Hi, my name is Angela, and I was a Trader Joe’s virgin until last Friday. Yes, 27 years on this earth and I had purchased nary a shaker of everything bagel seasoning nor a tub of Green Goddess Dip. In fact, I’d never even set foot inside the store.
I’ve written plenty of times about the wonders of this grocery darling, from its rejection of self-checkout technology to its intentional lack of online ordering options. But even with all that knowledge buried in the recesses of my mind, I went into this experience mostly unsullied by popular opinion. Here’s a newbie’s recounting of her very first trip to Trader Joe’s.
Walking into Trader Joe’s
With an initial budget of $75, I stepped through the automatic doors with a basket in one hand (first rookie mistake) and my own reusable bags in the other. I looked at the aisles laid out in front of me and tried to think of a game plan. Meanwhile, I could feel the eyes of the security person at the entrance drilling into me. They were likely wondering why I looked so lost, or why I didn’t make a beeline straight for a specific aisle. My inexperience was showing.
If the hormonal Chicago weather didn’t already tell me it was fall, the way I was smacked in the face with the heaviest of pumpkin and cinnamon spice fragrance as I walked into TJ’s definitely did the trick. That, plus the leafy decor, dozens of real pumpkins, and multiple displays of pumpkin-flavored products scattered throughout the store.
Though I had a vague memory of people raving about the store’s frozen food products, I decided to head to the pantry items first. I knew Trader Joe’s carried its own private label products and I knew they were popular, but I had no idea just how much of its inventory was dedicated to non-name-brand items.
This is not the case at stores like ALDI, where I do my best budget grocery shopping; at Trader Joe’s, just about every single product seemed to have a Trader Joe’s label on it. In fact, more than 80% of the products on the shelves are private label, according to this episode of the chain’s official podcast. Forbes reported last year that 59.4% of Trader Joe’s sales were from private label products.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the non-refrigerated and non-frozen aisles that called out to me. Thanks to my roommate’s grocery preferences, I had already tried the famous Everything but the Bagel seasoning and found it lackluster, but right beside it on the shelf were Trader Joe’s “Everything but the Elote” seasoning and “Ketchup Flavored Sprinkle,” both of which intrigued me. I love a good elote, and, well, there’s hardly a limit to what I’ll put ketchup on.
The cult favorites at Trader Joe’s
After making my best effort to peruse the dry goods, I stepped into what some would call the pearl of Trader Joe’s: the frozen food aisle. This is where I allowed my eyes, taste buds, and wallet to truly run wild.
As I scanned the items stacked in the freezers, I noted the pricing labels above them and the funny little statements that accompanied each one. Some were definitely more clever than others. Below a French Onion Soup appetizer, the label read, “If you like French Onion Soup, try this!” while another label for “12 Mini Mint Ice Cream Mouthfuls” read, “Now, that’s a mouthful!!”
I later learned from the (super friendly) cashier that these labels and other signage throughout the store are drawn by the employees themselves. My cashier, in fact, was responsible for the signage over the Witches Brew—but more on that in a bit.
There has been a fair amount of controversy surrounding how Trader Joe’s chooses to label its international products with names like “Trader José” for Mexican items and “Trader Giotto” for Italian food. Potentially insensitive labels aside, I was drawn to much of the store’s Hispanic offerings and a few other “worldly” items I had heard about.
I found myself thinking things like, “Whoa, Trader Joe’s sells carnitas?” and “Wait, they have birria?” I grabbed Beef Birria, Chicken Asada, Traditional Carnitas, and Corn and Cheese Arepas. I also tossed in a red salsa and a salsa verde for good measure. As someone who has eaten each of these items in their much more authentic form, I wanted to see if Trader Joe’s could live up to my expectations.
I also knew better than to leave the store without grabbing the famed Trader Joe’s Mandarin Orange Chicken. Other items like Chicken Tikka Masala and Butter Chicken found their way into my shopping haul alongside fresh lemonade and snackable mozzarella balls (which, I’ve read, make for a great lunch box addition). And, for those who know me at all, I was not about to leave Trader Joe’s without a jar of pickles.
Finally, my journey ended in the booze aisle, because why wouldn’t I end my shopping trip by stocking up for a celebratory toast? Coincidentally, my mom called me during this grocery adventure and ended up telling me I should try to grab a bottle of “Two Buck Chuck.” My polite response: “What the hell is that?”
After some explanation and some Googling, I came to find that the bottles don’t cost $2 anymore; they’re $3.99. Although that’s still a deal, I felt the novelty was lost, so I did not purchase any Charles Shaw. Instead, I bought two bottles of Witches Brew, a seasonal wine offering that I had seen becoming popular on TikTok.
The best and worst foods in my first Trader Joe’s haul
Considering how large a haul I loaded myself up with, there were some products that stood out among the sea of treats as worthy of repurchase, while some other items should’ve stayed on the shelf.
These are the items that wowed me so much I knew I’d be back:
- Mandarin Orange Chicken: The hype is absolutely real and justified here. Not only is the orange chicken as tasty as what I might order from a local restaurant, but the amount provided in the bag was enough to feed both myself and my roommate more than once. (Here’s a tip: air fry it.)
- Butter Chicken with Basmati Rice: For being a microwave dish, this packed much more flavor than I would have expected. The sauce had a hint of sweetness that I enjoyed, and unlike many similar products, it wasn’t too watery after being microwaved.
- Beef Birria: I had low expectations for this one, which is probably why it surpassed them. The birria wasn’t restaurant quality, but the meat was tender and the juices weren’t overly greasy.
- Autumnal Harvest Soup: This tasted like the most comforting bowl of tomato soup with some butternut squash and pumpkin flavor thrown in, which makes a bowl full of this soup taste like fall.
- Witches Brew Spiced Apple Wine: I’m a sucker for a sweet wine, and this stuff was like apple juice.
Unfortunately, with so many shining stars, there had to be others that burned a bit less bright. These are the Trader Joe’s products in my haul that just didn’t hit the mark:
- Salsa Especial (Mild): This tasted almost identical to the pizza sauce I bought, and that’s just not something you should say about a good salsa. My tolerance for spicy food is pretty low, but this was tomato sauce and nothing more. It was insulting to call this salsa.
- Witches Brew Spiced Red Wine: The “spiced” aspect of this wine is what ruined it. The spices carried an annoyingly strong scent that I could not ignore with each sip. Inhaling it hurt my nostrils.
- Shredded Pizza Seasoned Toscano Cheese: The cheese melted in an odd way on the pizza I made with it. Instead of creating a stretchy cheese pull, it was more like crumbled pieces sprinkled on top of the pizza. The flavor was fine, but nothing special.
- Chicken Asada: The chicken asada was seasoned well but had a sauce that I just wasn’t expecting and which I found unnecessary. I chose to judge the Hispanic items partially on their authenticity, and this one lacked in that department.
- Turkey Corn Dogs: I’m not sure if it was the fact there were only four corn dogs in the box, the fact that the corn dogs were fairly small, or just the fact that turkey didn’t infuse this product with much flavor, but these were just okay. Not bad, not great, just okay.
Now, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably wondering about the final verdict. Will she go back? Has she been converted to Trader Joe’s fandom forever? Well, remember that $75 budget I walked in with? That was absolutely blown to smithereens. And in case the above photos of my haul didn’t clue you in, at a certain point during my journey the basket I grabbed was exchanged for a full shopping cart.
So yes, I will be back, and next time with more bags, and I’ll opt for a shopping cart from the very start.