Sunday, December 27, 2015

Hansen's Diet Red Energy Drink (Big Lots)

I hate cans that don't reveal the flavor. Also, "Hansen's Diet Diet Red" is kind of redundant.
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh no, not more energy drink reviews!  Haven’t you reviewed enough lately?”  To that, I will only scoff in your general direction.  Then I will start the review.

This one I had ignored at Big Lots for several trips before getting it out of pure desperation.  Over the last couple of months, many wonderful energy beverages came and went, and I purchased and tried (and reviewed) several of them.  I noticed Hansen’s offering multiple times, but for some reason, my mind equates Hansen’s with Jones Soda, and I don’t ever think I’ve ever tasted anything good that’s come out of a Jones bottle.  Maybe that’s unfair, considering neither of them really have anything to do with one another (aside from making “natural sodas”) but hey, it’s these little intricacies that make the human mind such a fascinating thing.

Part of the reason I passed up on this, is the vague packaging, which seems to be a recurring theme with Big Lots energy beverages (future food/drink producers, walk through a Big Lots before you go into production, for a perfect example of how not to package your products).  For starters, look no further than the name.  “Diet red”.  Okay…what the hell does “red” taste like?  I was also put off by the word “diet” on the label.  I hate diet drinks.  The aftertaste and fake sugar taste are absolutely disgusting to me, to speak nothing of the watered-down flavor.  So I kept putting it off.

Until I went in there, in a desperate quest for energy (slight exaggeration), only to discover that other people had, over the course of several weeks, bought every other energy drink in there, save for this one.  Literally, the whole aisle was a barren landscape, and this was the only option left--and there were dozens of them.  It was as if everyone else was avoiding this like I was.  Since they were only $.50, I grabbed a couple, and finally resolved to give them a chance, though I was definitely not expecting much.

I have to say, I’m pretty impressed.  I would never pay more than $.50 for these, but for this price point, they are really good.  In fact, only Up-Time (see above) topped these as the best energy drink I’ve had from Big Lots in recent memory.  So how does “red” taste?  On the unfortunate side, like every other typical energy drink.  I was hoping maybe a “red” fruit (cherry, strawberry, etc.), but it’s just a straightforward flavor.  So why am I impressed?  Because there’s really not much of a fake sugar flavor--it’s nice and tart, with a very minimal diet aftertaste.  Going farther, it actually provided me with a rather massive energy kick--I felt my adrenaline pumping after one can.  Not long after, I got very paranoid, which is also a side effect of a caffeine boost (or maybe overdose?) for me.  My face got warm for a few moments, too.  These feelings lasted for a few hours, and I didn’t have a noticeable crash (thanks to the mere two grams of actual sugar per can; most of the sweetness comes from sucralose).  Getting a noticeable boost from a pretty tasty energy drink, for only fifty cents?  I guess you really can’t judge a drink by its can, after all.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Gave me a noticeable increase in energy that lasted a few hours, while the two grams of sugar prevented me from getting sleepy once it inevitably wore off.  The taste is pretty standard, with a nice blast of tanginess, and there’s no medicine-y aftertaste, much to my surprise.  I had been putting of trying this, but this is an excellent product for the price (a mere $.50 per can).  Check it out, if your local Big Lots still offers them.

Up Time Energy Drink (Big Lots)

I look naked in the reflection of this terribly-staged photo, but was actually wearing pants.
I don’t think I’ve made it clear enough:  Big Lots (and similar closeout stores) is the perfect place to go for energy drinks, at least in terms of price.  Sure, there are a lot that might not taste up to normal standards, but considering just about all of them (with the exception of the name brands that wind up there) are under $1, it’s a gamble without much of a risk.

As with a lot of private labels, picking up on what products the closeout specials at Big Lots were trying to emulate can be a little depressing; usually, they wear their inspirations on their sleeves.  So when I saw the energy beverage Up-Time, in a curiously-sized 8.4 oz. can (the exact same can as the drink that is said to “give you wings”) I knew instantly what I was in for:  Another in a long line of knockoffs of the hugely popular, “original” energy drink.  Just picking up the can, I figured I had the flavor in my mouth already, and I probably would have put it back and forgotten about it had it not been for the price: $.33 per can.  That changed everything:  Even if it was a spotty imitation, any energy drink that’s 3 for $1 deserves to get an automatic chance in my book.

As I cracked it open, my mouth was prepped for just the taste of a standard energizing blend, until something caught my eye…er…nose.  A quick sniff surprisingly did not match the flavor profile I was anticipating; this one smelled light and citrusy, without a hint of the tartness usually found in most of them.  All of a sudden I went from moderate interest, to full-fledged eager anticipation.  There was the possibility the smell was setting me up for disappointment, but I quickly dug in…

…and I have to say I was pretty shocked.  Despite its god-awful name, Up-Time really is “refreshing energy”.  The citrus aroma I picked up on is here in full force, but it’s light and satisfying without having even a hint of tartness.  To put it simply, it’s way-too-easily drinkable, which means I tend to down these things rather quickly.  I suppose for some people, that’s their typical method of imbibing these sorts of concoctions; drink it down as fast as possible for maximum power.  I like to sip mine tenderly, though, in the hopes that it kind of gradually releases smaller bursts of energy, instead of one big explosion all at once.  I’m not sure that’s exactly how these things work, but that’s how I imagine they do.

Since our initial purchase of three, I’ve since gone back and bought an additional 10, or so.  The value is virtually unheard-of, while the taste would honestly feel at home in a drink costing three times as much.  There are a lot of weird-ish ingredients in here that leave me unsure of their intended effects (coEnzyme Q10 and Ginkgo Baloba, to name a couple right off the front of the can), and the aftertaste is a little bizarre, but this is still a great deal no matter how you look at it.  Unless coEnzyme Q10 turns out to cause cancer, that is.

Overall: 8/10. With the potent combination of inherent drink ability and jaw-to-the-floor value, if you stumble on one of these, either at Big Lots or anywhere else, you should pick up a can.  It gave me the kick of energy I was looking for, and it goes down real smooth, without a hint of tart or sourness.  Even though there’s 27g of sugar per can, it’s not overly sweet, either, with a taste that really feels like it’s “all natural”, as the can seems to hint at.  Only downsides:  The aftertaste is a little weird, and I’m unsure as to what a lot of these ingredients are supposed to do; I guess the same can be said for just about any mass-produced food or drink in a standard supermarket, though.  Best of all?  At Big Lots, these are a ridiculous $.33 per can.  That’s not a typo…3 for $1.  Stock up on them if there are any left!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Duetsche Kuche Apfel Schorle Sparkling Apple Juice Drink (Aldi)

Almost tastes like an apple wine, only without the alcohol.
One of the cool things about Aldi are their “German Weeks”, where they offer a bit of German culture, through a series of food Special Buys in their U.S. stores (in case you weren’t aware, Aldi is a German company).  While some of the things they offer during these times seem to be Americanized takes on German tradition (like their Bavarian soft pretzels), others legitimately seem to give Americans a unique taste of their culture (such as Peanut Puffs, or some of the “crazy” breads and desserts).  Either way, I enjoy it because it gives me a chance to try things that I otherwise would completely ignore.

Perusing the ad for the latest German week, I saw a “sparkling apple juice drink” as one of the highlighted products, and I knew I had to try that.  Apple juice is one of the greatest juices on the face of the planet, and it’s pretty much common knowledge that carbonation makes just about everything taste better.  How could I turn down a combination of such forces?  Even at a pretty steep price ($4 for six 16.9 oz. bottles) I knew a pack of these were coming home with me.

The ingredients are about as “natural” as you can get these days: Apple juice from concentrate, water, and carbon dioxide.  No fillers, no preservatives, just a classic combination of juice and gas.  Now, the only hesitation I had going into this is thinking how such a drink would taste in Germany.  Certainly it wouldn’t be as sweet as Americans like it, right?  I feel like we Americans like everything to be sugarcoated (I know I do!), while other countries and cultures are fine with cutting back on the sugar.  Would it be bitter?  Would it be dry?  Would there even be any discernible sweetness in it at all?

The answer lies somewhere in between all of those questions.  I’ll admit, I was turned off at first sip because this definitely isn’t American apple juice with carbonation, as I was secretly hoping; true to what I was expecting, the sweetness is certainly dialed back a little bit.  It even manages to approach “bitter” territory, though only briefly, before the natural sweetness of the apples shines through.  But as I drank more and more, my taste buds seemed to adapt, and by the end of the bottle I actually started enjoying it.  It’s different, but it’s good, and it can function as a semi-healthier alternative to soda (even though there’s really no nutrients in here at all, either).

Overall: 7.5/10. Semi-sweet apple juice injected with carbon dioxide gas has never tasted so good!  The lack of super-sweetness took me some getting used to (I was expecting/hoping it would be American apple juice with carbonation), but once my taste buds got used to it, I really started to enjoy it.  Price is a little steep, at $4 for a six-pack, so this will only be an occasional splurge, but I would definitely get this again at some point down the road.  

Deutsche Kuche Artichoke and Cheese Strudel Pastries (Aldi)

The crust is flaky perfection; the less we speak of the filling, the better.
I’ve tried a few things from the Deutsche Kuche line from Aldi, and have really only been moderately impressed.  This is kind of shocking, considering Aldi is a German retailer, and the products in the DK line are German, so you would think the products they would export to other countries would be the “best-of-the-best” that they have to offer.

My wife and I picked up Deutsche Kuche’s Artichoke and Cheese Strudel on a recent trip, and were very excited to try it.  The thought of a more savory pastry was intriguing, as really the only experience I have with strudels are the national brand toaster pastries that come complete with an icing packet…needless to say, I haven’t experienced a lot of food culture outside of the United States.

I was very impressed with the texture of these right out of the oven; or, more specifically, the flakiness of the crust.  It falls apart perfectly in your hands, and really seems like something you would get fresh out of a bakery, rather than a frozen food box.  It not only looks buttery and delicious, but you can also get the distinct aroma of artichokes and cheese.  With excitement building, I dove in and took my first bite…

…and that’s when the experience completely fell apart.  These things are terrible.  Easily in the top 10 worst products I’ve ever had from Aldi.  Quite simply put, there’s no taste, only the texture of the crispy, flaky dough.  If you were forced to take a bite without smelling it first, there would be no way to tell what was in it at all…the filling is just a bland mass of tastelessness that is as uninviting as it sounds.  There’s no artichoke, and for God’s sakes, no cheese!  That it didn’t get tossed directly in the trash of the test kitchen is pretty astonishing in itself--that it actually made it onto store shelves is truly a modern-day travesty.  Avoid this junk at all costs.

Overall: 1/10.  The dough is enticingly flaky and light, but that’s where the positives end.  It must have been very hard to make a product out of artichokes and cheese that has absolutely ZERO flavor, but Aldi somehow did it.  These things are absolutely terrible, and a waste of money in every sense of the word.  If you really have to replicate the experience of eating this, sniff a bag of cheese while chewing on a sponge.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rip It Citrus X Sugar Free Energy Drink (Dollar Tree)

A sugar free energy drink that surprisingly isn't disgusting.
I quite like Rip Its' energy drink line--you can’t go all that wrong with 16 oz. energy drinks for a mere buck, especially when the name brands tend to be around twice that much.  On the other hand, as I stated in my previous review (see above), I am not at all a fan of diet energy drinks--while they seem to give the same amount of energy as the “full” ones do, it’s often with the trade-offs of muted flavors and metallic aftertastes, two things I can’t stand.

So imagine my disappointment when I made a return trip to my local Dollar Tree, where I had just purchased a regular version of Citrus X not thirty days prior, only to discover that they had been replaced with a sugar-free, no calories or carbs version.   Great.  Still, it being one of only two options (the other being the already-reviewed Rip-It Power), I sucked it up and bought one anyway.

The original Rip-It Citrus X tastes like a really fake carbonated orange beverage, yet I really like it.  It reminds me almost of a carbonated Sunny D.  It’s smooth, clean, and easy to drink.  Surprisingly, this diet version shares many of these characteristics.  The orange flavor definitely tastes “watered down”, but there’s very little, if any, weirdness in the ensuing aftertaste--in fact, there’s not much of a metallic taste at all.  It did give me a noticeable caffeine kick, with the added benefit of not having a sugar crash later.

There’s no doubt that I would still much prefer the taste of the original, and would never actively seek this out, but it’s one of the better “all diet” energy drinks I’ve had, in terms of taste, performance, and value.  Those with an affinity for diet drinks should definitely check this one out, as there’s a very good chance you’ll like it way more than I did.

Overall: 7/10.  The taste is watered-down, just as it generally is with diet energy drinks, but surprisingly, there wasn’t much of a fakey sugar flavor, or gross aftertaste.  That, to me, is a big win for a no sugar and no calorie energy beverage.  It also gave me a nice boost of caffeinated kick, without the big sugar crash later.  I still much prefer the original (I only bought this because they were sold out of that one), and would never intentionally seek this one out, but for what it is, it’s pretty darn good.

Rip It Power Energy Fuel (Dollar Tree)

A cheap energy drink with a unique flavor profile.
When you go to a typical supermarket, and load up on name-brand items, a lot of your money is going toward that brand’s name; in other words, you are paying for them to maintain their image through advertisements.  You’re also telling them that it’s fine for them to raise the price to whatever they see fit, because you are a loyal consumer, you have to have their product, and you will do so at any cost (within reason).  Just about every single specific type of food have a “main brand” or two, but one of the areas where the markup seems to get more and more excessive is in the beverage department.

It is here that the battle for soda supremacy comes down to two “main brands”, whose 12-packs retail for close to $5 (if not more) when not on sale.  Yet, curiously, the store brand sodas are offered at around half that cost.  That right there tells you that what you’re paying for in the name brands aren’t manufacturing costs--you can bet it costs them pennies per can to produce their carbonated beverages--but rather “the name”.  You can begin to see how brand recognition can be a very lucrative business; “train” consumers to rely on your product, or to believe that it’s the best in any specific category, and you’ve basically just written a blank check for yourself.

Going beyond sodas, another section with bloated pricing are energy drinks, where an 8.4 oz. can of the stuff that “gives you wings” can set you back $2 or more.  Ditto that for the two popular brands of 16 oz. cans, the ones that like to sponsor terrible “rock” concerts and “extreme” skating competitions; not surprisingly, each of these is owned by one of the main soda companies mentioned above.  Anyway, the retail price of these rarely go below $2 when not on sale, despite being comprised mainly of sugar and chemicals.

Thankfully, as with most other food categories, there are some energy beverage manufacturers that like to operate “under the radar”.  By not accruing excessive promotional and advertising costs, they can afford to be the cheapest option on store shelves.  One such product is the Rip-It line of energy-producing liquids, which are available at Dollar Tree stores nationwide.  On my last trip there, I picked up one labeled “Power”, which I assumed to be the equivalent of their “original” flavor.

As anyone who has read previous reviews of mine for energy drinks can attest to, I think just about all “original” flavored ones taste more or less the same.  I assume this is probably by design, as manufacturers just want to stick with what works, instead of thinking outside of the box or trying anything new.  With this in mind, I popped open the tab, and braced myself for the flavor that I knew was coming.

Only it wasn’t.  On the way in, my nose caught a brief whiff of what I was in for, but it wasn’t the typical tart, mechanical scent that I was expecting; instead, it smelled strongly of apple.  Ripe, delicious apples.  I would have loved to have smelled it again, to make sure that my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me, but I had already committed to a sip--which indeed confirmed it.  I must say this is one of the more surprising, not to mention pleasant, energy drink flavors I’ve ever experienced.  It’s also perfectly carbonated, and smooth going down.

The downsides are the typical ones I have for all of these:  There’s lots of sugar (50 g per can), so while it might pick you up for a bit, it’s certainly going to let you down.  And even though it somehow tastes like a delicious fruit, there’s no actual juice in it--it’s the typical blend of chemicals and “natural flavors”, which are so vague they can mean any number of things.  But these complaints aside, it’s still very drinkable, and at only $1 per 16 oz. can, provides some excellent value over the national brand drinks.  I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

Overall: 8/10. I was expecting the “typical” energy drink flavor with Rip-It’s “Power” blend, but was pleasantly surprised to find that it tastes like a ripe apple instead.  Perfect amount of carbonation helps it go down smooth, as well.  Caffeine content might be a little weak for some (160mg per can), and sure enough, drinking half a can, which I can do with stronger ones, only gave me a brief burst of noticeable energy.  But the value here--$1 for a 16 oz. can--is excellent; this may just become my go to energy beverage line.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Mama Cozzi's Mediterranean Style Flatbread Pizza (Aldi)

Not as good as one would've hoped.
I’ve probably mentioned this a thousand times, but my wife went vegetarian a few months back, after temping the notion for the last several years.  I still forget this fact from time-to-time, because we’ve been together almost a decade, and for about 9-½ of those years, she was an occasional meat-eater.  So I still fall into the trap of suggesting meat-filled foods and pizzas that we always used to eat together.

When I came across Mama Cozzi’s Mediterranean-style Flatbread Pizza, with its list of a hundred different ingredients on the front of its packaging, I just knew at least one of them had to be a meat product--having something this flavorful as a vegetarian option just was too good to be true.  But sure enough, after reading the massive list a half-dozen times to ensure us both that there was truly no meat on it, a feat that took at least half an hour (slight exaggeration), we grabbed it and took it home.

I mean, come on, just this ingredient list makes you wonder how so many things can come together and not taste like complete junk.  We have tomato, spinach, red pepper, red onion, artichoke, and black olives on top of the sauce, while the cheese topping is actually a ridiculous blend of six: mozzarrella, provolone, feta, parmesan, romano, and asiago.

Considering this, it’s not surprising that right out of the box, it smells strongly of cheese, since that’s what it’s mostly made up of.  The sauce is a Greek-ish sour-cream based paste that has a tart cheesy taste despite having no cheese in it whatsoever.  The plus to having so many flavors going on is that no one ingredient stands out, so the fact that I can’t stand black olives, for example, isn’t really a big deal--I left the olives on, and couldn’t even detect them amidst all of the other ingredients.

But that’s also the downside: the flavor is just too busy.  I mean, maybe if they scaled back the number of cheeses to two or even three, I could understand throwing on all the vegetables, but between the paste and the overwhelming number of cheeses, there’s already too much going on.  This isn’t to say that the flavor is bad, or offensive in any way, because it’s not; it’s just an indecipherable blob of pointlessness.  Even that aside, though, there is something that’s just…interesting about it, and I’ll admit I had no problems eating half, and could have even eaten more (though I hadn’t eaten all day).

At the rate of $3.99, which is pretty standard for Aldi’s frozen pizzas released under the Mama Cozzi’s label, there’s not really a whole lot of value.  Sure, on paper it might look like there is, with the consumer getting over a dozen ingredients for such a small price, but given the way it tastes, it‘s not worth it. I also feel like the pizza was smaller than most of their other frozen offerings, and since it’s all on a flatbread, it’s certainly thinner and less filling.

I can pretty much say that I certainly won’t pick this up again, at least until I inevitably stumble upon it again in a couple years, completely forget what it tastes like, and then decide to give it another try.  But as long as I can remember, there is no reason for me to pick this up again, especially given the number of different styles of frozen pizza they offer during any given month.  I’m not recommending this one, and in a rare case of agreement, my wife concurs.

Overall: 5/10. There are certainly a lot of ingredients on here, but that ends up being the problem: The sour cream-based paste that serves as the sauce is good, as is the blend of six cheeses that tops it all, but when you have that much flavor already, anything else you throw on it, like the six additional vegetables, just ends up being overkill.  The flavor isn’t bad in any way, it’s just a giant, indistinguishable mass, where only the sauce and cheeses ever stand out.  If they took out all the veggies, leaving just the “sauce” and veggies, this would be a lot more palatable.  And for what it’s worth, my vegetarian wife concurs with these statements.

Mama Cozzi's Cuban Brand Frozen Pizza (Aldi)

This pizza is phenomenal.
I had been eyeing Mama Cozzi’s Cuban Brand Pizza for a few Special Buy cycles now; it seems to be available every other month lately.  But I was always hesitant for one reason or another…until this last time, when I stalled for only a second before finally picking it up and tossing it in my cart.

I think the main cause for the indecision were the ingredients: Crème Fraiche sauce (didn’t have a clue what that was), with MUSTARD, two kinds of cheeses, meats, and banana peppers.  Now, we have a local pizza shop that has even weirder pizzas than this (one I tried there had a mustard/sour cream base with tuna, for God’s sake), but the advantage that place has is that all their ingredients are fresh, and they are cooked in a wood-fire oven.  Even though Mama Cozzi’s frozen pizzas tend to be pretty good, I honestly wasn’t sure how they could pull this one off.

Well pull it off they do…this pizza is simply marvelous, and that’s not a word I tend to throw around.  The crème fraiche, which I have since learned is basically a less sour version of sour cream, provides a nice, light foundation that blends perfectly with all the ingredients.  I even enjoyed the banana peppers, which I don’t like at all; but here, they simply add a very light spice, while the flavor never stands out, balancing out with the rest of the ingredients.  Considering all the meats on here (there’s Canadian bacon, and both small bacon bits and larger bacon strips), it never becomes overly salty, like most such pizzas.  In fact, it all comes off feeling rather “light”; all the flavors are soft, with none being bland, but none being outrageously over-the-top.  In other words, it’s completely the opposite of what I would have expecting going in.

And while I highly doubt this pizza is very authentic to actual Cuban cuisine or culture, it’s definitely unique enough to hit a different set of taste buds than the normal American pizza, which is perfect if you want something out of the ordinary.  I’m not sure I’d get this pizza again during the same Special Buy cycle--there are plenty of other options, pizza and otherwise, that I’d like to get around to--but come the next time it’s offered, I wouldn’t hesitate to get it again.  It’s really good, especially for a frozen pizza with some rather unorthodox ingredients.

Overall: 8/10. Put aside your concerns and give this pizza a shot:  Even though there are a couple different kinds of meats and two different kinds of cheeses, it not only manages to avoid tasting overly salty, but it somehow tastes “light”.  There’s not an overwhelming amount of any ingredient, and the crème fraiche (think a less sour version of sour cream, if Wikipedia is to be trusted) is smooth and provides an excellent base.  It’s not your standard “American” pizza, and it hits a different set of taste buds, but it also hits the spot.  Excellent stuff.

Candy Christmas: Benton's Candy Cane Chocolate Sandwich Cremes (Aldi)

Perfect for people who enjoy chewing on glass.
I guess I should have paid more attention to the packaging when I picked up Benton’s Candy Cane Sandwich Cookies from Aldi.  I made the mistake of assuming that what I was getting was peppermint-flavored creme in between two chocolate cookies--to that end, I was partially right.  But Benton’s goes one step farther, by putting actual pieces of peppermint candy inside the icing, too.  And I do not like it.

I’ll be honest, I was just looking for a light-to-moderate peppermint flavor, and that’s completely what I was expecting.  I feel like most mainstream products shy away from being too aggressive when it comes to taste, so that they can appeal to the widest variety of people possible.  At first, biting into the creme for the first time, I thought they had hit the nail on the head…that is, until I started biting into what felt like little pieces of glass (which were unexpected pieces of peppermint candy, thanks to me not examining the packaging a little closer), which brought even more peppermint flavor, that I have to admit took it beyond what I was looking for.  I can dig small amounts of peppermint, but I got sick of these after just two.  And I don’t mean “well that’s enough for now, I’ll grab some again in the future” sick; I mean I was “here you go, honey, you can have the rest of this entire package of cookies” sick.  The blend of sweet and minty was just too much for me.

In the end, it all boils down to the fact that these just simply aren’t my cup of tea.  And that’s alright--we’ve all bought things that we thought we would enjoy, only to discover that they didn’t quite hit our palates the way we thought they would.  If you enjoy candy canes, or peppermint in general, you will like these way more than I do, and you really should give them a shot.  The package claims they are double-stuffed with crème, and all it takes is one quick glance at one of them to substantiate those claims--there is a generous helping of peppermint frosting in between each cookie.  The chocolate cookies themselves, when eaten alone (I do the ol’ twist-off method and eat the cookie with the least amount of crème in it first, saving the one with the most for last) taste fresh, and very close to the national brand, if not exact.

I guess this is kind of a cop-out, but sometimes, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles.

Overall: 4/10.  These just weren’t my cup of tea.  I like moderate amounts of peppermint, but the addition of actual little pieces of peppermint candy in the crème not only made it too pepperminty for my liking, but also made it feel like I was chewing on glass.  Needless to say, I was not a fan of the texture.  Dipping them in milk (my favorite way to eat chocolate sandwich cookies) made them a little better, but I got sick of them after just two cookies, to the extent that I will allow my wife to eat the rest.  If you love candy canes, or just peppermint in general, then you will probably like these a lot more than I did.

(And for what it's worth, my wife won't eat them, either.)

Christkindl Apple Punch (Aldi)

If warm alcohol is your thing, then here you go...
I love apples, and I love punch, yet I was not too keen on trying Christkindl’s holiday-inspired combination of both.  Why?  Because this is a wine concoction that is meant to be served warm, and for some reason, warm alcohol just doesn’t seem too appetizing to me.  Of course, you can be a rebel and enjoy it straight out of the bottle--hell, I could serve it chilled if I wanted to--but I figured that it was made to be enjoyed warm and would taste unappetizing if served at room temperature.

At the same time, I wanted to review some Christmas items this year, but most of their holiday Special Buys have to do with chocolate, and on this particular trip, I was absolutely starved, and when I‘m hungry, sugar just sounds disgusting to me.  If you know me, though, you’ll know that there’s one thing the sugar rule does not apply to, and that’s alcohol.  I’m just about always game for it, and so I figured this would finally be the day I would splurge and little bit and dive into a bottle of Apple Punch.

For the first glass, which I served myself in a completely oversized holly berry goblet, I decided to try it at room temperature.  Before pouring, I gently wafted some of the aroma to my nostrils, and was actually shocked to discover that it smelled exactly like the name insinuates--there’s the strong base note of apples, but there’s a fruit punch-y kind of finish in the background that finished it off.  It reminded me more of straight-up juice than a wine-based beverage.

The taste also consists very much of apple, though there was a surprising caramel or butterscotch kind of finish that was good.  It’s pretty sweet, so if you drink too much, you can probably expect a headache, but if you’re just looking to loosen up a little bit, then a couple glasses of this 9% ABV wine should suit you pretty well.

When heated up, the smell completely changes to a more warm apple cidery scent, though there’s a little bit of alcohol bitter in there.  I’ve never really paid attention to how aromas change when applied to heat, but the profile of this does a complete 180--for me, no longer was it really that inviting.  Sure enough, even the taste takes an extreme hit; there’s some apple in there, for sure, but the end result tastes more bitter than it does when it’s at room temperature, and it just really wasn’t fun to drink.  There’s also a lingering aftertaste that seems to be exacerbated by the heat, as I did not notice any bizarre aftertastes when I was enjoying it at room temperature.  I suppose it might hit the spot a little bit more during super-cold weather, but even then, I think I would turn to a standard chilled wine, or if I really wanted something warm, a hot chocolate.  

Overall: 5.5/10. If you’re looking for something different, this is a decent way to go:  the fact that it can be enjoyed heated, or at room temperature (or chilled, if the mood strikes you; chilled it tasted very similar to how it did at room temp), gives it a little versatility in that it tastes completely different both ways.  I actually was vastly underwhelmed with the heated version, and found it to be a lot tastier when served at room temperature, but your results may vary.  There is 9% ABV per bottle, which is about on par with a lot of supermarket wines.  I did get a slight headache (no doubt from the sugar content) after only a couple glasses, so this is probably not something you would want to get drunk off of.  Value is modest, at $6.99 per 750 mL bottle.  Even as a seasonal curiosity, I will probably be waiting at least a couple years before giving this another try; there’s just nothing really outstanding or noteworthy here at all.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Snapps Cream Cheese Pepper Bites (Dollar Tree)

A long, long time ago, when I was single and living on my own, I remember buying this product from Kroger and hating it.  But that was literally almost a decade ago, and a lot can change in that time.  So when I saw the same product being offered at Dollar Tree, I figured I would go ahead and give them a shot.

For a dollar, you get around nine tear-shaped morsels that are about half the size of normal ones.  But since they‘re around half the price, that seems to be a pretty fair trade-off.  The breading is even, and they actually cooked up fairly crispy after following the cooking instructions printed on the box.  They looked so good after coming out of the oven, that my hopes for them actually grew a little bit.

The taste varies from bite to bite, but even at its best, none of them are very good.  This is pretty much exactly how I remember them from ten years ago--needless to say, nothing has changed.  The cream cheese plays no role whatsoever…you know it’s in there, because you can see it (though it looks more like mashed potato), and in some bites, you can taste it, but usually you just get the bitter flavor of jalapeno followed by a mild kick.  Even when the cream cheese flavor is noticeable, it’s never the sweet, creamy addition that it is in much better versions of this product.  It’s just kind of there.

Even dipping them in ranch didn’t do much to make these any more enticing, and that’s usually my cure-all for terrible foods.  For what it’s worth, my wife liked these more than I did, though she would also be fine if we never ate these again.  Which we won’t, so that’s a good thing.

Overall: 2/10. The cream cheese looks like mashed potato and somehow has very little bearing on the flavor of this product, which has the overwhelming taste of bitter jalapeno pepper and bland breading.  Even dipping them in ranch didn’t do much to salvage them.  Despite the cheap price (they are a dollar at Dollar Tree stores), they don’t provide much in the way of value, as much better versions can be had for just a dollar more.  I tried these ten years ago and hated them then; some things never do change.

Fast Bites Chili Cheese Hot Dog (Dollar Tree)

Not even the homeless would eat this junk.
Even when purchased in packs, through more “legitimate” means, hot dogs are terrifying products.  Now, to be clear, I like them every once in a while.  But the whole common knowledge of them being more or less a bunch of spare parts ground together to form a meat-flavored log just isn’t the most enticing of ideas.  So then, dear reader, please explain to me why Fast Bites Chili Cheese Hot Dog caught my eye amongst the other pathetic-looking frozen burgers and sandwiches in Dollar Tree’s freezer section.

But it not only caught my eye, but seemed like a good idea at the time.  Even though we had just gone grocery shopping and had plenty of decent stuff at home.  But for a dollar, I reasoned with myself, you couldn’t even get a fast-food or gas station hot dog, so the value seemed to be there. 

I was a little disappointed after heating it up in the microwave (for only 90 seconds) that there really wasn’t much chili or cheese on top, and it was all right in the middle.  I mean, you could basically buy these ingredients separately, and make your own for far less than a dollar, so how couldn’t a company that mass-produces all these ingredients not be able to do that?  Nevertheless, it’s not always about what isn’t there, but what is; I figured if the chili or cheese was good, then I’d just have to do my best to savor them.

The problem is, this whole thing is trash.  The bun gets hard and chewy after sitting for just five minutes, yet is eerily sticky when warm out of the microwave.  The chili is way worse than I was expecting, tasting nothing like even the worst chili I’ve ever had, while the cheese doesn’t really shine through in the flavor, instead tossing itself in the accompanying plastic boat that it’s served in to remind you that it was even there in the first place.  Even the hot dog tastes underwhelming…a hot dog, for goodness sakes.  We’re talking a meat product where the line between good and bad is thinner than most, and this somehow manages to be worse than that.

I was hungry, and did manage to finish it, so it gets some extra points for that.  But even at $1, there’s not much value to be had.  I usually strive for all beef hot dogs, but you can still get eight of those for around $2.50, making them around $.32 each, and then dress them up in cheese and chili yourself for the same price, if not even cheaper.  Either way, it would taste a whole helluva lot better.

I get that these, and all Fast Bites products, are produced solely out of convenience, and sometimes you just can’t toss a homemade chili cheese dog into your lunch, or take one with you wherever you go.  But even by the standards of convenience (or laziness) Fast Bites Chili Cheese Dog just doesn’t come anywhere close to resembling much of an edible hot dog.  Stick to their breakfast sandwiches, which are decent-sized and with a good taste to boot, if you really need to grab something on the go.

Overall: 3/10.  I don’t know how you can screw up a hot dog, itself a parody and the world’s creepiest meat, but those good folks at Fast Bites have somehow managed to do it.  The poor-tasting hot dog is topped with a serious lack of poor-tasting chili and barely-existent cheese, enclosed in a bun that’s eerily sticky when warm, and that becomes a hardened, chewy mess within five minutes.  For some reason, I had fairly high hopes for this, but they were completely dashed after the first bite.  Stay away from this junk.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

New York Style Cheddar Mini Bagels (Big Lots)

I think this is a brand name, but it was at Big Lots and it kinda sucks, so I'm reviewing it anyway.

This is probably a name brand, but I found it at Big Lots, and so I consider it to be fair game.  It’s a 5 oz. bag for $1.30, which I don’t think is too bad at all, and since I was looking for a quick snack on a meager budget, it definitely fit the bill for me.

Nutritionally, what‘s contained inside this bag are potato chips.  The amount of calories and fat per serving are very close, so don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some kind of healthy alternative, just because the word “baked” appears on the front.  That being said, we’re all entitled to splurge on some junk food every now and again, and I was in the mood for fat and salt, so I grabbed a bag just based on its inexpensive price tag.

What I didn’t necessarily stop to think about is, “Why is this product at Big Lots?”  It’s true that there can be a myriad of legitimate reasons.  The product could be a limited edition product, or out of its selling season.  The product could be discontinued, with Big Lots relied upon to sell the last remaining units.  The product could have just been a poor seller, with the manufacturer attempting to liquidate the units.  Or it could just totally suck, and it’s there because everyone knows it sucks and refuses to buy it.

The latter might be a little too harsh, but it’s certainly close:  These things just aren’t very good.  When I first opened the bag, I honestly thought they were there because they put the wrong product in at the manufacturing plant--don’t expect any of the bagel chips to feature a nice orange, cheddar-y hue like is featured on the front of the bag--what’s contained within are white, like typical bagel chips.  My suspicions grew even stronger when I took a bite, and discovered that, despite the ingredient label’s assurance that there are not one, but two different types of cheddar cheese inside (regular, and “modified”, whatever that means) the main flavor is salt.  As I got to the bottom of the bag, the cheese flavor became more prominent and noticeable, but it still wasn’t nearly as cheesy, or as strong, as I was expecting.

Of course, you don’t have to eat these out of the bag:  I suspect these would be pretty good in soups (especially cheddar broccoli), and would probably be good with a solid ranch dip.  But just taking these at face value, with nothing added to them, they’re totally underwhelming.

I will say the $1.30 price tag still gives it some value, which adds some points to the total.  I tend to ignore serving sizes and overeat things, and yet I still managed to get about four or five servings out of it (the bag says there are “about five” in a bag), so that was good.  However, I also think the extra servings were due, in large part, to the disappointing nature of the product itself, which isn’t.

Overall: 5/10.  I didn’t really detect much cheddar, until I got near the bottom of the bag…the rest of the bites just tended to taste like salt.  They do have a nice, solid crunch, and at $1.30 for a 5 oz. package at select Big Lots stores, the price is pretty decent for a quick snack.  I’m also not discounting that these wouldn’t be good as an addition to an existing product (soups, salads, etc.), so they probably have their place in the world.  But right out of the bag, these were hugely underwhelming.

Swurves Savory Corn Crisps (Big Lots)

Not great, but if you see these for under a dollar, they're worth it.
I was at Big Lots one morning, around 11 p.m., when I was hit with a wave of sudden hunger.  Even though it’s probably not the healthiest aisle in the store, I went straight for the chips, to see if I could find something to munch on throughout the day.  Even though their inventory changes weekly, to the extent that their chip aisle looks totally different on a month-to-month basis, they always seem to have the basics:  Tortilla chips, plain chips, usually some kind of organic or bean-based chip…but none of those sounded good.  I did have a bag of off-brand barbecue corn chips in my hand, but decided against them because I didn’t want something so overtly salty.

Then my eyes stumbled on a little blue bag.  I was a little hesitant at first, because the bag was only 3 oz. (and retailed for $.75), but eventually it became apparent that the little rippled potato puffs were clearly the most appetizing option.  So I bought them, and eagerly tore into the bag right when I got home.

If you have ever had Munchos, then you will love these, because flavorwise, that’s exactly what these are.  Visually, these are smaller, almost rectangular in shape, and have deep ridges, but even once you bite into them, they have the same light, airy texture.  There is quite a bit of salt in them, typical of most potato chips, but there’s not a lot sprinkled on top, so you don’t taste a lot of sodium; not sure if that’s a good thing or not, since it’s still there regardless, but at least the salt flavor isn’t overwhelming.

Truth be told, these ended up hitting the spot, and I downed just about the entire bag by the end of the day.  There’s nothing at all spectacular about them, and even if these were a normal product Big Lots carried (as opposed to a closeout, which I’m sure these are), I would probably forget about them before my next trip there.  In other words, I would never seek them out, or get any kind of cravings for them, but for this moment in time, they were a good alternative to the typical potato chip.  Maybe if you’re ever in the same boat I was in, looking for something a little different from the norm, these may hit the spot for you, too.

Overall: 6/10.  These are basically Munchos chips, only in rectangular form, and with ripples.  The taste is very similar to that brand, as is the texture.  I’ll admit they satisfied a craving for something different that I had, and I downed the whole bag in a few hours, but it’s literally been years since I’ve had the name brand…and I could easily wait another few years before getting these again.  Nothing spectacular, but good for what they are.  And they are non-GMO certified, for those that follow the battle for food labeling closely.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Season's Choice BBQ Flavored Onion Rings (Aldi)

A bag after being eagerly dug into.
These were offered as a special buy at the same time as the cracked black pepper onion rings.  I picked them both up, as I have honestly never seen onion rings offered in different flavors (I’m sure it’s a common occurrence, but no restaurant I’ve ever been to has done it, and all the frozen ones I’ve seen have just been standard) and was eager to see what they had to offer.  We’ve seen what I thought of the black pepper, so now let’s turn our attention to exhibit B…the barbecue.

As I was expecting after trying the previous rings, the barbecue onion rings also cook up nice and crispy after about 15 minutes in the oven.  I’m still impressed with the crispiness; these have to be some of the most perfectly textured frozen onion rings I’ve ever had, so this gets some good marks on that front.  I wasn’t really sure how the barbecue would be presented--would the onion rings be glazed in a barbecue sauce?--but as it turns out, it’s just a seasoning that no one would have any idea was supposed to resemble BBQ unless they saw the packaging.  Instead, it’s just a highly salty flavor that does have some spice to it, leading to a slight burn on the tongue, but it goes away rather quickly on its own, or can be contained even quicker with a shot of milk.

I mentioned earlier that I was kind of shocked that no one else is doing flavored onion rings, but now I see why:  There are only so many things you can do with them, and none of them are really interesting.  I suppose you could glaze them in a sauce, but aside from barbecue, I can’t imagine too many other sauces that these would be good with, and I’m not sure how glazed onion rings would keep their flavor after being frozen.  So that pretty much leaves Aldi‘s method of just using different seasonings on them, which can only yield so much.  In this case, it’s a spicy, salty onion ring that, except for the stellar texture and batter on the outside, is basically just an onion ring with extra spices.

Overall: 6/10. They’re not bad, but there’s only about one thing you can do to dress up a frozen onion ring, and that’s to simply cover it in spices.  Which doesn’t lead to many possible flavor combinations, assuming you still want the onion and batter to be the focal points.  So what we have here is an onion ring that tastes pretty much like an onion ring, only with a little bit of heat. I will say the outside texture is perfect, and it cooks up real nice and crisp, but between the black pepper and barbecue onion rings, pick one (I prefer the black pepper) and I’m pretty sure you’ve just experienced the limits of frozen onion ring technology; no need to waste money on both.

Season's Choice Cracked Black Pepper Onion Rings (Aldi)

Crispy and pretty darn delicious.
 This story begins the same way many of my stories do:  With me looking through Aldi’s weekly “Special Buy” ad.  That’s when I noticed they were offering onion rings, something they surprisingly don’t always carry.  But upon closer examination, I noticed that these weren’t just any onion rings…they were cracked pepper onion rings.  I have seen fries go through many iterations, but anytime you see onion rings, they’re typically just typical onion rings.  I guess most places figure that you can’t improve upon perfection, but not Aldi!

The first thing I noticed out of the bag is that these are uniformly large pieces.  I frequently purchase their typical whole onion rings when they are made available, and the size of the individual pieces vary greatly; some are super large, while others are essentially little crisps.  The vast majority of these were large pieces.  The second thing I noticed, besides the large black pieces of pepper generously covering each piece, is that each one looks thicker; just eying them was enough to make my mouth water, as I envisioned the solid “crunch” that each one would make as I’d take a bite out of it!

I must admit, I overcooked them slightly in the oven…somehow, I did not hear the oven alarm go off after they were done.  Needless to say, the crunch I anticipated was all that…and then some.  There certainly is something different about the batter (besides the obvious addition of pepper)…while it doesn’t seem to be any thicker than their normal onion rings, it’s definitely crispier, which is excellent in my book!  As for the black pepper…I honestly didn’t feel like it added much at all.  You can definitely taste it--if you take enough bites, you can even feel a peppery taste sitting on your tongue--but these largely just taste like normal onion rings to me. 

Now, I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing.  Currently, these are the only kinds of onion rings Aldi is offering, and the extra-crunchy batter, paired up with the whole onions (as opposed to the lamer diced version) make them slightly better than the normal onion rings they carry.  However, I do believe these are a little more expensive (maybe by $.50, or so), and while I didn’t feel like the black pepper added enough to justify the price hike, they are still very good.  I personally wouldn’t hesitate to get these again; Aldi may have failed in their quest to “liven up” the onion ring, but they did prove even failures can be delicious.  Sometimes.

Overall: 7.5/10.  I really don’t think the pepper adds much, besides a peppery taste on your tongue after a few pieces, but let’s be honest here:  Can you really screw up an onion ring?  In this case, I thought the outside cooked up even crispier than their typical onion rings do, giving each bite an inviting crunch.  I also appreciated that these were made with whole onions (as opposed to diced), which always makes a better tasting ring.  If memory serves me correctly, these are about $.50 more expensive than the typical, “regular” rings that Aldi carries, but seeing as how these are the only kinds of onion rings they are offering right now, I wouldn’t hesitate to get these again to satisfy an OR craving.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Cheese Club Carribean Jerk Macaroni and Cheese (Aldi)

"Caribbean Sucks" is more like it.
Can I be up front with everyone for a moment?  I have no idea what the hell “Carribean jerk” even is (besides a person who's an asshole of Caribbean descent).  Sure, I’ve seen jerk chicken advertised in chain restaurants (?), but have never ordered it, and never even been curious enough to ask what it is.  So maybe it’s kind of bizarre that, between Caribbean Jerk or Sriracha macaroni and cheese, both of which are available as special buys in Aldi stores, I went with the former.

My reasoning, beyond simply wanting to try something new, is that sriracha products have completely been overblown as of late.  They’re like the equivalent of zombie movies in Hollywood; everywhere you look it’s sriracha this, or sriracha that.  The whole sriracha craze has exploded, and while I admit to liking the stuff straight out of the bottle, the thought of its flavor being added to something already is a complete turnoff to me.  Nowhere is that more evident than at Aldi this week, where it’s apparently “hot week”:  They are offering a variety of spicy products, and just about all of them have sriracha as an option, from sriracha lime popcorn (?), to sriracha flavored potato chips, to the aforementioned sriracha mac and cheese…so I said “Enough already!”, and went with the road less traveled.

The only problem is, having no idea of what jerk is, or what it should taste like, I have no reference point.  That being said, Cheese Club’s Caribbean Jerk macaroni and cheese is pretty bad.  The problem isn’t with the heat:  Surprisingly, this stuff is pretty spicy.  Granted, I’m not huge into spicy foods, so those that eat it frequently will probably find it to be less hot than I did, but a few bites in and my mouth was burning.  The problem is the taste, which tastes like nothing I’ve ever had, so I can’t compare it to anything, but it’s not a taste I enjoy.  It doesn’t come of as very “cheesy” to me, like I would think macaroni and cheese should be…it’s just kind of salty, maybe vaguely cheesy, and then it’s followed up by a bunch of heat.  Definitely not something I would ever get again, and it honestly makes sriracha mac and cheese sound even worse than it already did.

Overall: 3.5/10.  I’ll admit, I have no idea what “jerk” should taste like, but if this mac and cheese is authentic, then I’m glad I’ve avoided it for all 31 years of my life.  It tastes like severe salt overload, with a little taste of something that vaguely resembles cheese, followed up by a pretty strong blast of heat.  So if you’re in the minority and prefer heat over flavor, then you might like this.  But if you like an equal balance of both, then I wouldn’t even give this a shot.  Its only saving grace is value, with each box retailing for under $.75.  Even then, unless you can find it on clearance for half off (or more), I don’t think it’s worth it at all.

Fresh Finds Premium Shells and Cheese (Big Lots)

Not bad, but not the best deal around.
I loved the name brand shells and cheese dinner when I was a kid, but mainly because it was a treat.  My mom was a single mother and didn’t have much money at all, so usually she would buy the cheap elbow macaroni and cheese stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked that too, but the shells were always so much creamier, cheesier, and delicious.

Well I was in a pinch one night, with no car (it was in the shop) and nothing to eat for dinner, when my wife took me to Big Lots to get a couple of things.  I opted to look for dinner there, too, which is no small feat; aside from fifty different types of noodles, and another fifty different types of pasta sauces, BL doesn’t offer much in the way of comprehensive dinners.  Still, fast food didn’t sound good, and going to the supermarket is one of my least favorite things to do in the world, so I figured I could suck it up and make do for one night.

After looking at the unappetizing all-in-one meals they offered, which were weird combinations of meats and noodles prepackaged in plastic microwavable bowls, I decided to take a look at their macaroni and cheese varieties.  Even though their inventory rotates fairly consistently, they always have a few basic styles of macaroni and cheese on hand, so I knew I could at least buy the name brand in a blue box, if I had to.  That’s when I saw Fresh Finds Shells and Cheese, obviously a knockoff of the more well-known national brand shells.  I had seen that they offered this before, but was kind of turned off by the $1.70 price tag (which is only about $.50 cheaper than the national brand price at most places).  Not seeing anything else even approaching edible, I decided now would be a good time to give it a shot.

Aside from Aldi‘s version, the only other knockoff shells and cheese dinner that I‘ve had (and forgot to review) was from Dollar Tree.  All I can say is, don’t ever buy that; the cheese was so orange it was almost cartoonish, giving off a disgusting orange glow.  Beyond that, it just tasted like salt, with maybe a little bit of cheddar powder thrown in to give the illusion that they were trying.  Still, those thoughts ran through my head as I prepared Fresh Finds’ version.  Would it at least taste similar to the national brand?  Or would it have more in common with the dollar store crap I suffered through?

Thankfully, it’s an almost spot-on recreation of the national brand, from the appearance (size of noodles are very similar, if not exact, as is the consistency and color of the cheese sauce), all the way down to taste.  I did feel like there was a little tang missing in the finish, when compared to the national brand, but the initial taste is virtually exact, and the difference is so slight so as to be rather nit-picky.

So while I did find it to be a good (and slightly less expensive) alternative to the national brand, it still doesn’t hold a candle up to Aldi’s version, which tastes very similar, and is still $.51 cheaper than even Big Lots (making it about a dollar cheaper than the national brand).  For these reasons, Aldi’s Cheese Club brand will be my number one, but if you don’t have an Aldi near you, or if I ever found myself in a similar situation, I’d at least feel confident knowing I have a solid backup.

Overall: 7/10.  Taste and appearance is pretty spot-on to the national brand, and you’ll save a couple of quarters going with Big Lots’ house version; however, Aldi offers a similar product for a couple quarters less than even Fresh Finds (making it about a dollar cheaper than the national brand).  For this reason, I tend to go with Aldi’s knockoff.  But if you don’t have an Aldi store near you, or happen to be in a Big Lots with a craving for mac and cheese, this will suit you just fine. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Nature's Nectar Blendz Peach & Mango 100% Juice (Aldi)

I’m a pretty big fan of Nature’s Nectar Blendz line, which consist of 100% fruit AND vegetable juices, a statement that’s based entirely on their strawberry banana version.  The first time I tried it, I was taken aback at how sweet it was, and how accurate the strawberry banana flavor managed to be, even though there were ten different juices in it.  Even though it's one of my favorite juices from the discount grocer, it's not one that I tend to get all the time, instead relegating it to every couple of months when I want something a little bit different from the typical orange and apple juices.

Well on my latest trip to Aldi, I saw that they were offering a new flavor: Peach and Mango!  Now, I love peach, and although I like mango a lot more than I used to (which wasn’t at all), I’m still not sold on being a huge fan.  I went ahead and grabbed it on a whim, as we were getting ready to head to the checkout line and I just remembered that I hadn’t grabbed a juice yet; since this was different, I tossed it into the cart.

It really smells fresh, and the distinct aromas of peach and mango are appropriately front and center.  It’s a very appetizing scent that made my mouth water--and it’s got the taste to match.  This stuff is really fantastic…I have to say it’s one of my favorite juices I’ve ever gotten from the German discount chain.  Its sweetness from the peach is offset a bit by the mango, which gives it a little tartness; as in any great duo, they keep each other in check.  Just as with the strawberry banana one I tried, I’m also impressed with how flavorful and accurate it is even though it’s comprised of juices from four vegetables, and four fruits; I’ve had straight-up juices that weren’t this good.

I’m not sure if these are a constant, or a summer special buy (I’ve only noticed a berry blend being available, along with the strawberry banana, as the only year ‘round options); whether I can pick it up on a regular basis, or have to wait a full year to get it again, I will be getting it a lot in the future.  As much as I like the strawberry banana, I’ve got to say there is a new sheriff in Blendzville!

Overall: 9/10.  A delicious blend of juices from eight different fruits and vegetables that come together to make a surprisingly fresh-tasting concoction that nears perfection.  The sweetness of the peach is counterbalanced by the tartness of the mango.  Easily the best of the Blendz line, and one of the best juices available from Aldi stores…it’s seriously that good.

Nature's Nectar Blendz Strawberry Banana 100% Juice (Aldi)

Who knew vegetable and fruit juices could work so well together?
I’m always into trying new juices, especially now that I’m trying to minimize the amount of soda that I drink.  Of course the down side to this, is juices often have a ton of sugar, sometimes close to the amount found in a serving of soda, but it’s at least counterbalanced with an abundance of vitamins.  That’s a trade-off I’m willing to take (and if I’m not, I’ll just drink water).

Enter Nature’s Nectar Blendz, which somehow purport to blend both fruit and vegetable juices into a drinkable juice blend.  Even on paper this idea sounds pretty preposterous, and not at all delicious, but I nevertheless first decided to try their strawberry banana version a couple of years ago.  Since then, it has become one of my staple juice choices to grab every time we visit Aldi stores.

Why?  At the risk of sounding like a commercial, it’s a great way to combine a servings of fruits and a serving of vegetables (per 8 ounces), only without having to taste the veggies.  Now I’ll admit that I really do like just about all forms of vegetables, so it’s not necessarily all about the taste factor for me, but I also don’t really go out of my way to buy them at the store.  This is a decent way to make sure I’m getting at least a serving or two in my system.

Of course the number one reason, is this stuff tastes pretty good.  Now it’s not really a super-accurate portrayal of strawberry banana juice, but it’s pretty darn tasty when you realize it’s made out of beet, tomato, carrot, sweet potato, grapes, oranges, and apple juices (on top of clarified bananas, banana puree, and strawberry juices, of course).  Even though I can make out some tomato juice if I really pay attention, the blend as a whole still remains very sweet and consistent throughout, so you won’t ever take a swig and taste nothing but, say, carrots and beets.  The strawberry and banana juices really take center stage, so you definitely get more of these than anything else.

For parents, I could also see this as a great way to get finicky kids to get some vegetables in their system.  Though some will probably be off-put by some of the flavor profiles, the fact that it’s sweet and the strawberry and banana manages to stay the focal point could trick some kids into thinking they’re drinking just straight up fruit juice, which can make it a win-win for everyone.  As I said, it’s fairly high in sugar (25g per serving), but there’s no high fructose corn syrup added, and it’s also high in Vitamins A and C, so the trade-off, at least in my opinion, is worth it.

Overall: 8/10.  A fruit juice with vegetable juices added that somehow tastes good?  Sign me up!  While it doesn’t taste exactly like a strawberry banana juice (you’ll get some tomato if you pay attention), it’s still close enough to be one of my favorite juices that Aldi carries.  It’s fairly high in sugar content (at 25g per 8 oz. serving), but that’s balanced out by a high amount of Vitamins A and C, as well as smaller amounts of six others.  This could also be a great option for kids who refuse to eat vegetables, as each 8 oz. glass contains one serving of both fruits and vegetables.  No matter how off-putting you think the combination appears (and I would agree it sounds disgusting), assuming you even remotely like fruit juice, I’d definitely recommend giving this a shot.

Appetitos Fire-Roasted Poblano Bites (Aldi)

A solid, occasional alternative to jalapeno poppers.
I had never heard of a “poblano pepper bite” prior to seeing them at Aldi, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to try them.  While products in the Appetitos line vary from terrible, to really good, their cream cheese jalapenos are some of the best that you can get anywhere, and for a very small price, too.  So that’s what really intrigued me about these…it looked similar to a jalapeno popper, only substitute jalapenos with roasted poblano peppers (of course), corn, and other assorted spices.  At the very least, it would be something a little different.

Cooking is actually ridiculously simple: As with most other frozen appetizers, you can toss them in the oven (our preferred method, as we do not have a deep fryer), but these require less than ten minutes, and you have yourself some fully cooked, and semi-crispy roasted poblano bites.  The breading they use here seems to be the same breading used in their poppers and, by extension, probably their Reuben bites, mozzarella sticks, and every other breaded product in their line.  I’m not complaining, though, because it cooks up nicely in the oven.

The taste is similar enough to jalapeno poppers to appeal to that crowd, but with the peppers and corn, there’s a more “southwestern” kind of taste.  Similar to the jalapeno version, however, this has a surprisingly strong little bite; unless you’re very sensitive to heat, it won’t be enough to require you to keep milk or cold water nearby, but it’s unmistakably there.  The cream cheese helps to offset it with a little bit of coolness on its own--with some dried garlic and onion, it really gives it a pretty tasty flavor that’s different from the standard “popper” filling, and that pairs up well with the peppers and corn contained inside.

For $2.29 (thirty cents more than most of the items in the Appetitos line), you get twelve good-sized pepper bites, making the value pretty solid.  They were a little smaller than the cream cheese jalapenos, but you also get three more of them, so it all evens out.  They’re not incredible, but for something that’s slightly off the beaten path, they’re certainly worth a try.

Overall: 7/10.  There’s nothing that really stands out here, but overall, these are a pretty good change of pace from Appetitos excellent cream cheese jalapenos.  It’s the same idea as those, but with roasted pablano peppers and corn instead.  There’s a good bit of heat, though catered toward mainstream tastes so it’s nothing that most people won’t be able to handle, and the cream cheese helps to cool things down a little bit on its own.  The taste can best be described as a “southwestern popper”, with the corn and pepper blend really giving it that kind of flavor.  For $2.29, we got twelve good-sized poppers, so value is there, as well.  Good stuff, especially for the price.

Appetitos Reuben Bites (Aldi)

These surprisingly aren't bad at all.
I’m not a big fan of Reubens at all, with the sole exception of the ones my wife makes.  Sure, she uses only ingredients that can be found at any supermarket, but there’s just something about her combination that taste way better than the ones I’ve tried from any restaurant.

My wife is a HUGE fan of Reubens, however, so we purchased these Reuben bites the last time they were available as a Special Buy at Aldi.  I remembered liking them a lot, but never reviewed them, so it took no hesitation on either of our parts’ to purchase them again the next time they were being offered.

They look similar to pretty much everything else Appetitos offers--needless to say, they are breaded chunks of fat- and cholesterol-filled goodness.  For the price, you get about eight or nine good-sized bites--there were more than enough there to fill up my wife and I (though we used them as a side dish).  All you do is pop them out of the box, put them on a baking sheet, and bake them in the oven for ten or so minutes; the prep work couldn’t be any easier.

I always require some kind of dipping sauces with my appetizers, and these were no exception--I turned to a bottle of Thousand Island dressing, which I figured was appropriate.  Even without sauce, these things are pretty good, although as you would expect, they’re pretty darn salty.  The meat, while coming nowhere close to the taste of a good Reuben, is pretty good for a frozen appetizer--I would go so far as to say that these are chain restaurant quality (though “chain” and “quality” are often oxymorons); the thing is, you would pay upwards of $8 for these at a restaurant, whereas these are a mere $2.49 (which is fifty cents more than the average product in the line, but still not too expensive at all).  There’s already some dressing inside, but more is always better, so I finished them off by dipping them in some fresh Thousand Island, which honestly took these to a whole ‘nother level.

In short, these weren’t quite as mind-blowingly good as I remember, but for fans of this kind of stuff, it’s still a worthy way to spend $2, and I will still pick these up in the future from time to time when they are offered.

Overall: 7/10. These aren’t as amazing as I remember them, but Appetitos Reuben Bites are still pretty good, especially when dipped in a dressing (such as Thousand Island, which really makes the flavor pop).  On their own, they’re a little salty (par for the course) and not really that close to the flavor of a well-made Reuben, but for a frozen appetizer that costs a mere $2.49, what did you honestly expect?  Given the price, and their only occasional availability as Aldi special buys, these are worth picking up at least a couple of times a year.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Clancy's Bold Party Mix (Aldi)

It's BOLD because the bag tells you it is!
Aldi always sells party mix under the “Clancy's” brand moniker, but it’s usually only original and cheddar.  I do not like the cheddar, which features all the party bits covered in a dusting of fake-tasting cheese powder.  No thanks.  I do like the traditional, and actually hadn’t had it in a while, when I saw that Aldi was offering a “bold” version as a special buy.  Craving a salty snack, I grabbed a bag.

And what can you really say about it?  I assume “bold” means “traditional” party mix, but with more salt.  Or maybe there are just more spices…I can’t really say for sure what makes this “bold“, since the basic taste is very similar to the traditional version.  All I know is, my mouth burns after a couple bites of the stuff--but it’s not like a spicy burn, but a burn more akin to when you eat too much salty stuff, hence my reasoning that there‘s probably extra salty seasoning (rhyme intended).

The one thing that Clancy’s gets right, is there seems to be an even distribution of all the individual pieces, at least in relation to their size.  This doesn’t mean you’re going to get just as many rye chips as cereal pieces…that would be ridiculous.  It just means that they don’t skimp on anything, or put too many of one type of item in there.  That might sound like a common sense statement, but most party mixes that I’ve tried seriously overload on the pretzel bits, which are pretty much dry and tasteless; get too many of them in there, and it’s like you’re eating sandpaper.  I’ve downed more than half the bag in about three sittings, and the distribution has been pretty even.  Sure, you get a lot of cereal pieces, but that’s to be expected…it’s a cereal mix, for God’s sake.  But there’s not an overwhelming amount of anything versus another--even the rye chips (my favorite) are in abundance.

Basically, what you get is what you’re expecting to get from a product labeling itself as “bold“: A party mix with some extra kick.  At $2.29 for a 15 oz. bag, there’s quite a lot of snack in here for a pretty minuscule price, so there’s also value to be had.  It’s nothing spectacular, and it’s not out of the ordinary, but if you’re just looking for a cheap way to entertain some guests, or a salty snack to satisfy your savory tooth, it’ll get the job done.

Overall: 7/10.  What you’re expecting to get is what you get: A party mix with some extra “kick”.  I’m not sure if said kick results from different spices, or if it’s just some extra salt, but either way, it delivers.  The usual suspects are here, from the standard cereal bits, to rye chips, pretzels, and little breadstick-looking things, so there’s nothing unique or fancy on display, but the distribution is even (unlike many similar mixes, which tend to overload on the boring, drab pretzels) and it tastes good.  There’s also some value, at $2.29 for a 15 oz. bag.  If you’re craving something salty, as I was, this will definitely satisfy.

Horseradish Cheddar Krinkle-Cut Kettle Chips (Aldi)

Wow. "The Two D's": different, and delicious.
I have a not-sure-if-I-like-it-or-hate-it relationship with horseradish.  I’m seriously not sure how I feel about it.  On the one hand, I like its bite, but on the honor, its flavor can be very hit or miss for me.  Sure, if any ingredient is misused, it can cause problems in a recipe, but with such an aggressive, in-your-face flavor such as horseradish, the line between success and failure is often razor thin.

With that in mind, I purchased Clancy’s Horseradish Cheddar Krinkle Cut Kettle Chips for my lunch at work a couple of weeks ago.  Why would I buy something I’m not sure I’d like?  If this is your first time here, I’ve reviewed chips that tasted (supposedly) like hamburgers and hot wings, for goodness sakes…clearly, I enjoy (if that is the right term) testing the limits of my taste buds. 

Even though these were purchased for my lunch, I admittedly was so curious about the taste, that I dipped into the bag right when I got home.  But that was about a week ago; since then, I’ve had a chance to experience them even more in depth, and I have got to say:  The taste has really grown on me.

From the outset, there was one thing I appreciated:  Every chip is generously covered in both cheddar AND horseradish.  A big complaint for me concerning Aldi-brand chips, as I’m sure long-time readers (do I have any?) have grown accustomed to hearing about, is the inconsistency between batches; from bag to bag, you don’t know what you’re going to get.  I’ve purchased barbecue chips, for example, where every chip is red, and covered in powder, while others just have a slight dashing, like it was just thrown in as an afterthought.  It really makes it hard to rate these when that’s the case.

But these…these chips are absolutely coated, so that was a big plus.  Or was it?  For not knowing whether or not I like horseradish, these were probably not the smartest chips to try; about three seconds after you put on in your mouth, your tongue will burn.  It’s not a lasting feeling--it goes away about the time you swallow your chip--but it’s unmistakably there, and along with it is an intense horseradish flavor.  Seriously, it’s almost brutal how much horseradish there is.

At first, I wasn’t really sure how I felt.  On the one hand, the flavor was pretty good--thanks largely to a generous helping of cheddar, too, which offsets the heat and provides a cooler flavor--but the sheer amount of the other stuff was almost too much to bear, so I put the bag away.  I ate it for lunch the next day, to similarly mixed feelings.  Then I packed it in my lunch the next day, and my mouth started watering early in the morning just thinking about it.  That’s right, my friends:  in the span of about three days, I went from being completely undecided, to actually looking forward to eating them.  I can’t really think of another product off the top of my head that had this kind of effect on me.

Bottom line?  I love these things.  They’re unlike any chip I’ve ever had…well, let me clarify that a little bit:  They’re unlike any GOOD chip I’ve ever had.  This isn’t the typical “let’s load it up on cheddar and throw in a tad bit of horseradish so we can still make it appeal to the masses” that most “mainstream” chip manufacturers would settle for; this is “we threw in a boatload of horseradish, and added in a touch of cheddar and if you don’t like that then don’t go anywhere near this f-ing bag.”

Overall: 8.5/10.  Horseradish isn’t exactly a “friendly” flavor, but these chips are loaded to the gills with the stuff, to the point that you’ll get a slight burn on your tongue as soon as you put them in your mouth.  Thankfully, they’re also softened up, and evened out, a bit by a generous helping of cheddar cheese.  At first, I wasn’t sure if the combination worked, but after my mouth started watering just thinking about them a few days later, I knew they had won me over.  Each chip is LOADED with so much of each ingredient that it’s almost absurd, but it somehow works.  If you like to try new things, and don’t mind horseradish, you should definitely scope these out.