2020, if you haven’t noticed, isn’t going particularly well. Social distancing and self-quarantining are two gerunds we’ve all become very familiar with over the last weeks, and as far as food goes, it means one thing: You’re eating at home more. Whether you’re getting takeout from your favorite restaurants or scouring the CVS shelves for beans and hand sanitizer, we’re all eating more meals on the couch.
Which brings us to Trader Joe’s, the place for millennials who don’t like to cook but do like to drink. Joe Coulombe, who died last month at 89, ingeniously created a chain where each branch somehow seems as friendly as a small-town grocery store. Hand-written signs, the signature Aloha-shirt uniform, the fact that employees are actually, you know, reasonably helpful and friendly. Their little Fearless Flyer newsletter, looking cribbed straight from the Farmers’ Almanac, as old-timey as a shop that spells the word “shoppe,” might distract you from the fact that the chain was sold in 1979 to the Albrecht family, founders of the multibillion-dollar German behemoth Aldi.
I have a Martin Luther-esque list of grievances about the store: Why is it Trader Joe’s-branded everything? Do you expect me to believe that yogurt and those peanut butter pretzels and that fried rice all came out of one magical factory in Monrovia? Why can’t you buy, like, normal grocery store things like aluminum foil? But those are for another time. People are stressed out, and people gotta eat.
Here are the scientifically proven and totally correct Trader Joe’s Frozen Food Power Rankings, freshly wiped down this morning with the last can of Clorox wipes on earth. I have tried no fewer than 37 different Trader Joe’s frozen food products (Did I omit your favorite? I’m sure I did!), which I have ranked based on two metrics: 1) Taste and 2) Laziness Factor — how easy was the prep and cleanup? (Factors in oven time if that’s recommended. A higher ranking means it’s easier.) As Trader Ming would say, 慢慢吃!
1) Maître Pierre Tarte d’Alsace
This very good take on an Alsatian tarte flambée or a flammkuchen will make you feel like you’re a kid in eastern France, getting annexed all over again. It’s a crispy, buttery dough base layer smeared with crème fraîche and sprinkled with Gruyere cheese and little batons of ham.
This has been a staple of the T.J. frozen food pantheon for as long as I can remember, and for good reason: The flaky crust combines impeccably with the delicate onions, nutty cheese and sweet-smoky ham. Also: Maître Pierre? Where’s Trader Jacques?
2) Korma fish curry
Hey. This is a winner. Are those mustard seeds in that rice? Is the fish — a swai (a freshwater shark catfish) fillet — flaky and tender? Is that just the right balance of heat in the creamy, coconut-ty, tamarind-tinged sauce? The answer to all of these is a resounding “yes,” as is my response to the question, “should I buy this?”
3) Korean-style beef short ribs
These marinated flaps of “L.A. galbi” (so-named because Koreans who moved to Los Angeles had to adjust to how meat was butchered in the U.S. and brought that flanken-style across-the-bone cut back to Korea) compellingly balance sweet and savory. The brown sugar in the marinade helps with the caramelization to the meat, offsetting the funky rice wine and garlicky thrust, but without getting into sticky teriyaki territory. The prep and cleanup is a little tough, but it’s worth it to feel like you’ve landed a seat at a totally decent Hawaiian lunch counter somewhere.
4) Cauliflower gnocchi
Slow clap. Count me as a member of the Sarcastic Clapping Family of Southampton, because I’m duly impressed. I had my doubts about this product because of its popularity (one of the bestselling items, according to the Trader Joe’s crew leader I spoke to at my local store), but I was surprised how good these are.
Unlike the prep of other frozen T.J. gnocchi, wherein you just toss the little suckers into a hot pan, these cauliflower gnocchi are steamed back to life first before they get crisped up in the pan. The extra step results in a mouthfeel that could nearly convince you that they weren’t from the freezer.
If you’re generally a fan of the bitter pepperiness of Brassica oleracea, which includes cabbage and Brussels sprouts, you’re going to like these. Served with cheese sprinkled on top, they conjure broccoli, but you’ll probably be happier dousing them in sauce — TJ’s jarred arrabiata or its frozen turkey bolognese aren’t bad choices.
5) Butter chicken with basmati rice
Butter chicken isn’t as complex or interesting as some (many?) other Indian dishes, but it, like kung pao chicken, has broad appeal. And this is an earthy, satisfying, faithful representation of the dish.
Butter chicken was supposedly created in the kitchen of Moti Mahal, a Delhi restaurant that opened in 1947. The sauce in this rendition has a tomato-inflected creaminess and some slight smokiness to give it depth. Would I like it if the sauce weren’t quite so thin? I would, but I can’t carp about the flavor. The rice holds up well, even after half an hour in the oven.
6) Chicken & mushroom pelmeni
I enjoyed these — but I am a fan of pelmeni. These cute, aural Russian dumplings — pelmeni comes from a word that translates to “ear bread” — are stuffed with a bouncy-textured filling that almost crosses the line into rubbery but manages not to go too far. There’s a nice dill flavor to the dish, which cuts the salt and umami of the chicken and mushroom filling. на здоровье!
7) Fiery chicken curry
Described as a “Goan-inspired recipe with turmeric rice” the fiery chicken mostly delivers. The sweet and sour tomato-based sauce, flavored with tamarind, lulls you into satiation before a sneaky heat comes over and backhands you. It’s slightly more herbal and bitter than some of the other T.J. curries and good if you want a little extra kick.
8) Chicken cilantro mini wontons
Cute is an operable descriptor for these tiny, adorable little meat pockets. They’re not that different than most of the other T.J. dumpling offerings, but there’s an added herbal tanginess to the filling imparted by the cilantro. You do, of course, have to not be one of those people who thinks cilantro tastes like soap.
9) Palak paneer
What’s with the Indian food at Trader Joe’s? It’s better than any other category of frozen food in the store by, like, a metric ton. This palak paneer, spiced with fenugreek and turmeric, has the right amount of heat in the creamy, slightly grassy spinach. Cheese cubes, swimming in the sea of green, add a pleasing squeak.
10) Burrata, prosciutto & arugula flatbread
In an interesting prep experience, you completely remove the prosciutto package before backing the flatbread, then add the somewhat skimpy meat portion to the completed product. The cheese mixture is sharp and tangy, but the arugula, after sitting in a hot oven, essentially has all the oomph of spinach, totally lacking any peppery sharpness. The ham imparts needed salt and the overall flavor is good, with an above-average crust, but Tombstone isn’t quaking in their boots over it.
In the “hard to mess up” category, it’s still important to acknowledge when something is done right. Frozen phyllo dough crisps up awesomely in the oven, and the slick, cheesy spinach filling is no better or worse than we need it to be. Serve these up at a little dinner party for your friends and make them think you’re fancier and more skilled in the kitchen than you are. (Actually, they won’t be fooled and will 100% know you got these from Trader Joe’s but hey, it’s not like they invited you over!)
12) Joe’s Diner Mac ’N Cheese
This doesn’t look like much going into the oven, and it doesn’t look like much coming out, either: a tray of lumpy, alabaster slop. But it has the pleasing graininess that only thiamine mononitrate has, as well as satisfying gooey stretchiness. It’s souped-up cafeteria fare, better than Kraft or Velveeta, but not quite “Diner” in its quality or evocation of warmth and comfort.
13) Trader Giotto’s gnocchi al gorgonzola
To Trader Giotto I ask this: Perché? Perché non dai più sapore? This gnocchi gets a passing grade, barely, because the combination of cheesy-creamy-salty is rarely a bad one. But it lacks teeth — and the punch and funk — that the word “gorgonzola” promises.
Speaking of teeth, the bite on these frozen gnocchi is off. They are bouncy and squeaky, like a dog chew toy or a racquetball. Thankfully the prep on these, like a lot of the pastas, is easy: Dump the contents of the bag in a pan and stir.
14) Channa masala
This version of the Indian chickpea dish is heavy-handed with the cumin and a little too sweet, but it’s filling and robustly spiced. It’s one of the weaker entries in the (extremely strong) Indian food lineup at T.J., though the chickpeas don’t reconstitute as nicely as they should. Instead of tender, the texture is mealy and grainy, like an old French fry. Opt instead for one of the comparably excellent fish or chicken curries.
15) Trader Giotto’s authentic Italian penne arrabiata
“If your foodie fantasies tend to be spicy,” reads the packaging, “Trader Giotto’s Italian penne arrabiata may just be the pasta of your dreams!” “May” is the operative word here, and it’s doing an awful lot of lifting in this sentence. Are we so lazy as a society that we can’t boil pasta, open a jar of marinara and throw some chile flakes in it? Apparently so. The sauce is bright and a little spicy but I’m slightly afraid of the greater societal implications of this frozen dinner.
16) Chicken gyoza potstickers
“The La Brea Tar Pits” literally translates to “The The Tar Tar Pits.” I mention this because gyoza are dumplings and potstickers are dumplings and so the name of this product is, effectively, chicken dumplings dumplings. Why the redundancy? Are they trying to cover their SEO bases by name-checking both Japanese and Chinese foodstuffs?
Like the Beatles album “Yellow Submarine” these are not going to be anyone’s favorite, but they’ll do in a pinch when nothing else is around. And they stay together in the pan, which is a win for any bag of frozen dumplings. Fry for best results.
17) Yellow jackfruit curry with jasmine rice
A reasonable vegan option — coconut-ty, creamy and somewhat spicy — but the eggplant in the mix dominates and it could use a little more of the meaty jackfruit.
18) Trader Giotto’s linguine with pesto & tomatoes
I’m slightly shocked by the look of most of T.J.’s pasta dishes while they’re still in frozen form: The sauce is frozen separately into about a dozen silver-dollar-sized discs and scattered throughout the icy pasta. The effect is that it looks like play food, something that would be scattered around the floor of a child’s toy kitchen.
The pesto has an aggressive basil flavor and a slight grassiness. It needs more of another ingredient to balance that out — more cheese? Butter? Pine nuts? Giotto could have done better with this one, but it’ll do in a pinch.
19) Tempura shrimp with soy dipping sauce
Ten little shrimp soldiers come lined up side-by-side in plastic foam packs. Heated, they lack the delicate, intricate structure and lightness of better-battered tempura. The sauce is overly gloppy and sweet.
Is it unrealistic to expect more from Trader Joe’s freezer case? Probably, but if we can’t put high standards on our multibillion-dollar conglomerates, where can we?
20) Trader Giotto’s linguine with clam sauce
While not sharp or garlicky enough, it doesn’t overtly offend. Like many of the T.J. pastas, they come in frozen pasta “nests” that are cooked and slowly unravel in the pan. There are a few springy clams in there, but this pasta alle vongole misses any of the rich brininess you want from the dish. When the linguini hits your plate and it don’t taste too great, that’s a-disappointment!
21) Scallion pancakes (pa jeon)
There’s a lot that’s wrong here, the main thing being that these conflate the Chinese cong you bing, scallion pancake, with the Korean pajeon. Pajeon are made with a batter, not dough, so they’re a lot different than most Westerners’ ideas of what scallion pancakes are and will probably lead to a lot of confused shoppers.
This doesn’t taste terrible, but it suffers the problem most undistinguished pajeons suffer: too bready and not enough green onion. The batter should serve the veggies and not the other way around; give me a pancake that’s completely green and lousy with scallions, and I’ll show you a happy man.
22) Peruvian style chimichurri rice
I’m not sure why chimichurri, a condiment most typically seen alongside Argentine food, is attributed to Peru in this frozen offering. Then again, I’m not sure why they use the wrong accents on “crème fraîche” on the packaging either. (“Créme fraiche,” or CRAY-m fresh, is how Trader Joe’s spells it).
Is that overly pedantic? Sure, but I am a man who just ate 37 frozen dinners. The chimichurri in question isn’t particularly chimichurri-like, totally lacking in any allium wallop. Instead, it leans mild, peppery and cilantro-y — more of a mild, creamy aji sauce. The prep is easy and the overall tomato flavor doesn’t offend, but it tastes like someone dumped too much citric acid into this, giving the dish a punchy but unconvincing feel.
23) Cuisine Adventures French onion soup
I was psyched to see that this was even an option — frozen French onion soup? The greatest of all soups with none of the work? My next reaction was to wonder exactly how this was going to work. It turns out you get a frozen cylinder of soup, vacuum-packed in plastic. You unwrap the soup lump and place it directly into a cup or bowl, and then bake.
In theory, this is ingenious. In practice, it falls short. The cheese is rubbery, the broth is so-so, and the croutons are practically nonexistent, having almost completely disintegrated in the soup after 40 minutes in the oven. Is disappointing French onion soup better than none at all?
24) Trader Joe’s potato pancakes
I love a good latke, but I want to actively feel the shreds of potato breaking between my teeth — not the mushiness of bready batter. They crisp up promisingly in the pan, but the mealiness inside is real.
25) Trader Ming’s Mandarin Orange Chicken
One of the crew members at my local store asserted that this is the most popular item it sells. But why? It’s not awful, but it lacks the appeal and craveability of its cooler cousin at Panda Express, to which comparisons will inevitably be drawn. The sauce on this dark meat chicken is a little too tangy, a little too sharp — It almost crosses the line into stomach acid territory. The breading on the meat is, thankfully, not overly thick, but that’s not enough to get this into my reusable bag.
Oh, and one more thing: The name of this product can go straight to hell. Trader Ming’s? The racism is less offensive than the inaccuracy. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of Chinese knows that the name clearly should be, if anything, Trader Zhou’s.
26) Chicken chilaquiles rojo
The sauce is average, the chicken in these has a forcemeat quality, but the real issue is with the chips that are crumbled to bits right out of the package and dissolve to practically nothing in the cooking process. I also enjoy how the cooking instructions tell you to cook this “until an internal temperature of 165 F has been reached,” which is a sneaky bit of legalese. If you’re eating frozen chilaquiles, what are the chances you’re using a reliable instant-read thermometer?
27) Stacked eggplant Parmesan
The box on this “stacked” eggplant parm makes a lot of promises and doesn’t deliver on any of them. The eggplant is cut far too thick — I don’t need to feel like I’m eating a steak. The eggplant should be thin enough to nicely caramelize and almost (but not quite) fall apart. Instead, this eggplant is stacked like a Big Mac in a soup of tomato-bread mush. There’s not nearly enough cheese and a sharp, reedy basil flavor overpowers everything.
28) Chicken Chile Verde Burritos
I usually use the oven over a microwave but I went the radioactive route on this dish because, 30 minutes to heat up a burrito? Do I look like Methuselah?
But I fear no appliance would have helped these burritos, which are filled with a slurry that has the taste and consistency of turkey jook. That’s not a problem per se, but it isn’t what I signed up for. I don’t get much chili flavor, and the gummy tortilla is far too thick and dominates the proceedings.
29) Mini vegetable samosas
“Cumin mush” are the two operative words in this, the sole disappointing T.J. Indian food I tried during this tasting. They crisp up somewhat decently in the oven, but are filled with an over-cuminated pulp that’s hard to get excited about.
30) Beef shepherd’s pie
The shepherd has sheep, which is why their pies are usually filled with lamb. I imagine the people from TJ’s corporate probably felt a gamier meat like lamb would be a hard sell, so they went with beef instead. Does it help? Not really. There’s an Armed Forces-like chipped beef quality to meat, the veggies aren’t substantial enough to get anyone’s attention and the mashed potato covering the top has a funny, grainy texture. You hate to see it.
31) Chipotle vegetable quesadillas
While not overtly offensive, the casing of these quesadillas is about five times thicker than it needs to be, more pita than tortilla. The insides are an uninspiring glop of queso mixed with vegetables, and the chipotle is AWOL.
32) Mushroom & black truffle flatbread
Truffles AND mushrooms? Why? The truffle taste is ... so powerful. I was curious as to how anything containing more than a modicum of truffle could cost just $4.49, so I checked the ingredient list. They sneakily list Latin fungus names on the back without explaining what all of them are — Tuber aestivum (summer truffle), but also Agaricus bisporus (portobellos) and Pleurotus ostreatus (oyster mushrooms).
There’s none of the sweet nutty aroma you want from a truffle, and the overall flavor is one of old porcinis. Get a rich aunt to take you out to a fancy restaurant where they have the real deal.
33) Trader Giotto’s pizza margherita
This screams “bad buffet” or “subpar 7-Eleven.” While there’s only a seven-minute bake time, you end up with a stiff crust covered in a pasty sauce and plasticky discs of cheese that don’t melt properly. Pass.
34) Creamy spinach & artichoke dip
The dip comes in a cylinder, much like the French onion soup, and, much like the French onion soup, it misses the mark. It’s far too thin and runny, and tastes like a weak cream of spinach soup from Corner Bakery. Where’s the cheese? Where’s the heft? This subpar offering limps along and coasts on name alone, a little like the Biden campaign thus far.
35) BBQ chicken pizza
An institutional foam cracker covered in sad ketchup and some stray chicken. There’s absolutely none of the zing or brightness you need in a good BBQ chicken pizza. Next!
36) Honey walnut shrimp
Oh, these are bad. These are real bad. Think pineapple, sour milk and shellfish. Imagine a big bowl of church-basement ambrosia. Now imagine someone spiked that with a bunch of warm shrimp. HARD PASS.
37) Philly cheesesteak bao buns
“Marry an ancient bao bun recipe with one of America’s favorite foods,” it says on the package. “The fluffy bao bun is the perfect vehicle for every beefy, cheesy bite,” it says on the package. ALL LIES. The bao is as stiff and humorless as Mitch McConnell, and the insides filled with a slick, vile concoction that looks like the inside of a newborn’s diaper and only passingly resembles food.
Any resemblance to a cheesesteak is purely coincidental. Let this be a lesson to those who like to throw darts at a board, pick two random names, and combine them into some sort of “fusion”-esque food — sometimes two rights make a wrong!