Crowded places and long lines fuel my anxiety. If a wait is more than 15 minutes, I start to get antsy. Yet, somehow, I have clocked hundreds of hours inside Trader Joe’s, willingly shuffling my way around people and carts and unaccompanied children. The craziest part? Waiting has become my favorite part. It’s during that time that I’ve gathered some of my favorite food recommendations from fellow customers and friendly employees.
Talking about the insanity of a Trader Joe’s in New York City is almost a parody at this point. Lines weave through the aisles and sometimes out the door—particularly in the Union Square location next to NYU—and they’re chronically understocked. But even the most cynical New Yorkers have shown their friendly side to me at TJs. Tall people help me (5 feet 1 inch on a good day) reach the beans on the top shelf.
I’ve exchanged charcuterie board recommendations with a clueless dad at the cheese section. A college bro once told me that the frozen shells and cheese with Brie and asparagus changed his life, but “sometimes makes the microwave stink,” and he was right on both counts. After reading about the passing of Trader Joe’s founder Joe Coulombe earlier this week, I thought about how he created a store that had such a unique ecosystem—one that encouraged helpfulness and kindness amongst high-quality, fairly-priced goods. Everyone gets along in this bubble, bonded by bites at the sample station and eager product recommendations.
Long before I actually stepped into a TJs, I got my recommendations from a blog called What’s Good at Trader Joe’s?, in which a husband and wife review the latest launches. This was a decade ago, when I was in college in Plattsburgh, N.Y., hundreds of miles from the closest outpost. I jotted down items I wanted to try in a physical notebook and when I visited my best friend in Connecticut, I’d haul back a bag or two with me. It was because of the blog that I discovered (and hoarded) buttery cornbread crisps, fearful that one day they’d be discontinued. I learned about the bibimbap bowl that—for microwaved Korean food—isn’t bad (and that’s judged by a Korean-American writer). I started serving vegetable bird’s nests at parties, because they were cute and full of crispy spiralized veggies and heated up easily in a toaster oven.
Now I don’t need the blog, because I have become the blog. When I go to Trader Joe’s, I beeline for the “new” endcap or grab a Fearless Flyer—the name for their new product newsletter, which can also be found online ahead of time (if you’re prepared like that)—to take stock of what’s new and notable. This past week’s trip included two new seasoning blends: Everything But the Elote (spicy and a little cheesy, based on its namesake Mexican street corn) and Vegan Chicken-less Seasoning Salt (garlic, onion, and turmeric, kind of like a ramen packet minus the bouillon). I bought both, posted them as an Instagram Story and got a flurry of questions about how they taste. I don’t have a full review to report yet—mostly because I’m not sure what to use them on, maybe roasted vegetables?—but it goes to show how eager people are to find out what new Trader Joe’s item is worth buying next. When I worked at Bon Appétit, I tasted through all of TJ’s pumpkin spice products and my colleague Alex Beggs started an entire column dedicated to the latest and greatest (and not-so-greatest) every month. There’s a cult following behind the store for a reason—they always have something kooky or trendy up their sleeves, and it’s affordable enough to buy five new things during a trip there without emptying your wallet.
My greatest Trader Joe’s find was the butter mochi mix, a dessert I was already familiar with, but had never made at home before. I checked four different stores after spotting it on Instagram, but to no avail; employees told me it was gone for the season and possibly forever. My friend Moonlynn (the co-owner of lovely Malaysian restaurant Kopitiam), who lives and works near the Lower East Side location spotted some and snagged me a few boxes. It came out perfect, I brought her a few squares as a thank you, and I hoarded the other two boxes for months because I knew it was gone. I’ve since eaten them both when the occasion called for it, but it will live on in my memory alongside some other gone-too-soon favorites like the Laughing Cow-esque rindless creamy Brie bites, three-level hummus, and tofu edamame bites. Let’s pour out some Trader Joe’s Arnold Palmer for our fallen heroes.
Whether I’m learning about the newest peanut butter cup from a stranger in line, on Instagram, or through a text from a friend, the excitement of a new Trader Joe’s find is never lost on me. It’s one of those little joys that we could all use while living in such a tumultuous time to be alive! So next time you’re in a TJ’s line, take the time to stop and look around once in a while. You never know what cookie butter iteration you’re gonna miss.