Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tuscan Garden Lightly Salted Crispy Onions (Aldi)

Virtually the same as their regular crispy onions, repackaged and upcharged for your convenience.
This won’t be a review so much as a confession:  I’ve been duped.  I’ve been duped by the very supermarket that I have trusted for several years.  I’ve been duped in a way that’s even worse than the time I accidentally picked up the name brand honey nut cereal because Aldi so cleverly put it right next to their brand.  And what is the item that has so cleverly deceived me?  Why, it’s none other than this bag of crispy onions.

Look at it.  Looks innocent, doesn’t it?  Yet concealed within its 3.5 oz. packaging lies a horrible, horrible secret.  One that will no doubt alienate the entire fan base Aldi has strived to collect throughout the last few difficult years.  And yet, I should have seen it.  I should have paid attention to the signs and the clues that were right under my nose the entire time.  But I didn’t.  Not until it was too late.

What has rubbed me in such a curious manner?  What has caused me such an intense ire; a rage that boils from within the very depths of my own soul?  That threatens to tear asunder the very fabric of my delicate existence, destroying myself and everyone I hold dear in the process?

These damned crispy onions are the exact same onions you can get in their damned Chef’s Cupboard line.  You know, the French fried ones that everyone’s grandmothers’ put in their green bean casseroles during the Thanksgiving season?  You know, the ones available in a can that’s almost twice the size of this little bag, and for only two quarters more?  Yeah, those.  Yet here they are “repurposed”, thrown into different packaging, marketed as a damn salad topping, and priced slightly higher.

Tastewise, these are about exactly the same as the aforementioned “Frech fried onions”, as the apparent decrease in sodium doesn’t really do much at all for the taste.  In the sake of full disclosure, I will mention that there is also another variety of these “salad toppers” available, and that is garlic pepper, which might taste a little different and be more worthy of your time.  If you really want these on a salad, go ahead and buy the canned onions, because they’re honestly cheaper and taste exactly the same.  It might come in packaging that suggests it’s a salad topping, but you can still put it on your salad nonetheless.

Overall: 5/10.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these, it’s just that you’re paying more for less…a 6 oz. container of French fried onions, which is exactly what these are, to a “T”, is just fifty cents more.  All this so it can be repackaged to look more like a salad topper.  There’s no need to do any math…that’s a far better deal.  If you really want to top your salad with crispy onions, don’t waste your money on Tuscan Garden‘s lightly salted version.  Grab a can of Chef’s Cupboard French fried onions, save some money, and have even more to put on, or in, whatever foods you want to.

LiveGFree Tomato Basil Veggie Crisps (Aldi)

Around the time Aldi started carrying gluten free products a few months back, my wife just so happened to be in the midst of a loose, short-lived gluten free diet.  So it only goes without saying that when she was on the diet, so was I.  Flash-forward to the present day:  Her days on the diet are long gone, but since Aldi just had a massive LiveGFree Special Buy week, we indulged in our healthy side and picked up a couple of products from that line.

My choice was LiveGFree Tomato Basil Veggie Crisps, which look like little mini potato chips and, according to the packaging, are “a unique blend of potatoes, carrots, and beans.”  While it didn’t sound immensely appealing, I have faith enough in Aldi products to know that, for the most part, even at their worst, they manage to be edible, so I wasn’t all that nervous as I cracked the bag open.

The only bit of hesitation I had was the mention of “beans” on the front of the packaging.  This made me flash back to some terrible gluten free barbecue bean chips that my in-laws bought my wife while she was watching their dogs back in her gluten free phase.  Not only did the bean flavor take center stage, but there was a certain disgusting graininess to the texture that made them really off-putting…I haven’t had one in months, yet I can still picture the texture and flavor as if it was yesterday.

Thankfully, LiveGFree’s Tomato Basil Veggie Crisps avoid the “beany” texture and flavor…in fact, I would venture to guess that if you didn’t tell someone these were gluten free, they would have no idea.  Each crisp is loaded with a generous helping of tomato and basil flavor, which take center stage, as they should, and the crispy texture is just right, strongly reminiscent of a “typical” potato crisp.

The bags appear small--and are, coming in at 4.5 ounces--but the crisps are small, so there are a lot in each bag.  While I really liked the taste, there was also the added benefit that it wasn’t something I could just sit back and crunch on for hours, so that helped limit my serving sizes.  These are a special buy, so I’d suggest you hurry in and grab them before they run out!

Overall: 8/10.  The combination of potatoes, carrots, and beans come together to form a tasty little gluten free snack crisp, without any grainy textures or off-putting flavors.  The tomato and basil comes through front and center, as it should, and there’s a generous helping of seasoning throughout the entire bag.  Speaking of the bags:  They look small, but since so are the crisps, there are actually a lot in each bag, and the $1.99 price tag isn’t at all bad for a “specialty” product.  I’m not part of a gluten free diet, but I picked them up, and I would not hesitate to get them again.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Malt o' Meal Fruity Dyno Bites Cereal (Various)

Malt o' Meal cereal in its rare boxed form.
While I was at Kroger (needed a few things Aldi didn‘t have; God I hate that place), I saw a box of Malt o’ Meal’s Fruity Pebbles knockoff.  But what attracted me to it was a banner across the front of the box, declaring that blind taste testers chose Fruity Dyno Bites over the national brand pebble.  This didn’t really catch my attention because I couldn’t believe it and had to try it for myself to see if it was really true; I bought it because I’d always believed Malt o’ Meal was one of, if not the best, cereal company’s out there.  It had been a while since I had Fruity Dyno Bites, and I just wanted to get reacquainted with the taste.

I generally like buying MOM cereals (as they are also known, for short) in the large bags, but as much as you get, I can never justify paying over $3 for a bag.  I know, it’s still much cheaper than buying the boxes, but Big Lots seems to get 2 lb. bags about twice per year for under $3 (last year I got bonus bags that were slightly over two pounds, for $2), so I tend to wait for those kinds of deals.  So I stuck with Fruity Dyno Bites in the box, for $1.99, still way cheaper than the national brand box.

The cereal itself looks pretty much exact: Brightly-colored pebble-shaped corn cereal.  Some off-brands have duller colors, but these are super bright and inviting.  Of course, the small shape of the cereal nuggets also keeps one of my least favorite aspects of the cereal:  They get soggy pretty darn quickly.  I mean, you have a couple bites of crispiness max before it starts to be a less-inviting sludgy mess.  Still, the flavor is pretty much exact.  I did detect a little bit of graininess that I don’t remember being in the national brand, but it was only a minor quibble…the taste is there in spades.

Overall: 8.5/10.  I’ve long regarded Malt o’ Meal as the best cereal manufacture in the U.S., and their Fruity Dyno Bites does nothing to dissuade me from that opinion.  There is a little graininess that I detected, which I’m not a big fan of, but everything else--texture, taste, and appearance--are right on point.  It does get soggy earlier, but given the teeny size of each flake, that’s pretty much unavoidable.  If you like the national brand and are on a budget, this is an excellent alternative; even if you aren’t on a budget, these are cheaper, not to mention just as good as, the original.

Malt o' Meal Cocoa Dyno Bites Cereals (Various)

Crazy good deals today!
While most of the other reviews on this blog pertain to store brand products, I have a deep appreciation for the Malt-O-Meal brand, which tend to offer outstanding cereal knock-offs for a pretty deep discount as opposed to the national brands.  So while the focus of this blog is generally store brand or private label items, Malt-O-Meal still fits in with the same philosophy of store brands by providing a high quality product for a great price. 

Well now their value has gotten even better, as Big Lots is offering massive 33.8 oz. bonus bags (that’s over two pounds!) of their Cocoa Dyno Bites for just $2 (prices and selection may vary).  Put simply, that’s at least twice the size of typical cereal boxes, and still generally cheaper than said boxes, so this has the makings of a great value.  But how does it taste?  After all, just because something is inexpensive, doesn’t necessarily make it a great deal!

The first thing you will notice, besides the ridiculously large size of the bag, is that the cereal smells like straight-up cocoa.  It’s sad that I have to give extra marks to a chocolate cereal for smelling like chocolate, but in this world of processed chemicals posing as edible food, the fact that this doesn’t smell like it came out of a factory is a welcome change.  Other than that, they look like puffed up bits of corn cereal that are colored brown, so it’s pretty much what you should be expecting.

As great as they smell, taste wise, these things are even better.  It’s hard to sum them up without sounding like an advertisement for them, but they are literally bursting with cocoa flavor.  Every bite is chocolate heaven; so sweet, yet not to the point that it‘s sickening.  I cannot compare it to the national brand, simply because it’s been so long since I’ve had it, but I can guarantee that they are either very similar, or Cocoa Dyno Bites are even better.  Seriously.  This is almost as close to perfection as I’ve ever had in a chocolate cereal, and while that sounds like pure hyperbole, I’m not exaggerating in the least.

And let’s once again refocus on the bag…we’re talking 33.8 ounces of cereal!  I’m lucky to get four servings out of a typical 12 or so ounce box, but with these bags, I’m getting upwards of 10.  Of course, that’s just me, and I tend to fill my cereal to the top of the bowl, so if you have kids or teenagers, this would be a fantastic way to stretch your cereal budget. 

Overall: 10/10.  Malt-O-Meal has always been my pick as the best cereal manufacturer, as they tend to offer great knockoffs at a great price.  But with Cocoa Dyno Bites, they have really outdone themselves.  Smelling of pure cocoa, they taste even better, with a deliciously sweet chocolate taste that’s just flat-out addicting.  While they are already a great value, Big Lots is currently offering 33.8 oz. bonus size bags for just $2 (price and selection may vary by store), which makes this an out-of-this-world deal.  If you have even a passing interest in the national brand, I’m highly recommending you give these a shot.  There’s a good chance you’ll never go back to the original again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Fusia Sesame Teriyaki Noodle Bowl (Aldi)

If the package looks like this at the store, DO NOT BUY IT.

From Fusia, the makers of the previously-reviewed Kung Pao Noodle Bowl, along with every other Asian-inspired dish from Aldi, comes their Sesame Teriyaki Noodle Bowl.  How does it stack up?  Let’s get right down to it.

I was a little nervous about the “teriyaki” in the title, because teriyaki is not a flavor I tend to enjoy all that much; a hesitation brought about by the teriyaki stir fry my mom used to make when I was a kid growing up.  Like the stir fry, I expected this to be overly salty, with a heavy “soy” flavor; imagine my surprise when I discovered that it’s actually sweet!  I found it to be a pleasant sweetness, but that might not tell you anything, because as anyone who reads this blog knows, I have a palate that heavily favors sweet things.  For a second opinion, I asked my wife what she thought…and she agreed with me that the sauce was absolutely delicious.  So see?  It’s not just me after all!

For those that might be put off by the spiciness of the Kung Pao bowl (it is relatively mild, but there are those that don’t like heat, or shouldn’t eat it), this is definitely an almost-equally delicious alternative.  While I did find the Kung Pao to have a more “complex” flavor (at least as far as microwavable bowls of noodles are concerned), this has a great balance of sweet, with a noticeable tinge of teriyaki that is oh so edible.  Along a packet of dried vegetables (which I’m always a sucker for), it also comes with a packet of sesame seeds, which are apparently tossed in for an added touch of “authenticity”…while they obviously don’t add much (if anything) in the way of flavor, they do add some nice texture in what is an otherwise slimy bowl of noodles.

Overall: 8/10.  While I don’t find it to be quite as addicting as the Kung Pao version, Fusia’s Sesame Teriyaki Noodle Bowl is still a great alternative.  Unlike the Kung Pao sauce, this has no spice-kick whatsoever; instead this sauce is sweet, which goes along with the noodles well.  As with the Kung Pao, there is a packet of dried vegetables, but this one also adds sesame seeds, apparently for some added “authenticity”.  It adds nothing in the way of flavor, but it’s still a nice touch.  For the ridiculous price of $1.69, and including everything you need to enjoy it (including a small fork!), this is perfect for lunches, or for just a mid-day snack.  A must-try.

Fusia Kung Pao Noodle Bowl (Aldi)

I probably could have cropped a whole 'lot of hardwood out of this picture...
While Aldi has a few Asian foods available all the time, I do look forward to their “Asian Week”, where they offer several additional Chinese foods as special buys.  A lot of the items are just typical, run-of-the-mill Asian offerings: frozen sweet and sour chicken, varieties of egg rolls, or wok sauces to make your own Chinese entrees at home.  Most of the things that I’ve tried are good, but nothing outstanding; roughly the same quality you can get at any of the take-out Chinese restaurants that no doubt line your city.

Then there’s Fusia’s Kung Pao Chicken Noodle Bowl, a non-frozen pantry item that cooks up in just two minutes.  In fact, that’s the main reason I purchased it the first time; it was simply a matter of convenience, something I could toss in the microwave if I needed a quick snack after a long day at work.  But now it’s one of my favorite items in the entire Fusia line, and one that I wish they would carry all the time.  The noodles are soft and delicious, while the sauce is at least on par, if not better than, similar sauces at the aforementioned Chinese carry-out restaurants.

Best of all is the packaging, which is created specifically for lunches:  Inside a microwave-safe plastic bowl is a package of pre-cooked noodles, vacuum-sealed to lock in moisture, so you’re not getting nasty Ramen-style dry noodles…these are moist, and ready to hold the sauce packet that you’re no doubt going to dump all over them.  Then there’s the packet of dry vegetables, a packet of cut-up peanuts, and a sauce packet, which is generous enough in size to cover all of the noodles.  There’s even a plastic fork, to boot.  All of the packets are pre-scored so you don’t need a utensil to open them; and since they’re all in separate packaging, you can easily omit the things you don’t want, or cut back on things that you think there’s too much of (i.e. the sauce, which is no doubt the main source of the large amount of sodium contained herein.)

To cook, all you need are the ingredients in the packaging, and two whole tablespoons of water; pop in a microwave for two minutes, and voila!  You’re done and it’s ready to eat.  As I alluded to earlier, the sauce is where it’s at: It’s very flavorful, with a little hint of sweetness cutting through before the mild heat sets in.  I’m not a big fan of super-hot stuff, so for me, this has just the right amount; you’ll feel it, but unless you’re very sensitive to heat, it won’t go so far that it will make your eyes water, or cause you any discomfort.  If they would just sell bottles of the sauce, I’d buy it and toss it on everything that I could; it’s that good, something far better than what I was expecting out of a pre-made noodle bowl.

Oh, and did I mention this whole thing is just $1.69? (At least in Ohio; prices will no doubt vary by location.)  A whole serving is one bowl, but there really is a lot in here; unless you’re starving, there should be plenty enough in here to at least tide you over until the next meal.  If you like Chinese food in any capacity, you should really give this a try.

Overall: 9/10.  Packs an incredible amount of flavor for well under $2.  The fact that everything is packaged separately (including the noodles), makes it easy for you to create your own bowl to taste, which is pretty cool, as is the fact that everything you need to enjoy this dish (minus two tablespoons of water) is contained inside (including a microwave-safe plastic bowl AND small plastic fork!)  Packaging aside, the sauce is incredibly flavorful, with a hint of sweetness peeking out before the heat sets in.  Not too hot, but definitely noticeable, which is another plus for me, though those with an affinity for hot dishes will probably find it too weak.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Outlaw Energy Passion Punch Energy Drinks (Big Lots)

A masterpiece in lab-created juice flavors. Wouldn't it be cheaper to throw some actual juice in there?
Once again I was at Big Lots, perusing their large selection of energy beverages, when I happened upon this one.  I tend to enjoy anything fruity, and so my eyes lit up when I saw the word “punch” in the flavor title.  Also exciting was the price tag, which seems to be the standard for a 16 oz. energy drink at our local Big Lots: $.50.  So I picked up a can without hesitation…only to have my wife drink it a couple of days later.  I went to Big Lots, picked up another one, made sure she knew that it was for me, and took it to work the next day.

I have to say that I’m a little torn here.  The flavor itself (and the scent, for that matter) is strongly reminiscent of Rockstar’s Juiced energy drink from several years ago, which blended orange, passion fruit, and guava juices to form a sweet, but pretty potent, energy kick.  That actually happens to be one of my favorite energy beverages of all time.  But as good as it tastes, the flavor in this one is created using no fruit juice; so what you’re getting, essentially, is a chemical-induced flavor.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with its taste, per se, but with all the current health issues cropping up almost daily, just how good can such a thing be for you?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that fact just stayed in the back of my head all times, to the point that I really didn’t enjoy it a whole lot.  I will say that this gave me a lot of energy…after downing a little more than half a can, I was wired (and incredibly paranoid) for around the next six hours, which probably indicates I had a little more than  I should have.  But it also tells you just how powerful this stuff can be; for fifty cents, there’s a helluva lot of energy to be had.

I might get this at some point in the future if I really needed a quick kick of energy, but with the constantly rotating energy drink options at Big Lots, including some with actual juice in them, I couldn’t see myself getting this one too often at all.

Overall: 5.5/10. It actually tastes good and gives a strong, powerful kick.  Not to mention, a can is fifty cents.  So why such a low score?  It might not bother many out there, but despite tasting like a juice-infused energy beverage, this has absolutely zero juice in it.  None.  So what you’re getting is essentially chemically-induced flavor, which paired up with the already excessive amount of chemicals and questionable ingredients that most energy drinks have, just doesn‘t feel necessary, or healthy.  If Big Lots were to start carrying these full time, or if they ever got in another shipment (these seem to be a close-out item), I would occasionally think about picking one up, especially for the price, if I needed a quick kick, but with their constant rotation of such beverages, I’m sure I could find something better for around the same price.

Blue Sky Juiced Energy Drink (Big Lots)

Ever wanted an energy drink that has juice in it, but doesn't taste like it? Here you go...
I’ve mentioned before that when I’m off work, I tend to take naps on my lunch break, a habit that I’ve been trying to stop.  Well, as it turns out, I’m also programmed to take naps on days off, another habit that I’m trying to quit.  After all, that’s time I could spend being more productive, either by working on music, or doing some house chores, or even writing reviews for this blog.  And I know the best place to get some energy for not a lot of money is Big Lots.

While there, I found the usual array of their energy beverages; pretty much all of them unheard-of brands, and loaded with chemicals and artificial flavors.  But a new one caught my eye, though it certainly wasn’t compliments of its terribly-designed can.  Juiced Energy (clever name, also) claims to be comprised of 50% juice to go along with its energy blend.  Now, juice in energy drinks certainly isn’t anything new; the main brands have been doing it for years.  But that mixture has definitely lead to some of the best energy drinks I’ve ever had, namely Rockstar’s Juiced lineup.

While most of Big Lots energy beverages go between fifty-to-sixty cents for a 16 oz. can, the Blue Sky iteration was going for eighty, probably to account for the fact it actually has some juice in there; this is pretty standard, as juice no doubt costs a little bit more to produce than lab-created ingredients (though, to be fair, there’s no doubt plenty of those still in here, too, but at least having the juice helps cancel at least a couple of them out).  However, let’s be honest here:  Just because an energy drink is given 50% juice (a word I’ve already said four times in this paragraph) doesn’t automatically make it a great energy drink.  So let’s jump to the answer of the question on everyone’s mind…how does it taste?

Surprisingly, boring.  Anyone who’s had their fair share of energy beverages no doubt knows that there’s a standard “original” flavor.  It’s hard to describe, and it varies slightly across the brands, but the main base is there--it’s a weird blend of semi-fruity, and a little metallic.  Usually, the addition of actual fruit seems to break this flavor profile, with the added juice taking things front-and-center.  Curiously, that is not the case here, as it retains the standard energy drink “default” flavor of fakey fruit-meets-metal.

Perhaps I could understand this a bit more if there was just a single fruit juice included here; it would probably take a lot to cover up the default taste.  But when there are seven fruit juices (apple, orange, pear, peach, tangerine, pineapple, and white grape, all from concentrate) and you can neither smell nor taste any of them, there seems to be a bit of a problem.

On the energy side, it did give me a little boost, though the nutritional “specs” aren’t anything too outrageous.  Compared to some such drinks, which will overload you on a lot of vitamins, Juiced Energy focuses on only five: Vitamin C, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin B12, giving you 200% per serving/400% per can.  This makes sense, as with the exception of Vitamin C, the rest are B vitamins, which are the ones that target energy and movement.  I downed half a can in about half an hour (I like to savor it!), and gained a noticeable increase in anxiety and energy.  However, as I like to mention in all my reviews for these kinds of drinks, I have a very low tolerance for caffeine, as I never drink coffee, and cut back massively on soft drinks.  So if you drink caffeine all the time, your results my vary.

Overall: 5/10.  I was enticed by the claim that it has 50% juice--and was immediately disappointed when I couldn’t taste a single one of them.  Supposedly, there are seven juices in here (apple, orange, pear, peach, tangerine, pineapple, and white grape), yet all you get is the typical default energy drink flavor of fake fruit, with a hint of metal.  It did give me a noticeable boost of anxiety and energy for a few hours after drinking it, but I also have a low tolerance for caffeine, so bear that in mind.  For $.80 at Big Lots, I guess I can’t complain that it was too much of a waste, though I definitely expected it to taste a little juicier than it does.  By no means offensive, but also not a standout in any way, shape, or form.