Friday, August 30, 2019

Brothers All-Natural Banana Fruit Crisps (Dollar Tree)

The perfect snack for when you crave bananas, but find yourself stranded in outer space.
Has Dollar Tree always had these healthy snack options? I wouldn't know, because I try to avoid that section of any store like the plague, but at the request of my wife for some dried fruit, decided to see what options they had. And what a selection! Dried apples, dried mixed fruits, dried peaches...all with real fruit and no added ingredients. This is definitely not the Dollar Tree snack area I remember visiting!

A little separate from the other, more typical, dried fruits, was this gem: freeze dried bananas! I'm sure such a thing has always existed, but I've never seen them anyway: all I've ever seen are banana chips. Those are good, don't get me wrong, but I had so many as a kid that even to this day I quickly get sick of them after one or two handfuls. And, while they might taste like bananas to a certain degree, they don't taste much like actual ones—who knew things like taste could get lost in the translation when you suck all the liquid out of a fruit and then bake them? Even though this trip was mostly for my wife, I plunked a bag of these in the cart as a little treat for me.

The poor bag barely had any time to get acclimated to its new surroundings of my house before I feverishly ripped it open and began to dig in. So, how were they?

We'll find out in a little bit, but in order to build up more suspense, let me preface this by saying that there is no possible way that a dried fruit snack is ever going to be as good as the real thing. Especially in the case of fruits like apples and peaches, where the juice is a big part of the taste (and experience) of eating it in the first place. It'd be like eating freeze-dried watermelon...all you'd be left with is the physical essence of a watermelon devoid of the very thing that makes a watermelon a watermelon.

Bananas, though, have the advantage of not being particularly watery to begin with, thus making their exclusion from the typical lists of freeze dried fruits kind of intriguing. After all, it seems that most of the flavor would be retained, right?

Based on these, the answer is “yes”, with “most” being the key word here. I'd compare the taste to banana baby food, where it tastes enough like banana to satisfy a sweet craving, but doesn't taste enough like banana to ever be a substitute for the real thing. Still, freeze dried fruits aren't trying to replace actual fruits: they're just basically trying to be portable versions of fruits on the go. If you're out running, chances are you're not going to stop the chaos of your day to put a banana in your purse, take it out and unpeel it later when you need a snack, and then start chomping down on that thing in public.

These even manage to retain some of the texture, starting off as a slightly crunchy soft powder, and then partially reconstituting itself once it mixes with saliva, leading to a slimy finish that's slightly akin to eating the real thing, but with no messy peel to dispose of. (Although the sliminess is a little more pronounced here, and might be a legitimate turn-off for people who are easily weirded out by gross textures.)

Curiously, the other freeze dried fruits that Dollar Tree carries (which, granted, are from a different brand) give you .71 oz. of fruit, while the bananas remove a tenth of an ounce, taking them down to .59 oz. This still gives you about the equivalent of one medium-sized banana in the package, which is the perfect amount for a quick snack, and a solid value for the dollar asking price. These definitely won't be near the top of my Dollar Tree grocery list very often, especially when you can get 2 lbs. of the actual fruit at most supermarkets, but I would certainly get these again as a change-up in the future.

Overall: 7/10. These won't replace the mess, thrill, or flavor of eating a real banana, but Brother's All Natural Freeze Dried Banana Fruit Crisps are a nice, occasional alternative to eating the real thing. The banana flavor is reminiscent of banana baby food, with a distinct banana flavor that's far less intense than eating the fruit that it's based on. The texture starts of crunchy, as most freeze dried snacks are, and then builds to an almost slimy finish that comes close to accurately capturing the thrill of eating an actual banana, but when you stop to think that it's your spit that's reconstituting it to give it that slick texture, it gets kind of gross. Still, if you can prevent your mind from wandering, this is a great step in the opposite direction from the kinds of snacks Dollar Tree is mostly known for carrying, and a pretty affordable entry into the world of freeze-dried snacks.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Private Selection Aged Cheddar and Sour Cream Potato Chips (Kroger)

$3 for "average" just doesn't cut it.
It’s no secret that I enjoy a good sour cream and cheddar chip. Well, I guess I enjoy pretty much all sour cream and cheddar chips…save for one brand, who shall remain nameless. It’s just one of those classic combinations, which is why every chip company seems required to have it in their roster. I was perusing the selection at Kroger, desperate to find something on sale, but was coming up with nothing that looked good. Then, among the Private Selection options, which seem to be entirely made up of regional barbecue variations, I saw it…an aged cheddar and sour cream blend. It was a little pricey, at $2.99, but it was the only thing that looked good, so I set aside my price hesitations and went for it.

May I remind you (or inform you, if you are unfamiliar with my growing body of work) that Big Lots has one of my favorite cheddar and sour cream chips, and this set me up for something similar. However, it’s nothing like it at all. In fact, this just isn't a very good chip. Factor in the price tag, and it's completely underwhelming.

The cheddar flavor is there, and starts off promising enough, but fades away into a finish that tastes like it’s past its shelf life…which then becomes its main aftertaste. It’s like a dull, almost slightly “moldy” finish that is a complete turn-off, and falls well short of the “premium” flavor they were no doubt going for. Sometimes, the more of them you eat, the better they get, but not in this case…granted, it doesn’t become disgusting or inedible (another possible effect with bad chips), but it just stays with that same disappointing taste.

This is a shame, too, because the texture is nice and crunchy, and the chips are consistently coated with a good bit of seasoning, two of the most important criteria in my checklist. Unfortunately, the taste doesn’t even come close to justifying its exorbitant $2.99 price tag (when not on sale), which is on the high side for a private label store brand. I don’t regret trying them, and they’re not so bad that I won’t finish off the bag, but they’re also not so impressive that I’ll be clamoring to pick them up ever again.

Overall: 5/10. A promising cheddar flavor dissipates into an almost “moldy” finish that then becomes the main aftertaste. Definitely not one of my favorite cheddar and sour cream chips…in fact, probably a good candidate for one on my “worst” list. The price tag--$2.99 per bag when not on sale—does it no favors, either. A chip that foolishly shoots for a “premium” label without the taste to back it up.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Private Selection Texas Barbecue Potato Chips (Kroger)

A pretty decent chip.
Well here we are again, right back at it with another chip review! This time, we’ll be taking a look at Private Selection’s Texas BBQ chips, one of the many regional-themed barbecue chips offered up by Kroger’s hit-or-miss private label line.

I’ve never been to Texas, so I can’t vouch for the authenticity (which, let’s be honest here, wouldn’t be best suited for a chip in the first place), but this is a pretty tasty little chip, with a strong vinegar taste giving way to some barbecue-infused sweetness. It all leads to a slight smoky finish in the back of the tongue. The more and more you eat, however, the vinegar becomes the most pronounced flavor, so unless you’re a fan of salt and vinegar chips, I would probably stay away from these. I’ve grown to like salt and vinegar as a combo (at least, in moderate amounts) so I enjoyed the taste to some degree, but it’s too sour for me to pick them up more than once in a while.

The biggest “win” for me, and this pretty much applies to all of the chips in the Private Selection line across the board, is the texture…they really nail it down. They are extra crunchy, but not so much that you feel like you’re going to chip a tooth (like some kettle chips), and super-sturdy thanks in large part to their waviness. Just the perfect combination of crunch and appearance, and each chip is generously coated with consistent flavor.

I tend to get Kroger’s cheaper store-brand chips (which are usually $1.88 a bag), but I’ve found that I have a rather heated hatred for non-wavy chips, which is what most of theirs are. So I splurged on this bag because they were on sale for $2.50 each. These are an okay value at that price (and not so much of one at all for their regular rate of $2.99), but even in the realm of “premium” chips, you can do a lot better within this price range.

Overall: 6/10. This vinegar-heavy chip starts off sour, and then blends with a sweet barbecue flavor, before winding down with a slight hickory taste in the finish. It’s not a combination I could get all the time, but quite good as an occasional change of pace. The texture, a wavy chip with just the perfect amount of crunch, is excellent, though the value isn’t too strong at $2.50 a bag (on sale; $2.99 regular price). It’s an okay option for something different, but certainly not a taste I’d like to acquire for “everyday” eating.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Fresh Scent In-Wash Laundry Fragrance Booster (Dollar Tree)

Items without a brand name are usually a huge red-flag. This is a rare exception.
One of the purchases that really irk me about my wife, is her insistence on buying fragrance boosters for laundry. I'm not angry about, nor denying, the results—her clothes smell good enough to eat, and way better than mine when they come out of the laundry—but it's the cost that gets me: around $6 for a bottle that gets her maybe 10 uses, if not less, which is absurd. I could understand more if it provided some other laundry-related function—removing stains or softening the fabric, perhaps?--but no, literally all it's there for is to make your laundry smell stronger. Why do you need your clothes to smell like you sprayed a gallon jug of Febreze on them? For me, it's good enough just to know my clothes are clean and don't smell like sweat, but to each their own, I guess.

Then I saw a bottle of fragrance booster at Dollar Tree, and figured "Why not?". After all, this took care of my biggest complaint: the monetary component. If this could keep my clothes smelling even a little bit stronger than they do with standard detergent, and for only $1, then what's not to like? I was also secretly hoping it would perform well enough to get my wife to kick her "name brand" habit.

Dollar Tree actually has two different kinds of fragrance booster: one that looks like small blue crystals, and another one that looks like spherical pellets. Even though the pellet-spheres looked more like the national brand, and also looked much more inviting, they smelled like garbage, and so I went with the crystals, which had a much fresher scent. I was a little put-off by the lack of a brand name, which generally screams "Please don't buy me because I don't work!", but I wasn't going to let that deter me from at least giving them a chance.

The directions state to just dump some of this stuff in the bottom of an empty washer, before adding your clothes. Generally, I forego this and tend to just dump some on the top of my fully-loaded washer, because I forget to put them in in advance; honestly, I haven't noticed a difference either way. At any rate, after pouring some of the blue crystals in, you just wash and dry your clothes as you normally would, and voila! Fresh-smelling laundry!

How much should you add, though? The same directions merely state a max of 2/3 cup, which really gives you quite a bit of wiggle room in between “nothing” and “2/3 cup”. Of course, being the frugal-ass cheapskate that I am, I put in just a little bit the first time I used it, and while the clothes smelled pretty good coming out of the washer, the dryer seemed to remove all of the fresh scent. Upon trying it again, I made sure to add a little more—to the point that I felt like I was wasting it—and it worked a lot better. I've still never measured the exact amount (and I'm not going to buy a 2/3 measuring cup just to keep in the laundry room for the rare moments I do this), but I tend to pour it into the drum at a decent clip while circling around three's certainly unscientific, but it's the amount that I've found to work pretty well. The scent doesn't last as long as my wife's, who uses the name brand stuff (or Aldi's Tandil version, when available), and it isn't as strong, but it's certainly noticeable, and a step up from nothing.

All in all, I'd say I get around the same amount of “servings” out of a bottle of this as my wife does with hers (around ten, maybe a couple less), but obviously for a much better price. And I've noticed that my wonderful counterpart—who scoffed at me for buying them—has changed her tune about this fragrance booster, even going so far as to use it herself when she ran out of her preferred brand. Unfortunately, she still likes the performance of the name brand much better, and continues to waste her money on that stuff (isn't psychology great?) but just the fact that she didn't completely hate it counts as a "win" for me. I don't use them for every wash cycle, the way she does with her stupid stuff (which, to me, is little more than a scam, considering they perform no other function whatsoever), but for especially stinky or sweaty loads, they do make the clothes come out smelling a lot fresher and cleaner, at least for a little while.

Overall: 8.5/10. If you vomit at the mere thought of spending $5 (or more) on little tablets of dumb shit that serve no other purpose but to make clothes smell better, but still want to make your clothes smell better, then these little bottles are the ones for you! This fragrance booster doesn't cling to clothes after completed wash cycles as well as the brand name stuff (which can be expected), but it works way better than I ever thought possible for the price, even earning my wife's seal of approval in the process (though she'll only actually use them when she's completely out of her stuff). I get somewhere around ten servings per bottle, and that's enough to get most loads smelling fresh out of the dryer, at least for a little while. At the very least, it's great to have on hand for extra gross loads (dog piss, sweat, murder clean-up, etc.), and is highly recommended.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Little Salad Bar Classic Chicken Salad (Aldi)

Quite simply put, one of the best chicken salads on the planet.
Chicken salad has never been one of my favorite things. I think the main reason for this is because it was never one of my mom’s favorite things and so, as a result, I rarely, if ever, had it growing up. Naturally, when I moved out on my own, it never even crossed my mind as something I should pick up.

But then years and years of packing my lunch for work finally took its toll: I couldn’t bear to eat peanut butter and jelly any more. I had to have something different, but what? One day a while back, my wife urged me to check out Aldi’s chicken salad. I wasn’t sure about that at first, especially considering a tub of the stuff is $3.69…I mean, I could virtually make a hundred peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for that price! The thought of wasting that on something I might not enjoy bounced around my head for a while, but after realizing I couldn’t think of anything better to get, I scooped it up.

Alternate view.
Now, about a year later, it’s one of my go-to sandwiches for packing. This stuff is unbelievable, especially for a pre-packaged product…it tastes like it was made in a supermarket deli, rather than in a factory somewhere. Once I tried it, the price made complete sense, too: there are HUGE chunks of chicken in here. There are also celery bits, which provide a satisfying little crunch, as well as a tad bit of noticeable flavor, while the mayo base is so delectably rich and creamy that it blows pretty much every other store-bought chicken salads out of the water. This is stuff that could be served in a little corner deli somewhere, with a hiked-up price tag, and no one would even bat an eye…it’s that good.

See why it pays to try new things? This went from being a reluctant purchase, to one of my all-around favorite things that Aldi carries, period, and if you haven’t given it a shot yet, I urge you to do so. Even if you’re not familiar with how chicken salad “should” taste, or don’t typically like it, it doesn’t matter, because this is how it should taste. Truly phenomenal stuff.

Overall: 10/10. I want to deduct points for something, but I just can’t. The $3.69 price tag, which I initially felt was pretty high, is justified by the huge chunks of chicken inside, while the flavor is so good, you’d swear it came from a deli somewhere, and not from a prepackaged tub. The mayo base is ridiculously rich and creamy, while the celery adds a little crunch to the otherwise soft combination. To be fair, I haven’t had many chicken salads in my day (never something I ate growing up), so I'm sure there are better options out there somewhere

NOTE: If “classic” chicken salad is too “boring” for you, they also offer a variety of alternate flavors, like “chipotle” and “cranberry”, all with the same delicious base (though some are $.30 more). Pick any of them up, and chances are you will not be the least bit disappointed.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Village Bakery Cinnamon Crumb Creme Cake (Aldi)

It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it's moist and delicious.
I love cinnamon. Don't get me wrong, I love sweets of all shapes and sizes and colors and kinds, but it's cinnamon that has my pick for underrated fave, if not something even more distinguished than that. There's just something about that simple, yet ultra-sweet mix of cinnamon and sugar that seems to dance on my tongue the way very few things do, enticing me into bite after bite when I should be's like the dessert equivalent of Eve, tempting me with her forbidden fruits. So when I saw the Village Bakery Cinnamon Crumb Cake in an Aldi ad, I knew to resist it was an exercise in futility. After all, it had been a while since I last treated myself to the decadence of a cinnamon treat, making me well overdue to ransack my tastebuds with exquisite deliciousness.

Of course, being the cheapskate I am, the $3.99 price tag did give me some pause for thought, especially since it looks pretty small, at least when compared to other, “standard” cakes. Don't let the look fool you, though, because unless you're in a house full of cinnamon-obsessed crazies, there is plenty to go around. The cake looks as you would expect, with a nice layer of cinnamon streusel on top, finished with a hardened layer of icing.

Cutting into it with surgical precision revealed a rather nice surprise: deep layers of cinnamon on the inside, as well. I know that's a part of virtually all of these cakes, but all too often there seems to be way more of the “white” cake, with some cinnamon seemingly thrown in as an afterthought, but here, the cinnamon shade takes up over half of the inside cake, a welcome sight. As expected, the cake is moist and inviting, with utensils swiftly cutting through the bottom half, assuming they are strong enough to penetrate that thick cinnamon top.

Tastewise...well, let's just say it was even better than what I was expecting, which was just a standard, mass-produced cinnamon cake. After all, that's what this is, right? I don't think I would confuse it for anything homemade, but I do think it's a notch above standard supermarket fare, with an intense cinnamon flavor that, rather appropriately, steals the show. Some that I've had (which are still delicious...I don't think there's a wrong way to make a cinnamon crumb cake) seem to be afraid of being too sweet, and use the cinnamon more sparingly than they ought to; here there's gobs of it, but it's also perfectly counterbalanced by the remaining touch of “flavorless” (by comparison) white cake, which prevents the whole thing from becoming too overwhelmed with the common spice. Paired up with that “crystalized” icing—which did taste way better than I was expecting—it all threatens to become “too sweet”, as it did for my wife (who, for reference, is not nearly the cinnamon fan I am). But for me, it balanced right on the tippy-top of the “just right” fence; our two-year-old son, who was given a small piece for breakfast, would also agree.

Like father, like son, I suppose.

Overall: 8/10. This isn't a case of an item rewriting any rules—at the end of the day, this is just a standard-definition cinnamon crumb cake—but it's a case of one that does most everything right. It's not afraid to heap on the cinnamon, the way some cakes seem to gingerly approach it, nor is it afraid to layer on a generous drizzle of vanilla icing (that far exceeded what I was expecting, in terms of taste). Yet, despite all that, I never once felt it veered into “too sweet” territory (though my cinnamon-conservative wife disagreed). The texture is fluffy and moist, with the top providing a satisfying layer of “crunch”, both when cut into, and when chewing. Despite my initial hesitance, there is plenty of cake to go around for the $3.99 asking price (though, admittedly, there's no way I would buy them all the time at this price if they were offered all the time). Half-thankfully and half-unfortunately, it's only available as a special buy, so if you see it in-store, grab one (or two) while you can!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Season's Choice Spicy Onion Rings (Aldi)

A stock image of Season's Choice Spicy Onion Rings, from Aldi
These oddly taste like regular onion rings, with a heat that creeps up on you.
The last time these were available as a Special Buy from Aldi stores, which was a few months back, they only had them in BBQ and Black Pepper varieties. Well now, there's an added flavor: spicy. I don't really have the palate for things that are “hot”, and so this probably wouldn't be something that would normally be in my wheelhouse. But you know what? I love onion rings, and I already reviewed the other two varieties, so I reasoned that I might as well just go ahead and complete the trifecta.

As I noted in the other reviews, these flavored onion rings have a much crispier batter on them than Aldi's original whole onion rings, which is a giant plus in my book...each bite gives off a ridiculous crunch, and they cook up pretty quickly in the oven. So, for all intents and purposes, the appearance is exactly the same to the other onion ring options.

But what is unique to this one is its taste...most notably, just how spicy is this? And what does “spicy” even taste like? After all, the term merely means something that is “flavored with spice”, so there are millions of possible combinations out there. I was expecting them to be slathered with maybe a hot sauce, or sprinkled with some kind of red pepper, but these look chillingly like the normal onion rings...just by looking at them, you can't tell that they're hiding a dark, burning secret. As a matter of fact, you can't even tell that once you take a bite, at least not for a little while. I was anticipating a sriracha, or maybe just a basic hot sauce flavor to be cooked into the ring, but it's not. It tastes just like a normal onion ring...and then the spices kick in.

Again, I don't have the taste for hot things like some people do. I don't put hot sauce, or buffalo sauce, on anything and don't seek out to try products just because they're hot. I do like trying new things, and as long as something has good flavor, no matter how hot it is (within reason), then I'll like it. I may be breaking out in sweat and wiping tears from my face as I eat it, because I also have a very low tolerance for heat, but I'll still eat it.

With that in mind, I have to say that these are hotter than I thought they would be, at least initially. It never got to the point where I was frantically looking for milk or water to take away the pain, and the heat doesn't really linger for too long, but just four of these onion rings got my nose running slightly. In my opinion, it's just the right amount of heat, but it will probably be too weak for true fans of hot stuff.

One thing I noticed, which is consistent across the board for Aldi's onion rings, is that there are a pound of onion rings in each bag. However, since they vary in size from large to tiny, there can be as little as ten onion rings included, if you get mostly medium-to-large ones. Now, since it's by weight, it technically evens out to the same amount of onion rings no matter how many are inside, but I have to say there's something a little visually unsatisfying about only getting three or four onion rings in a serving, even if they are bigger than average. But maybe that's just a personal psychological thing.

At any rate, these are good, but not great, onion rings that may or may not appease fans of hot stuff.

Overall: 6/10. It tastes like a standard onion ring, until the heat comes from out of nowhere and attacks. I don't have a high tolerance for heat, and so I thought these were actually pretty spicy...I had four pieces (half of the bag we got) and it was enough to get my nose running a little bit. But the heat seemed to dissipate pretty quickly, so it wasn't a lingering sensation. Like the other varieties (BBQ and Black Pepper being the other two), the batter cooks up crispier and is more flavorful than their standard onion rings (which are still very good), but they are also fifty cents more per 16 oz. bag, coming in at $2.49. It's not a great onion ring, but it is a little different, and so I suppose they're worth trying at least once.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Fast Bites BBQ Rib Sandwich (Dollar Tree)

What you would expect, for better or worse.
I never eat barbecue ribs. Like, ever. In fact, I don't ever recall trying one before I met the woman who would become my wife, and I was in my mid-20s before she talked me into giving one a shot. I liked it, but not enough to end up anywhere near my list of favorite foods, and so I kind of tend to forget that ribs even exist.

One thing I still hadn't tried was a rib sandwich, so please refrain from asking me why I even bothered to grab a Fast Bites BBQ Rib Sandwich from Dollar Tree one day. In all honestly, it didn't really look or sound all that appealing to me, even as I was adding it to my basket; I guess I just figured that it was a change from my usual frozen meals, and a quick dinner (or snack) whenever I was too unmotivated to think about making something. Well then, it should come as no surprise for you to learn that it went straight to the freezer that night, where it sat, forgotten, for about a month.

Well, I finally stumbled on it again, as it somehow came to the front of the freezer after my wife put away groceries from an Aldi shopping trip. I wasn't really all that hungry for anything (I'm on medication that suppresses feelings of hunger; that's not at all the point of the medication, but rather a side effect), yet realized that I should probably eat something, and so I decided that I would just throw this down the ol' gullet, without the benefit of a side dish or other accouterments.

As the brand name suggests with “Fast Bites”, the whole point of their products are to provide quick, convenient sandwiches for lazy chaps like myself, as well as college kids, and anyone else that doesn't mind eating frozen meats of questionable origin. And as you could probably already tell from the fact that these are available at Dollar Tree stores, they are also very inexpensive, making them a double-whammy for those on a budget. Prepwork is so easy even I can do it: open one end of the plastic that the frozen sandwich is encased in, microwave for two minutes, let sit for one, and boom, you are ready to dig in.

My first observation is the bun: it feels kind of tough, a far cry from the soft, non-frozen buns that most people are accustomed to. The “meat” looks about as you would expect: as a piece of roadkill slathered in barbecue sauce and forced between two frozen slabs of bread. Thanks to modern science, it oddly smells pretty enticing, but that's probably because all you can smell is the sweetness of the barbecue sauce, and not the odor of the questionable meat product that you are about to dig into.

I have never had the McRib sandwich (oddly, my grandma swears by those things), but I just have a weird hunch that these probably taste very similar. The rib meat isn't as offensively gross as I was fully expecting it to be—it has a believable texture, and is easy to chew. The barbecue sauce, as the aroma suggested, is sweet, and just tastes like a standard barbecue: if you've ever had the barbecue rib TV dinners, then you pretty much know exactly what you're getting into. The bun is a little chewy, as it seemed like it would be from my initial impression, but is much softer if you dig in right as it's out of the microwave (it does get tougher and less palatable the longer it sits out). Either way, the bread is bland no matter what stage it's in, so don't expect it to add much to the flavor.

I must say that it was far less frightening of an experience than what I was expecting going into it. However, that doesn't mean that it was necessarily a “good” experience, or any sort of life-changing one: I think experiencing this once has probably held me over for at least the next couple of years--if not my entire lifetime--so I'm in no rush to get it again. But if I ever find myself in an urgent situation in an unfamiliar city, armed only with a dollar in my pocket, dying of hunger, and with no one else to turn to for help, and I happen to see nothing but this questionable rib-meat sandwich sitting in the dilapidated gas station that I have stumbled upon in a last-ditch effort to stay alive, I guess it's good to know that it's edible.

Overall: 5.5/10. It's not really “good”, but it's better than I thought it would be heading in. Fast Bites Barbecue Rib Meat Sandwich may not sound like high-class cuisine, and that's because it's not. However, it is a decent sandwich that only costs a buck, and can be ready in just three minutes (two minutes in the microwave, plus one minute sitting), so it gets some high marks for value and convenience. I'm not huge into ribs (I didn't try my first one until I was well into my 20s, and still have only had them less than a handful of times), but then again, that really means nothing considering these are a distant relative to the smoked ones you get at barbecue joints everywhere. The mass-produced barbecue is sweet, and assuming you've had any TV dinner with barbecue sauce in it, probably exactly what you are expecting. I think eating just this one has sated my very-limited interest in frozen rib meat sandwiches for a couple years, if not life, but I still have to admit that it's not all that bad, and a presumably decent option to tide over McRib fans between limited-time offerings.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Park Street Deli Veggie Alfredo Pasta (Aldi)

Behind this plain product name is an unexpected explosion of (too much?) flavor.
I grabbed this on a recent shopping trip, expecting to serve it to myself on one of those many nights my wife works, and I’m too helpless to do anything else—much to my surprise, we ended up eating it together for dinner that very same night I brought it home.

As the title of the product insinuates, this one is a fettuccine alfredo-style pasta dish, only with penne instead of fettuccine noodles, and various vegetables (mainly broccoli and red pepper) replacing any possible meat inclusions. I like me some meat, but I also like me some vegetables, so I was a little excited to give this a shot. What I wasn’t excited about was the $8 price tag, which seems a little high for such a (seemingly) small amount of pasta, but hey, sometimes you just have to live a little.

An unappetizing view of a half-eaten container.
Holy shit, my taste buds were not expecting that first bite: it’s a stunner. I feel like I can’t even properly explain this dish in flavor terms, because it’s so rich that it overwhelms the senses; it doesn’t quite taste like a standard alfredo, but you can definitely taste alfredo buried in there somewhere, while the vegetables actually provide more to the flavor of the dish, than just being there for a splash of color. I think my wife put it best when she compared this to the taste of a vegetable lasagna…they are quite similar, although this has the benefit of being coated in alfredo sauce!

The sauce is nice and thick, and definitely several notches above the typical “frozen TV dinner” sauce (though, granted, this one is refrigerated), coating each noodle with an abundance of sauce that doesn’t fall off when you go to pick it up or take a bite. There’s a disgusting(ly good) amount of cheese in here, too, with long strings of the stuff clinging desperately to each forkful right after you take it out of the oven, which also makes things appealing from a visual standpoint, too.

When all is said and done, this is an overwhelming dish, rich as all hell, yet so flavorful that you don’t want to put it down. Eventually, though, I had to once the mere thought of another bite started to make my stomach churn; not at all because it was gross, but simply because it’s so creamy and decadent and full of unhealthy stuff that a little bit goes a very long way. I can’t remember another time that I felt like my taste buds were “exhausted” after eating something, but that’s how this made me feel…there’s just so much going on that you inevitably succumb to it, no matter how hungry you are going in. And that $8 price tag certainly didn’t seem as bad when my wife and I had some for dinner, and there was still enough for me to take to work the next day.

I definitely wouldn't call it a "gourmet" dish, per se, but it's at least on par with a good chain restaurant pasta (which might be an oxymoron), and for a fraction of the price.

Overall: 7/10. This one is really hard for me to put into words, but Park Street Deli’s plainly-named Veggie Alfredo Pasta is an overwhelmingly rich dish, with a literal explosion of flavor that I was not expecting. It doesn’t taste like a standard alfredo, but I also can’t explain exactly what it does taste like, so I can be of no help's one of those things you'll just have to experience for yourself. The vegetables (broccoli and red peppers) are well-cooked and provide actual flavor to the dish, rather than just being there for extra color or texture purposes. At $7.99, this dish certainly isn’t for everyone budgetwise, but with a quick prep time (it can be microwaved in 5 minutes), and more flavor than most pre-made mass-produced dishes, this is a welcome change from the normal alfredo. Just be prepared to test your limits, because a little bit of this goes a very long way.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Main Street Kitchen Creamy Chicken Rigatoni (Dollar Tree)

Well, this one went against my expectations...
I have had three other flavors of Main St. Kitchen’s frozen meals that I’ve come across in Dollar Tree stores, and was pretty much underwhelmed with all of them. Let’s continue that trend with their rigatoni with chicken, shall we?

Once again, there’s a generous amount of sauce on the noodles, but I’m not going to be fooled that easily this time…I know chances are it’s thin and will just slide off every time I go to take a bite. I’m also happy to see a strongly reduced broccoli presence as compared to the fettuccine alfredo, although the trade-off to this is the addition of some chicken to the proceedings. There are quite a few bite-sized pieces of meat scattered throughout…just the right amount, if you ask me. Mass-produced frozen chicken can get kinda weird if you dwell on it too much, but since the pieces are smaller, it's easier to force them down without much thought.

Tastewise, it’s the same disappointing blandness from the…wait a minute, no…this one is surprisingly good! I don’t know why, but I expected the sauce to be similar to an alfredo, since I clearly didn’t read the package beforehand (and am nowhere near a connoisseur of rigatoni). Instead, we are treated to a “basil parmesan” sauce, which is apparently much better suited for a frozen TV dinner than an alfredo is. It’s not nearly as thin as the alfredo sauce was, as it clings to the noodle and provides each bite with what tastes like garlicky goodness. It’s obviously nothing outstanding, but it’s—at the very least—on par with similar frozen entrees I’ve tried. And for $1, you can’t go wrong with that.

Like Main Street Kitchen’s other options, a mere dollar gets you a solid 9 oz. of pasta flavor, along with some reduced fat, cholesterol, and a heaping helping of protein, making it one of the healthier options inside Dollar Tree freezers. But you wouldn't know that from the packaging—I'm really surprised they don't harp on the “health benefits” more like these companies frequently do. Looking at the box, it just looks like your typical frozen option, instead of a somewhat better alternative to a lot of other ones. Considering DT has gotten blasted for catering junk food to low-income families, you would think they'd be looking at any possible way to reverse that trend.

Thankfully, though, unlike a majority of their other flavors I’ve tried, this one doesn’t taste like a diet option, and that is why I would definitely grab this one again in the future, and why it's earning my personal recommendation (which, translated to cash value, is actually less than $.02).

Overall: 7/10. It’s no different in taste when compared to similar frozen entrees…but considering the reduced fat, cholesterol, and strong protein content, not to mention the $1 price tag, that makes that statement more of a compliment than a concern. The basil parmesan sauce is shockingly pretty good, and is thick enough that the sauce doesn't fall off the noodle, a serious problem I had with their alfredo sauce. This is the top Main Street Kitchen product I've tried, and the only one I would grab again in the not-too-distant future. If you ever find yourself in Dollar Tree looking for a quick meal that (probably) won't completely destroy your health regiment, this is the one to get.