Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Clancy's Ranch Veggie Straws (Aldi)

Not quite as good as "the real thing", but quite good.

I don’t always try the national brand version of these items before trying Aldi’s version—in fact, there’s probably a good many products on here that I’ve never even tried the version Aldi is knocking off. This would definitely be true for these vegetable straws had my in-laws not packed them as a snack for a long trip a few years back…I instantly fell in love with the seasoned ranch straws—and then promptly forgot all about them.

Flash-forward a few years, and we saw them in private label form at our local Aldi. I believe they used to be a special buy, but have now become part of the store’s growing inventory—a good thing, considering these are one of the few things our son will voluntarily eat. So we make sure to keep these on hand as much as possible. Like father, like son, eh?

The shape is interesting, more or less earning its “straw” moniker; unlike other crunchy snacks, these are elongated tunnels of potato chip-like goodness. To keep up with the “veggie-based chip” cliche, these come in three different assorted colors: yellow, green, and orange. Does having multiple colors make people think they are healthier for them than they actually are? I mean, I certainly don’t equate orange with a carrot, if that’s what they’re going after—at any rate, I guess it provides some variance over having the same boring color throughout the bag.

Each straw does provide a satisfying level of crunch, yet they also feel “light” at the same time…it’s a rather weird texture that most people who have tried them will know what I’m talking about. It’s loud and very crunchy, not the type of snack you’d want to sneak in to a movie theater, but while they might have a loud bark, they actually break apart quite easily once you start chewing them. It’s a really confusing texture, but one that’s certainly different from a potato chip and that is somehow inviting.

The taste is pretty good, with a tangy ranch that’s offered in semi-abundance; in fact, I would almost peg this as a buttermilk ranch, as there’s really no counterbalance to the tang. This is probably its biggest downfall, as it would have been a lot more addicting had they balanced out the ranch flavor a little bit better; as it stands though, they are very delicious and somewhat hard to put down. It’s been years since I’ve had the national brand, but from what I remember, Aldi’s version has less seasoning and less overall flavor. Still, that can kind of be a good thing, as the lightness of the flavor pairs well with the lightness in texture, making you think you’re eating something that’s better for you than it actually is.

On to the proposition of value: each 7 oz. bag retails for $2.15, much higher than the average offering from Clancy’s, but decent savings over the name brand (which typically retail for around $2.89 per six oz. bag). It doesn’t offer as much savings as some other items in the chip department, but the flavor is “close enough” to justify switching to Clancy’s version if you’re looking to save some money.

And in this uncertain day and age, who isn’t?

Overall: 7.5/10. These are a tasty treat for those looking for a delicious salty snack to have on hand. I do think the ranch flavor could be improved, as it has a strong tang that isn’t really counterbalanced by anything else, making it more of a buttermilk ranch than “regular”, but outside of that they are good enough. A little more expensive than the typical item from Clancy’s, but still offers enough savings to justify a switch over the name brand, and an addicting texture that makes them hard to put down. It might not be an exact duplicate, but it offers up enough differences to stand out on its own.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

RE-REVIEW: Nature's Nectar Organic Raspberry Blend Cold Pressed Juice (Aldi)

NOTE: This is a complete re-review of an item I looked at previously. Since the review was posted in November, I tried the remaining two flavors in Nature's Nectars' Cold Pressed Juice series, and thus, am updating this review to reflect that added context. The previous review will remain briefly for reference.

This is pretty delicious, but at a slight cost.

I was in a bind…my mouth was on fire from eating spicy Chinese food and the last bit of milk in our fridge was reserved for our son, who downs it like it’s his lifeblood. Out of every other option (save for water, which I had already drank too much of that day), my eyes landed on a bottle of Nature’s Nectar Raspberry Blend Cold Pressed Juice, which I had somehow forgotten all about. I cracked it open, and chugged it down.

I have previously reviewed both of their other flavors, and was kind of mixed on both of them: the green blend was good, but the veggie flavors made you feel like they were trying too hard to make you think it was healthy; the blackberry blend was shockingly grainy and a little too tart for my tastes (but mostly too grainy).

For those of you who like your juice to taste (and feel) like juice, I’m happy to say this is the best option out of the three varieties, as this just tastes like straight-up raspberry juice, more or less. To be clear, it’s not: on top of the titular flavor, which as actually served up in puree form, there’s also juices of pomegranate and cherry blended in, but the raspberry flavor shines through in every swig. Also, despite the addition of “puree” (which can sometimes thicken things up a bit too much), this one is definitely closer to a “juice” than a “smoothie” in terms of texture, making it an enjoyable drinking experience that requires no chewing.

I mentioned how the success of this line would depend on how Nature's Nectar catered to both cold pressed juice connoisseurs--who usually like theirs freshly squeezed and not in mass-produced, shelf stable bottles—and those new to the idea, who might be put off by the...earthier tastes of some of the more extreme options out there. This one, in my opinion, strikes that balance the best, by offering seasoned cold pressers a minimal amount of ingredients, while maintaining a delicious flavor that will appeal to virtually any fan of raspberries.

All that's left is the price: an 11.2 oz. bottle retails for $1.99, same as all the others in the line. Is it worth it to you to get what amounts to little more than raspberry juice for that cost? For me, it's not an enticing enough proposition for me to get it all the time, but it's definitely the one I'm most likely to grab again when I want a break from their normal juices. It offers up a delicious flavor and the benefits of cold pressed juice, but for a reasonable price.

Overall: 7/10 (+1 from original review). The most “juice-like” of Nature’s Nectar’s cold pressed offerings, this one serves up the nice, tart taste of raspberry in spades. It's delicious, but at the same time, the flavor really does little to suggest a “cold pressed” juice, making it feel more or less like a $2 bottle of raspberry juice. Still, it's the most straightforward and immediately accessible flavor in their cold pressed line and one that should strike a chord with both “experienced” cold pressers, as well as those new to the whole idea, and thus comes with a recommendation from me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Kroger Cinnamon Applesauce (Individual Cups) (Kroger)


A pretty solid cinnamon applesauce.

Applesauce is always good: it works in a variety of situations, from when you’re sick and need something light, to when you just want something to go along with your ham sandwich. It also has a nice texture, capable of being guzzled down when you don’t have utensils, or eaten with a spoon—hell, if you’re in enough of a bind, it’s generally thick enough that you can even use a fork if you find yourself in a situation where you have nothing else (I know this one from experience).

Cinnamon applesauce, on the other hand, takes things to a whole ‘nother level. Of course, it adds another layer of sweetness—unnecessary by some people’s accounts no doubt—but also ups the ante in terms of pure flavor. Everyone knows that baked apples (the ones with cinnamon sugar on top) are perfect, so that’s the whole idea here, carried over into applesauce form. The end result is hard to mess up.

So hard, in fact, that not even Kroger can fuck it up: this is some good cinnamon applesauce, just as virtually every version is good. As I mentioned, there’s quite a bit of sweetness here, but thankfully it’s still the apples that shine through front and center—the cinnamon skirts through a second or so later, noticeably hitting the tastebuds, although not as strongly as some, and not as much as you might think. It almost comes off as a secondary flavor in the peripheral tastebuds; almost subtle in a way, if cinnamon could be all that subtle in anything at all.

I have to say that I’m pretty impressed here: it’s a very flavorful applesauce that doesn’t break any new ground, but does what it’s supposed to do and does it well.  Value is actually pretty solid, with a $1.39 asking price for six 4 oz. cups, making it an even better deal than Walmart’s (by a mere $.04) when both are not on sale.

It’s not very often that I like anything from Kroger, but this is probably one of the better buys from within their four shitty walls.

Overall: 8/10. A great example of cinnamon applesauce, and one that’s more affordable than other store brands? Wow, Kroger actually manages to do something right for once here. The cinnamon and apple are perfectly balanced to create a deliciously sweet flavor combination where the apples are still the star of the show. There’s really nothing fanciful or unique here, but it’s still executed pretty well, while the individual cups make this a great idea for taking on the go, or packing in school lunches. While I definitely wouldn’t go out of my way to get these at Kroger, this is one of the few things I wouldn’t hesitate to get here, should my worst nightmare come true of finding myself inside one of their stores.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Kroger Apple & Cinnamon Instant Oatmeal Cups (Kroger)


These are pretty damn tasty.

What’s better than oatmeal out of packets? Oatmeal out of premade cups! Actually, it’s not better at all, considering each cup costs about the same as an entire box of oatmeal packets, but we like to keep a couple of these on hand, as oatmeal is one of the few things our three-year-old son will willingly eat. And when he gets finicky, prepwork couldn’t be any easier: fill water up to the fill line in the cup, microwave for 45 seconds, let sit for about a minute, put in the freezer or fridge for a few minutes (if you’re our son, who won’t eat hot stuff), and that’s it! Your oatmeal is ready to go.

I have to say, this is pretty fantastic, for what it is. There’s ample amounts of cinnamon, which pairs up very well with the main star of the show: the apple. Spread throughout, in instant oatmeal fashion, is a generous amount of real apple chunks, which help add some texture to the otherwise slimy oat puddle. It’s a classic take on the well-known combination of apples and cinnamon, but with a perfect balance of both that should win over most people; to wit, my wife doesn’t have nearly the palate for sweet stuff that I have, but she enjoys this oatmeal a lot, too.

When these first came out, I remember being disgusted that each one sold for over $1, which is a disgusting markup on something that probably costs mere pennies to produce. Well now I’m glad to report that they are $.99 each, even at a scammy place like Kroger! It’s still too high, but there always has to be a “convenience charge” for things that make your life easier, and considering this saves you a dirty bowl, and the act of pouring oatmeal and water into a container, I suppose that is a fair trade-off every once in a while. Besides, these seem to cool down quicker in the fridge than ceramic or glass bowls, and when a hungry (or tired) kid who won't eat anything above "slightly warm" on the heat scale is screaming for his oatmeal to be cooled down and ready, every second counts.

All in all, these pack in some great flavor, and are perfect to have on hand for whenever we run out of the packets, or just something that can be thrown together with minimal fuss. 

Overall: 9/10. This is a fantastic combination of apples and cinnamon that leans more on the sweet side, but shouldn’t go overboard for most. The classic texture of oatmeal is here in cup form, along with a hearty helping of dried apples that help to give it a more interesting texture beyond the standard sliminess of oatmeal. Meanwhile, the $1 price tag—while high considering you can get a whole box of oatmeal packets for less than $1 more—is fairly reasonable given the added convenience of making everything in the cup. These are perfect for on-the-go snacking, and are something we always tend to keep in our pantry for oatmeal emergencies, if nothing else.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Kroger Slim Rite Vanilla Meal Replacement Shake (Kroger)

I suppose it's good if you like drinking half-and-half.

Well, earlier this month we took a look at Kroger's chocolate meal replacement powder, so now it only makes sense that we would take a look at the other variety they offer: vanilla. (Actually, I typically wouldn't do that, as vanilla isn't my favorite standalone flavor, but my wife happened to already have some in the pantry, so that's why it makes sense.)

Like the chocolate, this powder comes in a rather large 13 oz. tub, good for “about 14 servings”. That certainly isn't bad for $3, which is its normal retail price, especially since the individual bottles of weight loss shake often go for around $1 per bottle, if not more. Also included in the tub: a plastic scoop. Sure, these are frequently included in dieting powders, but it's not something I take for granted, so I certainly appreciate its inclusion here. Also appreciated is the simple prep: add a rounded scoop to 8 oz. of milk, mix it up, and you're good to go.

The one thing I really hated about the otherwise good chocolate powder was that, no matter how much I mixed it, there was always a large collection of powder that accumulated at the top. At first, I thought it was because I put too much powder in (despite following the simple instructions), but I found that no matter how little I put in, it still happened; when it also happened to my wife, that's when I knew it was just a product flaw. That was definitely a frustrating issue when the shake barely tasted like chocolate, yet had enough sitting at the top to properly flavor it; also frustrating when the final drinks of every serving were just large clumps of wet, unmixed powder.

The vanilla version, thankfully, fixes that issue: all of it seemed to mix in pretty quickly, with no large clumps left behind. The consistency is about what you would expect from a powder: slightly thicker than a regular liquid, but not at all something I would typically categorize as a “shake”. Unfortunately, it offsets that by falling a little bit short in the taste department.

For starters, it's very sweet—I would say it comes off as even sweeter than the chocolate—and reminds me a lot of half-and-half, in both taste and appearance. I was one of those kids that liked to drink the little single-serve half-and-half cups every once in a while (and, come to think of it, even really enjoyed the French vanilla flavored ones), but the difference is that those were in little cups—two or three and I had my fill. Here, in much larger 8 oz. servings, it just doesn't have the same appeal. Now, the flavor isn't nearly as strong as those—otherwise I would have gotten sick a couple drinks in—but it's along those same lines, so it's the rather unfortunate flavor profile you can expect.

Also a little more off-putting here: there's that same “wooden” aftertaste that I also got with the chocolate version. Again, it's not just relegated to Kroger's powders, because I've gotten similar aftertastes with other mixes, but I find it to be more noticeable and annoying with the lighter, less familiar vanilla flavor. But in case it's just me, it's literally a weird, “pulpy” (for lack of a better term) that hits you as you drink it, then quickly disappears without leaving much of an aftertaste. I'm sure it has something to do with the fact it's in powdered form, as I don't recall that taste appearing in the pre-bottled, ready-to-drink shakes, but I do notice it even in most chocolate milk mixes.

At any rate, the whole 14 serving tub typically costs just $2.99 in our market, making it a great cost-effective alternative to the aforementioned bottles, which often go for $1 or more, per bottle. That makes it a great value compared to those, with the only caveat that you have to make it yourself, something so easy even I can do it without issue. That means the value is here in spades; personally, though, I would stick to the chocolate variety.

Overall: 5.5/10. I'm not typically a huge fan of French vanilla flavors, and this one does nothing to change that outlook, offering up a taste that's strongly reminiscent of vanilla half-and-half. It does go down pretty smooth, though, thanks to its thin texture, and isn't very strong, so despite that description, isn't nearly as gross or undrinkable as it could have been. Thankfully, the powder seems to mix in to the milk a lot better than the chocolate did, leaving no large, unmixable clumps at the top that overwhelm the final couple of drinks—that is a huge win. Ditto that for the price, which is just $2.99 for a 14 serving, 13 oz. tub (with included measuring scoop!) Personally, I would stick to the chocolate if I ever grabbed this again in the future, but for fans of vanilla, this one certainly delivers enough value to make it worth a look.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Bake Shop Bakery Apple Cider Donuts (Aldi)



Where have I been all these years? Well, I could probably ask that about any number of things, but this time, it’s in reference to how I had never tried an apple cider donut up until five days ago. It was from a national brand snack company that starts with an “E”, and that doesn’t seem to really get as much attention as “Small Deborah” or “The ____ with the Mostest”. Even though they’re mass-produced, they were way better than anyone in the family were expecting them to be—it only took us three days (if that) to polish off all 8 donuts in the pack.

So then imagine my excitement when I remembered seeing a similar product in Aldi’s ad. I was already headed there to do some shopping, and figured I’d just add a box of the donuts to my list, if they were still available. It took me a few frustrating seconds, but I finally tracked them down to their location right in front of my face.

For $3.49, you get six donuts. Unlike the national brand ones we tried, these are less uniform—they’re very similar in size, but each one has slight differences, apparently to make them appear more homemade and thus, deserving of the rather high price tag. They also have the appearance of a sour cream donut, rather than the soft cake donut appearance of the national brand. All it took was one little bite to know that they were not at all what I was expecting, a notion that my wife seconded just a shortwhile later when she registered a look of disgust on her face shortly after trying a bite.

These things are hard. Like, donut sitting out in open air for three days hard. Well, maybe not quite that hard, but certainly not the soft consistency that we were expecting. I guess I’m just a little confused on why these would be made into sour cream donuts, because the middle is also fairly dry—virtually nothing about this experience begs the consumer to take even one bite, let alone go back for more.

The flavor is okay, but even that manages to disappoint, with the taste of cinnamon sugar overwhelming everything else. I’m down for cinnamon in all instances, but when you have an “apple cider” donut, even I must admit that apples should take center stage; here, they do not, registering only as a secondary flavor once your mouth has gotten acclimated to the sugar rush. That’s not to say the taste is all that bad—it’s not nearly the misfire that the texture is—but it’s yet another way these things would barely be worth $2.49, let alone the actual asking price which, let me remind you, is a whole dollar more.

On the one hand, I’m sure the level of disappointment we felt was directly due to trying a much better tasting donut just a couple days before; on the other hand, I’m glad it worked out that way, so that we couldn’t possibly have been tricked into thinking this was a good example of an apple cider donut.

Overall: 3/10. Well this one largely misses the mark in just about every conceivable category, offering up an unappetizing, hard texture; a disappointing flavor that focuses more on cinnamon than apple; and all at a price tag that suggests a premium product ($3.49 for a mere six donuts). This is a purchase we won’t be revisiting, well…ever, unless they change their formula. You won't hear me say this very often, but stick to the national brand cake donuts on this one...you'll save money, while getting a much tastier product.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Elevation (by Millville) Cookie Dough Protein Nutrition Bars (Aldi)

An underwhelming bar at a somewhat attractive price.

Well, another week, and the need for another work snack. I won't bore you with details, but yes I will: I don't get a paid break at work anymore, and rather than spend another half hour there on an unpaid lunch, I'd rather get the hell out as early as possible. It's nice for family time, but not so great for my diet, where I don't get to eat my first full meal until after 1 p.m. However, I do try to remember to bring some type of snack to eat “illegally”--it just has to be portable and something I can easily hide. And that's where breakfast and snack bars frequently fit in.

I've liked most of Elevation's other offerings (their chocolate shake is pretty stellar, as is their chocolate mint bar), so I figured I'd keep going down the Elevation rabbit hole by grabbing a pack of Cookie Dough Protein Energy Bars. Part of it was because I was interested in how a cookie dough bar would taste (it had been years since I had one), and because at $4.59, it was one of the most affordable choices on the Elevation endcap.

My first reaction: these bars are smaller than they look—the packaging looks like a full size bar, but when you pull this thing out, it only takes up half the wrapper. Maybe it's a little wider than other bars and it all evens out, but it's a weird optical illusion that kind of made me feel like I was getting gypped the first time (although it could also explain why these are a little cheaper than others).

The texture here is grainier than the other bars I've tried in their line. Maybe it’s because they’re going for the same feel as soft cookie dough, but I can’t stand it—it comes off a little…sandy, and even when there’s no grain, it’s just too soft. Poking through to add some kind of variance to the surface are the chocolate chips, which are in pretty good abundance and do a good job of adding some “crunch” completely lacking from the otherwise sponge-soft texture.

Honestly, the texture is what does these in for me: the more of them I eat, the less and less I like them. I'm not usually one of those people that get creeped out by most textures, but for some reason the softness of this one just really gets to me, and makes these bars very unappetizing. Maybe I'll try refrigerating them first, just so that I get a harder center, but even then I imagine the graininess would still be intact, and probably even more noticeable. Eh...these aren't my favorite bars, and not by a long shot.

The flavor is okay, but also nothing at all like actual cookie dough…it’s just kind of a miscellaneous taste that feels like they threw a bunch of random things together, and then based the name of the bar around their mysterious creation. In other words, I suppose it’s kind of close to cookie dough, but not something I’d probably be able to peg with no advanced flavor notice, mainly because it doesn't really taste a thing like cookie dough. The chocolate coating is good, but if you’ve ever had another bar in the Elevation line, it should seem familiar to you, as I'm pretty sure they just use the same chocolate coating across the board for all of their products.

And that really makes it just feel like déjà vu: a lot of their bars are starting to taste very similar to one another, now that I’ve tried a few, because of that same chocolate coating that they use for every single one. Even the middles don’t have much variance: there’s the brownish “putty” like we get here with this one, or the chewy “crisped rice” style like we get with the chocolate mint bar, and those are about the only two options (they do have a harder “fruit and grain” bar available at the checkout counter that's completely different, but I'm not sure if that's even available in multi-packs).

Which brings me to another issue I have with the line—and it might just be me since I’m not really well-versed in the world of health bars—but why are there so goddamned many choices? For a place that prides itself on not giving consumers many options, the fact there are no fewer than 15 different health bars just seems kind of odd to me. And what the hell are the differences between them all? I’m sure there are subtle nuances, but most of them have the same basic functions: added protein, and meal replacement for dieters. So why do we need all these choices and varying price ranges for what appear to be the same basic product? I get everyone seems to be more health-conscious these days, but it just seems kind of pointless to me that Elevation products fill an entire endcap, while there are plenty of other product lines that deserve an expansion instead. 

This is one of the more affordable bar options in the Elevation line, but even taking that factoid into consideration, it's not one I'd ever really be interested in revisiting.

Overall: 4/10. The $4.59 retail price (for six bars) is pretty tempting, but it's done in by a terribly soft interior that tastes nothing like cookie dough as it also throws in an off-putting amount of graininess. The little chocolate chip pieces and exterior chocolate coating do their best to overcome the texture issues, but it proves to be too much: paired up with the uninspiring and fakey “cookie dough” taste, this is an underwhelming bar at a somewhat attractive price.