Sunday, June 26, 2016

Specially Selected Milk Chocolate Butter Cookies, Specially Selected Triple Chocolate Ice Cream Bars (Aldi)

SPECIALLY SELECTED MILK CHOCOLATE BUTTER COOKIES

Not as good as Godiva's, but palatable for far, far cheaper.

I had never heard of anything like these until I stumbled on them at, of all places, a Godiva shop inside a mall.  For whatever reason, I bought them (they certainly weren‘t cheap, and thus would normally be off my radar), and instantly fell in love with the creamy chocolate and perfectly buttery biscuit.  Imagine my surprise when a couple weeks later, I saw a similar product at Aldi!

That was two years ago.  A lot of things have changed since then, most notably the aforementioned Godiva shop closing down, taking with it my memories of their delicious (if ridiculously overpriced) dark chocolate shakes and these very biscuits.  Thankfully, however, Aldi has not shut down, and my wife suggested that we pick these up during a shopping trip.  Not usually one to argue against chocolate, I happily ceded, eager to try them for the first time in a rather long time.

While the taste is nowhere near the level of decadence reached by the boutique chocolatier‘s version (and how could it be?), this is still a pretty delicious little cookie.  The chocolate is made of Utz-certified cocoa; I have no idea what that means, but it’s promoted on the packaging, so it must be a big deal and make sense to a lot of other people.  My biggest gripe has to do with the chocolate, though:  There’s something not quite smooth about the taste; it strikes me as being slightly bitter.  I could understand that if these were dark chocolate, but the fact that it’s supposedly the generally sweeter “milk” variety kind of baffles me.  On the texture front, it gets high marks: it’s a very soft chocolate, and starts melting in your mouth almost instantly.  The butter cookie is also very good on its own; it’s not very crunchy, but it’s not too soft, either, and has a flavor typical of what you would expect of a butter cookie.

I don’t find these to be as addicting as some chocolate products can be, but that ended up being a good thing for me:  After eating one, or two at the most (which is the actual serving size), I was satisfied and had no problems putting them down, at least until the next day.  Of course, that won’t be the case with everyone, but for me, it’s a good little snack when I just want a little bit of chocolate, and don’t want to get carried away.

Overall: 6.5/10.  They’re rather large, and fairly inexpensive, though you only get eight in a package, which is kind of a bummer.  I thought the chocolate, which had a great consistency and texture, and starts melting in your mouth right away, was a little too bitter for me; maybe it’s the interplay between the chocolate and the cookie, but it just tasted a little “cheap”.  Not nearly the best of the chocolate butter cookies I’ve had, but passable for the price, and serviceable as an occasional treat.  It should be noted that these are constantly available as part of Aldi's permanent inventory, so they'll be there whenever you fancy them.


SPECIALLY SELECTED TRIPLE CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM BARS

Pretty tasty stuff.

I’ve actually never had the ice cream bars that these are knocking off (a hint if you’re truly lost: they share the same name as a brand of condom), and the only person I know that tried them thought they were overpriced for what they were, and said they would never buy them again.  Even at Aldi, where they were available for $2.49, I thought they were a little steep, so even though the very sight of them made my mouth water, I postponed buying them.

Well, after Aldi pulled the trigger and marked these down a mere fifty cents, from the regular price of $2.49, down to $1.99, I caved in.  Not that the fifty-cent reduction really made much of a difference in terms of value, but it gave me the nudge I needed to “get off the fence”, so to speak.

It wasn’t until we took the box home that I noticed our $2 investment only contained three ice cream bars.  Who in the hell offers products that can’t be evenly split these days?  Especially when said product is an ice cream bar?  Did focus groups really draw the line at, “I’d pay $2.50 for three, but $3.29 for four is exorbitant.”?  It just seems like an odd thing to do, especially since desserts tend to be shared.  Anyway, still eager to dig in, we opened the box and each took one out, taking us immediately to Disappointment #2: These things are not the “enlarged to show texture” monster-size as depicted on the front cover box.  I say that mainly in jest, because the picture displayed on the outside is bigger than the box itself, so they wouldn't be able to fit one inside, let alone three.  But what is a problem, at least initially, is that the picture, while clearly and obviously exaggerated, does hint that each bar will be pretty large--but they are not.  "Teeny" would be quite an understatement, but they are smaller than the average fudge bar, and with those you get tons in a package, and still for under $2.  They do manage to make up for some of that by being thicker than the average ice cream bar, but I expected bars that cost 83 cents apiece (at full retail price) and are made up largely of ice cream, to be a lot larger than they are.  Whatever.  Though there were some red flags going off, we still weren’t completely deterred, so we dove right in.

Wow…it doesn’t take but a bite for the decadent flavors to sink into your mouth; the sweet, supposedly Belgian chocolate (not saying it ain’t, just saying there are enough lies and half-truths on packaging to fill an encyclopedia-sized volume) strikes a perfect chord with the semi-bittersweet ice cream to create a blissful harmony of deliciousness.  But if you read the name of the product, and chances are good that you have, you know there has to be more.  After all, this is a triple chocolate bar, and I’ve only named two kinds of chocolate.  Well, you would be correct, because inside the ice cream are irresistible morsels of milk chocolate chips.  Altogether, these bars are ridiculously good, and definitely a notch or two above the average fudgecicle, whose price I just compared them to in an earlier paragraph.

About halfway through eating this tasty treat, at least one of my concerns disappeared:  The size of the bar was no longer relevant, because these things are really rich; I had a problem downing all of it, especially with no milk to help wash it down (though this was my fault; I was simply too lazy to get up and take the ten steps required to reach the fridge).  Thanks to a Herculean effort on my part, though, I managed to eat it all…and then another one a couple of nights later.  If they were any larger, I'd be completely overwhelmed with chocolate by the time I got to the end.  For the record, though, I'm no chocoholic, so for those of you that enjoy chocolate more than I do, these might still leave you wanting more.

I still have a small gripe with the price…I know, it’s at least a dollar cheaper than the name brand is, and it’s really, really good, but I’m accustomed to getting a lot more than three of an ice cream product at this price.  It is a special buy, and therefore only available occasionally at Aldi stores, but even if they were available year-’round, I would only pick them up a couple of times per year, as sort of a special treat.  That, and they’re simply too rich for constant consumption, at least as far as I'm concerned.  But they are very good, and should be considered a required buy for even casual fans of chocolate.

Overall: 7.5/10.  Only three bars per box?  For $2.49?  Those were my initial thoughts, but trying them at least eased some of the pain (so, too, did the markdown they took, lowering the price to a slightly-better $1.99):  Rich, Belgian chocolate on the outside, met with a semi-bittersweet chocolate ice cream, and some deliciously rich chocolate chips.  They also allayed my thoughts that the bars were too small; all the chocolate makes them incredibly rich and almost hard to finish without some milk to wash them down.  I'm not always a fan of these "chocolate overload" products, because they either seem to be too sweet, or too bitter, but these strike a solid balance between both sides of the spectrum, making these a delicious little treat, and the perfect example of why a product should be relegated to Special Buy cycles.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Fit & Active Southwestern Fresca, and Sesame Lo Mein (Aldi)

FIT & ACTIVE SOUTHWESTERN FRESCA

A pretty solid dish for the price.

When I saw these in an ad, I knew my wife would want to check at least one of these out. I had my eyes on the Southwestern Fresca; not surprisingly, she opted for the Sesame Lo Mein. Also not surprisingly, she was disappointed with her dish; it was with this mindset that I approached mine.

Prepwork is as easy as it can possibly be. I remember actually having to slice open the plastic film covering the food, if not removing it outright. But that was in the old days of television dinners…nowadays, you literally just pull it out of the plastic packaging, and toss it into the microwave as is, film and all. Around three minutes later, and you have yourself a tasty little meal (or in my case, snack), perfectly steamed and ready to eat.

Contrary to my wife’s opinion about hers, I actually really liked mine. There is a nice spicy kick, thanks to the southwestern sauce, while the combination of noodles, vegetables, and beans was surprisingly delicious, not to mention a little more filling than I was expecting. I let her try a bite, as well, and she was pleasantly surprised, mentioning that it was way better than her Sesame Lo Mein. The vegetables taste somewhat fresh, though there’s little doubt that they’ve been frozen, but they still manage to be very flavorful.

For $1.69 (in a 9 oz. package), I think this is some pretty good value, and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick this up again. There’s a lot of flavor, not to mention a decent amount of food, for the price, and the 3 minute microwave time makes it a meal suitable for an on-the-go lifestyle. If you’re looking for a quick bite to eat, this is a good option, though there is still quite a bit of sodium (26% of the recommended daily allowance per package), so I’m not sure that it’s entirely for “Fit & Active” folks, like the brand name implies. But to counter that, there is also quite a lot of dietary fiber (a whopping 44% worth), as well as a healthy dose of Vitamin A (50%). In other words, you could do a lot worse, especially around this price point.

Overall: 7/10. I’m honestly thinking about grabbing a couple this weekend, to make sure I get a couple more before they sell out. This 9 oz. package packs some serious flavor for what amounts to peanuts ($1.69). The sauce provides a nice blast of heat, while the beans and veggies combine to be a surprisingly tasty tandem. There’s quite a bit of sodium in this, but that’s also counterbalanced with about half of your daily dietary fiber and vitamin A recommendations, so those leading active lifestyles will no doubt work off a lot of the “bad“ calories. The quick convenience of preparation also makes this the perfect snack for those that are too busy to prepare a sit-down meal. Pretty good stuff for the price, and well-above average as far as frozen meals go.

FIT & ACTIVE SESAME LO MEIN

Meh. It's edible. And pretty cheap. That's as far as "praise" goes.

This bowl has a few things that I’m not super crazy about, but just for the sake of covering the whole line, I opted to get it. As you can partially see from the above review, I enjoyed the Southwestern Fresca version (though my wife surprisingly did not) and although I wasn’t really looking forward to this one, I was hungry and figured there wasn’t going to be a time where I’d be more open-minded to this, so I jumped on the opportunity. 

This basically is a stir fry, with noodles in it. The teriyaki-style sauce has a little bit of a kick to it…I can’t tell if it’s added spices, or if it’s just a lot of salt, but I’m pretty sure it’s the former, but then there’s also some sweetness to it, which I really enjoyed. The vegetables, for the most part, steam up nice and good in the microwave, and so they taste fairly fresh, taking into consideration the fact that this is a frozen meal.

I don’t like that the sauce is so watery, though…there’s a puddle on the bottom that is kind of off-putting, and that makes the mushrooms extra slimy and gross. They taste okay, but the texture alone makes it feel like you’re eating a slug, which generally isn’t a good thing. The water chestnuts are also pretty bland (which they are naturally), but offer a decent crunch, which helps to offset some of the general sogginess of the rest of the dish (thanks in large part to the noodles). I’m also a big fan of pineapple in Asian dishes, and so the couple slices of pineapple included help to give it a nice little touch of depth, courtesy of the added sweetness.

I’d have to say that, in the end, this was better than I thought it would be, and I would more than likely get it again. I think the Southwestern-style wins in a head-to-head competition between the two products, but if you want something a little less spicy, this provides a capable alternative with a good amount of teriyaki flavor.

Overall: 6/10. I would take the Southwestern Fresca variety of this same product just about any day of the week, but the Sesame Lo Mein provides a pretty well-balanced flavor. The sauce is way too watery for my liking (there was a puddle of it sitting at the bottom, which was not very appetizing), but it has just a little bit of kick to offset the sweetness, so it tastes pretty good. Since this is a steamable dish (pop it in the microwave film and all), it suits the vegetables well, which cook up nice and are pretty flavorful given it's a frozen meal. Neither teriyaki nor lo mein are high on my list of favorite things—I was only called in to eat this after my wife hated it and I didn't want it to go to waste—but I have to say that it's better than I thought it'd be. Taste gets repetitive and the soggy texture is kind of off-putting, though. Edible and inexpensive.


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Millville Apple Rounds, and Millville Raisin Crunch Cereals (Aldi)

MILLVILLE APPLE ROUNDS CEREAL

If they don't taste like apple, then what in the hell DO they taste like?!

The one thing I always think of when I see a box of Apple Jacks, or even in this case, a private label knockoff of them, are the old commercials from the mid-’90s, which always featured a grown-up concerned this his or her child, and group of friends, enjoyed the titular cereal.  “Why do you like these things?  They don’t taste like apple!” the adult would say, to which the child would respond, “That isn’t why we like them!” The befuddled adult would then add another line to the interrogation. “Then why?”  There would always be a lengthy pause as the child seemed caught off-guard by the question, until he would inevitably respond, “We just do!”  Then everyone would laugh.

As a kid, the commercials had an almost rebellious feel to them:  Here were kids that liked something their parents didn’t approve of, for no specific reason.  They were eating them because they wanted to, and no amount of argument from the parents were going to change any of that.

Twenty years later (Good Lord, where has time gone?), and it’s good to see that some things never change:  These damn things still don’t taste a single thing like apple.  On the other hand, other things do:  The rebellious nature of the commercials has lost its appeal to me, and now I find myself on Team Grown-Up, wondering what in the world the appeal of this cereal is.

Anyway, like many of the products that end up in my cart on any given shopping trip, the only reason I grabbed a box of these is because it was on sale…for 99 cents.  Where I come from, you just don’t turn down any full-size box of cereal that can be had for just a dollar, so I decided to throw it into the cart.  If nothing else, it would manage to be a nice blast of nostalgia.

And that blast of nostalgia is about where it stops.  I remember them being a lot sweeter back in the day, though some of the sweetness could have just been lost in the translation from national brand, to private label.  The cereal O’s get soggy real quick, so eating a bowl of the stuff is more a race to finish it before it becomes inedibly soft more than an exercise in enjoyment.  While we’ve already established there’s no apple flavor, there’s really not much of a flavor period, beyond a slightly-sweetened mess of undetectable flavors, most of which are probably provided by artificial colors and chemicals.

I guess I can’t complain too much because I only wasted a dollar on these, but “waste” is certainly the word I’m looking for.  Even next time I see it for this cheap, I’ll know I can pass right on by.

Overall: 3/10.  Proof that some things should stay in your past.  Sure, these don’t taste a thing like apples, something that was a gleeful part of the national brand’s ad campaign years back.  But what DO they taste like?  They’re nothing but awkward-tasting, semi-sweetened “O”-shaped cereal bits with random flecks of red peppered throughout, for absolutely no reason.  They’re edible, which accounts for the three points, but they’re nowhere near enjoyable.  Also get soggy way too quickly, meaning you’ll be frantically trying to finish the bowl before it becomes a soft mess of grotesquerie.  All this being said, unpicky kids will probably love it.

MILLVILLE RAISIN CRUNCH CEREAL

You won't come across a raisin until the bottom of the bowl. Then you'll come across all of them.
I eat cereal all the time, but I’m not the biggest fan of raisins.  Yet, for reasons unknown, I still get cravings for raisin cereal every once in a while.  Usually, I get the typical “raisins with bran flakes” version by default, because I don’t really pay much attention to them.  But my interest was piqued when I saw Aldi offered a “Raisin Granola Crunch” cereal under their Millville banner, and so I opted to give it a try.

As the “crunch” in the title suggests, the flakes in this cereal aren’t your average, run-of-the-mill bran flakes:  They seem to be coated in some extra sugar, making them much sweeter, and also more milk-resistant.  This is actually a key for me; in the bran version, the cereal gets mushy almost the instant the milk hits it, so I like that this stays crunchy a lot longer.  I also liked the touch of extra sweetness--I could have just as easily eaten this cereal without any raisins at all, something that tends to happen anyway…

I’m no scientist, but for whatever reason, all the raisin bits drop to the bottom of the bowl.  This might also be an issue for raisin bran, though I do not recall that being the case.  Do most people eat cereal by scooping along the bottom of the bowl after every bite?  I just skim the surface of the milk, getting the flakes that are closest to the top; I’ve had two full bowls of this stuff and while I like it, I always end up with ten or so raisins hiding out at the bottom, while getting virtually NONE with the actual cereal flakes.  I hate being wasteful, so I always manage to force them down, but the raisins are my least favorite part, and I was hoping to kind of mask the taste of the fruit with the sweetness of the cereal…needless to say, that doesn’t really happen.  Which kind of defeats the whole point of the cereal.

Overall: 5.5/10.  In theory, this cereal is a great idea, giving the cereal flakes a sugary coating that’s more resistant to milk than the typical “bran and raisin” cereal, while also adding a little bit of sweetness.  But in execution, it leaves something to be desired.  While the sweetened slivers of cereal are absolutely delicious, all the raisin bits fall directly to the bottom.  Maybe I eat cereal differently from most people, but I don’t scoop the bottom of the bowl for every bite, instead opting to skim the top of the milk to just get the cereal bits on the surface, then slowly working my way down.  This leaves me with about a dozen raisins at the bottom of the bowl when I would otherwise be done, which is no good since I do not like raisins.  I will probably stick to the regular “bran and raisin” cereal the next time I have a craving for this kind of thing.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Specially Selected Garlic Cheese Flatbread, and Season's Choice Veggie Fries (Aldi)

SPECIALLY SELECTED GARLIC CHEESE FLATBREAD
Sheer perfection. Greasy, drippy, cholesterol-ridden, heart-stopping perfection.
I loooooove garlic bread. Like, any kind. From those offered at pizza shops, to the frozen “Texas Toast” ones offered in supermarket freezers, to the homemade ones my wife makes using white bread, butter, and seasonings, to those covered in cheeses. Oh, the ones covered in cheeses…the combination of cheese and garlic is a match made in heaven, and rarely does it come together so well as it does in Specially Selected’s Garlic Cheese Flatbread, available as a Special Buy from Aldi stores.

Now let’s get one thing out of the way: If you are dieting, don’t go anywhere near this. When cooking directions specifically tell you to put a second tray down in the oven to catch dripping grease, you know you’re in for something that’s going to clog your arteries. But if this is what death tastes like, I would gladly welcome it. The cheese is delicious, while each piece is absolutely dripping with garlic sauce. Get a nice ranch or marinara to dip it in, and you can take it to the next level. I’ve seriously had many garlic and cheesesticks from too many pizza shops to count, and a vast majority don’t even come close to touching these.

Add to that the ridiculous price tag of just $1.99, and these are an all-around winner. If you need something to compliment your next pizza, or just want a generous amount of cheese and garlic, pick this up immediately--since it’s a Special Buy, once they sell out, it’s gone until the next time. Thankfully, this is one of the items offered the most, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long before it becomes available again, but when you’re dealing with a product this delicious, even a few weeks can feel like a lifetime.

Overall: 10/10. I hate giving perfect scores, but this one deserves it. A generous helping of cheese, and a ridiculous amount of drippy, messy garlic atop a flatbread…what’s not to like? Oh yeah, and it’s only $1.99, which means it’s both delicious, and completely affordable on any budget. Most pizza shop cheesesticks I’ve had don’t even come close to matching this. This is one of the few products I make sure to grab just about every time it’s available…so will you.
SPECIALLY SELECTED VEGGIE FRIES
I went into this with strong reservations...and came out a believer.
Let me just get this observation out of the way: I feel like the name “Veggie Fries” is a little misleading, as I think of a mix of vegetables combining to form a single fry. What these really are, are fried eggplant fries. Now I’ve never been a fan of eggplant at all, but my wife is, so we grabbed a box of these just to see what they were all about.

The first thing I noticed is how BIG these things are. I expected small shoestring-size fries, with a teeny-tiny bit of eggplant in the middle. But a lot of these are actually monstrosities, with a few of them reaching six inches long! Of course, you’re also going to get some smaller ones, but all of them are loaded with a generous amount of eggplant. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your appreciation for eggplant. Or, it could even change your mind about the vegetable altogether…

If there’s one thing that usually drags down frozen breaded items, it’s that the breading either adds nothing to the overall flavor, or it ends up being too soggy; surprisingly, neither of those happen to be the case here. The breading is surprisingly flavorful on its own, with a delicious blend of spices in it. It would make a fantastic onion ring batter! There’s also a substantial amount of eggplant in each fry; I thought this would be a negative, as like I said earlier, I‘m not a fan of eggplant at all, but the combination actually manages to be pretty good. In fact, I would even go so far as to say these are restaurant quality--not four-star restaurant quality, but I could easily see something similar to these being sold at a chain restaurant, for twice the price. Not being a fan of eggplant (something I’ve mentioned three times now, just for reiteration), I did dip them in peppercorn ranch, which made them absolutely addicting; just to test it out, I tried them without ranch and was similarly surprised at how edible they were.

A box of these retail for $3.99, which is rather steep for a box of fries, but these certainly manage to be worth it; there are plenty of fries per box (there were enough for two big helpings that managed to fill up both my wife and I) and the sheer size of most of them set them apart from typical French fry offerings. If you happen to see these being offered--they are only available occasionally as a Special Buy item--don’t hesitate to scoop these up. Unless you’re allergic or absolutely despise eggplant, no matter your opinion of the vegetable, you just might find enough here to change your mind.

Overall: 9/10. I don’t like eggplant at all, but these are absolutely fantastic. The $4 price tag seems a little excessive, but the average size of each fry is about three inches, with a girthiness to match, so you really get a lot of fry for the buck.  I dipped mine in ranch, which really took them to the next flavor level for me, yet they were delicious right out of the oven with no condiments.  I'd have to say these are easily restaurant quality, and I guarantee you'd be paying a helluva lot more than $4 for at least half the amount if you were to get these while dining out.  It might be a little splurge, but since they are only available once or twice a year, it's one worth taking, if you can afford to.




Sunday, May 29, 2016

Fusia General Tso's Zesty Chicken Meal, Fusia Shrimp and Avocado Roll (Aldi)

FUSIA GENERAL TSO'S ZESTY CHICKEN MEAL

Note that the watermark will not appear on the actual product...
I know they’re bad for you, but you know what?  Sometimes I like enjoying a frozen meal or two.  There’s just something about the enticing, scientifically-created mixture of chemicals, MSG, and sugar that makes them addicting…

On my latest trip to Aldi, I decided to pick up a Special Buy: Fusia’s General Tso’s Chicken Meal.  For the relatively decent price of $5, you get one-and-a-half pounds of white meat chicken, complete with rice, vegetables, and a General Tso’s sauce.  All you do is pull the microwavable tray out of the box, and toss her in the microwave for a few minutes.  In other words, pretty much everything you need to enjoy some microwavable Chinese at home!

I’ve been a fan of most of the other Fusia meals I’ve had, and while this one kind of skirts the line, I'd say their reputation still comes out intact.  As is par for the course with frozen Chinese meals in general, the white meat chicken is rather questionable, as it seems to fall apart way too easily.  But the box says it’s white meat chicken, and it more or less looks like white meat chicken, so I’m just going to go ahead and assume that’s what it is.  The taste of the chicken itself is rather bland, so it’s a good thing it comes with a generous helping of General Tso’s sauce to douse everything in!

Which brings me to a problem with most store-bought Chinese…the sauces always taste the same.  No matter what you get, it pretty much always tastes like sweet and sour sauce, with some slight variations based on what dish it‘s supposed to be.  Case-in-point:  This very entrée.  The sauce tastes like sweet and sour sauce.  But since it’s supposed to be General Tso’s, they just had a slight, spicy kick.  Now it’s more an observation than a complete knock for me, since I like sweet and sour sauce.  But I still wouldn’t really say this technically qualifies as General Tso‘s, so if you‘re expecting something different, or something with a good bit of heat to it, you're going to be deeply saddened.

The value is pretty decent, as this can easily be stretched into two servings (especially if you have a side dish, such as egg rolls).  I’m also pretty surprised that each serving of this has just 3% cholesterol, so even polishing off the whole tray at once (should you have any desire to do so) will only be 9% of your daily cholesterol intake, which I didn‘t think was bad for a processed, frozen meal.  Sodium content, though high, is still below-average for this much food.

In other words, it's pretty good, and it's worth the price, but just barely for both.

Overall: 5.5/10.  It tastes good, it’s quick to make, and you really do get a decent amount of food for $5.  So why the relatively low score?  It’s just that there’s really nothing here to write home about.  The sauce is just essentially sweet and sour with a slight spice kick added, and the white meat chicken is still pretty terrifying when you see it up close.  There’s really nothing special to constitute even having this occasionally as a Special Buy for Aldi, considering you can get very similar things to this year ‘round from the grocery chain.  Average in every sense of the word.

FUSIA SHRIMP AND AVOCADO ROLL

About what you would expect, coming from a "supermarket".
I have a confession to make:  I’ve had sushi, like, twice in my life.  For the sake of avoiding a potential exaggeration, we’ll say three times, tops.  And one of those was from a supermarket.  The only other time that I can remember was just over a year ago, at a Chinese restaurant down the street from my house.  If there was a third, it must not have been memorable, because I’m drawing a blank.  It’s not that I don’t like sushi, because the times I’ve had it, I did, it’s just that it tends to be expensive, and the places that offer it tend to have more filling dishes for way cheaper.

Well, I was dying of starvation when the wife and I stopped by Aldi one evening.  Our intent was to pick up a couple of their Fusia noodle bowls, which are pretty much out-of-this-world, and dirt cheap, as recently our financial situation has taken a rather sudden turn for the worse.  But in the frozen food section, we stumbled on Fusia Shrimp and Avocado Rolls.  Surprisingly, I was a little more hesitant to buy them than my usually pickier wife (though part of it was also due to there not being a price posted), but eventually my stomach got the better of me, and I decided to go ahead and splurge.

Honestly, my opinion of this product, at least initially, was guided along by my wife; I’ve had sushi so infrequently, I don’t even remember the proper texture.  Hell, I didn’t even remember that it’s always supposed to be served cold (thank goodness I didn’t make this at home on my own)!  To thaw, you have three options: Microwave (takes about 40 seconds), cold water bath (takes about 30 minutes), or let sit out (takes about two hours).  We opted to microwave them; within a minute we had cold, but thawed, sushi, ready to eat!

While I might know nothing about sushi preparation, I‘ve got the taste covered!  The main taste was definitely fishy…I don’t think I would have guessed that it was shrimp, but it was a pleasant, light flavor.  I also got the avocado, which is fitting, considering it “shares the marquee” with the shrimp.  I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t much of a cream cheesiness, though it’s probably more of a “paste” to hold everything else together.  The package also comes with a small pack of soy (that certainly wasn’t enough for us, though my wife does tend to go heavy on the soy whenever it’s around), as well as some wasabi…I just sampled the wasabi alone, and it almost immediately felt like pin-pricks on my tongue.  I’m not really into the stuff, but it honestly tasted like other wasabi that I’ve had, so it seems legit.

This is some pretty decent stuff, given the fact that it’s frozen, but a lot of supermarkets now seem to offer fresher versions, for about the same price.  Sure, here you get 15 pieces, while the supermarket by me offers eight pieces for about $6, but their pieces are a lot larger…I could down this whole package by myself, and still be completely hungry (which has actually happened to me before).  If you don’t eat a lot, or are just in the mood for something lighter, then the $5 asking price will be perfect for you.  Otherwise, this provides about as much sushi as the supermarket brands, but for only a couple quarters cheaper…and at least I can taste the cream cheese in those.  Not great sushi by any means, but it’s decent for the convenience and price.

Overall: 6/10.  This is only the third time I’ve ever had sushi (and one other time was from a supermarket), so I’m certainly no expert, and I went into these absolutely starving, but these exceeded my expectations.  For $4.99, you get a decent amount of sushi, and going with the quickest of the three thawing options (the microwave), they were ready in about a minute.  The lead taste is certainly fishy, though I’m not certain it was shrimp (it’s “shrimp salad”, according to the packaging; almost enough to send shivers down my spine), but it wasn’t bad; the avocado also shines through.   At the very least, it pretty much equals the supermarket sushi I had, and is a couple quarters cheaper.  If you don't mind supermarket sushi (and you don’t have to admit it out loud), and want a quick fix, then this is at least worth a try.




Sunday, May 22, 2016

Fresh Finds Mesquite Barbecue, and Sriracha Honey Kettle Chips (Big Lots)

FRESH FINDS MESQUITE BBQ KETTLE CHIPS
This is a tasty little barbecue chip.

After trying a couple of the other Fresh Finds “gourmet” potato chips, I opted to try the most straightforward one yet: mesquite barbecue.  There are only so many things you can do with BBQ chips, and many of them come off tasting like salt more than actual barbecue, but based on what I’ve had, I had faith in Fresh Finds to deliver the goods.  Did they come through, or leave me hanging for the first time ever?

Like all the other Fresh Finds chips that I’ve seen, the Mesquite Barbecue is contained in an 8 oz. bag, for $1.90, which is a pretty good price point.  A vast majority of the chips take on a dark red hue, from the sheer amount of barbecue seasoning on each one.  While this can be a blessing, a lot of times with barbecue chips it tends to mean that it’s just overwhelmingly salty; still, I’d rather there be too much seasoning, than not enough, I suppose.

Just like the other Fresh Finds chips I’ve had, these really are nice and crunchy, just like the packaging declares.  This is no doubt due to them being processed as kettle chips, which tend to be twice as crunchy as standard ones.  And just like all the other ones I’ve had under the Big Lots private label brand, these are surprisingly delicious.

The “secret” ingredient in these, which are curiously missing from a lot of other BBQ chips, is that they add a touch of sweetness to their seasoning.  This is welcome, because it helps to counterpoint the saltiness inherent of standard barbecue chips, that I have now mentioned three times.  By adding a little bit of sugar to the mix, it creates a much more addicting flavor, and I found myself reaching into the bag at various points throughout the day just to shove a few in my mouth.  This doesn’t happen very often to me, as far as barbecue chips are concerned.

But it really works here--I was downing these quicker than any other barbecue chip of recent memory.  I’m usually hesitant to purchase BBQ chips because they all seem to taste the same (or close enough), but these stand out enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to get them again, though it would be some point down the road (barbecue used to be the only kind of chip I would buy, so I get sick of them quite easily, no matter how good they are).  If you don’t mind a little bit of sweetness to go with your salty, then these are a surprisingly delicious way to go.

Overall: 8/10.  A surprisingly sweet barbecue chip that is one of the better ones I’ve had in recent memory.  The BBQ itself is good, and manages to avoid being salty on its own, but adding in a touch of sugar makes these far more addicting than they should be.  For purveyors of crunch, these are kettle cooked, so they are twice as crunchy as standard potato chips.  The retail price, $1.90 per 8 oz. bag, offers plenty of chip for an affordable price, too.  If you’re a barbecue connoisseur, you should pick these up the first chance you get!


FRESH FINDS SRIRACHA HONEY KETTLE CHIPS
Don't think about it too much, and you will be pleasantly surprised.
I’m going to be honest here: I didn’t want to try these.  It was the last flavor that I had yet to try from Fresh Finds’ gourmet potato chip line, (besides the “standard” sea salt and other boring flavors), and even though the others were good, I was more or less terrified to buy a bag of these.  In fact, after much hesitation, I forced myself to pick this bag up, but also purchased a bag of their amazing Aged White Cheddar & Sour Cream chips to use as backup, in case these were bad.

For starters, everyone suddenly has sriracha fever, but “sriracha” these days essentially means something tomato-y and spicy, as companies flock to throw together something that they can call by that name simply to meet the demand of the market.  In other words, the “sriracha” taste companies often use isn’t very good, nor is it very authentic, and this is why I wasn’t too excited to get them.  But at the same time, I like a good edible challenge, and after walking around the store a couple of times and dwelling on the concept, I softened up and began to embrace the idea.  Besides, for $1.90, it’s not like I’d be out a whole lot if they didn’t live up to my mediocre expectations.

As with Fresh Finds Jalapeno Popper chips, I feel like these also are so named simply to cash in on the sriracha craze.  Again, the taste doesn’t remind me of sriracha sauce all that much, though there is a solid bit of heat that comes through.  If I hadn’t read the bag, and you just delivered these to me blind, I’d probably label them “sweet chili chips”, or something of the sort.  But you know what?  For all my opinions of the chip name, all that matters is the flavor, and once again Fresh Finds has come through—I’m honestly leaning toward naming them my current favorite chip brand, which is high praise coming from a store typically associated with closeouts and discontinued items.

It’s common sense how this combo is supposed to work—the spicy of the sriracha mixes with the sweetness of the honey to provide a counter-balanced taste—but there are a lot of ways this can go wrong, the most obvious of which is if one flavor overpowers the other. Thankfully, this isn’t the case.  It isn’t too sweet, with the honey playing a supporting role, allowing the “sriracha” to remain front and center, yet the sweetness still punches through.

These aren’t nearly as addicting to me as the Aged White Cheddar and Sour Cream chips, but this is a fantastic chip that’s very hard to put down.  The $1.90 price tag hints at something much more generic than what you get, which is a fairly original, very tasty snack.  If you come across these at your local Big Lots, ignore the voices in your head telling you this combination is “weird”, and give them a shot. Chances are, you’ll thank me later.

Overall: 7.5/10. These are pretty darn tasty.  Again, the flavor name seems to be a little exaggerated—sweet chili would have probably been more on point—but then again, they were probably just trying to cash in on the sriracha craze (that’s Marketing 101).  But regardless of the name, the taste is fantastic, with just the right amount of heat counterbalanced with a slight bit of honey that’s noticeable, but not excessive.  I’ve got to hand it to Big Lots…their Fresh Finds chip line provide excellent value for the money (each bag is only $1.90), as well as surprisingly delicious, and sometimes even unique, flavors. Give them a shot if you haven’t already.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Casa Mamita Fiesta Bake, Casa Mamita Bean and Cheese Burritos (Aldi)

CASA MAMITA FIESTA BAKE
A frozen Mexican entree that is actually pretty good.
There’s really only one thing that Aldi stores have to do to get me to buy something I normally wouldn’t go anywhere near:  Put it on sale.  There’s nothing quite like the excitement of looking around the store for red tags, then seeing what each one pertains to.

Enter Casa Mamita’s Fiesta Bake, a rather unappetizing-looking blend of cheese, rice, and just about anything else that can be considered “Mexican”.  I’ve passed up this entrée probably at least two dozen times over the years, without even a slight interest in purchasing it.  Until I happened to come across it when it had a red tag.  Even though the markdown was rather insignificant (from $7.99 down to $5.99, if I remember correctly), I figured that it would feed us for at least a couple nights, making it somewhere around $1.50 per serving, per person.  And who can argue with numbers like that?

After following the oven cooking directions to a “T”, which consist of putting it in the oven for a mind-boggling SEVENTY minutes, it came out way too soupy.  So I put it back in for another ten.  It was finally starting to bake, and “solidify” a bit more, but I was so hungry, I took it out of the oven and decided to eat it while it was a little softer than it was supposed to be.  I mention this because you might want to allot a few more minutes when preparing this, as it probably would have required closer to 90 minutes for it to get that proper cooked texture.

So after eighty minutes, dinner was finally served…in a bowl, its chunks of rice and corn surrounded in a brown “broth” more than slightly resembling vomit.  But hey, I figured as gross as it looked, it would still taste the same, so who really cares?  I added a little dollop of sour cream for some added flavor, and dove right in…

Even though I’m not a fan of rice in any capacity, I have to say that this was surprisingly delicious.  Not, “this is something I’m going to eat several times a year” delicious, but given its unhealthy-looking texture, it was a lot better than I was expecting it to be.  The rice combines with meat, cheddar cheese sauce (my favorite), peppers, and corn to form a delicious Mex-American taste that’s actually a notch or two above Taco Bell (granted, dumpster diving will get you something better than Taco Bell).  It’s certainly not an original casserole, but it’s something that’s a little different than, say, macaroni and cheese, or tacos.

My biggest complaint is the tortilla strip topping, which didn’t cook up very crispy in our oven.  Though the flavor was fine, there’s just something a little unappetizing about chewing on soggy tortilla strips, so that part didn’t win me over.  Besides, adding tortilla strips on everything considered “Mexican” seems to be a fad that I’m really hoping dies down soon.  I get it in some applications (I mean, tortilla soup wouldn’t be the same without it), but nowadays it just seems like it’s used simply to make Americanized Mexican dishes appear more “authentic”.  I highly doubt Mexicans put tortilla strips on everything, if they even use them at all.  Without that, this would have been even better.

Overall: 7/10. The tortilla topping stays soggy, which isn’t really all that appealing (or necessary), but the rest of this dish is actually quite good.  It’s got cheese, rice, meat, and tortilla strips coming together to form the kind of Mex-American taste that you would expect; I’m sure it’s far from authentic, but it’s about on par with what you would get at a popular “Mexican” fast food joint, and for a pretty good price, too.  A bit of caution: Even after 70 minutes in the oven (the recommended cooking time), it was still soupy and not quite ready, and we even have a newer oven.  So you may want to set aside some extra prep time, just in case.

CASA MAMITA BEAN & CHEESE BURRITOS

You'll taste lots and lots of bean.  As for the cheese, you won't even notice it's there.

I never get these things, because they kind of remind me of gas station food.  Then again, I guess the same could be said about any number of frozen dishes, but the couple of times I have purchased these--many, many years ago--I never really cared for them all that much.  Well, times change, so I decided to give these a little shot.  We settled on the bean and cheese variety because my wife is a vegetarian, and she was unaware they even had a variety without meat.

As with most frozen burritos, less than two minutes in the microwave yields you a (hopefully) tasty finished product.  I’ll admit that I was a little taken aback upon opening the package--I had assumed that each burrito was individually wrapped.  They aren’t.  In fact, they’re just grouped together in clusters of four, so expect to have to peel some frozen burritos apart if you just want one or two.  It didn’t take long, but it was a little extra hassle that I wasn’t prepared for.

They’re also a little smaller than I thought they would be, but then again, you get eight of them for a mere $2.79 (if I recall correctly), so that wasn’t a big deal.  Unfortunately, they also taste exactly the same as I remember.  Where’s the cheese?  All I got was bite after bite of dry beans, with no cheese flavor in sight.  I thought maybe I just had to dig a little deeper--maybe it all settled in the middle, or something--but even then there was nothing but beans.  My wife, who has a set of taste buds far more acute than mine, also agreed that the cheese was nowhere to be found; thus we were both very disappointed.

Overall: 3/10.  There are eight in a package, for a mere $2.79, which make these a pretty cheap snack.  But even by those standards, there’s very little cheese in each burrito, making them incredibly dry, as they are overrun with beans.  I also went in expecting them to be individually wrapped, but they are not.  Again, at the price point that’s just a minor quibble, but go in expecting to have to peel apart frozen burritos when you open the package.  Time changes some things, but apparently the dry taste of frozen bean and cheese burritos are not one of them.  Will set my phone alarm for 2027 before giving them another shot.