Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mama Cozzi's Rising Crust Pizzas: Four Cheese and Spinach, Chicken, and Garlic (Aldi)

MAMA COZZI'S FOUR CHEESE RISING CRUST PIZZA
Want something with more flavor? Eat the cardboard box.
There was something that looked kind of…boring in the packaging to Mama Cozzi’s Four Cheese Rising Crust Pizza, which is precisely the reason that I have avoided buying it for several years.  There just seemed to be many more delicious options that I never felt the need to pick this up; those options range from their often-excellent take and bakes, to their neverending rotation of frozen pizza Special Buy’s that are always available.

But give it enough time, and under the right circumstances, any of Aldi’s main offerings become a good fall-back plan.  In this case, it was most of the Special Buy pizzas involved meat, which my vegetarian wife refuses to eat, for obvious reasons (though we did pick up a deep-dish cheese pizza, as well).  So we stumbled on this and decided to pick it up, if for no other reason than to have a simple cheese pizza that we could throw in the oven when my wife didn’t feel like cooking.  Works for me.

I will admit that I overcooked it a little bit, completely forgetting to check on it after I set the timer for ten minutes too long.  Oops.  But if anything, this little problem only gave it more flavor than it otherwise would have had; there’s no excuse for anything with four cheeses to taste so incredibly bland.  Especially given Aldi’s propensity to offer generally above-average frozen pizzas.  Even in the occasional failure, there’s usually something that stands out, but even the crust is listless, boring stuff.  I received no joy out of taking a single bite, and we ended up letting just slightly less than half of it go to waste (and we usually down our frozen pizzas).

I was also expecting the crust to rise a little bit more, or to at least look more inviting than it actually is.  But it’s just a tasteless ring that surrounds the largely listless cheesy center.  Adding insult to injury, this pizza is, if I remember correctly, $3.99.  I’ve had far better pizzas for around the same price.  Hell, even their cheap national brand knockoffs (which retail for a mere $1.99 last time I checked) still pack way more flavor for a third of the price.  If I ever walked into an Aldi store, and discovered this was the ONLY pizza they offered, I would turn right back around, drive to a Little Caesar’s, and be much, much happier.

Overall: 2.5/10.  An offensively listless, tasteless pizza.  How can something with four cheeses be so incredibly bland?  I’d actually put off buying this because even the packaging made it look boring, but when it was one of only a couple options that my vegetarian wife wanted, we decided to give it a shot.  I did overcook it, admittedly, but I’m honestly convinced the charred cheese actually gave off more taste than it normally would have had had it been properly cooked.  If this was a $2 pizza, it would still suck, but at least a case could be made for it being an “entry level” pizza.  But no, this is a $4 pizza, and all it had my wife and I thinking was, “For another dollar, we could have had Little Caesar’s”.  This is a complete waste of money, plain and simple.

MAMA COZZI'S CHICKEN, SPINACH, AND GARLIC RISING CRUST PIZZA
"Rising crust" is right...you'll be chewing on it longer than you do the rest of the pizza.
It probably doesn’t take long to realize that I eat a lot of frozen pizzas.  I know they’re bad for you, but they’re so easy to make, and many of them taste good, so we (or I) tend to eat at least one per week.  This week, with my wife’s weird work schedule, I was left to fend for myself for a couple days, and so I picked up a Mama Cozzi’s Chicken, Spinach and Garlic Rising Crust Pizza from Aldi.  If you remember, my wife is a vegetarian, so I made sure to grab something with meat in it, since I would be enjoying it without her.

I like a lot of Mama Cozzi’s frozen pizza offerings, but the last “rising crust” one I had was hugely, disgustingly underwhelming.  It was a four cheese, that both my wife and I denounced; I will never pick that one up again.  Truth be told, I didn’t really have high hopes for this one, either, but the ingredients made the pizza unique enough that I hadn’t had it a million times, and that was good enough to get me to pull the trigger on the purchase.

I burnt it a bit, but it was the good kind of burn: where the outer edges and some of the middle got a little charred, but the rest was perfectly cooked.  I like the charred flavor, especially on cheese, so if anything, I actually did this pizza a favor by giving it a little extra taste.  The garlic sauce, which replaces typical pizza sauce, is pretty good for a frozen pizza; it’s not at all overwhelming, and becomes the dominant flavor in this whole shindig.  The cheese and spinach are just there for support, and while they only slightly add to the taste, they’re welcome additions.

The chicken, on the other hand, is completely unnecessary.  They’re just small, white chunks of dry, bland chicken that adds absolutely nothing of value to the mix, besides a soft, chewy texture.  This is by far the weakest link; I think the pizza could benefit a great deal from substituting the chicken with some kind of crumbled cheese--feta springs immediately to mind--which could really take this whole thing to the next level.  But alas, I don’t work for Mama Cozzi, and so we must deal with it the way it is.

The second problem is that the crust is way too big; it feels like it overwhelms everything else.  Like a lot of crusts, it’s dry although I must admit it has an unexpected hint of sweetness in it that makes it surprisingly good for the first few bites.  However, there’s so much of it that one can’t help but grow tired of it; it seriously feels like you get a side of breadsticks with your pizza, that’s how much crust there is.  I never leave crust, but I had to on occasion simply because I got sick of chewing it so much.

The upside to all of this is that I must confess this is a pretty filling pizza.  I’ve been known to devour entire frozen pizzas all in one sitting, but I left half of this one for later, and ended up eating it for dinner the following night.  That has never happened to me--usually, the leftovers are just an after-work snack, since there is so little left.  I have to also admit that I won’t be getting this again for a long time, simply because the crust has me absolutely burnt out on these rising crust pizzas.

Overall: 5/10.  The crust is overwhelming; you’ll spend more time eating the crust then you will the rest of the pizza.  At first, it’s surprisingly sweet, but once that novelty wears off, it’s just a dry hunk of bread.  The garlic sauce is the best part of this whole thing, and thankfully it’s the dominant flavor, although the spinach and cheese offer up some decent support.  The chicken, however, is completely unnecessary; they’re just dry pieces of chicken, with absolutely no flavor besides the faint taste of “default chicken”.  I think this pizza would be a lot better if they just plucked off the chicken and replaced it with some kind of crumbled cheese (i.e. feta or maybe even blue); it would also give it the added benefit of being vegetarian.  But I don’t make these decisions, and so what Mama Cozzi’s has here is a woefully average frozen pizza that could be a whole lot better.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mama Cozzi's Take and Bake Mexican Pizza; Stuffed Crust Pepperoni Pizza (Aldi)

MAMA COZZI'S TAKE AND BAKE MEXICAN PIZZA
Muy delicioso.
Back in March, I reviewed Mama Cozzi’s taco pizza, which is hands-down one of my favorite frozen pizzas ever.  Then, in a recent Aldi ad, I saw Mama Cozzi’s was offering a take and bake version of a Mexican pizza, and I immediately got excited; how would the take and bake version compare to the frozen version? All I knew was, I had to give it a shot.

One thing I didn’t notice, at least until I pulled it out of the packaging, is that this is a thin-crust pizza.  I know, I know, it says it right on the front of the box, but I clearly didn’t pay it that much attention.  That’s neither a gripe, nor a positive; just a stray observation, as I know there are many pizza lovers, each with their own preferred style of crust.  Though I feel like you don’t quite get as much pizza with thin crusts, I do love that they tend to cook up crispier than the traditional crusts, and this one was certainly no exception.

This pizza pretty much has the same ingredients from the frozen version, so it’s no surprise that it tastes very similar.  The biggest noticeable difference, at least to me, was that the peppers seemed to taste fresher here, which makes sense, given the fact refrigerated vegetables tend to hold their flavor better than frozen, at least in my opinion.  So then, that puts us into a bit of a quandary…is this even worth it?

For starters, the frozen pizza weighs in at 15.65 oz., putting it just below the pound mark, and retails for $2.99.  Their Mexican take and bake weighs in at 31.3 oz., or, just under two pounds.  It retails for $6.49.  Technically, you could buy two of their frozen pizzas for $5.98, which also creepily equals 31.3 oz. exactly, and save $.52.  Personally, I’m not sure the savings are that big of a deal to sway me either way, but I know what it’s like to have to watch every penny, and two-quarter savings could matter to some people, hence the very slight deduction in the overall score.

In the end, I guess it would come down to personal preference:  If you’re entertaining, Mama Cozzi’s extra-large take and bake would be the way to go, while for single eaters, the frozen version would be fine.  Likewise, the frozen pizza has a thicker crust, while the take and bake, as we have already established, is cracker-thin.  Moral of the story:  No matter which one you get, chances are you’re going to like it, and that’s an all-around win-win.

Overall: 9.5/10.  Tastes very similar to Mama Cozzi’s Mexican Style Taco Seasoned Pizza, which is one of my favorite frozen pizzas of all time.  The cheese is delicious, the thin crust cooks up nice and crispy, and the peppers are flavorful.  So why not a perfect score?  It all comes down to cost, as one of these costs $6.49, while the frozen pizzas retail for $2.99 (and creepily, two of the frozen pizzas are the exact same weight as one of the take and bakes).  For some, comparing a frozen pizza to a take and bake might be like comparing apples to oranges, but when the taste is so close, it’s apples to apples for me.  Either way, this is a delicious pizza, and one that I wouldn’t hesitate to get again.  Since it’s an extra large (16”), there’s plenty to go around, though if there are any leftovers, it tastes almost just as good the next day.  Highly, highly recommended.

MAMA COZZI'S STUFFED CRUST PEPPERONI PIZZA

Muy crappy.
Although it might seem to outsiders, based on my reviews, that my food life simply consists of pizza and energy drinks, I can assure you that isn’t the case.  Well, I certainly enjoy both of those things, and I do consume them quite often, but outside of Aldi, we rarely partake in pizza.  For starters, the pizza chains (and, for what it’s worth, even the mom and pop shops) are generally overpriced for what you get, so we tend to avoid those.  There are a couple of “upscale” pizza shops nearby, that offer excellent pies for a decent price, but those tend to be more of an occasional splurge.

When I saw Aldi would be offering a stuffed crust pizza, I was immediately on board.  The main reason, besides the fact I’d never seen Aldi offer them before, is because I’ve never had a stuffed crust pizza in my life.  The main nationwide chain that offers them (with the initials PH) is absolute junk, and I vowed never to eat at one again after a terrible experience at one on vacation (and having been unimpressed in my rare visits in town prior to that).  This gave me a chance to try a stuffed crust, without supporting a place with food that isn’t even fit to be delivered to a homeless shelter.

First things first, the pizza itself; it was a little underwhelming.  I love Mama Cozzi’s regular pepperoni take and bake, and was hoping it would essentially taste like that, only with a stuffed cheese crust.  The pepperoni part itself just tastes a little bit different, and not nearly as good as it normally does.  I thought this part was definitely underwhelming.  Even though it was fully cooked, the crust also seemed a little doughy to me, which is a big turn off--I like my crust to be nice and crispy.

The actual “stuffed” crust was actually pretty decent…I was thinking that I’d have to dip it in something to give it some flavor, but it functioned as those stuffed breadsticks you can get in the high school cafeteria.  Again, this part was relatively doughy, too, but the white cheese inside was pretty delicious.  That being said, while I tend to have a poor diet, this pizza was still rather rough on my stomach.  I didn’t eat any sides with it (something I usually do), and went in having eaten only a small bowl of cereal early in the day, and I could only down four slices before starting to feel sick.  Just on account of that, I don’t think I’d get it again; the taste certainly doesn’t outweigh the disgusting feeling afterwards.

Overall: 4/10. A pretty unsatisfying pizza.  The stuffed crust part is actually pretty good, but everything was too soft and doughy (and I actually left it in the oven for a little longer than the requested time).  The actual pizza part isn’t up to Mama Cozzi’s typical standards, and I felt sick after downing only four slices on a pretty much empty stomach.  I forget the price, but I'm pretty sure it was $5-something; while this is great value when compared to the chains, $5 for a bad pizza is still a waste of money.  Maybe it’s just not my cup of tea, but I would never get this again.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Gridlock Ultra White; Summit 5-Hour Energy Drinks (Aldi)

GRIDLOCK ULTRA WHITE ENERGY DRINK

Definitely worth grabbing, if you can find one.
I’ve already taken a look at regular Gridlock (gross) and diet Gridlock (better)--now it’s time to take a gander at the most elusive member of the Gridlock family…Ultra White.

I say it’s “elusive” because finding this at my local Aldi is hit-or-miss, to the extent that I thought it was only a Special Buy--my wife and I picked up a couple of cans about two months ago, and haven’t seen them since.  But then on a recent trip, around two months later, there were three cans of this left on the shelf, so we grabbed them all.  Curiously, the price tag only alludes to the regular and diet versions, with no mention at all of “Ultra White”.  Maybe this problem is just limited to our local store, but if it is a consistent offering, it seems to be sold out more often than not.

I would not have even known what product this was ripping off, had it not been for my wife--she tried the national brand version, and fell in love with it.  I guess it’s pretty similar in appearance to the product it’s knocking off, even down to the etched, textured can (which is a nice touch).  Unlike her, I’ve never actually tried the national brand, so I can’t compare the two, but I do have taste buds, and can at least review it under its own merits.

When I first cracked the can open, I was pleasantly surprised by how much carbonation there was--it seems to be a lot more than similar energy drinks, which I feel are more in the realm of “lightly” carbonated.  This has almost as much fizz as a typical soda pop; the bubbles quickly rose to the top, creating a sizzling sound that was much stronger than most energy drinks.  This could be a problem for some, like those that might like chugging their energy beverages down, but I thought it was a welcome change and a breath of fresh air from the norm.  The smell reminds me of a certain lime and grapefruit soda that is geared toward adults--one that could fall off the face of the Earth, and very few would even notice (I actually happen to like it, but you never really hear about it, and so I forget that it exists).  Not surprisingly, the taste follows suit, offering up a crisp, refreshing citrusy flavor that tastes very similar to the “upscale” soda.  Again, no complaints from me on this, either--it goes down so easy and smooth, that it’s easy to forget it’s an energy drink.

As all of you probably know by now, I hate diet drinks of just about any kind.  As a rule, they always tend to have a fakey, artificial sweetnes to them, and/or a terrible metallic aftertaste.  But this surprisingly doesn’t have either of those things.  There is a tartness to it, but unlike the regular Gridlock, it’s not so exaggerated so as to become offensive and nearly undrinkable.  It’s just a nice blast of tartness that’s welcome, and adds depth to the flavor.  Honestly, this might be the best zero sugar/zero calorie energy drink I’ve ever had, and that should be saying something.

At $.99 for a 16 oz. can, the price is on par with the other items in the Gridlock energy line.  While a dollar is a good price point for this kind of product, most of the drinks around here end up tasting like garbage. Thankfully, this is the best offering I’ve had yet from the Gridlock brand name.  I just wish I knew if it was something that’s offered all the time, or just as a Special Buy, or Seasonal Special Buy; I don’t want to get my hopes up for something that might only occasionally be around.  As far as I’m concerned, they can axe everything else in the line, and only carry this, and I would be more than happy.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Despite it being a zero sugar/calorie energy drink, there’s a surprisingly heavy amount of flavor in Gridlock Ultra White energy drink, and without the disgusting artificial taste of most diet energy drinks.  It has a grapefruity taste, which is different for an this kind of beverage, and also has a lot of carbonation--it’s almost like a soda masquerading as an energy drink.  Caffeine content is pretty low, so this isn’t something that will get you jacked up, or something that will energize you for long stretches of time, but for a quick pick-me-up, this provides a decent amount of energy, and a whole lot for flavor, for a relatively small price.

NOTE: After doing a little research (i.e., going to Aldi way too frequently), I'm ready to announce that this appears to be a year-round offering.  I did glimpse one lady ahead of me on one visit purchasing (no exaggeration) TWO CASES of these at once, so that seems to answer my question: it looks like these are just really popular, at least at my preferred location.  Curiously, the signs still don't even mention these, so unless you know to look for them (and I generally have to dig to find any), they're easy to miss.  I do believe the Gridlock display box does mention them, however.

SUMMIT RED THUNDER ENERGY SHOT

Flawless.
Energy shots seem to be all the rage lately.  Personally, and as I have mentioned in several reviews before, I would much rather drink mine out of a can, preferably one that holds 16 oz. of liquid in it.  I like the carbonation, and I like savoring mine, so that I feel like I’m controlling the amount of caffeine and energy bursts that I’m getting.

But sometimes I’m just tired, and I need something that’s going to kick me into gear without much waiting time.  The name brand definitely does that for me, but they cost at least $2 per small, single serving shot; if I don’t want to pay that for a 16 oz. can, I sure as hell don’t want to pay those kinds of prices for what amounts to one or two small sips of something.  That’s where Aldi comes in.

These are always hiding at the checkout counter, at least at my local store, rather than the energy drink section, and there’s never listed price on the shelf.  Then again, even when there was a price on them, it was wrong--for the longest time, these were advertised as $.89.  Even for that price, these would be highly recommended for value; the energy comes fast and furious, there’s no crash considering there’s no sugar, and these taste really good.  In other words, you get pretty much the exact same performance as the national brand, for a fraction of the cost.

So if they were mispriced at $.89, how much are they really?  A dollar?  Nope.  Think $.69.  That’s right, for way less than you can score something similar from even the dollar store, this provides you with an equal amount of energy with an equally great taste.  This is a perfect example of where Aldi shines--by foregoing the brand name markup to deliver a great quality product, at an incredible price.  Sorry if I sound like an advertisement, but these things are amazing!

Overall: 10/10.  Points just simply cannot be deducted.  What we have here is a knockoff of the five-hour energy shots that seem to be everywhere.  Now, I much prefer the larger cans, because I like sipping and savoring them, but when I need a quick kick in the rear, these things deliver in spades.  They have very similar (if not exact) stats to the national brand, taste excellent despite being sugar-free, and best of all are a mere $.69!  Energy seekers rejoice--then head to Aldi and stock up on these!  About as close to a perfect product as they have ever offered, when both taste and value are taken into consideration.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Snow's Ocean Classics Clam Chowder (Big Lots); Chef's Cupboard Chunky Clam Chowder (Aldi)

SNOW'S OCEAN CLASSICS CLAM CHOWDER
Not worth it.
Sick with a sinus infection, but not wanting anything to do with the boringness that is chicken noodle soup, I decided to throw reason to the wind and grab a can of this from my local Big Lots.  Though I didn’t have much hope for it initially, a quick scan of the ingredients actually had me a little excited:  Fresh clams and clam juice is listed first?  Potatoes second?  Heavy whipping cream’s up there?  Hmm…maybe this stuff won’t be so bad after all!

While “bad” might be a bit of a stretch, it would be an even farther stretch to call this stuff “good”.  Like most canned soups, it’s packed to the gills with salt, but unlike similar soups, it somehow could use a boatload more, because this stuff is ultra-bland.  The texture of the soup itself is pretty spot-on, and the use of heavy whipping cream is pretty evident.  But for having so many clams, you really won’t notice that much as you down the can, mainly because they’re cut up into such small pieces that you will probably end up swallowing most of them whole.  They do create a slight “fishy” taste, but it’s more of a background flavor than something that stands front and center.  The potatoes are the only decent-sized things in here, and there’s at least a fair amount of them swimming around.

If this can was a dollar, I could be a little more lenient and give it some extra points for “value”.  But at $1.49 a can, I could get a similar offering from elsewhere and be much more satisfied.  Again, it’s nowhere near so offensive that it can’t be eaten, and in a day’s worth of hunger, I slammed through the entire bowl in under five minutes.  It’s just that at no point during that time did I actually enjoy what I was eating.  It was more out of necessity than anything else.  Even if you’re absolutely craving clam chowder, I’d advise you to fulfill your intense need elsewhere.

Overall: 5/10.  A surprisingly bland soup, considering clams, potatoes, and heavy whipping cream are at or near the top of the ingredients list.  The chowder does have a good texture, in that it’s pretty thick and creamy, but at $1.49 a can, I can’t even recommend this product based on value.  In a pinch, it will do, and it’s certainly edible, but for roughly the same price, you can do a whole lot better.

CHEF'S CUPBOARD CLAM CHOWDER
Not worth it.
I used to eat a lot of canned soups, again back when I was a bachelor, because they were cheap, and very easy to make.  The older I’ve gotten, I’ve started paying at least a little bit more attention to what I put in my body, and so when I saw the ridiculously high level of sodium content in just about all brands of soups, I made a vow to cut back.  And cut back I did…this bowl of clam chowder was the first bowl of supermarket soup I’ve had in well over a year.

But we were completely broke, and I wanted something I could just throw into the microwave, so I broke down.  When I was single, I remembered really enjoying Aldi’s Clam Chowder (which goes under the Chef's Cupboard brand moniker), so I opted for a can of that.  My wife won’t go anywhere near this stuff, so I knew I was free to enjoy it all to myself.

Pouring the can into a bowl, I was actually surprised at just how…chunky everything is.  Some soups tend to be watered down, but this is filled with huge chunks of potato, noticeable hunks of clam, and even some large pieces of celery.  For a mass-produced product, I was expecting them to skimp out on all of those ingredients, and was surprised to find that they were all here, in great quantity.

That comes at a price, though, because where they did skimp is on flavor.  It just looks way more appetizing than it actually is.  I’m not saying that the soup is bad, but it certainly doesn’t even come close to living up to how appetizing it looks.  The potatoes are just potatoes…even in really good clam chowders, potatoes really don’t seem to serve as much more than added filler.  The problem is, everything else follows suit.  The actual soup portion has the perfect texture, and appears to be rich and creamy, but ends up tasting as bland as the potatoes.  The clam bits, while plentiful and appropriately chewy, also don’t add much in the way of taste.  The large (but very infrequent) chunks of celery are super-soft, and disappear in your mouth before you even have a chance to taste them.

These are the kinds of products where the massive sodium content is confusing--I ate a whole can in one sitting.  That means that I swallowed 72% of my recommended daily sodium intake.  You would think that would at least mean that everything is well-seasoned and full of flavor, but it’s not even close.  Where is all that salt going, and why isn’t any of it at least ending up on my taste buds?  It would work a lot more as an occasional splurge (healthwise) if it was rich and full of flavor.  Thankfully, my taste receptors seem to have evolved from my younger days, and I can say with confidence that it will be a very long time before I get this again.

Overall: 5/10.  The flavor isn’t all that bad, it’s just that there isn’t much there--and for 72% of your recommended daily sodium intake (per full can), it should be one of the most flavorful things in the world.  The texture is nice, with big chunks of potato and clam, and the occasional large chunk of celery, but all this just adds up to something that looks a lot better than it tastes.  Eating the whole can was at least filling (as it should be).  It’s been a long time since I’ve had canned soup (because of the sodium content, ironically) and it will certainly be a long time before I ever get this variety again.


Saturday, January 9, 2016

Season's Choice Veggie Burgers, and Chipotle Black Bean Burgers (Aldi)

SEASON'S CHOICE BLACK BEAN CHIPOTLE BURGER
Ignore my thumb in the bottom part of the picture.
I won’t re-bore faithful readers of this blog with the backstory on why an avid meat-eater sometimes resorts to eating veggie burgers (to summarize: my wife is a vegetarian), so we’ll just jump right into the “meat” (or “veggie”) of the matter, shall we?

Just in time for my wife’s jump into vegetarianism, we just discovered that Aldi now sells veggie burgers, under the Season’s Choice moniker!  They have two kinds, and we’ll be taking a look at both.  I’m not sure if this will be available all year ‘round, or if it’s just a seasonal thing, but there was no signage indicating to to be of limited availability, so we are certainly hoping these will be constantly available.  First up on the docket: Chipotle Black Bean.

We utilized the microwave method, which suggests cooking it for one minute and forty-five seconds.  I cooked it for one minute and thirty on an old microwave, and it came out perfect.  Even before I opened the door to retrieve my vegetable patty, I was enveloped by its delicious, inviting smell--it smells like it’s going to be hot, but it wasn’t just a bland heat; several spices could also be detected, which made me even hungrier.

The patty itself looks kind of unappetizing--it’s pink and rather gross-looking, though you can see corn, beans, and other assorted vegetables poking throughout.  A few of the veggie burgers I’ve had come out of the microwave kind of slimy, but this one, to its credit, was firm and held together very well.

I opted to eat this patty right out of the microwave (well, I plated it first), without any condiments or buns; I really just wanted to absorb as much of the flavor as I could.  That was a wise move, because this packs a punch.  The texture is perfect--I don’t like how some veggie burgers threaten to fall apart if you even look at it funny--these patties easily withstood the force of me cutting them into pieces with a fork.  It’s a little flaky as you cut it, strongly reminiscent of salmon, but the exterior is much stronger.

Flavorwise, it’s very good.  The biggest turn-off for me is when you can clearly taste the bean in a vegetable patty…I like beans, but they tend to make everything dry, and unless you overcook your meat, that’s one thing your meat should never be.  While I wouldn’t say this was really “moist”, the bean flavor wasn’t at all overwhelming, instead giving way to an almost pleasant blast of heat that disappears just a few short moments after it arrives.  I have trouble taking really hot stuff, and I had no problems shoveling this into my face.  The taste is also balanced with some noticeable spices, such as onion and garlic; supposedly, there’s also brown sugar in them, but I didn’t really detect any sweetness.  The end result is a surprisingly complex flavor--or at least, more complex than many of the vegetable burgers I’ve tried up to this point.

I still won’t give up my occasional meat dish, but I would not hesitate to pick these up again.  While they taste nothing like meat, they’re still a very delicious, alternate option to the real thing.  Some people are all-or-nothing (all meat or all vegetarian, with no leeway in the middle), but with products like this getting released, I feel those people are missing out on the best of both worlds.  Great stuff.

Overall: 9/10.  As a meat-eater, I would wholeheartedly recommend these.  While it won’t replace the occasional meat dish in my diet, the texture is pretty solid, even after being microwaved, and the flavor is surprisingly complex--I’ve had some veggie burgers where the beans are the overwhelming taste, and it comes off as being rather bland.  The bean flavor here hides in the background, with some spices and heat coming to the forefront.  Almost a required purchase if you are a vegetarian; honestly, they're better than a lot of meat patties that I've had, and I've found that I keep purchasing boxes of these just to have on hand for a quick dinner.  Insanely good price, too, at $2.49 for four decent-sized patties.

SEASON'S CHOICE VEGGIE BURGERS
Not quite as good out of the box as the Chipotle Black Bean, but has potential.
Well we’ve already heard my story about how I’m a part-time vegetarian by extension of my wife’s full-time vegetenariasm, so let’s just get right down into the thick of things, shall we?

The texture of these patties are very similar to the Chipotle Black Bean Burgers, which is to say that they are held together well, and hold a similar texture to a meat patty.  The outside of the package declares that these patties are made with 10 vegetables, and it’s pretty evident just from looking at the cooked patty (which I tossed in the microwave for 90 seconds) that they are probably not lying--you can clearly see the carrots, peas, and corn, while many of the others are used to hold it all together.

One thing I will say, is that, unlike the Chipotle Black Bean Burgers we just took a look at, the plain Veggie Burgers are not very good right out of the microwave.  The texture is fine, as I alluded to earlier, but the taste is rather bland; these pretty much require some kind of additional accoutrements, whether it be a bun, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, or any combination of thee above.  I chose to simply dip them in ketchup, and it improved the taste for me tenfold, while adding the benefit of another vegetable: tomato.

While the Chipotle Black Bean version blow these away in terms of straight-up taste, if you are planning on treating these like a typical burger--that is to say, planning on adding a bun and maybe some lettuce or tomato and condiments--then these would definitely get the job done.  All I added was ketchup, and it made them infinitely better; with a whole set of condiments and additions, they would be fantastic.  And they’re at a great price point in the often overwhelmingly expensive world of veggie burgers ($2.49 for a four-pack, or 62 cents per patty).  Worth a look.

Overall: 6.5/10. These are pretty bland right out of the microwave, but they have great texture, and a potential to be excellent with added condiments.  After dipping them in ketchup, the flavor improved immensely.  They are also really affordable on just about any budget, with a four-pack available all the time at Aldi for just $2.49 ($.62 per patty).  I would much prefer Season’s Choice Chipotle Black Bean Burgers (see above), which are amazing without anything added whatsoever, but these are definitely edible, especially for the price.


Saturday, January 2, 2016

Jones Barbecue and Sour Cream and Onion Potato Stix (Big Lots)

JONES BARBECUE POTATO STIX
If you like salt, here's a bag of it.

I was out looking for a cheap snack at Big Lots (on a separate trip), and saw a bag of flavored potato sticks for a dollar.  I am a huge fan of Aldi’s Deutsche Kuche branded potato sticks, which proved to me that they can have flavor and not be boring, so I was actually looking forward to enjoying a more standard chip flavor, ported over to the little sticks.

There’s a lot of seasoning throughout the bag, which also happens to be its biggest fault: These things are WAY too salty.  To the extent that a mere 1 oz. serving (in a 4.5 oz. bag) is 20% of your daily recommended sodium intake.  Now, of course, you have to factor in that an ounce of potato sticks go much farther than an ounce of, say, potato chips (where a couple of chips would basically be a serving), but that’s still a lot within a relatively small serving size.

The flipside to this is that the overly sodiumized taste is also a plus: They were so salty, I couldn’t even eat more than an ounce if I really wanted to.  There is a barbecue flavor in there somewhere, because you can taste it in the background, but the rest is just so overwhelming that going through a bag of these just simply isn’t enjoyable.  But I’m a weirdo, and sometimes simply just want something to shove in my mouth at infrequent intervals while, say, watching a movie, and so these weren’t as repulsive to me as they probably should have been.

At the same time, however, they simply aren’t very good.  A quick scan of the ingredients list reveals a barbecue seasoning that’s great on paper (complete with sugar, paprika, and onion and garlic powders), and if they would cut back a bit on the salt (listed fairly high on the list as both an ingredient in the potato sticks themselves, and again pretty high as an ingredient in the barbecue seasoning), I could see these being a tasty little snack.

But just a small handful makes me feel like I’m going to succumb to high blood pressure at any moment, and that’s not usually a positive trait in any food.  If you’re in the mood for a decent, budget-friendly snack, and have a ridiculously high tolerance for sodium, these could fit the bill.  But if you require some actual flavor in it, too, then keep on looking.

Overall: 4.5/10. Overly, overly salty.  As in, that’s just about all you can taste, with some slight barbecue flavor sneaking up, briefly, in the background.  Still, the $1 asking price (for a 4.5 oz. bag) makes them more attractive than they should be, and they do make perfect little snacks for the monthly occasions when I crave something with a little bit of crunch.  On the upside, the extreme saltiness also forces me to put them away after only a couple small handfuls.  Even with these pluses, it will be a long time before I get these again, if I ever do.

JONES SOUR CREAM & ONION POTATO STIX
Purchased from Big Lots, and much better than the BBQ.
We took a look at Jones’ overly-salty barbecue offering above.  The other version they had available at Dollar Tree, was for sour cream and onion, so I sucked it up and opted to give it a shot.  Knowing the ridiculously over-inflated sodium content contained in their BBQ potato snacks, I made sure to compare the label here to see if this had similar amounts.  To my surprise, it wasn’t even close.

Salt is listed twice as an ingredient here, just as it was in the BBQ (once in the actual ingredients of the potatoes, then again as an ingredient in the seasoning), but even taking that double mention into consideration, a 1 oz. serving of these has a mere 9% of your recommended daily sodium intake.  While that’s certainly still high (especially for just 1 ounce of junk food) it’s over half less than the 20% contained in the barbecue (on the same one ounce serving portion).  When I saw that, it made it a lot easier for me to pick it up to give it a chance.

And I’m glad I did, because these are infinitely better than their barbecue counterparts.  The flavor is much more mild, without the dominating salt taste, but there’s still a ton of flavor to go around.  The sour cream helps to “cool” things down, while the onion flavor still peeks through noticeably.  It’s pretty much a standard sour cream and onion flavor, so if you’ve ever had sour cream and onion potato chips you know what you’re in for, but for only $1 (for a 4.5 oz. bag), there is a substantial amount to go around.

Overall: 7/10.  It’s nothing to write home about, but Jones Sour Cream and Onion Potato Sticks are infinitely better (and less sodium-filled) than their barbecue counterparts.  It’s honestly just a straightforward sour cream and onion flavor, so if you’ve ever had similar potato chips, then you know exactly what you’re getting into, but for only $1 (per each 4.5 ounce bag) there is some good value to be had.  Worth a look if you catch them in your local Big Lots store, as I did.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Up Time Energy Drink; Hansen's Diet Red Energy Drink (Big Lots)

UP-TIME ENERGY DRINK
I look naked in the reflection of this terribly-staged photo, but was actually wearing pants.
I don’t think I’ve made it clear enough:  Big Lots (and similar closeout stores) is the perfect place to go for energy drinks, at least in terms of price.  Sure, there are a lot that might not taste up to normal standards, but considering just about all of them (with the exception of the name brands that wind up there) are under $1, it’s a gamble without much of a risk.

As with a lot of private labels, picking up on what products the closeout specials at Big Lots were trying to emulate can be a little depressing; usually, they wear their inspirations on their sleeves.  So when I saw the energy beverage Up-Time, in a curiously-sized 8.4 oz. can (the exact same can as the drink that is said to “give you wings”) I knew instantly what I was in for:  Another in a long line of knockoffs of the hugely popular, “original” energy drink.  Just picking up the can, I figured I had the flavor in my mouth already, and I probably would have put it back and forgotten about it had it not been for the price: $.33 per can.  That changed everything:  Even if it was a spotty imitation, any energy drink that’s 3 for $1 deserves to get an automatic chance in my book.

As I cracked it open, my mouth was prepped for just the taste of a standard energizing blend, until something caught my eye…er…nose.  A quick sniff surprisingly did not match the flavor profile I was anticipating; this one smelled light and citrusy, without a hint of the tartness usually found in most of them.  All of a sudden I went from moderate interest, to full-fledged eager anticipation.  There was the possibility the smell was setting me up for disappointment, but I quickly dug in…

…and I have to say I was pretty shocked.  Despite its god-awful name, Up-Time really is “refreshing energy”.  The citrus aroma I picked up on is here in full force, but it’s light and satisfying without having even a hint of tartness.  To put it simply, it’s way-too-easily drinkable, which means I tend to down these things rather quickly.  I suppose for some people, that’s their typical method of imbibing these sorts of concoctions; drink it down as fast as possible for maximum power.  I like to sip mine tenderly, though, in the hopes that it kind of gradually releases smaller bursts of energy, instead of one big explosion all at once.  I’m not sure that’s exactly how these things work, but that’s how I imagine they do.

Since our initial purchase of three, I’ve since gone back and bought an additional 10, or so.  The value is virtually unheard-of, while the taste would honestly feel at home in a drink costing three times as much.  There are a lot of weird-ish ingredients in here that leave me unsure of their intended effects (coEnzyme Q10 and Ginkgo Baloba, to name a couple right off the front of the can), and the aftertaste is a little bizarre, but this is still a great deal no matter how you look at it.  Unless coEnzyme Q10 turns out to cause cancer, that is.

Overall: 8/10. With the potent combination of inherent drink ability and jaw-to-the-floor value, if you stumble on one of these, either at Big Lots or anywhere else, you should pick up a can.  It gave me the kick of energy I was looking for, and it goes down real smooth, without a hint of tart or sourness.  Even though there’s 27g of sugar per can, it’s not overly sweet, either, with a taste that really feels like it’s “all natural”, as the can seems to hint at.  Only downsides:  The aftertaste is a little weird, and I’m unsure as to what a lot of these ingredients are supposed to do; I guess the same can be said for just about any mass-produced food or drink in a standard supermarket, though.  Best of all?  At Big Lots, these are a ridiculous $.33 per can.  That’s not a typo…3 for $1.  Stock up on them if there are any left!

HANSEN'S ENERGY DIET RED ENERGY DRINK
"What the hell does 'red' taste like?"
I know what you’re thinking: “Oh no, not more energy drink reviews!  Haven’t you reviewed enough lately?”  To that, I will only scoff in your general direction.  Then I will start the review.

This one I had ignored at Big Lots for several trips before getting it out of pure desperation.  Over the last couple of months, many wonderful energy beverages came and went, and I purchased and tried (and reviewed) several of them.  I noticed Hansen’s offering multiple times, but for some reason, my mind equates Hansen’s with Jones Soda, and I don’t ever think I’ve ever tasted anything good that’s come out of a Jones bottle.  Maybe that’s unfair, considering neither of them really have anything to do with one another (aside from making “natural sodas”) but hey, it’s these little intricacies that make the human mind such a fascinating thing.

Part of the reason I passed up on this, is the vague packaging, which seems to be a recurring theme with Big Lots energy beverages (future food/drink producers, walk through a Big Lots before you go into production, for a perfect example of how not to package your products).  For starters, look no further than the name.  “Diet red”.  Okay…what the hell does “red” taste like?  I was also put off by the word “diet” on the label.  I hate diet drinks.  The aftertaste and fake sugar taste are absolutely disgusting to me, to speak nothing of the watered-down flavor.  So I kept putting it off.

Until I went in there, in a desperate quest for energy (slight exaggeration), only to discover that other people had, over the course of several weeks, bought every other energy drink in there, save for this one.  Literally, the whole aisle was a barren landscape, and this was the only option left--and there were dozens of them.  It was as if everyone else was avoiding this like I was.  Since they were only $.50, I grabbed a couple, and finally resolved to give them a chance, though I was definitely not expecting much.

I have to say, I’m pretty impressed.  I would never pay more than $.50 for these, but for this price point, they are really good.  In fact, only Up-Time (see above) topped these as the best energy drink I’ve had from Big Lots in recent memory.  So how does “red” taste?  On the unfortunate side, like every other typical energy drink.  I was hoping maybe a “red” fruit (cherry, strawberry, etc.), but it’s just a straightforward flavor.  So why am I impressed?  Because there’s really not much of a fake sugar flavor--it’s nice and tart, with a very minimal diet aftertaste.  Going farther, it actually provided me with a rather massive energy kick--I felt my adrenaline pumping after one can.  Not long after, I got very paranoid, which is also a side effect of a caffeine boost (or maybe overdose?) for me.  My face got warm for a few moments, too.  These feelings lasted for a few hours, and I didn’t have a noticeable crash (thanks to the mere two grams of actual sugar per can; most of the sweetness comes from sucralose).  Getting a noticeable boost from a pretty tasty energy drink, for only fifty cents?  I guess you really can’t judge a drink by its can, after all.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Gave me a noticeable increase in energy that lasted a few hours, while the two grams of sugar prevented me from getting sleepy once it inevitably wore off.  The taste is pretty standard, with a nice blast of tanginess, and there’s no medicine-y aftertaste, much to my surprise.  I had been putting of trying this, but this is an excellent product for the price (a mere $.50 per can).  Check it out, if your local Big Lots still offers them.