Saturday, May 30, 2015

Belmont Cookies & Cream Ice Cream (Aldi)

Has this ice cream fully recovered from the recession? Yes!
I have a massive love-hate relationship with Aldi’s cookies and cream ice cream.  When I first started buying it, which was around 2007, each carton was smothered in delicious cookies, and it had a creaminess that was second-to-none.  Then, the recession hit.  All of a sudden the cartons became 90% vanilla ice cream, with just a few sprinkles of cookie throughout, and I refused to buy them.  Every few months, or so, we would open a carton to see if anything had changed--after doing this a few times, to similar disappointment, I even stopped doing THAT.  I made a mental note never to buy it again, and it was all but forgotten.

On our latest shopping trip, my wife had a sudden craving for cookies and cream ice cream.  This, in and of itself, was pretty out-of-the-blue:  I’m a huge cookies and cream fan, while it’s generally something she can take or leave.  She remembered the desolate, barren cartons that led to us refusing to buy them, but she felt like it was time to give them another chance.  After all, it had been at least three years, and while people often cannot change, can the same be said for cartons of ice cream?

Thankfully, the answer is “yes”, because this latest carton is a return to yesteryear.  The vanilla ice cream (or, the “cream” in the title) is creamy, rich, and full of flavor--in other words, the way it used to be.  There is a generous spattering of Oreo-style cookie pieces throughout (complete with cream filling in some!), but there are also huge chunks at semi-regular intervals, ranging from half a cookie, to almost a whole one.  These cookie chunks are chocolaty and delicious, and have the added benefit of being a little soggy from being hidden inside frozen cream for so long, giving it similar texture to dipping them in a glass of milk.

If you’re even half the cookies and cream fan that I am, you owe it to yourself to pick up a carton.  For well under $3, it’s got a creaminess that’s generally unmatched in its price range; now that the cartons are back to being loaded with cookies, you definitely get your money’s worth in that regard, too.

Overall: 8.5/10.  An old-time favorite is back!  A rich, creamy vanilla is loaded with bits of cookie, and the end result is one of my favorite supermarket ice creams.  At well under $3 for a half-gallon carton, it’s also a good choice for those looking for some sweets on a budget.  The score does come with a bit of skepticism, however, as during the recession, they severely cut back on the amount of cookie in each carton, leaving you with little more than vanilla ice cream--it was that way for at least a couple of years. Assuming this is the quality we can expect, this is the score it deserves.

UPDATE (6/1/19): Purchased at least a dozen cartons of this since the initial review was posted, and am happy to say that they have been consistently full of cookies. Buy with confidence that this ice cream will change your life! Or at least not disappoint you.

Friendly's Celebration Roll (Aldi)

FRIENDLY'S CELEBRATION ROLL
No celebration is complete without it!
This might be pushing the limits of what my blog is all about.  After all, Friendly’s is a national brand.  But you know what? They just shut down the last of our Friendly’s stores in Ohio last year, and some of the memories with my mom consist of going to the Friendly’s down the street when I was a little one back in the early nineties.  If nothing else, I’ll justify it as being an ode to my childhood; a trip down memory lane, and the fact Aldi carried it as a special buy only strengthens my argument.  Although, in all honesty, it’s my blog, so I really don’t have to justify it at all.  Ha!

This particular Friendly’s dessert consists of a square-shaped “loaf” of ice cream.  It consists of three layers:  A chocolate ice cream layer on the bottom, a second layer of vanilla in the middle, and then a top layer made to taste like frosting, complete with multi-colored sprinkles.  In between each layer are some “chocolatey crunchies” as the box excitedly declares.

In all honesty, there’s nothing spectacular about this.  The chocolate ice cream is just straight up chocolate ice cream, with no decadent modifications.  Ditto for the vanilla, and between those two layers, you’re looking at upwards of 80% of the whole thing.  But you know what?  Maybe it’s those aforementioned memories talking, or my absolute love of ice cream cakes and desserts, but there’s just something about it that I liked.  Part of it is certainly the frosting-flavored top layer, which is perfectly creamy and sweet and reminds one of a birthday cake from their youth.  The chocolatey crunchies, again, the biggest selling point according to the packaging, are also good, though rather skimpy.

I also like the inspired “loaf” shape, which I think actually encourages smaller servings.  My wife and I, who are both huge into ice cream treats of almost any kind, ended up getting about ten sized servings by cutting them no thicker than a slice of bread, and they ended up being the perfect size to fulfill our ice cream cravings.  That made me feel like we easily got our $5 worth.

Overall: 7.5/10.  There’s really nothing spectacular at all about this treat, with the possible exception of the excellent top layer, which tastes like frosting.  Other than that, you get little more than unmodified chocolate and vanilla layers, with a thin addition of little chocolate crunchies in between.  But you know what?  I enjoyed it, and would get it again in a heartbeat.  Most of that love might stem from childhood memories of eating at Friendly’s restaurants with my mom (they just shut down all of them in Ohio last year, but not before my wife, mom, and step dad traveled an hour each way just to eat there one final time), but for the $4.99 Aldi asking price, my wife and I got about six servings apiece, and they were enough to satisfy our ice cream cravings.  There may not be anything fancy here, but it’s simple, it’s good, and the price is right.  Grab one before they sell out!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Fusia Sweet & Sour Chicken (Aldi)

The item on the left is what I'm reviewing here, ladies and gentlemen.
I have reviewed a few items from Fusia’s Asian-themed line, and find them to be decent values for the price.  Of course, you’re not going to get authenticity out of any of their frozen dishes; all of them seem to be formulated with American taste buds in mind.  But for what they are, they tend to be on par with cheap Chinese fast food establishments (i.e. Panda Express, and similarly terrible places).

Their Sweet and Sour Chicken entrée is no exception.

Now, the one thing that confuses me, is sometimes I’ve seen their entrees come with rice, and other times, the rice is absent.  Even more baffling is that the ones that come with rice seem to be $1 cheaper, yet are just as filling.  Anyway, this is one of them that does NOT come with rice, so you’re looking at $4.99 for what amounts to a bunch of chicken, with a generous pouch of sweet and sour sauce.

Out of the oven, the chicken is pretty crispy, though visually it’s just as off-putting and questionable as most Chinese chicken products are.  The included sweet and sour sauce is more sweet than sour, but goes down easy and tastes good.  Just like most mass-produced Chinese dishes (including those from the aforementioned “fast food“ Asian places), the sauce isn’t anywhere near memorable, but it’s not supposed to be; it’s simply made straightforward and safe so as to appeal to the most amount of people possible.

The chicken, by itself, is rather bland, but I guess the whole point is to douse it in the sauce, which certainly makes it more palatable.  As I mentioned earlier, there are generous helpings of the sauce. I tend to eat half of the dish right out of the oven, and then save the rest for tomorrow, and there is always enough sauce leftover to re-douse the rest of the chicken the following day.  Honestly, I feel like this tasted even better reheated a day later, though that just could have been due to my intense hunger.  The main downside to reheating it is that the chicken gets soggy and even more questionable, but at least all the flavors are still there.

Overall: 6.5/10.  It’s filling, there’s lots of food here, and also a generous amount of sweet and sour sauce.  I’m recommending this for people who just want something quick and easy; it tastes good, and can be thrown together in under twenty minutes.  It’s just that this is nothing more than dime-a-dozen frozen Chinese food.  The sweet and sour is more sweet than sour, and reminiscent of millions of Chinese restaurants the world over.  The chicken is questionable to begin with and, the longer it goes uneaten, gets soggy and even more questionable.  It also doesn’t come with rice, like some of the Fusia entrees do, yet costs a dollar more than those.  Granted, there’s a lot of chicken here (I had enough for two servings), and rice isn’t expensive, but still something to be aware of.

Fusia General Tso's Chicken (Aldi)

Rice sold separately.
This is my third or fourth review of Aldi’s frozen Chinese offerings, and rather than dwelling on how depressing that is, let’s focus on how they can be hit or miss. 

Fusia’s General Tso’s Chicken is definitely more the former, and it’s a good addition to the frozen Asian line.  The chicken, which is cooked in the oven, as opposed to in the microwave or on the stove top, is shockingly crispy, with a breading that suits it well.  A quick sniff gives you the impression that it’s going to be spicy, and this dish definitely has some kick to it.  Of course, since it’s a ‘mainstream’ entrée, and thus must appeal to a wide variety of tastes, you’re not going to get anything that’s going to make your eyes water, but the spices definitely put a little heat in your mouth.

The sauce is a fairly straightforward Americanized Chinese sauce, in that it pretty much resembles a sweet and sour sauce.  But then again, you wouldn’t go in to a frozen supermarket meal expecting anything gourmet now, would you?  Still, it’s good for what it is, and definitely won’t put a damper on your dining experience any more than the fact you‘re eating frozen Chinese food already will.

My main complaint with the Fusia line still pertains here, and that’s that the chicken on the bottom of the bowl gets pretty darn soggy after a while.  It’s like this with every chicken dish I’ve ever tried from their line.  I don’t know if you’ve ever eaten soggy chicken, but it’s about as appetizing as it sounds.  It becomes limp and uninviting, two adjectives you should never want to hear describe your food.

All that comes in the package is the chicken and sauce packet, so you will have to add your rice, but it makes quite a large portion of chicken.  I went in really hungry, and only managed to polish off about half of it before I started feeling full.  And just like takeout, frozen Chinese tastes just as good the next day!  Still though, that means it’s under $3 a serving, and you can’t beat that.  I would imagine there would be enough here to fill up a family of four, assuming they aren’t teenagers or overly starved, so you really get some bang for your buck. 

Overall: 7/10.  If you like frozen Chinese food, you’ll get some mileage out of this.  Since it doesn’t come with rice, all you’re paying for is the chicken and sauce, and for $5, you get a lot of each.  Made in the oven, the battered chicken comes out surprisingly crispy.  The sauce is more a spicy sweet and sour, and while it’s nothing to write home about, it does have a perfect amount of kick and some good flavor.  The standard ‘is it really chicken?’ complaints apply, as something just doesn’t feel quite right about the meat.  But hey, that’s processed food for ya!  Some good bang for your buck, too, as there’s probably enough here to feed a family of four, assuming none are teenagers or overly hungry.  It’s obviously nothing gourmet, but it’s good for what it is, and that’s reason enough for me to recommend it.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Big Jak Iced Peach Tea Flavored Energy Drink (Big Lots)

Big Jak Iced can from all angles, courtesy of WWEnergy
Boy is Big Lots a great place to get energy-providing beverages!  On the same haul that produced the Red Rain drink featured in a previous review, I also found Big Jak Iced which, as the name implies, is an iced tea/energy drink hybrid.

This one also has a very fakey flavor that consists of peach and iced tea.  It really tastes like a bad canned tea knockoff, but it goes down easy and doesn’t have a bad aftertaste, so I have to give it some recognition for that.  I also just realized that it has no sugar, and only 5 calories per 8 oz. serving (or 10 in the whole 16 oz. can).  It’s sweetened with sucralose, which I’m sure is linked to cancer somehow, as every artificial sweetener seems to be, but this at least partially forgives the flavor, as it essentially makes it a diet tea.  I’m actually pretty shocked they don’t make a bigger point of mentioning this anywhere on the can (at least, not anywhere I noticed) as it could be a big selling point these days.

At $.50 a can at Big Lots stores, presumably while supplies last, this is quite a value.  It’s not nearly as smooth as Arizona’s Drive (also available at Big Lots, and for the same price), but where it may lack in smoothness, it makes up for in caffeine:  There’s 120 mg…per 8 oz. serving.  Since there’s two servings in here, that means there’s a whopping 240 mg inside a whole can.  For fifty cents?!  It’s certainly a super-cheap way to get a big boost.  Due to my low tolerance for caffeine, it only took me half a can to get super-hyped, so that took my savings even further, as I only paid a quarter per sitting.  Easily an amazing value in the world of energy drinks!

Overall: 8/10.  I could do without the intensely fake peach flavoring, but the tea part is very good and it goes down easy, with no medicine aftertaste.  There’s a lot of caffeine (240 mg per can) in here for not a lot of dough ($.50 per can at Big Lots stores), so this provides an excellent source of value for those looking to get a nice energy rush on a budget.  It only took me a few sips before I started feeling it, and I only needed half the can to really get going, so it works.  I would get it again, for sure.  It does what it’s supposed to do, does it well, and only costs two quarters…what’s not to like?  Besides the ultra-lame peach flavoring, that is.

Red Rain Downpour (Cherry Limeade) Energy Drink (Big Lots)

RED RAIN DOWNPOUR (CHERRY LIMEADE) ENERGY DRINK

Meh.
Though it’s probably not the best idea, I’ve been getting back into energy drinks lately.  I used to drink them all the time (well, one a day), but then started getting heart palpitations.  Then, I noticed I was drinking so many that they stopped giving me any form of energy whatsoever, so that made the decision to give them up for good pretty easy.

But that was about five years ago.  Since that time, I’ve cut back on overall caffeine consumption immensely, going from at least one soda a day to maybe one a week, on average.  I had been using my hour lunch at work to take naps (did that for the better part of seven years), but between waking up very groggy more often than not, and trying to be more productive, I figured that I’d just drink some for a month or so, just to help me stay awake; as weird as it sounds, quitting seven years of almost daily naps isn’t easy to quit cold-turkey.

Due to my now low tolerance for caffeine, I’ve found that a full 16 oz. can of most energy drinks will last me two full days, and sometimes even three.  This way, I can get the right amount to gear up for the afternoon, without feeling like I’ve gone overboard.  And hopefully, without wearing out the effects of caffeine altogether.

To gear up for my latest work week, I grabbed a handful of various energy drinks from Big Lots.  One that I was most excited for was Red Rain’s Downpour, a cherry limeade-flavored concoction.  My wife bought this several months back, and I really liked the sip I tried; she also really enjoyed it, so my expectations were set pretty high.

Well let’s just say it’s not nearly as good as I remember.  Of course, for $.50 a can, you shouldn’t be expecting any “real” ingredients, so true-to-form, this contains no actual cherry or lime juices.  The scent is fakey and strong, but it’s unmistakably cherry--there’s not much of a hint of lime, at least to the nose.

Flavorwise, the cherry dominates, so the scent does not lie, though lime does poke through slightly in the background.  What I don’t remember from the previous sampling, is just how syrupy it is; it literally reminded me of cough syrup going down, and even goes so far as to leave a mediciney aftertaste.  To sum up, it’s fake as crap, and not really all that enjoyable to drink.  But points must be given because it certainly gave me a boost of energy, and each can is only $.50 at Big Lots, a price point that you really can’t beat.  I’d recommend it for those on a budget as a cheap burst of energy, but it’s certainly nothing special, as far as energy drinks go.

Overall: 5/10.  It did what I wanted it to do (gave me energy), and is very cheap (fifty cents a can), so I’ve got to give it some credit.  But the chemical-induced artificial flavoring (it has no cherry or lime juices) is overly fake, and gives off a mediciney aftertaste to go along with a texture of heavy syrup.  If you need a burst of energy on the cheap, this will give it to you, but if flavor matters, there are definitely better energy drinks out on the market…but not many at this price point.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mama Cozzi's 16" Spinach and Feta Extra Large Thin Crust Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

A nice change of pace from Aldi's normal take and bake options.
This story starts off the way it usually does:  The wife and I at Aldi, looking for something to eat for dinner.  We were about to settle for a frozen pizza, or (gasp) hot dogs, when I remembered seeing an ad for a spinach and feta take and bake pizza in a recent Aldi ad.  We were there a few days before the ad took effect, so I wasn’t sure if they’d have it, but thankfully they did!  Great.

Mama Cozzi’s take and bake pizzas do not have much of a history of disappointing us, and this one continues in that trend.  The spinach is good, and the mozzarella cheese that tops it off tastes even better than usual.  But what really shined, at least for me, is the feta cheese--I couldn’t get enough of it.  I’m tempted to say that I didn’t feel like there was a substantial amount of feta on this pizza, but I don’t know if that’s the truth, or if there was actually plenty, and I just wanted more.  Either way, it was a perfect, and inspired, addition.

I think my biggest gripe is that this pizza actually used tomato sauce.  While it still tasted really good, and combined well with the ingredients, I still feel like this could have benefited from a different kind of sauce, though one I can’t quite put my fingers on.  Perhaps pesto, or a garlic cream?  Or maybe no sauce at all?  I’m just thinking aloud, but I was expecting a lighter sauce to allow the spinach and feta to stand out even more.

I also wish more of Mama Cozzi’s take and bake pizzas were available in thin crust versions, like this one is.  While they admittedly don’t feel to me like they’re quite as filling (I mean, they have at least a third less crust), the cracker-thin crust cooks up crisp much quicker than those with traditional crusts, and there’s just something about it that makes it more appetizing to me.  I’m not saying get rid of the thicker crusts altogether, but maybe rotating between the two would please fans of both kinds of crusts.

Still, this is a welcome change from Mama Cozzi’s typical take and bake fare, which tend to feature meats of some kind.  While I’m not at all opposed to meat on a pizza, I definitely appreciated just how much flavor could be packed into one without it; this is every bit as flavorful as most take and bakes I’ve had, and though it’s not without its flaws, it still deserves recommendation.

Overall: 7.5/10.  This was a welcome change from Mama Cozzi’s usual pizzas, which always seem to feature meat of some kind.  Here, we have spinach and feta with mozzarella cheese, in a tomato-based pizza sauce.  That’s it, and it’s actually kind of refreshing.  The spinach and cheese are really good, and the feta is top notch…I just wish there were bigger chunks, as the taste seems to get lost in the other ingredients.  I also think the combination could have been better without a typical pizza sauce, instead substituting a garlic cream, or perhaps even a pesto of some kind.  Despite those quibbles, this is a great pizza, and one you should definitely pick up.

Mama Cozzi's 14" Large Traditional Crust BBQ Chicken Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

MAMA COZZI'S 14" BBQ CHICKEN TAKE AND BAKE PIZZA

Do yourself a favor and don't read the ingredients.
Well here we go with the pizzas again, as I apparently have some need to try all of them (with the exception of the recently offered Philly Cheesesteak pizza, which made me gag at the mere thought of it; I couldn’t bring myself to pay $9 just to hate it, so I didn’t).  This one, however, has a bit of history with my wife and I, because it’s one of the few Mama Cozzi’s take and bakes that we absolutely hated.  So why try it again?  That was at least two years ago, and taste buds, as well as Aldi’s recipes change, so we opted to give it another go.

As the title implies, this pizza replaces the typical tomato sauce found on pizzas, with barbecue.  We were absolutely huge fans of this tradeoff for their Hawaiian take and bakes, which we couldn’t get enough of.  Even though this is technically that exact same pizza, only with chicken replacing pineapple, I wasn’t as crazy about it here, though part of it might have been due to reading off the ingredient list before eating it.  Don’t do that, or else you’ll find the chicken in question is chicken rib meat, along with “natural flavors” and “chicken powder”.  That’s disgusting.

Of course, modern science has advanced to the point that it looks, and tastes, just like a normal chicken, but I must confess to being a little disappointed to find that it‘s not.  I was also expecting a sweeter barbecue…it didn’t taste the same to me as the addicting stuff used in the Hawaiian pizza, though to be fair, it’s very possible that the sweetness from the pineapple only added to that.  On its own, with partially fake chicken, I didn’t think it was nearly as memorable.

Those two quibbles aside, the Gouda cheese that tops it all off is really, really good, and compliments everything nicely.  I’m not usually one for cheese, but I could have just eaten nothing but sauce with the Gouda, and that’s saying a lot.  I thought it was really fantastic (a though that my wife concurred with). The crust, which I burned, also tasted better than usual, and the crispiness was a welcome addition to the pizza.   Honestly, these two things really carried the pizza for me, and are responsible for pretty much its entire score. 

So this review is kind of bittersweet in a way:  While it put to rest the godawful memories I had of this pizza, it still wasn’t really all that great.  I would technically get it again in the future, but given the number of excellent take and bake pizzas Aldi offers, both as special buys, and as part of their year ‘round lineups, it’s safe to say this one will probably get lost in the shuffle for a little while.

Overall: 6/10.  While it’s way better than I remember it being, it’s still not one of my favorite of Aldi’s take and bake pizzas, a category that I am sadly becoming an expert in.  The Gouda cheese is fantastic, as is the crust, but the partially fake chicken pieces mixed with an average barbecue sauce just really didn’t do it for me.  Still, if you end up picking this up, you could do far worse.