Trader Joe's Fast Times Experiment
Thirty-two dollars and a dream.
Photos by Christina Uticone
I'm no stranger to grocery stores with cult status -- I've been a devotee of Wegmans for many years. I will admit to finding the excitement over Trader Joe's amusing, but not in a snarky way; if Wegmans came to Houston, I would probably get a job there just so I could go every day.
My husband and I waited several weeks to check out TJ's for the first time, hoping the initial excitement would wear off and result in smaller crowds. Unfortunately for us, we decided to go on a Saturday around 5 p.m. Hint: That was a bad idea. My hatred for grocery shopping is well-known among my friends (exception: Wegmans), and so the six-people-per-square-inch average was not my favorite part of the TJ experience.
We had already hit the farmers' market and the grocery store that weekend, so this trip was solely intended to give the place a quick once-over and grab some fun items for Fast Times. In spite of the insane number of shoppers, we were in and out in less than 30 minutes.
"Fresh" ravioli from the refrigerator case at Trader Joe's.
The goal was to snag some things for the fridge and freezer that would help speed up dinner on busy nights: some frozen entrées and dishes for my lunch, pico de gallo, "fresh" ravioli, shelf-stable (!) whipping cream, and -- to my husband's tentative delight -- ready-made pizza dough. Ready-made dough is simple to find back home in Upstate New York, but relatively rare here in Houston.
We shared the artichoke raviolis for dinner, tossed in a simple sauce of butter with mixed veggies. Although impressive in size, the ravioli stuck together right out of the package and several tore open; unfortunately, this led to very cheesy pasta water in the pan, and empty pasta dough on the plate. The flavor was good, but to be honest, the brand I get at H-E-B is better in terms of both quality and taste.
New favorite Fast Times breakfast. Winner!
The next morning I pulled the frozen Trader Joe's Channa Masala with a mind to heating it up and throwing a fried egg on it for breakfast. This was far more successful than the ravioli experiment, and the sweet-and-spicy garbanzo beans made a wonderful bed for my single fried egg; the yolk mingled with the tomato-based sauce to create just enough juice to sop up with a piece of whole grain toast. This is probably intended as a side dish for two (two, 190-calorie servings per box), but I think it's perfect for breakfast, or even as an entrée for one. I will absolutely buy this again.
Just. No. Possibly more delicious without water, or heating.
Unfortunately my 24-hour Trader Joe's Fast Times experience ended on a -- literally -- sour note. I popped TJ's Beef Pho (with rice noodles and vegetables!) into the microwave for a quick lunch, but what emerged was decidedly not pho, or even pho-adjacent. There were only two pieces of beef in the bowl, but considering the mealy texture and absence of flavor, that probably goes more in the "minus" than the "plus" category. The noodles were oddly starchy, and the veggies were so sweet as to be almost sugary. The best part about good pho is the broth, and in this bowl it was the absolute worst part, with sweetness edging to sourness with every bite.
My first go at Trader Joe's was a mixed bag in terms of flavor and quality, but I can see the appeal and look forward to further exploration. I'm still a Weggies gal all the way, though.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.