Monday, November 30, 2020

Millville Frosted Strawberry Toaster Tarts (Aldi)

These are good, especially for the price.

Well, after having another brand’s pop tarts a couple weeks ago, and realizing just how much I like the strawberry version, I was kind of excited when my son had me grab some during a recent shopping trip to Aldi. While I’ve had a couple different kinds of their pop tarts, I don’t think I’ve ever had the strawberry, so it was going to be an enlightening experience, to say the least! It was also a bittersweet one: My son refused to eat them because he meant to ask for toaster strudels, not pop tarts. So I’m stuck with the whole box either way.

The first thing I noticed, besides the fact that the “sprinkles” on top seem to be paler and duller than the national brand’s, comes in the form of the filling: it, too, is very pale, almost sickly looking. Whereas the main brands feature vibrantly red filling, this one is very pale, like a light pink. I’m sure this is due to Aldi removing all of the artificial colors from their products, but I have to confess that it isn’t very appetizing.

Thankfully, though, the taste is on par with other brands, featuring that same over-the-top fake strawberry flavor to go along with a rather boring pastry. It’s a rather strong, and sweet, flavor that clearly shows this is targeted toward kids. I happen to like it, although part of that might be nostalgia; I’d venture to guess that most fans of the original will like Aldi’s version as well.

As par for the course, the icing is sloppily thrown in, and only covers about 75% of the actual top. What’s the deal with that? You’d think they’d have it set up to be a perfect science, but there’s always a few bites you have to dread because there’s no icing in the corners, and that’s where the dry pastry is least inviting. This isn’t just Aldi’s brand, but across virtually all of them that I’ve had. They need some serious recalibrating of their machines.

The last piece to this puzzle is value: as usual, Aldi delivers pretty well in that regard. Each box contains 12 total pastries, and is offered for less than the national brand (and even some store brands’) 8 count boxes: in our case, it’s $1.49 per box. That’s more pop tarts than I really need, because I tend to get sick of these rather quickly, but you can’t argue with the price.

They're not outstanding in any way, but they're a good enough knockoff (complete with artificial colors removed!) that taste slightly better considering the value proposition. If you or your family enjoy the national brand, I would think this version would win most of them over, and for a buck or so less than the name brand. That's what one would call a "win-win"!

Overall: 7.5/10. These are pretty tasty imitators of the national brand toaster tart product, though they are muted in colors, probably due to Aldi’s removal of artificial coloring in most of its products. The strawberry flavor is fake, but is in strong abundance, and tastes much better than it looks. The same downsides to the national brand apply here – namely the icing barely covers up the top, and the pastry itself is pretty dry and boring – but for fans of the national brand, this is a good knockoff for a much better price.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Essential Everyday Frosted Flakes Cereal (Various)

Pretty good and a reasonable value.

BORING STORY TIME! Everyone gather around, because I know these intros are your favorite part of this blog! We were in Cincinnati celebrating our anniversary when we stumbled on a place we'd always wanted to visit: Jungle Jim's!

For anyone not in the loop, it's a small chain of supermarkets in the Cincinnati/Kentucky area that offer a wide variety of international foods and goodies. It's marketed as more of an “experience”, with samples throughout (though of course none were available when we went because of COVID), exotic fruits you can't find just anywhere, over-the-top displays, fountains at the entrance, and even their own events center, complete with an executive chef and monorail that can drive between indoor and outdoor venues. Clearly, this isn't just a typical supermarket!

Of course, being as large as it is—not to mention all the exclusive and hard-to-find items they carry—means that they aren't really interested in being “affordable”; by going with the “experience” angle, they can mark up their prices without facing much backlash because, hey, “we have a train”! While that's all well and good (and the place is cool—we spent at least three hours there and I don't even think made it to every aisle), that can wreak havoc on people looking to grab some goods on a budget.

At first, I didn't think they had their own store brand—and as it turns out, they don't. But my investigation did lead me to discover some products they carry made by a company called Essential Everyday, which make private label versions of name brand products, and then distribute them to a variety of retailers. So while it's not Jungle Jim's “own” stuff, they still seem to be cheaper than buying the national brands (which, in some cases, isn't entirely true).

Moving onto the product itself, this is a pretty decent impostor of the national brand for the price. The flakes are pretty lightly frosted, which you can tell by looking at them...there's a light coating on the outside, kind of similar to a glaze, which appears to wash off pretty quickly after milk is added. The sweet flavor takes a little while to dissipate, but I will say, by the end of the bowl (I add a lot of milk) I was basically eating corn flakes with sweet milk instead. That's not entirely a bad thing, but I'd definitely prefer getting the sweetness from the cereal itself.

While the cereal is still crunchy, though, these are pretty good, especially for those who enjoy their cereals lightly sweetened. Once you take a bite, the sweetness takes a little bit to kick in, offering up a tasty, almost powdered sugary style taste that gives way to a finish that consists mainly of corn flakes. I would expect this more later on, as the sugary coating wears off, but it is kind of disappointing that it basically happens from the first bite.

One thing I did like a lot is that these seemed to stay crunchy longer than some other brands; even when they did get mushy (inevitable considering the amount of cereal I eat in one sitting paired up with the amount of milk I add) they didn't get as disgusting as some other knockoffs I've tried. Some just kind of wither away into an almost gelatinous glob that can almost become difficult to force down, but these at least seemed to retain some of their original structure even after they broke down.

Now comes the one variable where past Everyday Essential products have failed incredibly in my past experiences: price. Well, by “products” I mean the two other ones I've tried, but in both cases, they were priced higher than even their national brand counterparts. Here, though, the good quality of the cereal is matched up with a price point of $1.99 (per 15 oz. box), which is about a dollar under what you can expect to pay for the national brand. It's nowhere near Earth-shattering savings, but it's substantial enough to be worth it...which isn't something I can say about some of the other things they offer.

Overall: 7/10. At least there's one product from Everyday Essentials that isn't an Everyday Ripoff: this cereal is pretty close in flavor and texture to the national brand, and for about a dollar less than the comparable national brand product (which also offers 1.5 fewer ounces!) The “frosted” in the title comes in the form of a glaze that reminded me of powdered sugar; it does wash off of the flakes rather quickly after adding milk, leading to bites of mostly plain flakes in overly sweet milk, but at least the tastes are still there. It's not the best example of frosted flakes that I've ever had, but it gets the job done and for a reasonable price.

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)

NOTE: We went more into the history of this brand on our radio show! Click here to give it a listen.

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.