Sunday, November 22, 2015

Swurves Savory Corn Crisps; New York Style Cheddar Mini Bagels (Big Lots)

Not great, but if you see these for under a dollar, they're worth it.
I was at Big Lots one morning, around 11 p.m., when I was hit with a wave of sudden hunger.  Even though it’s probably not the healthiest aisle in the store, I went straight for the chips, to see if I could find something to munch on throughout the day.  Even though their inventory changes weekly, to the extent that their chip aisle looks totally different on a month-to-month basis, they always seem to have the basics:  Tortilla chips, plain chips, usually some kind of organic or bean-based chip…but none of those sounded good.  I did have a bag of off-brand barbecue corn chips in my hand, but decided against them because I didn’t want something so overtly salty.

Then my eyes stumbled on a little blue bag.  I was a little hesitant at first, because the bag was only 3 oz. (and retailed for $.75), but eventually it became apparent that the little rippled potato puffs were clearly the most appetizing option.  So I bought them, and eagerly tore into the bag right when I got home.

If you have ever had Munchos, then you will love these, because flavorwise, that’s exactly what these are.  Visually, these are smaller, almost rectangular in shape, and have deep ridges, but even once you bite into them, they have the same light, airy texture.  There is quite a bit of salt in them, typical of most potato chips, but there’s not a lot sprinkled on top, so you don’t taste a lot of sodium; not sure if that’s a good thing or not, since it’s still there regardless, but at least the salt flavor isn’t overwhelming.

Truth be told, these ended up hitting the spot, and I downed just about the entire bag by the end of the day.  There’s nothing at all spectacular about them, and even if these were a normal product Big Lots carried (as opposed to a closeout, which I’m sure these are), I would probably forget about them before my next trip there.  In other words, I would never seek them out, or get any kind of cravings for them, but for this moment in time, they were a good alternative to the typical potato chip.  Maybe if you’re ever in the same boat I was in, looking for something a little different from the norm, these may hit the spot for you, too.

Overall: 6/10.  These are basically Munchos chips, only in rectangular form, and with ripples.  The taste is very similar to that brand, as is the texture.  I’ll admit they satisfied a craving for something different that I had, and I downed the whole bag in a few hours, but it’s literally been years since I’ve had the name brand…and I could easily wait another few years before getting these again.  Nothing spectacular, but good for what they are.  And they are non-GMO certified, for those that follow the battle for food labeling closely.

I think this is a brand name, but it was at Big Lots and it kinda sucks, so I'm reviewing it anyway.
This is probably a name brand, but I found it at Big Lots, and so I consider it to be fair game.  It’s a 5 oz. bag for $1.30, which I don’t think is too bad at all, and since I was looking for a quick snack on a meager budget, it definitely fit the bill for me.

Nutritionally, what‘s contained inside this bag are potato chips.  The amount of calories and fat per serving are very close, so don’t be fooled into thinking that this is some kind of healthy alternative, just because the word “baked” appears on the front.  That being said, we’re all entitled to splurge on some junk food every now and again, and I was in the mood for fat and salt, so I grabbed a bag just based on its inexpensive price tag.

What I didn’t necessarily stop to think about is, “Why is this product at Big Lots?”  It’s true that there can be a myriad of legitimate reasons.  The product could be a limited edition product, or out of its selling season.  The product could be discontinued, with Big Lots relied upon to sell the last remaining units.  The product could have just been a poor seller, with the manufacturer attempting to liquidate the units.  Or it could just totally suck, and it’s there because everyone knows it sucks and refuses to buy it.

The latter might be a little too harsh, but it’s certainly close:  These things just aren’t very good.  When I first opened the bag, I honestly thought they were there because they put the wrong product in at the manufacturing plant--don’t expect any of the bagel chips to feature a nice orange, cheddar-y hue like is featured on the front of the bag--what’s contained within are white, like typical bagel chips.  My suspicions grew even stronger when I took a bite, and discovered that, despite the ingredient label’s assurance that there are not one, but two different types of cheddar cheese inside (regular, and “modified”, whatever that means) the main flavor is salt.  As I got to the bottom of the bag, the cheese flavor became more prominent and noticeable, but it still wasn’t nearly as cheesy, or as strong, as I was expecting.

Of course, you don’t have to eat these out of the bag:  I suspect these would be pretty good in soups (especially cheddar broccoli), and would probably be good with a solid ranch dip.  But just taking these at face value, with nothing added to them, they’re totally underwhelming.

I will say the $1.30 price tag still gives it some value, which adds some points to the total.  I tend to ignore serving sizes and overeat things, and yet I still managed to get about four or five servings out of it (the bag says there are “about five” in a bag), so that was good.  However, I also think the extra servings were due, in large part, to the disappointing nature of the product itself, which isn’t.

Overall: 5/10.  I didn’t really detect much cheddar, until I got near the bottom of the bag…the rest of the bites just tended to taste like salt.  They do have a nice, solid crunch, and at $1.30 for a 5 oz. package at select Big Lots stores, the price is pretty decent for a quick snack.  I’m also not discounting that these wouldn’t be good as an addition to an existing product (soups, salads, etc.), so they probably have their place in the world.  But right out of the bag, these were hugely underwhelming.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Season's Choice Cracked Black Pepper, and BBQ Onion Rings (Aldi)

Crispy and pretty darn delicious.
 This story begins the same way many of my stories do:  With me looking through Aldi’s weekly “Special Buy” ad.  That’s when I noticed they were offering onion rings, something they surprisingly don’t always carry.  But upon closer examination, I noticed that these weren’t just any onion rings…they were cracked pepper onion rings.  I have seen fries go through many iterations, but anytime you see onion rings, they’re typically just typical onion rings.  I guess most places figure that you can’t improve upon perfection, but not Aldi!

The first thing I noticed out of the bag is that these are uniformly large pieces.  I frequently purchase their typical whole onion rings when they are made available, and the size of the individual pieces vary greatly; some are super large, while others are essentially little crisps.  The vast majority of these were large pieces.  The second thing I noticed, besides the large black pieces of pepper generously covering each piece, is that each one looks thicker; just eying them was enough to make my mouth water, as I envisioned the solid “crunch” that each one would make as I’d take a bite out of it!

I must admit, I overcooked them slightly in the oven…somehow, I did not hear the oven alarm go off after they were done.  Needless to say, the crunch I anticipated was all that…and then some.  There certainly is something different about the batter (besides the obvious addition of pepper)…while it doesn’t seem to be any thicker than their normal onion rings, it’s definitely crispier, which is excellent in my book!  As for the black pepper…I honestly didn’t feel like it added much at all.  You can definitely taste it--if you take enough bites, you can even feel a peppery taste sitting on your tongue--but these largely just taste like normal onion rings to me. 

Now, I’m not saying that like it’s a bad thing.  Currently, these are the only kinds of onion rings Aldi is offering, and the extra-crunchy batter, paired up with the whole onions (as opposed to the lamer diced version) make them slightly better than the normal onion rings they carry.  However, I do believe these are a little more expensive (maybe by $.50, or so), and while I didn’t feel like the black pepper added enough to justify the price hike, they are still very good.  I personally wouldn’t hesitate to get these again; Aldi may have failed in their quest to “liven up” the onion ring, but they did prove even failures can be delicious.  Sometimes.

Overall: 7.5/10.  I really don’t think the pepper adds much, besides a peppery taste on your tongue after a few pieces, but let’s be honest here:  Can you really screw up an onion ring?  In this case, I thought the outside cooked up even crispier than their typical onion rings do, giving each bite an inviting crunch.  I also appreciated that these were made with whole onions (as opposed to diced), which always makes a better tasting ring.  If memory serves me correctly, these are about $.50 more expensive than the typical, “regular” rings that Aldi carries, but seeing as how these are the only kinds of onion rings they are offering right now, I wouldn’t hesitate to get these again to satisfy an OR craving.


A bag after being eagerly dug into.
Offered at the same time as the black pepper onion rings are Season’s Choice BBQ onion rings.  I picked them both up, as I have honestly never seen onion rings offered in different flavors (I’m sure it’s a common occurrence, but no restaurant I’ve ever been to has done it, and all the frozen ones I’ve seen have just been standard) and was eager to see what they had to offer.  We’ve seen what I thought of the black pepper, so now let’s turn our attention to exhibit B…the barbecue.

As I was expecting after trying the previous rings, the barbecue onion rings also cook up nice and crispy after about 15 minutes in the oven.  I’m still impressed with the crispiness; these have to be some of the most perfectly textured frozen onion rings I’ve ever had, so this gets some good marks on that front.  I wasn’t really sure how the barbecue would be presented--would the onion rings be glazed in a barbecue sauce?--but as it turns out, it’s just a seasoning that no one would have any idea was supposed to resemble BBQ unless they saw the packaging.  Instead, it’s just a highly salty flavor that does have some spice to it, leading to a slight burn on the tongue, but it goes away rather quickly on its own, or can be contained even quicker with a shot of milk.

I mentioned earlier that I was kind of shocked that no one else is doing flavored onion rings, but now I see why:  There are only so many things you can do with them, and none of them are really interesting.  I suppose you could glaze them in a sauce, but aside from barbecue, I can’t imagine too many other sauces that these would be good with, and I’m not sure how glazed onion rings would keep their flavor after being frozen.  So that pretty much leaves Aldi‘s method of just using different seasonings on them, which can only yield so much.  In this case, it’s a spicy, salty onion ring that, except for the stellar texture and batter on the outside, is basically just an onion ring with extra spices.

Overall: 6/10. They’re not bad, but there’s only about one thing you can do to dress up a frozen onion ring, and that’s to simply cover it in spices.  Which doesn’t lead to many possible flavor combinations, assuming you still want the onion and batter to be the focal points.  So what we have here is an onion ring that tastes pretty much like an onion ring, only with a little bit of heat. I will say the outside texture is perfect, and it cooks up real nice and crisp, but between the black pepper and barbecue onion rings, pick one (I prefer the black pepper) and I’m pretty sure you’ve just experienced the limits of frozen onion ring technology; no need to waste money on both.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Fresh Finds Shells and Cheese (Big Lots); Caribbean Jerk Mac n' Cheese (Big Lots)

Not bad, but not the best deal around.
I loved the name brand shells and cheese dinner when I was a kid, but mainly because it was a treat.  My mom was a single mother and didn’t have much money at all, so usually she would buy the cheap elbow macaroni and cheese stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked that too, but the shells were always so much creamier, cheesier, and delicious.

Well I was in a pinch one night, with no car (it was in the shop) and nothing to eat for dinner, when my wife took me to Big Lots to get a couple of things.  I opted to look for dinner there, too, which is no small feat; aside from fifty different types of noodles, and another fifty different types of pasta sauces, BL doesn’t offer much in the way of comprehensive dinners.  Still, fast food didn’t sound good, and going to the supermarket is one of my least favorite things to do in the world, so I figured I could suck it up and make do for one night.

After looking at the unappetizing all-in-one meals they offered, which were weird combinations of meats and noodles prepackaged in plastic microwavable bowls, I decided to take a look at their macaroni and cheese varieties.  Even though their inventory rotates fairly consistently, they always have a few basic styles of macaroni and cheese on hand, so I knew I could at least buy the name brand in a blue box, if I had to.  That’s when I saw Fresh Finds Shells and Cheese, obviously a knockoff of the more well-known national brand shells.  I had seen that they offered this before, but was kind of turned off by the $1.70 price tag (which is only about $.50 cheaper than the national brand price at most places).  Not seeing anything else even approaching edible, I decided now would be a good time to give it a shot.

Aside from Aldi‘s version, the only other knockoff shells and cheese dinner that I‘ve had (and forgot to review) was from Dollar Tree.  All I can say is, don’t ever buy that; the cheese was so orange it was almost cartoonish, giving off a disgusting orange glow.  Beyond that, it just tasted like salt, with maybe a little bit of cheddar powder thrown in to give the illusion that they were trying.  Still, those thoughts ran through my head as I prepared Fresh Finds’ version.  Would it at least taste similar to the national brand?  Or would it have more in common with the dollar store crap I suffered through?

Thankfully, it’s an almost spot-on recreation of the national brand, from the appearance (size of noodles are very similar, if not exact, as is the consistency and color of the cheese sauce), all the way down to taste.  I did feel like there was a little tang missing in the finish, when compared to the national brand, but the initial taste is virtually exact, and the difference is so slight so as to be rather nit-picky.

So while I did find it to be a good (and slightly less expensive) alternative to the national brand, it still doesn’t hold a candle up to Aldi’s version, which tastes very similar, and is still $.51 cheaper than even Big Lots (making it about a dollar cheaper than the national brand).  For these reasons, Aldi’s Cheese Club brand will be my number one, but if you don’t have an Aldi near you, or if I ever found myself in a similar situation, I’d at least feel confident knowing I have a solid backup.

Overall: 7/10.  Taste and appearance is pretty spot-on to the national brand, and you’ll save a couple of quarters going with Big Lots’ house version; however, Aldi offers a similar product for a couple quarters less than even Fresh Finds (making it about a dollar cheaper than the national brand).  For this reason, I tend to go with Aldi’s knockoff.  But if you don’t have an Aldi store near you, or happen to be in a Big Lots with a craving for mac and cheese, this will suit you just fine. 

"Caribbean sucks" is more like it. Get it?
Can I be up front with everyone for a moment?  I have no idea what the hell “Carribean jerk” even is.  Sure, I’ve seen jerk chicken advertised in chain restaurants (?), but have never ordered it, and never even been curious enough to ask what it is.  So maybe it’s kind of bizarre that, between Caribbean Jerk or Sriracha macaroni and cheese, both of which are available as special buys in Aldi stores, I went with the former.

My reasoning, beyond simply wanting to try something new, is that sriracha products have completely been overblown as of late.  They’re like the equivalent of zombie movies in Hollywood; everywhere you look it’s sriracha this, or sriracha that.  The whole sriracha craze has exploded, and while I admit to liking the stuff straight out of the bottle, the thought of its flavor being added to something already is a complete turnoff to me.  Nowhere is that more evident than at Aldi this week, where it’s apparently “hot week”:  They are offering a variety of spicy products, and just about all of them have sriracha as an option, from sriracha lime popcorn (?), to sriracha flavored potato chips, to the aforementioned sriracha mac and cheese…so I said “Enough already!”, and went with the road less traveled.

The only problem is, having no idea of what jerk is, or what it should taste like, I have no reference point.  That being said, Cheese Club’s Caribbean Jerk macaroni and cheese is pretty bad.  The problem isn’t with the heat:  Surprisingly, this stuff is pretty spicy.  Granted, I’m not huge into spicy foods, so those that eat it frequently will probably find it to be less hot than I did, but a few bites in and my mouth was burning.  The problem is the taste, which tastes like nothing I’ve ever had, so I can’t compare it to anything, but it’s not a taste I enjoy.  It doesn’t come of as very “cheesy” to me, like I would think macaroni and cheese should be…it’s just kind of salty, maybe vaguely cheesy, and then it’s followed up by a bunch of heat.  Definitely not something I would ever get again, and it honestly makes sriracha mac and cheese sound even worse than it already did.

Overall: 3.5/10.  I’ll admit, I have no idea what “jerk” should taste like, but if this mac and cheese is authentic, then I’m glad I’ve avoided it for all 31 years of my life.  It tastes like severe salt overload, with a little taste of something that vaguely resembles cheese, followed up by a pretty strong blast of heat.  So if you’re in the minority and prefer heat over flavor, then you might like this.  But if you like an equal balance of both, then I wouldn’t even give this a shot.  Its only saving grace is value, with each box retailing for under $.75.  Even then, unless you can find it on clearance for half off (or more), I don’t think it’s worth it at all.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Nature's Nectar Blendz: Strawberry & Banana and Peach & Mango

Who knew vegetable and fruit juices could work so well together?
I’m always into trying new juices, especially now that I’m trying to minimize the amount of soda that I drink.  Of course the down side to this, is juices often have a ton of sugar, sometimes close to the amount found in a serving of soda, but it’s at least counterbalanced with an abundance of vitamins.  That’s a trade-off I’m willing to take (and if I’m not, I’ll just drink water).

Enter Nature’s Nectar Blendz, which somehow purport to blend both fruit and vegetable juices into a drinkable juice blend.  Even on paper this idea sounds pretty preposterous, and not at all delicious, but I nevertheless first decided to try their strawberry banana version a couple of years ago.  Since then, it has become one of my staple juice choices to grab every time we visit Aldi stores.

Why?  At the risk of sounding like a commercial, it’s a great way to combine a servings of fruits and a serving of vegetables (per 8 ounces), only without having to taste the veggies.  Now I’ll admit that I really do like just about all forms of vegetables, so it’s not necessarily all about the taste factor for me, but I also don’t really go out of my way to buy them at the store.  This is a decent way to make sure I’m getting at least a serving or two in my system.

Of course the number one reason, is this stuff tastes pretty good.  Now it’s not really a super-accurate portrayal of strawberry banana juice, but it’s pretty darn tasty when you realize it’s made out of beet, tomato, carrot, sweet potato, grapes, oranges, and apple juices (on top of clarified bananas, banana puree, and strawberry juices, of course).  Even though I can make out some tomato juice if I really pay attention, the blend as a whole still remains very sweet and consistent throughout, so you won’t ever take a swig and taste nothing but, say, carrots and beets.  The strawberry and banana juices really take center stage, so you definitely get more of these than anything else.

For parents, I could also see this as a great way to get finicky kids to get some vegetables in their system.  Though some will probably be off-put by some of the flavor profiles, the fact that it’s sweet and the strawberry and banana manages to stay the focal point could trick some kids into thinking they’re drinking just straight up fruit juice, which can make it a win-win for everyone.  As I said, it’s fairly high in sugar (25g per serving), but there’s no high fructose corn syrup added, and it’s also high in Vitamins A and C, so the trade-off, at least in my opinion, is worth it.

Overall: 8/10.  A fruit juice with vegetable juices added that somehow tastes good?  Sign me up!  While it doesn’t taste exactly like a strawberry banana juice (you’ll get some tomato if you pay attention), it’s still close enough to be one of my favorite juices that Aldi carries.  It’s fairly high in sugar content (at 25g per 8 oz. serving), but that’s balanced out by a high amount of Vitamins A and C, as well as smaller amounts of six others.  This could also be a great option for kids who refuse to eat vegetables, as each 8 oz. glass contains one serving of both fruits and vegetables.  No matter how off-putting you think the combination appears (and I would agree it sounds disgusting), assuming you even remotely like fruit juice, I’d definitely recommend giving this a shot.

I’m a pretty big fan of Nature’s Nectar Blendz line (see above review), which consist of 100% fruit AND vegetable juices, a statement that’s based entirely on their strawberry banana version.  The first time I tried it, I was taken aback at how sweet it was, and how accurate the strawberry banana flavor managed to be, even though there were ten different juices in it.  Even though it's one of my favorite juices from the discount grocer, it's not one that I tend to get all the time, instead relegating it to every couple of months when I want something a little bit different from the typical orange and apple juices.

Well on my latest trip to Aldi, I saw that they were offering a new flavor: Peach and Mango!  Now, I love peach, and although I like mango a lot more than I used to (which wasn’t at all), I’m still not sold on being a huge fan.  I went ahead and grabbed it on a whim, as we were getting ready to head to the checkout line and I just remembered that I hadn’t grabbed a juice yet; since this was different, I tossed it into the cart.

It really smells fresh, and the distinct aromas of peach and mango are appropriately front and center.  It’s a very appetizing scent that made my mouth water--and it’s got the taste to match.  This stuff is really fantastic…I have to say it’s one of my favorite juices I’ve ever gotten from the German discount chain.  Its sweetness from the peach is offset a bit by the mango, which gives it a little tartness; as in any great duo, they keep each other in check.  Just as with the strawberry banana one I tried, I’m also impressed with how flavorful and accurate it is even though it’s comprised of juices from four vegetables, and four fruits; I’ve had straight-up juices that weren’t this good.

I’m not sure if these are a constant, or a summer special buy (I’ve only noticed a berry blend being available, along with the strawberry banana, as the only year ‘round options); whether I can pick it up on a regular basis, or have to wait a full year to get it again, I will be getting it a lot in the future.  As much as I like the strawberry banana, I’ve got to say there is a new sheriff in Blendzville!

Overall: 9/10.  A delicious blend of juices from eight different fruits and vegetables that come together to make a surprisingly fresh-tasting concoction that nears perfection.  The sweetness of the peach is counterbalanced by the tartness of the mango.  Easily the best of the Blendz line, and one of the best juices available from Aldi stores…it’s seriously that good.

Appetitos Reuben Bites and Fire-Roasted Poblano Bites (Aldi)

These surprisingly aren't bad at all.
I’m not a big fan of Reubens at all, with the sole exception of the ones my wife makes.  Sure, she uses only ingredients that can be found at any supermarket, but there’s just something about her combination that taste way better than the ones I’ve tried from any restaurant.

My wife is a HUGE fan of Reubens, however, so we purchased these Reuben bites the last time they were available as a Special Buy at Aldi.  I remembered liking them a lot, but never reviewed them, so it took no hesitation on either of our parts’ to purchase them again the next time they were being offered.

They look similar to pretty much everything else Appetitos offers--needless to say, they are breaded chunks of fat- and cholesterol-filled goodness.  For the price, you get about eight or nine good-sized bites--there were more than enough there to fill up my wife and I (though we used them as a side dish).  All you do is pop them out of the box, put them on a baking sheet, and bake them in the oven for ten or so minutes; the prep work couldn’t be any easier.

I always require some kind of dipping sauces with my appetizers, and these were no exception--I turned to a bottle of Thousand Island dressing, which I figured was appropriate.  Even without sauce, these things are pretty good, although as you would expect, they’re pretty darn salty.  The meat, while coming nowhere close to the taste of a good Reuben, is pretty good for a frozen appetizer--I would go so far as to say that these are chain restaurant quality (though “chain” and “quality” are often oxymorons); the thing is, you would pay upwards of $8 for these at a restaurant, whereas these are a mere $2.49 (which is fifty cents more than the average product in the line, but still not too expensive at all).  There’s already some dressing inside, but more is always better, so I finished them off by dipping them in some fresh Thousand Island, which honestly took these to a whole ‘nother level.

In short, these weren’t quite as mind-blowingly good as I remember, but for fans of this kind of stuff, it’s still a worthy way to spend $2, and I will still pick these up in the future from time to time when they are offered.

Overall: 7/10. These aren’t as amazing as I remember them, but Appetitos Reuben Bites are still pretty good, especially when dipped in a dressing (such as Thousand Island, which really makes the flavor pop).  On their own, they’re a little salty (par for the course) and not really that close to the flavor of a well-made Reuben, but for a frozen appetizer that costs a mere $2.49, what did you honestly expect?  Given the price, and their only occasional availability as Aldi special buys, these are worth picking up at least a couple of times a year.

A good, occasional alternate to jalapeno poppers.
I had never heard of a “poblano pepper bite” prior to seeing them at Aldi, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to try them.  While products in the Appetitos line vary from terrible, to really good, their cream cheese jalapenos are some of the best that you can get anywhere, and for a very small price, too.  So that’s what really intrigued me about these…it looked similar to a jalapeno popper, only substitute jalapenos with roasted poblano peppers (of course), corn, and other assorted spices.  At the very least, it would be something a little different.

Cooking is actually ridiculously simple: As with most other frozen appetizers, you can toss them in the oven (our preferred method, as we do not have a deep fryer), but these require less than ten minutes, and you have yourself some fully cooked, and semi-crispy roasted poblano bites.  The breading they use here seems to be the same breading used in their poppers and, by extension, probably their Reuben bites, mozzarella sticks, and every other breaded product in their line.  I’m not complaining, though, because it cooks up nicely in the oven.

The taste is similar enough to jalapeno poppers to appeal to that crowd, but with the peppers and corn, there’s a more “southwestern” kind of taste.  Similar to the jalapeno version, however, this has a surprisingly strong little bite; unless you’re very sensitive to heat, it won’t be enough to require you to keep milk or cold water nearby, but it’s unmistakably there.  The cream cheese helps to offset it with a little bit of coolness on its own--with some dried garlic and onion, it really gives it a pretty tasty flavor that’s different from the standard “popper” filling, and that pairs up well with the peppers and corn contained inside.

For $2.29 (thirty cents more than most of the items in the Appetitos line), you get twelve good-sized pepper bites, making the value pretty solid.  They were a little smaller than the cream cheese jalapenos, but you also get three more of them, so it all evens out.  They’re not incredible, but for something that’s slightly off the beaten path, they’re certainly worth a try.

Overall: 7/10.  There’s nothing that really stands out here, but overall, these are a pretty good change of pace from Appetitos excellent cream cheese jalapenos.  It’s the same idea as those, but with roasted pablano peppers and corn instead.  There’s a good bit of heat here, though catered toward mainstream tastes so it’s nothing that most people won’t be able to handle, and the cream cheese helps to cool things down a little bit on its own.  The taste can best be described as a “southwestern popper”, with the corn and pepper blend really giving it that kind of flavor.  For $2.29, we got twelve good-sized poppers, so value is there, as well.  Good stuff, especially for the price.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Clancy's Bold Party Mix and Horseradish Cheddar Krinkle-Cut Chips (Aldi)

Wow. "The Two D's": different, and delicious.
I have a not-sure-if-I-like-it-or-hate-it relationship with horseradish.  I’m seriously not sure how I feel about it.  On the one hand, I like its bite, but on the honor, its flavor can be very hit or miss for me.  Sure, if any ingredient is misused, it can cause problems in a recipe, but with such an aggressive, in-your-face flavor such as horseradish, the line between success and failure is often razor thin.

With that in mind, I purchased Clancy’s Horseradish Cheddar Krinkle Cut Kettle Chips for my lunch at work a couple of weeks ago.  Why would I buy something I’m not sure I’d like?  If this is your first time here, I’ve reviewed chips that tasted (supposedly) like hamburgers and hot wings, for goodness sakes…clearly, I enjoy (if that is the right term) testing the limits of my taste buds. 

Even though these were purchased for my lunch, I admittedly was so curious about the taste, that I dipped into the bag right when I got home.  But that was about a week ago; since then, I’ve had a chance to experience them even more in depth, and I have got to say:  The taste has really grown on me.

From the outset, there was one thing I appreciated:  Every chip is generously covered in both cheddar AND horseradish.  A big complaint for me concerning Aldi-brand chips, as I’m sure long-time readers (do I have any?) have grown accustomed to hearing about, is the inconsistency between batches; from bag to bag, you don’t know what you’re going to get.  I’ve purchased barbecue chips, for example, where every chip is red, and covered in powder, while others just have a slight dashing, like it was just thrown in as an afterthought.  It really makes it hard to rate these when that’s the case.

But these…these chips are absolutely coated, so that was a big plus.  Or was it?  For not knowing whether or not I like horseradish, these were probably not the smartest chips to try; about three seconds after you put on in your mouth, your tongue will burn.  It’s not a lasting feeling--it goes away about the time you swallow your chip--but it’s unmistakably there, and along with it is an intense horseradish flavor.  Seriously, it’s almost brutal how much horseradish there is.

At first, I wasn’t really sure how I felt.  On the one hand, the flavor was pretty good--thanks largely to a generous helping of cheddar, too, which offsets the heat and provides a cooler flavor--but the sheer amount of the other stuff was almost too much to bear, so I put the bag away.  I ate it for lunch the next day, to similarly mixed feelings.  Then I packed it in my lunch the next day, and my mouth started watering early in the morning just thinking about it.  That’s right, my friends:  in the span of about three days, I went from being completely undecided, to actually looking forward to eating them.  I can’t really think of another product off the top of my head that had this kind of effect on me.

Bottom line?  I love these things.  They’re unlike any chip I’ve ever had…well, let me clarify that a little bit:  They’re unlike any GOOD chip I’ve ever had.  This isn’t the typical “let’s load it up on cheddar and throw in a tad bit of horseradish so we can still make it appeal to the masses” that most “mainstream” chip manufacturers would settle for; this is “we threw in a boatload of horseradish, and added in a touch of cheddar and if you don’t like that then don’t go anywhere near this f-ing bag.”

Overall: 8.5/10.  Horseradish isn’t exactly a “friendly” flavor, but these chips are loaded to the gills with the stuff, to the point that you’ll get a slight burn on your tongue as soon as you put them in your mouth.  Thankfully, they’re also softened up, and evened out, a bit by a generous helping of cheddar cheese.  At first, I wasn’t sure if the combination worked, but after my mouth started watering just thinking about them a few days later, I knew they had won me over.  Each chip is LOADED with so much of each ingredient that it’s almost absurd, but it somehow works.  If you like to try new things, and don’t mind horseradish, you should definitely scope these out.

It's BOLD because the bag says it is!
 Aldi always sells party mix under the “Clancy's” brand moniker, but it’s usually only original and cheddar.  I do not like the cheddar, which features all the party bits covered in a dusting of fake-tasting cheese powder.  No thanks.  I do like the traditional, and actually hadn’t had it in a while, when I saw that Aldi was offering a “bold” version as a special buy.  Craving a salty snack, I grabbed a bag.

And what can you really say about it?  I assume “bold” means “traditional” party mix, but with more salt.  Or maybe there are just more spices…I can’t really say for sure what makes this “bold“, since the basic taste is very similar to the traditional version.  All I know is, my mouth burns after a couple bites of the stuff--but it’s not like a spicy burn, but a burn more akin to when you eat too much salty stuff, hence my reasoning that there‘s probably extra salty seasoning (rhyme intended).

The one thing that Clancy’s gets right, is there seems to be an even distribution of all the individual pieces, at least in relation to their size.  This doesn’t mean you’re going to get just as many rye chips as cereal pieces…that would be ridiculous.  It just means that they don’t skimp on anything, or put too many of one type of item in there.  That might sound like a common sense statement, but most party mixes that I’ve tried seriously overload on the pretzel bits, which are pretty much dry and tasteless; get too many of them in there, and it’s like you’re eating sandpaper.  I’ve downed more than half the bag in about three sittings, and the distribution has been pretty even.  Sure, you get a lot of cereal pieces, but that’s to be expected…it’s a cereal mix, for God’s sake.  But there’s not an overwhelming amount of anything versus another--even the rye chips (my favorite) are in abundance.

Basically, what you get is what you’re expecting to get from a product labeling itself as “bold“: A party mix with some extra kick.  At $2.29 for a 15 oz. bag, there’s quite a lot of snack in here for a pretty minuscule price, so there’s also value to be had.  It’s nothing spectacular, and it’s not out of the ordinary, but if you’re just looking for a cheap way to entertain some guests, or a salty snack to satisfy your savory tooth, it’ll get the job done.

Overall: 7/10.  What you’re expecting to get is what you get: A party mix with some extra “kick”.  I’m not sure if said kick results from different spices, or if it’s just some extra salt, but either way, it delivers.  The usual suspects are here, from the standard cereal bits, to rye chips, pretzels, and little breadstick-looking things, so there’s nothing unique or fancy on display, but the distribution is even (unlike many similar mixes, which tend to overload on the boring, drab pretzels) and it tastes good.  There’s also some value, at $2.29 for a 15 oz. bag.  If you’re craving something salty, as I was, this will definitely satisfy.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Wicked Grove Hard Cider; St. Gisbertus Halloween Sweet Red (Aldi)

I swore I had posted this review already over summer. Oops. Sorry for the lateness, now that it's fall and all.

Finally!  I’d been waiting with bated breath to see when Aldi would finally carry a hard cider, and upon looking through their summer catalog, I finally found my answer, in the form of Wicked Grove Hard Cider, which seems to be available through summer only.  As I believe I’ve mentioned before, I don’t drink beer at all, because it tastes disgusting; for me, life’s too short to acquire tastes.  So I’ve always enjoyed the ciders, which taste great and are perfect for cooling down on a hot summer’s day.

As the title seems to allude to, this is a knockoff of Angry Orchard, as far as I can tell, though its strong sweetness also reminds me strongly of Redd’s Apple Ale.  It tastes strongly of apples, but there’s also an almost overwhelming sweetness/tartness; it’s nowhere near the delicious crispness of Trader Joe’s own Woodchuck-produced Newton’s Folly, but it’s definitely drinkable.  Beer fans can just stay far away from this; while there are some ciders that have a certain dryness that I could see appealing to fans of hops and barley (Strongbow and Woodchuck’s 802 jump immediately to mind), this one tastes more like candy, and would deeply offend those with a strong disposition to beer.  Hell, I love sweet drinks, and there’s no way I could plow through more than two in one sitting, as the sweetness is almost too much to take.

The biggest downside probably has nothing to do with Aldi, and more to do with the State of Ohio…all of Aldi’s alcoholic beverages are $1-$2 more in this state than they are in surrounding states.  So while the price advertised on Aldi’s website is $6.49, it actually retails for $7.49 here.  This makes it $.50 more expensive than the much-better Newton’s Folly, and only $1 cheaper than the average price of the name brand ciders, when on sale.  On the other hand, anything that prevents me from having to go to a chain supermarket is also a plus in my book, so I’ll probably end up picking up a few of these anyway during the hot months, and as much as I prefer Trader Joe’s cider, it’s about fifteen minutes farther away…factor in the cost of gas, and it’s probably a little bit more expensive.

If you like Redd’s or Angry Orchard, you’re going to like this one.  But if you prefer your ciders a little dryer, or don’t like ciders at all, then Wicked Grove is certainly not for you.

Overall: 6.5/10.  Finally!  Aldi carries a hard cider!  While I was hoping it would be more in the vein of Woodchuck (like Trader Joe’s Newton’s Folly, which is produced by the Vermont cidery), I guess beggars can’t be choosers.  Wicked Grove Hard Cider is much more sugary and sweet, more along the lines of a Redd’s Apple Ale or, as the title suggests, Angry Orchard, than anything else.  While it’s definitely drinkable, the $7.49 retail price (in Ohio), means it’s only about $1 cheaper than the national brand drinks, while the sweetness means this isn’t something you can just sip on throughout the day to maintain a nice weekend buzz; in fact, I have a huge sweet tooth when it comes to alcohol, and I couldn’t drink more than two of these in a single sitting.  For all my complaints, I’ll still be picking up at least a few of these six-packs throughout summer, as it’s at least one more reason I don’t have to set foot in a chain supermarket.

NOTE: Since writing this review, the price has actually gone down to $6.49, representing a much stronger value.  Since Aldi prices have been known to fluctuate, I'm keeping the original price and score up for a while, just to make sure the price change is permanent.  If it is, then the score will be raised to a 7, on account of the excellent value--even Trader Joe's Newton's Folly has gone up to $6.99 per six-pack, making this the best private label value cider in Ohio, at least as far as price is concerned. 

 I don't get what's so Halloween about it, aside from the label...
Wine is not my forte…generally, the only time I drink it is when I want to get a good buzz on, and there’s nothing else in the house.  For that purpose, I can force any kind of wine down…even the dry ones that taste, to me anyway, like they are made out of fermented rubbing alcohol instead of grapes.

But every once in a while, I like to enjoy my wine, and there is no better way to get me to give one a go than to have the word “sweet” on the label.  If “Halloween” happens to be on there, then it’s pretty much a guaranteed purchase.  And when said concoction is just $5.99 (in Ohio, and a dollar cheaper in just about every other Midwest state) then please, just take my money.  And that is the story of how I ended up with this bottle of wine, available as a Special Buy just in time for the Halloween season, from my local Aldi store.

The one thing I did not take into consideration during this whole process, is that red wine, by nature, is not at all sweet.  I learned that the hard way after ordering a glass from a chain restaurant several years back, in an amateurish attempt to get drunk. (I was also wondering why it was given to me warm…was the refrigerator broken?)  The reason I’m telling you this seemingly unnecessary story is because this stuff might be “sweet” by red wine standards, but it was not sweet enough for my limited wine palate.

According to the bottle, we have a sweet blackberry flavor; I got more of a semi-sweet red wine taste with a bitter finish.  This definitely wasn’t what I was expecting going in, and I was definitely disappointed.  Even my wife--whose wine preferences skewer more toward the dry--was more than a little let down.  I’m also struggling to comprehend why this is marketed as a Halloween wine at all: I figured maybe there would be some kind of mulled spices, or something that would differentiate this from similar wines that can be purchased year round.  But all we get are plum and cherry aromas (fruits that don’t exactly scream “Halloween”, or even “fall”, for that matter), and the previously mentioned blackberry flavor (again, not exactly something that one normally equates with the season).

Maybe I’m just missing something--and I’m certainly not denying that’s a possibility, as this is not my kind of wine--but I was left quite underwhelmed with this.  Though I would definitely chug it to get a wine buzz if nothing else was in the house…

Overall: 5/10.  Maybe I’m missing something here, but how is a wine with plum and cherry aromas, and a sweet blackberry flavor (all information taken from the bottle itself) even remotely reminiscent of fall?  Sure, blackberry season and plum season generally end some time in October, but I would consider them more summer fruits.  Anyway, this wasn’t nearly sweet enough for my liking, though I suppose it’s much sweeter than most red wines.  My wife, whose palate is geared more toward the dry, but who can also appreciate sweet, was similarly let down.  I will give it some marks for value, as a 750 mL bottle retails for $5.99 in Ohio, and $4.99 elsewhere, but I’m not sure I’ll be getting this again.