Saturday, February 8, 2020

Specially Selected Truffle Mac & Cheese Bites (Aldi)

I'm a fan of fried mac n' cheese, but those flavors usually don't translate very well to frozen in point, Aldi's own Appetito's brand bites which, as you can tell from my review, leave a lot to be desired, despite an alluringly-affordable price tag.

Even though I look at the ads every week, I'm pretty sure Specially Selected's Truffle Macaroni and Cheese Balls snuck under my radar, until I happened to see them inside the freezer at Aldi during a quick shopping trip. They also offer a mushroom arancini variety, and while those would probably be good, my wife isn't too keen on mushrooms; and from the way I had to rummage through a couple layers of bags to find this truffle kind, it seems she's not the only one to feel that way. (I took that as a sign that I made the right choice.)

Prepwork is simple: toss these onto a baking sheet, and cook for 12 minutes at 425 degrees—that's it. There's no flipping required (though you probably could at the midway point), and the breaded spheres come out nice and hot, with the exterior getting enticingly crispy. A bag of eight medium-sized bites retails for $2.99, which is kind of high, but the texture certainly works in its favor: these could be served as an appetizer in a restaurant, where it would no doubt cost $8 or $9 for a similar-sized serving. Besides, you can usually expect a higher price for their "Specially Selected" line, which at least are made to look more premium than many of their other lines. At any rate, we were certainly eager to dig in.

In a word, this flavor is...intense. It starts off innocently enough, with the crunchy outer layer giving way to what you think is going to be a light cheddar flavor—until what I presume to be the “truffle” kicks in, offering up a complete garlic-style kick in the tastebuds. Seriously, my wife and I were caught completely off guard the first's like an assault in your mouth!

Once the shock dies down, and the flavor becomes's really not quite as great. It's almost too much flavor, and this is coming from someone who's typically a big fan of garlic flavor profiles. The truffle flavor overwhelms everything else to where it essentially becomes “truffle balls”, with the macaroni only providing texture, and little else. What makes this even more of a bummer, is that the taste before the truffle comes in and attempts to obliterate your tongue and surrounding areas, actually hints at something that could be good on its own. The cheese is a little light, but with a boost of some added cheeses rather than the overload that we get, it could have been a pretty tasty little treat.

Overall: 3.5/10. In a word, “overwhelming”, and not in a good way. They cook up nice and crisp in the oven, with an appealing crispy texture on the outside that gives way to a soft, creamy texture on the inside. But the flavor—which starts, innocently enough, with the mild taste of cheese—suddenly explodes into an excessively garlic-like taste that overwhelms everything, and forcefully becomes the center of attention. As a single-bite tapas at an upscale restaurant, something like this could work, as a powerful one-and-done statement; an assault on the tastebuds that's over as quickly as it began. But when there's eight or nine in a bag, once that initial shock wears off and the strong taste becomes expected, it quickly grows tiresome, and we both found ourselves unwilling to grab another one.

On a random note specifically for this product, but one that could work in a variety of different frozen products: That'd be neat if one or two of them tasted strong, with the remainder just tasting like normal mac and cheese bites. The juxtaposition between the strong ones, along with the “weaker” ones, could create an entirely unexpected flavor profile typically missing from boring frozen foods.

Friday, January 31, 2020

In Memory of Beauregard: The Defective Basset Hound With a Heart of Gold

Our basset hound Beauregard passed away on January 2nd, 2020. He was a full-blooded basset that my wife and I got from a local rescue back in July, 2010, way before we ever thought having a child would even be a possibility, much less a reality. When we got him, he weighed around 30 pounds, and was so emaciated that you could clearly see his rib cage; apparently, the rescue group had found him in that state, wandering around the city with no sign of an owner.

We never found out the true backstory as to his origins, but our theory was always that he was bred to be a hound dog, and was then let go by his owners for being "defective"...a theory we surmised because he was seriously an incredibly dumb dog. The breed in general is known for being stubborn, and I don't think "intelligence" is an expected trait in any of them, but one area you can usually rely on a basset to come through is in their senses: they have an extraordinary sense of smell. As hounds, they are excellent hunters, and can track almost anything down using only their nose.

It didn't take long for us to discover that poor Beau couldn't even track down half the treats we threw his way, either wandering around aimlessly until we pointed them out, or continuing to stare at us, thinking we hadn't thrown it yet, even when they were clearly out in the open. He also couldn't keep up with other dogs, thanks to his stubby little legs, leading to some rather humorous visits to dog parks where he would just run around and bark at all the other dogs that were moving too fast for him to keep up with, before eventually just plopping down directly in the middle of their running path so they would have to go around him.

Then our son came along. We weren't sure how he would take being #2 in the family, but it didn't take long for them to forge an adorable little bond. In fact, at the time of his passing, our son had just recently started demanding mama to make him his own little doggie bed next to Beau's so he could relax and lay down with him. If Beau was jealous about no longer being mama's #1 son - and after holding that role for 7 years, it would be virtually impossible for him not to be - he never showed it; he was a gentle soul through and through, and the best big brother role model we could have ever asked for.

No matter what life threw his way - the surgery for ingesting something he shouldn't have after getting into the trash, or the cancerous lump that lead to most of his tail being removed, leaving only a wagging little nub - he was always as upbeat and as happy as can be. It was as if he knew he had found his forever home from day one; the place he was meant to spend the rest of his life, and nothing was going to get in the way of him enjoying every minute of it.

And now, just like that, he is gone, existing only in the everyday sounds we still swear belong to him: the pitter-patter of his paws on our floor; the high-pitched bird-whines that he would emit when excited; the sounds of him moving around and getting comfortable in his bed. He was such a big part of our lives that it's impossible to remember a time when he wasn't there, comforting my wife whenever she needed it, and prancing around with palpable excitement at the smallest of things. Even when he wasn't directly a part of our daily routine, such as the long stretches when he was off sleeping somewhere (a favorite hobby of his, and most bassets), it was always comforting to feel his presence; just to know he was there.

And even though we will never feel his physical presence again, we will carry him with us wherever we go; he will always be a part of our family, running as slowly through our hearts and minds as he did when he was here. I hope that wherever he is, he's been given the things he was stripped of during his time on Earth: a working nose to track down scents, and faster legs to keep up with the other dogs. I hope he's telling them stories about how much fun he had while he was here, and that he knows just how deeply he will be missed, and what a void he has left behind.

RIP Beauregard Centi. This place is certainly a lot quieter without you here.

Too quiet.

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Great Idea With Room for Improvement In Execution: An In-Depth Look at GetUpside (App)

A very, very stupidly named app, based out of Washington, D.C, and available for both iOS and Android. I even hate saying it out loud because it’s so dumb…what the hell does it even mean? And, I feel like it’s pretty terrible from a business perspective because you can’t even begin to tell what the app does just from the name, which is probably some kind of rule in Business 101.

Rant aside, this is a money-saving app that purports to save users quite a decent chunk of change at gas stations—and a random smattering of restaurants--across the U.S. Right now, availability is fairly limited, but with a couple deals with nationwide companies (Circle K chief among them), it seems to be spreading fairly quickly. If it happens to be near you, is it worth your time? Let's sit down and hash this one out, shall we?

The navigation menu.
GetUpside is very easy and intuitive to navigate, with the ability to track local deals based on location settings, or via a city or zip search. The basic setup is very much like other “local savings” apps, in that the main screen is essentially a map of your current area, with nearby offers clearly marked.

A big annoyance to me is that the app requires you to have location on in order for it to even open. I get that if you’re trying to claim an offer, but why can’t I just punch in a zip or browse for things without the location service enabled, just to get an idea of what might be available? It might seem kind of nit-picky, but I don’t recall another app that I have that’s so stringent on their location standards. I'm not one to really care about the whole “tracking” angle (face it, we're being “watched” by anyone who wants to watch at any given time), but I get annoyed because I always forget to turn location off after using it, and that can suck battery life down a little bit quicker.
Don't want to grant GetUpside location permission? Sorry, can't use it at all.
Otherwise, everything is pretty well straightforward, with all available offers listed in order from closest to farthest away, along with how much of a discount they are offering at any given time. Should you need any information besides current deals, it's just a menu tap away, with the menu tucked neatly away in the top left corner—again, pretty standard stuff. If you have ever used an app before, you should have no troubles navigating through this one.

Lately, there has been an unnecessary addition, in the form of a mandatory 5-second splash screen that urges you to refer friends to the service, so that they can continue to offer it for free. It doesn't pop up every time, but it pops up enough to make it annoying as hell, especially since I know of no one that would want to sign up.

Don't have anyone to refer? Then get used to seeing this dumbass screen.
Assuming you’ve used an app like Ibotta before, the basic process for earning money back in GetUpside is pretty similar: find your gas station in the app, “claim” the offer, and then you have four hours to submit a receipt through the app to get your money back, which is done via your phone's camera. One small difference that I appreciate is that you can upload a photo from your photo gallery, rather than being forced to take a picture through the in-app camera. That's something you can't do with many similar apps, and a nice feature to have (although personally, I have no problems using the phone's camera to upload direct).

Claiming deals is as simple as clicking on that orange "Claim" button.
The processing time can take anywhere from mere minutes to 48 hours. My personal experience is rather clouded, because I have to contact customer support after every single receipt upload due to a difference in the address used in their app, versus the one that prints on the receipts, at the gas station near me (more on that later). In other words: I have no idea how long processing typically takes.

Submitting receipts is a pretty straightforward process.
Intriguingly, they keep mentioning in social media comments that they will be going receiptless in the near future—something that would make earning money back through this even more passive...and making this a no-brainer for virtually anyone who buys gas. (And fixing the issue many users seem to have where even clear receipt uploads seem to frequently be declined; or, as the one I have, where a location's address doesn't match the one on the receipt.)

In theory the answer to this question is yet another question: how much gas do you buy? Considering there isn’t a limit (outside of 50 gallons per fill-up), and the offers are generally pretty good (around me, it averages around 10 cents off per gallon), the possibilities are endless. Between my wife’s gas-guzzling SUV and my moderate-sized car, we each fill up about once a week, and that would be enough to earn at least a couple bucks back each time.

But, savings can depend on the “wholesale value” of gas: there are times where GetUpside only offers 1 cent savings over the retail price. I’ve seen several complaints of this on their Facebook page, where people think they’re being “slighted”, or their savings “capped”; I thought this myself, at first (it was right after getting a large discount that the offered savings dropped significantly), but sure enough, it was back to 12 cents off a little less than 24 hours later. That’s unfortunately the nature of the beast—obviously these gas stations want to drive some business, but not at the expense of losing money, or negatively affecting their bottom lines. As such, depending on where you live, the offers might hover around the penny mark more than others in other areas...again, it just depends on a variety of variables to ensure that gas station revenues (and GetUpside's own) take top priority over consumer savings.

I don't typically do this, but feel free to sign up
via the above referral code.
There are a couple of additional caveats that might prevent you from earning your maximum: 1.) Outside of recently forging a partnership with Circle K, the app hasn’t rolled out to all gas stations nationwide yet, so there’s a good chance you might not have any valid gas stations near you; 2.) Your possible savings are cut down if you use this in conjunction with a gas station's reward program; and 3.) Their support team is wildly uneven: sometimes they get back to you quickly, and sometimes they don't get back to you at all. Even though, in my experience, they eventually do get back to you, it can be a very discouraging experience for those trying out the app for the first time.

You can also make money with referrals: you get $7 the first time someone you refer uses the app, while they get an extra $.20 off per gallon. On that topic: feel free to use mine, which is "Aaron32226". I don't typically do this, but hey, they're virtually begging me to with that stupid 5-second splash screen, and I would love to make that go away.

This is where apps either succeed or fail, and GetUpside's support is...very inconsistent, to say the least. I've had numerous problems, all stemming from - at least what I would consider to be - a relatively minor problem: a local Circle K uses a different address on their store locator (which must be where GetUpside takes their info from), than they do on their receipts (where GasBuddy must take their addresses from). As such, my receipts are frequently denied because I "went to the wrong location", even though it's very clearly the same exact place.

Need in-app support? It's conveniently hidden...and
doesn't do much good anyway.
For starters, don't use the in-app support option, which is actually way harder to find than it should be (solution circled in above picture). The first time I had an issue, I sent in a request through there first, and still had no responses after 72 hours, so I decided to follow up via email ( got a response within hours. That started to be my go-to option, but then in early November, I had several support requests (all placed at least 48-72 hours apart, mind you, and all of them completely friendly in nature) fall through the cracks; the only response I got within that time was someone who just sent a canned explanation about how addresses need to match and that was the reason my receipts were declined. It was very frustrating, to say the least, and I was seriously contemplating getting rid of it, despite all the potential...upside(s).

Thankfully, since that fiasco, support has been much quicker, and much more consistent, in getting back to me within 24 hours. I understand it's probably a frustrating issue for them, as well, but I was also notified that there's nothing they can do about the address snafu, so contacting them after every receipt is auto-declined is literally the only way I can get my receipts least, until they go receiptless, which can't come soon enough for either party.

PROS (+)
+Under the right circumstances, it's an almost passive way to earn a good chunk of money back on something that you're going to have to buy anyway.
+Claiming and redeeming offers is pretty simple and straightforward.
+They will be going receiptless soon, which should eliminate the current issue many users have with them.
+Forged a recent partnership with Circle K, helping to spread the app to many of their locations nationwide.
+Pair it up with Gasbuddy for some additional savings.

CONS (-)
-Email support response times can be pretty inconsistent (though they do seem to be getting better).
-In-app support seems to be very, very low priority.
-Outside of Circle K partnership, nationwide availability seems pretty scattershot.
-The receipt resubmission process doesn't offer a way to explain why you're resubmitting; thus, you're probably going to be re-declined, and have to contact support anyway.
-Only a four-hour window to claim offer and upload receipt.
-Address issues apparently can't be fixed, forcing me to contact support for every single receipt I submit.

I was very eager to check this app out after hearing glowing things about it online, and the potential for this to be a great app is there, but my limited time with it has been racked with constant, minor annoyances that somewhat detract from what should be an excellent, simple experience. If they can expand at a manageable but steady clip, GetUpside could end up being the go-to app for savings; as it stands now, it's definitely worth looking into, but should you find a need for support, or find yourself in an area with zero offers, there's a chance you may GetDownside instead.

RATING: 7/10.

Note: App reviews are ongoing, and are subject to change as the apps are either updated or abandoned.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Simply Nature Apple Cinnamon Squeezable Fruit Blend Pouches (Aldi)

Please pardon the obnoxious light glare.
Is there a better combination than apple and cinnamon? No need to think about that, because the answer is “no”: it’s the perfect combination of sweet, juicy, maybe a little tart, and then back to sweet again. And that's why my eyes lit up when I saw Aldi was selling a multi-pack of apple cinnamon pouches, under their Simply Nature moniker. I actually purchased these for our son, but after they fell by the wayside and were still sitting in our pantry after a couple of months, I decided to try one for myself.

Yep, tastes just as one would expect this to taste like: if baked apples were ground up into a pouch. There’s the taste of apples in the forefront, followed up immediately by a nice kick of cinnamon to bring it all home—to me, this flavor is absolutely addicting, and a textbook example of what this combination should taste like when well-executed.

Adding to the positives is the value: a four-pack of these will run you around $1.89, if memory serves me right, which would put these somewhere around $.47 per pouch...and that's not at all a bad price. These are also pretty darn healthy, with only 60 calories, 5mg of sodium, and 11g of sugar per single-serve pouch...and if a great-tasting, healthy snack isn't something you can feel good about giving your kids, then I don't know what is!

They certainly aren't perfect, though: they're as small as they look, and for this reason are very anti-climactic to give to a child as a snack. Our son is only three years old, and he seems to suck them down the moment I get the lid off; considering they aren't anywhere near filling, he's asking for another one, or something else, immediately thereafter. These might work as a “side” or beverage to another snack or meal, but don't really amount to much on their own.

Despite those relatively minor “flaws”, the flavor is very good, and while the value proposition isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be thanks to the small pouches, it’s still a great snack to have on hand for whatever reason.

Overall: 7/10. The value proposition could be stronger (although you get four for under $2, these pouches are teeny-tiny and can be drained by a three-year-old in under 30 seconds), but these are a pretty healthy, quick snack for parents and kids on the go. They taste great, with a flavor reminiscent of ground-up baked apples in pouch form, but aren't too overly sweet. I won't get them all the time—mainly because our son has other snacks he prefers—but for a good ol' fashioned change of pace, these will fit the bill quite well.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Bake Shop by Aldi Powdered Mini Donuts (Aldi)

Just your basic, standard powdered donut. In other words, delicious.
Aaaah, the powdered donut: one of the most basic of all breakfast staples. There’s just something that’s so unmagnificent about them, and that, I suppose, is one of the reasons they’re so popular: simplicity. It’s just a basic flavor, they’re usually pretty inexpensive, and in almost all cases, even a bad example of a powdered donut is easily edible.

And what we have here is pretty much a basic example of such a donut, with a coating of powdered sugar adorning an otherwise unexciting spherical-shaped cake. There’s a good amount of the powdered stuff, with only a few spots of cake visible. The flavor tastes a lot like powdered sugar, but with something else added that hits the “higher notes” of my taste buds (I can’t really describe it, but there’s definitely more to it than just the confectioner’s sugar). The texture is on par with what you would expect, although I will say the cake here in Aldi’s version is not as smooth or soft as some other varieties, the best examples of which almost melt in your mouth the moment you take a bite. It’s definitely not what I would consider “hard” or off-putting, but it’s neither up there with the best in terms of texture.

Meanwhile, the taste is nowhere near as addicting as Mrs. Freshley’s Delicious Deals powdered donuts, available at Dollar Tree, which are far and away my favorite store bought powdered cake spheres—but I have to confess that I still have a hard time stopping at one or two of Aldi's version, so there’s something that can be said for that. The price is pretty solid, too, with a large plastic container of the stuff going for $2.99. While that might sound a little expensive, there are a lot of donuts in the lasts our household of three about a week or so (depending on how overboard my wife and I go with them).

If you're looking for an outstanding example of mass-produced donut brilliance, keep on searching (and let me know when you find it!), but if you want a basic, no-frills donut for a decent price, you can call off your search here.

Overall: 6.5/10. It’s a rather unremarkable example of a powdered donut, but sometimes that’s all you need: even in its “average” form here, the donuts are very tasty and inviting, with a generous coating of powdered sugar adorning each one. The cake isn’t as “soft” as other such donuts on the market, and the flavor has some indescribable taste above mere powdered sugar (maybe natural flavoring?) that makes them slightly less addicting to me than other brands, but I still have a hard time stopping at one or two. A good example of a product that delivers what you're expecting—and nothing more—for a decent price, and proof that pretty much all donuts are addicting as hell.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Dollar Tree Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream (Dollar Tree)

Far better than you'd expect, though not without its flaws.
Dollar Tree has, at least as far as I can remember, carried various cartons of “frozen dairy desserts” in their freezers, which are basically cheap versions of actual ice cream. Basically, what makes an item a “frozen dairy dessert” versus an actual ice cream comes down to hitting certain government-mandated criteria, such as consisting of at least 10% dairy milkfat. Any product that doesn't hit the criteria—even though it may look a lot like ice cream—must carry the ominous “frozen dairy dessert” designation, a sign that it falls short of the FDA's notoriously high standards (can you taste the sarcasm?). I'm not a snob when it comes to many things, but I guess ice cream is one of them, because I won't (willingly or knowingly) buy anything that can't refer to itself as "ice cream".

Imagine my surprise when I saw Dollar Tree was starting to carry some actual ice cream in their freezers! (Apparently, some stores started carrying them late last year; I swear we are the last to get everything here.) The first time I noticed them, which was in early November, all they had was vanilla and butter pecan, so I took a hard pass. This time, though, I noticed a new flavor had creeped its way in: mint chocolate chip. Ever the skeptic, yet incredibly excited at the same time, I threw the unsuspecting pint in my cart and took it home to face the judgment of both my wife and I.

There could definitely be more chocolate chips in here... (apologies for the Christmas tree lighting)
Things took a surprising turn for the positive the moment we opened the carton...and noticed that it was, in fact, the green kind of mint ice cream! Although many will no doubt frown on that—and I'm sure it's made with the addition of artificial colors and/or flavors—it's a nostalgic thing for both my wife and I, who grew up on the green stuff, a time before food had to be all politically correct and shit. Passing the visual inspection was one thing, but I was sure it would fail the next step: taste. Especially when it was my incredibly strict (on ice cream) wife who went in for the first bite; once her face showed a look of shock, followed immediately by satisfaction, I knew what that meant: I needn't be nervous to take my first bite.

My own taste analysis, which followed mere seconds later, certainly confirmed what my wife tasted: this ice cream is legit. It has a nice mint flavor (pretty artificial, but strong and convincing nonetheless) paired up with the occasional chocolate chip, which do manage to taste like pretty much any other ice cream chocolate chip, from any brand. There's definitely not as much chocolate as I would like (and as many would expect), but there's a decent enough amount spread throughout that you won't have to go more than a bite or two without one. And honestly, the mint is delicious enough that it can carry you to the next chocolatey morsel without any sadness whatsoever.

We both did detect a slight weirdness in the finish—I can't tell if it was our ice cream snobbery coming out in the form of imagined flaws, or legit complaints—but it manifested itself in different ways: she thought there was a minorly bizarre aftertaste, while I thought the flavor just kind of dissipated toward the end, kind of like how many cheap candles are loaded with scent in the store to make you think you're getting a strong-smelling candle, but smell weak once you start burning them. Either way, those minor complaints completely disappeared the farther into the pint that I got, making this a delicious treat for the price, and one I wouldn't hesitate to grab again.

Value is pretty strong, when compared to other pints, which is about the only way to get an "apples to apples" comparison. Every brand raises the per oz. price on pints to a sometimes disgusting degree, in order to "lure" you into buying the larger cartons to "save money". So of course, even at a dollar, buying four of these (which is equal to a half-gallon carton), would cost you $4, which is about the price of a mid-tier ice cream brand on sale--and let's face it, almost all of those are going to taste a bit better than this one.

But, the "pint" certainly has its merits: they're more "portable", more limiting to the health-conscience, and take up less freezer space which, let's be real here, somehow always seems to be an issue, at least at our house. And where else can you consistently get pints for $1, without having to clip coupons, or wait for store sales? I'd easily pick this up again, and am also hoping they might be able to add even more flavor varieties to their collection (cookies n' cream would be ideal, if anyone out there is listening...)

Let's just hope this isn't one of the many products that seem to disappear from "the Tree" immediately after making its first appearance...

Overall: 7.5/10. I wouldn't call it “premium”, but factoring in the price, this is a surprisingly good ice cream. The mint flavor is strong, and while the chocolate chips are a little more sparse than I would like, they taste like the chocolate chips in just about every other brand. Valuewise, where else can you consistently find pints of ice cream for a buck? Sure, some store brands go on the occasional sale, but this is great in that you don't have to clip coupons, or wait for a certain time to buy, and that makes it an enticing backup option, if nothing else. One of the more shockingly good food buys from DT I've had in quite a while.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Choceur Limited Edition White Chocolate Coins (Aldi)

A disappointing picture of a lackluster treat.
We just took a look at the milk chocolate version of these coins, and were thoroughly disappointed, so now let's turn our attention to the other variety they have available: white chocolate.

Personally, I actually prefer white chocolate to milk (even though I'm aware that white chocolate is technically not chocolate at all), so I had slightly higher hopes for these than I did the milk chocolate. Once again, these are modeled after American coins (with different sizes representing the quarter, and the fifty-cent piece), once again there are a decent number of coins in each $1.99 mesh package...

...and once again we're faced with another underperforming combination of taste and texture. These might melt on the tongue slightly more than the milk chocolate variety, but are still way too “tough” to be anything worthwhile: they also have a very “dollar store” style vibe—but considering these cost $2 at Aldi, they feel a little overpriced, despite the generous quantity. These reminded me a lot of just eating a plain white chocolate bar, which doesn't sound like a bad thing—except that I can get one of those for even cheaper, and without the hassle of basically unwrapping every individual bite.

In a word: "Nah".

Overall: 4/10. About on par with the milk chocolate version—although “double bogey” might be a more fitting analogy. These are just uninspired pieces of leftover white chocolate baking chips, formed into circular shapes and marketed as coins—at least that's the assumption I've come up with based on the standard taste. I suppose I shouldn't be complaining about a “standard” white chocolate taste, but with an equally disappointing texture to boot, these are just a waste, and a very disappointing showing from the usually reliable Choceur brand.