Something big that happened in my area was that Trader Joe’s just opened their first location for a hundred and fifty miles or so. The reaction of many when it was announced that they were even opening is best contained in this brief YouTube clip from Dave Chappelle’s cult comedy, Half Baked:

Don’t get me wrong; it’s cool that a market that we don’t have came to our area. I just think the enthusiasm was a bit much. People were lined up outside of the store at 10pm the night before it opened. That’s a little crazy considering the store was going to remain open past the first day. Mind you, this is coming from a sick person who woke up at an ungodly hour to try to score a Nintendo Wii on Dark Friday in 2006.

Before the location near me opened, on the way back from a trip to Maryland, we were able to stop at the Trader Joe’s in Paramus, NJ. I’m glad I had the opportunity to check it out because it reassured me that my indifference to Trader Joe’s was justified. It’s pretty much a supermarket with a whole bunch of prepackaged shit (pronounced “she-it”) and some fresh stuff too, but the way they label their stuff, you’re going to be more attracted to their prepackaged stuff. I did walk out with a sack of goods, and wanted to see if I could notice any difference between those goods and what I would normally buy in a Hannaford or Price Chopper.

I thought, “what’s more of a family pleaser than tacos?” So I picked up the dry goods needed to make tacos at Trader Joe’s.

Here’s the cost breakdown:

  • 12 taco shells (made with Organic corn)- $1.99 [Side note: I’m relieved that the taco shells contain taco shells]
  • Taco mix – $0.79
  • 1-15.5 oz can of Cuban-style black beans – $0.99

Off the bat, the everyday prices put these products in a competitive zone against the existing markets. A dozen Ortega shells runs $3, usually; you’re lucky if you find the packets of taco seasoning for under $1 on sale; a can of beans with no flavoring runs about a buck (unless it’s Walmart; there it’s $0.58). If buzz words are your thing, the fact that Trader Joe’s stuff says “Organic” all over everything would probably lead you to believe it has an edge over the stuff you get at the supermarket.

For meat, to make sure I started with the best quality product I could, I stopped at a nearby market, Greulich’s, and got a hunk of chuck ($3.99/lb).

After gearing up…

…I cut the chuck into thin strips…

…and I used my trusty meat grinder to grind the entire hunk in literally 20 seconds.

I got the stuff ready to make the taco filling. [Note: the recipe on the packet calls for one 14oz can of tomatoes per pound of meat, so I should also have added 28oz of canned tomatoes for this, but, as you probably recall, Cassie has an allergy to tomatoes.]

I had to empty out the taco seasoning to see exactly what I was in for. It smelled of chile powder and cumin, and tasted rather musty (because of the cumin) and a little sweet.

I finely diced the onions and sauteed those for two minutes.

I dumped in the taco seasoning, allowed that to toast for a moment in the oil, and then I added all of the beef.

This cooked for a few minutes, and, in the meantime, I prepared the black beans.

And by prepared, I mean I dumped the can into a small pot and heated it over low heat until it was warm, just like the instructions said.

I also shredded up some cheese to put on the tacos. I went with KerryGold Aged Cheddar.

I also dealt with the taco shells that contained taco shells by warming the oven and toasting those for a few minutes.

By that time, everything was ready, and I just put everything at the table.

I assembled three tacos for myself.

I paired the meal with an Ommegang Abbey Ale that frothed up like a mo-fo when I poured it.

I ate the beans on the side. For a product that has 420mg of sodium per half cup, the beans tasted very bland. The flavor of the green chile was prominent, but that’s about it. After adding some Tabasco sauce, these weren’t bad. In the future, if I get them again, I’m discarding the liquid and adding salt before heating them; screw the directions!

The taco shells tasted exactly like Ortega shells. You’re going to have a hard time convincing me there’s any major difference between the corn used in shells you get at a normal supermarket and what you get at Trader Joe’s. Even though Trader Joe’s says it’s organic, it’s probably made from the same exact genetically modified corn as every other one, their corn just might not be sprayed with pesticides. Be wary of the buzz words, folks.

The meat was interesting. By the time it was completely cooked, it didn’t start to thicken like it does with other taco seasonings. That’s because Trader Joe’s taco seasoning doesn’t have any corn starch in it. I tasted it just as it was finishing cooking, and I needed to adjust the salt level. Once that was done, the flavor of the taco meat was pretty good. It was very spicy. Cassie, who doesn’t enjoy spicy food as much as I do, complained about the heat level. I quite enjoyed it and didn’t even need to add Tabasco sauce. It’s spicy enough that I wouldn’t give this stuff to kids or anything, though. The seasoning was certainly more interesting than the packets you get elsewhere, and for a lower price, it’s definitely worth it if you like spicy stuff.

I’ve read Trader Joe’s mission statements, and wouldn’t think to argue that it’s a bad place. From a practical perspective, they have a number of things you could already get at markets nearby for reasonable price and some other things you’ve probably never seen before (like fleur de sel caramels – which i also bought and can only say, “meh.”). If nothing else, it’s a place to get some pre-packaged shit (pronounced “she-it.”) that may or may not be better than what you find in the supermarket.

If I’m in the vicinity and it doesn’t look annoying, I’m sure I’ll stop in to the new one that opened, but my reaction to Trader Joe’s is in no way this:

8 Comments for this entry

  • Pirate Jeni says:

    See, this is kinda how I feel about it. We really don’t eat prepackaged food that much. I do buy taco seasoning only because I can’t seem to make my own to come out as good as I would like.
    Sodium in beans is a HUGE deal for us. FYI: Fresh Market brand is like almost no sodium.. but I’m not making the hike out to Latham to get them. Good old Low Sodium Goya works for me (at least until I can get the hang of pressure cooking the dried ones)

  • WrigsMac says:

    Daniel B’s Cuban black bean recipe would be good here. It’s a two day ordeal and not something you want to make in the summer, but those are the easiest and yummiest black beans I’ve eaten. I bet you could make them in the crock pot and not generate a lot of heat and steam in the house.

    A question about the taco shells. The ones I’ve been buying at Hannaford lately are SO tiny and the openings are so small, I can barely fit any ingredients in them. I know products are shrinking, but it’s not at all practical when it comes to taco shells because it defeats the purpose of the entire thing when the shells can’t actually fit food in them. How to the TJ ones compare? Back in the day, Ortega and Old El Paso used to make regular taco shells that were usable, are these similar? Also, I think it was Old El Paso that was making “super stuffer” (or something like that) taco shells that were normal sized (and not huge despite the name) but I can’t find those anymore.

    • derryX says:

      The taco shells are the same exact size as the Ortega and Old El Paso ones they sell in the supermarket, not the larger size you mentioned.

      • WrigsMac says:

        Lame. Frying them up from soft shells doesn’t seem hard, just time consuming. They probably taste better that way, I should just bite the bullet and start doing that myself.

        By the way, Penzey’s makes a decent taco seasoning. Probably works out to be a little cheaper to buy a bag of their stuff as opposed to the individual packets. It’s not terribly spicy so I always add cayenne, but it might be a good option for you guys if Cassie isn’t big on heat.

        • derryX says:

          I’m aware of Penzey’s mix. It’s also easy enough to devise your own taco seasoning; it’s only a handful of spices.

          I bought the TJ taco stuff because I noticed the price was fairly low, and I wanted to see if I could notice a difference between their stuff and stuff people would normally buy at an existing market.

  • Daniel B. says:

    “Even though Trader Joe’s says it’s organic, it’s probably made from the same exact genetically modified corn as every other one, their corn just might not be sprayed with pesticides. Be wary of the buzz words, folks.”

    What exactly do you base this on?

    First, food packaging and labeling are serious business, governed by federal legislation. Organic food by definition excludes genetically modified crops. In fact, it’s really the best way right now to make sure your food doesn’t contain GMOs should you be concerned about such things.

    The fallacy is that organic foods are pesticide free. They are not. Industrially produced organic food can be full of pesticides, just “organic” ones that are every bit as toxic to life as the synthetic poisons.

    Second, Trader Joe’s is absolutely committed to the elimination of GMOs in all their TJ’s labeled products. And it’s not a new initiative either. It’s something they’ve pursued for over a decade.
    http://www.traderjoes.com/about/customer-updates-responses.asp?i=4

    So, not only are the TJs versions of taco shells ostensibly identical in size and taste to their conventional supermarket brethren. But they are also less expensive and made from better quality ingredients.

    THIS is why people go ape shit over Trader Joe’s.

    • derryX says:

      My understanding of corn agriculture is that even when a pure strain is used for growth, cross pollination with a genetically modified strain is very likely, even over a considerable distance. I don’t care about specifics, and it doesn’t matter to me that I eat genetically modified corn, but cursory reading of some of the recent things Monsanto has done to pretty much saturate North America with GM corn makes me very skeptical that it’s even possible to obtain a pure strain of corn. I’d love to see the extent of QC testing TJ employs to verify their sources.

      Even when I pick up a box of imported polenta from Italy and see “GMO free” on the box, the skeptic in me kicks in.

    • derryX says:

      Also, the box doesn’t make any claim over GMO’s.

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