Sunday, August 23, 2015

LiveGFree Tomato Basil Crisps; Tuscan Garden Lightly Salted Crispy Onions (Aldi)


Around the time Aldi started carrying gluten free products a few months back, my wife just so happened to be in the midst of a loose, short-lived gluten free diet.  So it only goes without saying that when she was on the diet, so was I.  Flash-forward to the present day:  Her days on the diet are long gone, but since Aldi just had a massive LiveGFree Special Buy week, we indulged in our healthy side and picked up a couple of products from that line.

My choice was LiveGFree Tomato Basil Veggie Crisps, which look like little mini potato chips and, according to the packaging, are “a unique blend of potatoes, carrots, and beans.”  While it didn’t sound immensely appealing, I have faith enough in Aldi products to know that, for the most part, even at their worst, they manage to be edible, so I wasn’t all that nervous as I cracked the bag open.

The only bit of hesitation I had was the mention of “beans” on the front of the packaging.  This made me flash back to some terrible gluten free barbecue bean chips that my in-laws bought my wife while she was watching their dogs back in her gluten free phase.  Not only did the bean flavor take center stage, but there was a certain disgusting graininess to the texture that made them really off-putting…I haven’t had one in months, yet I can still picture the texture and flavor as if it was yesterday.

Thankfully, LiveGFree’s Tomato Basil Veggie Crisps avoid the “beany” texture and flavor…in fact, I would venture to guess that if you didn’t tell someone these were gluten free, they would have no idea.  Each crisp is loaded with a generous helping of tomato and basil flavor, which take center stage, as they should, and the crispy texture is just right, strongly reminiscent of a “typical” potato crisp.

The bags appear small--and are, coming in at 4.5 ounces--but the crisps are small, so there are a lot in each bag.  While I really liked the taste, there was also the added benefit that it wasn’t something I could just sit back and crunch on for hours, so that helped limit my serving sizes.  These are a special buy, so I’d suggest you hurry in and grab them before they run out!

Overall: 8/10.  The combination of potatoes, carrots, and beans come together to form a tasty little gluten free snack crisp, without any grainy textures or off-putting flavors.  The tomato and basil comes through front and center, as it should, and there’s a generous helping of seasoning throughout the entire bag.  Speaking of the bags:  They look small, but since so are the crisps, there are actually a lot in each bag, and the $1.99 price tag isn’t at all bad for a “specialty” product.  I’m not part of a gluten free diet, but I picked them up, and I would not hesitate to get them again.

This won’t be a review so much as a confession:  I’ve been duped.  I’ve been duped by the very supermarket that I have trusted for several years.  I’ve been duped in a way that’s even worse than the time I accidentally picked up the name brand honey nut cereal because Aldi so cleverly put it right next to their brand.  And what is the item that has so cleverly deceived me?  Why, it’s none other than this bag of crispy onions.

Look at it.  Looks innocent, doesn’t it?  Yet concealed within its 3.5 oz. packaging lies a horrible, horrible secret.  One that will no doubt alienate the entire fan base Aldi has strived to collect throughout the last few difficult years.  And yet, I should have seen it.  I should have paid attention to the signs and the clues that were right under my nose the entire time.  But I didn’t.  Not until it was too late.

What has rubbed me in such a curious manner?  What has caused me such an intense ire; a rage that boils from within the very depths of my own soul?  That threatens to tear asunder the very fabric of my delicate existence, destroying myself and everyone I hold dear in the process?

These damned crispy onions are the exact same onions you can get in their damned Chef’s Cupboard line.  You know, the French fried ones that everyone’s grandmothers’ put in their green bean casseroles during the Thanksgiving season?  You know, the ones available in a can that’s almost twice the size of this little bag, and for only two quarters more?  Yeah, those.  Yet here they are “repurposed”, thrown into different packaging, marketed as a damn salad topping, and priced slightly higher.

Tastewise, these are about exactly the same as the aforementioned “Frech fried onions”, as the apparent decrease in sodium doesn’t really do much at all for the taste.  In the sake of full disclosure, I will mention that there is also another variety of these “salad toppers” available, and that is garlic pepper, which might taste a little different and be more worthy of your time.  If you really want these on a salad, go ahead and buy the canned onions, because they’re honestly cheaper and taste exactly the same.  It might come in packaging that suggests it’s a salad topping, but you can still put it on your salad nonetheless.

Overall: 5/10.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these, it’s just that you’re paying more for less…a 6 oz. container of French fried onions, which is exactly what these are, to a “T”, is just fifty cents more.  All this so it can be repackaged to look more like a salad topper.  There’s no need to do any math…that’s a far better deal.  If you really want to top your salad with crispy onions, don’t waste your money on Tuscan Garden‘s lightly salted version.  Grab a can of Chef’s Cupboard French fried onions, save some money, and have even more to put on, or in, whatever foods you want to.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Malt o' Meal Cocoa and Fruity Dyno Bites Cereals (Various)

Crazy good deals today!
While most of the other reviews on this blog pertain to store brand products, I have a deep appreciation for the Malt-O-Meal brand, which tend to offer outstanding cereal knock-offs for a pretty deep discount as opposed to the national brands.  So while the focus of this blog is generally store brand or private label items, Malt-O-Meal still fits in with the same philosophy of store brands by providing a high quality product for a great price. 

Well now their value has gotten even better, as Big Lots is offering massive 33.8 oz. bonus bags (that’s over two pounds!) of their Cocoa Dyno Bites for just $2 (prices and selection may vary).  Put simply, that’s at least twice the size of typical cereal boxes, and still generally cheaper than said boxes, so this has the makings of a great value.  But how does it taste?  After all, just because something is inexpensive, doesn’t necessarily make it a great deal!

The first thing you will notice, besides the ridiculously large size of the bag, is that the cereal smells like straight-up cocoa.  It’s sad that I have to give extra marks to a chocolate cereal for smelling like chocolate, but in this world of processed chemicals posing as edible food, the fact that this doesn’t smell like it came out of a factory is a welcome change.  Other than that, they look like puffed up bits of corn cereal that are colored brown, so it’s pretty much what you should be expecting.

As great as they smell, taste wise, these things are even better.  It’s hard to sum them up without sounding like an advertisement for them, but they are literally bursting with cocoa flavor.  Every bite is chocolate heaven; so sweet, yet not to the point that it‘s sickening.  I cannot compare it to the national brand, simply because it’s been so long since I’ve had it, but I can guarantee that they are either very similar, or Cocoa Dyno Bites are even better.  Seriously.  This is almost as close to perfection as I’ve ever had in a chocolate cereal, and while that sounds like pure hyperbole, I’m not exaggerating in the least.

And let’s once again refocus on the bag…we’re talking 33.8 ounces of cereal!  I’m lucky to get four servings out of a typical 12 or so ounce box, but with these bags, I’m getting upwards of 10.  Of course, that’s just me, and I tend to fill my cereal to the top of the bowl, so if you have kids or teenagers, this would be a fantastic way to stretch your cereal budget. 

Overall: 10/10.  Malt-O-Meal has always been my pick as the best cereal manufacturer, as they tend to offer great knockoffs at a great price.  But with Cocoa Dyno Bites, they have really outdone themselves.  Smelling of pure cocoa, they taste even better, with a deliciously sweet chocolate taste that’s just flat-out addicting.  While they are already a great value, Big Lots is currently offering 33.8 oz. bonus size bags for just $2 (price and selection may vary by store), which makes this an out-of-this-world deal.  If you have even a passing interest in the national brand, I’m highly recommending you give these a shot.  There’s a good chance you’ll never go back to the original again.

Malt o' Meal cereal in boxed form.
While I was at Kroger (needed a few things Aldi didn‘t have; God I hate that place), I saw a box of Malt o’ Meal’s Fruity Pebbles knockoff.  But what attracted me to it was a banner across the front of the box, declaring that blind taste testers chose Fruity Dyno Bites over the national brand pebble.  This didn’t really catch my attention because I couldn’t believe it and had to try it for myself to see if it was really true; I bought it because I’d always believed Malt o’ Meal was one of, if not the best, cereal company’s out there.  It had been a while since I had Fruity Dyno Bites, and I just wanted to get reacquainted with the taste.

I generally like buying MOM cereals (as they are also known, for short) in the large bags, but as much as you get, I can never justify paying over $3 for a bag.  I know, it’s still much cheaper than buying the boxes, but Big Lots seems to get 2 lb. bags about twice per year for under $3 (last year I got bonus bags that were slightly over two pounds, for $2), so I tend to wait for those kinds of deals.  So I stuck with Fruity Dyno Bites in the box, for $1.99, still way cheaper than the national brand box.

The cereal itself looks pretty much exact: Brightly-colored pebble-shaped corn cereal.  Some off-brands have duller colors, but these are super bright and inviting.  Of course, the small shape of the cereal nuggets also keeps one of my least favorite aspects of the cereal:  They get soggy pretty darn quickly.  I mean, you have a couple bites of crispiness max before it starts to be a less-inviting sludgy mess.  Still, the flavor is pretty much exact.  I did detect a little bit of graininess that I don’t remember being in the national brand, but it was only a minor quibble…the taste is there in spades.

Overall: 8.5/10.  I’ve long regarded Malt o’ Meal as the best cereal manufacture in the U.S., and their Fruity Dyno Bites does nothing to dissuade me from that opinion.  There is a little graininess that I detected, which I’m not a big fan of, but everything else--texture, taste, and appearance--are right on point.  It does get soggy earlier, but given the teeny size of each flake, that’s pretty much unavoidable.  If you like the national brand and are on a budget, this is an excellent alternative; even if you aren’t on a budget, these are cheaper, not to mention just as good as, the original.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Fusia Noodle Bowls: Kung Pao and Sesame Teriyaki (Aldi)

I probably could have cropped a whole 'lot of hardwood out of this picture...
While Aldi has a few Asian foods available all the time, I do look forward to their “Asian Week”, where they offer several additional Chinese foods as special buys.  A lot of the items are just typical, run-of-the-mill Asian offerings: frozen sweet and sour chicken, varieties of egg rolls, or wok sauces to make your own Chinese entrees at home.  Most of the things that I’ve tried are good, but nothing outstanding; roughly the same quality you can get at any of the take-out Chinese restaurants that no doubt line your city.

Then there’s Fusia’s Kung Pao Chicken Noodle Bowl, a non-frozen pantry item that cooks up in just two minutes.  In fact, that’s the main reason I purchased it the first time; it was simply a matter of convenience, something I could toss in the microwave if I needed a quick snack after a long day at work.  But now it’s one of my favorite items in the entire Fusia line, and one that I wish they would carry all the time.  The noodles are soft and delicious, while the sauce is at least on par, if not better than, similar sauces at the aforementioned Chinese carry-out restaurants.

Best of all is the packaging, which is created specifically for lunches:  Inside a microwave-safe plastic bowl is a package of pre-cooked noodles, vacuum-sealed to lock in moisture, so you’re not getting nasty Ramen-style dry noodles…these are moist, and ready to hold the sauce packet that you’re no doubt going to dump all over them.  Then there’s the packet of dry vegetables, a packet of cut-up peanuts, and a sauce packet, which is generous enough in size to cover all of the noodles.  There’s even a plastic fork, to boot.  All of the packets are pre-scored so you don’t need a utensil to open them; and since they’re all in separate packaging, you can easily omit the things you don’t want, or cut back on things that you think there’s too much of (i.e. the sauce, which is no doubt the main source of the large amount of sodium contained herein.)

To cook, all you need are the ingredients in the packaging, and two whole tablespoons of water; pop in a microwave for two minutes, and voila!  You’re done and it’s ready to eat.  As I alluded to earlier, the sauce is where it’s at: It’s very flavorful, with a little hint of sweetness cutting through before the mild heat sets in.  I’m not a big fan of super-hot stuff, so for me, this has just the right amount; you’ll feel it, but unless you’re very sensitive to heat, it won’t go so far that it will make your eyes water, or cause you any discomfort.  If they would just sell bottles of the sauce, I’d buy it and toss it on everything that I could; it’s that good, something far better than what I was expecting out of a pre-made noodle bowl.

Oh, and did I mention this whole thing is just $1.69? (At least in Ohio; prices will no doubt vary by location.)  A whole serving is one bowl, but there really is a lot in here; unless you’re starving, there should be plenty enough in here to at least tide you over until the next meal.  If you like Chinese food in any capacity, you should really give this a try.

Overall: 9/10.  Packs an incredible amount of flavor for well under $2.  The fact that everything is packaged separately (including the noodles), makes it easy for you to create your own bowl to taste, which is pretty cool, as is the fact that everything you need to enjoy this dish (minus two tablespoons of water) is contained inside (including a microwave-safe plastic bowl AND small plastic fork!)  Packaging aside, the sauce is incredibly flavorful, with a hint of sweetness peeking out before the heat sets in.  Not too hot, but definitely noticeable, which is another plus for me, though those with an affinity for hot dishes will probably find it too weak.

If the package looks like this at the store, DO NOT BUY IT.
From Fusia, the makers of the previously-reviewed Kung Pao Noodle Bowl (see above), along with every other Asian-inspired dish from Aldi, comes their Sesame Teriyaki Noodle Bowl.  How does it stack up?  Let’s get right down to it.

I was a little nervous about the “teriyaki” in the title, because teriyaki is not a flavor I tend to enjoy all that much; a hesitation brought about by the teriyaki stir fry my mom used to make when I was a kid growing up.  Like the stir fry, I expected this to be overly salty, with a heavy “soy” flavor; imagine my surprise when I discovered that it’s actually sweet!  I found it to be a pleasant sweetness, but that might not tell you anything, because as anyone who reads this blog knows, I have a palate that heavily favors sweet things.  For a second opinion, I asked my wife what she thought…and she agreed with me that the sauce was absolutely delicious.  So see?  It’s not just me after all!

For those that might be put off by the spiciness of the Kung Pao bowl (it is relatively mild, but there are those that don’t like heat, or shouldn’t eat it), this is definitely an almost-equally delicious alternative.  While I did find the Kung Pao to have a more “complex” flavor (at least as far as microwavable bowls of noodles are concerned), this has a great balance of sweet, with a noticeable tinge of teriyaki that is oh so edible.  Along a packet of dried vegetables (which I’m always a sucker for), it also comes with a packet of sesame seeds, which are apparently tossed in for an added touch of “authenticity”…while they obviously don’t add much (if anything) in the way of flavor, they do add some nice texture in what is an otherwise slimy bowl of noodles.

Overall: 8/10.  While I don’t find it to be quite as addicting as the Kung Pao version, Fusia’s Sesame Teriyaki Noodle Bowl is still a great alternative.  Unlike the Kung Pao sauce, this has no spice-kick whatsoever; instead this sauce is sweet, which goes along with the noodles well.  As with the Kung Pao, there is a packet of dried vegetables, but this one also adds sesame seeds, apparently for some added “authenticity”.  It adds nothing in the way of flavor, but it’s still a nice touch.  For the ridiculous price of $1.69, and including everything you need to enjoy it (including a small fork!), this is perfect for lunches, or for just a mid-day snack.  A must-try.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Blue Sky Juiced; Outlaw Energy Passion Punch Energy Drinks (Big Lots)

Ever wanted an energy drink that has juice in it, but doesn't taste like it? Here you go...
I’ve mentioned before that when I’m off work, I tend to take naps on my lunch break, a habit that I’ve been trying to stop.  Well, as it turns out, I’m also programmed to take naps on days off, another habit that I’m trying to quit.  After all, that’s time I could spend being more productive, either by working on music, or doing some house chores, or even writing reviews for this blog.  And I know the best place to get some energy for not a lot of money is Big Lots.

While there, I found the usual array of their energy beverages; pretty much all of them unheard-of brands, and loaded with chemicals and artificial flavors.  But a new one caught my eye, though it certainly wasn’t compliments of its terribly-designed can.  Juiced Energy (clever name, also) claims to be comprised of 50% juice to go along with its energy blend.  Now, juice in energy drinks certainly isn’t anything new; the main brands have been doing it for years.  But that mixture has definitely lead to some of the best energy drinks I’ve ever had, namely Rockstar’s Juiced lineup.

While most of Big Lots energy beverages go between fifty-to-sixty cents for a 16 oz. can, the Blue Sky iteration was going for eighty, probably to account for the fact it actually has some juice in there; this is pretty standard, as juice no doubt costs a little bit more to produce than lab-created ingredients (though, to be fair, there’s no doubt plenty of those still in here, too, but at least having the juice helps cancel at least a couple of them out).  However, let’s be honest here:  Just because an energy drink is given 50% juice (a word I’ve already said four times in this paragraph) doesn’t automatically make it a great energy drink.  So let’s jump to the answer of the question on everyone’s mind…how does it taste?

Surprisingly, boring.  Anyone who’s had their fair share of energy beverages no doubt knows that there’s a standard “original” flavor.  It’s hard to describe, and it varies slightly across the brands, but the main base is there--it’s a weird blend of semi-fruity, and a little metallic.  Usually, the addition of actual fruit seems to break this flavor profile, with the added juice taking things front-and-center.  Curiously, that is not the case here, as it retains the standard energy drink “default” flavor of fakey fruit-meets-metal.

Perhaps I could understand this a bit more if there was just a single fruit juice included here; it would probably take a lot to cover up the default taste.  But when there are seven fruit juices (apple, orange, pear, peach, tangerine, pineapple, and white grape, all from concentrate) and you can neither smell nor taste any of them, there seems to be a bit of a problem.

On the energy side, it did give me a little boost, though the nutritional “specs” aren’t anything too outrageous.  Compared to some such drinks, which will overload you on a lot of vitamins, Juiced Energy focuses on only five: Vitamin C, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, and Vitamin B12, giving you 200% per serving/400% per can.  This makes sense, as with the exception of Vitamin C, the rest are B vitamins, which are the ones that target energy and movement.  I downed half a can in about half an hour (I like to savor it!), and gained a noticeable increase in anxiety and energy.  However, as I like to mention in all my reviews for these kinds of drinks, I have a very low tolerance for caffeine, as I never drink coffee, and cut back massively on soft drinks.  So if you drink caffeine all the time, your results my vary.

Overall: 5/10.  I was enticed by the claim that it has 50% juice--and was immediately disappointed when I couldn’t taste a single one of them.  Supposedly, there are seven juices in here (apple, orange, pear, peach, tangerine, pineapple, and white grape), yet all you get is the typical default energy drink flavor of fake fruit, with a hint of metal.  It did give me a noticeable boost of anxiety and energy for a few hours after drinking it, but I also have a low tolerance for caffeine, so bear that in mind.  For $.80 at Big Lots, I guess I can’t complain that it was too much of a waste, though I definitely expected it to taste a little juicier than it does.  By no means offensive, but also not a standout in any way, shape, or form.

Ever wanted an energy drink that has no juice in it, but tastes like it does?  Here you go...

Once again I was at Big Lots, perusing their large selection of energy beverages, when I happened upon this one.  I tend to enjoy anything fruity, and so my eyes lit up when I saw the word “punch” in the flavor title.  Also exciting was the price tag, which seems to be the standard for a 16 oz. energy drink at our local Big Lots: $.50.  So I picked up a can without hesitation…only to have my wife drink it a couple of days later.  I went to Big Lots, picked up another one, made sure she knew that it was for me, and took it to work the next day.

Once again, I’m a little torn here.  The flavor itself (and the scent, for that matter) is strongly reminiscent of Rockstar’s Juiced energy drink from several years ago, which blended orange, passion fruit, and guava juices to form a sweet, but pretty potent, energy kick.  That actually happens to be one of my favorite energy beverages of all time.  But as good as it tastes, the flavor in this one is created using no fruit juice; so what you’re getting, essentially, is a chemical-induced flavor.  Again, there’s nothing wrong with its taste, per se, but with all the current health issues cropping up almost daily, just how good can such a thing be for you?

Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but that fact just stayed in the back of my head all times, to the point that I really didn’t enjoy it a whole lot.  I will say that this gave me a lot of energy…after downing a little more than half a can, I was wired (and incredibly paranoid) for around the next six hours, which probably indicates I had a little more than  I should have.  But it also tells you just how powerful this stuff can be; for fifty cents, there’s a helluva lot of energy to be had.

I might get this at some point in the future if I really needed a quick kick of energy, but with the constantly rotating energy drink options at Big Lots, including some with actual juice in them, I couldn’t see myself getting this one too often at all.

Overall: 5.5/10. It actually tastes good and gives a strong, powerful kick.  Not to mention, a can is fifty cents.  So why such a low score?  It might not bother many out there, but despite tasting like a juice-infused energy beverage, this has absolutely zero juice in it.  None.  So what you’re getting is essentially chemically-induced flavor, which paired up with the already excessive amount of chemicals and questionable ingredients that most energy drinks have, just doesn‘t feel necessary, or healthy.  If Big Lots were to start carrying these full time, or if they ever got in another shipment (these seem to be a close-out item), I would occasionally think about picking one up, especially for the price, if I needed a quick kick, but with their constant rotation of such beverages, I’m sure I could find something better for around the same price.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Fast Bites Breaded Chicken Sandwich; Sausage and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich (Dollar Tree)

What $1 looks like in frozen sandwich form.
If you’re at all familiar with the “Fast Bites” sandwich line, available at Dollar Tree for the titular amount of currency, then you know they consist of a variety of frozen sandwiches, mainly purchased by single, lonely people who have no one to cook for them.  If you haven’t heard of them, then good for you…you were better off for it.  But sometimes we all get in a little pinch, so I picked up a couple of these just to see if they were worth a buck.

The breaded chicken sandwich is just that…a piece of breaded chicken, topped off with a sesame seed bun, and bottomed off with a much more bland bottom half.  I actually ate this entire thing the way it’s presented right out of the box, without any additional condiments or toppings, though I think that’s more a sign of my laziness than any kind of endorsement as to the tastiness of this sandwich.  Honestly, it’s almost exactly as you’re probably picturing it in your head…a non-crunchy piece of chicken sandwiched between two semi-soggy pieces of bread.  That about sums it up.  The flavor of the chicken is decent, though you can tell there’s no shortage of sodium, which is par for the course in the world of frozen foods.  You’ll also be questioning the quality of the chicken, but then again, that’s also par.

Really, I’d compare it to something you would get at McDonald’s, at least in terms of quality, and the price tag is also similar.  It is a little smaller than the box would suggest, so if you’re really hungry, you’re going to need at least two, or maybe a side dish, to fill you up.  You’ll probably also want at least some mayonnaise, if not lettuce and/or tomato, as the chicken is fairly dry by itself.  You should also probably prepare yourself for a case of eater’s regret, which you will get immediately upon finishing the last bite.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Overall: 4/10
.  While there’s technically nothing wrong with the taste, this is a perfect example of what’s wrong with America in general:  A case of food being way cheaper than this kind of food has any right to be.  There are barely any nutrients to be had, aside from a heavy dose of protein and some dietary fiber, but it’s mainly a heavy dose of fat and cholesterol, and a load of empty calories.  The bun, while not as soggy as you may expect, still doesn’t taste very fresh, and the chicken is of questionable quality, like most of the frozen foods that we eat.  If you’re in a pinch, either one that’s budgetary, or timed, I guess it doesn’t get much easier than tossing this in the microwave and having a quick dinner, but I wouldn’t recommend living off these for any prolonged amount of time.

This terrible picture is what I get for forgetting to take my own.
I love breakfast sandwiches, but they’re often pretty expensive, with multi-packs, even at Aldi, pushing a dollar per sandwich.  Not to mention that they are entirely unhealthy, but that’s really only a secondary concern for me anyway.  So when I saw Dollar Tree offering cheese and sausage breakfast sandwiches for roughly the same price, I decided to see what they were all about.

We’ll start off with the biggest flaw, and one that haunts all of these frozen sandwiches:  The biscuit.  Microwave prep, which these are designed for, just doesn’t allow for any kind of frozen bread to cook up crispy, so what we get is a soggy, lifeless, and largely tasteless biscuit.  I also get the feeling that it’s too soft…definitely the weakest link in the entire thing.  The packaging is also slightly misleading; you know how you buy a bag of chips, only to find out it’s 90% air?  Well the sandwich isn’t quite as big as the packaging would have you believe.  It’s still good size, don’t get me wrong, but the box it’s in makes it look like it will be a monster (it’s also pretty flat, so it doesn’t even take up half the box height).

Surprisingly, the taste comes together to almost make up for all the other shortcomings.  The sausage patty is just about on par with those you would find at a certain fast food establishment; it’s super sodium-packed (of course), but has a good flavor that tastes, well, like sausage.  There’s plenty of cheese to go around, too; even though my sandwich had most of it globbed on one side, there was still noticeable cheesiness on the other half.  It’s nothing mind-blowing, as it’s just a piece of American tossed haphazardly on top, but it goes rather well with the sausage.

I find the value to actually be pretty decent, as even a plain sausage biscuit at the biggest fast food restaurant in the world costs $1, and is noticeably smaller.  And, as I alluded to earlier in this review, even the multi-packs at Aldi are close to $1 per sandwich.  The convenience factor also plays a big role; they cook up in the microwave in just 90 seconds, making it a perfect snack (or breakfast) to grab on the go. 

Overall: 7/10.  A surprisingly delicious breakfast sandwich that cooks up quick, making it perfect for a snack or meal on the go.  The biscuit is rather soft and listless, a consequence of buying any breakfast sandwich frozen, but the sausage is tasty and there’s a generous helping of American cheese that tastes like standard American cheese, which in this case is a positive.  Value is also good; just getting a sausage biscuit at a large fast food chain costs $1, and is noticeably smaller.  The biggest downside is the health hit--just one sandwich makes up 40% of your daily fat intake, 13% cholesterol, and 50% sodium--even though you know it’s going to be bad going in, I feel like that’s a ton for just one average-sized sandwich, to speak nothing of anything you may eat with it.  Still, just going by taste, this is pretty darn good, and one that I’ll definitely indulge in occasionally from time to time.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Hype Enlite Energy Drink; Yellow Big Jak Energy Drink (Big Lots)

If you're watching your calories, and like drinking junk, then I guess this is an option.
They say once you’ve tried one energy drink, you’ve pretty much tried them all.  Okay, I just made that up, but it’s largely true: Standard energy drinks have a largely standard flavor, and even the ones that have added ingredients, like juice, seem to be copied and knocked-off by other companies.  Sure, they may have slight differences that help to differentiate between the different brands, but for the most part, the chemical makeup is the same.

Enter Hype Enlite Energy, available in 16 oz. cans for just $.50 from select Big Lots stores.  It tastes just like every other standard energy drink ever manufactured, except for one difference:  It’s a low-calorie beverage, meaning it’s essentially a “diet” version of an energy drink.  These are characterized by a weaker flavor right off the bat—like many diet drinks it tastes slightly watered down—followed by that rather disgusting aftertaste, no doubt due to the usage of artificial sweeteners.  So it’s got an okay taste, made even worse by the terrible aftertaste.

Nutritionally, this drink seems to be an almost low-level energy supplement, providing 152 mg of caffeine per can (near the average mark), but well less than 100% of four different B vitamins, which are the vitamins that give you bursts of energy.  Typically, energy drinks will “max out” on these, giving around 200% per can; here, we get 152% vitamin B3 and 134% vitamin B6, but then only 80% B12 and 96% B5, putting them well under the level of most energy beverages.  Whether or not this will work for you depends on your tolerance for caffeine: As I always have to specify, mine is low, because I do not drink coffee and have cut back on soft drinks, so half a can gave me a noticeable increase in energy, but also noticeable was how weak it was compared to stronger energy drinks.

Of course, like any drink, this one can fill a niche, with people that might not want such a “hardcore” energy rush; at just 48 calories and only 8 grams of sugar per can, this can be a go-to beverage if you’re looking to avoid overloading your body with sugar; the low sugar content should also, at least in theory, minimize the “crash” later.  So I guess if you have a low tolerance for caffeine, and want just a slight push, this will do the trick.  But judging from the number of these available at Big Lots when I purchased mine, it doesn’t seem like there are a lot of people in that niche.

Overall: 4/10.  Those predisposed to the terrible aftertaste of diet drinks might give this a higher score, but this tastes just like a watered-down version of pretty much every standard energy drink out there, with the aforementioned terrible aftertaste.  The lack of B vitamins (it has well under 200% of two B vitamins, and under even 100% of two more per can) also makes this a rather low-level energy supplement; if you’re constantly drinking coffee or soda, it will probably take quite a bit of this stuff to even give you any kind of push.  However, points must be given for value, as a 16 oz. can retails for just $.50 at select Big Lots stores, though chances are even within the walls of that store, you can find a much better option.

Yellow Big Jak?  That's all you give us?  What does yellow taste like?!
Big Jak energy drinks seem to pop up quite frequently at Big Lots stores.  I’m thinking their can designs, which refuse to reveal their flavors, probably have a lot to do with that.  For example, I always assumed their Red Big Jak (formerly known as Red Jak), was just their standard energy drink offering; after reading some reviews, I have just discovered that it’s a strawberry/cherry-ish kind of flavor, which would be right down my alley.  Maybe if they would make that a little clearer, they could increase some sales, but what do I know?

Earlier on, I reviewed their Big Jak Iced, which actually reveals their flavor on the can, unlike the other flavors.  While the iced version had a very fake peach taste (but still received a high score due to the ridiculously cheap $.50/can asking price, paired up with the intense buzz I got after drinking just half a can), I was a little hesitant to try Yellow Big Jak.  After all, what was it?  A low-calorie version of their Red Big Jak?  Lemonade?  The ingredients, which consist of no juice, weren’t much of a help, so I finally decided to just wing it and give it a go.

Turns out my estimation was right:  It is lemonade!  The smell, which is actually fairly weak, smells very similar to a popular lemonade malt beverage; I can’t complain too much, because I’ve been known to throw those back every now and again.  The taste is surprisingly tart, without being overly so, and is pretty close to the taste of lemon; at least, much closer than the fakey peach of their iced tea drink.  Of course, factor in the obligatory “altered taste” that energy drinks seem to be required to suffer from, and it actually tastes more akin to a malt beverage, than a freshly-squeezed lemon, but I guess you can only expect so much from two quarters.

The kick of energy came rather swift, and lasted a few good hours--I actually ended up timing it just right so that as the buzz was wearing down, it was conveniently bedtime.  I'm not sure how much this typically retails for, and with store shelves seemingly becoming more and more cluttered with energy drinks, I wouldn't pay anywhere near $2 for a can.  But for fifty cents, this is an outstanding value, and I would definitely contemplate purchasing it again.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Though the packaging is rather secretive, Yellow Big Jak is a lemonade-flavored energy drink that I would be willing to guess is made up of exactly zero lemons (there's no juice percentage listed, and only the vague use of "natural and artificial flavors" in the ingredients, which doesn't really tell us anything).  However, there's a decent amount of kick in each can, and when paired up with the ridiculously low asking price of $.50 per can at select Big Lots stores, it's a great, cheap way to catch a buzz.  The lemon flavor is decent, though reminiscent of a lemonade malt beverage more than freshly squeezed lemons.  If you can deal with that fact, then chances are you're really going to like this.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Nature's Nectar Super Green and Mango Medley Smoothies (Aldi)


I promise you it does not taste like sewer water, as its look would suggest.
Aldi has always been a great place to buy private label brands, often made in the same factories as the major ones, all for a fraction of the price.  However, as more and more national brands make their way into Aldi stores, I can’t help but feel a slight sense of, for lack of better term, betrayal.  For example, Aldi used to have a huge pallet filled with their off-brand sports drinks (Infuse), which were just as good as the more expensive stuff.  But now, it’s the national brands with the huge pallet, while Infuse gets sequestered into a tiny shelf space.  Ditto that for their sodas, which have now been replaced with large displays of Coke.  While I don’t think for a second that Aldi will eventually abandon their lower price goods, in favor of becoming just another supermarket (after all, it is their private-label business that has gotten them as far as they have come to begin with), it’s still somewhat alarming to see such a large percentage of available floorspace taken over with national brand products.

For the most part, I pass them all up (save for the one time I fell for it, and accidentally purchased the name brand Honey Nut O’s cereal, because I did not think to double-check that it was actually the Aldi brand); but a couple brands they started carrying did start getting constant rotation through the Tom family refrigerator: Namely, Bolthouse Farms and Naked juices.  While the Naked juices are offered for around the same price as they are in supermarkets (a 32 oz. bottle retails for $3.99 at Aldi), it was Bolthouse products that have seen the steepest discounts, with 32 oz. bottles retailing for just $2.95, a price most markets have the 16 oz. bottles for.  After trying the bottle my wife picked up once, I became addicted, and there is almost always a bottle of Green Goodness in our fridge, while my wife fell in love with the Naked Mango smoothie.

I didn’t think I’d ever see the day, but I nearly jumped with excitement upon seeing that Nature’s Nectar, Aldi’s own private label brand that specializes in juice drinks, were releasing their own versions of Bolthouse’s Green Goodness and Mango drinks.  I made sure to pick both of them up as soon as I saw them.

The bottle itself is different, shaped more like a plastic carafe, and pretty unassuming; the fruit list, which is so prominently displayed on the national brand bottles, is confined to small print on the back label.  It retails for $2.49, roughly fifty cents cheaper than the national brand, which is always offered, at least at our location.  Just like Bolthouse, there is no sugar added, the ingredients comprised almost entirely of fruits and vegetables.  So you can tell what it’s supposed to be mimicking from the outside, but how does it transfer to taste?

Not surprisingly, pretty well.  I did detect that Nature’s Nectar’s version was sweeter; I thought it was just slightly so, but the disgusted look on my wife’s face after trying it seems to suggest it was a lot moreso than I perceived.  Still, it wasn’t enough to bother me, and once the sweetness falters, the rest of the taste is pretty spot-on.  I would love to describe the flavor, for people who have never tried it before, but that can be kind of hard; it doesn’t taste like any one juice, but somehow manages to be a refreshing conglomeration of several juices (as well as weird ingredients like spinach, garlic, and artichokes, which of course aren’t obvious factors on the taste).  I did find the aftertaste to be slightly more noticeable here; it’s nowhere near pungent, but tastes a little weirder than Bolthouse’s version.

So, will I start buying the Aldi brand, if it is made available all the time?  That’s a simple question that’s not so simple in practice, because I can’t honestly say for sure one way or the other.  For the first time I can recall, I’ve really taken to the national brand, so even though Aldi’s version comes pretty darn close, I’m not sure the two-quarter discount will be enough to sway me.  Maybe the bigger question is: If Aldi feels they’ve found a suitable replacement, will they stop carrying the national brand products?  If they do, that will make my decision a whole lot easier.

Overall: 8/10.  Aside from some extra sweetness (which, like the original beverage, is derived from fruit; there is no sugar added), and a slightly more bizarre aftertaste, this is a very accurate knockoff of Bolthouse Farms’ Green Goodness juice beverage, which is one of my favorite things available from Aldi.  But for the first time ever, I’m in a bit of a quandary:  Is the two-quarter discount (Bolthouse products retail for $2.95 at Aldi, while their version is $2.49) enough to get me to commit to Nature’s Nectar’s version?  It’s too early to say for sure.  Still, if I was ever budget-strapped, or if the main brands were ever sold out (or stopped being carried altogether at Aldi stores), I wouldn’t have a problem making a switch.  As long as there’s a choice, though, I may just stick to the quiet perfection of the original.

Can't say that either of us are impressed with this.  At all.
To summarize the long backstory told in the previous review: One of my favorite-ever drinks is Bolthouse Farms’ Green Goodness; my wife’s is Naked’s Mango smoothie beverage.  Lo and behold, Aldi is offering Nature’s Nectar (their brand of juice beverages) Super Green and Mango Medley smoothies as a Special Buy in their stores.  As far as I can tell, both of them are knocking off Bolthouse Farms’ versions of these beverages, which neither my wife nor I, have ever tried.  So how does this stack up on its own?

The reason my wife enjoys Naked’s mango smoothie so much is because of the texture; whereas just about all of these drinks call themselves “smoothies”, many of them are lighter than a smoothie.  In other words, while thicker than the average juice, they’re still closer to the consistency of a liquid than they are an actual smoothie.  The mango version, however, is a lot thicker than most, which really does give it a thickness that could safely be considered “smoothie”.  However, this being a knockoff (I’m fairly certain) of Bolthouse Farms’ Mango drink, and not Naked’s, we weren’t really sure what to expect.

Thankfully, the texture here is also pretty thick, though my wife didn’t feel like it was up to par with her favorite one.  For me, the thickness isn’t so much of a big deal, though I will say it’s definitely thicker than the Super Green version, which is more like juice than anything else.  The smell is inviting, though I feel like it smells more like the rind of a mango than the fruit itself; a rather nitpicky “complaint”, but one I feel is worth noting, for whatever reason.

The taste is somewhat a mixed bag:  It starts off rather sweet, fruit flavors at the forefront, before it gradually gives way to a somewhat bizarre, certainly unsweet finish; the first thing I thought of was that it tastes like a mango rind, too, while my wife described it as “peppery”.  I do find it a little bizarre that, out of Nature’s Nectar two offerings, this is the one that isn’t super-sweet, considering it’s comprised almost entirely of concentrated juice and purees, save for some vitamins and beta carotene for color (whereas their Super Green somehow manages to be even sweeter while containing other ingredients like spinach and garlic; go figure).  I’m not real partial to mangos, having just started liking them a few months back, but I wasn’t a real huge fan of this.  If it’s offered full-time at Aldi stores, I would probably pick it up occasionally, just as a change of pace, or maybe as a mixer to other juices (or alcohol) but certainly not very often at all.  My wife was also sorely disappointed; I don’t think she’ll ever pick it up again.  In fact, I very well may have to finish off this bottle myself.

Overall: 5/10. Their Super Green was largely spot-on, and put me in a bit of a quandary whether to continue buying Bolthouse’s version, or Aldi’s; this one, on the other hand, isn’t even close.  While I’m not the mango aficionado in this house (a title that would easily go to my wife), neither of us were really huge fans of the taste.  It starts off sweet, but then gives way to a decidedly non-sweet finish, one that I would describe as “mango rind”, while my wife said that it's “peppery”.  I don’t often buy mango juices; for me, this certainly won’t change that.  My wife, on the other hand, counts Naked’s Mango smoothie as one of her favorite drinks in the world, and will just continue purchasing that one, at $1.50 more per bottle.  Darn you, Aldi!