Most days, my evening kitchen is bubbling and sizzling away with the sounds and aromas of a healthy, planned-out dinner composed of thoughtfully paired starches and proteins. Salads share space with grilled meats, fresh sandwiches and sundry produce selections.
Some days, however, I get a wrinkle in my metaphorical chef’s hat and instead of a square meal, I just want food fast but not fast food. When these cravings strike, notions of calories, sodium and artificial flavors become a non-issue, having been replaced by curiosity, negligence and even a trimmed budget since spending a lot on unproven eats is something I approach somewhat cautiously. Enter the frozen food aisle of the grocery store and its inevitable scavenger hunt of culinary adventures waiting to be discovered and, hopefully, enjoyed.
Over the course of about a week, I visited three Texas-based grocery store chains including H-E-B, Whole Foods Market and Fiesta Mart to see what interesting choices were on offer for when my microwave replaces my stove. I kept an open mind but focused on what I considered unusual selections, steering clear of frozen veggies and traditional ready-made TV dinner-tray meals in favor of items I either hadn’t heard of or didn’t know were available outside of a restaurant setting (frozen Sno-balls sans the multi-colored wooden hut and tropical music serenade? Check). After all, my goal was to buy things I normally wouldn’t eat: I was in search of literal meal replacements.
I ended up with an assortment of sweet and savory nibbles, each garnering praise and disgust depending on my mood or preparation technique. Though I wasn’t exactly looking for cheap eats, every item rang up at $10 or less and I felt this was a fair gamble. I purposely ignored the nutrition facts label because that would, quite frankly, ruin the fun.
State Fair® “Funnel Cake Corn Dogs”
$7.99 per box of 12 at Fiesta® Mart
First up was a bright blue box proclaiming the words “funnel cake corn dogs” from a brand called State Fair. Honestly, they had me at funnel cake and the immediate visions of midways, carnies and pillows of steaming dough barely visible beneath a sweet, powdery coat. Could this corn dog do justice to these memories of mine? It turns out that yes, it could, sort of. As soon as the corn dog began to bake, I caught the sweet scent of its breading and if I closed my eyes, I could almost believe I was standing in line at the fair. A crusty-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside coating offered a lovely contrast to the soft and juicy hot dog interior in a tantalizing way. A dip in classic yellow mustard was great for the dog, but when I plunged the snack-on-a-stick into powdered sugar, I knew it was game over. It wasn’t the same as my beloved carnival version but it was embarrassingly good — so good that next time I’ll be eating two.
TX Street Eats by H-E-B™ Corn Chip Pie “5 Alarm Chili Cheese”
$2.50 per single-serve box at H-E-B®
When I stopped into H-E-B a few days later, two delights from the chain's “TX Street Eats” line quickly grabbed my attention, and since I’m bad at making decisions, I bought them both. The first was a spicy corn chip chili pie the likes of which I’ve made “from scratch” with a bag of Fritos and canned chili but never from a frozen box. The second was a “twisted pizza” that just looked like too much fun to pass up. Considering the first option, I was legitimately skeptical after finding a small bag of corn chips, a tray of frozen chili and a small cup of shredded cheddar cheese. Would this replicate a true chili pie experience? The aforementioned skepticism was a short-lived two and a half microwave minutes, however, as the savory-spicy cheese and chili-coated chips quickly disappeared bite after bite.
TX Street Eats by H-E-B Twisted Pizza “Burnt Ends”
$3.98 per one-serving box at H-E-B®
I turned my sights toward the pizza that resembled an open-faced calzone canoe crimped at the ends and generously filled with beef brisket, barbecue sauce and two kinds of cheese (cheddar and mozzarella). Though this meal took one of the longest preparation times of all the frozen items I tried, it was still faster than delivery and the single serving meant no leftovers, which was good considering my time was already allotted to trying other things and not reheating remnants. The crust was tender and chewy, but the sauce was a little too sweet for my taste, which often tends toward the tangier styles of Central Texas. In addition, the overall effect was also very salty — a good excuse to pair with a local brew, perhaps. I wouldn’t really say the chili pie or the pizza was food-truck-worthy, but they equated to two valiant efforts and are certainly valid for a quick lunch or light dinner when nary a truck is in sight.
José Olé® “Beef & Cheese Mini Tacos”
$3.59 per box of about 16 tacos at Fiesta® Mart
After sampling the Texas-themed tastes, I wanted to broaden my freezer geography so I grabbed a box of mini tacos representing (sort of) Mexico and two servings of Tai Pei Asian-style entrées. I knew full well that these items were not exactly authentic, but at least they would shake up my taste buds a little. The tacos seemed like the kind of thing I would have eaten as an after-school snack had my mother been the type to purchase such foods, which she wasn’t. In a sense, eating these felt a little like triumph and a little like betrayal: my inner child ecstatic and my adult self appalled. The tacos amounted to round tortilla chips folded around seasoned ground beef, refried beans and cheese. They were a bit of a letdown and prompted a fridge raid for sour cream and tomatoes to cut the salt. As I crunched, I was seriously tempted to lump the whole box of warmed-up tacos into an epic pile of nachos.
Tai Pei® frozen Asian-style entrées in “Sweet and Sour Chicken” and “Bourbon Chicken”
$2.79 each at Fiesta® Mart
I had high hopes after microwaving these cute takeout box-inspired packages, which Tai Pei’s website says are meant to provide “elements of a fun Chinese takeout experience right at home.” Instead of finding succulent chicken and crisp vegetables inside, however, my fortune was a depressing mixture of squishy breaded chicken, limp vegetables and confusingly sweet-yet-bland sauces. In a surprising twist of fate, the accompanying rice was cooked perfectly: light, fluffy and with just the right bite to the grain.
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Veggie Fries® “Kale, Tuscan Herbs, and Potatoes”
$4.99 per 14-ounce/five-serving bag at Whole Foods® Market
Next I headed to Whole Foods, curious how the self-described “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store” would approach unusual freezer fare. Veggie Fries caught my eye, particularly the variety made with kale. Later, when trying the snack at home, I was impressed to discover the “fries” were light green in color and gave off a decidedly vegetal aroma (or odor, depending on one’s opinions) when cooked. The baked was a great combination of crispy and fluffy, and the one challenge came with condiment pairing: What goes with kale? Inspired by the baked potato-esque vibe of the fries, I settled on sour cream as a dip but never really got excited about the food. Ultimately, I decided I would finish the bag but would not repurchase.
Lifeway® ProBugs™ Frozen Kefir “Orange Creamy Crawler”
$5.49 per box of six at Whole Foods® Market
Craving sweets after all the saltier fare, I sought chilled goodies and found two that met my conditions. The first came in the form of frozen kefir purchased at Whole Foods, and the second was an icy treat called New Orleans Famous SNO-BALLS TO GO!™ I was previously familiar with drinkable kefir as well as ultra-thick and rich Mediterranean kefir cheese, but frozen was a new concoction I had to try. Like its frozen yogurt cousin, this treat was sweet-tart with a thick, creamy texture, but was a bit dense, similar to gelato. I found the orange crème flavor to be light and fresh, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the Flintstones Push-Up that highlighted the school cafeteria of my youth. Still, it was worth buying again.
New Orleans Famous SNO-BALLS TO GO!™ “Watermelon” and “Blue Cotton Candy”
$1.99 each at Fiesta® Mart
My skeptic-meter once again ran high after I discovered the Sno-Balls, but I figured even a poor-quality icy sugar rush was better than no icy sugar rush. The treat was sold in pint containers, which made for great serve ware on their own when paired with a metal spoon for scraping, and I actually never got as far as using a real bowl. The watermelon and blue cotton candy flavors I tried were satisfyingly sweet and artificial in all the best ways; a review of the container affirmed that no fruit was harmed in the making of these treats.
In the end my little tour of the freezer yielded memorable moments – some worth repeating and others not so much. Not knowing what to expect made it fun, and trying previously unknown-to-me creations was a genuine thrill. Plus, my resident internal health nut had a nice break.