Sunday, March 27, 2016

Season's Choice Seasoned French Fries (Aldi)

Fast-food quality, if not better, and pretty dirt-cheap to boot!
There are times when a simple fried potato just won’t do: when the crinkle-cuts and shoestrings of the world just sound too darn bland.  When I want something with a little more edginess and flavor.  Those, dear friends, are the times I reach for Season’s Choice Seasoned Fries, available all the time from Aldi stores.

That paragraph might sound like a commercial, but these really are some of my favorite fries, and probably the one I purchase most often from Aldi’s constantly-available inventory.  They may not look like they’re loaded with flavor just by looking at them, with their pale brown hue not really suggesting much actual seasoning, but once they’re baked in the oven they taste just like a good fast-food fry.  There’s a slight burn after eating a few, either from the spices, or from the level of sodium in them, or both, but if you’re eating fries, you’re generally not too concerned with the health impact.

The flavor kind-of-sort-of reminds me of Rally’s fries, if I have to make a comparison, although they don’t get nearly as crispy.  I would actually argue that these fries might be slightly better--whereas fast-food fries tend to be overwhelmingly salty, I actually notice the garlic powder and spices more than straight-up salt.  This is pretty impressive for a frozen fry, especially around this price point ($1.79 per package).

As I hinted at earlier, I don’t like how these things never seem to fully brown.  I guess with their light brown-ish hue, it’s a lot tougher to tell when they’re fully cooked, at least in comparison to the more standard forms of the fried potato.  They seem to take longer than the recommended time in the oven--this last batch, I barely had any fries left, I pulled them out after about 15 minutes, and about half of them were well-cooked, while the other half were slightly mushy.  I guess unsurprisingly, it’s the larger ones that seem to take longer, but I’m usually hungry and just settle for eating them soft.  I don’t seem to have this problem with other fries, so I don’t think it’s user error.  But the taste goes a long way to rectifying that situation...and dipping them in a good barbecue sauce (or your preferred condiment of choice) makes them even better. 

Overall: 8/10.  One of the better fries Aldi carries, Season’s Choice Seasoned Fries pack a lot of flavor into a very inexpensive package of fries.  The garlic powder and assorted spices stand out here, rather than just the salt, which tends to be a concern with a lot of frozen fries.  The biggest downside is that these things never seem to fully crisp up.  I’ve put them in for slightly longer than the packaging suggests, and that only got the small-to-medium fries crispy, while the longer ones were still soft, and if there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s soft French fries.  But the flavor and the price (a mere $1.79 per bag, or about what you would pay for a medium fry at most fast food places) certainly goes a long way toward compensating for that.  Well worth the price, in my humble opinion.

Fit & Active Crinkle Cut Fries (Aldi)

Contrary to your thoughts, these low-fat and low-sodium fries are actually pretty good.
I almost didn’t buy these.  French fries that are 97% fat free and relatively low in sodium compared to their brethren?  Just the idea feels so inherently anti-American.  But I still wanted to give these a fair shot, so I scooped up a bag a few months ago out of curiosity--and then promptly forgot to review them.  So here I was, chomping at the bit for Aldi to offer them again.  And what better time than during the “New Year’s Resolution” health-inspired special buy cycle?  They really have this down to an almost perfect science…

So what did I think of them?  I think the mere reason that I was looking forward to getting them again pretty much tells you that I found them rather enjoyable.  How is it that something as simple as a French fry that simply tastes like potato, is such a foreign concept here in the U.S.?  Sure, compared to most other fries, these would be considered “boring”, but they’re also much healthier; they’re not soaked in grease, and even the sodium content is dialed back a bit.

Do I eat them as is right out of the bag?  No.  I have to admit, I like to dip them in barbecue, and add a small sprinkle of barbecue seasoning on them beforehand.  But you know what?  I do that to all my fries, so the fact there’s not already a ton of unhealthiness on them already, makes me feel a little less guilty about it.  You can also tell there’s not a lot of salt on them, because there’s not a whole lot of flavor besides the potato, but I also generally like things without an overabundance of salt, so that’s a win for me.  Also a win is the price: These are only $1.99 for two full pounds of potato-y goodness; who says health-conscious foods have to be so expensive?

Overall: 8.5/10.  I really like these things, and chances are, so will you!  Sure, there’s not a lot of flavor besides potato, but that also means there’s not all the unhealthy salt and grease content.  I dip them in barbecue sauce and add a little seasoning salt to them to dress them up a bit, but these are things I do to any fry, so it’s nice to not have all that unnecessary crap on them to begin with.  And for only $1.99 for a 32 oz. (2 LB.!) bag, these go a long way for not a lot of moolah.  Highly recommended, but the biggest drawback is that these are only occasionally available as a Special Buy, so stock up on them when you see them!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Home Store Large Single Toilet Paper Roll (Dollar Tree)

Using leaves would be both more comfortable, and more reliable.
Much to my wife’s chagrin, I’m always looking at ways to cut costs.  Even if we happen to have money (a rarity, especially over the course of the last seven months), I just can’t stand feeling like I’ve paid more for something than I really needed to.  Of course, I don’t mind the occasional splurge on some things when our monetary situation allows, but especially on the household staples, I just try to find something that we both like, and then stick to it.

My wife likes the 12-roll packs of toilet paper, but I’ve been hesitant to spend $5+ all at once for that stuff, which pretty much leaves me with the smaller four packs that don’t last as long.  I know, I know, the larger packs are the much better deal, and also last longer, but when the budget comes down to the last few dollars, I still hesitate to cough up that much.  Besides, we still seem to go through any toilet paper we buy ridiculously quick because my wife likes to use up half a roll every time she uses the restroom, no matter what the reason.

So with this in mind, I was at the ol’ Dollar Tree searching for some TP, when I saw a couple choices side-by-side: they had the usual small four packs in plastic packaging, and then a single large toilet paper roll encased in paper.  At first glance, I scoffed at the single roll, thinking there was no way there were as many squares on that as there were in the four packs, until I dug a little deeper.  That’s when I discovered that the large roll did, in fact, have more sheets…about 100 more, to be exact.  I felt like I had just discovered a new way to save money, and happily strutted to the front with two of these (as well as a basketful of unnecessary merchandise) in tow.

Then it all came crashing down.  A couple of days later, my wife--queen of all toiletries--used it and ranted at me afterwards in pure disgust.  All it took was a single glance and soft caress of the roll to see what her fuss was about: it looked about as rough as sandpaper, and felt as thin as a dryer sheet.  At first, I kicked myself for not having paid attention to the “ply”, and thought that I had gotten a severely cheap single ply version, until I saw that there were, in fact, two layers per sheet.  So this is somehow a two-ply toilet paper.

After using it myself, I have to begrudgingly admit that my wife was right: this stuff sucks.  No matter how much of it you grab, it’s so thin that you still don’t feel like you have enough for the job.  There’s also no level of comfort whatsoever…while it doesn’t quite feel like you’re using a barbed wire, it doesn’t feel all that good, either.  Surprisingly, it hasn’t fallen apart in my hands yet, so it might be a little more durable than it first appears, but I will never purchase this again; I know to just stick to the four-roll if I ever find myself in this situation again (although I must say even those are kind of expensive, as Aldi has rolled out their own four-roll “basic” toilet paper for $.59, and many store brands are already at $1, or less).

Overall: 2.5/10.  This stuff is absolute junk.  It’s paper-thin (even though it’s still technically two-ply) and offers no level of comfort whatsoever.  And yet, for some reason, I pity it more than I hate it.  It just feels like a product that served a purpose maybe twenty years ago, but that has sadly fallen behind the times--many store brands offer four-packs of (slightly) softer rolls for $1 or less (Aldi even sells their basic TP pack for a mere $.59).  I don’t know, maybe business owners or hotels load up on these for their public restrooms, but short of that, I can’t see there being much of a demand for this kind of crappy toilet paper; I made the mistake of purchasing it once, but I’ll be sure to never fall for it again.  Credit must be given considering, as cheap and thin as it feels, it's never crumbled or fallen apart in my hands, which is certainly a plus in the world of toilet paper.

Goodsense 30-Gallon Trash Bags (Dollar Tree)

Not nearly as bad as one would think.
A long while back, I purchased an unbranded set of trash bags from Dollar Tree that were absolutely horrendous, and hands down the worst garbage bags I’ve ever had the misfortune of using.  If I recall correctly, I suggested that they be immediately removed from the shelves and never sold again; they didn’t listen, as they can still be purchased online (and probably in stores…I’m programmed to just skim over them if I see them).

However, a short while after that debacle, I purchased the same product, only in the Goodsense brand.  At first, I was a little skeptical that it might be the same product, only with an added brand name, but those fears were quickly allayed after using them.  It’s been four years that I’ve been using them, and I just realized that I have not reviewed them.  So for those of you that might be a little leery of using any trash product from Dollar Tree after reading my review (or after using them yourself), I feel I owe this to you (and them) to show that there are actually some decent trash-related products there.

Now, to be clear, let’s set things straight right off the bat:  These trash bags still aren’t great.  They tear relatively easy, and thus should be ruled out for any kind of “heavy duty” work, including yard work.  But unlike the unbranded piles of junk that I took a look at four years ago, for any kind of low- to medium-duty work, these should get the job done.  I’ve used them to take clothes to Goodwill, filled them to the top, and had no problems with them.  I also use them as standard trash bags, and as long as there’s nothing sharp in them, they’ve been able to handle anything I toss their way.

Surprisingly, weight doesn’t seem to be much of a factor; I’ve filled trash to the very top of them several times, and they’ve taken the weight with no problems.  We live in condominiums and have to travel to the end of our units for the dumpster, so we’re talking at least 50-100 steps (maybe even a little bit more), so it’s not like I just walk them three steps to the garage and call it a day.  They really can withstand quite a bit of weight.

Again, the biggest downfall is that the slightest stab can gut these things open like a fish.  I understand the same can be said for any trash bag, but a lot of the more expensive ones I’ve used are at least semi-resistant to stab wounds--that is, if they do get punctured, the hole is usually limited to where the penetration occurred.  These, on the other hand, if they receive any kind of cut, they’re pretty much done for…it doesn’t take much pressure at all to worsen the cut, and before you know it, you have a completely split and unusable trash bag.

We’ve tried using these in the kitchen, but they tended to rip more often than not up there.  I use these exclusively in my basement--my man cave--where all I generally throw away are empty cans (or bottles) of alcohol and empty paper plates of food, and these have given me zero troubles over the years.  If nothing else, I find these are great to have on hand just in case, and with eight coming in each package, there are plenty to handle all your basic chores.

Overall: 6.5/10.  These rip a little too easy--anything with even a slight edge is prone to tearing these apart--but for the price, I still have a box of these on hands at all times.  I tend to keep them in my basement, where the only trash are empty alcohol containers, the occasional paper or junk mail, and used paper plates, and have had zero problems with these, even after filling them all the way to the top.  Also used them to donate mounds of clothes to a donation center, and they had no problems supporting the weight.  They’re nowhere near premium, but they represent a reasonable balance of performance and price that makes them a great value.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Millville Honey Nut Corn Squares Cereal (Aldi)

This crop-job is very off-center and kind of annoying.
As we’ve elaborated upon at least a dozen times (the last time being in the above review), I love cereal.  I also love a good Special Buy cereal, which is to say, for those uninitiated to how Aldi works, products that are only offered for a limited time until they are sold out, at which point they are gone until the next time they are offered.  When I’m not in the mood for one of my usuals (Millville Honey Nut Crispy Oats, regular Crispy Oats, Frosted Flakes, or Cocoa Rice), I like to wander over to the Special Buy section just to see what limited-time breakfast foods they might have.

Well, on this particular trip, I discovered Millville’s Honey Nut Corn Squares.  Now, Millville offers their standard Corn and Rice Squares cereals all the time, and now that I think about it, you can add both of those to the above list of my “usuals”.  Either of them are perfect for when I’m in the mood for something a little lighter, and they have a lot of flavor even though there’s not much sugar in them.

Well this cereal certainly isn’t shy about its addition of “honey nut”, because it comes on way stronger than I was expecting.  And that’s a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s definitely not ultra-sweet in the way lots of kids’ cereals can be, but I’m not sure it would suffice to say that it’s “lightly sweetened”.  It walks right in the middle of that spectrum, which also leads to a nice sweet bowl of milk at the end.  The honey clearly stands front and center, but there’s enough of a nuttiness in the background to justify the title.  In other words, this cereal is damn good, and way better than I was expecting it to be.

The other plus to the honey is that it functions as an extra coating on the cereal, making them less susceptible to milk-induced sogginess.  That’s the main drawback of the regular Rice and Corn Squares--they get soggy real quick.  Now, I eat cereal so often that it doesn’t bother me quite like it used to, but I still like having a crunchier cereal for longer, and am aware that it’s a big drawback for some people.  It seemed like halfway through the bowl, even the fully-submerged pieces were still more firm than most cereals, and I absolutely douse mine in milk.

This just may be my favorite of the Special Buy cereals that I’ve tried (although now that I think about it, their version of Life is pretty stupendous, too).  Again, it’s a wonder why this isn’t offered all the time, since they already carry the rice and corn squares, but I guess that’s the drawback of dealing with a limited inventory--there just simply isn’t enough space to house all this stuff.  I’ve never had these before, so I can’t really speak as to how often they are made available, but I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for these in the future, that’s for sure.

Overall: 8/10.  A deliciously sweet cereal that’s unfortunately only available occasionally as a Special Buy, Millville’s Honey Nut Corn Squares walk the perfect line between “lightly sweetened” and full-on sugar rush, providing a perfect blast of sweetness without being too strong.  The honey coating also makes them milk-resistant a little bit longer than the Rice and Corn Squares, which is a good thing for those that can’t stand soggy cereal.  I wasn’t expecting them to be this good, but this has vaulted up my list to one of my favorite cereals that I’ve ever had from the discount grocer.

Millville Apple Cinnamon Crispy Oats (Aldi)

Cereal is one of my all-time favorite foods, because it’s so versatile: its use as a breakfast food, of course, is well-documented, but for me, it can also be a snack, a dessert, or even occasionally dinner.  I also love the stuff because it tends to provide many vitamins and minerals that you can‘t always get with just any food, but also not at the expense of flavor--even the sweetest of cereals still have a lot of health benefits to offer.  They might rot away your teeth, but at least the rest of you will be healthy!

Curiously, Millville’s Apple Cinnamon Crispy Oats are available only occasionally as a Special Buy from Aldi stores, along with a “chocolate“ variety.  I add “curiously” because they offer standard and honey nut versions all the time--back when I was a youngster, I always considered apple cinnamon to be a staple offering of the national brand, so I just think it’s a little weird that they don’t offer it all the time along with the other “crispy oats”, but I don’t work for Aldi, so they don’t tend to listen to me.  But they happened to be offering them during my last shopping trip, and so I grabbed them to make sure I got a box before they ran out!

I have to say that I’m completely underwhelmed.  I bought these because I remember them being absolutely fantastic in the past--a perfect combination of cinnamon with some decent apple flavoring, but they weren’t nearly as good as I remember.  The cinnamon stands front and center for a couple seconds, and things get off to a great start accordingly, but then the sweetness gives way to a real fakey, and understated, apple flavor that just didn’t do anything for me.  It also disappears before it really has any time to make a statement, giving way to a neutral aftertaste that has no sweetness to speak of.  I thought maybe my taste buds just needed to get acclimated to these, but sure enough, it was the same exact results throughout the entire bowl.  Come to think of it, the taste is very akin to a rice cake, with enough flavor at the beginning to make you think you’re actually eating something of substance, only to dissipate and leave you with the realization that what you’re eating is actually “healthy”.

This strikes me as odd, because I love their regular Crispy Oats, as well as their Honey Nut variety (which pack the perfect amount of honey flavor to balance out the boring oat flavor), so the big dip in quality from those to these was quite a bit of a letdown.  I’m just not sure of the demographics Millville was trying to cater to: I’d recommend it to those that don’t like their cereals very sweet, but the initial cinnamon blast might be too much for people like that.  Definitely not one of my favorite Millville offerings and, in retrospect, it makes sense why these are only a Special Buy and not otherwise offered all the time.

Overall: 5/10.  Contrary to my memories, this cereal just wasn’t very good.  It delivers wholeheartedly on the “cinnamon” part, with an initial shot of sweetness that manages to be just enough, without being too strong, but the “apple” flavor never really has the chance to materialize.  So by the end, all of the taste just kind of disappears into a disappointing, neutral finish that just doesn’t beg you to take any more bites.  It’s still way cheaper than the national brand, at $1.79 per box, so giving it a shot to see if you would like them more than I did doesn’t require a huge investment, but I’ll just stick to their regular or honey nut versions, which are a part of their permanent inventory.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mama Cozzi's Italian Style Classics Meatball Marinara Frozen Pizza (Aldi)

Perfect for that person that ever thought: "If only there were a couple meatballs on this here cheese pizza."
I really don’t know what pulled me into Mama Cozzi’s Meatball Marinara pizza.  Sure, I love meatballs, but I’ve never really been a fan of them on pizza.  Yet for some reason, from the first time I laid eyes on this, I knew I was going to buy it at some point.  I waited for it in the hopes that it would go on sale, but when it didn’t, and the supply was starting to dwindle, I finally just said “forget it” and grabbed one for a night my vegetarian wife was working late.

Right out of the box, and not even out of the plastic yet, I hit a couple of red flags: 1.) the crust is rather large, which was a turn-off on their chicken parmesan pizza, and 2.) there aren’t a lot of meatball pieces at all.  To make matters even worse, about 50% of the total number of meatball shards were all gravitating toward the same piece, with a couple slices essentially functioning as cheese pizza.  Not that it takes a long time to move a couple of meatballs around, but it’s still a little annoying.  And even after doing so, you’re only looking at two or three meatballs on each slice, which MIGHT give you about one meatball per bite, but that’s only if you have a big mouth.  I was pretty underwhelmed at the meat-to-pizza ratio.

(sarcastic tone) Wow, look at all those meatballs!
Like the Chicken Parmesan, this is a nice, thick pizza, although a lot of it is courtesy of the crust.  They use the same sweet crust here, though I have to say that it’s better suited to a pizza like this--the meatball and marinara are more flavorful, and go with the crust very well, whereas the chicken parm was a much “lighter” tasting pizza, which accented just how boring the crust was.  It still gets boring here, but not nearly as bad.  The cheese and marinara are good, and compliment the semi-sparse meatball pieces pretty well.  The meatballs aren’t mind-blowing, but for a mass-produced ’ball, they are actually pretty darn good.  You can taste they are full of sodium, but there’s also a lot of flavor behind them, as well; I would have to say that they were the best part of the pizza.  Unfortunately, they’re also the rarest part of the pizza, so you don’t really have a chance to get used to them.

It’s an okay pizza, and I would actually give some thought into buying it again, although on second thought, it would be a lot more cost-efficient, and probably a lot tastier, to just buy a cheese pizza and add my own meatballs to it.  Even if they’re frozen meatballs, they would taste even better than these, and I could also add a lot more, thus ensuring that I get my money’s worth.  There’s also the minor problem that I’ve never really craved a pizza with meatballs on them, and will probably just be fine never having one again.

Overall: 5/10.  The meatballs are actually pretty good, at least as far as factory-created meatballs are concerned, but they’re also the rarest part of the pizza, which it a bit of a letdown.  The crust is oversized, just as it was in the previously-reviewed chicken parmesan pizza, but it wasn’t as noticeably dry or annoying in this pizza.  Still, the cheese and sauce, which take up the most real estate, aren’t anything to write home about, leading to a disappointing frozen pie overall.  If I ever had a desire to have a meatball pizza again (highly doubtful), I would just get a couple of pre-made crusts and make it myself--even using frozen meatballs, they would be a lot more flavorful, and I could add as many as I wanted, rather than trying to spread the few that this pizza comes with around for maximum taste impact.  Not worth it.

Mama Cozzi's Italian Style Classics Chicken Parmesan (Aldi)

If you are a big fan of crust, this pizza is right down your alley.
Picked this bad boy up for a night when my wife didn’t feel like cooking, and when that day inevitably arrived, I popped it in the oven.  Usually, chicken on these pizzas are pretty lacking, but the rest looked so good that I was hoping it would make up for it.

The first thing you’ll notice is the size of the crust…it’s monstrous.  Maybe you won’t notice it when taking it out of the packaging, but you’ll certainly notice it after it pops out of the oven.  I prefer my pizza to be more pizza than crust, but as with a couple of the other Mama Cozzi’s pizzas that I’ve had, this reverses the formula.  For its part, it’s different, at least at first--it has a little bit of a sweetness that takes away from the bland drudgery of chewing on crust.  But that little characteristic gets old pretty quickly, and before long they still just become boring, chewy, dry pieces of unnecessary bread.  Even dipping them in ranch, my go-to for added flavor, didn’t add much to my excitement.  If that doesn’t work, nothing will.

The pizza itself is pretty good, but again, there just doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot to go around.  The cheese, which is a mixture of four different ones, are sufficient, and I really liked the tomatoes.  As I stated earlier, chicken usually doesn’t add much to these pizzas, and this one was no exception.  While I felt like they had a little bit more flavor than most, they still didn’t add much at all.  Maybe I was just so hungry, because the next day after reheating these pieces, they just felt like a weird unnecessary texture, while contributing absolutely nothing else.

I forget what I paid for this, but I think it was $3.99, which is the norm for Aldi’s frozen pizzas.  Even in that price range, you could do a lot better.  Hell, I much prefer their cheapo $1.99 frozen pizzas to this one.  Or, for a dollar or two more, you can get one of their consistently-excellent take and bakes.  This pizza isn’t so bad that it’s offensive or inedible, just hugely underwhelming.

Overall: 5/10.  The cheese and tomatoes are pretty good, but that’s about the end of the praise for me.  The chicken is mildly seasoned but overall unnecessary, and the crust is overwhelming, both in its size, and in its blandness.  Reheated the next day (the true test of a pizza’s flavor) everything was even worse.  It’s not a terribly awful pizza, per se, just a terribly underwhelming one, as a lot of Mama Cozzi’s pizzas are above-average.  This one is a special buy, but I would much rather prefer their cheapo $2 pizzas to this; if you’re looking for something a little more “upscale”, just about any of their take and bake pizzas will do the trick, and for just a couple of dollars more.