem to be sturdier than I initially thought. However, all plusses are limited to physical appearance, because in terms of actual execution, these cars are complete and utter junk. Just complete shit. Even for an adult, putting them together becomes an almost psychological torture test, with the included instructions not helping one single bit. The few times I did manage to get one together, I improvised my own way, basically forcing parts in until they finally stayed. Even then, there were still noticeable gaps between each piece, making them look unprofessional and lopsided, and making the effort just seem even less worth it than it already was. (Ditto that for every time our son destroyed one within ten seconds of me finally getting one together after five minutes, and then just impatiently sat waiting for me to get it back together again.) They’re also somewhat a gyp, with a six-pack of cars costing around $30. $6 a car wouldn’t be all that bad if they worked, but considering they don’t? It feels like little more than a scam. The idea is cool, but the execution is abysmal, and the experience of trying to assemble them is absolutely rage-inducing…these would make a great test for anger management and/or psychological studies.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Chuchik Toys Blaster Cars Break-Apart Crash Cars (Amazon)

NOTE: This product was reviewed on our radio show! If you'd rather, listen here.
If you're looking for toy cars that break apart upon impact, this should be your only option.

Through the first two or so years, our son was pretty much the poster child of the perfect baby/toddler: he didn't really fuss much (unless he was hungry or tired, of course); he picked up on things (especially words) rather quickly; and he was incredibly calm with toys. When we would visit his cousin (who is three months younger than him), we would be shocked at how ridiculously over-the-top that kid was, as he was loud, obnoxious, and rough on...well, everything. Our child, in comparison, never really crashed cars, and would even cry sometimes if he felt he was accidentally too aggressive with one of his toys, acting as if he “hurt” it. (In actuality, his cousin was actually just a typical kid; we were just blessed to have a much less temperamental one.) Everyone said to prepare for the terrible twos, but we breezed through those with no problems...our lives seemed like the equivalent of the characters inside a Hallmark Christmas movie.

Then came the threes—and that's when we learned the absolute truth in the saying “too good to be true”: All of that sweet-natured temperament went out the window, and we were subjected to the same boundless energy, neverending questions, incoherent blabbering, temper tantrums, and messes that every other parent experiences. And that is also around the time that he became fascinated with car crashes.

No, of course we didn't subject our child to images and videos of actual car crashes—we're not that morbid or heartless—but one day during rest time, he requested a video of two cars crashing into each other. I had no idea how I would find a video that would innocently appeal to that request, but I nevertheless searched YouTube for car crashes—and discovered crash tests. You know, the carefully constructed ones that auto manufacturer's use to determine the safety of their vehicles. He was enthralled, and watched hours upon hours (over the course of several months, mind you) of such videos. 

When he got bored with that, we moved onto “computer car crashes”, which were sometimes elaborate, sometimes silly crashes created with a computer program ( Drive) in which cars made up of computer graphics would realistically crumple, smash, and break after running into walls, or falling off cliffs, or smashing into other cars. Yes, my friends, he officially crossed the threshold into a “normal” boy child.

One day while we were running some toy cars into each other over and over again, he asked me if there were some magnet cars that would break apart once you crashed them. That was a pretty intriguing idea, and something I had actually been meaning to look into. A search of Amazon yielded only two results for "cars that break apart" (or whatever I searched for), and Chuchik Toys Blaster Cars where one of them. I was actually going to splurge for the second option (which I will cover in a separate review), but a lack of funds (it was a couple of days after Christmas, which was responsible for depleting our account) forced me into settling for Chuchik Toys' Blaster Cars, which come bundled in packs of three, for the low price of $9.97 (a price that was a third cheaper than the other option, which does at least come with six cars). 

Chuchik's toy cars are bundled in packs of three, consisting of a red, blue, and green car. There are some basic white designs etched into the parts...visually, they aren't really much to look at (although the transparent effect is kind of cool, and gives them almost a neon glow). The plastic of each part is thin and feels pretty cheap. I honestly wasn't expecting these to last a week. Also included in the package, beyond the five pieces per car (two doors, hood, back, and roof), are some extra accessories, like a spoiler and engine, that can be attached to the finished car. These pieces are also pretty sturdy, but are mainly included just to make the crashes more spectacular, giving you more parts that can fly every which way after a crash. The effect is pretty neat (although some parts, like the spoiler, seem to fall out at the slightest touch, while others, like the motor, rarely seemed to fall off after a crash at all), but also just lead to greater odds of losing pieces. Thankfully, he didn't really care about these all that much, so we rarely used them.

As for how they work, magnets don't factor in at all: there's a plastic base that the wheels are attached to, and all of the pieces snap into that. When the car's bumper runs into something, it basically “releases” the base, causing it to shift backward, which then ejects all of the pieces. It's a much more elaborate setup than the one I had in mind, and it works really well. Piecing them together (with the included instructions) takes a little getting used to at first (they have to be put together in a certain order), but with a little bit of patience, becomes much easier with practice...before I knew it, I was putting them together in seconds. I panicked when I realized we were gypped a bracket, only receiving two in the package, because I thought they were required while assembling the car, so that it didn't break apart while you were snapping the pieces into place. Thankfully, they can be put together just as easily without them. 

If your child isn't too keen on watching them break apart, each car also has a little bracket that snaps into the bottom of the car. This locks out their breaking function, so that they work more like “regular” wind-up cars; thus, they don't break upon impact. We never used these at all in play, but I tested it out a couple of times and it seemed to work as advertised, as it ran into a wall without breaking apart. If you just want a wind-up car, I'm sure there are better, cheaper options out there, but it's nice for houses with multiple kids who might have different preferences on how best to play with their toys. Or for temperamental children who like to break things one moment, and then pretend like they are gentle little creatures the next. 

The cool thing about these kinds of cars is that, since they all follow the same basic design, each of the parts can be mixed and matched, which allows kids (or in our case, me, because he refused to learn how to put them all the way together) to put the cars together any way they want. So you can use a red hood with a blue roof and green doors, etc...there are a lot of possible options on how to design your car, and it can lead to some pretty neat combinations.

Honestly, I've put these things together at least a hundred times (probably each), within about a month of purchase, and they all still work just as they did out of the box. None of the plastic pieces have chipped or cracked, either, which still shocks me. I would consider them “durable” overall, but keep in mind that I still have my reservations about that: a drop to hard pavement, or repeated impacts to areas that don't trigger the "crash" mechanism would probably damage these a lot quicker. In fact, our son actually did end up smacking it against our hardwood floor at an odd angle recently, which caused the whole base to come apart, along with the colored bumper (which isn't supposed to come off at all). In this scenario, I was impressed with how easy it was to fix it (the two bottom parts of the base snap together, the bumper slid right back on - making me wonder why they can't be swapped out anyway - and the spring just slides right in) and get it back up and running like normal. However, if it had been on pavement, or from higher up, I could easily see them breaking to the point of no return.

At any rate, if you're looking for a toy car that breaks apart upon impact, these should be the ones you get.

Overall: 8/10. I have to say I'm impressed with these cars overall, especially considering their low price point ($9.97 for three cars, or $3.32 per car). The base and plastic pieces initially felt pretty cheap to me, but each one has withstood over 100 crashes (estimate), with no permanent issues. The fact that the crashing mechanism can be blocked, allowing use as “normal” wind-up cars, is also a plus, and really adds some flexibility to the toy, depending on the child's mood. Arguably the worst part for me—which is certainly unavoidable for a toy meant to launch parts everywhere - is the amount of time you have to spend looking for parts after some crashes, especially if your son is prone to not paying attention where the pieces go after crashing them. But that's just a part of toys in general, and is certainly not exclusive to these. I would highly recommend these...a recommendation that comes even stronger when I tried the competition...