Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Mama Cozzi's Veggie Delight 16" Take and Bake Pizza (Aldi)

"Veggie Delight"? I think "Veggie Boredom" would be more appropriate...

If there's one thing you can't accuse Aldi of not carrying enough of, it's pizza: in a typical week, there seems to be at least a half-dozen new frozen varieties to try, and usually at least one or two take and bakes. And that's just via special buys; they also offer a growing selection of year 'round ones, both in frozen and refrigerated form. Hey, it's a versatile, “all-American” meal, so I guess it makes sense that it's probably the most available food product that discount chain offers.

This week, we have a “veggie delight” pizza, courtesy of Mama Cozzi. Based on its appearance, it literally looks like a “works” pizza, with all the meat picked out: whereas most of their pizzas are pretty well-covered with toppings, this one has huge gaps between small pockets of vegetables. It's like they picked off the meat, re-covered those areas with sauce and cheese, and then packaged it up and sent it out the factory door. Based on initial appearance, I have to say it looked rather disappointing, but we were hungry, and looking for something we hadn't tried before, so we gave it a shot. Besides, Aldi pizzas are usually pretty reliable, so we figured it would be better than it looked; maybe there was a different sauce, or surprise vegetable in there that would liven things up. 

Doesn't it just look boring?

Unfortunately, that isn't the case: this is one of the blandest take and bake pizzas that we've ever gotten from Aldi. I guess, in theory, that being “bland” is better than being “gross”,, the more I think about it, it's not, because the end result is pretty much the same: we each only ate a couple of slices before throwing in the towel. At least if something is “gross”, it inspires some kind of passionate emotional response: it might be a seething, boiling hatred, and it might be completely negative, but in that way, it's “memorable”, so to speak. But when something is just...boring, it's not even bad enough to stir up any emotion; it's just...there. That's how this pizza made us feel: indifferent. There was no joy to be derived from eating any of it, no strong feelings of anything: we were just like robots going through the motions of obtaining nutrients—no matter how few—to sustain our body and keep us going until the next meal. 

At least there's one thing you can count on: value. Each 16” pizza (which equates to an “extra large” at most pizza chains) is just $6.49. That's definitely not a bad price at all for a pizza that could feed probably four people of average appetites, and well under what you would expect to pay from a chain.

I'm aware it could have been “livened up” with various other ingredients we might have had laying around—like pepperoni and some grated mozzarella cheese that probably could have given it some much-needed flavor—but right out of the box, this is a huge letdown. We definitely won't be grabbing this one ever again.

Overall: 4.5/10. This is a “works” pizza, just with the meat removed; while that might sound like an appetizing proposition for vegetarians, the execution is rather...boring. There are no added veggies, or boost of spices, or change in sauce to make up for the missing meat, which leaves just a very uninspiring shell of a pizza. It's like they lobotomized it, removing every ounce of its character, while replacing it with nothing. Of course, it can be livened up by adding your own ingredients—something you'll most likely need to do to get through it—but right out of the box, this is one of the blandest take and bake offerings we've ever had.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Toast'Ems Brown Sugar and Cinnamon Pop-Ups (Dollar Tree/Various)

Fun fact: this was actually the original toaster pastry.

It seems as though I’ve reviewed quite a few toaster pastries over the last month or so—moreso within that timeframe than the entire decade preceding it (which is kind of an interesting factoid); well, let’s just continue that trend, shall we? Today, we’ll be taking a look at a private label version of toaster pastries that are sold at Dollar Tree stores nationwide (as well as other retailers). They’re called Toast’Ems, and they have a fascinating history that I’ll force you to read through to discover, for once.

Getting down to the pastries themselves, one thing I feel is worth mentioning—mainly because I chastised another brand for the practice—is that, even though the box appears to be the exact same size as the box for the “national brand” product, there are actually two fewer pastries in here. Obviously, some costs have to be cut to hit the dollar price point, but it’s kind of a shady practice to give it the exact same size; obviously, I know that’s the point, but it’s rather shady nonetheless.

There's that all-too-familiar wrapper!

Regardless of the missing pastries, this still serves up some solid value. The reason I harped on the other brand’s missing pastries, is because that box was already more expensive than $1. In fact, if you added in the two missing pastries (based on the average per-pastry cost), it would have taken the cost of the box above even the national brand. Here, it’s more forgivable, because even factoring in the extra two, it still comes in at around $1.33 per 8 ct. box—that’s quite a bit cheaper than the $1.99 retail price of the national brand, and close to the price of Aldi’s 8 ct. boxes.

As I always mention in reviews of Dollar Tree food products, I still get nervous to try them: I’ve been burned by quite a few things that just don’t quite match up to what they promise. True, I could probably say the same about the rest of the store, but I think if I were to break it down, I’ve been far more disappointed by their food products than any other single category. Hell, I’ve probably been more let down by their food products than the rest of the store combined.

Those feelings are unwarranted, however, because these are fantastic. I’d swear it was made by the national brand, if I didn’t learn that this basically was the national brand years ago (intrigued? Keep reading…). The pastry is nice and soft, as it should be, and features a thin layer of the expected hard frosting on top; the icing only seems to take up about ¾ of the top, which is something I hate to see out of these, since the bites without icing are usually pretty dry, gross, and boring.

Dig that trademarked zig-zag pattern!

Flavorwise, though, and we’re back on track: these are very moist and delicious. The brown sugar flavor comes through in spades, but the cinnamon is definitely noticeable—everything comes together to create an appealing harmony of sweetness that goes down easy. Somewhat surprising to me is how much filling there is in the middle: I feel like this is the area where other off brands tend to skimp; here, there’s a pretty thick layer of the titular combination that somehow never becomes too sweet (at least for me). 

Sadly, this is one of those product that gets falsely perceived as an off-brand, when it was actually the first to market: Back in 1964, production began on a product called Post Country Squares, per an agreement between Schulze and Burch Biscuit Company, and General Foods (aka Post). Supposedly, Post announced the product in advance, giving those greedy slobs at Kellogg’s time to formulate a rip-off; sure enough, they rushed their own version out that same year, overtook the market, and have enjoyed tremendous success with a product that they weren’t even smart enough to create themselves.

You know, the typical American success story.

Overall: 8/10. These are fantastic toaster pastries that, despite being the first one released to market way back in 1964, had their ideas stolen by Kellogg’s, who would go on to virtually rip the idea off verbatim, and make millions doing it (isn’t capitalism grand?) So, in an ironic turn of events, these aren’t private label knockoffs after all, but rather the original toaster pastry! Having tried them, I can see where some people swear by these over the “name brand”, as the pastry is moist and there’s ample amounts of filling in the middle. There does seem to be less icing on the top, which only covers up about ¾ of the surface, but that’s just a minor quibble. In the end, these are fantastic pastries, especially for the price, from a brand that deserves to be more well known. There are many products you should be nervous to try from Dollar Tree; this definitely isn’t one of them.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Stacker 2 Berry Xtra Extra Strength Energy Shot (Dollar Tree)

Good value done in by poor flavor.

I’ve already written many prefaces about Stacker 2 energy shots and how they’re available in Dollar Trees nationwide, and how Dollar Tree has quite a few to choose from and how they’re hit or miss and a couple of them really suck blah blah blah, so let’s just move ahead, shall we?

This smells almost expired. It’s like the juice of a fruit – that’s not a berry, ironically – was left sitting in a basement for too long and has started to ferment. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “pungent”, but it’s not really all that inviting; it kind of smells like something that should get you drunk, instead of amped up.

You know what else isn’t all that inviting? The taste, the experience of which is actually pretty close to what the scent insinuated. Unlike most energy shots, this one isn’t very sweet at all. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because I’m sure there are many people who find the taste of most shots to be too saccharine for their palate, and who might welcome one that’s less “in your face”. Unfortunately, this one just isn’t it, because it has an incredibly medicinal taste that is just…pretty disgusting.

How anyone at Stacker 2 tried taking a sip of this and thought “Mmmm…yep, I’m definitely getting a berry flavor,” is beyond me. I’m not very good at explaining tastes, but I’d say there’s almost a “raisin” note in there somewhere—maybe not exactly raisin, but something with a similarly dry, lifeless profile. That pairs up with other unidentifiable, non-sweet, non-fruity flavors to combine something that’s truly something to behold—for all the wrong reasons.

I’ve mentioned in a previous review that some Stacker 2 products taste like their formulas have remained unchanged ever since the early 2000s, when they broke out onto the scene. I’m sure back then they were revolutionary—I still remember kids in high school getting excited over their dieting pills, because they contained high amounts of caffeine—but a lot has changed since then: energy drinks, even sugar free ones, can actually taste good. It used to be that people drank them because it amped them up, and they just learned to tolerate the flavor (or ignore it entirely) in order to gain the energy provisions, but now, there are far too many alternatives on the market. They’re like the uncle that was once so cool, but now is just a washed-up drunk, who clings to his stories of the past, and is married to a woman who looks like a drug addict, and who came straight from the trailer park. This is definitely one shining example of that theory.

On the upside, I did notice an increase in energy that’s more or less on par with other shots that I’ve tried; and the lack of sugar once again means that there is no debilitating crash afterwards. So at least it works. But as I mentioned before, there are far too many other options on the market to have to settle for something that tastes like this. I don’t care how inexpensive it is.

Overall: 3.5/10. Dollar Tree’s—and by extension, Stacker 2’s—energy offerings continue to be a hit-or-miss affair. Exhibit D: their Xtra Extra Strength Berry shot, which is a certifiable miss in almost every sense of the word. On the positive side: it works. I did notice a nice increase in energy shortly after taking a swig that matched the intensity (and length) of most other energy drinks I’ve had. So at least there’s that. Unfortunately, it smells like a fermenting fruit of unidentifiable origin, and has an equally off-putting taste to match, that not only doesn’t even come close to resembling any type of fruit—much less a berry—but that has nary a trace of sweetness whatsoever. There are far too many other options out there to have to settle for something that tastes like this.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Unbranded Battery-Operated LED Projector Light (Dollar Tree)

UPDATE (Nov. 2020): Our local store finally got in a new shipment of these: I picked up one of each design (four total). We'll have an updated review in a month or so as we see how long these manage to last!
Cool when it works, junk when it breaks after a day.

This review doubles as both a look at the product, and a heartbreaking tale of childhood innocence lost; a tale of one three year old's sudden realization that the world can be a cold, heartless, cruel place, where happiness can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. (And yes, the titular product does play a large role in this story.)

My wife and I were “on vacation” in Cincinnati (more a weekend getaway, celebrating our anniversary), when we decided to check out the local Dollar Tree for a reason that escapes me at the moment (I'm sure to grab something we forgot to pack). The closest one to our hotel was rather large—we live within 2 miles of two small DT stores that are frequently short on inventory—so I decided to wander around a bit and see what kind of things they had that neither of our stores carried. And there, in the electronics aisle, is where I saw something that caught my eye: a small LED projector that projected the included image on a wall, ceiling, or any other surface you might have lying around. There are four images to choose from: a dinosaur scene, a starry night sky, a solar system, and fish in an aquarium. While our son would have been happy with any of them, after a little bit of deliberation, we decided on getting the “solar system” design, figuring it would be the one he would like the best.

Honestly, the product itself is kind of pointless—I expected the image to move, or do something besides just sit there, but I suppose that would require moving parts that would push it out of the dollar price point. Also something that apparently would drive up the price: including batteries. It requires 2 AAA batteries to operate, which are not included. That one wasn't a biggie for us, though, as we have a few of those lying around. 

Terrible picture, but you get the point.

The image is actually pretty clear, under the right conditions...namely complete darkness. Unlike “real” projectors, which obviously are larger and infinitely more powerful, even the smallest amount of light can render the projected image hard to see, assuming you're projecting it from a distance of about 7 feet away (roughly the distance from our floor to ceiling). If you're closer to the surface than that, the image tends to be much clearer, but also much smaller. Beyond eight or so feet (maybe a little bit longer), the image starts thinning out, becoming hard to see in even pitch black conditions. Depending on what you're going for, it can be a pretty tough balancing act trying to get a large, crisp picture, but it's possible with some noodling around (and, perhaps, a tempering of expectations).

One good thing about it, which the packaging curiously touts, is that it has “manual” functionality...that's apparently marketingspeak for an “on/off” switch. I wasn't aware that being able to turn something off and on was a special feature, but I guess anything can be considered an amenity when it only costs a dollar. 

Anyway, we showed it to our son, who immediately took a liking to it. He would pretend it was the moon, shining it all over the place, and then quickly turn it off, as apparently his version of the moon liked to hide. Then he repeated that same idea over and over again, the way kids do, forcing us to look for it in the darkness, and giggling as he turned it off to make it disappear again, leading us to feign shock at where it possibly could have gone.

His cackles and giggles were enough to keep it entertaining for longer than it should have been, but after what felt like 3 days (but was actually probably closer to 20 minutes), the “game” was finally over and the projector was set aside for a little bit, so he could rest and start the bedtime process. When he grabbed it an hour or so later to take it up to bed with him (he likes to pick one thing to sleep with, either a toy or stuffed animal, which continually rotates out), he was dismayed to discover that it wouldn't turn on.

I figured it was just out of batteries...while we only had it a total of about five days at this point (with only one days' worth of use), he did turn it off and on an awful lot, so I didn't think much of it. I replaced the batteries with a fresh set of rechargeables...nothing. Okay, so maybe the batteries weren't properly charged, so I replaced them with a fresh set of alkalines...still nothing. By now, this kid is flipping out—you'd think he was crying over the sudden loss of a family pet, or something. After about 30 minutes of inconsolable crying, my wife was finally able to gradually talk him down, under the agreement I would get him one on my way home from work the following day. (Little tidbit of unnecessary info: they were sold out at both locations by us, leading to even more sadness, though much more controlled than the previous night's tantrum.) 

Ignore the sloppy hotel room setting...the projector was placed on the floor in this image

Moral of the story: This thing died after just a single day of strong use. Now, to be fair, he did turn it off and on a large number of times within a relatively short time frame. Also, while I never actually witnessed him dropping it, or otherwise being rough with it, he is a young kid, so it's very possible that he was a little harder on it than he should have been. Still, there's nary a scratch on the outside of the product that would suggest something that could have caused a complete shutdown of the internal circuitry, so it's rather disappointing that it died so quickly.

At the end of the day, though, it is a cheap dollar product, presumably from China, and these things are unfortunately known to happen. We usually have pretty good luck with our Dollar Tree products, but a lot of these companies are pretty lax when it comes to things like quality control, so it's also possible we just got a faulty projector. I'm not ready to completely write these off, as we do intend to grab another one (or two, or three, like we should have when we saw them in-store), so I'll update the review accordingly once we manage to score one. In the meantime, though, all we have to go off of is the performance of this one, which unfortunately, was pretty dreadful.

Overall: 2/10. Long story short: this projector crapped out after a single day of use in the hands of our three year old son, who was absolutely devastated. He did turn it off and on an awful lot, and might have dropped it once or twice by accident, but he genuinely liked it, so it's not like he was carelessly flinging it around, or attempting to cause damage to it or break it. That being said, it was pretty cool while it did work, and he really liked seeing the image “attached” to the ceiling, or wall, or any other surface he would randomly place it on. Despite its quick failure, we're not quite ready to write them off completely just yet: there are often quality control issues with inexpensive Chinese tech (an unfortunate side effect of getting goods for such a cheap price), so it's very possible we got a faulty one. We plan on getting a few more as soon as we find a DT store that carries them (the two by us were both conveniently sold out), and will update this review once we see how long those last.

SIDE NOTE: These have apparently been available for quite some time, although I've never seen them in our local stores, and also have seasonal variants for Halloween and Christmas. That means they must be fairly popular, which probably wouldn't be the case if all of them broke almost instantly.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Crunchy Cravings Honey Roasted Sesame Chips (Dollar Tree)


These are pretty damn spectacular.

I've been going through a sesame stick phase these past few months, and I don't know why. I've always really liked them, but outside of trail mixes, never really came across them that often; because of this, they never entered my mind as a potential candidate for snacking on their own. One day in October, I came across some honey roasted ones in a farmer's market and decided to buy them; I never even knew flavored sesame sticks existed, but I downed a whole bag within a couple of days. Two weeks later, I saw some regular ones in line at a supermarket, and didn't hesitate to buy them—within two days, that bag also met its fate.

To say that I've been obsessed with them lately might be a bit of an exaggeration, but they've been on my mind more than ever before.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw a bag of them inside Dollar Tree. They were going in my basket regardless, but then I noticed a couple of differences from regular sticks: they were honey roasted, like the fantastic “homemade” ones I got from the farmer's market, and they are sesame “chips”, instead of sticks. I've never seen sesame chips before, but they're pretty much exactly like you're thinking they are: instead of being long, like sticks, they are smaller and more circular, like chips. There's also the appearance of an exterior "glaze", which is obviously the honey coating, that makes them even more appealing. The switch from "stick" to "chip" seems to be a pretty unnecessary change at first glance, but one that makes them slightly more versatile: these would be perfect on salads, in soups, or virtually anywhere else small circular food objects can be placed. Or, of course, they can also be eaten “raw”, directly out of the bag, which is how I tackled them.

I wasn't sure how these would turn out, considering I did get them from Dollar Tree, but all it took was one taste to put my fears to rest: these are fantastic. They're not quite as good as the honey roasted ones I got from the farmer's market, but they aren't far off, either: the sweetness isn't overstated, instead allowing the salty sesame flavor to “lead”, before bringing up the rear with a touch of sugary goodness that still doesn't overwhelm the savory aspects. This is definitely something that I'll be using to fuel my sudden sesame stick addiction every time I'm in Dollar Tree.

Based on the clean, professional packaging (usually not a staple of dollar store products, especially foods), I'm lead to believe that this is probably a name brand item just being offered in a smaller, 2.75 oz. package. At any rate, I don't care, because they are good, and the little bag goes a long way—I got about three servings out of these, finding myself nibbling on them occasionally at random points throughout the day. (I no doubt could have downed them much quicker, but was trying to practice the lost art of willpower.)

If you're a fan of sesame sticks, these are virtually a must; even if you're not, the sweetness really adds another level to the flavor profile, thus potentially making them appealing to non-fans of the traditional snack. Worth a look if you see them in your local Dollar Tree store.

Overall: 8.5/10. Based on the attractive, clean, professional packaging, this is probably just a smaller bag version of a national brand, but no matter where it comes from, this is a great-tasting product at a great price point. The sesame flavor initially comes through front and center, before being balanced out by a nice touch of sweetness that matches the savoriness, but never overtakes it. Despite the small size, there are a good amount of “chips” in the bag, while the smaller form factor potentially makes them slightly more versatile than normal sesame sticks (I could see these being added to salads and soups, among other things, to give a little extra crunch). Hopefully, DT will keep these around a while, because this is one of the better snacks offered by the discount retailer.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Stacker 2 B12 Pomegranate Acai Energy Shots (Dollar Tree)

Perhaps the best energy shot inside Dollar Tree.

Dollar Tree offers quite a few energy shots from the Stacker 2 brand, who I would say are more well-known for their dietary supplements. I typically stick to their “Xtra” line, which seem to be straightforward knockoffs of the national brand energy shots that give you five hours of energy, but on a recent trip, I wanted to try something a little bit different. Instead, I opted for their “B12” shot, which gives you 10,000% of your daily recommended B12 intake. 100 days' worth of B12 in one 2 oz. bottle...and for a single dollar? Sign me up! 

Honestly, I'm a little confused on the differences between the products in Stacker 2's product line, and I've tried many of them at one point or another. For example, this one has 10,000% B12, which we just went over, but even their regular “Xtra” shots contain 8,750% B12...does the extra 1,250% really create a noticeable difference? And what is the purpose of all the vitamins in their “proprietary energy blend”, which comes out to 2.2 grams in the “Xtra” shots, but 2.175 grams, of mostly different vitamins than the “Xtra” version, in the B12 shot?

I'm just kind of wondering aloud, because this seems to give me the same “performance boost” as the “Xtra” versions, which kind of makes me feel like it's unnecessary to have all kinds of different vitamin combinations, when the end result ends up being more or less the same. But maybe I'm just missing something here.

Regardless of the answer to that ponderance, this one has actually defied the odds to become my favorite Stacker 2 energy shot, at least as far as their Dollar Tree inventory is concerned. I was especially nervous about the “Acai Pomegranate” flavor, as many of Stacker's shots taste like their formulas haven't been changed since they first came out in the early 2000's...that is to say, kind of gross, at least compared to other leading energy shots. All it took was one sip to allay my fears: although I get more of a “berry” flavor out of it than a pomegranate, it tastes loads better than the berry flavored “Xtra” shot, which has a gross intermediary flavor that just shouldn't be there. The taste here is mostly clean and inviting, with only a slight hint of the “diet” aftertaste found in many sugar free products.

Performancewise, as stated earlier, this one works just as well for me as the “Xtra” shots, which is to say I get a noticeable increase in energy soon after firing some down, that seems to last me a while. I've never actually timed it to know if it approaches the “five hour” level of the national brand, but it lasts about as long as most other energy shots I've tried, and with the same absence of a sugar crash afterwards.

And all this for just a buck! That might not have been such a big deal a year ago, when Aldi was selling their Red Thunder energy shots (which are superior in taste, but pretty even in performance) for $.69, but since those have also gone up to $.99 each, that means these are up there as some of the most affordable energy shots on the market. If you find yourself in a Dollar Tree needing a caffeine fix, these should do the trick without breaking the bank.

Unless your bank has less than a dollar in it.

Overall: 7.5/10. While the flavor still isn't on par with some of the more “premium” shots, these are the best tasting ones I've tried yet at Dollar Tree. Don't let the flavor fool you, though: I'd say these taste closer to the typical “berry” energy shot, as opposed to pomegranate acai (they even smell similar to the berry shots). But, unlike others I've tried from DT, there's very little in the way of bizarre secondary tastes, consisting only of a typical “diet” flavor (like an artificial sweetness) as it goes down. I'm still not sure what the difference is between this and the other Stacker 2 shots (besides different vitamins in the “proprietary energy blend” and a slight boost of vitamin B12), but this one gets the job done for a great price.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Essential Everyday Fruit Punch Drink Mix Sticks (Various Retailers)

This product is like that smug asshole who's good-looking on the outside, but harboring a secret deep within.

Sorry folks, this one is going to be longer and more rambly than usual, so just bear with me: if you’re really just in it for the review of the drink mix sticks, which (spoiler warning!) are a complete waste of money, scroll down a few paragraphs. Thanks for your time.

We were in Cincinnati celebrating our anniversary (definitely not as easy or fun to do in a COVID world—every place we wanted to see was closed or had weird hours—but those are stories for another day), when we stumbled on a place that we had heard of, but had completely forgotten about: Jungle Jim’s! In case you aren’t familiar with the place, it’s widely known as one of the “coolest” and most “fun” of all grocery stores, with large interactive displays, a wide variety of samples (again, not in COVID world, but typically), and foods and other goodies from all around the world. It’s kind of like Trader Joe’s, if their stores were 10 times larger and had less of a focus on organic and healthy stuff.

Unsurprisingly, the trade-off for having such a large store are higher prices, something that we noticed on just about every item—clearly, they’re more focused on the experience of shopping there, rather than being affordable.  And there’s nothing wrong with that—unless you happen to be a shopper without much of a disposable income, at which point it can become pretty tough to get what you need on a budget.

I was actually noticing their complete lack of a private label brand (something I would not have expected, given their reputation and popularity), when one caught my eye: Essential Everyday. “Pretty stupid name,” I thought to myself, though it quickly occurred to me that “Everyday Essentials”, a much prettier, more appealing name, has probably already been trademarked. (I still think it sounds awkward, but maybe that’s just me.)

Anyway, I naturally had to do some research, figuring that EE was Jungle Jim’s exclusive, private label brand—and that’s when I stumbled upon a firestorm of betrayal, intrigue, and deception…okay, not really: it seems that Essential Everyday just manufactures private label products, and offer them to any retailer looking to add “cheaper alternatives” to their product selection. So unlike a store brand, their stuff isn’t linked to any one specific retailer (in fact, they have a “store locator” on their website so you can actually see the stores carrying their brand nearest you), and can instead be found at a variety of different places throughout the U.S. Kind of interesting, right? Sure.

These packs look just like Aldi's brand...but don't be fooled because these are a gyp.

Anyway, take a deep breath because you made it…we’re on to the actual review!

The packaging of the “stick” itself looks suspiciously like the same packaging of Aldi’s own drink mix sticks; I immediately figured it was the same product, and had an expectation of what flavor to expect before I even tried it. But lo and behold, things are not that simple, because these go in the opposite direction of many fruit punch flavored drink sticks, by attempting to break your tastebuds with flavor overload.

Just take one sniff and that’s all you need to know if these are right for you: it can virtually clear out your sinuses. I mean, this is some pretty strong stuff. Just to stretch out my dollar (and because most sticks have too much flavor on their own for one water bottle), I tend to try to flavor two servings per stick—that is not at all a problem with these.

Once again, as was the case with the Essential Everyday toaster pastries, this one completely falls apart in the value department; to their credit, they at least don’t try to hide it, I suppose. Each box of 10 flavor packets costs a whopping $2.25. I guess in the thrill of grocery shopping (actually, we went down this aisle toward the end of our trip when I was getting restless, bored, and exhausted), I didn’t stop to think that Aldi sells similar products for about a dollar less, and even most national brands come in well under that price tag. Maybe they were grouped with more expensive items to make it look like more of a deal—at any rate, even though these are technically good, if you’re on a budget, they’re a complete waste of money.

At least you can do what I did, and drag these out to 20 servings, which would actually make the per serving cost more palatable, and more on par with what you would expect out of a “private label” product. However, considering you can do that with most other drink mixes—including ones that are already a dollar cheaper per box than this one—that just makes it more of a moot point than anything. Avoid these like the plague, assuming you’re actually a budget-conscious shopper trying to stretch their grocery dollar farther.

Overall: 3/10. This mix is actually really tasty, delivering up a strong flavor that’s closer to the “tropical punch” flavor of the name brand “just add sugar and water” packets that everyone grew up on. However, they are incredibly overpriced, something my tired, exhausted mind didn’t even notice as I blindly threw them into the cart just to make the grocery trip end as quickly as possible. And since the main point of this blog is all about value, that means there’s no way in hell I’d recommend these to anyone. In fact, I’m kind of starting to despise the Essential Everyday name—they seem to just package up the national brand items in their own packaging, and then find ways to charge even more than the brands they’re mocking. Avoid.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Essential Everyday Strawberry Frosted Toaster Pastries (Various)


Went to take a pic of the actual product, only to discover my wife threw the box in the trash and
 it was covered in ketchup. At any rate, these are a scam.

First things first, these look pretty good, with the “icing” (is that what it technically is?) stretching out pretty much from one side and corner, to the other. That’s actually a pretty good thing, because some other brands I’ve had don’t seem to have much icing on top at all—a sign that perhaps, we were dealing with the “real thing” here, only under the guise of a private label.

Another thing I’ve noticed that I have mentioned in other reviews: the packaging! Every off brand of toaster pastry that I've ever had has virtually the exact same foil wrapper design, with the variety of the pastry listed on the package, along with a corresponding picture representing that flavor: in this case, we get a strawberry. I’m actually kind of curious as to why this is: is one company literally responsible for making virtually every brand of toaster pastry out there? Or is there merely some packaging company who does reliably quick and cheap foilwork and that’s why everyone uses them? I’m curious, but not enough to really give a shit about it, so I guess I'll never truly know.

Moving on to the actual product itself….holy crap, these are really good. Just like Essential Everyday’s drink mix sticks, there is no cutback or reduction in flavors—the strawberry here is very in-your-face. It’s still artificial as all hell—just like the name brand itself is—but I didn’t remember even the name brand having such a strong “fruit” taste (then again, it’s once again been years since I’ve had them). The filling itself is pretty sweet, but then add on the frosting and it will probably be too much sweetness for some; I don’t find it to be too overboard, personally, but I can see where it could become overbearing, especially over the course of the two pastries included in each package.

The texture, meanwhile, is equally on point: the frosting is as hard as the national brand, the filling is soft and jam-like (or is it jelly? I still don’t know the damn difference) and the pastry itself, as boring as it is on its own, is very soft and inviting, texturally. Even the colors of the “confetti” sprinkles on top are highly reminiscent of the colors in the national brand—if I had to venture to guess, I’d say these are made in the same factories as the “actual” ones are, but this is just pure speculation on my part.

As we all must certainly know by now, however, nothing is perfect: it is in the “value” department where the façade starts falling apart...rather terribly, might I add. On paper, this looks like an okay deal, with each box retailing for $1.59, savings of around 40 cents off the national brand’s base retail price at most supermarkets. However, look a little closer at the packaging, and you’ll realize this box only contains six total pastries (three packs of two each), as opposed to the 8 contained in the national brand. Yessiree, this is one of your old bait-and-switch tactics—well, I don’t think it would technically fall under that descriptor, but you get the idea: they are cheaper, because there are fewer pastries in there! Add in the cost of the missing two, and it works out to $2.12, which is actually more than the national brand! No wonder they taste so similar!

These are tasty, but I can’t help feeling a little bit gypped by the value proposition, which is so weak that it threatens to negate all the other positives. I mean, what private label is priced so high that you’re technically better off buying the national brand? That was a rhetorical question, because places like CVS exist, but still, it’s a shame...usually you can trust you’re at least saving a little something by opting for an off-brand, but here, you’re just getting screwed out of two pastries, and paying a higher price (on a per-pastry basis) for that right. Shit, maybe “bait and switch” is more appropriate a term than originally believed.

This has to be the first time in this blog’s history that I’ve technically been impressed with a private label product, but would advise you to not only avoid it, but to buy the name brand instead.

Overall: 4/10. These are actually very good, offering up the strong(ly artificial) strawberry taste that many of us grew up on, inside a soft pastry—it’s all so close to the national brand, but I can almost guarantee it is, under a different “private label” name. Furthering that argument, however, is the cost: each box of Essential Everyday’s toaster tarts retails for $1.59. To the untrained eye (and I’m among them, because I fell for it), that looks better than the national brand, which cost around $1.99 at most supermarkets; however, look a little closer and you’ll realize each box of EE’s version contain only six pastries, as opposed to the national brand’s 8. So essentially, it’s only cheaper because you’re getting less product! Even more troubling: add in the missing two tarts and the price works out to $2.12 per 8 pastries, which is even more expensive than the national brand! That’s depressing. So as good as these are in terms of flavor, you’re actually better off getting the national brand instead

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Ubeesize 51" Multi-Purpose Tripod/Selfie Stick with Bluetooth Remote (

This is about as good as you're going to get for around $20.

Believe it or not, I like to dabble in photography. I know that might be a hard concept to grasp for longtime readers of this blog (are there any?), because I consistently forget to snap pictures of the products I review while I have them, and many of the ones I do remember are haphazardly thrown together. Indeed, I hate taking boring photos of products—for whatever reason, considering it's easy as hell to do and only takes ten seconds—but when it comes to more “artistic” shots, such as macro or nighttime photography, I'm always looking for unique ways to capture shots.

And I think one of the major reasons I count this as a hobby is just how far mobile photography has come. Even though I've always thought I've had a pretty good eye for composition, I just didn't have the interest level (nor the monetary requirement) to carry around a large case full of equipment with me wherever I go. Now that smartphone photography has made huge strides, with even most budget phones carrying multi-camera arrays these days, it has gotten a lot easier to take pictures in virtually all situations. The end results might be a ways off from dedicated cameras that can't text or call people, but with each passing year, that gap seems to draw at least a little bit closer.

One of the later developments in smartphone photography came with Huawei's P20 Pro, released in 2018, which was one of the first—if not thee first—to feature a dedicated night mode, allowing users to take competent photos in low-light situations. Since then, almost every major manufacturer has adapted it in some way, shape, or form, and while the results have gotten better, the basic idea of how it works is still the same: keep the camera as steady as possible for a few seconds while the camera “sucks in” as much light as possible (or, in the case of Google, for the software to do its thing), and then presto! Out pops a picture that's usually terrible by normal photography standards, but that can look atmospheric and cool with the proper tweaks.

The issue, especially as far as the P20 Pro was concerned, is that this mode didn't have a dedicated mode of stabilization, meaning even the slightest movement of the camera would lead to frustrating, blurry results. Well, with an impending visit to the in-laws—who live in the semi-secluded country hills of Tennessee—forthcoming, I knew I would have plenty of chances to take some nighttime shots without the endless supply of light pollution life in the big city provides, and that is why I ended up grabbing the Ubeesize tripod from Amazon, which retailed for just $20 at the time.

I don't have a lot of experience with tripods overall, having only used them for digital video during my filmmaking days back in high school, but the basic function of tripods are all the same: to hold the camera steady. The reason I opted for this one wasn't just the price, but the plethora of features available for said price: it extends to 51”, which is one of the longer lengths I found while researching; there's a dedicated Bluetooth shutter button allowing for hands-free operation (so crucial for maximizing those night shots); it can double as a selfie-stick (which I abhor, but my wife has been known to take millions); and a flexible 360-degree head and 180-degree neck rotation, which allows the user to set up shots at almost any angle, without constantly having to move the entire tripod around.

I haven't taken this out as much as I would like to—I'm not sure if you've heard about this virus that's kind of put the entire world on hold—but I've used it enough to know that it has not only matched my expectations in almost every regard, but also exceeded them. I was a little nervous, especially given the price, that it would be very thin, or very weak, and while I definitely wouldn't use it in a windstorm, the tripod feels pretty sturdy out of the box. I was also nervous about how the spring-loaded holder would handle my phone, fearing it would either grip it too hard, or not be able to grab it hard enough, but loading it in is a process that just gets easier every time you use it. The springs work really well, even after repeated use, and show no signs of malfunctioning any time soon.

Anyone who's used a tripod before knows there are generally a variety of different mechanisms throughout, for controlling every aspect of the shot. This tripod has the same collection of “snaps” to extend or lower the body, and screws for holding the legs and phone holder in place, giving it a familiar appearance, and function, to virtually every other one. Crucially, though, the “snaps” (for lack of an official term) don't feel super-cheap, and do a solid job of holding the tripod up. Ditto that for the screws, which keep the smartphone (or included Go-Pro or camera) adapters securely in place

I also had read comments of people who had issues pairing up the included remote with their phone or, even worse, people who couldn't get it to work even after setting it up properly; even though I was expecting the worst, I had it paired up—and working—within a minute, with no problems whatsoever. (Of course, the issue with online reviews is that it doesn't take the technical competence of the reviewer into consideration, making it hard to tell if it's legitimately a compatibility problem with the item itself, or user error.)

Even if tripods aren't really your thing, Ubeesize has you covered: the legs can fold up, giving you an extendable selfie stick. I've never actually used it for this purpose, but the ability to extend up to 51" really widens the scope of field for these kinds of photos and can allow you to get even wide family shots with little problem. If you take a lot of shots with social media in mind, this should be a go-to tool.

This has easily been one of my best investments, and should be a required accessory for anyone who is even slightly interested in photography; it has allowed me to get shots that I simply couldn't have gotten otherwise (or that would have been much more difficult to set up), while also experimenting with the P20 (and, later on, the P30) Pro's plethora of shooting options. Want to take photos of the night sky for star trails? Get that “silky water” effect from a running stream or waterfall? Use the “light painting” setting to get those artsy shots of moving traffic? Want to think outside the box and experiment with settings using the camera's “pro” mode? Well, this tripod enables you to do all of those things, and more; it's a cliché thing to say, but it really does open doors to all kinds of cool, unique shots that just simply aren't possible to get by hand, even with the improved handheld AI of most high-end smartphones.

There are, of course, some downsides, although all the main gripes I have are relatively minor: the Bluetooth shutter is made of thin plastic and feels incredibly cheap. It's also very small—for someone who loses things on a daily basis (and who has a child), it's a wonder I haven't lost this. (A lanyard comes with a later model to help keep tabs on it, although I could have just made one for this if I were so inclined.) The telescopic base of the telescope can also be a little frustrating to work with, as in order to max out the length, you have to max out four separate sections. I know, this is the way most tripods are designed, but it's still a fairly repetitive task to put up and take down.

Lastly, while I mentioned that the tripod is surprisingly well-made and feels sturdy, it is very light; this is certainly a plus for you when you're lugging it around, as it adds very little weight to your setup. However, it does become a concern in stronger winds, especially when it's at its maximum height. I wouldn't really worry about it in a gentle breeze, but anything beyond that might cause some issues out in open fields, or other areas where the wind can't be blocked. I also wish that the tripod legs were more independent, but that's typically a feature on more expensive tripods, so I can't really complain about its omission; all it means is

In other words, it's not perfect, but for $20, how could you honestly expect it to be? The fact of the matter is, this will be a great choice for almost all but the most professional of photographers, and with the ability to convert into a selfie-stick, is able to get almost any kind of shot that a typical user will require.

Overall: 8/10. If you just want a simple tripod for light-duty shoots, look no further than this one. For $20, you get a good-quality tripod, complete with a Bluetooth remote, and a variety of adapters ranging from smartphone, Go-Pro, to DSLR cameras. The tripod itself is very lightweight and feels sturdy, although it's so light it could cause some problems in windy shoots. The remote is very cheaply made, but the battery lasts a long time (with minimal use) and it pairs up easily with my Huawei. The conversion from tripod to selfie stick also helps make this a virtually required accessory for anyone, from photographers to wannabe Instagram stars. There are certainly better tripods out there, but for entry level media creators, I'm not sure you can do much better for the price.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Choceur Legends Mini Mix (Aldi)

Not sure this collection is really befitting the "legends" tag...

Back when I started shopping at Aldi (circa 2005 or so), they used to sell a few varieties of off-brand candy bars, individually wrapped in large bags. I remember trying a couple of them, but the quality was nowhere near the name brands they were trying to duplicate, and so I forgot all about them.

Imagine my surprise when I saw an assorted box of seven different candy bar flavors in the Special Buy section of our local Aldi, just in time for the Halloween season! And for the decent price of $2.99! I barely even hesitated before popping these in my cart, eager to see just how the flavors had improved since I last tried them over a decade ago. Or, at the very least, to jog my memories of why I stopped buying them.

The chocolates are contained in what appears to be an innocuous cardboard box...but open it up to reveal a "blooming" effect that was completely unexpected, but somehow kind of cool. Also weird, because this doesn't really have a "premium" feel worthy of such packaging, nor does it scream "giftable" but hey, it's a neat little touch regardless.

The included line-up.

Anyway, let's take a look at each individual bar, shall we?

Nougat and Caramel: Well, you should know what this is a knockoff of based on the wrapper and contents...a candy bar named after our galaxy that contains the titular ingredients. The original is an overall pretty boring candy bar that I nevertheless enjoy more than I should on the rare occasions I find myself gorging on one. Aldi's version is no different, offering up a nice bit of mass-produced chocolate on the outside, that gives way to nougaty goodness. I feel like there's more nougat here than in the mainstream bar, but maybe it's just that there's less caramel, which seems thrown in as an afterthought. Either way, this is a pretty good bar and a good alternative to the “real thing” that tastes similar enough to appeal to fans of the original.

Peanut and Caramel: Am I stupid? What bar is this even a knockoff of? Oh! I think it's supposed to be a "Sneakers" those lofty expectations, this little bar falls pretty well short. Some of it has to do with the size, as the large peanut chunks of the original are replaced by smaller, almost “ground up” chunks that don't give off an accurate texture. It fares a little better when taken on its own merits, although the “caramel” the plain title alludes to seems to get lost in everything else. It's there in spirit, but not so much in taste. It's a chocolate bar, so I like it, but it's not going to satisfy the hunger of fans of the trademarked bar.

Monarc: What on Earth is this a takeoff of? The name signals opulence...and what this gives us is just a standard chocolate bar that's a few notches below even Choceur's own milk chocolate bar. Whereas that one melts in your mouth with a tempting delectability, this one is just bland all the way. The bar itself is hard, and the efforts required to snap into it don't match the end result, which is to say, very straightforward and disappointing. This one would be a good one to skip.

Monarc and Caramel: Aaaah, now I think I can put two and two together to figure out what “Monarc” is a knockoff of: the company known here for their "cream eggs" available around Eastertime. This one is actually one of the reasons I decided to pull the trigger on this mix. I always remember these caramel bars from school fundraisers (do they still do those or am I showing my age?); even though they're available in stores everywhere, I feel like outside of that no one ever eats them. Well this one makes up for the blandness of the plain Monarc by delivering a creamy caramel center to go along with some pretty decent chocolate; the end result is a solid knockoff that will hit the spot for fans of the original. Definitely one of the better options in here, if not outright the best.

Coconut Bits: I'm not even going here for this one, as coconut is one of very few things that I've never gained the taste for. My wife loves the mainstream coconut bars, and found this one to be lacking, with a center that's literally all coconut, surrounded by a rather thin layer of chocolate, and nothing else. On the plus side, the design on the packaging is by far the cutest (and the only one where the designers spent any amount of time whatsoever), so I guess it gets some slight marks for that.

Cookie and Caramel: This is one I was most excited to try...and also one of the most disappointing. This knockoff of a popular cookie-based bar has similar texture, with a soft layer of chocolate on top, giving way to a rather thick layer of caramel before finishing with the cookie on the bottom. The chocolate and caramel layers, while not really a direct knockoff, are acceptably close, but the cookie botches the fantasy, by delivering an uninspiring flavor that is stronger than it should be, and that doesn't even mesh well with the rest. It's like the cookie was meant for a different bar, but thrown in here; I don't think it would be that great even if I wasn't comparing it to the national brand bar.

Nougat and Chocolate: These aren't my favorite candy bars to begin with, but it seems to be a reasonable knockoff of what I remember from the national brand. The middle is filled with nougaty goodness, assuming that's your thing, while the chocolate exterior is as uninspiring as the mass-produced bars on which they are based. In other words, it's a pretty acceptable duplicate, but it's been years since I've tried the original version, and it's also not one of my favorite bars, so I might be way off base here. Either way, it's not one I'd care to try again.

Well this is a completely unnecessary, but kinda cool, surprise!

Overall: 5.5/10. I'm always down for Aldi's knockoffs of popular candies, but let's just say the end result here is a...”mixed bag” (get it?!) Really, only the Caramel and Chocolate manages to be as pleasing as the national brand, while the other ones I was most excited for (namely the Peanuts and Chocolate and Cookies and Chocolate), are rather disappointing in execution compared to the originals. Still, this is a great way to try out all the individual flavors without committing to buy an entire bag of each (which they also offer), so that makes it another plus. The cool "blossoming" container is also a surprising, welcome treat. The $2.99 asking price isn't mind-blowing, but there are quite a few bars offered for the price, so it's reasonable. Not quite the "legendary" collection promised, but there are enough redeeming qualities present to justify the purchase.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Clancy's Ranch Veggie Straws (Aldi)

Not quite as good as "the real thing", but quite good.

I don’t always try the national brand version of these items before trying Aldi’s version—in fact, there’s probably a good many products on here that I’ve never even tried the version Aldi is knocking off. This would definitely be true for these vegetable straws had my in-laws not packed them as a snack for a long trip a few years back…I instantly fell in love with the seasoned ranch straws—and then promptly forgot all about them.

Flash-forward a few years, and we saw them in private label form at our local Aldi. I believe they used to be a special buy, but have now become part of the store’s growing inventory—a good thing, considering these are one of the few things our son will voluntarily eat. So we make sure to keep these on hand as much as possible. Like father, like son, eh?

The shape is interesting, more or less earning its “straw” moniker; unlike other crunchy snacks, these are elongated tunnels of potato chip-like goodness. To keep up with the “veggie-based chip” cliche, these come in three different assorted colors: yellow, green, and orange. Does having multiple colors make people think they are healthier for them than they actually are? I mean, I certainly don’t equate orange with a carrot, if that’s what they’re going after—at any rate, I guess it provides some variance over having the same boring color throughout the bag.

Each straw does provide a satisfying level of crunch, yet they also feel “light” at the same time…it’s a rather weird texture that most people who have tried them will know what I’m talking about. It’s loud and very crunchy, not the type of snack you’d want to sneak in to a movie theater, but while they might have a loud bark, they actually break apart quite easily once you start chewing them. It’s a really confusing texture, but one that’s certainly different from a potato chip and that is somehow inviting.

The taste is pretty good, with a tangy ranch that’s offered in semi-abundance; in fact, I would almost peg this as a buttermilk ranch, as there’s really no counterbalance to the tang. This is probably its biggest downfall, as it would have been a lot more addicting had they balanced out the ranch flavor a little bit better; as it stands though, they are very delicious and somewhat hard to put down. It’s been years since I’ve had the national brand, but from what I remember, Aldi’s version has less seasoning and less overall flavor. Still, that can kind of be a good thing, as the lightness of the flavor pairs well with the lightness in texture, making you think you’re eating something that’s better for you than it actually is.

On to the proposition of value: each 7 oz. bag retails for $2.15, much higher than the average offering from Clancy’s, but decent savings over the name brand (which typically retail for around $2.89 per six oz. bag). It doesn’t offer as much savings as some other items in the chip department, but the flavor is “close enough” to justify switching to Clancy’s version if you’re looking to save some money.

And in this uncertain day and age, who isn’t?

Overall: 7.5/10. These are a tasty treat for those looking for a delicious salty snack to have on hand. I do think the ranch flavor could be improved, as it has a strong tang that isn’t really counterbalanced by anything else, making it more of a buttermilk ranch than “regular”, but outside of that they are good enough. A little more expensive than the typical item from Clancy’s, but still offers enough savings to justify a switch over the name brand, and an addicting texture that makes them hard to put down. It might not be an exact duplicate, but it offers up enough differences to stand out on its own.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

RE-REVIEW: Nature's Nectar Organic Raspberry Blend Cold Pressed Juice (Aldi)

NOTE: This is a complete re-review of an item I looked at previously. Since the review was posted in November, I tried the remaining two flavors in Nature's Nectars' Cold Pressed Juice series, and thus, am updating this review to reflect that added context. The previous review will remain briefly for reference.

This is pretty delicious, but at a slight cost.

I was in a bind…my mouth was on fire from eating spicy Chinese food and the last bit of milk in our fridge was reserved for our son, who downs it like it’s his lifeblood. Out of every other option (save for water, which I had already drank too much of that day), my eyes landed on a bottle of Nature’s Nectar Raspberry Blend Cold Pressed Juice, which I had somehow forgotten all about. I cracked it open, and chugged it down.

I have previously reviewed both of their other flavors, and was kind of mixed on both of them: the green blend was good, but the veggie flavors made you feel like they were trying too hard to make you think it was healthy; the blackberry blend was shockingly grainy and a little too tart for my tastes (but mostly too grainy).

For those of you who like your juice to taste (and feel) like juice, I’m happy to say this is the best option out of the three varieties, as this just tastes like straight-up raspberry juice, more or less. To be clear, it’s not: on top of the titular flavor, which as actually served up in puree form, there’s also juices of pomegranate and cherry blended in, but the raspberry flavor shines through in every swig. Also, despite the addition of “puree” (which can sometimes thicken things up a bit too much), this one is definitely closer to a “juice” than a “smoothie” in terms of texture, making it an enjoyable drinking experience that requires no chewing.

I mentioned how the success of this line would depend on how Nature's Nectar catered to both cold pressed juice connoisseurs--who usually like theirs freshly squeezed and not in mass-produced, shelf stable bottles—and those new to the idea, who might be put off by the...earthier tastes of some of the more extreme options out there. This one, in my opinion, strikes that balance the best, by offering seasoned cold pressers a minimal amount of ingredients, while maintaining a delicious flavor that will appeal to virtually any fan of raspberries.

All that's left is the price: an 11.2 oz. bottle retails for $1.99, same as all the others in the line. Is it worth it to you to get what amounts to little more than raspberry juice for that cost? For me, it's not an enticing enough proposition for me to get it all the time, but it's definitely the one I'm most likely to grab again when I want a break from their normal juices. It offers up a delicious flavor and the benefits of cold pressed juice, but for a reasonable price.

Overall: 7/10 (+1 from original review). The most “juice-like” of Nature’s Nectar’s cold pressed offerings, this one serves up the nice, tart taste of raspberry in spades. It's delicious, but at the same time, the flavor really does little to suggest a “cold pressed” juice, making it feel more or less like a $2 bottle of raspberry juice. Still, it's the most straightforward and immediately accessible flavor in their cold pressed line and one that should strike a chord with both “experienced” cold pressers, as well as those new to the whole idea, and thus comes with a recommendation from me.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Kroger Cinnamon Applesauce (Individual Cups) (Kroger)


A pretty solid cinnamon applesauce.

Applesauce is always good: it works in a variety of situations, from when you’re sick and need something light, to when you just want something to go along with your ham sandwich. It also has a nice texture, capable of being guzzled down when you don’t have utensils, or eaten with a spoon—hell, if you’re in enough of a bind, it’s generally thick enough that you can even use a fork if you find yourself in a situation where you have nothing else (I know this one from experience).

Cinnamon applesauce, on the other hand, takes things to a whole ‘nother level. Of course, it adds another layer of sweetness—unnecessary by some people’s accounts no doubt—but also ups the ante in terms of pure flavor. Everyone knows that baked apples (the ones with cinnamon sugar on top) are perfect, so that’s the whole idea here, carried over into applesauce form. The end result is hard to mess up.

So hard, in fact, that not even Kroger can fuck it up: this is some good cinnamon applesauce, just as virtually every version is good. As I mentioned, there’s quite a bit of sweetness here, but thankfully it’s still the apples that shine through front and center—the cinnamon skirts through a second or so later, noticeably hitting the tastebuds, although not as strongly as some, and not as much as you might think. It almost comes off as a secondary flavor in the peripheral tastebuds; almost subtle in a way, if cinnamon could be all that subtle in anything at all.

I have to say that I’m pretty impressed here: it’s a very flavorful applesauce that doesn’t break any new ground, but does what it’s supposed to do and does it well.  Value is actually pretty solid, with a $1.39 asking price for six 4 oz. cups, making it an even better deal than Walmart’s (by a mere $.04) when both are not on sale.

It’s not very often that I like anything from Kroger, but this is probably one of the better buys from within their four shitty walls.

Overall: 8/10. A great example of cinnamon applesauce, and one that’s more affordable than other store brands? Wow, Kroger actually manages to do something right for once here. The cinnamon and apple are perfectly balanced to create a deliciously sweet flavor combination where the apples are still the star of the show. There’s really nothing fanciful or unique here, but it’s still executed pretty well, while the individual cups make this a great idea for taking on the go, or packing in school lunches. While I definitely wouldn’t go out of my way to get these at Kroger, this is one of the few things I wouldn’t hesitate to get here, should my worst nightmare come true of finding myself inside one of their stores.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Kroger Apple & Cinnamon Instant Oatmeal Cups (Kroger)


These are pretty damn tasty.

What’s better than oatmeal out of packets? Oatmeal out of premade cups! Actually, it’s not better at all, considering each cup costs about the same as an entire box of oatmeal packets, but we like to keep a couple of these on hand, as oatmeal is one of the few things our three-year-old son will willingly eat. And when he gets finicky, prepwork couldn’t be any easier: fill water up to the fill line in the cup, microwave for 45 seconds, let sit for about a minute, put in the freezer or fridge for a few minutes (if you’re our son, who won’t eat hot stuff), and that’s it! Your oatmeal is ready to go.

I have to say, this is pretty fantastic, for what it is. There’s ample amounts of cinnamon, which pairs up very well with the main star of the show: the apple. Spread throughout, in instant oatmeal fashion, is a generous amount of real apple chunks, which help add some texture to the otherwise slimy oat puddle. It’s a classic take on the well-known combination of apples and cinnamon, but with a perfect balance of both that should win over most people; to wit, my wife doesn’t have nearly the palate for sweet stuff that I have, but she enjoys this oatmeal a lot, too.

When these first came out, I remember being disgusted that each one sold for over $1, which is a disgusting markup on something that probably costs mere pennies to produce. Well now I’m glad to report that they are $.99 each, even at a scammy place like Kroger! It’s still too high, but there always has to be a “convenience charge” for things that make your life easier, and considering this saves you a dirty bowl, and the act of pouring oatmeal and water into a container, I suppose that is a fair trade-off every once in a while. Besides, these seem to cool down quicker in the fridge than ceramic or glass bowls, and when a hungry (or tired) kid who won't eat anything above "slightly warm" on the heat scale is screaming for his oatmeal to be cooled down and ready, every second counts.

All in all, these pack in some great flavor, and are perfect to have on hand for whenever we run out of the packets, or just something that can be thrown together with minimal fuss. 

Overall: 9/10. This is a fantastic combination of apples and cinnamon that leans more on the sweet side, but shouldn’t go overboard for most. The classic texture of oatmeal is here in cup form, along with a hearty helping of dried apples that help to give it a more interesting texture beyond the standard sliminess of oatmeal. Meanwhile, the $1 price tag—while high considering you can get a whole box of oatmeal packets for less than $1 more—is fairly reasonable given the added convenience of making everything in the cup. These are perfect for on-the-go snacking, and are something we always tend to keep in our pantry for oatmeal emergencies, if nothing else.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Kroger Slim Rite Vanilla Meal Replacement Shake (Kroger)

I suppose it's good if you like drinking half-and-half.

Well, earlier this month we took a look at Kroger's chocolate meal replacement powder, so now it only makes sense that we would take a look at the other variety they offer: vanilla. (Actually, I typically wouldn't do that, as vanilla isn't my favorite standalone flavor, but my wife happened to already have some in the pantry, so that's why it makes sense.)

Like the chocolate, this powder comes in a rather large 13 oz. tub, good for “about 14 servings”. That certainly isn't bad for $3, which is its normal retail price, especially since the individual bottles of weight loss shake often go for around $1 per bottle, if not more. Also included in the tub: a plastic scoop. Sure, these are frequently included in dieting powders, but it's not something I take for granted, so I certainly appreciate its inclusion here. Also appreciated is the simple prep: add a rounded scoop to 8 oz. of milk, mix it up, and you're good to go.

The one thing I really hated about the otherwise good chocolate powder was that, no matter how much I mixed it, there was always a large collection of powder that accumulated at the top. At first, I thought it was because I put too much powder in (despite following the simple instructions), but I found that no matter how little I put in, it still happened; when it also happened to my wife, that's when I knew it was just a product flaw. That was definitely a frustrating issue when the shake barely tasted like chocolate, yet had enough sitting at the top to properly flavor it; also frustrating when the final drinks of every serving were just large clumps of wet, unmixed powder.

The vanilla version, thankfully, fixes that issue: all of it seemed to mix in pretty quickly, with no large clumps left behind. The consistency is about what you would expect from a powder: slightly thicker than a regular liquid, but not at all something I would typically categorize as a “shake”. Unfortunately, it offsets that by falling a little bit short in the taste department.

For starters, it's very sweet—I would say it comes off as even sweeter than the chocolate—and reminds me a lot of half-and-half, in both taste and appearance. I was one of those kids that liked to drink the little single-serve half-and-half cups every once in a while (and, come to think of it, even really enjoyed the French vanilla flavored ones), but the difference is that those were in little cups—two or three and I had my fill. Here, in much larger 8 oz. servings, it just doesn't have the same appeal. Now, the flavor isn't nearly as strong as those—otherwise I would have gotten sick a couple drinks in—but it's along those same lines, so it's the rather unfortunate flavor profile you can expect.

Also a little more off-putting here: there's that same “wooden” aftertaste that I also got with the chocolate version. Again, it's not just relegated to Kroger's powders, because I've gotten similar aftertastes with other mixes, but I find it to be more noticeable and annoying with the lighter, less familiar vanilla flavor. But in case it's just me, it's literally a weird, “pulpy” (for lack of a better term) that hits you as you drink it, then quickly disappears without leaving much of an aftertaste. I'm sure it has something to do with the fact it's in powdered form, as I don't recall that taste appearing in the pre-bottled, ready-to-drink shakes, but I do notice it even in most chocolate milk mixes.

At any rate, the whole 14 serving tub typically costs just $2.99 in our market, making it a great cost-effective alternative to the aforementioned bottles, which often go for $1 or more, per bottle. That makes it a great value compared to those, with the only caveat that you have to make it yourself, something so easy even I can do it without issue. That means the value is here in spades; personally, though, I would stick to the chocolate variety.

Overall: 5.5/10. I'm not typically a huge fan of French vanilla flavors, and this one does nothing to change that outlook, offering up a taste that's strongly reminiscent of vanilla half-and-half. It does go down pretty smooth, though, thanks to its thin texture, and isn't very strong, so despite that description, isn't nearly as gross or undrinkable as it could have been. Thankfully, the powder seems to mix in to the milk a lot better than the chocolate did, leaving no large, unmixable clumps at the top that overwhelm the final couple of drinks—that is a huge win. Ditto that for the price, which is just $2.99 for a 14 serving, 13 oz. tub (with included measuring scoop!) Personally, I would stick to the chocolate if I ever grabbed this again in the future, but for fans of vanilla, this one certainly delivers enough value to make it worth a look.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Bake Shop Bakery Apple Cider Donuts (Aldi)



Where have I been all these years? Well, I could probably ask that about any number of things, but this time, it’s in reference to how I had never tried an apple cider donut up until five days ago. It was from a national brand snack company that starts with an “E”, and that doesn’t seem to really get as much attention as “Small Deborah” or “The ____ with the Mostest”. Even though they’re mass-produced, they were way better than anyone in the family were expecting them to be—it only took us three days (if that) to polish off all 8 donuts in the pack.

So then imagine my excitement when I remembered seeing a similar product in Aldi’s ad. I was already headed there to do some shopping, and figured I’d just add a box of the donuts to my list, if they were still available. It took me a few frustrating seconds, but I finally tracked them down to their location right in front of my face.

For $3.49, you get six donuts. Unlike the national brand ones we tried, these are less uniform—they’re very similar in size, but each one has slight differences, apparently to make them appear more homemade and thus, deserving of the rather high price tag. They also have the appearance of a sour cream donut, rather than the soft cake donut appearance of the national brand. All it took was one little bite to know that they were not at all what I was expecting, a notion that my wife seconded just a shortwhile later when she registered a look of disgust on her face shortly after trying a bite.

These things are hard. Like, donut sitting out in open air for three days hard. Well, maybe not quite that hard, but certainly not the soft consistency that we were expecting. I guess I’m just a little confused on why these would be made into sour cream donuts, because the middle is also fairly dry—virtually nothing about this experience begs the consumer to take even one bite, let alone go back for more.

The flavor is okay, but even that manages to disappoint, with the taste of cinnamon sugar overwhelming everything else. I’m down for cinnamon in all instances, but when you have an “apple cider” donut, even I must admit that apples should take center stage; here, they do not, registering only as a secondary flavor once your mouth has gotten acclimated to the sugar rush. That’s not to say the taste is all that bad—it’s not nearly the misfire that the texture is—but it’s yet another way these things would barely be worth $2.49, let alone the actual asking price which, let me remind you, is a whole dollar more.

On the one hand, I’m sure the level of disappointment we felt was directly due to trying a much better tasting donut just a couple days before; on the other hand, I’m glad it worked out that way, so that we couldn’t possibly have been tricked into thinking this was a good example of an apple cider donut.

Overall: 3/10. Well this one largely misses the mark in just about every conceivable category, offering up an unappetizing, hard texture; a disappointing flavor that focuses more on cinnamon than apple; and all at a price tag that suggests a premium product ($3.49 for a mere six donuts). This is a purchase we won’t be revisiting, well…ever, unless they change their formula. You won't hear me say this very often, but stick to the national brand cake donuts on this'll save money, while getting a much tastier product.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Elevation (by Millville) Cookie Dough Protein Nutrition Bars (Aldi)

An underwhelming bar at a somewhat attractive price.

Well, another week, and the need for another work snack. I won't bore you with details, but yes I will: I don't get a paid break at work anymore, and rather than spend another half hour there on an unpaid lunch, I'd rather get the hell out as early as possible. It's nice for family time, but not so great for my diet, where I don't get to eat my first full meal until after 1 p.m. However, I do try to remember to bring some type of snack to eat “illegally”--it just has to be portable and something I can easily hide. And that's where breakfast and snack bars frequently fit in.

I've liked most of Elevation's other offerings (their chocolate shake is pretty stellar, as is their chocolate mint bar), so I figured I'd keep going down the Elevation rabbit hole by grabbing a pack of Cookie Dough Protein Energy Bars. Part of it was because I was interested in how a cookie dough bar would taste (it had been years since I had one), and because at $4.59, it was one of the most affordable choices on the Elevation endcap.

My first reaction: these bars are smaller than they look—the packaging looks like a full size bar, but when you pull this thing out, it only takes up half the wrapper. Maybe it's a little wider than other bars and it all evens out, but it's a weird optical illusion that kind of made me feel like I was getting gypped the first time (although it could also explain why these are a little cheaper than others).

The texture here is grainier than the other bars I've tried in their line. Maybe it’s because they’re going for the same feel as soft cookie dough, but I can’t stand it—it comes off a little…sandy, and even when there’s no grain, it’s just too soft. Poking through to add some kind of variance to the surface are the chocolate chips, which are in pretty good abundance and do a good job of adding some “crunch” completely lacking from the otherwise sponge-soft texture.

Honestly, the texture is what does these in for me: the more of them I eat, the less and less I like them. I'm not usually one of those people that get creeped out by most textures, but for some reason the softness of this one just really gets to me, and makes these bars very unappetizing. Maybe I'll try refrigerating them first, just so that I get a harder center, but even then I imagine the graininess would still be intact, and probably even more noticeable. Eh...these aren't my favorite bars, and not by a long shot.

The flavor is okay, but also nothing at all like actual cookie dough…it’s just kind of a miscellaneous taste that feels like they threw a bunch of random things together, and then based the name of the bar around their mysterious creation. In other words, I suppose it’s kind of close to cookie dough, but not something I’d probably be able to peg with no advanced flavor notice, mainly because it doesn't really taste a thing like cookie dough. The chocolate coating is good, but if you’ve ever had another bar in the Elevation line, it should seem familiar to you, as I'm pretty sure they just use the same chocolate coating across the board for all of their products.

And that really makes it just feel like déjà vu: a lot of their bars are starting to taste very similar to one another, now that I’ve tried a few, because of that same chocolate coating that they use for every single one. Even the middles don’t have much variance: there’s the brownish “putty” like we get here with this one, or the chewy “crisped rice” style like we get with the chocolate mint bar, and those are about the only two options (they do have a harder “fruit and grain” bar available at the checkout counter that's completely different, but I'm not sure if that's even available in multi-packs).

Which brings me to another issue I have with the line—and it might just be me since I’m not really well-versed in the world of health bars—but why are there so goddamned many choices? For a place that prides itself on not giving consumers many options, the fact there are no fewer than 15 different health bars just seems kind of odd to me. And what the hell are the differences between them all? I’m sure there are subtle nuances, but most of them have the same basic functions: added protein, and meal replacement for dieters. So why do we need all these choices and varying price ranges for what appear to be the same basic product? I get everyone seems to be more health-conscious these days, but it just seems kind of pointless to me that Elevation products fill an entire endcap, while there are plenty of other product lines that deserve an expansion instead. 

This is one of the more affordable bar options in the Elevation line, but even taking that factoid into consideration, it's not one I'd ever really be interested in revisiting.

Overall: 4/10. The $4.59 retail price (for six bars) is pretty tempting, but it's done in by a terribly soft interior that tastes nothing like cookie dough as it also throws in an off-putting amount of graininess. The little chocolate chip pieces and exterior chocolate coating do their best to overcome the texture issues, but it proves to be too much: paired up with the uninspiring and fakey “cookie dough” taste, this is an underwhelming bar at a somewhat attractive price.