Sunday, December 4, 2016

Crofton 15-Piece Cookware Set (Aldi)

I'm not quite ready to make a full return to the world of blogging, but I do feel the need to weigh in on this product since they're offering it again this year.  More specifically, I feel the need to urge everyone to completely avoid it, because it's absolute junk.

Last year, my wife and I were in a tight financial situation during Christmastime...she had lost her job back in July, and was just getting settled into a new one, which paid only minimum wage, the week of Thanksgiving. In other words, we did not have the luxury of a "disposable income", and so I wanted to get her something practical for Christmas; since she had been asking for a new set of pots and pans for what felt like ever, I initially jumped at the chance to get these for her when I saw them in last year's Aldi ad.  After all, her current ones were setting off our smoke alarms, as the nonstick coating had almost completely worn off--if that's not a sign that it's time to get new ones, then I don't know what is.  As most of you know, cookware sets are often twice as much as the price Aldi was wanting for this, and so I figured I could fit this into the budget, thereby making both of us happy.

However, I never go into a situation without thorough research, and so research I did.  My main point of contention was the specific mention of "Xylan Plus" coating, which I knew nothing about.  After finding information about it--from the manufacturer's own website, no less--my fears about purchasing this only grew.  The manufacturer of Xylan only gave Xylan Plus a 4-6 rating (out of 10), and basically said it was one of their weaker nonstick coatings.  Initially, I decided that I was just going to pass, and figured I could find a better set for around the same price at a place like Big Lots.  But I kept coming back to the $40 price tag, and eventually talked myself into getting it anyway.  The rationalization was that our finances should be completely in order by the following Christmas, and even a bad set of pots and pans would last a year, at which point I could use our financial gain to buy her an even better set (NOTE: Our finances are still not sorted out, and have gotten even weirder, thanks to the arrival of a month-old newborn to our family...but this is beside the point).

So I bought it for her, and she was happy to receive it.  In fact, it would be the only thing I bought for her for Christmas that year.

Long story short, the coating wore off from the most-used pans in the set within six months of purchasing it--and that's being generous, because according to my wife it was actually closer to ONE month. She might cook a little bit more than the average person, but we're not talking about anything like we own a catering business and were using them fifty times a week, or something--with just standard use (three or four uses per week to start), these wore down incredibly fast. The coating on the large saucepan is now completely gone, and bits and pieces have worn off to a clearly noticeable degree on every other pan in the collection.  Our last set (Rachael Ray) had lasted us around 7 years, with the same frequency of use, so even with the weaker coating, this is inexcusable.

Thankfully, my wife got knocked up and didn't even need to use the pans for the last three months, when she was too big, and tired, to even think about cooking, which has bought me some more time to get her a better set. But even at $40, this is a complete waste, unless maybe you plan on using this as a backup, or rarely ever cook.  Aldi rarely disappoints me, but it completely shit the bed on this one; I don't want to see anyone else get ripped off like we did.

OVERALL: 0/10. A junk collection of shitty pots and pans that literally started wearing down within A MONTH of my wife using them. Now, a little less than a year later, all the coating is gone on the large saucepan, and the others are all missing large, noticeable chunks throughout. I researched these after seeing them in last year's ad and figured even the low-rated Xylan Plus coating would last at least a year, thereby buying me more time to save up for a better set, but the reality was much worse than that. Unless this is going to be an infrequently-used backup, or unless you rarely do any cooking and just want to have a set on hand for when you have to, this set is a complete waste of money at any price. No matter how low your budget is, please, please PLEASE learn from my mistakes and spend a few more dollars on a name-brand'll be glad you did. Hands-down the worst purchase I ever made at an Aldi store.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

SimplyNature Kids Berry-Licious Lemonade Organic Juice Drink (Aldi)

Juice? Tastes like this is at least 90% water.
Well, we're back with a SimplyNature Kids organic juice product, and if you read my review of the Fruitastic Fruit Punch, you pretty much know what to expect this time around.

Once again, this is basically a severely watered-down juice product that I can't see any kid enjoying. The taste is very, very light, and there's virtually no detectable sweetness. Despite all this, though, I will say that I found this one to be better than the fruit punch, because the lightness benefits this one a little more.

Whereas fruit punch is one of my favorite flavors, and should also be—as the name suggests—a collection of powerful-tasting fruit juices, lemonade can sometimes be a little too sour or tangy when full strength. Since the flavor is weaker, this prevents that from ever being an issue. The berries unfortunately also suffer the same fate, and although I would have liked for those to taste much stronger, there's really nothing I can do about it.

Honestly, I'm starting to kind of appreciate these a little bit more, because I can't stand the taste of water, and don't always want to add those drink mix powders, which are made out of chemicals and “natural flavors”. These provide a nice alternative to water, with a mild flavor, a mere 35 mg of sodium, and a scant 10g of sugar (per 8 oz. serving), while also providing 100% vitamin C and 31% juice (weird percentage). It's not something that I can sit back and sip, but I've found myself going to this more and more when I'm thirsty and want something with a little bit of flavor.  Rather than soda or some other junk, I've also been drinking this for dinner quite a bit lately.

That being said, I think I've had my fill of these for the rest of the year, but this is a pretty healthy drink that tastes like I remember sports drinks tasting in the '90s. If you want a throwback to when they were predominantly water, with some flavoring thrown in as an afterthought, here you go.

Overall: 5/10. I still can't see any kid in the world liking this, and still believe that they're catering this to the wrong demographic, but this watered-down juice product is kind of growing on me as a (slightly) more flavorful alternative to water. Whereas the fruit punch disappointed me because I really like the flavor kick of a normal fruit punch, this Berry-Licious Lemonade works better as a diluted juice because, at the very least, it prevents the lemonade part from being too sour. The main drawback to this is that the berry flavoring also suffers the same fate—if that was a wee-bit stronger, this might have been even better. It's decent, but I wouldn't put this anywhere near a normal child, and I can't say that I'll even buy them again at any point in my life.

SimplyNature Kids Fruit-ariffic Punch Organic Juice Drink (Aldi)

Not for children.  All water, barely any juice.
In case it's not obvious how much of a child I am, I have wanted to try a good number of the items in the SimplyNature Kids line, but have yet to do so. All of their products seem really “fun”, at least in the way advertisements make children's food products seem “hip” and “cool”, even though all you do is eat them, which isn't fun at all. The packaging is also adorable, sticking to a simple color scheme, while not going overboard on the cutesy designs (for example, the bottle to the Fruit-ariffic Punch features a real picture of strawberries, grapes, and watermelon, complete with drawn-on faces and appendages on a couple of them).

I'm honestly unsure of why I have never tried anything, despite always taking an interest in the kids items that are available. A few things have been a little too expensive for me, and of course there have been a couple that just didn't appeal to my tastes, either then or now, but for the most part the products they offer speak to the inner child in me. My wife is the same way, so why she has never asked me to get something from that line is an even more baffling quandary.

At the risk of sounding like a complete pedophile, I'm happy to say that my SimplyNature Kids virginity has finally been taken! As soon as I saw Fruit-ariffic Punch in the Aldi ad, I added it to the shopping list. I mean, the juice of grapes, strawberries, AND watermelons?! Two out of those three are some of my favorite fruits; the fact that it is organic only sealed the deal. I'm not one of those people that are hugely in to organics—I think the price trade-off is ridiculous, especially considering the food corporations themselves are largely responsible for defining what constitutes “organic” in the first place—but if the price is right, I'm willing to give them a shot. This didn't even make it to the fridge before I eagerly dove in...

Kids are going to hate this...hell, I almost hate it. It tastes like how I remember sports drinks tasting when I was younger: all water, with just a hint of juice for flavor. There's almost no sweetness whatsoever. I'm not suggesting that children need a boatload of sugar, but they do seem to like things that have taste, and this barely even registers on that scale. I get that there are no added sweeteners, so added sugars would be out of the question, but maybe just adding a touch of extra juice would have made it a little more palatable. Furthermore, I always make the mistake of assuming things when it comes to “healthier” beverages; in this case, I just assumed it would be 100% juice. It's only 30%, with water no doubt making up the remaining 70%.

There are a few pros (though they don't come anywhere near outweighing the cons in my book): Each 8 oz. serving does get you 100% Vitamin C, which is a good thing, as is the mere 35mg of sodium and 10g of sugar, to go along with 45 calories per serving. The price tag is also somewhere around the $1.99 range, if I remember correctly, which puts it on the more affordable end of organic juices. But in the end, it just feels like a gyp, considering a majority of what you're paying for is nothing more than water.

I think this is a product that's completely mis-branded: there's certainly a niche for this kind of drink with everyone looking to cut back on sugar and such these days, but marketing this toward kids is completely moronic. It tastes a lot like the popular brand of vitamin-infused water; with different packaging to appeal to grown-ups, along with the “organic” and “natural” talking points on the bottle, it could serve a purpose and appeal to a certain demographic. But as a kids product? Not a chance.

Overall: 3.5/10. This stuff is awful as both juice, and a kids' product. It's severely watered down, with hints of organic juices from concentrate all that there is in the way of flavor. What kid is going to drink this junk? It does taste like the popular brand of vitamin-infused water, so I could see it work with a complete re-branding (maybe as an addition to the Fit & Active line, with a focus on the “organic” aspect), and the health benefits are pretty good (only 35 mg of sodium, 10g of sugar, 45 calories, and 100% vitamin C per 8 oz. serving). But as a product marketed for children? I would only use it as a form of punishment.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Fit & Active Five Cheese Lasagna Frozen Single Serve Entree (Aldi)

"Healthier" than I would have expected, but otherwise not noteworthy.
It was crunch time. We were about to get in the line at Aldi, when I realized I didn't have anything for just myself in the cart—we had plenty of family meals, but nothing I could eat just as a snack, or a meal for just me in case my wife was working late. 

I will definitely have to say this is better than the Chicken Alfredo Florentine, but it's still with its own set of problems. Can something that literally only has two layers even be considered lasagna? That's right, all you get are two thin noodles with a small layer of cheese sandwiched in between them, and that's the “lasagna”. There are little specks of white on top of the lasagna that I'm also assuming is supposed to be cheese, but there's not enough of it to make any sort of impact anywhere.

One big saving grace is that they load you up on sauce—there's plenty of it, allowing you to drench each bite in sauce to avoid the blandness of the rest of the dish. It's not that the sauce is really all that good—it tastes just like liquid tomatoes and sugar—but it's certainly edible and probably the high point of the entire thing. The cheese sandwiched inside, which is the blend of four cheeses that the title of this product alludes to, is also pretty good, but there's not all that much of it in most bites.

Nutritionally, I have to say that I'm kind of impressed: There are 12g of protein per single-serve meal, while all the usual suspects of bad health for frozen TV dinners are kept at or below 15% of your daily intake, assuming a 2,000 calorie diet (sodium = 15%, carbohydrates = 14%, total fat = 7%, saturated fat = 10%). No, these numbers aren't going to give it a “Healthiest Product of the Year” award from the National Institute of World Health, but for a frozen dinner, those are some pretty modest stats. There's also 8% dietary fiber, thanks to those noodles, which is also a decent dose, as well as 15% of three vitamins (calcium, vitamin C, and iron). That's not to say you should be fooled into thinking this is healthy enough to eat all the time, but when compared to similar meals, this one is a lot better than a vast majority of them.

Overall: 5.5/10. It didn't fill me up, but these meals never do, so I wasn't really heading into this with that expectation. It's a little light on the flavor side, YET it's also relatively light in sodium, calories, fat, and cholesterol compared to similar frozen dinners, so I guess that's a trade that you just have to expect. The $1.19 price tag is okay, however it's not as spectacular as the savings on other Aldi products. I can see this filling a certain niche, though, with the high amount of protein (12g) and decent amount of dietary fiber (8%). It won't have a permanent spot in our freezer, but this is a decent little snack to fill the void of an empty stomach that I will continue to get occasionally.

Fit & Active Chicken Alfredo Florentine Frozen Single Serve Entree (Aldi)

Did not realize how terribly blurry this picture was when I took it.
TV dinners, as disgusting and unfoodlike as they are, still can fill a viable role in the right person's life. Take me, for example. I lost several pounds after being on a certain medication, and these usually offer just the right combination of cholesterol, fat, and sodium to help me get right back on track. They also function as a quick meal, or more likely in my case, a quick snack to hold me over between meals.

This reminds me of fettuccine alfredo TV dinners that I've had over the years, and have tended to like (although Aldi's version, which they no longer sell, wasn't very good at all), at least based on look. I was expecting a smell similar to rich, creamy alfredo, but this had a different smell entirely, one that said I should just put the fork down and walk away. But I decided to ignore the ominous scent and dove right in...

Sometimes, the nose can be a deceptive force. There are cheeses that smell like hell, but that taste delicious. Ditto for beverages, and any number of other edible items. Unfortunately, in this case, it was right...the sauce here tastes more like a gravy for dumplings than it does any kind of sauce that should be adorning a pasta. Even though there seems to be a lot of sauce, the flavor in each bite dissipates before the noodle is swallowed, leaving behind the bland taste of a lame, frozen fettuccine noodle, mixed with a taste that I could swear is cardboard packaging.

Ironically, the creepy chicken is probably the best component here, as it seems to be seasoned (or “naturally flavored”) with something that would approach “delicious” were the rest of the dish not so underpar. Worst of all, and the reason I haven't bought a frozen dinner like this from Aldi in a long time, is the $1.19 price tag: similar brands with far more options offer the same kinds of meals for $1 elsewhere. Sure, you have to wait for them to be on sale, but they seem to be more often than not, at least on the rare occasions I wander into a supermarket. That's one of the dwindling downsides to Aldi...with no sale prices on their items, it's never less than this price.

Since this is Fit & Active, that would insinuate that these are at least slightly better for you than standard TV dinners, and at a quick glance (and with nothing to compare it too), I could see a case being made: Each carton has just 25% sodium, 11% fat, and 10% cholesterol. These are no doubt high numbers, but relatively low compared to others that I've seen; I wouldn't call these “healthy”, but those that do stay active could probably easily burn off the 250 calories in a short time frame.

In short? Not very good at all.

Overall: 4/10. It looks like it will be a creamy alfredo-like pasta, but the sauce actually tastes more like the gravy in dumplings than anything that should be on a pasta. It's pretty bad when the weird chicken ends up being the best thing in the entire dish. The price tag is also a letdown, with these retailing for $1.19...other supermarkets always have similar frozen meals on sale for $1, and they have a lot more flavor than this. Minor upside: this is “healthier” than most TV dinners, with only a quarter of your daily sodium intake (assuming 2,000 calorie diet) and a tenth cholesterol, but when the tradeoff is crappy flavor, it's kind of hard to take that seriously. Been avoiding Aldi TV dinners for a while now, and this is just only cements my decision for the future.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Belmont Brookie Dough (Brownie + Cookie) Super Premium Ice Cream Pint (Aldi)

Overpriced for what it is.
UPDATE (June, 2019): Due to a slight change of heart and a possible change of opinion, this product will be re-reviewed in the coming weeks.

As you can see from my review of Make Fudge Not War, another flavor in Belmont's "Super Premium Ice Cream" line, Aldi has started selling pints of ice cream for around the same price that they sell their half-gallons. It's really kind of a pointless idea when you think about it, but I guess the ones in pints are supposed to be more “premium”, as they make sure to tell you on the packaging. As you can also see from that review, I was not very impressed with the first one I tried, but that didn't stop me from grabbing “Brookie Dough”, despite the appearance of the phrase “YoLo Cookie Dough!” displayed on the front. Christ Jesus that's a whole new level of dumb.

Anyway, this seemed to be more my style, because I prefer vanilla ice cream to chocolate, and the last one we tried was just chocolate on top of more chocolate, which got old. Here, as the name implies, we have “brownie” chunks and “cookie” dough rolled up into one little pint. We also get chocolate AND vanilla ice cream, which gives us the best of both worlds, and would at least help prevent the chocolate overload that was apparent in the last one we tried.

It took me a little while to get to the first “chunks” and I started to worry that they were included sparingly, but once I found one, a whole bunch soon followed. The brownie chunks are just like they were in the previous ice cream, soft and doughy, with a strong chocolate flavor. The cookie dough pieces, though, are where it's at...these are fantastic little bits of raw cookie, complete with a grainy texture that recalls the massive amounts of sugar that are probably contained within. The taste, though, is ridiculously good, with a depth missing from most cookie dough ice cream.

Unfortunately, simply by nature, the taste of chocolate will always overwhelm the laid-back taste of cookie dough, and that's the case here—if you get some of both in your mouth, you may not even notice the dough at all. I also wish they would have kept the chocolate ice cream out of here altogether...why do we need both chocolate and vanilla? The brownie chunks would work just as well inside a vanilla ice cream as they do a chocolate, and just like the dough, the chocolate ice cream overwhelms the weaker (yet, in my opinion, tastier) vanilla.

In short, this one is better than the previous one we tried, but not by as much as it should be. The cost is also a factor: This, like all of their pints that I'm aware of, retails for $1.99. Aldi's 1.5 quart “full size” ice creams start up at $2.29, and the ones I've tried (cookies and cream, cookie dough) are pretty fantastic, especially for the price. And that's the quandary, because the pints that I've had, despite the attempt to make them appear more “premium”, just haven't had the mind-blowing taste that a $2 pint needs to have to justify its cost, especially when the 1.5 quart sizes are so close in price.

In other words, I'll be sticking to the larger containers, thank you very much.

Overall: 5.5/10. I liked this one better than the brownie and chocolate ice cream, but not by much. Brookie Dough is half-chocolate and half-vanilla ice cream, with both brownie chunks and cookie dough pieces. The “vanilla side” is fantastic, with a delicious vanilla ice cream and some of the best cookie dough I may have ever had in an ice cream. The brownie chunks are large and chewy, with good texture and a good chocolate flavor. I'm just wondering why the chocolate ice cream is even necessary...between those two things, the “chocolate side” dominates the weaker “vanilla side”, despite the latter being better (in my opinion). The $1.99 price tag is also an issue, because the “full size” 1.5 quart containers are just $.30 more. With that kind of closeness in pricing, paired up with average flavors, why even consider the pints at all? Good question.

Belmont Make Fudge Not War Super Premium Ice Cream Pint (Aldi)

Very expensive in price, very average in flavor.
UPDATE (June, 2019): Due to a slight change of heart and a possible change of opinion, this item will be re-reviewed in the coming weeks. 

Aldi seems to be trying to go slightly upscale in a lot of areas, balancing their “premium” offerings with the inexpensive “discounted” products that made them famous in the first place. For example, their cheese selection has been greatly expanded, and it's not uncommon to find aged cheddars, brie's, goat cheese, and other offerings as Special Buys throughout the year. It's all a part of their plan to cater to everyone's tastes (or, perhaps more importantly, their income levels).

But the area that I've noticed the most change is in their ice cream section. They've always had half-gallons of basic flavors, and party-sized tubs of vanilla for parties, but within the last few months have added premium chocolate ice cream (which was $3.99 per half-gallon, but has dropped to $3.79); some pints from their Specially Selected label, which is their more “gourmet” offerings; and on the last trip, some additional pints with “clever”, playful names and cartoon sheep saying things like “Sheep happens!” on the front, a baffling occurrence considering sheep have nothing to do with ice cream, fudge, or war.

The packaging is light and kind of “fun”, which is what initially caught my eye; the fact the packaging is strongly reminiscent of a popular national brand of ice cream is what won me over. I thought the price was a little excessive for what it was, but if it tasted as spectacular as I was hoping, it would be worth every penny. And my wife was also encouraging me to get it, because she really wanted to try it. So into the cart it went, and it didn't make it through that first day without getting opened.

It tastes like chocolate ice cream with brownies inside, which I guess is a good thing considering that's what it is. But it's not entirely a good thing, because it tastes like every other chocolate ice cream with brownie pieces—the chocolate ice cream is slightly bitter, while the chunks of brownie are chewy, soft, and sweet. It's good, but it's nothing spectacular, yet these are being sold for a price that would insinuate this stuff is out-of-this-world: $1.99. For one PINT. That's right, for roughly the same price as a half-gallon of their basic flavors, Aldi is offering just one single pint of uninspiring ice cream. Ice cream that I could get across the street at a supermarket chain for just a dollar or so more for a half-gallon of their store brand. Even my wife was unimpressed, and she's usually very easily impressed when it comes to ice creams.

Overall: 5/10. I appreciate that Aldi is trying to cater to more upscale crowds, but no matter how I look at it, I can't wrap my head around the “why?” of this particular product. It's nothing out of the ordinary, yet it's being sold for a rather astronomical price: $1.99 for a single pint. This literally tastes like any number of similar ice creams I've tried, with the chocolate starting off sweet and finishing slightly bitter, and the doughy balls of brownie serving up some soft texture and added sweetness. For just a bit more, I could get the store brand half-gallon of a very similar product, which means there's not much in the way of value. It's not that it tastes bad, it's just that it tastes average, and is way too expensive to merely be average.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Benton's Soft-Baked Banana Bread Biscuits (Aldi)

(Sigh)...another stolen product image. Credit: Fooducate.

I had never heard of these prior to seeing them in Aldi stores; my wife purchased the harder biscuits, though, and really liked them, which lead me to give these a shot. My main reason for doing so, not that it’s any of your business, is because I work an early shift (head in at 6 a.m.), and we don’t get our first break until 10. For some, that might not be an issue, but for someone as constantly hungry as I am, by the time 10 rolls around, my stomach often feels like I literally haven’t eaten in three days, hunger pains and all. I decided I’d get these and bring them with me in my lunch, so I could have a snack to tide me over until lunch.

These are relatively small compared to something I would typically eat for breakfast, but that also makes them portable: I wear cargo pants to work and can just pop these in one of the pockets, that way I always have it on me for when I need a little snack. The biscuit itself looks like it will be dry, and it feels like it is, yet the inside is mysteriously moist, which is an unappetizing description, but appealing in practice.

As for the taste? Well, if you like exaggerated, cartoony banana flavoring, then you are going to love these. It tastes like those cheap, prepackaged banana nut muffins that you can get in high school cafeterias and gas stations. I, for one, happen to love that artificial taste, so I really like these—my wife, on the other hand, would absolutely despise them.

They’re pretty small, but it’s just the right amount to get me going in the morning, and bridges the gap well between 6 and 10 for me, putting something in my stomach and even giving me a little extra energy. I really like these, and, as a result, will be looking at the similar things Aldi carries for breakfast. It’s amazing that it has taken me almost ten years to even think of bringing something with me to work in the morning…

Overall: 8/10. These have an intense, artificial banana flavor…which I seriously happen to like. They are small and look (and even feel) like they will be dry, but surprisingly they’re moist enough on the inside, and are the perfect size for a quick morning breakfast at work, or tasty afternoon snack, without being all that filling. These definitely won’t be for everyone, but I find that these satisfy my sometimes intense morning hunger pains while I’m working, while even giving me a little bit of energy. I’ve also found that I always wash them down with water, which is another necessary thing that I generally deprive myself of. This is a great little breakfast/snack for the price, and one that will lead me to check out other similar offerings from the German retailer.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Crazy Candy Co. Rainbow Sour Belts (Aldi)

Okay, but there are better versions of this candy out there.
My wife has been known to get the national brand of this candy occasionally when we have movie nights, so naturally when I saw they would be available at Aldi, I got excited on her behalf. While I'm not a fan of sweets all the time, I've also been known to dip into her stash, and quite enjoy the collection of overly-sugared treats. Let's see how Aldi's stack up, shall we?

I was going to review each color individually, but they don't really have much of an individual flavor profile...they're fairly similar in taste across the board, despite the assurance from my wife that there are multiple flavors in here. What they do get right, though, is the proper balance of sweet to sour—many treats try to deliver on it, yet not many succeed. Just by looking at these, it's pretty obvious they have the “sweet” covered, what with the entire outer shell of plain sugar and all, but there's also a satisfying sour kick that came very close to making me pucker. If you like the main brand of these, then you'll like these just fine.

However, due to the similarity in flavors, these get really old, very quickly. I mean, I had one of each color for the purposes of this review, and was about ready to throw in the towel after that; there's just not enough in the way of variety to keep these interesting beyond a few pieces. It has been a little while since I've had the name brand version, but I remember those being a lot better, and a lot more interesting, than these. Crazy Candy Co. does deliver some marks for value: a 10 oz. bag (more than we could even finish after a month) is just $1.69, which really isn't all that bad for this much candy.

Unfortunately, if it's just going to sit there, it's not worth much, and we were “belted” out after just a couple of servings each.

Overall: 5.5/10. A 10 oz. bag is just $1.69, which is a very reasonable price, but what it may have in value, it more than lets up in flavor—even though there are three different colors, they all taste pretty similar to me, meaning they get really old really quick. The balance of sweet to sour is pretty good (these really are sour, unlike many other candies that purport themselves to be), but at the end of the day, it all comes down to taste, and for me, these are just too generic and tiring for me to recommend them to anyone but the biggest of candy aficionados.

Crazy Candy Co. Bubble Gum Balls (Aldi)

Lots of flavors and gumballs for under $2.
My wife is a child. No, literally. Well, not literally in the sense that I'm a pedophile (she is 27 years old), but literally in that she has many of the same interests that children do: she purchases kiddie pools for herself to lay in, alone, over summer; she enjoys coloring in kid's coloring books to pass time; and she will often try to talk me into buying her candy at checkout counters, much in the way a child would. In other words, she's essentially a kid in grown-up form. I mention this not as an interesting psychological study, or out of spite, or to place our relationship under a microscope, and I'm also willfully excusing myself from such a spotlight (I could mention the child's basketball hoop I traveled 30 miles to purchase for $5, just so I could shoot hoops in our living room—and this was just five years ago), because all that is beside the point. The only reason I'm bringing this up at all is just a long, extended, roundabout way of saying that the moment I saw gumballs featured in Aldi's Special Buy ad, I thought of one person, and one person only.

All it took was me pointing these out at the store during a shopping trip for her to pounce on them, although I would be lying if I didn't admit that part of me was actually looking forward to trying these out, too. I remember having a small, cheap (well, kind was made of glass and metal) gumball machine when I was a kid—the kinds where you insert a penny and get one small piece of circular gum—and I used to love refilling the machine and chomping on them every once in a while. With both of us a little too anxious to relive our respective childhood's vicariously through a plastic container of gum, it only took us a day before we dug in.

The main thing I've always remembered about gumballs is how quickly the flavor disappears—that was a complaint I had as a child, and it's still a valid complaint today. I kind of understand this problem twenty years ago—after all, I don't think even the “legit”, packaged gum had flavors that lasted very long—but in this day and age, it seems like we should be able to get a fruity flavor to last longer than five minutes. It probably has more to do with the business aspect (companies don't care how long a flavor lasts once they have your quarter), but I was hoping the flavor in these gumballs would last a while.

They don't at all, with each flavor totally vanishing within the ten-minute mark (this might be generous, as it felt closer to five). The downside to this is obvious, because just as you're getting settled in, the flavor is gone; the upside, is that I was able to test drive every flavor within twenty minutes, without spitting them out too early and wasting them. There are five colors, with each one having a different flavor, as you would expect: orange, white, red, pink, and yellow.

*Orange is, as you would expect, flavored like an orange. I'm not usually a fan fake orange candy, but it was more accurate than I was expecting, and had a very strong flavor that burst out immediately upon biting into it. It was the first kind that I tried, and definitely one of my favorites.

*We were expecting white to be either coconut, or pineapple (which sounds weird, but I'm pretty sure in machine gumballs, this is the case), but oddly, it was neither. In fact, as far as we can tell with this one, Crazy Candy Co. just completely threw out the whole fruit theme altogether: it tastes just like vanilla frosting, with maybe a hint of amaretto. No joke. There's not even a fruit that's anywhere near this taste spectrum. I thought this one was terrible; my wife really liked it.

*The red I thought was cherry, and it still might be, but the flavor isn't as in-your-face as I was expecting: it's like a slow-burn build-up to a vaguely sweet fruity flavor that may or may not be cherry. At this point, I'm losing my mind, because what I thought would be a straightforward trip down memory lane is actually becoming a confusing confrontation with everything I held dear in my childhood. Why would Aldi confuse us like this?

*The yellow, which I didn't even realize existed until two days later, is another classic fruit flavor: lemon. And like the orange, it explodes right off the bat with an authentic taste that's very welcome after a couple of near-duds. Up there with orange as my favorite of the five-flavor bunch.

*The pink looks like it would be a straightforward bubblegum flavor, and thankfully, it is. No weird surprises, just the typical taste that you've probably experienced many times as a child. This was one of the last flavors I tried, and so it helped to end things on a good, and familiar, note.

I'd say at just $1.69 per container, this collection of gumballs is worth the price, but with the caveat that a couple of the flavors are not at all what we were expecting. I wouldn't say that any of the flavors are terrible—I was able to chew all of them until the flavor ran out on its own—it's just that a couple of the taste inclusions are quite baffling. And with no flavor list to reference them by on the packaging, no questions will be answered, at least in the foreseeable future.

Overall: 6.5/10. $1.69 is a good price point for this large container of gumballs (it looks smaller than it is; there are quite a bit of gumballs inside), but the biggest drawback is the lack of flavor information anywhere on the packaging. The orange (orange), pink (gumball), and yellow (lemon) flavors are pretty obvious, but the white (which tastes like vanilla frosting with a dash of amaretto), and red (possibly cherry, but a very weird, inaccurate one) leave more questions than answers. As is always the case with this kind of gum, the flavor disappears around the five-minute mark, so don't expect to get much chew-time out of each serving. There are much better deals in the gum world, but if you just want a reminder of simpler times, when you spent a quarter to get hard gumballs that had been sitting in the machine for a year, then this serves as a pretty accurate throwback.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Millville Original Oat Squares Cereal / Millville Balance Cereal (Aldi)

Ignore the mangled box and ketchup...had to take it out of the trash to get a pic. 
UPDATE: Aldi has added this cereal to its permanent inventory under the name "Millville Balance", where it is available in both original and cinnamon flavors. The price has been set at $1.99, at least here in Ohio, which is cheaper than it was as a special buy, but still not massive savings over the national brand. In fact, it's one of the most expensive cereals offered by the German discount chain. Still, the decreased cost along with the near-perfect taste imitation raises its score half-a-point, from 7 to 7.5. Original review below.

For the most part, Aldi's cereal lineup is a pretty darn stellar combination of accurate taste and value; it's pretty rare that I flat-out hate a cereal that they carry, whether it's a part of their constant inventory, or a Special Buy. When I flipped upon Millville's Oat Squares cereal in an Aldi ad, I got excited—my wife and I are always sure to pick these up whenever they are available (I get the regular; my wife gets the cinnamon)--because the taste is very good and the price is pretty reasonable. At least, that's what we initially thought.

Recently, a supermarket chain had the national brand version of this cereal for $1.79 per box, eventually dipping to as low as $1.49, and we both grabbed a couple boxes of our favorite kind. Since I don't normally get such brands, I'm ill-equipped to compare the two flavors side-by-side, but with the taste of the “original” fresh in my mind,

The taste is similar, yet much more different than I remembered. Whereas the national brand is “smoother” in its flavor, with a non-descript oat taste giving way to a slightly sweet finish, Millville's has a stronger initial oat taste, though it eventually fades a bit, ending on a very similar note of sweetness. In either case, it appropriately feels like a rather “light” cereal, in that there's no overwhelming tastes, nor is it very filling; it's the perfect breakfast or snack where you just want to put a little something in your tummy to help get you going.

Other than the slight differential in flavor, the appearance and texture between the two cereals are pretty much exact, with this cereal getting soggy pretty quickly once doused in milk. That's usually a problem that I have with cereals, but the weird design of these flakes doesn't make it such a big deal to me—this is probably the only kind that I can tolerate once it gets soft. Unlike some Aldi cereals, the flavor doesn't wash away with the milk, so that's another solid plus in Millville's favor.

If I had to choose, and I'm aware that I don't, I would actually give the slight edge to the national brand in this one, and my decision has more to do with the financial aspect than it does anything inside the box: Aldi's version retails for $2.49, making it one of the more expensive cereals that they carry. According to Walmart (my main source of info when comparing cereals, though a place I never shop), a box of the name-brand is $3.15, but for three added ounces. That especially makes the price differential a little too close for comfort, at least as far as I'm concerned, and helps to drag down what would otherwise be a pretty excellent product.

Overall: 7.5/10 (+.5 pt.). Normally, I would have given this cereal much higher marks in the past, but having just gotten a couple boxes of the national brand for $1.79—then, two weeks later, $1.49—from a supermarket chain kind of negates the “value” quotient of Millville's version, which retails for $2.49 (per update, price as permanent inventory item is now $1.99). Granted, I'm sure Millville is cheaper when it's not on sale, but this is still one of the more expensive cereals that Aldi carries, and that price seems a little high to me (I could also swear it was $1.99 the last time it was offered, though I could be wrong...). Aside from my problems with the price, the rest is pretty even, with the textures between both pretty much exact, while Millville's has a little more “oaty” flavor initially; both versions end on the exact same note of perfect sweetness. It's good, but thanks to its rather high price, at least when compared to other Millville offerings, not as great in the value department as it should be.

Millville Frosted Flakes Cereal

That bear is more adorable than the dumb tiger from the national brand.
Well here’s another product that I buy so frequently, I’ve never even thought to review it. It’s Millville’s Frosted Flakes, and unlike a lot of the products I critique, this is one of Aldi’s staples, so it’s available all the time.

I’m always initially drawn to the price: a substantial 17 oz. box is priced at a mere $1.59, which always catches my attention when we’re on a budget. I like to eat cereal pretty much daily, either as a snack, or on the rare occasions I’m not hungry, as a meal replacement, and frequently anything under 16 oz. isn’t even worth the purchase for me, as I only get three or so bowls out of the whole box. With these, I tend to get four or five, which means I can at least make it through a week without having to run out and grab something to calm my cereal withdrawals.

Right out of the box, it’s noticeable that these look pretty much exact to the national brand version; that is to say, these are flakes of corn with a noticeable white hue to them, from the delicious sugar that’s attached. It’s been so long since I’ve had the national brand that I cannot compare the two, but what I like about the taste of Millville’s version is that it’s not too sweet. I have no problems eating Corn Flakes straight out of the box, but when I do want to add a little flavor, I’ll add just a spoonful or two of sugar (compared to people like my wife, who like to add half a bag). This reminds me of that, with a nice sweetness to it that doesn’t come off feeling like it was created solely to appease children.

The only downside to it is that it does tend to get soggy pretty quickly. Thankfully, it doesn’t really change the flavor much (i.e., the sugar doesn’t melt away from the soggy pieces, leaving just a bland heap of corn flakes), but as someone who prefers their cereal crispy, it’s a minor annoyance.

This is one of about three cereals from Aldi that I purchase all the time, and it never has disappointed. It’s clearly a staple in our household, but just because I’ve had it so often doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great cereal that, after you factor in the meager cost, becomes an excellent one.  I may not remember the national brand all that well, but I can taste a deal when I eat one, and this is amazing no matter how you cut it.

Overall: 9/10. It gets soggy fairly quickly…but that’s pretty much the only qualm I have with this otherwise perfect cereal. The flakes are lightly covered in sugar, so they’re not ridiculously sweet, giving them just the right amount of sweetness, while the $1.59 price tag (for a large 17 oz. box) ensures they are affordable on any budget. One of the best cereals available under the Millville line, and a constant staple in our household!  The polar bear character on the box is also adorable as all hell.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Clancy's Maple Bacon Wavy Potato Chips (Aldi)

Terrifyingly, alarmingly accurate.  But is that always a good thing?
I think most people reading this blog should know, by now, that I love seeking out weird potato chips. I eat them almost every weekday at work, in a lunch that consists of a sandwich (usually peanut butter and jelly, but sometimes tuna), chips (whatever I’m in the mood for that week), an apple, and an energy drink. That’s probably not the healthiest of lunches, and I’m probably shaving months off my life every year I pack this, but I figure it’s got to be better than eating, say, TV dinners all the time.

Anyway, when you eat chips as frequently as I do, you eventually get sick of all the basic flavors, and want to try new things. I wish you could have seen how excited I got when I saw Clancy’s Maple Bacon Potato Chips in an Aldi ad; the combination sounded so gross that I just knew I had to grab a bag.

And a couple of weeks later, that’s exactly what I did. I was even so hungry after stopping at Aldi on my way home from work, that I cracked open the bag and tried them right in the car. What I tasted is an almost indescribable experience; one that I’m still coming to terms with almost half-a-bag later. It might come off as a novelty product--in fact, it might BE a novelty product--but I have to commend it for being one of the most alarmingly accurate chips that I may have ever eaten. The sad trade-off to this praise is that I’m also not sure that I will ever want to eat them again.

My first bite started with an overwhelming amount of maple syrup; it was so strong that you would swear that each chip would be sticky from having been covered with the stuff. But creepily, they look and feel just like a normal wavy potato chip. Once your taste buds recover from the shock of a sweet potato chip, there’s a good bit of smokiness that pushes its way through. I definitely wouldn’t have guessed the smokiness was supposed to resemble bacon had I not known the flavor going in, but it makes for an interesting, if not entirely successful, combination. Even weirder is the revelation that the sweetness actually overwhelms the saltiness; a curious thing, considering a lot of chips are way too salty for me. By having the maple be the overwhelming flavor, it’s interesting to see it somehow work the other way around.

Again, I’m almost halfway through the bag, and I still can’t say for certain what I think of these. And regardless what I think of them, they are not something that I can eat for long periods of time at all; after a few chips, I start to get a little sick of the sweetness, and have to put them down. Ultimately, that’s a pretty good thing, because potato chips aren’t exactly good for you, but it’s also helping to muddle my opinion of them, because I can‘t seem to really enjoy them the way I would normal chips. I actually haven’t taken these to work with me yet, so I don’t know how well (or poorly) they pair up with other foods, which could be a pretty logistical concern given their overall sweetness. The maple flavor is ridiculously, shockingly accurate for a potato chip, as is the aroma when you first open the bag.

If you’re like me (sadly) and enjoy your chips on the different side, then this is probably about as weird as it’s going to get, at least inside an Aldi store. The $1.49 price tag gives you a lot of chip (probably more than most people will be able to tolerate) for the price, and also ensures that this is an experiment that won’t set you back much if you end up not liking them. I’m leaning toward the conclusion that the whole idea of these chips should have been left on the chopping block, but I must begrudgingly admit that the end product is both better than it has any right to be, and probably the best outcome possible for a maple-bacon potato chip.

Overall: 5.5/10. That rare chip whose alarming flavor accuracy (at least as far as the maple is concerned) is every bit as much a turn-off as is it a turn-on (figuratively speaking, of course; I do not get sexually aroused from eating any kind of potato chip). The inside of the bag smells strongly (and genuinely) of maple syrup, and that’s also the initial flavor that dances all over your tongue. The taste was so real, that I don’t know how they did it short of drenching each chip with actual syrup, which they clearly didn’t do. The “bacon”, as it often does in these kinds of foods, ends up being reduced to just a “smoky” flavor that creeps in towards the end and is largely unsatisfying. These are so sweet that I can never eat more than a few at a time, especially since the disappointing bacon flavor does little to balance out the taste of this chip. These are chips that probably shouldn’t have ever been made, but they are at least better than they should be.

Fit & Active Sour Cream and Onion Cracker Crisps (Aldi)

Not very impressive when eaten on their own.
I stumbled on these during a recent trip to Aldi (one in which we spent WAY too much money and got way too much junk food…that’s what happens when you go hungry!) and, in a fit of hunger, decided to scoop them up.  I had tried their Tomato Basil veggie crisps, and these looked pretty similar, so I figured why not give them a shot?

All it takes is one sniff inside the bag to know that you’re dealing with sour cream and onion, and it smells like there is plenty to go around.  These are cracker crisps, which apparently is the name given to awkwardly-shaped crackers; they’re not circular, they’re not square, they’re just bloblike shapes with little cracker holes in them.  True to the aroma, each one is coated with a generous helping of sour cream and onion powders, and it didn’t take me long to dig in.

Tastewise, they aren’t bad at all.  My main gripe is that the cracker has its own taste, one that seems to equal, if not slightly overpower, the sour cream and onion flavors.  So unlike a sour cream and onion potato chip, for example, where the titular flavors stand out, and the potato in the chip takes a backseat, here the potato stands out a lot more.  As a result of this, I would imagine these would taste better when added to something, such as soup, or maybe even a salad, as opposed to snacking on them right out of the bag.

On the upside, they have a very nice, loud crunch, and are also low in fat.  So even if you somehow get carried away and end up eating the whole 4.4 oz. bag, you’re only taking in around 10g of fat, which is around the same amount of fat in one serving of potato chips.  On the flipside, as with most supermarket treats, the lack of fat is made up for in sodium, as these have 330 mg (14%) per serving.  So in other words, don’t eat the whole bag in one sitting.

Overall: 5/10.  A generous layer of onion and garlic powders are matched, curiously, by a strong potato-y cracker taste.  While definitely not bad on their own, I could see these actually tasting better when used in or with something else, such as a chip dip, soup, or maybe even a salad.  These things do pack a loud crunch, and are low in fat (with each 4.4 oz. bag containing roughly 10g), but that’s offset by a rather large sodium content (with each 1 oz. serving containing 330mg of sodium).  It’s worth a shot if you’re looking for something different, but certainly not something I would need to keep on hand at all times.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Fit & Active Lemonade Drink Mix Sticks (Aldi)

Like lemon shakeups? These taste eerily like those.
If the fruit punch drink sticks were any indication, I’m in for a pretty tasty treat here, so let’s see what the lemonade has to offer.

Right after shaking it up I took a little sniff to try to get an idea of what to expect: it smells very lemony. Thankfully, not like cleaning product, like some other powdered mixes that I’ve had, but a rather inviting, almost fresh lemon scent. Dare I say, it smells kind of like a lemon shake-up, those tasty beverages that are a staple of fairs and carnivals throughout the nation, featuring fresh lemons shaken up with tons of sugar to create a very sweet, very tart combination.

Shockingly enough, that’s a pretty accurate description of how it tastes, too. For some, it will be too sweet, but for me, it was all-too-easily drinkable. I struggle with drinking water in its natural form (honestly, the thought is enough to make me cringe), and so these powdered mixes, while probably not very healthy for you in the long run, at least get me to drink the stuff. Sure enough, the taste was so good that before I knew it, half the bottle was already gone…unless I’m dying of thirst, that’s a scenario that would never play out with regular water.

Since these are a part of the Fit and Active line, there’s usually some kind of health benefit involved: here, each packet is a mere 60 calories, which I’m sure is just a fraction when compared to an actual lemon shake-up. It's also sugar-free, and while artificial sweeteners can often taste fake and lead to a disgusting aftertaste (see: almost all diet sodas), it's barely noticeable could almost swear that you're drinking the real thing, as opposed to lab-created flavors (it does have “lemon juice solids” in the ingredients...whatever that means).

I have to say that this is one of my favorite powdered drink mixes, though I must acknowledge that the tartness really prevents it from being something I can drink more than once a day. But it's refreshing, it's tasty, and for $1.19 per 10-pack at Aldi, it's an affordable little mix that, assuming your taste buds skewer towards the sweet, you really should enjoy.

Overall: 8/10. I can't drink this all the time, simply because it's so tart, but this is one of the most accurately-flavorful drink mixes that I've ever had. Fans of subtlety, don't even bother, because this is an equal blend of sweet and sour that maxes out both on their respective meters. It tastes astonishingly close to a lemon shake-up, which is a pretty solid feat for something that's made predominantly of chemicals, and the artificial sweeteners taste uncannily realistic, and don't give off any of the typical “fake” taste that a lot of them give off. It's a draining experience, but for the low price of $1.19 (per 10 drink sticks), it's well worth every single penny spent, and then some.  Even my wife raves about these things, and she normally dislikes the powdered drink packets.

Fit & Active Fruit Punch Drink Mix Sticks

A pretty refreshing fruit punch, in powdered form.
Water is the most boring thing ever invented, which makes complete sense that it would be the one thing that we absolutely need on a regular basis to keep us alive: God forbid it would be something that actually tastes good. I think my struggles to drink the stuff are pretty well documented in other reviews on this site, so I'll keep the explanation to a minimum, but I have to force myself to down this stuff most days. My plan is to drink at least a cup of water at work with my lunch, but I've found that I usually just don't drink anything at all with my lunch, because I'm either too lazy to walk to the breakroom to grab a cup, or I just completely forget.

Enter these powdered mix sticks, a product that I would view as a completely stupid, unnecessary invention were I not one of the people clearly within the crosshairs of the target consumer. I'm sure these things are bad for you, considering all the chemicals that no doubt go into their creation, and so I don't drink them all the time, but I am genuinely curious: What's worse, barely drinking plain water, or upping my water intake at least threefold when I use these powders?

Anyway, this is the first kind that I tried, given my affinity for fruit punch, and it's the perfect introductory flavor to get into Fit & Active's line of drink mix sticks. My mom and I were pretty broke growing up, so I had plenty of the cheap powdered drink mixes where you add a boatload of sugar and water and end up with a pitcher of flavored sugar water; the taste of this is reminiscent of those, with a nice helping of sweetness blending with a mass of vague fruit tastes. I don't find it as overly sugary as the sugared powder mixes, so the sweet aspects are dialed back a bit, which makes it much more drinkable, in my opinion, and very refreshing.

The price is pretty solid, too, with ten-packs retailing for $1.19. Similar packs of name-brand stuff can be had at Dollar Tree for $1, but those only have 8 in each pack—that makes Fit & Active a slightly-better deal, though the savings literally only come down to mere pennies. Either way, $.12 per stick isn't too bad of a deal no matter how you look at it, so I don't mind getting these once in a while to help me get the water intake that most normal people can do without the need for added flavors or other assistance.

Overall: 7/10. This is a good little flavor enhancer that recalls the fruit punch flavor of the sugared powdered drink mixes we all got when we were younger. In other words, it tastes pretty cheap, consisting of a mass of vague fruit flavors mixed with artificial sweetener, but I can't hold that against it too much, because these are cheap: A ten-pack retails for just $1.19, giving you plenty of servings for the price. The flavor is nothing all that spectacular, but it tastes less sweet to me than similar drink mixes, making them drinkable without being too overpowering—likewise, for using artificial sweeteners, there's not much of the “metallic” taste you get with most drinks that use them.  A nice, refreshing drink on a hot summer day.  Recommended, for sure.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Village Bakery Kitchen Sink Cookies (Aldi)

Don't get too excited...they're basically a very good peanut butter-chocolate cookie.
On our last shopping trip, we bought some Chocolate Chunk cookies from Village Bakery; it had been a long time since I'd had them, and some chocolate chip cookies sounded really good. I quickly skimmed to see what other varieties they had available—I think I saw an oatmeal raisin something or other, which doesn't appeal to me—and was about to call it a day when a purple label caught my eye. It was called “Kitchen Sink”, an obvious ode to all the ingredients that it has being akin to them putting in everything “but the kitchen sink.” I was slightly intrigued, but we decided to stick with the chocolate chunk version.
As soon as we got home, I fired up the old computer and did a little research on the ol' Kitchen Sink cookies. What did others think of them? Were they that good? Much to my surprise, I could find little in the way of other bloggers' reviews for them, but what I did find piqued my interest level up even more than most reviews could: A PLMA award for best cookie of 2015. Enticed, I also looked up the PLMA, because I had no idea what the hell that was or what this prestigious award stood for.

I learned that it stands for Private Label Manufacturers Association. They have end-of-the-year awards where they go through dozens of off-brand products across three dozen different categories (everything ranging from cereals, to side dishes, to cakes and pies, and just about everything in between), and pick a product that they feel best exemplifies that category. Obviously, it's not just limited to products at Aldi, but rather any store-brand product across the entire nation (in fact, out of all the different categories, Aldi only claimed the top spot on two of them). So out of every single cookie the judges tried, this one took the top spot.

Look at all those delicious, unnecessary ingredients...
So what are these Kitchen Sink cookies? That's the question you have probably been asking yourself the entire time it has taken you to read the previous three paragraphs. Well, as the name alludes, there are really no set recipes for these; it's just a way to clear your pantry by throwing as many sweet things in as you can. In Village Bakery's version, they are peanut butter cookies with chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, chunks of white chocolate, little bits of pretzel, and finished off with some coconut. How can all of these possibly combine into something that doesn't taste like a complete mess?

They're not the taste sensation that the PLMA was leading me to believe they would be, but what we have here is basically an above-average peanut butter-chocolate cookie. Since the cookie base is peanut butter, and there are added peanut butter chips, it makes sense that's the dominant flavor, with large chunks of milk chocolate coming in right behind. The rest of the ingredients leave little-to-no-mark on the proceedings...I love white chocolate, and didn't really notice it all that much, while the pretzels and coconut seem to add only to the texture, by giving the soft, chewy cookies some added crunch. I was a little worried about the coconut since it's one of the few things I don't like at all, but I couldn't taste it one bit.

I was very disappointed at first, but over the course of what amounted to almost the entire package (my wife did not like them and only ate two or three out of the included ten), I really grew to like them for what they were. They aren't as mind-blowing, or even as complex, as all the ingredients would lead you to believe, so dial back your expectations a bit and you should be just fine. Assuming you like peanut butter and chocolate, of course.

Overall: 7.5/10. Really, these are just an unnecessarily over-the-top presentation of a typical peanut butter-chocolate cookie. Ignore a majority of the ingredient list, because the white chocolate is barely noticeable (at least it was to me), and all I can tell that the pretzels and coconut left behind is a crunchier texture. I don't generally like peanut butter cookies, but these are perfectly soft, and the peanut butter is counterbalanced by the chocolate, so it's not the overwhelming flavor. Once the disappointment of expecting a much crazier taste explosion died down, I slowly grew to appreciate these for what they were, and I would definitely get them again at some point in the future. For the sake of full discourse, and as a second opinion, my wife was less than impressed.

Village Bakery Chocolate Chunk Cookies (Aldi)

Bakery-style softness and chewiness, without the bakery.
You know how there's that well-known adage that says you should never visit the grocery store hungry? It's true, and I can vouch for it. But there's a lesser-known alternative to that side of the coin: don't go to a grocery store full, either. Sure, you might save a little on your grocery bill since nothing looks even remotely appetizing, but you're going to end up with barely anything in your cart except sweets.

And that is how I ended up with this in my cart. And their name-brand cupcake knockoffs. And ice cream. Yet not even enough food for the rest of the week. Oh well. These enticed me because I'm a plain person who loves the simple taste of chocolate chip cookies, and these seem to be pretty well loaded with them evenly across each cookie. They had another variety called “kitchen sink” cookies that lost me with the inclusion of coconut (along with, as the name implies, about thirty other ingredients); I've since learned they won an award as Best Private Label Cookie of 2015 according to the PLMA (Private Label Manufacturer's Association, an actual organization). I'll probably be going back for those next time.

But that's a story for the future: the focus now are on Village Bakery's Chocolate Chunk Cookies, available all the time at Aldi stores nationwide. The cookie looks like a cookie, which is a good thing. Each one is pretty uniformly round, and you can tell just by looking at them that they're going to be chewy—that's a good thing for me (and most others that I've talked to about preferred cookie strength), but if you like yours burnt or crispy, then this is probably not the cookie for you. Sure enough, a single bite confirms exactly the softness that I thought. The actual cookie here is pretty much standard cookie, though it is pretty flavorful, with a sweetness that gradually gives way to some kind of finish that I can't accurately detect because I have a terrible palate. It's good, but nothing to write home about.

As it should be, the main focus is on the chocolate chunks, and each cookie is loaded with them. There's no reason that, assuming you are a fully-grown human being, you should end up with a bite completely devoid of them, because they're all well spread throughout. The chocolate chips are nice and sweet, but not overly so, and blend very well with the cookie portion. In other words, these actually approach the same flavor and consistency of supermarket bakery cookies, at least in my humble opinion. But of course you're not going to be paying the price for fresh-baked cookies...I honestly don't remember the exact price, a fact that I am ashamed of, nor can I find pricing info online, but I believe they are $2.79, or thereabouts. For ten cookies, that runs about a quarter each, which is a great deal for cookies this delicious.

I'll end this story with an anecdote that explains how I actually first encountered these: I was at a friend's party and helped myself to a cookie. Upon taking a bite, I stated (it was an upscale party, hence the larger words) how delectable the cookie was, and inquired if he was the baker responsible for creating such a delicious treat. That's when he pointed to a large Aldi poster he had hanging on his wall. Without saying a word, I understood, and began to nod approvingly. That's a true story. Well, some of it.

Overall: 8/10. I don't eat sweets all that often, but after loading up on lunch at a tasty local establishment, I was craving dessert, and ended up with these (and ice cream, and cupcakes, etc.) in the cart. This is a delicious cookie, nice and chewy with the perfect texture. The chocolate chips are milk chocolate (my favorite), and are fairly sweet, but not overly so. The cookie itself is sugary (of course), but also has an added flavor (Perhaps vanilla? My tastebuds suck) that actually gains in intensity; it wasn't the plain, boring cookie that I was expecting. The end result is a bakery-style cookie that beats out most other store-bought cookies. This is actually the first time I've ever bought them myself, but I will definitely be grabbing another package, and in the near future, too.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Pueblo Lindo Strawberry Yogurt Smoothie (Aldi)


At the risk of sounding racist, I always get nervous when I see authentic Mexican products on supermarket shelves, and the same rules apply when Aldi rolled out a small collection of products under the Pueblo Lindo label to their permanent inventory.  Relax, the reason has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with taste: for being in such close proximity to each other, it's amazing how flavors can vary wildly from culture-to-culture, border-to-border.  I remember eagerly digging in to a Mexican soda a few years back, expecting it to taste similar to an American one, only to be sorely disappointed.  And that was the exact moment that now makes me cringe every time I see an actual product of Mexico sold in stores.

But I'm of the idea that (almost) everything deserves a second chance, and this was no different: Was it right of me to gauge an entire country's offerings off just one item?  Probably not.  So when I literally happened to stumble on Pueblo Lindo's Strawberry Yogurt Smoothie, I got excited, but with an added air of hesitation: what makes a strawberry smoothie Mexican?  Nervousness rising once again, I opened the lid and took a sniff...

...smells like a fresh, delicious strawberry smoothie. I was starting to relax a little bit.  I threw a swig back, and...

Wow, this is some amazing stuff!  It does taste a lot like prepackaged smoothies here, but there's something about it that's even slightly better.  I can't tell if it's the ridiculously silk-like smoothness, or something about the actual flavor, which tastes like fresh, authentic strawberries (it's made with a “strawberry base” consisting of actual strawberries, along with lab-created “natural flavors”, so hard to say just how much of the real thing is in there), but it goes down easily and tastes magnificent.

The biggest “con” is the size of the bottle, which weighs in at 7 fl oz.  But any problems with that are more than partially offset by its price, which is a mere $.89.  Yogurt smoothies are one of those things that I feel like are constantly marked up way too much, especially considering yogurt itself is so cheap.  Even if this was only an average smoothie, I feel like this would be a fair price, but considering just how smooth and tasty it is, it definitely feels more than reasonable.

Even after trying it, I'm still at a loss as to what constitutes the difference between a “Mexican” strawberry smoothie, and an “American” one—in other words, I feel like this would feel just as home in regular packaging with a Friendly Farms label—but no matter its appearance, this is a darn good beverage.  And one that will at least partially allay my fears of Mexican-branded products for the foreseeable future.

Overall: 8.5/10.  If you're like me, seeing "authentic" Mexican products might make you re-consider buying it; not out of any issues involving race or prejudice, mind you, but simply because the couple products I've had just didn't mesh well with my American taste-buds.  I was a little hesitant to try this (what makes a strawberry smoothie "Mexican"?), but it's a fantastically smooth, rich, and creamy yogurt-based beverage, with a delightfully-authentic strawberry taste (it does have real strawberries in it, but also “natural flavors”, so hard to say how much of what is in there).  The bottle is a little small (7 fl. oz.), but so is the price, at $.89, so I can't be too hard on it.  I will definitely be grabbing more of these...they're one of the better store-bought smoothies I've ever had the pleasure of trying, regardless of nationality.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Millville Honey Puffs Cereal (Aldi)

Hope you like your cereal soggy and flavorless!
Here we have a honeycomb-shaped cereal that's available as a Special Buy from Aldi stores. I had bad memories of this cereal the last time I got it, but decided to try it again for two reasons: 1.) I didn't review it the first time, and 2.) I was hoping either my memories were misplaced, or the recipe had changed. It did not, and Millville's Honey Puffs still remain one of the worst, if not thee worst, cereal that I've ever had from the German discount chain.

Before I go on a tirade detailing everything that's wrong with it, let's start with the positives: right out of the box, it looks very similar to the national brand, which I used to enjoy as a child. I popped a couple in my mouth without milk, and it's a really solid knockoff, with a light touch of honey-infused sweetness that goes perfectly with the light, puffed cereal. Everything is off to a perfect start so far.

Unfortunately, milk is almost a necessity with cereal, and it's the addition of this liquid substance that starts the immediate downward spiral. You might get a couple of decent bites in before the milk completely ruins it; if you're not as into milk as I am, and just use a bit to get the bottom of the bowl wet (I fill my bowl up at least halfway with the stuff), then you might be good for a few more. But, inevitably, as the cereal gets coated with the liquid, it will immediately start to get soggy. This is where the fatal problems occur.

Honey Puffs don't just get soggy when they get soggy: they also get grainy. So we go from having these smooth, light puffs of well-textured cereal, to soft, grainy bits of cereal that fall apart in your mouth. It's actually a rather gross feeling, that's compounded by the second little problem: the milk completely washes away all the taste. So not are you only getting grainy globs of rapidly-dissolving cereal, but you're getting completely tasteless globs of rapidly-dissolving cereal.

By the time I get to the bottom of the bowl, the milk is the only thing that has any taste to it. I remembered this being a problem the last time I bought these (over a year ago), but thought maybe I was exaggerating how bad it was in my head. I was not. This is a shame, because out of the box it has the look and the taste of the national brand, but by the end, it's nothing more than a tasteless glob of inedible mush.

Overall: 2/10. If you or your child enjoy eating cereal straight out of the box (I remember my mom giving me Cheerios as a snack during church when I was a wee one), then this is well worth the purchase price. If, however, you like to add milk to your cereal, then don't even bother picking this up. It looks and tastes like the national brand, but once milk is added, it not only gets soggy, but completely grainy. Even worse: all of the flavor washes away the longer it sits in the liquid, so by the time you reach the end of the bowl, you're left with tasteless bits of complete nothingness. You might be able to prolong the inevitable by either adding only a teeny bit of milk, and/or eating it insanely fast, but why should you have to alter your eating habits just to avoid being disappointed by a cereal product? This is the only Aldi cereal I can recall that wouldn't be worth it at any price.

Millville Golden Corn Nuggets Cereal (Aldi)

Pretty accurate stuff, for better or worse.
I liked the national brand version of these growing up, but it was never one of my favorite cereals; that's why I've never tried them the few times I've seen them available as Special Buys. The last time I saw them, I opted for the Honey Puffs instead (a honey-comb shaped cereal), and was very disappointed with the end result. I would have been just fine buying neither of these this time around, were it not for my wife, who had much fonder memories of these as a kid, and wanted to take a trip down memory lane (I also bought a box of the Honey Puffs again, hoping that they changed their formula...results can be seen below).

Just like pretty much all of Millville's cereals, this looks pretty darn close to the national's based on foggy memories from over two decades ago, but I would go so far as to say it's pretty much exact. They're also nice and crunchy, right out of the bag, which is always my preferred texture with cereal. But how would these properties change with the addition of milk? I poured some on and dove in to find out...

This is a pretty darn good cereal. I always remembered this as being a cereal more geared toward the “kiddies”, probably due to seeing these advertised during Saturday-morning cartoons as a young lad, but it's really not all that sweet, at least compared to most cereals peddled to kids. There's just a perfect little touch of sweetness that pokes through what could have otherwise been a pretty boring cereal, and it's enough to make it kind of addicting.

The downside is that, despite my wife's assurance to the contrary, these get really soggy after a short amount of time. The upside is that they don't lose their flavor, but they're also not very texturally-enticing by the time you get to the bottom of the bowl (unless you're a very focused, insanely fast eater). Then again, this really isn't that crunchy to begin with—since these aren't flakes, but rather “puffs” of corn—I guess it kind of makes some sense that they would get soft quicker, but it's still a little disappointing. And as someone who's usually doing something while I eat (such as getting caught up on emails, reading articles online, or writing something), it generally takes me a little while to make it to the finish line. I'll just have to make sure to eat these when I have nothing else to do, I guess.

Overall: 6.5/10. I remember seeing the national brand advertised a lot during Saturday morning cartoons, but in retrospect, that seems a little misleading, because this isn't really a cereal that I would equate with the taste buds of normal in point, while I enjoyed it as a young one, it wasn't even close to one of my favorites. It still wouldn't be, but I think I can appreciate it more now as an adult, as the puffy corn pieces are given just the right amount of sweetness to keep it from becoming dull. The downside is that the pieces are already soft to begin with, so it doesn't take long for the individual bits to be overwhelmed in the white liquid, making them pretty soggy by the time I get to the bottom of the bowl. For under $2 a box, though, there's some value to be had. I'm not super-crazy about these (somehow, this is the cereal that has singlehandedly jump-started my wife's interest in cereal lately), but I would get these again down the road as an alternative to my usual choices.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Summit Red Thunder Sugar Free Energy Drink 4-Pack (Aldi)

Better than the sugared version, but only in the way Coldplay is better than Nickelback.
Oh, how time (and a changed formula) has not been kind to Summit’s Red Thunder energy drink. For many years, it was one of the best combos of taste and value available in the world of energy drinks—that is, until Aldi inexplicably changed the formula in favor of one that is way more bitter and metallic, rather than the smooth and delicious perfection that it was. As a result, it dropped from a perfect score, all the way down to below “5”. Talk about a steep decline in quality!

I always favor “regular” versions of most drinks because the vast majority of diet drinks just taste absolutely disgusting to me. They’re just watered-down, artificially sweetened take-offs that have people fooled into thinking they’re being “healthy” by avoiding sugar and calories; but let’s be honest here, is a soda ever really going to be healthy? Besides, some science seems to suggest that diet drinks are every bit as bad for you, if not worse, than the regular drinks, because of all the chemicals involved in their creation (especially the artificial sweeteners, which do more harm than good). What’s the point in drinking them if they have no proven health benefits, and taste like absolute crap?

On the flip-side, I’ve grown to tolerate diet energy drinks. After all, what is an energy drink anyway but a collection of several chemicals thrown together to form a rather crude-tasting liquid that’s solely meant to give you a shot of adrenaline? So if the regular, heavily-sugared versions are already a cesspool of chemicals and unhealthy additives, I figure what’s the difference between that, and drinking an artificially-sweetened cesspool of chemicals and unhealthy additives? Here, though, at least in my head, there is a specific benefit: by limiting the amount of sugar consumed, I’m also reducing, if not entirely eliminating, the hard “sugar crash” that results from drinking most energy drinks.

I just don't understand the benefits of merely prolonging a nap instead of outright avoiding one, which I feel like I'm doing when I drink a sugared energy drink—it's almost like you need a second one later just to stave off the crash sleepiness. It just doesn’t make sense to me. Besides, as I’ve said earlier, most energy drinks have a crude flavor to begin with (I like them, but they’re technically not sweet, and intentionally seem to go for a weird “metallic” flavor as the standard), so the weird, medicinal addition that results from adding an artificial sweetener is less noticeable to me in this form.

And that is why I'm recommending Summit's Sugar Free Red Thunder energy drink over the regular version. It does have the medicinal taste I alluded to earlier, but it cuts back on the strong taste of rust that you get with the full-flavor, ever since they changed their formula. It's drinkable, and gives me a kick of energy every time I down one, so it obviously does what I need it to do. It's not the best-tasting energy drink on the market, but there's at least no crash later, and leaves me raring to go for quite a while afterwards. Maybe the biggest reason is the price: These are $2.49 for a pack of four 8.5 oz. bottles (which I also believe are .1 oz. more than the name brand), which is around what you can expect to pay for a single can of the national brand stuff, and this works just as well.

I still don't buy these very often, as Aldi is really kind of disappointing me with their standard energy drink options, but if you find yourself in a pinch, this is one of the better ones they carry.

Overall: 5/10. It's still nothing to write home about, but Summit's Sugar Free Red Thunder Energy Drink is one of the better energy beverages that Aldi carries. There's the medicinal, fake taste inherent in all “diet” drinks, but it's no worse than the pungent “rust” flavor that we get with the full-flavor, ever since they changed their formula. But, a four-pack (of 8.5 oz. cans) is a mere $2.49, which represents some excellent value, especially when compared to the national brand. I do get a burst of energy that lasts for a little while after drinking one, without the crash, on account of them being sugar free, so they work for what I need them for. The taste just isn't there, and that's what prevents me from buying these more often.

Summit Gridlock Lo-Carb Energy Drink (Aldi)

Better than most other canned energy drinks at Aldi, but that's not saying anything.
Original Gridlock pretty much sucks, which I made fairly clear in my review for that product.  But in a desperate need for some energy while inside an Aldi store, I had to think quickly and act fast.  I wanted to grab the white can of Gridlock, apparently modeled after a similar drink from a national brand, but they must have been special buys, because they were completely sold out.  So it was either original Gridlock (blech), Red Thunder (once fantastic, now blech), their “multiple-hour energy” knockoff (which is great, and dirt cheap, but I like savoring a big can), or Gridlock’s Lo-Carb version, which I have never tried before.

Judging from the title of this review, I think you can tell which one I chose.

Opening the can, I was a little nervous because it pretty much smells exactly the same as original Gridlock, down to what I call the “mechanical tartness” (because it tastes like you’re sucking on metal).  But I learned a long time ago that you can never judge a book by its cover; substitute “energy drink” for “book” and “smell” for “cover”, and the same statement holds true here.  So I forced down a quick drink.

I have to say that, while this is nowhere near the top of my list of favorite energy-enhancing beverages, it has somehow claimed a spot near the top for Aldi energy drinks.  The terrible tartness of the original (and now, Red Thunder) is gone, replaced with a much calmer flavor that’s still very much drinkable.  While there’s a slight “diet” aftertaste, it’s not too unpleasant or too heavy to detract from the main taste, which isn't often the case with low- or no-sugar alternatives.

To say I’m “impressed” might be a little far-fetched, but “pleasantly surprised” is a lot closer to the truth.

Overall: 5.5/10. It’s not my favorite energy drink by a long shot, but thanks to the terribleness of original Gridlock, and Red Thunder’s sudden decline, it’s the best non-energy shot offered at the German retailer.  The “mechanical tartness” (so-called because it’s akin to the taste of licking a robot’s arm) of the original, which is disgusting, is thankfully missing here in the low-carb version.  The “diet” aftertaste, while noticeable, isn't as bad as it can be in other diet beverages, while the flavor itself doesn't have that terribly fakey sweetness that accompanies many similar drinks. If you find yourself in an Aldi and need a kick, their energy shots are the way to go; if you're opposed to those (and some people are), then this is probably your best canned bet.