Sunday, March 24, 2019

Arizona Nachos n' Cheese Dip Combo Tray (Dollar Tree)

I mean, aside from being totally pointless, these aren't bad.
I always thought Arizona was a beverage brand, mostly known for their collection of teas. But lo and behold, I stumbled on a tray of Arizona Nachos and Cheese at Dollar Tree, which I'm assuming is their attempt to break into the food market. Either that, or Dollar Tree bought all their stock of these because it was their failed attempt to break into the food market. 

At any rate, I was as intrigued as I was hesitant, so I decided to give them a shot.

As can be expected, we get a ton of salty, round chips, and quite a bit of salty, disgusting-looking nacho cheese. Prepwork is easy: simply peel the plastic off, and throw this in the microwave, chips and all. I was a little alarmed right off the bat, because the cheese is literally just that...cheese. I expected it to be in its own container, but's pre-filled right in the crevice. I guess it's no different than the Lunchables nachos, but it was still kind of gross, especially considering it's a lumpy, sickly-looking texture that reminded me of snot. Even a few seconds in the microwave didn't change that.

If you can get past the gross texture, it tastes about on par with most similar products, so your fondness for gas station and stadium nacho cheese will largely decide whether or not this is the snack for you. The cheese also has some red and green things floating in it...I'm just going to go ahead and assume that they are peppers, and leave it at that. The peppers don't add much in the way of heat, nor flavor, so it seems that they are thrown in for visual appeal more than anything else.

Curiously, at the bottom of the tray is the logo of a Blue Luna Cafe, which has locations in New York, Paris, London, and Rome, and probably far away from any Dollar Tree locations. It's kind of a weird little advertisement, but there must be some kind of reasoning behind it.* 

*After a little online search, these chips are manufactured under the Blue Luna brand name. Rather oddly, however, there is no evidence of any locations in New York, Paris, London, or Rome as the ad on the tray bottom insinuates...the only one that exists is in Mexico, and it appears to be totally unrelated. The only other info I could find is an old Facebook page for a Blue Luna Cafe, with the same logo, that suddenly stopped posting things in 2014, as well as an article from 1998 (yes, the year that occurred 21 years ago) about AriZona's “first foray into food”, which is referring to these food trays. The AriZona website currently lists nothing about these under the “Chips” category, which made me think they were being offered as a closeout product, but I've seen them off and on at various Dollar Tree's throughout the years, so it seems to be a pretty consistent inventory item.

Overall: 5.5/10. This snack tray, from the AriZona brand most associated with large canned beverages, is strongly reminiscent in taste of the chip and cheese trays you get at ballpark concession stands (or gas station convenience stores), which should automatically tell you whether or not it's the kind of product for you. If you do enjoy those (and I have to say I do) then you will probably dig these, as the cheese has that fake-but-oh-so-inviting flavor you've come to expect from stadium nachos, but for a fraction of the price you'd get gouged for at a sporting venue. I don't think I would pick these up again, simply because I never really have a craving for stadium nachos unless I'm in an actual stadium (something about the atmosphere seems to make them oh so inviting), but these certainly make for a passable snack at a decent price.

Munch Rights Cheddar & Sour Cream Baked Veggie Puffs (Dollar Tree)

Ignore the brand name, and the fact they're in Dollar Tree: these are actually pretty good.

Oh man, how I hate buying food from Dollar Tree. Don’t get me wrong: I’m open to trying new things, so that’s not at all the issue. The issue is that a lot of the things I have tried from there have ended up being virtually inedible: their cereals are probably the worst offenders, but there have been a large quantity of items that have left me either disgusted, at worst, or disappointed, at best. 

And yet, as the old adage goes: You never know unless you try it, which is the mindset that keeps me (occasionally) trying things that I’m pretty sure I won’t like. (Well, that, and “Well, what do I have to lose, it’s only a dollar!” which should seriously be the company slogan.)

Here we have cheddar and sour cream baked veggie puffs, which sound pretty good, by a brand called Munch Rights, which sounds nauseatingly awful (is it a requirement that cheap brands have to have a name that makes them sound cheap?) The packaging seems fairly straightforward, walking the line between “somewhat appealing” and “dollar store item”, using bright colors to try to stand out from all of the other options. It’s in a 3.5 oz. bag which also toes a line: it’s bigger than most “snack size” chip packages, but about half the size of a typical “regular” sized snack bag.

The puffs themselves are more appealing than I thought, at least visually. I guess I kind of completely ignored the picture on the front, because I was expecting a combination of green and orange puffs that resemble the color in those straw-shaped vegetable snacks: much to my indifference, all of the puffs are a light orange, resembling a regular cheese puff that was pulled out of the cheese powder tub a little too early.

Tastewise…they’re actually pretty on point with what you’d expect, given their title: They’re a nice, light combination of cheddar cheese with a slight, but noticeable, touch of sour cream that goes down easy. Personally, I think I would prefer a little more cheese powder, but there’s enough that I can’t really complain too much about that, and then it would run the risk of overwhelming the secondary sour cream flavor. The texture, though, is probably where I was most surprised: like the best of cheese puffs, these almost melt in your mouth the moment you pop them in, offering you the choice to chew, or just let them dissolve while absorbing all of their delicious flavors.

The ingredients reveal…well, in yet another surprise, a product that’s aptly described. I was expecting loads of filler, or maybe vegetables comprised mostly of “natural flavors”, but there’s actual cheddar cheese in here (especially a surprise considering it’s not touted in large letters on the front of the bag), along with no gluten, nuts, artificial flavors, or artificial preservatives. There also don’t seem to be any artificial colors listed, so chalk that up as another “untouted” win.

I have to say that I’m pretty impressed with these, and would definitely get them again, if for no other reason than to let my cheese puff obsessed son try them…this would be a slightly healthier alternative that would also give him a different flavor profile. That sounds like a win-win to me!

Overall: 7.5/10. Dollar stores certainly aren’t noted for their “healthy” options (in fact, some articles have lambasted their propensity to help the impoverished develop poor eating habits), and while the quoted word might be a bit of a stretch, these puffs come closer to reaching it than most. There’s half the sodium of regular cheese puffs, almost half the fat, and all without sacrificing too much in the way of taste. Great melt-in-your-mouth texture for those that appreciate that, too. And at $1 per 3.5 oz. bag, value is pretty good, though not outstanding. It’s a great change of pace for those that are looking for something a little more unique than a standard cheese puff.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Main Street Kitchen Three Cheese Ziti with Meat Sauce (Dollar Tree)

It's not good, but at least it's not offensively bad.
Well what do we have here? Why, it's another offering from Main Street Kitchen, a frozen food product made by the conglomerate known as Kraft-Heinz! Just like the last product we reviewed from them (see above), this one is also a dish that could be made without meat, but with meat added. Are there just large mountains of unused meats that they are trying to get rid of in that factory, or what?

Anyway, this one is another pasta dish known as ziti, and featuring the aforementioned meat sauce on top. I have to confess that I'm not real familiar with ziti; if memory serves me correctly, the only other time I've had it was at Sbarro's, that depressing “Italian” pizza joint found at virtually every shitty mall across the entire United States. Unsurprisingly, I was pretty underwhelmed then, and I wasn't expecting a frozen entree to really do much to that impression.

The first thing I gotta say is that the noodles are nice and big, and there was also a pretty good helping of sauce to go throughout. The cheese was basically relegated to “topping” duty—there was a little sprinkle that seemed to be thrown on top as an afterthought, as there wasn't really enough to carry me through the whole meal, but I guess it did manage to give it some extra color, if nothing else.

When it said "three cheese blend", I didn't know it meant three strands of shredded cheese.
The taste is…well, as it was with the white cheddar macaroni and cheese, the taste is about what you would expect: a watered-down version of what I imagine ziti should be, with an uninspiring tomato sauce, and, to its credit, quite a bit of beef crumbles spread throughout for texture (and additional heartiness). In fact, the very meat that lead me to scoff at its inclusion was probably the best part of the entree, giving it a meaty texture that makes the whole dish feel more filling than it probably is. The large noodles also help in that regard, and achieve a nice texture when cooked in the microwave. As I did with the white cheddar mac and cheese (see above), I would call this a typical frozen supermarket offering, which won’t qualify as “high praise”, but considering the quality of some of the foods I’ve tried from Dollar Tree, it’s certainly not as much of a knock as it probably should be.

The 9 oz. packaging offers quite a bit of food for the price. I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to call it “filling”, but I’m a constantly-hungry man, so depending on your level of hunger, it very well may go a little bit farther for you. As with the other one I tried (and virtually all frozen dinners in general) there is a lot of sodium, cholesterol, and fat to go around, but it's at least partially offset by a good helping of protein.

So, would I get this again? Probably not; if I ever did, it would certainly only be out of convenience and price, rather than taste. But I won't stop you from giving it a shot: if you're in the mood for something a little different than Dollar Tree's typical frozen offerings, you could do worse than to take a trip down Main Street. At the very least, you'll feel happy knowing you're helping a corporate giant help to get their struggling monopolistic corporate entity back on the right path.

Overall: 5/10. Average in every way, with a thin tomato sauce overrun with big chunks of meat that, sadly, end up becoming the best part of the whole dish. Hope you don't like cheese much, because there's only a small sprinkle on the top that seems to be thrown in as an afterthought—might not be a bad idea to dig into your own cheese stash to liven things up a little bit. I probably won't ever get it again, but there are no doubt worse ways to spend a buck within the walls of a Dollar Tree store.

Main Street Kitchen White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon (Dollar Tree)

Appealing packaging on a frozen product at a Dollar Tree store? I'll bite...
It’s sad, but all you need for a product to stand out at Dollar Tree is to have packaging that doesn’t look like it was designed by a fifth grader, and a brand name that doesn’t sound like it's the result of a translation error: enter this White Cheddar Mac and Cheese and Bacon combo from the bland-but-at-least-American sounding Main Street Kitchen. 

My first impression hit me immediately as I saw the otherwise-appealing packaging: Why do companies always feel the need to put bacon in their macaroni and cheese products? I would have been more excited for just a white cheddar mac and cheese, and you would think that would be even cheaper to make. They must have had some leftover bacon at the factory and just decided to throw it in.

The cheese sauce is pretty thin and watery, though that could have been because I didn’t let it sit in the microwave for very long after cooking (I was at work, and in a hurry). The bacon bits (which, according to the packaging, are actually real pieces of bacon, with smoke flavor added) look about as sad as you’d expect in a frozen meal, though they are larger chunks than I was expecting, in line with the size that's promised on the packaging. 

Am I in a hospital cafeteria?
Tastewise…it’s about what you would expect from a frozen meal from a supermarket—and that’s honestly not meant as a negative. I’ve had far worse from Dollar Tree’s frozen section, so for these to taste like you got them from somewhere other than Dollar Tree is at least mildly high praise. The thin sauce is a small notch above “bland” on the taste scale, conforming perfectly to what a mass market cheese product “should” taste like: perfectly balanced between “boring” and “bold” to safely appeal to the masses. It’s not at all spicy, which can be a good or bad thing depending on your preference (and some heat might actually do it a little good by giving it a slightly more “complex” flavor profile). The bacon, which is actually closer to the texture of ham, adds some weird chewiness to the soft texture, but you really can taste the added smoke flavor, so at least it serves a slight purpose besides throwing everything off. I still would rather it be left out altogether, but we can’t always get what we want. In short, it's edible...what more could you possibly want?

Of course, we’re looking at a lot of sodium (40% of your recommended daily intake) and cholesterol (12%), which is standard for this kind of meal, and probably expected. There is a lot of protein in these, however (something they push in their advertisements for the product), so at least there's a decent amount of something good!

A quick internet search reveals a potential reason why it’s a notch above typical Dollar Tree fare: It’s made by Kraft-Heinz, a company who certainly knows how to water down taste for mass consumption. I initially thought this line was specifically made for Dollar Tree stores—after all, the company's sales are slumping, so trying to enter a “lower end” market to help build up sales wouldn't be an unheard-of business tactic--but a quick search of the internet reveals that doesn't seem to be the case, as they are carried at other grocers. I'm not sure if they are just available here as a “closeout”, or if Dollar Tree will just be carrying them oin addition to other grocery store chains (something we've seen out of Michelina's and Banquet products) so I guess only time will tell. In the meantime, if you want to try them, err on the side of caution and get there now before they are possibly gone for good!

Overall: 5.5/10. It's nothing to write home about, but at least it's not offensive! The watery white cheddar sauce lacks any complexity whatsoever, with a main-line taste that gives off no heat, nor strong flavor, whatsoever. The bacon bits, which are larger than I expected, have a soft, chewy texture that's more akin to ham than bacon; at least you can taste the smoky flavor, which gives off about the closest thing to “flavor complexity” in the whole dish. However, there are worse ways to spend $1 on food: the 9 oz. size is filling enough for small or unhungry folk, and a good “snack size” for most others, and there's a good amount of protein inside. I doubt I'll ever grab one again, but I'm not mad for trying it.