I tried 18 foods that won Trader Joe's Customer Choice Awards to see if they live up to the hype.
Staples like the Mandarin orange chicken and soy chorizo deserve their acclaim.
I probably wouldn't buy the sweet apple chicken sausage and the white-cheddar corn puffs again.
Every year I look forward to Trader Joe's Customer Choice Awards, which reveals shoppers' favorite products and helps me discover some must-try chain staples.
Items like Mandarin orange chicken have reigned supreme for years while others like plantain chips recently earned a title. So I hit up my local Trader Joe's and bought as many award-winning foods as I could to see which ones deserved their hype.
Read on to find out which of these 18 fan-favorite Trader Joe's items I'd buy again, and which I would skip.
This burrito stuffed with black beans and Monterey Jack was filling and delicious
When I first learned that this grab-and-go burrito made the cut for Trader Joe's bestsellers list, I thought to myself, "How good could a basic bean-and-cheese burrito possibly be?"
It turns out, very good. This burrito was packed to the brim with beans and cheese.
It flattened out after I microwaved it and didn't really retain its cylindrical shape, but seeing the bits of cheese and beans oozing out of the side made up for this minor flaw.
The burrito was quite simple, but it definitely wasn't boring. The label tells you exactly what it is: a flour tortilla stuffed with well-seasoned black beans and Monterey Jack cheese.
And quite frankly, that was all it needed to be. The mild bite of the Monterey Jack beautifully paired with the earthy quality of the beans — other ingredients or a strong cheddar would have been a distraction.
I particularly enjoyed that some of the black beans were partially whole while others were mashed, which created this incredibly delicious mixture that the cheese seamlessly blended into.
It won best on-the-go food item, and I can totally see this product being a super filling office meal that could also double as your dinner later that day. I ate mine at noon for lunch and was not even close to hungry until well after 6 p.m.
Everything tasted wholesome and real, which was a stark contrast to the refried-bean burritos I've gotten from fast-food places.
VERDICT: Without question, I'd buy this again.
The spanakopita would make an outstanding appetizer or stand-alone meal
Spanakopita is a Mediterranean comfort food built with numerous layers of crispy, paper-thin phyllo and filled with creamy ricotta, feta, and spinach.
Upon pulling these babies out of the oven, I noticed some of the filling squeezed out of the pockets, which wasn't a problem for me, but could be an issue if you're looking to present the dish on a table for guests. Still, this could be easily fixed with a quick scrape of a knife or spoon.
I love the earthiness of cooked spinach, and the greens were this dish's most prominent aspect. Their bitter flavor grounded the rich saltiness of the feta-and-ricotta combination and elevated the butter in the phyllo.
That said, this product could have gone from an A to an A+ if it had just a bit more cheese, as it was missing that familiar tang of feta.
Still, I appreciated that this was a tasty, shareable vegetarian dish that also works as an individual stand-alone meal.
I'm confident these qualities and its fair price were the reason it earned the title of best appetizer during the 9th annual Customer Choice Awards.
VERDICT: I would probably buy this again, but not regularly.
The creamy spinach and artichoke dip would work well as a snack or topping for other dishes
Since Trader Joe's is essentially a snacker's paradise, any item that wins best appetizer multiple times must be really, really good.
I've actually been a loyal fan of this vegetarian-friendly app for several years. Whenever I've needed an instant dish to feed guests, this dip has been a reliable crowd-pleaser for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
Perhaps this is because spinach and artichoke dip is a staple appetizer on most restaurant menus, so anytime you eat it, it feels like a treat.
But whatever the reason, I have been using this product for years, and it is still one of my favorite things to buy at Trader Joe's.
Of course, I'm a fan of any dish that's ready-to-serve out of the box, but my favorite part about this creamy concoction is that it's delicious whether it's cold, room temperature, or fresh out of the oven.
This also means it works as more than just a dip. I most recently used this mix as the foundation for a cheesy spinach-artichoke pizza, which, according to my roommate, turned out to be one of the best dinners I had ever made.
All at once, this dip is creamy, cheesy, and savory. And even better, it's packed with bits of real spinach that you can actually see.
If I have any critiques, it's that I agree with some reviewers who believe the artichoke flavor could be stronger. If you weren't aware of what you were eating, you might question if there was any artichoke in it at all.
But if I'm judging this product solely based on taste and value, that minor flaw doesn't take away from how good this dish is. Even if this was relabeled as a "creamy spinach-and-cheese dip with a hint of artichoke," I'd still buy it for years to come.
VERDICT: I will always love this product.
The 2014 best meat product winner, the apple chicken sausage, was sweeter than I expected
Let's start with the positive: these sausages are made from chicken, a slightly lighter alternative to traditional pork options. I liked that they're minimally processed and contain no added preservatives.
The links came precooked in the package, so I could heat them up in the microwave if I wanted a quick, mess-free meal. And I hate doing dishes, so this would be a win-win for me.
But since I was trying this product for the first time, I opted to cook the links in a skillet. After a few minutes in hot oil, they nicely crisped up like regular pork sausages and developed an appetizing, brown sheen that gave them that familiar "snap" when I bit them.
Unfortunately, I did not care for the general flavor profile of these chicken sausages.
On the inside of each link, there appeared to be minuscule bits of apple, or possibly something else, that gave each bite an additional layer of sweetness I didn't expect.
They also had a strong maple tang that didn't seem artificial but gave each sausage a strange aftertaste. The pork alternative does a better job of standing up against these strong flavors.
But perhaps if I were more creative about what I paired these with, that fruity nuance wouldn't have bothered me so much. A savory scrambled egg dish was not the right option, but they likely would be tasty served alongside a sweeter breakfast, like a thick stack of waffles.
They may have won the title of best meat product in 2014, but they didn't win me over.
VERDICT: If you're looking for a breakfast meat that will give you a dose of sweet autumnal flavors, look no further. But personally, I won't be buying these again.
The dark-chocolate peanut-butter cups delivered an optimal dose of sweetness in a small package
Nearly every time I enter a Trader Joe's, a packet of these dark-chocolate peanut-butter cups will somehow make its way into my cart.
Blame it on the chain's perfectly designed impulse-buy section, but these cups send every synapse in my brain on fire. And I mean that in the best way.
Naturally, I wasn't surprised that for several years, Trader Joe's customers repeatedly recognized these as their favorite candy, and eventually, their favorite sweet treat.
The dark chocolate has a rich and robust cocoa flavor that compliments the sweetness of the creamy peanut-butter center exceptionally well without tasting bitter.
These peanut-butter cups are exquisite enough to turn any dark-chocolate hater into a believer.
When it comes to Trader Joe's sweets, these are the black-tie option that are always dressed for the occasion. They're not artisanal candies, but if you removed the label and put them on a platter, I'd believe you if you said they were.
Anytime I crave chocolate, I eat one or two cups and find myself completely satisfied and in an instantly better mood.
VERDICT: These miniature candy cups are a noteworthy mainstay in my cupboard that will be around for years to come.
The olive-oil popcorn tasted excellent and light
This particular popcorn has a delicate coating of olive oil that renders it a little nuttier than the traditional style I'm used to microwaving.
But I gave this product some serious snack points for being pre-popped and sealed, which makes it perfect for long road trips or lunches.
Overall, I was quite pleased with how this popcorn tasted. I anticipated the lack of "real" butter would be a disadvantage, but the olive oil's neutral flavor was palatable, albeit mild, and did a nice job of bringing out the salt.
Unlike most traditional popcorns, which are laden with artificial flavorings and butter, this one is made with only three ingredients and gave me hope that a snack doesn't have to be unhealthy to taste good.
You could probably add some additional seasonings to the bag and shake it up for extra flavor, and I can even see myself serving this snack in tiny cups alongside cocktails of varying flavors.
VERDICT: This popcorn deserves its recognition as a healthier snack option.
I don't know if I personally would rank it among my favorite products or even say it's worthy of awards for flavor, but it is a creative twist on popcorn that I believe many others would find palatable.
The peanut-butter-filled pretzels were delicious, and I could probably eat an entire bag of them
If you were to ask me the foods I consider revolutionary to the snack world, I'd say peanut-butter filled pretzels deserve a spot in the top three, which is likely why they won yet again during the 12th Annual Customer Choice Awards.
The combination of their crunchy, salty exterior and smooth, creamy filling makes eating every one of these bite-sized morsels nothing short of a divine snacking experience.
This taste test was my first time trying these, and I was very impressed. The ratio of pretzel to peanut butter was ideal for the size of the individual nuggets.
I also loved how the dusting of coarse crystals on the outside added another dimension of texture and gave my taste buds an additional burst of salt.
In other words, I agree with the many customers who dubbed this their favorite Trader Joe's snack.
These nuggets deserve all the praise. They're scrumptious, easy to transport, and, in my opinion, the embodiment of fun. Pair them with a movie or a day with your kids, and it's likely everyone will love them.
VERDICT: I would totally buy these again and recommend them to anyone else who wants a fun, savory snack that's more exciting than plain pretzels or chips.
The plantain chips were perfectly crunchy
Plantains may closely resemble bananas in look and texture, but they don't taste the same. Even though they have a hint of sweetness, they're more starchy than fruity.
This makes them the perfect vessel to be dehydrated and turned into a potato-chip alternative.
According to Trader Joe's, the plantains used in this snack come straight from Peru and get cooked in sunflower oil, which makes this product friendly to some shoppers with nut allergies.
These plantain chips were extra crispy, which was almost weird to me at first — for some reason I had this preconceived belief they would be chewy. Thankfully, I was wrong.
The crunch reminded me more of a cracker than anything else, which was probably because these discs are ever-so-slightly thicker than traditional paper-thin chips.
In terms of taste, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by how scrumptious and savory these chips were. Their flavor reminded me more of yucca, parsnip, and sweet-potato bites than anything even close to a banana.
I also liked that they had a fair amount of salt without tasting greasy or heavy. As much as I enjoyed this year's favorite snack winner, the peanut-butter pretzels, I can totally see why this option dethroned them in 2020.
These chips also contain zero added sugars and a minimal ingredient list beyond plantains, sunflower oil, and salt, which was a relief, even if I wouldn't call them healthy.
Perhaps everyone is learning that fruit- and veggie-based chips are actually good.
These plantain snacks tasted excellent on their own, but I imagine they would be absolutely divine paired with a tropical-fruit dip, like a mango or pineapple salsa.
Unfortunately, I haven't gotten around to trying the spicy jerk flavor of these tasty discs, but I'm quite satisfied with the originals.
VERDICT: I would totally purchase these again.
The arugula salad reminded me of springtime
Arugula is a green I first discovered during my vegetarian years when I wanted to spice up my usual lettuce topping on veggie burgers. As a result, I was delighted to find that my fellow Trader Joe's shoppers love it as much as I do.
Arugula can seem intimidating because it looks a bit more like an herb than it does lettuce and has a distinct flavor that errs on the side of bitter and almost pungent.
When testing out this particular salad blend, I opted for a simple approach and tossed the entire bag in a basic lemon vinaigrette. The greens themselves stood up well against the dressing, with the stems maintaining a slight crunch, even under the oil.
Arugula has a bite to it that is much more exciting and unique than your typical mixed-greens blend, which is why it doesn't need many toppings to make a good salad. I enjoyed the way its distinctly fresh, peppery quality reminded me of springtime.
The only real downside is that the salad is only available in a bag instead of a box, which means it could wilt before you eat it all unless you plan ahead for the week.
VERDICT: These salad greens are much more cool and fun than your typical spring mix, which is why they deserve their recognition.
If you're still hesitant about trying this option due to the spice, I'd recommend using it as a sandwich topping instead to tame some of that tang.
The orange chicken was an incredible bargain and tasted just as good as takeout
With that in mind, the fact that Trader Joe's Mandarin orange chicken has been dubbed customer's favorite for six consecutive years says one thing: this stuff must be otherworldly.
I mean, that's no surprise — it's savory fried-chicken bits coated in a sticky, sweet orange glaze.
When I finally decided it was time to try the Mandarin orange chicken, I opted to bake mine to avoid adding any additional oil, but you can cook these in the skillet if you prefer that fresh-out-the-frying-pan flavor.
After 20 minutes, my kitchen was filled with a warm, savory aroma that reminded me of chicken nuggets.
Baking chicken always makes me wary of potential dryness, but the thick breading on these pieces maintained its crunch while protecting the tender interior.
I'm also not a huge fan of dark meat since it can get overly chewy, but the majority of these chunks entirely avoided that textural problem.
The real star of this dish was its premade, luscious orange sauce. It had a rich, mahogany hue and sticky texture that bordered on treacly and clung well to each chicken chunk.
Flavor-wise, the sauce definitely was on the sweeter side, but not too much so that I found it off-putting. I could detect hints of garlic and ginger in every bite, which added a zesty kick to the entire meal.
I finally understand why people say this frozen option is just as good as takeout.
Although this dish literally is fried-chicken bits doused in a toothsome orange sauce, at no point did I feel heavy while eating it. That quality alone made it worthy of its passionate fanbase.
VERDICT: Overall, I'd give this orange chicken high marks for its exceptional taste and simple preparation.
On top of that, the flavor is palatable enough for both adults and kids to enjoy, which makes it a great last-minute dinner.
It's also a decent bargain for the price — one bag contains five servings for $4.99 and comes with two sauce packets.
I can't speak for everywhere in the US, but it costs less than a single order of orange chicken from any of the local restaurants in my area. No wonder people keep voting for this as their favorite.
The mini ice-cream cones were the perfect after-dinner treat
Whenever I crave a post-dinner dessert, I rarely want a giant plate of anything. Sometimes even a full ice-cream sandwich is too much, but I hate to be wasteful, so I entirely avoid enjoying a sweet nightcap.
Trader Joe's Hold the Cone ice-cream treats were the very solution to that predicament.
Each miniature cone is topped with a scoop of extra-creamy, sweet vanilla ice cream coated in a luscious chocolate shell.
But the fun doesn't end there. As I was enjoying this dessert, I realized the honeyed waffle cone actually has a rich, chocolate core. To say I love everything about this treat would be an understatement.
The cones are smaller than even your standard child-sized ice-cream order from a parlor, but that's exactly the point.
After enjoying one of these chilly, itty-bitty treats after dinner, I realized they're actually not too tiny. They were designed with just the right amount of bites to put a smile on my face without going overboard.
VERDICT: I am obsessed with these cones and will continue to tell everyone to buy them.
The soy chorizo was a spicy vegetarian dream
Of all the vegetarian-friendly foods that Trader Joe's customers have dubbed the best, this one was my personal favorite.
It tasted even better than the meat version.
With an optimal balance of spice and tang, this product was so delicious I practically forget it was made out of soy — likely due to the healthy dose of paprika and vinegar.
Any time I use soy chorizo in a dish, it means I won't have to add much else in terms of spices because the flavor is already strong and tastes amazing.
This alternative also boasts nearly 60% less fat than the pork version — so it's no surprise this won best vegetarian item again this year.
If I had to compare it to animal-based meat, I would say the texture is like that of a regular pork sausage with the slight chewiness of ground beef.
It crumbles and easily falls apart when out of its tube-shaped packaging, which I didn't mind because it made it easier to incorporate in a variety of dishes.
I loved this soy chorizo mixed with scrambled eggs, but I recently used it as the base for vegetarian tacos, and it tasted amazing.
My only issue was that this product was quite messy to use because I had to squeeze it out of its tube and plastic casing.
I know that design helps it look more like an authentic, chorizo sausage. But I'd like to think that myself and other folks would be fine if it came in any other resealable container.
VERDICT: This stuff is the real deal.
I haven't been a devoted vegetarian for over two years now, but I still routinely buy this over actual sausage. That should tell you everything you need to know about how good it is.
The Unexpected Cheddar Cheese was absolutely outstanding
Trader Joe's is usually my one-stop-shop for cheese. Whether I'm looking for an addition to a sandwich, pasta dish, enchilada, or charcuterie board, I always find something I enjoy.
That said, I was beyond excited to try the Unexpected Cheddar, which was dubbed the chain's most beloved cheese not one, not two, but seven consecutive years in a row.
In my opinion, everything about this product exuded luxury, from the fancy font on the package to the way it tasted incredible with a glass of wine.
Aesthetically, this option might not look as clean as a block of pure, yellow cheddar, but it makes up for that with its distinct and memorable flavor.
You could probably serve this exact cheese to me at a fancy wine bar and charge twice as much for it, and I'd still buy it.
With a unique and complex flavor profile, this product has that familiar sharp cheddar bite to it with a surprising, yet subtle hint of salty parmesan. In other words, it absolutely lives up to its "unexpected" description.
Pairing it with wine only highlighted those parmesan notes and brought out its rich nuttiness.
But for me, the texture was the real standout feature of this cheese. I loved that it was smooth like a typical cheddar and also slightly crumbly.
Initially, I worried the parmesan component would make it taste too grainy, but this option somehow managed to have both textures without one competing over the other.
Over the course of a week, I devoured the entire block as a stand-alone snack, but I can see it making a fun topping for a sandwich, burger, or salad.
VERDICT: Delicious, high-quality, and reasonably priced, this product exceeded my expectations and is now one of my new favorite cheeses.
I'm currently thinking about how excited I am to one day serve this block on a charcuterie board for friends when it becomes safe to gather again. But until then, I'll continue repurchasing and snacking on it myself.
Trader Joe's Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend would elevate any breakfast, lunch, or dinner
There are certain ingredients that I like to call kitchen superpowers because no matter what they're added to, they can elevate any dish.
This seasoning is one of them.
Everything bagels are my breakfast of choice, because their signature, seedy coating tastes absolutely divine. So, when I learned a few years ago that Trader Joe's had extracted the best part of that dish and formed it into a single seasoning, I was over the moon.
Sure, you could always buy individual bags of seeds and salts and make your own jar of the stuff, but I'm a sucker for convenience and saving space, so this automatically earned high marks.
Each jar consists of toasted sesame and poppy seeds, minced onion, dried garlic, and sea salt.
As soon as I took off the cap, my nose got hit with the aroma of a yummy, toasted everything bagel, so it came as no surprise to me that this mixture was quite tasty.
According to Trader Joe's, customers love this seasoning so much they call it their "everything." And I'd have to agree with them. Its blend of garlicky, salty, and umami flavors instantly elevates any dish it joins.
I also enjoyed the way it added texture and crunch to my food. I sprinkled some on top of avocado toast and it instantly tasted like something I had paid good money for at a brunch restaurant.
But my favorite part of this seasoning is how versatile it is — it's delicious on eggs, avocado toast, pizza, or a piece of meat. I can even see it being great on the celery stalk of a Bloody Mary cocktail. Best of all, a little goes a long way.
Perhaps that's why it beat full-on entrees during last year's Trader Joe's Customer Choice Awards and took home the title of best overall.
VERDICT: The praise for this seasoning is well-deserved, and it has a permanent spot on my grocery staples list.
The white-cheddar corn puffs were a solid snack
I have tried many cheesy snacks in my day that have left a weird, sticky coating on the roof of my mouth — these pieces thankfully didn't do that to me.
Instead, Trader Joe's white-cheddar corn puffs have a pleasant airy and light texture. I'd even go as far as saying eating them felt like snacking on fluffy cheese-tinted clouds, as every bite had a delicate crunch that gave way to a melt-in-your-mouth quality.
However, the cheddar wasn't as pronounced as I had hoped. This could be due to the fact that there are no artificial flavor enhancers and additives, which is why they aren't neon orange either.
I wouldn't quite say these are bland, but their flavor is definitely more mellow.
If anything, the only off-putting part about these is that they look like packing peanuts. But otherwise, they definitely make for a great snack.
VERDICT: I'm not sure if I would buy these again on my own, but I definitely wouldn't turn them down if someone had them on a tray in front of the TV.
The sliced sourdough was one of the best store-bought breads I've ever tried
I am not an expert on bread nor sourdough, but I did live in San Francisco for three years where I consumed a substantial amount of the famous, naturally fermented option from countless bakeries and delis.
Ever since I moved away, I've remained picky about the loaves I buy. But rustic, multipurpose, and packed with protein, Trader Joe's option is the ultimate store-bought sourdough.
Although pre-sliced bread sometimes gets a bad rep for quickly drying out and going stale before you can use it, I liked the convenience.
This bread had just the right amount of that subtle sour flavor. It tasted incredible straight out of the bag and even better when toasted.
More than anything, I loved how it could be used as a solid foundation for a variety of hot and cold sandwiches, a dunker for soup, or even just a simple, no-frills snack.
The texture was so delightfully crunchy and airy that it didn't require any butter to be delicious, but adding a slight stroke absolutely makes it a top-tier treat.
VERDICT: I say this as someone who has tried several sourdoughs from different stores: This bread is the best I've had outside of visiting an actual bakery.
As long as I live within reasonable driving distance to a Trader Joe's, I will continue to buy this loaf.
Rich and decadent, the Speculoos Cookie Butter earned its iconic status
When I first learned about the existence of the iconic cookie butter almost nine years ago, my life changed.
At the time, my idea of thick, spreadable foods didn't extend beyond nut butters and jellies, so the thought of getting the flavor of an actual cookie into a jar seemed like some kind of sorcery.
But all it took was one spoonful of this divine spread to turn me into a full-on believer.
If you're currently uninitiated into the fandom surrounding this cookie butter, allow me to brief you. Picture the zesty spice of gingerbread, the sweetness of brown sugar, and the texture of the smoothest nut butter ever rolled into one decadent spread.
That's what cookie butter is. It tastes like the comforts of the holidays wrapped in a jar, even if it's available year-round.
Throughout college, I alternated between keeping a jar of this stuff and chocolate-hazelnut spread on hand at all times. Whenever I was craving something sweet, I slabbed the butter on top of waffles, toast, and fruit for an instant dessert.
Although I don't buy it as often as I used to in order to maintain some semblance of self-control, I would absolutely be the first to stock up if this product was going to be discontinued.
VERDICT: I consider this treat to be the embodiment of the quirkiness and joy that Trader Joe's represents, so it's a definitive yes from me.
The cauliflower gnocchi makes a decent meal, but I don't think it's as memorable as this year's best vegetarian item winner
Last year, this cauliflower gnocchi ended the ever-popular soy chorizo's reign as the best vegetarian/vegan item during the 2020 Customer Choice Awards.
Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that boiling this cauliflower gnocchi is not the best way to prepare it. I followed the package instructions exactly, only for the pieces to transform into soggy, slippery morsels.
I also ate one fresh off the stove and thought it had an unusually gummy texture that reminded me of the veggies I'd eat from a TV dinner.
On a more positive note, this gnocchi was great at absorbing the flavor of its topping. After I tossed my serving in a simple mix of butter, salt, pepper, and parmesan cheese, I could barely taste the cauliflower.
I think if I had paired it with a heavier cream sauce, the aroma would've been masked entirely.
I wouldn't go as far as saying it tasted like traditional potato gnocchi, but it was still pretty darn good. I probably would have eaten several servings of this stuff, were it not for its mushy, overcooked texture.
But I'm not sure I'm sold on this cauliflower gnocchi beating the soy chorizo — a flavorful, versatile staple — as Trader Joe's best vegetarian item during the 11th-annual awards.
Perhaps I needed to keep experimenting with it to find a memorable and delicious preparation.
VERDICT: I'd be willing to give the cauliflower gnocchi another chance in the future, but next time, I'll be sure to panfry it to see if that improves the texture.
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