Sunday, July 26, 2015

Fast Bites Sausage and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich (Dollar Tree)

This terrible photo is what I get for forgetting to take my own picture.
I love breakfast sandwiches, but they’re often pretty expensive, with multi-packs, even at Aldi, pushing a dollar per sandwich.  Not to mention that they are entirely unhealthy, but that’s really only a secondary concern for me anyway.  So when I saw Dollar Tree offering cheese and sausage breakfast sandwiches for roughly the same price, I decided to see what they were all about.

We’ll start off with the biggest flaw, and one that haunts all of these frozen sandwiches:  The biscuit.  Microwave prep, which these are designed for, just doesn’t allow for any kind of frozen bread to cook up crispy, so what we get is a soggy, lifeless, and largely tasteless biscuit.  I also get the feeling that it’s too soft…definitely the weakest link in the entire thing.  The packaging is also slightly misleading; you know how you buy a bag of chips, only to find out it’s 90% air?  Well the sandwich isn’t quite as big as the packaging would have you believe.  It’s still good size, don’t get me wrong, but the box it’s in makes it look like it will be a monster (it’s also pretty flat, so it doesn’t even take up half the box height).

Surprisingly, the taste comes together to almost make up for all the other shortcomings.  The sausage patty is just about on par with those you would find at a certain fast food establishment; it’s super sodium-packed (of course), but has a good flavor that tastes, well, like sausage.  There’s plenty of cheese to go around, too; even though my sandwich had most of it globbed on one side, there was still noticeable cheesiness on the other half.  It’s nothing mind-blowing, as it’s just a piece of American tossed haphazardly on top, but it goes rather well with the sausage.

I find the value to actually be pretty decent, as even a plain sausage biscuit at the biggest fast food restaurant in the world costs $1, and is noticeably smaller.  And, as I alluded to earlier in this review, even the multi-packs at Aldi are close to $1 per sandwich.  The convenience factor also plays a big role; they cook up in the microwave in just 90 seconds, making it a perfect snack (or breakfast) to grab on the go.

Overall: 7/10.  A surprisingly delicious breakfast sandwich that cooks up quick, making it perfect for a snack or meal on the go.  The biscuit is rather soft and listless, a consequence of buying any breakfast sandwich frozen, but the sausage is tasty and there’s a generous helping of American cheese that tastes like standard American cheese, which in this case is a positive.  Value is also good; just getting a sausage biscuit at a large fast food chain costs $1, and is noticeably smaller.  The biggest downside is the health hit--just one sandwich makes up 40% of your daily fat intake, 13% cholesterol, and 50% sodium--even though you know it’s going to be bad going in, I feel like that’s a ton for just one average-sized sandwich, to speak nothing of anything you may eat with it.  Still, just going by taste, this is pretty darn good, and one that I’ll definitely indulge in occasionally from time to time.

Fast Bites Breaded Chicken Sandwich (Dollar Tree)

What $1 looks like in frozen sandwich form.
If you’re at all familiar with the “Fast Bites” sandwich line, available at Dollar Tree for the titular amount of currency, then you know they consist of a variety of frozen sandwiches, mainly purchased by single, lonely people who have no one to cook for them.  If you haven’t heard of them, then good for you…you were better off for it.  But sometimes we all get in a little pinch, so I picked up a couple of these just to see if they were worth a buck.

The breaded chicken sandwich is just that…a piece of breaded chicken, topped off with a sesame seed bun, and bottomed off with a much more bland bottom half.  I actually ate this entire thing the way it’s presented right out of the box, without any additional condiments or toppings, though I think that’s more a sign of my laziness than any kind of endorsement as to the tastiness of this sandwich.  Honestly, it’s almost exactly as you’re probably picturing it in your head…a non-crunchy piece of chicken sandwiched between two semi-soggy pieces of bread.  That about sums it up.  The flavor of the chicken is decent, though you can tell there’s no shortage of sodium, which is par for the course in the world of frozen foods.  You’ll also be questioning the quality of the chicken, but then again, that’s also par.

Really, I’d compare it to something you would get at McDonald’s, at least in terms of quality, and the price tag is also similar.  It is a little smaller than the box would suggest, so if you’re really hungry, you’re going to need at least two, or maybe a side dish, to fill you up.  You’ll probably also want at least some mayonnaise, if not lettuce and/or tomato, as the chicken is fairly dry by itself.  You should also probably prepare yourself for a case of eater’s regret, which you will get immediately upon finishing the last bite.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Overall: 4/10
.  While there’s technically nothing wrong with the taste, this is a perfect example of what’s wrong with America in general:  A case of food being way cheaper than this kind of food has any right to be.  There are barely any nutrients to be had, aside from a heavy dose of protein and some dietary fiber, but it’s mainly a heavy dose of fat and cholesterol, and a load of empty calories.  The bun, while not as soggy as you may expect, still doesn’t taste very fresh, and the chicken is of questionable quality, like most of the frozen foods that we eat.  If you’re in a pinch, either one that’s budgetary, or timed, I guess it doesn’t get much easier than tossing this in the microwave and having a quick dinner, but I wouldn’t recommend living off these for any prolonged amount of time.

UPDATE (June, 2019): A re-review is in order and will be coming soon. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Big Jak Yellow Energy Drink (Big Lots)

Big Jak "Yellow"? That's all you can give us? What exactly does "yellow" taste like?
Big Jak energy drinks seem to pop up quite frequently at Big Lots stores.  I’m thinking their can designs, which refuse to reveal their flavors, probably have a lot to do with that.  For example, I always assumed their Red Big Jak (formerly known as Red Jak), was just their standard energy drink offering; after reading some reviews, I have just discovered that it’s a strawberry/cherry-ish kind of flavor, which would be right down my alley.  Maybe if they would make that a little clearer, they could increase some sales, but what do I know?

Earlier on, I reviewed their Big Jak Iced, which actually reveals their flavor on the can, unlike the other flavors.  While the iced version had a very fake peach taste (but still received a high score due to the ridiculously cheap $.50/can asking price, paired up with the intense buzz I got after drinking just half a can), I was a little hesitant to try Yellow Big Jak.  After all, what was it?  A low-calorie version of their Red Big Jak?  Lemonade?  The ingredients, which consist of no juice, weren’t much of a help, so I finally decided to just wing it and give it a go.

Turns out my estimation was right:  It is lemonade!  The smell, which is actually fairly weak, smells very similar to a popular lemonade malt beverage; I can’t complain too much, because I’ve been known to throw those back every now and again.  The taste is surprisingly tart, without being overly so, and is pretty close to the taste of lemon; at least, much closer than the fakey peach of their iced tea drink.  Of course, factor in the obligatory “altered taste” that energy drinks seem to be required to suffer from, and it actually tastes more akin to a malt beverage, than a freshly-squeezed lemon, but I guess you can only expect so much from two quarters.

The kick of energy came rather swift, and lasted a few good hours--I actually ended up timing it just right so that as the buzz was wearing down, it was conveniently bedtime.  I'm not sure how much this typically retails for, and with store shelves seemingly becoming more and more cluttered with energy drinks, I wouldn't pay anywhere near $2 for a can.  But for fifty cents, this is an outstanding value, and I would definitely contemplate purchasing it again.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Though the packaging is rather secretive, Yellow Big Jak is a lemonade-flavored energy drink that I would be willing to guess is made up of exactly zero lemons (there's no juice percentage listed, and only the vague use of "natural and artificial flavors" in the ingredients, which doesn't really tell us anything).  However, there's a decent amount of kick in each can, and when paired up with the ridiculously low asking price of $.50 per can at select Big Lots stores, it's a great, cheap way to catch a buzz.  The lemon flavor is decent, though reminiscent of a lemonade malt beverage more than freshly squeezed lemons.  If you can deal with that fact, then chances are you're really going to like this.

Hype Enlite Energy Drink (Big Lots)

If you're watching your calories, and like drinking junk, then I guess this is an option.
They say once you’ve tried one energy drink, you’ve pretty much tried them all.  Okay, I just made that up, but it’s largely true: Standard energy drinks have a largely standard flavor, and even the ones that have added ingredients, like juice, seem to be copied and knocked-off by other companies.  Sure, they may have slight differences that help to differentiate between the different brands, but for the most part, the chemical makeup is the same.

Enter Hype Enlite Energy, available in 16 oz. cans for just $.50 from select Big Lots stores.  It tastes just like every other standard energy drink ever manufactured, except for one difference:  It’s a low-calorie beverage, meaning it’s essentially a “diet” version of an energy drink.  These are characterized by a weaker flavor right off the bat—like many diet drinks it tastes slightly watered down—followed by that rather disgusting aftertaste, no doubt due to the usage of artificial sweeteners.  So it’s got an okay taste, made even worse by the terrible aftertaste.

Nutritionally, this drink seems to be an almost low-level energy supplement, providing 152 mg of caffeine per can (near the average mark), but well less than 100% of four different B vitamins, which are the vitamins that give you bursts of energy.  Typically, energy drinks will “max out” on these, giving around 200% per can; here, we get 152% vitamin B3 and 134% vitamin B6, but then only 80% B12 and 96% B5, putting them well under the level of most energy beverages.  Whether or not this will work for you depends on your tolerance for caffeine: As I always have to specify, mine is low, because I do not drink coffee and have cut back on soft drinks, so half a can gave me a noticeable increase in energy, but also noticeable was how weak it was compared to stronger energy drinks.

Of course, like any drink, this one can fill a niche, with people that might not want such a “hardcore” energy rush; at just 48 calories and only 8 grams of sugar per can, this can be a go-to beverage if you’re looking to avoid overloading your body with sugar; the low sugar content should also, at least in theory, minimize the “crash” later.  So I guess if you have a low tolerance for caffeine, and want just a slight push, this will do the trick.  But judging from the number of these available at Big Lots when I purchased mine, it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of people in that niche.

Overall: 4/10.  Those predisposed to the terrible aftertaste of diet drinks might give this a higher score, but this tastes just like a watered-down version of pretty much every standard energy drink out there, with the aforementioned terrible aftertaste.  The lack of B vitamins (it has well under 200% of two B vitamins, and under even 100% of two more per can) also makes this a rather low-level energy supplement; if you’re constantly drinking coffee or soda, it will probably take quite a bit of this stuff to even give you any kind of push.  However, points must be given for value, as a 16 oz. can retails for just $.50 at select Big Lots stores, though chances are even within the walls of that store, you can find a much better option.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Nature's Nectar Mango Medley Smoothie (Aldi)

Can't say that either of us are impressed with all.
To summarize the long backstory told in a previous review: One of my favorite-ever drinks is Bolthouse Farms’ Green Goodness; my wife’s is Naked’s Mango smoothie beverage.  Lo and behold, Aldi is offering Nature’s Nectar (their brand of juice beverages) Super Green and Mango Medley smoothies as a Special Buy in their stores.  As far as I can tell, both of them are knocking off Bolthouse Farms’ versions of these beverages, so how well do they stack up?

The reason my wife enjoys Naked’s mango smoothie so much is because of the texture; whereas just about all of these drinks call themselves “smoothies”, many of them are lighter than a smoothie.  In other words, while thicker than the average juice, they’re still closer to the consistency of a liquid than they are an actual smoothie.  The mango version, however, is a lot thicker than most, which really does give it a thickness that could safely be considered “smoothie”.  However, this being a knockoff (I’m fairly certain) of Bolthouse Farms’ Mango drink, and not Naked’s, we weren’t really sure what to expect.

Thankfully, the texture here is also pretty thick, though my wife didn’t feel like it was up to par with her favorite one.  For me, the thickness isn’t so much of a big deal, though I will say it’s definitely thicker than the Super Green version, which is more like juice than anything else.  The smell is inviting, though I feel like it smells more like the rind of a mango than the fruit itself; a rather nitpicky “complaint”, but one I feel is worth noting, for whatever reason.

The taste is somewhat a mixed bag:  It starts off rather sweet, fruit flavors at the forefront, before it gradually gives way to a somewhat bizarre, certainly unsweet finish; the first thing I thought of was that it tastes like a mango rind, too, while my wife described it as “peppery”.  I do find it a little bizarre that, out of Nature’s Nectar two offerings, this is the one that isn’t super-sweet, considering it’s comprised almost entirely of concentrated juice and purees, save for some vitamins and beta carotene for color (whereas their Super Green somehow manages to be even sweeter while containing other ingredients like spinach and garlic; go figure).  I’m not real partial to mangos, having just started liking them a few months back, but I wasn’t a real huge fan of this.  If it’s offered full-time at Aldi stores, I would probably pick it up occasionally, just as a change of pace, or maybe as a mixer to other juices (or alcohol) but certainly not very often at all.  My wife was also sorely disappointed; I don’t think she’ll ever pick it up again.  In fact, I very well may have to finish off this bottle myself.

Overall: 5/10. Their Super Green was largely spot-on, and put me in a bit of a quandary whether to continue buying Bolthouse’s version, or Aldi’s; this one, on the other hand, isn’t even close.  While I’m not the mango aficionado in this house (a title that would easily go to my wife), neither of us were really huge fans of the taste.  It starts off sweet, but then gives way to a decidedly non-sweet finish, one that I would describe as “mango rind”, while my wife said that it's “peppery”.  I don’t often buy mango juices; for me, this certainly won’t change that.  My wife, on the other hand, counts Naked’s Mango smoothie as one of her favorite drinks in the world, and will just continue purchasing that one, at $1.50 more per bottle.  Darn you, Aldi!

Nature's Nectar Super Green Smoothie (Aldi)

I promise you it does not taste like sewer water, as its look would suggest.
Aldi has always been a great place to buy private label brands, often made in the same factories as the major ones, all for a fraction of the price.  However, as more and more national brands make their way into Aldi stores, I can’t help but feel a slight sense of, for lack of better term, betrayal.  For example, Aldi used to have a huge pallet filled with their off-brand sports drinks (Infuse), which were just as good as the more expensive stuff.  But now, it’s the national brands with the huge pallet, while Infuse gets sequestered into a tiny shelf space.  Ditto that for their sodas, which have now been replaced with large displays of Coke.  While I don’t think for a second that Aldi will eventually abandon their lower price goods, in favor of becoming just another supermarket (after all, it is their private-label business that has gotten them as far as they have come to begin with), it’s still somewhat alarming to see such a large percentage of available floorspace taken over with national brand products.

For the most part, I pass them all up (save for the one time I fell for it, and accidentally purchased the name brand Honey Nut O’s cereal, because I did not think to double-check that it was actually the Aldi brand); but a couple brands they started carrying did start getting constant rotation through the Tom family refrigerator: Namely, Bolthouse Farms and Naked juices.  While the Naked juices are offered for around the same price as they are in supermarkets (a 32 oz. bottle retails for $3.99 at Aldi), it was Bolthouse products that have seen the steepest discounts, with 32 oz. bottles retailing for just $2.95, a price most markets have the 16 oz. bottles for.  After trying the bottle my wife picked up once, I became addicted, and there is almost always a bottle of Green Goodness in our fridge, while my wife fell in love with the Naked Mango smoothie.

I didn’t think I’d ever see the day, but I nearly jumped with excitement upon seeing that Nature’s Nectar, Aldi’s own private label brand that specializes in juice drinks, were releasing their own versions of Bolthouse’s Green Goodness and Mango drinks.  I made sure to pick both of them up as soon as I saw them.

The bottle itself is different, shaped more like a plastic carafe, and pretty unassuming; the fruit list, which is so prominently displayed on the national brand bottles, is confined to small print on the back label.  It retails for $2.49, roughly fifty cents cheaper than the national brand, which is always offered, at least at our location.  Just like Bolthouse, there is no sugar added, the ingredients comprised almost entirely of fruits and vegetables.  So you can tell what it’s supposed to be mimicking from the outside, but how does it transfer to taste?

Not surprisingly, pretty well.  I did detect that Nature’s Nectar’s version was sweeter; I thought it was just slightly so, but the disgusted look on my wife’s face after trying it seems to suggest it was a lot moreso than I perceived.  Still, it wasn’t enough to bother me, and once the sweetness falters, the rest of the taste is pretty spot-on.  I would love to describe the flavor, for people who have never tried it before, but that can be kind of hard; it doesn’t taste like any one juice, but somehow manages to be a refreshing conglomeration of several juices (as well as weird ingredients like spinach, garlic, and artichokes, which of course aren’t obvious factors on the taste).  I did find the aftertaste to be slightly more noticeable here; it’s nowhere near pungent, but tastes a little weirder than Bolthouse’s version.

So, will I start buying the Aldi brand, if it is made available all the time?  That’s a simple question that’s not so simple in practice, because I can’t honestly say for sure one way or the other.  For the first time I can recall, I’ve really taken to the national brand, so even though Aldi’s version comes pretty darn close, I’m not sure the two-quarter discount will be enough to sway me.  Maybe the bigger question is: If Aldi feels they’ve found a suitable replacement, will they stop carrying the national brand products?  If they do, that will make my decision a whole lot easier.

Overall: 8/10.  Aside from some extra sweetness (which, like the original beverage, is derived from fruit; there is no sugar added), and a slightly more bizarre aftertaste, this is a very accurate knockoff of Bolthouse Farms’ Green Goodness juice beverage, which is one of my favorite things available from Aldi.  But for the first time ever, I’m in a bit of a quandary:  Is the two-quarter discount (Bolthouse products retail for $2.95 at Aldi, while their version is $2.49) enough to get me to commit to Nature’s Nectar’s version?  It’s too early to say for sure.  Still, if I was ever budget-strapped, or if the main brands were ever sold out (or stopped being carried altogether at Aldi stores), I wouldn’t have a problem making a switch.  As long as there’s a choice, though, I may just stick to the quiet perfection of the original.