Saturday, April 10, 2021

Savoritz Four Cheese Parmesan Crisps (Aldi)

Warning: may replace your heroin addiction.


Usually I give some semi-long, rambling build-up to the actual review. This is used to "create suspense", I suppose, but also to feel like I’m actually doing work and accomplishing something, as it would only take me 10 or so minutes to type up just the review part. And I feel like you guys deserve more than just a half-assed effort. 

But you know what? I'm going to jump into this one by foregoing all that additional BS and just exclaim right off the bat that these are incredible. You know when you’re cooking (or in my case, when my wife is cooking) something with lots of cheese, and some of that cheese falls over the edge onto the cookie sheet, and turns into a blacked, crispy mess? Do you know the incredible taste of those? Well that’s about what these are: an entire bag of circular, crunchy spheres made up entirely of crunchy clusters of cheese, only without the burnt taste (which I actually happen to like, but to each their own). 

And talk about "all natural": the ingredient list consists of nothing but cheese. And as you can tell from the title, there are actually four of them: aged parmesan, romano, asiago, and provolone. You can’t go wrong with any one of those, but what about all four? As it turns out, you can’t go wrong with that either. Usually white cheeses are known for providing "milder" taste as opposed to many non-white cheeses, but mixing four together obviously heightens their overall intensity. The end result is something that's closer to a "mild cheddar" in terms of flavor profile, but still a horse of its own color, if that's even a saying. Either way, I'd say it's a pretty universal taste that most cheese fans - regardless of their usual preference - are really going to take to. 

Most people put these in salads, or soups, or other things, but I tend to eat them directly out of the bag. This isn’t because I don’t think it would be good in those things - quite the contrary, I think they would be good in virtually everything - it’s just that once I get started eating them, I can’t seem to put the bag down. And on the rare occasions I do make a soup or salad while I have these on hand, I always seem to forget to add them.

Even though this has got to be one of my favorite Aldi products ever, I have to say there’s one rather big hindrance preventing this from earning a perfect score, and it’s rather surprising: price. A 2.11 oz. bag retails for a rather high $2.89. That’s only about a dime savings over buying the name brand version from Walmart!

It’s made to feel even more expensive considering the small bag size. Since these are typically used as “accessories” to salads and other foods, I thought maybe there was a lot more in there than it seemed. But there’s not: according to the serving information, one serving is approximately 19 crisps, and there are approximately 2 servings per back. That means you’re paying roughly $1.45 per serving! On the plus side, that means it’s probably made by the same company as the national brand, but on the other, the savings aren’t even all that worth it over buying the name brand.

Shame on you Aldi...I expect this from other stores, but not you! And why did they even go through all the trouble of making this into a private label product, when they could have just carried the regular brand, at roughly the same price? 

Overall: 9/10. This taste is so incredibly delicious, that this is one of the few things I get addicted to: Once I start eating them, I literally have to force myself to stop...and by the time I do, half the package is usually gone. The cheese flavor is rather strong, but completely authentic, as the four cheese blend mentioned on the packaging are the only ingredients in the entire ingredient list. The biggest drawback is one I wouldn't have expected: price. Each 2.11 oz. container, which contains roughly 38 "smaller than a quarter but larger than a dime" cheese spheres, costs $2.89. That's only about a dime difference over the same size bag at Walmart...for the national brand. Why did Aldi even make this private label in the first place, as opposed to just carrying the regular brand? They're phenomenal, but not very value oriented. 


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

SELLERS' SPOT: An App That Should Be More Well-Known Among Small- to Medium-Scale Sellers: An In-Depth Review of Classadlister (App)

NOTE: This review was originally posted on a separate blog I had a couple of years back, which has since folded. It is being reposted here, as part of a small series on third-party marketplaces, as many readers may sell items themselves, or be interested in starting. And what could be more budget-minded than earning some extra money?!

Also, this app was reviewed on our radio show! If you'd rather listen to me ramble on about it in audio form, rather than read my ramblings via text, click here.
Classadlister Logo
Unfairly ignored.


DISCLAIMER: Based on my love for this app, which I stumbled upon on my own, I did reach out to the developer, and briefly assisted with creating the Classadlister support forums (since defunct) about two years ago; I was neither paid nor reimbursed in any way for my time nor was I ever asked to write a review for it. In fact, the developer was never aware of this blog, or that I even posted it at all.

---

Since I only sell part-time, I initially figured that I didn’t need to invest in anything to help me post and manage my inventory. After all, I tended to only get a handful of items every month, or so, and never saw a point to streamlining any of that. For a little while, when I was only posting to one or two different sites, that theory held up fairly well.

Then I started to expand my reach to as many marketplaces as I could handle, and that’s when the reality of my situation started to set in: I needed help. Posting the same things over and over, manually to multiple sites, might not have felt all that time consuming as I was doing it, but it certainly wasn’t the most efficient way to go about things. So after looking into many multi-channel selling tools, most of them geared toward large businesses and carrying a hefty monthly fee, I finally found what I hoped would be a diamond in the rough: Classadlister.

There wasn't much out there on this app, aside from a couple video reviews and online tutorials—to be honest, I don’t even remember what search string lead me to it on Google—but my thinking was that if it even delivered half of what it promised, it would be a pretty useful tool to help save me some time.

As I alluded to before, Classadlister is a multi-channel listing tool, which means that it helps you to list your items to several online marketplaces. There are no shortage of such programs out there, but there are a couple things that set it apart from the competition: 1.) It’s entirely a mobile-based app (with support for Android only; sorry Apple users), and 2.) It is one of the few such programs that “integrates” with eCrater which, despite its rather negative connotation in the selling community, somehow continues to be my favorite third-party marketplace.

NAVIGATION/APPEARANCE

The main screen. Oof, that's an eyesore.

This isn’t the prettiest app to look at, by far. For starters, the color scheme is pretty atrocious and uninviting. Navigational choices are offered at the top of the app, in the form of icons that can be rather confusing to those that aren’t familiar with it. A three button navigational button in the top right offers some miscellaneous options, such as the ability to use an external scanner, watch a quick-start video, check for updates, or offers support via a message forum. It’s all a one-man show, and it shows.

But as the annoyingly clichéd adage states: “You should never judge a book by its cover,” and this is one of those instances where doing so can be a grave mistake: the functionality is through the roof, a welcome trade-off for a more polished, appealing design. I’ve had this app for over two years now, and it’s the only one I truly swear by, frequently managing my workload around the features of this app.

Navigation can be a little cumbersome at first—it could probably benefit from a main menu of some sort to help organize things—but overall it’s a pretty serviceable setup as-is, and becomes even easier (and more sensical) once you get into the swing of using it.

EASE OF USE



Here’s where the app will technically take some dings, but it’s not necessarily its fault: as with most fully-featured programs, this one is going to take some getting used to. And that’s probably the biggest problem stunting its growth: No one that sells full-time, and who probably already has a selling plan in place, is going to take time away from selling to learn a completely new product from the ground up. I’d say it took me about a solid week before I felt like I had gotten the hang of it enough to comfortably use it, and even though I’ve been using it for over six months now, there are no doubt features and tricks that I’m still using wrong, or not using at all. It’s really a feature-rich app, but with all of those features comes a learning curve that will no doubt be a turn-off to many.

However, there are at least some signs that the app may become more "user friendly": When I first started using it, the most helpful reference was a 50+-minute tutorial video that pretty much just showed you the basics; thankfully, the developer has since simplified the process by shortening it into a 15-minute “quick start” video that should have you up and running in…well…fifteen minutes. They also now have support forums, too, which give the same info as above, along with granting users the ability to ask specific questions. (The forums have since been taken down, with a single 32-page Google Doc document explaining how to set it up replacing it. The app has also been removed from Google Play, and is only available via APK. More on this later.)

Arguably, the most difficult aspect of the app is the one-time setup of eBay API, which just might be the single biggest requirement to getting the most out of the program. Once you get this set up, you will be able to pull information from existing eBay listings, to your own product page, saving you loads of time from having to manually input everything yourself. Setup took me around half an hour, and a few tries, to get everything in working order; those that are familiar with setting these up should be up and running in under ten minutes. Even if you have no technical experience, as long as you can carefully follow instructions, you should be able to do it yourself with little problem.

Once you set up eBay's API, you'll be able to auto-fill results from that site.

There is also an option to set up Amazon MWS, which I would imagine would be very similar to the eBay process; this would allow you to get Amazon search results based on the UPC. If you sell a lot of Amazon items, or sell directly on Amazon, this would be a great feature; however, note that you must be registered as a professional seller on Amazon to use it, which costs $40/month. Since I have no interest in selling there, especially for such an expensive charge, I just go without.

I definitely wouldn’t call it “easy” at first, but like anything else, the more and more you work with it, the more the listing steps become second nature, and the more rewarding it becomes.

FEATURES

Classadlister is certainly feature-rich, to the point that I still continue to learn new things from time-to-time. It’s obvious that it was created by someone who sells himself, because it touches on many different aspects of the selling process. There is no way I could possibly explain everything it can do in a single post, but these are some of the features that I would consider to be most important; obviously, this is subjective, and your opinions may vary.

Just a sampling of the supported sites, which covers almost all the major players.

The app supports posting to sixteen (as of this writing) different sites. This is the way it works, and it works differently than some: You create a product in the Classadlister app, complete with all pertinent information such as product photos, description, weight and dimensions, as well as Google Shopping traits (GTIN, MPN, and Brand). From there, you select where you want to post the item to, the app takes you to that site, autofills in all the fields based on your input, and voila! Listed item! Now, the site does not autolist items—you may have to manually go to the “add product” page of some sites, select categories, and press the “list” button when everything is done—but it does a great job of automating much of the process. (Besides, apps that autopost things are frequently frowned upon and weeded out by online marketplaces, as it can allow scammers to flood them with fake listings.)

For example, the in-camera barcode scanner pulls results from eBay, Amazon, eBid, and Semantics3 (if available), and can autofill the title, description, price, UPC, and MPN. Now, in my experience, the description just auto-defaults into repeating the title, but there are also in-app links to Google Shopping results, which makes it real easy to copy and paste manufacturer descriptions and grab stock photos, if that’s your thing. You can even add site-specific header and footer text, which appears at the top or bottom (respectively) of all posts added to that particular site—and you can have separate header and footer text for each site you sell on.

If you're forced to make a listing from scratch, it's a pretty quick, painless process.

Each item also has a “Listing Journal” at the bottom, which shows you where and when your items were listed (through the app; it can't detect postings made elsewhere), and for how much. This automatically gets updated every time you list something (or, at least, it should; I have noticed it misses some listings occasionally), but can also be manually updated. Obviously, this can help you see where it's been posted, but its usefulness goes beyond listing. Once you sell something, for example, you can list it as “Sold” in the journal, and add the tracking number under the “Value” field. Now you have a mobile record of the tracking number for that product, should any future issues arise. It's a really nice touch that shows you the care and attention that went into creating it.

On the issue of “security” is another area where Classadlister will either succeed or falter, depending on how strict you are in guarding your personal info: Working in its favor, you never have to log in to the app—all of your information is stored on a database file located directly on your device. That means your files aren’t floating around in a cloud somewhere, or stored where other people have access to them—they are on your device only. The flipside to this, is that all your login info is automatically stored in Classadlister (assuming you added it in the “settings” section during your initial setup; it’s what allows the app to autofill login info to save time), so if your device gets lost or stolen, people could, in theory, be able to use the app to auto log-in to your selling sites, or figure out your passwords by finding the “Settings” folder.

One thing I failed to mention: There are a shit-ton of reports and tasks that can be run to help keep you organized.

There are a myriad of other features and benefits that would take too long for me to explain, but needless to say this app covers a lot of ground for the small-to-mid-size seller. Just remember that it is first and foremost a multi-channel listing app, as it alludes to in the title, so don’t go in expecting it to be your all-in-one business solution. And if you only sell in one marketplace, especially if it's one of the hugely popular ones (i.e. eBay and/or Amazon) it won’t save you as much time as an integrated business solution would.

FEES/PRICING

It seems that the fee structure for using the app has changed a few times since its initial release in 2014, and thus is subject to change at any point in the future, but as of this writing, it will only set you back a mere $2.99/month for the full app the fees are on a donation basis. That's right, you basically decide what (if anything) you want to pay. There used to be a footer that ran along the bottom for unpaid members (something along the lines of “This product was posted using Classadlister. Download it yourself!”), but now you get the entire program, completely for free. Obviously, if you get some good use out of it, I'd strongly suggest making a donation, as it's a one-man show, and that would help encourage further support and updates.

This has nothing to do with pricing, but you can even add custom fields for notes to yourself.

Even at the original $3/month price, it was a steal. Multi-channel selling tools are oddly rather hard-to-find, and if you do manage to find one, they are often geared toward large-scale sellers with a hefty monthly fee. It's a shame (and also rather confounding) that it hasn't caught on at all at some point through the years, because it's a wonderful program that covers more bases than it appears to at first glance.

SUPPORT

The support forum.

(UPDATE: The forums have since been taken down, and an email question I sent the developer about the app's current status went unanswered after 24 hours. Thus, I am unable to say whether or not there are plans for him to maintain it. At any rate, as of this writing, the app works as it should across all major platforms...well, at least the three I use.)

This is the department where the app really shines, because the support is second-to-none. Seriously, this guy goes above and beyond the call of duty…sometimes to an annoying degree. Got a marketplace request? He will do whatever he can to add it to the app. Have a feature idea? Suggest it to him, and if he likes it, he will work hard to implement it in a future update. As he has told me in the past, he hates to lose a customer, and will do whatever it takes to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Responses to technical questions are answered quickly, and though I believe the verbiage touting the benefits of becoming a paid subscriber makes it sound like paying members get priority responses, I always received an answer to questions within the hour, even before I started paying the subscription cost. Seriously, if there’s such a thing as “too much support”, this developer would be guilty of that.

As for app updates, they were offered on an almost daily basis when I started using it back in June, 2018, but their frequency seem to come and go in phases. After all, he is a guy with a family and full-time job, so this is something he works on only as time permits. That makes it very understandable, then, that there weren’t many changes during the fourth quarter, a time when the holidays like to consume everyone’s time; there have already been a couple updates since February, as well as the implementation of a brand new retail arbitrage feature geared toward eBay and Amazon sellers (it requires an Amazon seller account, so I won't be test driving it at any point in the near future.)
While it's unfortunate the app isn't more popular than it is, at least this means the developer has more time to answer user questions!

There is also a support forum that has recently been implemented to handle requests/questions. I haven’t used it to see how quickly responses are handled, but I’d imagine it would be pretty quick. And if that doesn’t work, you always have email as a fallback option.

OVERALL

PROS (+)

+Great mobile multi-channel listing solution (one of the only ones that I know of).
+Free version is full version (though it does include ads and a footer at the end of all free listings)
+Great value at just $2.99/month. (Has since gone to a donation-based model)
+Listing support for a growing number of online marketplaces
+Phenomenal email support from developer.
+No sign-ins to remember or accounts to create.

NEUTRAL (+/-)
*Can be used on PC using an Android emulator (such as Bluestacks)
*No Bonanza or OfferUp support (which isn't the developer's fault; it's the way those systems are set up)

CONS (-)

-Android only
-Learning curve that won’t appeal to more established sellers
-Ugly interface
-Some information must still be manually selected/filled in on listing site (such as categories)
-None of the supported sites are “official” partners, so system changes can create unforeseen compatibility issues with this app.
-The no-password login can be a potential security issue.

A search function helps you find products fast.

I could ramble on and on about this app for even longer than I already have--there are a myriad of other features and benefits that would take too long for me to explain and expand upon--but needless to say this app covers a lot of ground for the small-to-mid-size seller, and is a great listing tool for beginners who are looking for an efficient way to list product and maintain inventory.

There are many cons, the main one being the amount of time it takes to properly learn it, but once it's learned, it's a very rewarding tool that definitely deserves more attention than it has gotten. And with excellent, receptive developer support, you just may see one of your suggestions featured in a future update. What major app can you say that about?

RATING: 7.5/10. (No change. Still a great app, but with now-questionable developer support, it makes it a hard recommendation.)

Sunday, April 4, 2021

SimplyNature Apple Banana Squeezable Fruit Blend (Aldi)

 

These are tasty little pouches.

I've generally been impressed with anything in a pouch from Aldi. From their other SimplyNature squeezable fruit blends, to their Little Journey Organics line of baby/toddler foods, if it's a semi-liquid in a pouch, and geared toward little ones, chances are you can't go wrong with it.

Originally, they sold these little 3.2 oz. guys individually at the checkout line for $.69 a pop, as they started to replace the junkier impulse buys (chocolate bars, candy, etc.) with healthier options. I didn't think it was that bad of a price...until they stopped doing that and only started selling them in four packs. That's when I realized not even discount grocers like Aldi are above the sneaky practice of marking up goods in the checkout area, as the four packs retail for a ridiculously low $1.65. That's some pretty solid value!

But now comes the true test: how do they taste?

Oh yeah, this is a fantastic little pouch. One of the problems that I had with the Little Journey Organics line is that I could never make out the banana in most of the flavors with “banana” in the title; that's a shame, because it's probably my favorite fruit (though watermelon gives it a nice run for its money). Since it's only one of two featured fruits here, though, the taste is easily recognizable, and also pairs up nicely with the headlining apple. It's a fantastic pairing that's seemingly underutilized. It is pretty sweet, so those that don't have a particularly strong sweet-tooth should probably steer clear, but considering it's geared more toward children, it's probably to be expected.

I know I shouldn't be comparing the two, because they are two different lines, but there are a couple things I miss about the Little Journey Organics pouches: the simple ingredients (all of them consist entirely of purees of whatever fruits/vegetables are in the title, lemon juice concentrate, and added vitamin C), and as I have just mentioned, the added vitamins. With these, all you're pretty much getting are 13g of sugar, some fiber, and that's about it (there is 4% vitamin C and 2% iron, but those are largely negligible). Now, obviously this is still a way healthier alternative than, say, a chocolate bar, and the flavor is really good, but I'd probably lean toward the LJO products if I ever got a craving for children's fruit blends in pouch form.

Even though this one has banana you can actually taste!

Overall: 7.5/10. A great-tasting little snack that's a pretty solid deal, with four 3.2 oz. pouches retailing for just $1.65. The texture is like applesauce, making it ideal for kids of almost any age, while the apple and banana tastes are both pronounced, and go very well together. In other words, it has a flavor that most kids, and probably even adults, are going to enjoy. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Eat! Homestyle Kickin' Chicken Alfredo (Dollar Tree)

Run far, far away.

Dollar Tree is honestly the worst place in the world to realize that you're hungry. There are some good options, but not that many...and even a majority of the “best”, or most filling options are, well, not all that great. It was with this mindset that I decided to try Kickin' Chicken Alfredo, an addition to their “Eat! Homestyle” line that I had not seen before.

To be perfectly frank, I didn't really have high hopes for this, even from the outset. Alfredo is a delicious, decadent sauce that just doesn't seem to be replicated well in any frozen product, much less one that has to be sold for a dollar (which means it has to be manufactured for even less than that). The main reason, is that a vast majority of them use half and half as a cheaper substitute for the “heavy whipping cream” typically found in real alfredo sauces...and Eat's version is no different. The half and half basically waters it down, which makes it much less thick, which then tends to “fall off” of noodles, rather than sticking to the noodles the way an alfredo sauce should. Plus, it's much less rich to begin with, usually leading to a bland-tasting sauce. And when you've got a dish with “Alfredo” in the name, it should not be bland.

Another strike? The chicken. Frozen meat products are always pretty creepy, and that creepiness certainly doesn't subside the lower you go into the bowels of the frozen food universe. Why do manufacturers always feel the need to put creepy meat products in anything, especially when a vast majority of them would be even better without them? I guess it's so people feel more full after eating them, or think they're getting more food for the price...whatever the reasoning, it doesn't seem to be much of a valid one.

Oh man...right out of the microwave and my stomach is starting to churn. One issue: egg noodles. Yeah, the picture on the front clearly shows you that you're not dealing with fettucine here, but once I saw just how yellow the noodles were, I knew this stood no chance. I like noodles, but for some reason, egg noodles just seem to be one of the worst in the pasta family. Now that I think about it, the main cause of my distaste is because that's what my mom used in her Beef Stroganoff recipe that she would occasionally subject me to growing up; even as a kid, I would eat anything...but that ruined Beef Stroganoff for me, for life. I still won't go near the stuff, and now I'm finding it also ruined egg noodles for me, as well.

But even for those who don't share my un-affinity for egg noodles, the smell is just...out of the microwave, this thing smells like a science experiment gone awry. It doesn't smell like a typical noodle dish, nor does it smell inviting. It smells like...depression...maybe with a hint of failure. There is nothing at all enticing about the scent, nor are there any notes that suggest there's anything edible in it at all. I don't even detect notes of Alfredo, or anything else...it's just bad. Whoa boy.

Yep...one second into my first bite, and that's when I realize this is even worse than I expected. How did this make it through a test kitchen? Was there even a test kitchen? I'm going to have to lean towards “no”...this recipe tastes like it was improvised by some hot-shot chef who was so confident in the recipe that he didn't even bother to try it himself. It doesn't taste like Alfredo at all; it's just...gross. And, on top of having that terrible egg noodle flavor, they're also incredibly slimy, which also tends to be incredibly off-putting.

Sadly, the chicken is the star of the show here. It's spongy, as expected, but actually packs in some chicken-like flavor, which isn't always the case with frozen chicken. One thing that is alarming, though: it's juicy. Very, very juicy. Like you just chomped down on a sponge full of water. I guess they were trying to make it seem “fresher”, but it honestly has the exact opposite effect (you just picture someone in a factory with a syringe labeled “chicken flavoring” injecting each piece as they travel down a conveyor belt). Still, as weird as the whole liquid thing is, it still does manage to be the best part of the dish.

Oh, along with the “spice”...there is a good amount of heat here. I'd say just the right amount, actually: it's not an overly-spicy dish at all, but considering nothing about the pasta or sauce tastes like it should, I'd say having something that wasn't falsely advertised in the title is a small win of sorts.

Overall: 1.5/10. Oh man...where do I even begin? It smells like a failed science experiment, and even tastes kinda like one, with nothing that insinuates “Alfredo” coming through in either the slimy egg noodles, or brownish gravy-like sauce. In fact, the main redeeming quality is the chicken, which is spongy and overly juicy (every bit as creepy as it sounds), yet at least tastes like what chicken should taste like. I don't want to know how, or why, but I'm kind of thankful that it does. The “kickin'” part in the title is also well-earned, with a nice hint of spice that...well, “kicks” your tastebuds from the cacophony of other disgusting flavors. Reviews are typically suggestive, but short of dogs, I honestly can't understand how something like this could be happily eaten by anyone.


Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Custom Made Meals Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Peppers (Aldi)

A little too rich.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. We don't usually buy the meat special buys (because the store is usually full of so many more things we are interested in) but the instant I saw this in the ad, it became an immediate “must buy”.  I'm a fan of anything cream cheese, and their (frozen) jalapeno poppers are absolutely fantastic (even though they are a completely different line), so I put two and two together and figured there was no way these could disappoint.  

I was wrong.

That's what I'd be saying if they did disappoint, but as it turns out, I was pretty much right: These are pretty fantastic, at least in the flavor department, and at least for a little while.  Think a fresher, more upscale version of jalapeno poppers, and you would pretty much have the flavor down: The bacon blends well with the cream cheese and pepper, all of the flavors combining to form a stomach-bloating combination that's almost overwhelmingly rich.  Eight came in the package, and we each had three before we had to toss in the towel.  I'm not sure these are that great as the side dish that we used them for, but they would be absolutely perfect as finger foods at a party.

The bacon does stay a little limp, which I guess it has to in order to hold everything together, but I was missing that crunch.  My wife did overcook them to try to char them up a bit, but they were still pretty limp and flaccid.  The jalapenos themselves taste pretty fresh, with some nice crunch and even some juices left inside. They provide a nice kick in the heat department, and a noticeable blast of fire right after the first couple of bites, but by the second or third one, my tastebuds had calibrated to it, and the heat didn't bother me.  The cream cheese has the dual role of providing creamy comfort for the heat, while simultaneously offering up its own decadent flavor, and it certainly doesn't disappoint here. But it's also the main reason for its richness: there's so much cream cheese per pepper, that it doesn't take much to sit like a brick in the stomach.  I'm one of those people that never thought there could be such a thing as too much cream cheese, but it's an appropriate critique here. If they would just dial it back a bit, I think these would be a near-perfect snack.

These are pretty pricey, coming in at $6.49 per lb., and aren't actually from an Aldi brand.  Our package was $6.57 for eight poppers...much more than you'd pay for the frozen kind, but also expected, considering these are "fresher". Each popper is also a good size (they take at least two bites to finish off), and pack in a rather surprising amount of flavor.  These were definitely a splurge for us, both in terms of financial and health hits, but it was a digression that I don't regret taking at all.

Overall: 6.5/10. Think a fresher, more upscale version of frozen jalapeno poppers, and you would be on the right track.  All of the flavors combine to form a complex, almost disgustingly rich combination that overwhelms the taste buds...then sits like a brick in the stomach.  There's too much cream cheese (something I never thought I'd ever say), and the bacon stays pretty limp, no matter how hard you try to char them, but they are certainly delicious in short bursts. These would be better suited as finger foods at a party, rather than the side dish we used them for.  They're a little pricey ($6.49 per lb., with most packages hovering around the 1 lb. mark), and aren't actually from an Aldi brand, but you definitely get your money's worth in the flavor department.  Would definitely get them again, though not anytime soon...gotta let my tastebuds (and stomach) recover first.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Happy Farms Preferred/Emporium Selection Garlic and Herb Spreadable Cheese (Aldi)

Despite not being cream cheese, this still tastes rather good on bagels...


I saw the word “cheese” on the packaging, saw the container, was hungry, and somehow erroneously assumed this was a cream cheese spread. It wasn't until I brought it home that I realized it's just cheese, rather than “cream cheese”, and so it probably wouldn't work very well with the bagels that I purchased to pair this up with; crackers clearly would have been an even better option, a little tidbit my wife unnecessarily confirmed. Oops! (If only I'd have seen the other varieties available, I probably wouldn't have made that same mistake, as the others are all clearly cheeses.)

It seems to be a little thinner than cream cheese, but I’m not complaining too hard about that, because that makes it even easier to spread.  Just going by mere looks, it resembles onion and chive cream cheese, with little flecks of green spread throughout (which, in this case, obviously represents the “herb”). It's an inviting appearance, and even though I'd be putting it on a vessel that it probably wasn't made for, at least eased my mind knowing that it would still probably taste pretty good.

Its similarities to cream cheese are not just visual: It tastes pretty similar to that kind, too.  It’s been a little while since I’ve had the chive cream cheese, so I can’t say with utter certainty how exact it is, but it’s definitely within the same flavor profile.  The herb flavor might be a little more muted here--I tried a small bite right out of the container and didn’t get the flavor explosion I was hoping for--but after spreading just a thin layer on a bagel, the taste really shone through; as you probably would expect, it has a nice savory taste that actually paired surprisingly well with the bagel, but it’s soft enough that it could really work with anything, from crackers, to crisped breads, or anything else you like to dip. 

A 7 oz. container retails for $1.99, which is a little more than their standard cream cheese varieties, but still a reasonable cost, given that it's not cream cheese. I'd get it again, though I would be sure to pair them up with a cracker, or something else that it's probably better suited for. I'd also be interested in trying some of the other flavor combinations (horseradish and cheddar, peppercorn parmesan, and sharp cheddar) which, if I would have noticed, would have given me a much larger clue that these were not suited for bagels.

Oh well, you live and learn.

Overall: 7/10.  This is a pretty tasty cheese spread that tastes very similar to the popular “chive” kinds.  It reminds me a lot of cream cheese (which I somehow confused this for), but it's a little thinner, hence its description as a “spread”; that makes it much easier to put on crackers, breads, or anything else that you may want to lather this savory stuff over.  The flavor is a little weaker than cream cheese, but not by much; I still got a good kick in the taste buds just from spreading a thin layer of this on a bagel.  And at $1.99 for a 7 oz. tub, you really can’t knock the price. I would get this again, but would probably try a different variety, and would be sure to pair them up with crackers instead.

NOTE: These used to be sold under the "Happy Farms Preferred" brand, but are now being offered under "Emporium Selection". It's the same product, and even the same packaging, otherwise.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Simple Truth Organic Fruit n' Punchy Flavored Water Beverage (Kroger)

There has never been a better case for regular drinking water.


MARKETER #1: I have a great idea for a kids’ drink that I think will take the world by storm.
MARKETER #2: Really? What is it?
MARKETER #1: A flavored water beverage! Most kids don’t like drinking water so this way we can trick them into thinking they’re drinking juice, or something.
MARKETER #2: Brilliant! What’s it going to taste like?
MARKETER #1: That’s easy...what’s one taste that every child likes?
MARKETER #2: Uh...fruit punch?
MARKETER #1: No, think a specific product.
MARKETER #2: Uh...hot dogs?
MARKETER #1: No, think of...who would drink hot dog flavored anything?
MARKETER #2: Well every kid loves a good dog.
MARKETER #1: I’m talking something that would be the perfect base.
MARKETER #2: I don’t know…I give up.
MARKETER #1: (beat) Cough syrup.
MARKETER #2: (coughs) Excuse me? What?
MARKETER #1: Cough syrup.
MARKETER #2: What child likes the taste of cough syrup?!
MARKETER #1: What do you mean? I always have.
MARKETER #2: That’s because you inherited your mother’s Robitussin addiction. No other kid likes cough syrup...I used to want to stay sick just so I didn’t have to force it down.
MARKETER #1: We’ll see, Jackson....we’ll see.

The above reenactment has to have more (simple) truth to it than even I realize, because there’s really no other way to explain how something like this not only gets released into the market, but also how it gets marketed toward kids. KIDS, of all people...you know, those picky little things who always want something sweet or, at the very least, something that tastes good.

Hell, I hate water, and I’d gladly force down a gallon of it just to never have to see one of these pouches again. This is basically the kids version of La Croix, that maligned blend of club soda, with a hint of fruit so small, you’re basically better off just drinking club soda. The only difference is, they do seem to at least try making the shitty cough syrup flavor a little sweeter - you know, for the kids this is marketed toward - so there’s at least some mystical sweetness that was added to the “organic flavors” (that’s seriously a legal ingredient?) on the ingredients list.

We still tried to be good parents and, actually without trying it ourselves first, gave one to our child who made a disgusted face before saying, “I don’t really like that.” Neither do we, bud. Neither do we.

Overall: 0/10. I’ve certainly had worse-tasting products over the years, so perhaps a “zero” seems a bit harsh. Except that this product fails on just about every conceivable level. So, we have a water-based product that tastes like shit and is barely even sweet, so let’s market it to kids. Then, let’s slap an “organic” label on it so we can charge even more for giving kids the pleasure of trying to force it down (because, you know, adding organic lemon juice concentrate to filtered water instead of regular lemon juice makes such a fucking noticeable difference.) About the only reason I’d even think about keeping some on hand is as a form of punishment: “If you don’t calm down right now, you’re getting the berry water.” Hmm...maybe they were on to something after all.


Monday, March 22, 2021

Kirkwood Parmesan Garlic Encrusted Chicken Tenders (Aldi)

An under-the-radar gem.


It had been a while since I tried these things, but even though we didn’t have a whole lot of money, I decided to spend the extra couple of bucks to get these over their (pretty solid) chicken nuggets.  Hey, a guy can only eat the same things for so long before he gets tired of them, you know?  The last time I got these it was easily over a year ago (quite possibly two), but I’ve always remembered the taste…and if you know me at all, you know my memory is absolutely godawful.  But did they live up to my high expectations?

One thing I want to mention before we get too far into the review, is that these are NOT COOKED.  In other words, they are raw.  In yet more words, unlike their chicken nuggets, these are not made to be tossed in the microwave for a “quick meal”; you have to cook them in the oven, lest you want to risk getting seriously sick. So if you're looking for something quick that you can just nuke and eat, you should probably get something else.

The upside to the increased cook time is that you're forced to make them the way they were meant to be made: The breading cooks up nice and crispy, the parmesan and garlic are pretty evident in each bite, and the chicken actually looks like chicken.  I like ripping my strips into smaller, dippable pieces, and these tear perfectly, without any resistance.  The pieces are also pretty generously sized, so you don't need a whole lot to get filled up.

Of course, as can be expected, they are pretty darn salty, so expect to get some sodium burn if you eat too many.  The taste also gets kind of old after a little while, at least to me - even though I was very hungry, I only made three, and that was a perfect amount.  Any more, and I wouldn’t have been unable to finish them, on account of the repetitive flavor (this can be fixed by having a side with it, to give your tastebuds a little break).  But if you’re looking for a change from the usual chicken nuggets – or want to try a different chicken option beyond their semi-famous chicken patties (which are said to be a close knockoff to Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, if prepared the right way) – this should offer you another solid example of Aldi doing chicken right.

Overall: 8/10.  Surprisingly, the parmesan and garlic flavors come through, in a delicious chicken tender that’s restaurant quality (not gourmet restaurant, but easily equal to, or better than, any fast food joint‘s similar offerings).  The breading is tasty, and the chicken also looks and tastes as it should (sad that‘s a plus in frozen foods these days).  The biggest “downside”, if it can be called that, is that these are raw, so they require cooking in the oven; don’t grab a bag thinking you’ll just toss these in the microwave, because they take between 25-30 minutes to fully cook.  The plus side is that the breading is crispy, and the chicken inside is warm and juicy, two qualities you just aren't going to get out of microwaved tenders. These are a nice change of pace from the typical chicken nugget, and while the $5.49 asking price may give you pause for thought, you can easily get three or four servings out of a single bag (even more if these are for kids or people with smaller appetites). Just make sure you serve them with a side, as the garlic is pretty strong, and does get a little repetitive after a while. 


Friday, March 19, 2021

Unbranded (Worthy Promotionals) Oh So Soft Toilet Paper (Dollar Tree)

"Oh So Soft?" More like "Ass-Rippingly Rough".


According to my research (and the packaging), this product is manufactured by Worthy Promotionals, based out of Alabama. I don’t know why a promotional company would be interested in entering the toilet paper business, but I have a reason it might have been in response to the nationwide TP shortage that we experienced months ago...if so, that might explain why four roll packages of their products are being sold at Dollar Tree, for less than their wholesale cost.

Anyway, I picked this package up because the rolls are actually larger than the individual rolls in DT’s “Soft and Strong” toilet paper, which means it should last a while longer. Plus, who doesn’t want a nice cushion for their privates when wiping? As a man, I certainly don’t require it, but it’s a nice luxury to have.

I don’t know what they were comparing their product to in order to designate it “Oh So Soft”, but it couldn’t have been anything less than sandpaper, because this is probably the roughest TP I’ve ever used in my life. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t really have a need for my toilet paper to be super soft (like my wife does), but this is equal to, or maybe even worse than, the stuff they use in gas station restrooms. It's that uncomfortable.

On the positive side of things, it does feel pretty sturdy, which means the only thing tearing will be your asshole when you use it...I guess that constitutes a plus? I mean, if it’s going to suck, the least it can do is not cause other messes. Another “feature” (a weird term for a toilet paper roll) that I actually do like is that the toilet paper sticks to itself until you unwind it from the roll. It’s kind of weird and annoying, but that means if you drop it while you’re using it, the roll won’t leave a trail of toilet paper all over the bathroom as it rolls away from you...not a situation that happens often, but I think we’ve all had it happen to us at one point or another.

There is another hint that these were kind of thrown together on a whim by a company that normally doesn’t deal in toiletries: the plies are very loosely glued together. I didn’t have any completely separate while in use, but there’s clearly a flappable gap between the two plies that hints at a rush job to take advantage of an undersupplied market. I will say that the toilet paper itself is uniformly wrapped pretty tightly around the cardboard roll...some brands look like they’re just haphazardly rolled on there (Aldi Daily Basics, I'm looking at you), but these at least look like they were competently wound.

Unfortunately, the positives are just moot points that merely prevent the score from dropping lower...they aren’t nearly enough to salvage this from the “do not buy” pile. But if you are going to get it, might as well grab it from Dollar Tree instead of CVS, where they are currently retailing for $3.99 ($1 per roll!) I can at least rest a bit easier knowing that I only paid a dollar for it ($.25 per roll!). Also make sure you grab some ointments or soothing creams you can put on afterwards.

Overall: 2.5/10. The “Oh So Soft” moniker is incredibly wrong, because this stuff is some of the roughest I’ve ever used. I’m not a delicate man who requires his toilet paper to be super soft, but I’d at least like to be able to use it without having to check to make sure I’m not bleeding afterwards. The plies are also very cheaply glued together, with noticeable separation apparent as you take pieces apart. At least the rolls are tightly wound and appear to be pretty tough, as I haven’t had any pieces rip or tear during use. And they are much larger than the rolls in other dollar store brands. Don’t buy these at CVS for $3.99 when you can get them at Dollar Tree for $1! But don’t get them there, either. Just don’t get it at all, really.


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Specially Selected Stone Baked Mushroom, Mascarpone and Authentic Italian Cheese Pizza (Aldi)

Mushrooms aside, this "imported" pizza has a unique flavor all its own.

I'm not even going to try to remember what lead me to even consider this pizza. Actually, I guess I will: my wife loves mascarpone, but hates mushrooms. I don't really care for either of those things all that much, but I guess I just figured my wife might be interested in taking off the mushrooms and eating the rest. She wasn't, but if she was, the mushrooms are large, and don't take up a whole lot of surface space—they'd be real easy to pick off, especially before baking.

The texture is actually a big plus. Well, not so much the mushrooms (which we'll get into more in the next paragraph), but the rest of the pizza features an enticing interplay between the soft, crispy crust; the hardened Italian cheese on top; and the rich, creamy “sauce” that must just be mascarpone. I'd compare the texture to a breakfast pizza, as the sauce is—at the risk of making it sound disgusting—more the texture of a gravy than a typical pizza sauce. Kind of like a crème fraiche, though not quite as rich.

As for the taste itself, it's...interesting. Yep, that's the perfect word for it. Actually, the mushrooms are absolutely gross, and don't belong anywhere near the pizza. While I wouldn't at all consider myself a fan of the earthy fungus, I'd say that I actually have a stronger tolerance for them than my wife, who generally avoids them like the plague. As for me, I tend to avoid them, but if something appeals to me that has mushrooms in them, and it's done well, I don't have a problem eating them. (I'll bore you with a quick story: The best mushroom anything I had was at a restaurant, now sadly closed, in Athens, OH a few years back for our anniversary dinner. It was a creamy mushroom soup that was so irresistably good, I even downed the huge chunks of mushroom that had settled to the bottom of the cup. My wife, on the other hand, still wasn't all that impressed with the dish (but loved the rest of the meal overall).) Here, they don't provide much else other than a slimy texture and the added taste of feet. Seriously, I can't even see mushroom fans appreciating this mixture...it's like they had a leftover vat of the unpopular vegetable, and just chucked it on a random cheese pizza. The flavors clash and don't really flow together at all.

The “rest of the pizza”, however (as apparently the pizza must be judged on two separate sets of criteria), offers up a pretty unique flavor that I would probably get again. Not really anytime soon, mind you, but again. The flavors are all pretty “neutral”, and don't veer off into any flavorable realms of distinction, yet between the texture and the tastes that are there, it creates an intriguing experience that you won't get with any “standard” pepperoni pizza. There are always pizzas that say they're imported, or that look like they're trying to be different, but end up tasting like something created for American palates; the “imported” verbiage is usually merely used as a way to jack up the price, and give the item a sense of heightened, exclusive quality. This one, however, I believe actually was “imported from Italy”, because it has the taste of a completely different culture.

I may not have enjoyed it 100%, but I definitely respect it.

Overall: 6/10. This is a weird pizza that I wouldn't quite say I “enjoyed”, but that is probably one of the Aldi's more memorable pizza offerings. The mushrooms are completely miscast for the role here, providing nothing but their trademark slimy texture, and the taste of feet; the tastes don't “flow” together in any way. No thanks. However, the rest of the pizza makes up for that by offering a unique flavor that doesn't go off into any extreme territory, but it just tastes...different. Even without the mushrooms, which seem to be tossed on as an afterthought. It claims it's “imported from Italy”, a claim I almost always ignore these days, but this one actually tastes like a different culture; it might be a bogus claim like many others seem to be, but it's certainly unlike anything else on the frozen pizza shelf. Just make sure you pick off the mushrooms first.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Earth Grown Vegan Mozarella Style Sticks (Aldi)

 

Tastewise, they're good, but a snotlike texture knocks them back down to Earth.

Oh man, I don't know why I do these things...vegan mozzarella cheese sticks? Oh wait, excuse me...mozzarella “style” sticks, because there is, of course, no actual cheese in them. Why would I grab a package of these when regular cheese sticks exist? Those succulent, breaded beauties stuffed with delicious cheese...it's enough to make my mouth water. And yet, here I find myself staring at a bag of cheese sticks, only with no actual cheese in them, that I myself purchased with the intent to try. The “why's” just keep slapping me in the face at every turn.

For $3.49, you get a bag containing roughly ten small mozzarella “style” sticks, which seem to be about half the size of mozzarella “actual” sticks. However, these do appear to be a little bit thicker, so that might even things out a little bit. At any rate, it's a price that's higher than most “normal” cheese sticks, but at about the right markup for what you would expect to pay for a vegan version of any product.

I have to say, right out of the bag these actually look pretty good. The breading has the same parsley, or basil flecks that are featured in some of the better mozzarella “actual” sticks that I've had, and that actually got me a little more excited to give these a try. Also cool: these take just 10 minutes in the oven (at 400 degrees fahrenheit), with no flipping required. That's pretty quick! 

Okay, maybe these won't suck after all.

After the ten minutes were up, I pulled them out of the oven, and noticed one had even “exploded”, leaking a white gooey substance that I wanted to believe was actual cheese, from its open cavity. The effect is actually pretty convincing, and I found my mouth was starting to water despite a voice in the very back of my head reassuring me that I was in for nothing other than severe disappointment. “But, it looks so real,” I stammered, trying to not only convince myself, but also the voice lodged in the nether regions of my brain. “So do holograms,” it retorted, in a response that was apt, but not nearly as intelligent as it thought it was. Still, my brain's nether regions had a point...no matter how good these looked, there was no way they could touch the real thing.

And they don't. The star of the show, though, is the breading, which is appropriately crunchy, and tastes like the breading in just about every standard mozzarella “actual” stick out there. I have to admit, at the risk of sounding like a completely ignorant moron, that I have no idea if the typical cheese stick breading is already vegan...if so, that would explain why these taste so on-point. If not, then it's quite an impressive feat.

The same, however, cannot be said for the cheese, which, as expected, is the weakest point. However, the flavor isn't really its biggest offense: that's actually close enough to the “real thing” to earn some points from me, with a taste kind of akin to a white cheddar cheese byproduct—kind of like Kraft white cheddar cheese singles. I know, that's not really a taste you would equate with a $3.49 cheese stick—and it's not something that's going to fool a non-vegan person—but in the world of veganism, just the fact it slightly tastes like real cheese at all is quite a decent feat.

Instead, the most disappointing thing about the cheese is actually the texture: it's kind of slimy, like white snot. I mean, I don't expect the texture of a vegan product to be exact to the “real” thing, but this is almost off-puttingly...well, “off”. Did it have to be slimy? I really would have liked to have been in on tastings in the Earth Grown test kitchen to see what other potential textures there were. Sandpaper? Yes, take that one! Dry? Sure! I would imagine there would have been at least one or two other possibilities that were better than “slug”...and somehow, they decided to go with “slug”. 

Overall: 5.5/10. As someone who really has no interest in vegan products, nor any need to really get them, you can take my opinions with a grain of salt (and probably should). However, I found these to be a pretty decent knockoff of “actual” cheese sticks, with excellent breading that's very close to the real thing, and a cheese flavor that's passably realistic, although not one that will fool anyone. However, the whole facade is partially done in by the texture of the cheese, which is unappetizingly snot-like. I mean, I don't expect it to be as stringy as real cheese, nor did I require it to be the exact same texture, but of all the possibilities, I did not expect it to be slimy. It's not a big enough deal to ruin the entire experience, but it does take what was a surprisingly decent vegan alternative down a notch or two, and makes me second guess the idea of recommending it at all. Unless, of course, you have to eat these for some (likely medical) reason, in which case, they are probably your only option inside Aldi stores.

NOTE: Just to get a second opinion, I asked my wife to try one without giving any verbal or visual clues whatsoever as to what I thought about them (she wasn't even home at the time I cooked them). She took one bite, seemed to enjoy it for a second, then put the remaining cheese "style" stick back on the tray, slightly distorting her face in disgust. The word she used to describe it? "Slimy". She even said if the texture were different, she could have eaten them because the flavor is pretty good overall. So there you have it...opinion validated!

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Meijer Chocolate Fudge Toasted Tarts (Meijer)

Either Kroger's got me on a really good day, or these got me on a bad one. Or both. Or neither.
 

We took a look at Kroger’s version a couple of months ago, and that was actually when I first realized, at the ripe old age of 36, that I do not dislike chocolate flavored toaster pastries. That’s right: I never really had them as a kid, instead mostly sticking to the fruit flavors, and always just assumed that they would be gross. They weren’t, and now here we are again with another private label version, this time in the form of Meijer’s.

This one gets some good marks for texture: the brown-colored pastry—which seems to pack a slight amount of cocoa flavor, thus giving it some slight redeeming value over the bland “regular” flavored one—is very soft, almost giving the appearance of a freshly-baked product. We obviously know it’s not, but it’s appealing nonetheless. The hardened icing stretches mostly from one side of the pastry to the other, although I feel like there’s always a section of pastry that goes untouched…and it’s usually in one of the corners, where there’s also no filling, sometimes leading to dry bites of nothingness if you don’t properly plan the eating of your pastry (to be fair, though, that’s also an issue I’ve noticed in the name brand, so it’s not just limited to this one). Meanwhile, it’s topped off by the random bits of white shit on top that must be what, powdered sugar? Sugar crystals? I don’t get the point of them, but they’re in every fudge version, so whatever.

Flavorwise, it’s…decent, I suppose. I seem to remember at least more of an actual “cocoa” flavor in Kroger’s brand—here, the flavor is a straight ahead fake-as-hell chocolate that’s really not all that enjoyable. Actually, the more I taste it, the filling is kind of reminiscent of brownie batter, but with all of the best qualities removed; instead of the richness of actual batter, you get what’s essentially a brownie batter paste, which is about as appealing as it sounds. It's just a real cheapy, artificial cocoa that's high on sugar, but low on virtually everything else.

The icing on top delivers the usual bit of added sweetness, and an additional helping of artificial chocolate flavor, while those dumbass white things just sit there like idiots and really do nothing, except give the pastry a hint of white privilege. I was reminded of the chocolate inside the s’mores toaster tarts, which made me nauseous the last time I tried them; true to form, downing both pastries became tougher and tougher the farther I went along (my hunger won out, though; I was able to finish them).

Were the Kroger pastries really that much better, or did I just approach these on a bad day (or, alternatively, the Kroger ones on a good one)? I may never know, but these have kind of soured me on the whole idea of chocolate toaster tarts once again, ruining my short-lived acceptance of them, and reminded me why I veered away from them my whole childhood.

Overall: 4/10. These just did not sit well with me: the chocolate is incredibly fakey, reminding me of the same “chocolate” flavor inside the s’mores toaster tarts, and the cloying sweetness (and my general disinterest) seemed to grow with each passing bite. That’s somewhat of a shame, because the texture is pretty much on par with the national brand, but the taste lets it all down. Is Kroger’s version of this (which I actually liked) that much better, or did I just get these on a bad day (or theirs on a good one)? We may never know the answer, but as it stands, I’m not really too keen on eating these ever again.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Elevation Maxx Blueberry Protein Bar (Aldi)

Not sure how clean of an ingredient "natural flavors" are...

Well, another trip to Aldi, and yet another different kind of protein bar that I get to try! I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again: It’s really weird that they have so many different kinds of protein bars, yet only one kind and size of ketchup. Why not just have a small handful of different options available as part of their permanent inventory, and then switch things up by having a different “Special Buy” protein product every week or every other week? I don’t know, just seems like a waste of space, but they must be selling pretty well (and they do have their own dedicated endcap), so what do I know?

This time, we have a blueberry bar, as part of Elevation’s Maxx line. What is the Maxx line, you may ask, and how does it differ from the other options available on the “Elevation” endcap? Fuck if I know. Once again, I’ll re-mention something I’ve already harped on in a previous post, and probably almost verbatim: staying on the “too many options” theme, a lot of these bars all seem to serve the same basic function: delivering extra protein. Why do we need six different lines, in different product sizes, in different counts, and all at different prices? Again, I’m sure the grocer who’s been in business for several decades probably know a bit more specifics about their decision than me, but I can still be irked if I want to be.

Anyway, I picked this one up on a whim, and that “whim” was encouraged, at least partially, by the brand new packaging that Elevation seems to be undertaking. Whereas the older boxes had a product photo and accompanying text that tried to make things feel more upscale (and that tried to make them look like competitor products), this one features a simple blue box, with a product picture on it (in the wrapping), and white text. It’s a very simple design, and while I can’t say for sure if it has the “upscale” appeal that they’re going for, it’s certainly more modern and feels more “hip” and “updated” than the previous packaging.

Well, enough with the formalities…let’s finally dig right in here, shall we?

I’m starting to feel like an old man, because I thought for sure I’d had these before (or something like them), but just taking them out of the wrapper, and I’m positive I haven’t. The bars are pretty thin, and look somewhat gross, with dried blueberries and nuts popping up visibly on the surface. The rest is just a non-descript mess of a brownish substance…this can’t possibly end well, but against my own will, I force myself to take a bite anyway.

These bars are pretty good size.

Holy hell, these are actually good! The “non-descript” remainder of the bar is very soft and chewy…the taste reminds me of the “fruit strips” that Aldi used to sell (and maybe still does), where fruit is basically smashed down into a thin, chewy strip. Given the appearance, I expected the blueberry flavor to be very straightforward, unsweetened, and maybe even virtually non-existent, but it’s surprisingly sweet, and pretty strong.

“Almost too strong…” I thought to myself…this does not seem like an “all-natural” bar. And despite the bar’s claims that there are only “8 clean ingredients”, all it takes is a quick glance of the packaging to realize exactly what I had suspected: natural flavors are one of the “clean” ingredients. While I wouldn’t really consider them “dangerous” (they are in virtually everything, after all), I’m also not sure that I would really consider them “clean”. Even though their inclusion here clearly benefits my own tastebuds, I still feel like it’s a little misleading on their part.

Outside of the flavor boost, the rest of the ingredients are pretty legit: dates, egg whites, almonds, cashew butter, dehydrated blueberries, pecans, and peanut butter all around out the list. Not bad at all, I would say.

The last variable is the price: and once again, it’s pretty expensive, although it’s one of the least pricy options available in the Elevation line. Each four-count box is $3.49, which puts them a little under $1 per 1.83 oz. bar. Again, keep in mind that you're only getting 4 bars for the price...with so many options in Elevation's growing line of bars (and shakes, and powders, etc.), that's one thing that can be easy to overlook. 

Overall: 7.5/10. First off, despite being marketed as a "healthy", all natural bar, note the inclusion of "natural flavors", which is something I wouldn't really consider to be "natural"...but hey, maybe that's just me. Beyond that, this bar is fantastic, with a strong blueberry flavor (probably thanks to the "natural" flavoring), a good amount of protein, and a pretty brief ingredient list. One other drawback: there are only four bars per $3.49 pack. Again, this is a reasonable price (and reasonable value) when compared to Elevation's other offerings, but just keep in mind that you're only getting four bars for the price (instead of the five or six found in other Elevation products). Outside of these small issues, these far exceeded my expectations in terms of taste, and manages to be one of the Elevation products I would gladly buy again.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Pidoko Kids Power Burst Speed Break Apart Cars (Amazon)

Absolute garbage.


As I established in an earlier post, our four-year-old son has a fascination with car crashes, and watching cars break apart. We fed that interest with “computer car crash” videos (movies and clips made with the computer program Beamng.drive) and crash test videos (yes, the ones used to rate cars on their safety), but of course he eventually wanted cars that would do it in “real life”. Rather than head to the junkyard to buy a bunch of “beater” cars that we could destroy, I decided to do it the safer way, and find toys that we could break apart.

There really aren’t too many options for what we were looking for, but of course those lovely Chinese folk had a couple options. I purchased the version from Chuchik, simply because they were cheaper—after about a month of remaining obsessed with these cars (to the extent that he would actually throw fits when staying at his grandmother’s house, wanting to come home just so he could play with them), my own mother decided to buy some to keep at her house. Lo and behold, she ended up buying these cars from Podoko, which are really the only other option for authentic, “break apart” cars (at least as far as Amazon is concerned).

One thing you got to give Podoko: these look really cool. There are some really cool designs—like skulls—that really help to give each of the six included cars their own “personality”. Even better: all of the pieces can be used on any car, allowing you to “mix and match” the pieces to create your own “Frankencar”. It’s really a cool idea, and having so many cars (each with their own design) really gives you dozens upon dozens of combinations and possibilities for each vehicle. Kids who are creative and crafty, who aren’t even into the crashing aspects, could probably keep themselves entertained just seeing what sorts of cool cars they can make using all of the available parts.

At least, in theory, because looks are about the only thing these cars have going for them. Putting them together is a complete chore. And even when you do manage to get the cars “together”—which pretty much just means getting them in “well enough” so that they don’t just pop apart while you’re putting them together—the cars still look all disjointed, with small, but noticeable, gaps in between each part.

At least they look cool.

And yes, we turned the switch to “off” so that the front bumper (which is what triggers the “crash” mechanism) wouldn’t be activated while we were assembling them. (You can also keep this setting locked to play with them as normal wind-up cars, for kids who aren’t really interested in the crashing aspect.) And yes, we read the instructions, following them step-by-step until it was completely clear that not even the manufacturer is aware of a fool-proof way to assemble these. In fact, the few times I did manage to get one assembled (only to have my impatient son destroy it less than five seconds later, thus destroying whatever small sense of semi-accomplishment I managed to muster), it was entirely by improvisation; I basically forced the pieces in, to the extent that I was initially afraid I was going to break it (by that point, I already didn’t give a shit if I did).

There is simply no reliable (and efficient) way to put these together. And when you have a child clamoring for his toy, you know time is of the essence. My parents tried for a long time before me, and just thought it was a matter of inexperience—even my wife (who’s better at making things than I am) couldn’t figure out a good method for putting them together. Even more frustrating is that, before you do get everything to stay in place, chances are good that the whole thing will fall apart once or twice before that happens, filling you full of blood-burning rage. 

In the end, this is one time where I’m grateful that my cheapness actually ended up getting me a better product, because at nearly $30, these are a complete rip-off. Which is precisely why they ended up in the trash the same day my parents gave them to me (and at their insistence…they didn’t want to see these things ever again, either).

Overall: 1/10. They look pretty cool, and despite my initial impressions, actually seem to be sturdier than I initially thought. However, all plusses are limited to physical appearance, because in terms of actual execution, these cars are complete and utter junk. Just complete shit. Even for an adult, putting them together becomes an almost psychological torture test, with the included instructions not helping one single bit. The few times I did manage to get one together, I improvised my own way, basically forcing parts in until they finally stayed. Even then, there were still noticeable gaps between each piece, making them look unprofessional and lopsided, and making the effort just seem even less worth it than it already was. (Ditto that for every time our son destroyed one within ten seconds of me finally getting one together after five minutes, and then just impatiently sat waiting for me to get it back together again.) They’re also somewhat a gyp, with a six-pack of cars costing around $30. $6 a car wouldn’t be all that bad if they worked, but considering they don’t? It feels like little more than a scam. The idea is cool, but the execution is abysmal, and the experience of trying to assemble them is absolutely rage-inducing…these would make a great test for anger management and/or psychological studies.


Monday, March 1, 2021

Chuchik Toys Blaster Cars Break-Apart Crash Cars (Amazon)

NOTE: This product was reviewed on our radio show! If you'd rather, listen here.
If you're looking for toy cars that break apart upon impact, this should be your only option.


Through the first two or so years, our son was pretty much the poster child of the perfect baby/toddler: he didn't really fuss much (unless he was hungry or tired, of course); he picked up on things (especially words) rather quickly; and he was incredibly calm with toys. When we would visit his cousin (who is three months younger than him), we would be shocked at how ridiculously over-the-top that kid was, as he was loud, obnoxious, and rough on...well, everything. Our child, in comparison, never really crashed cars, and would even cry sometimes if he felt he was accidentally too aggressive with one of his toys, acting as if he “hurt” it. (In actuality, his cousin was actually just a typical kid; we were just blessed to have a much less temperamental one.) Everyone said to prepare for the terrible twos, but we breezed through those with no problems...our lives seemed like the equivalent of the characters inside a Hallmark Christmas movie.

Then came the threes—and that's when we learned the absolute truth in the saying “too good to be true”: All of that sweet-natured temperament went out the window, and we were subjected to the same boundless energy, neverending questions, incoherent blabbering, temper tantrums, and messes that every other parent experiences. And that is also around the time that he became fascinated with car crashes.

No, of course we didn't subject our child to images and videos of actual car crashes—we're not that morbid or heartless—but one day during rest time, he requested a video of two cars crashing into each other. I had no idea how I would find a video that would innocently appeal to that request, but I nevertheless searched YouTube for car crashes—and discovered crash tests. You know, the carefully constructed ones that auto manufacturer's use to determine the safety of their vehicles. He was enthralled, and watched hours upon hours (over the course of several months, mind you) of such videos. 

When he got bored with that, we moved onto “computer car crashes”, which were sometimes elaborate, sometimes silly crashes created with a computer program (Beam.ng Drive) in which cars made up of computer graphics would realistically crumple, smash, and break after running into walls, or falling off cliffs, or smashing into other cars. Yes, my friends, he officially crossed the threshold into a “normal” boy child.

One day while we were running some toy cars into each other over and over again, he asked me if there were some magnet cars that would break apart once you crashed them. That was a pretty intriguing idea, and something I had actually been meaning to look into. A search of Amazon yielded only two results for "cars that break apart" (or whatever I searched for), and Chuchik Toys Blaster Cars where one of them. I was actually going to splurge for the second option (which I will cover in a separate review), but a lack of funds (it was a couple of days after Christmas, which was responsible for depleting our account) forced me into settling for Chuchik Toys' Blaster Cars, which come bundled in packs of three, for the low price of $9.97 (a price that was a third cheaper than the other option, which does at least come with six cars). 

Chuchik's toy cars are bundled in packs of three, consisting of a red, blue, and green car. There are some basic white designs etched into the parts...visually, they aren't really much to look at (although the transparent effect is kind of cool, and gives them almost a neon glow). The plastic of each part is thin and feels pretty cheap. I honestly wasn't expecting these to last a week. Also included in the package, beyond the five pieces per car (two doors, hood, back, and roof), are some extra accessories, like a spoiler and engine, that can be attached to the finished car. These pieces are also pretty sturdy, but are mainly included just to make the crashes more spectacular, giving you more parts that can fly every which way after a crash. The effect is pretty neat (although some parts, like the spoiler, seem to fall out at the slightest touch, while others, like the motor, rarely seemed to fall off after a crash at all), but also just lead to greater odds of losing pieces. Thankfully, he didn't really care about these all that much, so we rarely used them.

As for how they work, magnets don't factor in at all: there's a plastic base that the wheels are attached to, and all of the pieces snap into that. When the car's bumper runs into something, it basically “releases” the base, causing it to shift backward, which then ejects all of the pieces. It's a much more elaborate setup than the one I had in mind, and it works really well. Piecing them together (with the included instructions) takes a little getting used to at first (they have to be put together in a certain order), but with a little bit of patience, becomes much easier with practice...before I knew it, I was putting them together in seconds. I panicked when I realized we were gypped a bracket, only receiving two in the package, because I thought they were required while assembling the car, so that it didn't break apart while you were snapping the pieces into place. Thankfully, they can be put together just as easily without them. 

If your child isn't too keen on watching them break apart, each car also has a little bracket that snaps into the bottom of the car. This locks out their breaking function, so that they work more like “regular” wind-up cars; thus, they don't break upon impact. We never used these at all in play, but I tested it out a couple of times and it seemed to work as advertised, as it ran into a wall without breaking apart. If you just want a wind-up car, I'm sure there are better, cheaper options out there, but it's nice for houses with multiple kids who might have different preferences on how best to play with their toys. Or for temperamental children who like to break things one moment, and then pretend like they are gentle little creatures the next. 

The cool thing about these kinds of cars is that, since they all follow the same basic design, each of the parts can be mixed and matched, which allows kids (or in our case, me, because he refused to learn how to put them all the way together) to put the cars together any way they want. So you can use a red hood with a blue roof and green doors, etc...there are a lot of possible options on how to design your car, and it can lead to some pretty neat combinations.

Honestly, I've put these things together at least a hundred times (probably each), within about a month of purchase, and they all still work just as they did out of the box. None of the plastic pieces have chipped or cracked, either, which still shocks me. I would consider them “durable” overall, but keep in mind that I still have my reservations about that: a drop to hard pavement, or repeated impacts to areas that don't trigger the "crash" mechanism would probably damage these a lot quicker. In fact, our son actually did end up smacking it against our hardwood floor at an odd angle recently, which caused the whole base to come apart, along with the colored bumper (which isn't supposed to come off at all). In this scenario, I was impressed with how easy it was to fix it (the two bottom parts of the base snap together, the bumper slid right back on - making me wonder why they can't be swapped out anyway - and the spring just slides right in) and get it back up and running like normal. However, if it had been on pavement, or from higher up, I could easily see them breaking to the point of no return.

At any rate, if you're looking for a toy car that breaks apart upon impact, these should be the ones you get.

Overall: 8/10. I have to say I'm impressed with these cars overall, especially considering their low price point ($9.97 for three cars, or $3.32 per car). The base and plastic pieces initially felt pretty cheap to me, but each one has withstood over 100 crashes (estimate), with no permanent issues. The fact that the crashing mechanism can be blocked, allowing use as “normal” wind-up cars, is also a plus, and really adds some flexibility to the toy, depending on the child's mood. Arguably the worst part for me—which is certainly unavoidable for a toy meant to launch parts everywhere - is the amount of time you have to spend looking for parts after some crashes, especially if your son is prone to not paying attention where the pieces go after crashing them. But that's just a part of toys in general, and is certainly not exclusive to these. I would highly recommend these...a recommendation that comes even stronger when I tried the competition...