Sunday, May 21, 2017

Red Thunder Extra Strength Energy Shots: Berry, and Grape (Aldi)

RED THUNDER EXTRA STRENGTH BERRY ENERGY SHOT

The best deal in energy.

Well what is there to say about Red Thunder’s Extra Strength Berry Energy Shot that I haven’t already said in my previous review of their regular (as in, not extra strength) berry-flavored energy shot? I gave that one perfect marks, and so it stands to reason that I must give this one perfect marks, too. Why? Because it’s pretty much the exact same thing as the regular version, only with extra caffeine. 230 mg, to be exact, making this a huge kick in the pants if you need a quick boost.

In fact, having had the national brand recently (after stealing one from a co-worker…shhhhhhh), I can honestly say that I much prefer Red Thunder’s version. The NB (as it will be referred to from now on) has, in my opinion, a much more syrupy, over-the-top flavor. Not that Red Thunder’s is accurate to an actual berry in any way, shape, or form, but the sweetness is slightly muted and it tastes even better. If you have tried Red Thunder's regular berry shot, then you've pretty much had this one, as the flavors are very identical, if not exactly the same.

I suppose it’s possible that part, maybe even a good part, of the reason it tastes so much better is because these are the same price as the regular versions: $.69. Yes, you read that right. Sixty. Nine. Cents. Now, normally I would take this moment to make some kind of vulgar, sophomoric joke about the sexual connotation of those numbers, but I’ll leave that up to you freaks. What I will say is something that I've said before, but I have to keep changing because Aldi keeps stepping up their game: This is the best deal in energy, period. I said it about the regular energy shots, and now I'm saying it about these. If you need an energy boost, look no further. It really is the best combination of price, taste, and performance that I have ever come across. (If you know of any that are better, please let me know in the comments because I would seriously love to check it out!)

Overall: 10/10. Wow, Aldi keeps stepping up their energy shot game! I called their regular shots “the best deal in energy”, and now that they offer extra strength shots for the exact same ridiculously low price ($.69), I have to now apply that saying to this, too! This berry shot tastes similar to the national brand shot, though a little less cloyingly sweet. It doesn't taste anything like an actual berry, but the flavor is inoffensive, and goes down easy, while the resulting kick is noticeable and lasts for a while. Now if only Aldi would pay as much attention to the actual energy drinks they offer instead of just the shots, then maybe we could get rid of Gridlock, and replace it with something that doesn't suck (or at least a tastier formulation).

RED THUNDER EXTRA STRENGTH GRAPE ENERGY SHOT

Also the best deal in energy.

It had been a while since I set foot in an Aldi store prior to my visit last month, and as I was getting ready to check out, my gaze naturally wandered to the “impulse buys” section. It had the usual suspects: gum, “travel” packs of peanuts, batteries, etc., as well as their standard energy shots, which they've had for years, and which I have reviewed in the past. But among the familiar shots were a new kind with darker packaging that I had not noticed before. Not only was it grape, a new flavor that I hadn't tried, but it was also an “extra strength” variety, for the same paltry 69 cent price tag of the regular. “Alright, Aldi, you win,” I sighed to myself as I put it with my other products on the belt.

As I've stated in many reviews before, I tend to enjoy the energy drink cans a lot more, because you feel like (and you are) getting a lot more liquid for your buck. But sometimes you just want a concentrated, quick blast of energy that gets started right away, so with that in mind I've started getting these a little bit more often. You never know when you'll get hit with a sudden overwhelming attack of tired at work, or upon coming home, only to realize you have a night full of activities ahead of you to slog through. These are the times when a shot is preferred much more over a full-size can, because of the almost-immediate relief. Besides, I was just as interested to try the grape flavor as I was the added caffeine content.

The taste, for me, provides a nice kick of nostalgia. Does anyone remember Dimetapp? It was a liquid medicine that was the only delicious one in a sea of gag-inducing “tussins” and syrups. I don't remember what it was used to “cure” (a quick Internet search reveals cough and cold), and I don't even remember if it actually worked, but I never minded my ailments as long as there was a bottle of that stuff in our house. This has a very similar flavor, which is similarly marketed as “grape” and has vague similarities to the purple fruit (like a light purple color), but otherwise isn't very accurate at all. What it is, though, is sweet and smooth and it goes down easily, whether you gulp it down all at once, or take it in halves (or even “quarters”, as I find myself doing to stretch out the energy rush; being sensitive to caffeine has its advantages after all).

Much like the original version, this stuff works. I can't say for sure whether I think it works “longer”, or “stronger”, to justify the “extra strength” connotation, but it does get to work pretty quickly, giving me a nice kick in the pants that noticeably seems to last me about two hours. Best of all, even when the obvious effects are gone, the sugar-free formula doesn't leave me feeling even groggier and more tired than I initially did after the energy wears off (like what used to happen to me with the heavily-sugared cans).
Actually, I think the “best of all” should be reserved for its price tag, which I must once again remind you is a mere 69 cents, honestly making it the best deal in energy that I have ever come across, anywhere. Even if you lack the same memories that I have, and despise the taste, you really can't beat the ensuing rush you'll get for the price you get it for. Like any good product, it does what it says it will do at a ridiculously affordable price, so between my urging--and Aldi's money-back guarantee should you disagree--there's really no reason not to give it a “shot” (see what I did there?).

Overall 10/10. I enjoy the fake grape flavor, because it reminds me of a grape cough medicine I used to take as a kid. It's sweet, without being overly syrupy, and goes down smooth. But even if you don't have the same affinity for the flavor that I do, it gets to work pretty quickly, and is a mere 69 CENTS, making them not only one of the best deals in energy, as I stated in my review, but also quite possibly one of the best deals within the walls of Aldi, period. Since it's sugar free, there's also no noticeable crash once the effects wear off. Each 2 oz. bottle contains a respectable 230 mg of caffeine (putting them on par with many name-brand sugar-free energy beverages), as well as a ridiculous 8,333% of vitamin B12 (and 2,000% of vitamin B6) meaning it delivers in all the right places. I want to find some kind of fault with it so I don't have to give it a perfect score but...did I mention it's only 69 FREAKIN' CENTS?!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Little Journey Organics Apple Carrot, and Prune Apple Butternut Squash Baby Food Puree (Aldi)

LITTLE JOURNEY ORGANICS APPLE CARROT BABY FOOD PUREE

Apple and carrot, and it's GOOD? Who knew?

We've taken a look at quite a few offerings from Little Journey Organics, the Aldi baby product line if you are just joining us, and we've seen what is mostly an excellent set of products, with a couple of curious failures so bad, they have to be intentional. Now we're going to be looking at a combination that, although very uncommon, actually sounds kind of palatable: Apple Carrot.

Whoa! The first thing I noticed has nothing to do with the flavor, but the packaging, which assures us it “Contains Vitamins A & C.” Now all of the ones we've taken a gander at thus far have had solid vitamin C content, ranging from 35% all the way up to close to 170%. Since there was no specific number mentioned, I expected it to be a small number, and in the case of vitamin C, it is: a mere 8%. But what I wasn't expecting was the vitamin A content, which comes in at a whopping 440%! Pretty astonishing number, and one that many adults could benefit from, too, myself included.

Anyway, the taste is pretty fantastic in this one. I'd say the flavor is about an even 50/50 split, but somehow the carrot actually compliments the apple flavor, without really diminishing from it or tasting out of place. The apple gives it a blast of sweet, and since carrots themselves have a certain sweetness to them, it just goes along with the flow. I could see how some might have to get a little used to the taste—after all, it is a straight-up veggie/fruit combination—but I loved it from the first sip to the last. I'm not sure if this one is my new favorite, but it's pretty close if not.

Like the others, it has the consistency of applesauce, so it's easy for young children to swallow (the package recommends six months and up, though we've started giving our five month old small amounts, and he handles it without problems), and also makes for a decent adult snack on the go, especially considering each package is a mere $.79, and many contain lots of vitamins with a minor amount of sugar (this four oz. package contains 7 grams).

The ingredients remain minimalist here, consisting only of organic apple and carrot purees, along with organic lemon juice concentrate, and vitamin C (in the form of ascorbic acid), the only ingredient not certified organic. Considering the price, this is an excellent value and something that we constantly have on hand, both for our baby, and for ourselves.

Overall: 8/10. An excellent flavor. It's probably a 50/50 split, or thereabouts, between the two titular ingredients, but the tastes actually go pretty well hand-in-hand, contrary to what you might believe. Some may take a couple sips to get used to, but I loved it right out of the gates. It has the consistency of applesauce, so it's easy to get down for a quick snack on the go (or, for its intended use as a food for babies), and this one has a whopping 440% of daily recommended vitamin A. For just $.79, with all ingredients (save for the added vitamin C) certified organic, this is a ridiculous value—one of the best I've seen for baby food.

LITTLE JOURNEY ORGANICS APPLE BUTTERNUT SQUASH BABY FOOD PUREE

Prune and butternut squash, and it tastes like vomit? Well, obviously.

Just when I was starting to get comfortable with the Little Journey Organics baby food line, that's when I seemed to come across all the weird flavors. In this case, we have prune, apple, and butternut squash all being forced together, a combination that features two things I don't even like.

Still, I'm of the mindset that anything is worth a sampling at least once. Sometimes, there are surprises, such as my choosing the Apple Sweet Potato variety as one of my favorite flavors, despite hating the taste of sweet potatoes. Other times, I get exactly what I'm expecting: Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen, is this pouch.

Of course, with prune and butternut squash being the main ingredients, it's not going to be sweet, I think that much you can expect right out of the gate. But I didn't expect it to taste as bad as it does—it literally seems like those crazy rascals at Little Journey Organics just decided to throw the only three leftover ingredients they had into a vat and, against their better judgment (and common sense), still decided to put the end result on store shelves.

The apple provides a little bit of sweetness, but it feels completely out of place, like it can't decide if it wants to be sweet or savory, and just settles for tasting like vomit. I know babies are supposed to start off with foods that aren't super-sweet, so that they can get their taste buds acclimated to a variety of different kinds of foods, but if that's the case, I'd much rather go for a jar of carrot baby food, or something much simpler. Why mix these three disparate flavors into one? I'm completely baffled.

At $.79 the value is good, as it is across the line, and this one at least has 70% vitamin C, which is less than most LJO products, but all that is canceled out with an offensive flavor that I can't see anyone being able to force down, child or grownup alike.

Overall: 1.5/10. A putrid combination of three separate fruits and vegetables that should never be mixed together, this is by far the worst of the Little Journey Organics flavors I have tried. The prune and butternut squash provide a non-sweet flavor, while the apple comes through to deliver a baffling serving of sweetness that just feels completely out of place. It also leaves a rather grotesque aftertaste, like a constant reminder of the mistake you just made for having tried something that basically tells you on the label it's going to be terrible. There are much better flavors to treat your kid to, even on the savory side, without having to settle for this mad scientist-created lab abomination.



Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Whole & Simple Sweet & Sour, and Taco Fiesta Bowls (Aldi)

WHOLE & SIMPLE SWEET & SOUR BOWL

WARNING: Does not look a thing like that picture.

I'm pretty much a sucker for frozen “bowls”, especially from Aldi. They're just real easy to make (toss in the microwave and voila!), usually look very tasty, and are generally affordable, since they are single serving meals. Oh, and because they're single serving meals, they're great to have around the house for when one of us is alone and just want a quick bite to eat. I didn't recall seeing these in their circular (which I usually pore over with a fine-tooth comb), but when I saw them in person I didn't even hesitate before throwing both styles into my cart.

These are taking advantage of the latest trend of “health foods” that's sweeping the nation. Actually, all of Aldi is going in this direction: even the items at the register—typically the “impulse buy” junk food section of the supermarket—have been replaced in favor of single serve kids' squeezies, trail mixes, and nutrition bars. Pretty clever marketing, if you ask me, and just one of the many ways they continue to drive additional traffic through their stores.

As I've been doing lately, with generally bad results, I merely went off the look of this box rather than actually reading it, so what I thought were little bits of chicken happened to be little pieces of tofu. I wasn't the least bit upset, though, because I've actually always wanted to try tofu (even though I more or less understand them to be flavorless pieces of healthy nothingness, but hey, healthy is good). The rest of the ingredient list, for the most part, is actually pretty straightforward, with only a couple preservatives and unpronounceables—it's pretty much a “what you see is what you get” kind of a thing, with noodles, carrots, cabbage, bell peppers, green onion, and broccoli all tossed with brown noodles and completed with some sriracha sauce, and something called gochujang sauce, which I have never heard of before.

Oh well, after a short time in the microwave, it was time to dig in! My wife was completely turned off by the aroma, which she described as smelling like “fake food”. It does smell a little different than I was expecting—the “sweet and sour” smells a little off compared to most frozen dishes, with a little hint of something bitter maybe—but it also smells “fresher” in a way. Going by appearance, though, it looks like a herbivore just threw up into a bowl. In other words, it looks as if the taste could go either way...

I will say the finished product looks nothing like the picture on the front of the box (surprise!). The image used makes the noodles look like lo mein, but the end result looks nothing like a lo mein: the noodles are much sadder, and shorter, and thinner in person. The texture, which is made to look smooth in the photo, is actually rougher, as the sauce is more a “paste” than an actual sauce. These definitely aren't dealbreakers, but it did make me wonder what exactly I had gotten into.

I don't eat “healthy” stuff very often, and if “healthy” had a specific taste, well it would be somewhere along the lines of this. The sweet and sour flavor takes some getting used to, because it's not nearly as “sweet” as it generally is in frozen dishes, but it's edible. The rest of the flavoring is pretty much comprised of vegetables, with a little blast of heat, presumably from the sriracha sauce. The tofu gives it a much-needed hint of soft texture, considering the rest of the dish pretty much consists solely of hard, crunchy veggies. All in all, the taste is very straightforward, and very low-key, compared to most heavily-processed frozen meals, and something that I'm going to need to get a little used to.

Healthwise, I'm honestly not sure how this compares to similar things, and I'm left wondering if the health trade-off is really worth the overall blandness of the dish. There's still a pretty ridiculous amount of sodium (400mg, though I guess that's less than most frozen foods), and a pretty (un)healthy dose of sugars (21g) per bowl. Fat is kept to a minimum (2g), and there's 244mg of potassium, and 5g of protein, both plusses. On the vitamin side, there's 36% vitamin A, 70% vitamin C, and 6% each of iron and calcium. That's it. I was honestly expecting a bit more, but I do suppose these are better numbers than you'll find in, say, a Lean Cuisine.

At a price of $2.49, it's a little more expensive than what I'd usually get for a single-serve bowl, but considering the ingredients are largely natural, with minimal preservatives, I suppose this is a good price point for that. This kind of stuff isn't something I would get all the time, and it isn't all that filling (I ate it as dinner and still needed something else afterward to feel full), but if you're dieting or watching what you eat, this can provide a little snack with a minimal health hit, at least when compared to many other offerings down the frozen food aisle.

Overall: 5.5/10. I don't have much experience in “healthy” foods like this, but I'm wondering if the relatively bland taste trade-off is worth the moderate health benefits. Sodium and sugars still seem high to me (though, to be sure, lower than many frozen entrees), and the vitamin front only brings us 36% vitamin A, and 70% vitamin C, which can pretty much be found everywhere (there are also small amounts of calcium and iron). On the plus side, though, there are no “natural flavors”, and very little in the way of preservatives (some are only found in the sriracha sauce). The $2.49 price tag seems to be pretty decent for something marketed as a “wholesome” food, though it left me wanting a lot more when it was all said and done. I might get this again, but I think for the most part I'll stick to more flavorful foods that will just kill me quicker.

WHOLE & SIMPLE TACO FIESTA BOWL

This is much tastier than the one above, but is it really all that wholesome?

We just looked at Whole & Simple’s sole other offering, a pasty sweet and sour bowl with not a lot of flavor, so now we turn our attention to their taco fiesta bowl, which is made up of one of my least favorite ingredients: rice. Now, I love it with Chinese food, but outside of that sole exception, I’m struggling to think of a delicious rice-heavy dish and am coming up with nothing.

Based on the packaging, though, this one does have some other things that do work in its favor: There are a couple of cheeses at work here, which one would hope could provide some flavor sorely missing from the last bowl, as well as a topping of “tomatillo and salsa roja sauces.” I’ve no idea what salsa roja is, but I enjoy salsa, so if it’s along those same lines, we should get along just fine. And again, I would assume that would provide some extra tastiness. Let’s dig in and see if it does, shall we?

Oh yeah, this is a pretty tasty dish. The rice does play a pretty big part in the flavor—and it also plays an even bigger role in the texture—but that’s okay because there’s a lot surrounding it. The combination of Monterey jack and cheddar cheeses are fantastic, and there’s a generous helping of both to ensure many stringy, cheesy bites. The tomato-heavy sauces are fantastic, but don’t taste too tomato-heavy, so even those with an objection to tomatoes still might enjoy them; it just tastes like a good salsa. There are also lots of beans, but they don’t dry out the dish the way they sometimes tend to, and just like the rice, there’s enough flavor to counterattack the general bean blandness.

It’s good, but comparing the two bowls, it seems like an apples to oranges comparison: These don’t seem like two foods that are a part of the same line. This one has more protein, but with the trade-off of a lot more sodium (600mg), and way more fat (10g). The sweet and sour bowl, for all its imperfections (and there were plenty), at least tasted healthy and fresh, while this one just tastes like a standard bean and rice frozen entrée, even down to the noticeable sodium content, which likes to dance on your tongue. Again, there is some good flavor here, and it was surprisingly a lot more filling than I was expecting (way more so than the sweet and sour bowl), but it just doesn’t feel very light or wholesome at all, which I thought was the whole idea behind this line.

For $2.49 per one-bowl serving, it’s a decent price, though I do feel like every “lean” frozen food line offers something similar for somewhere in that price range, at least on sale, so it doesn’t really scream “savings” to me. The ingredients largely are “natural”, but there are quite a few anti-caking agents and some preservatives; moreso, it would seem, than the sweet and sour bowl above. I'm recommending this, if for no other reason than it's tasty and pretty filling, but as for whether or not it's “whole” or even “simple”, I'll leave that up for you to decide.

Overall: 6.5/10. I usually don't like rice-based dishes, but this had a lot of flavor thanks to the “black bean salsa”, two types of cheese, and two types of salsas on top. But with those added ingredients come some added health hits, as this has quite a bit more fat and sodium than the sweet and sour bowl above. I also feel like every “healthy” frozen food line has a similar “bean and rice”-based offering, and for a similar price, too, so I'm not sure that $2.49 per package really constitutes all that much in the way of value. I must say it was pretty filling, though, so at least there's that. I'm recommending it, because I would get it again, but not sure if it's really as “healthy” or “fresh” as its packaging would lead you to believe.




Friday, May 5, 2017

Lunch Buddies Fruit Snacks, and Tropical Banana Applesauce (Aldi)

LUNCH BUDDIES FRUIT SNACKS



Fruit snacks are one of those things that I completely forgot about once I entered high school.  You know what I’m talking about…foods that you really enjoy, but just never think about?  That’s where fruit snacks are with me.  My wife bought a few packs of them a while back, and I swore I was going to eat one, but by the time I remembered, she had eaten them all.

All that changed when she put a THIRTY-TWO pack of Lunch Buddies Fruit Snacks in our shopping cart one day.  Thirty-two packs?  Where were we shopping, Sam’s Club?  Costco?  Nope.  Aldi!  And the entire box is only $3.49, which isn’t at all a bad deal if you ask me.  Again, these aren’t things that we eat all the time, but the entire box lasted us about six months of on-again-off-again snacking.

Each box contains six flavors:  Strawberry, fruit punch, grape, orange, green apple, and cherry.  One thing I definitely like about these is that there’s no confusion as to what each flavor is…all of the fruit snacks look like the fruit they’re copying, so you know what you’re getting.  I also like the texture a lot…some fruit snacks are too chewy, or too hard, but I thought these struck a perfect balance between softness and chewiness.

Of all the flavors contained within, I would have to say the strawberry is my favorite, and this coming from a guy who’s generally not a fan of strawberry foods in general.  I love the actual fruit, but like a lot of processed treats based off fruits, strawberry snacks tend to have a cartoonishly over-exaggerated flavor.  These were no exception, but I ended up liking them anyway.  The strawberries also seem to have a stronger flavor than most of the others, too, especially the green apple, which is good, but fairly weak.

Really, the only downside I can find is that there are so many flavors, most packages have a very unbalanced flavor count.  While six different fruits might not sound like a lot of variety, when there are only about twelve fruit snacks in each package, chances are good that you’re not going to get to try all of them.  For example, the last one I opened had about five strawberries, three green apple, two oranges, and one grape.  So I didn’t get to try a cherry or a fruit punch in that package.  Of course, I had 31 other packages to explore, so it wasn’t a problem for me, but if you’re just getting one then you might not get a good mix of flavors.

Overall: 8.5/10.  These are just about the perfect fruit snacks, and to get 32 packs of them for just $3.49...well that’s incredible!  They are soft and perfectly chewy, and while I liked the strawberry the best, there were none that I didn’t like.  I will say that some taste relatively weak compared to others (the green apple, at least in my opinion, didn’t have as strong a flavor as I was expecting), but that’s not a big deal.  For the price, they’re great for children’s lunches, and for adults, as a great throwback snack to childhood.

LUNCH BUDDIES TROPICAL BANANA APPLESAUCE
Don't ever give this to your children unless you never want to speak to them again.

You know, I like applesauce quite a bit, but it just never ends up on my grocery list. I think it's probably because it exists in the weird middle spectrum of apple products: it's basically mushy, ground-up apple. So if I want an apple, I'll eat an apple, and if I'm thirsty, I'll just drink apple juice. This means that the “sauce” version of this delicious fruit is relegated mainly to when I'm sick, or have some kind of oral surgery that demands that I eat something soft. It's not quite fair to the apple world, but it's an uncomfortable truth.

But one of the quickest ways to capture my attention is to use the word “banana”, which is high up there as one of my favorite fruits. It's almost impossible to screw up a banana product, especially when it's made with actual banana puree (as this is). Another great keyword that immediately perks me up is “tropical”. I love many things that are tropical, because that word recalls something sweet (like tropical fruits), but it also makes me think of tropical islands, which would be a fun place to visit.

Pair all three up, and I was destined to buy this the moment I saw it in the store, and that's exactly what I did. My wife didn't seem to be too thrilled—I actually thought she would think the combination would sound good—but uttered not a single word of protest as I placed it in the cart. Then again, she really didn't need to say anything, because the look she gave me said it all.

Ironically, the look she gave me as I put it in the cart is probably similar to the look that crossed my face the first time I took a bite. Even though it's made with real apples and bananas, the “tropical” aspect of additional fruits is apparently reproduced with “natural flavors”, which just stands for a jumbled mess of unidentifiable chemical sweetness. The flavor never gels together as a cohesive unit, instead tasting like two separate products accidentally blended together into one, and it has a medicine-y aftertaste that sits in the back of the throat and threatens to never go away. It all just comes off as tasting really artificial, which is a shame given the actual fruit that it contains; it's like a work-in-progress lab experiment that somehow got packaged up and put on store shelves.

I feel like it might have worked a little bit better if they'd have just stopped at apple-banana applesauce and called it a good day; it certainly couldn't have been any worse. I realize the market for this is probably lunchtime for younger children, but I don't even think a majority of them will take to the flavor of this...that's how bad it is. Even though it retails for a mere $1.49, which is a great price for six applesauce cups, I won't go near this stuff again. Although this is a good time to remind everyone about their money-back guarantee...

Overall: 2/10. Sickeningly, disgustingly sweet, but even more offensive is that there is no identifiable taste...it starts off sweet, with apple being the main flavor, then it just goes downhill, with a jumbled mess of sweet flavors that taste almost medicinal. It has real banana puree and apples, so the culprit is probably the “natural flavors” which make up the “tropical” portion of the title—and they are completely unnecessary. I love sweet things, but these threaten to give me a headache before I even finish a cup...that's how strong they are. I'm doubting even children will take to its vague flavor. It gets two points for being affordable (six cups are a mere $1.49), and Aldi does have their money-back guarantee, but it's not even worth the gas required to drive back to return it. Terrible.


Thursday, April 27, 2017

Fusia Spicy Crab Roll, and "Fresh" California Roll (Aldi)

FUSIA SPICY CRAB ROLL

Just don't go in actually expecting crab.

Recently, Aldi had frozen sushi rolls in their ad. We had tried the avocado and shrimp version a while ago, and liked them, but then something else caught my eye: “fresh” sushi. As in, a kind that was refrigerated, rather than frozen. It looked just like the kind Trader Joe's carried, which is some of the best sushi I've ever had, and was also a couple bucks cheaper, so I eagerly waited for those to arrive at our local Aldi. Either they never did, or they sold out in a day. We packed it up and went to the next-closest Aldi store, but they didn't have any, either. So we settled on the frozen stuff once again, only this time, we opted for spicy crab.

Prepwork, which only consists of thawing, can be done in three ways, and all three are simple: leave out at room temperature for two hours; place on a plate and put in the microwave for twenty seconds, then fifteen second increments if not thawed after the initial burst; stick the whole plastic tray in a cold water bath for thirty minutes. We opted for the microwave, which took about two minutes, or so (in short bursts) to get them ready for eating; since our microwave is—shall we say, “vintage”--it thawed them very unevenly, but it got the job done.

The texture of these are pretty spot on, with the rice on the outside giving way to the crab filling in the middle. The crab flavor is decent, but pretty weak...I would have liked for it to be stronger, but that's just my preference. It's also pretty obvious that it's “fake” (the ingredients cite “natural crab flavor”), if for no other reason than the $5 price point; using the real stuff would no doubt drive the cost up to the point that selling it for that price would be next to impossible. The spice comes through after a few seconds (be patient!) and offers a quick flash of heat that quickly dissipates. I thought it was a good amount of spiciness, but people that like their food really hot will probably be majorly disappointed. I also didn't get a whole lot of flavor from the spice, so even with that included, it's pretty weak.

I like that it comes with a packet of soy sauce, but the packet is very small—my wife is a huge fan of soy and it only lasted four pieces with her. Even using it sparingly, as I would do, I doubt I would be able to stretch it further past the halfway point. We didn't use the wasabi this time, but we did use it last time, and it tasted like, well...wasabi. I also like the portions, which are fairly strong for the price: 15 pieces for $5; as can be expected, though, the pieces are much smaller than the average sushi roll, so this is probably somewhere in the vicinity of eight or nine regular pieces. Still, that's pretty impressive for the price.

I like Aldi's frozen sushi, and this one is no exception, but I'm really hoping they sell the fresh sushi again, because if they're anything like the ones sold at Trader Joe's (and, even though they're technically separate companies, they do share products occasionally), those are some amazing rolls.

Overall: 6.5/10. It's better than average, and worth the $5 asking price in terms of quantity. But it trips up in the “quality” department: it has no actual crab in it (the ingredients list “natural crab flavor”). I suppose that can be expected given the price, but what is kind of a letdown is how weak the taste is. There are some spices that deliver a delayed blast of “heat”, which is a kick of spice that quickly dissipates (chances are, unless you're incredibly sensitive to spicy stuff, you won't even need to drink anything cold to get it to go away), but even that doesn't seem to add much in the way of flavor. If this had a stronger taste, I'd like this a lot more; even as it stands, there's a good amount here for the price, so I'll still recommend it to sushi fans.

FUSIA "FRESH" CALIFORNIA ROLL
Not at all worth it, even for $3.

The last time these were offered in the Aldi ad, I went to my local store three times before giving up. I don't think it was that they were sold out, but rather that they never got them in (I never even saw a space on the shelf for them on any visit). I was disappointed, because Trader Joe's has some of my favorite sushi, and with the awkward relationship between TJ's and Aldi (they're owned by the same family trust but run as completely separate enterprises, and hate being compared to one another; sometimes, they do carry the same products) I was figuring that it would be the exact same.

Well flash forward a year later, and imagine my excitement when I saw that Aldi would once again be offering “fresh” sushi! I was a little nervous that it would once again skip our store, a feeling that was only heightened after we went the day the ad began and saw none. But on a return trip a few days later, I happened to catch a small square of space designated for this...along with one lone package remaining. I talked with a worker and verified that this was, in fact, the only one left, ruining both my plan to give my wife and I our own package, and to try both flavors offered.

Anyway, upon bringing it home to surprise my wife, she was immediately off-put by the disheveled look of the rolls: They were loose, so that the contents inside spilled out easily. A couple were even ripped, with the inner avocado, carrot, and imitation crab meat out of the roll and inside the package. I can't say for sure that this is how all of them were put together—maybe that was the reason this was the only one left—but it was a pretty lackadaisical presentation, to be sure.
The taste didn't fare much better. I've had so little sushi in my life that I could honestly say I never had a piece I didn't like; now I have. It's not that this was terrible, just completely uninspiring: the pieces were dry and boring, without much in the way of flavor. As expected, the filling did fall out of most of them, thanks to the loose wrapping, so just as much time was spent trying to keep them together as was spent actually eating them. Considering these are supposedly “fresher”, it's sad that they didn't taste nearly as flavorful as Fusia's frozen sushi.

The price is very good at $2.99 for eight decent-sized pieces, but given the disappointing lack of flavor, that doesn't really mean a whole lot. I tried to get these over the course of several trips spanning over several months; if I'd have known how tasteless these would be, I could have saved that accumulated time and put it toward an endeavor that was actually worthwhile.

Overall: 4/10. The most uninspiring roll of sushi that I've ever had; a big disappointment considering I tried several times to get this, dating back to the last time they were offered, to no avail. For starters, the rolls were loosely wrapped, so the carrot, avocado, and crab meat kept falling out all over the place. For finishers, the “crab” (which is made of “natural crab flavor” instead of actual crab) taste is very weak, with the added spices giving a quick blast of heat, but not delivering much in the way of flavor. At $2.99 for eight pieces, the value is pretty solid, but whether or not that's worth it to you depends on how much you like it. I would never get these again (though I wouldn't be against trying the other flavor next time).

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Malt o' Meal Cinnamon Toasters (Big Lots), and Hospitality Cinnamon Squares Cereals (Dollar Tree)

MALT O' MEAL CINNAMON TOASTERS
Quite possibly the best cinnamon squares cereal on the market.

As I have mentioned many times over the course of the five years this blog has been in existence, Malt o’ Meal is, by far, my favorite private label cereal brand. Its mere presence at hundreds of retailers nationwide, from dollar stores, to Big Lots, to supermarkets, might lead you to believe that it’s a national brand--which it very well may be in terms of reach--but its core philosophy, which is to rip-off products from major cereal brands while offering them for much cheaper, is classic private label all the way.

And yet, it’s one of the many cereal products I take for granted, in that I seem to always have some in my cereal collection at any given time, yet I have painfully few actual reviews of them. I guess some things I just get so comfortable and used to eating that I don’t even think of sharing them with my loyal readers (however few or nonexistent that number may actually be). Maybe it’s a subconscious territorial thing, where I just want to keep the secret of how good these are to myself, lest my review goes viral and whips up the population into a Malt o’ Meal-obsessed frenzy, thus creating a nationwide shortage that robs me of my favorite brand. Or maybe I’m just lazy and forgetful.

A couple of years back, I took a look at Millville’s (Aldi) offering of their own cinnamon cereal, and found a brand that was in sharp decline. Their cinnamon-toasted cereal used to be covered in cinnamon sugar, with cereal pieces that were so light and airy that it was almost like eating a cinnamon churro…dessert for breakfast. But as of the last time I had them, the cereal pieces seemed smaller, and all of them were tougher, like they were burnt. I thought maybe it was just a bad batch--maybe they were burnt after all--but another box revealed the same thing, and so I was content with just going without them.

But then I happened onto Malt o’ Meal Cinnamon Toasters at Big Lots one day. I’d had them before, and loved them, but was worried that they had also altered their formula. Thankfully, they had not. That what also a couple of years ago, and as Big Lots has continued to carry them off-and-on ever since then, I have continued to get them. So I can assure you that these are every bit as good today as they were then. The cereal pieces are light and fluffy, and each one is loaded with cinnamon-sugar. The biggest drawback is that since they are so light, it doesn’t take long at all for them to get soggy in milk. I like the flavor enough that I think it overwhelms this little problem, but those that like their cereal to be a little more resistant to liquids might not be as forgiving as I am.

Big Lots often carries these in 10 oz. “trial size” packages for only $1. Since they are in bags, as opposed to boxes, you might be fooled into thinking that there’s not enough here to justify spending a dollar on. But that would be quite a foolish oversight on your part. The “standard” size for the national brand is 12.2 oz., and yet it can cost three times as much! This is an even better deal than the larger bags of Cinnamon Toasters that Big Lots had at the time, so I was sure to stock up on these, as I do on almost every trip when they are available. Definitely one of my favorite cereals out there.

Overall: 9.5/10. I get these quite frequently, when Big Lots has the 10 oz. “trial size” version for a mere $1, and it has quickly become one of my favorite cereals. I used to enjoy getting Aldi’s brand of these, but they’ve since changed their formula, and I find them to be largely inedible. Malt o’ Meal’s version, however, feature light cereal pieces, and each one is coated with a very generous helping of cinnamon and sugar. If you’re not into sweet stuff, this is definitely not the cereal for you. The downside to the puffy cereal is that it gets soggy in milk very quickly, but the delicious flavor makes up for most of that problem. This is pretty close to a perfect cereal, though the amount of sweetness means that I can’t eat it all the time, or else I’d get pretty sick of it. With a price, and quality, like this, it’s one more reason to avoid even looking at the more expensive brands.

HOSPITALITY BUNCH O' CINNAMON SQUARES

If you can finish a whole box, you should be given a reward.

I've only tried cereal from Dollar Tree once, and the experience did not go well. That probably explains why it's been about four years since I bought one—and it probably would have been even longer had they not had this perched on an endcap, cartoon elephant peeking out at me through sad eyes as if begging me to take him home. I waffled back and forth a little bit, remembering how bad the fruit loops I had were, but a couple of things put my mind at ease: 1.) The 7 oz. size. I figured since it was a fairly small box, the cereal could still be pretty good; I'd be terrified of trying a full box for a buck, but places like Aldi have some excellent cereals for $2 or less, and that puts this about in the same price range; and 2.) The picture on the front. I know, I know, pictures can be deceiving, but the cereal pieces looked just like they do in the national brand.

Well, pictures are deceiving, which were my first thoughts after opening this cereal. It looks more like little pieces of a graham cracker-based cereal, rather than the typical, soft pieces that are in the national brand (and pictured on the front box). They're also really small, too, though there did seem to be a decent amount of cinnamon on them. I went from being pretty intrigued, to being a little worried...and it was still downhill from here.

I hate to say it, because I really wanted to like this, but this cereal is terrible. Just awful. The cinnamon sugar tastes nothing like any cinnamon I've ever tasted...it's somehow barely even sweet, almost to the point of being bitter, which is completely uninviting. The cereal bits have a slight taste at the beginning (though not a good one), but once they're doused in milk, all the flavor goes away, leaving tasteless bits of sponge-like material floating in a sea of white.

Even the milk at the end was nearly undrinkable, despite having a ton of visible bits of cinnamon floating in it, thanks to the bitterness. This is not at all what I was expecting, and probably not at all what anyone buying this cereal is wanting...I somehow managed to finish the bowl (I was hungry), but I don't think I'll be able to even force down a second now that I know how bad it is. Spend an extra buck or two to get Malt o Meal's version...then thank me later.
Overall: 2/10. The second cereal I've ever had from Dollar Tree, and pretty much guaranteed to be the last (note I'm talking about weird off-brands I've never heard of...the small Malt o Meal boxes are fantastic), Hospitality's Bunch o' Cinnamon Squares has to be the first example of cinnamon anything that isn't sweet...in fact, it somehow comes off as almost bitter. The cinnamon also washes off the cereal pieces in milk, leaving tasteless masses of cereal floating around. I really wanted to like this, but there are really no redeeming qualities for this junk...spend the extra buck or two and grab Malt o Meal's version from somewhere.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Paulie's Pasta Shells and Cheese, Snapps Green Bean Fries (Dollar Tree)

PAULIE'S PASTA SHELLS AND CHEESE
Not too shabby for only a buck.

The last time I tried macaroni and cheese from Dollar Tree, it was about four years ago. The shells were just fine, but the cheese was even more neon than the name brand stuff, and its consistency was more similar to paste, than liquefied cheese. In case you were wondering, yes, the taste was just as bad as it looked…why do you think it’s been four years since the last time I tried it? But then I saw smiling, cartoon chef Paulie in the upper left hand corner of this box, and I knew from his convincingly drawn-on smile that he didn’t have anything to hide.

So I ponied up a dollar and bought a box. After all, not even Aldi and their perfected supply chain process can provide shells and cheese for a dollar; if Paulie could pull his off, by golly, this would be an amazing deal. Does he succeed? Well yes, but as it turns out, that rat bastard’s smile really is hiding something after all.

On the side of good: the pasta shells are just what you would expect, about the exact same size as the national brand. There is a good-sized package of “cheese” sauce, as well, which is also what you should be expecting. So far, so good, Paulie! The shells cook up nice and soft, as they should, and the cheese sauce is the perfect texture…I could swear that it’s even slightly thinner than the name brand stuff, but still a perfect consistency. The taste is almost pretty close, though if my memory serves me right, it’s not an exact knockoff. Still, there is no requirement, at least on my end, that private label knockoffs have to taste exactly the same as name brand counterparts--as long as it’s delicious, that’s fine by me. And these shells and cheese are close enough in that department to justify the dollar. Or are they…?

As it turns out, Paulie does have one trick up his sleeve after all, and it’s one that’s pretty common at Dollar Tree stores: he’s shorting us. He’s not just a chef, but a thief--this is an 8 oz. package, whereas the national brand (and Aldi’s Cheese Club version, which I believe is around $1.29) are 12 oz. Considering I ate this by myself, it worked out well, because it saved me four ounces of calories, sodium, cholesterol, and fat. But if you have a family to feed, the four ounces could legitimately make a difference.

So then how’s the value? It’s really not too bad. Subtracting a third from Aldi’s price (because Paulie offers a third less pasta in this package) takes us to $.93, but it’s wholly plausible they would just round that up to a retail price of a dollar anyway. It really all just comes down to the smaller packaging. Again, it didn’t bother me, but if you’re a mother (or father) who has their shells and cheese night down to a science, this is going to throw it off by giving you a third less than what you were expecting.

Overall: 7.5/10. The taste is pretty good, and rivals the name brand while being slightly different (I also thought the cheese sauce was slightly thinner, and had even better consistency than the national brand), but there’s a caveat attached to this; this is for an 8 oz. package. The name brand, as well as most private label brands (Aldi included), offer their shells and cheese in a 12 oz. package. So if you’re a college kid looking for a quick meal, then this should be just fine for you. But if you’re trying to feed a family, you might be getting a third less than what you were expecting, which could be a deal-breaker. I happened to eat it while my wife was away, so it didn’t bother me…had she been here, there might not have been enough to go around.

SNAPP'S GREEN BEAN FRIES
So much better than their virtually inedible jalapeno poppers.
The only other experience I have with Snapps involves their absolutely terrible cream cheese poppers--I first tried those about ten years ago when I lived alone and picked them up because they were a dollar at Kroger. I’ve never forgotten the bland, worthless taste. I bought them again a couple of months ago to see if anything had changed, only to find they’re still the same disgusting pieces of trash that they were so long ago.

It goes without saying that Snapps does not have a good track record with me. Then I saw they were offering green bean fries (and they’re “New!” according to the unnecessarily excited packaging); while they aren’t my favorite appetizer (not even by a long shot), they are different enough that I felt it warranted giving the terrible company another try.

For those unfamiliar, they are essentially just as they sound: green beans deep fried in batter so as to eliminate any and all nutrients (welcome to America!), and served, usually with a side of ranch. I first had them at a chain restaurant several years back. The problem is, appetizers have gotten so ridiculously expensive over the years that, at this current rate, they will be more expensive than the entrée by the year 2030. Either that, or entrees will just keep increasing, meaning eating out at a chain restaurant will cost $100 for a family of two to gorge on microwaved food more befitting of a farm animal than an actual human being.

But anyway, I digress. My point is, if I can get green bean fries for a dollar, then that’s at least five bucks cheaper than most restaurants will offer them. So I jumped at the chance.

The first thing that heightened my anticipation of eating these were the green beans themselves: first of all, many of them were large and healthy-looking (I expected them to be obvious cast-offs that didn’t quite make the cut to be in a national brand can of green beans), and they weren’t covered in batter. It’s kind of disconcerting to see, but there are only clumps of batter on each green bean, aptly spaced out so that you can still see plenty of the vegetable. I was expecting them to be completely covered, with the batter taking over the flavor.

They cook up pretty quickly in the oven; the batter doesn’t get super crispy, but it gets crispy enough. Just as the visual inspection insinuated, there’s an impressive amount of green bean taste in each bite. This may turn off some, but I thought it was a welcome surprise. I won’t go so far as to say the beans taste fresh, but they taste fresher than you would expect, with the bean delivering a decent crunch. The batter is also pretty good, and does just enough to complement the green bean taste, without doing anything to overwhelm it. Dipping these in ranch are the way to go; you can have yourself a tasty little appetizer for a fraction of the price you would pay for it in a restaurant, and that’s more than a good enough reason for me to recommend this.

Overall: 8/10. For a dollar, you get a pretty good amount of green bean fries. The batter doesn’t envelope the entire bean, as I was expecting, which means there’s a decent amount of green bean flavor in each bite. This may turn off some, but I love vegetables, and was expecting the deep fried flavor to overtake everything, so it was a welcome surprise. I dipped them in ranch, which provided me with an appetizer that is pretty close to restaurant quality, for a fraction of the price. If you see these in your local Dollar Tree cooler, you should definitely give them a shot.