Working for Trader Joe’s means you inevitably become some sort of culinary librarian. You live by a seasonal item calendar, sample hundreds (perhaps thousands) of items, and inevitably develop a lot of strong opinions on the absolute best-of-all-time items at the store. And when it comes to Trader Joe’s, there’s a lot of feathers to ruffle when it comes to naming your best, end-all-be-all, would-take-with-me-on-a-desert-island favorite items of all time, too.
But let it be said that it really took a lot of deep contemplation to narrow this list down to just 10 items; The process was not unlike filling out a March Madness bracket. So many permutations and combinations to consider! I had to apologize to a lot of my snacking besties in the process but these selections are, without a doubt, the 10 items I can’t imagine going without when doing my weekly shop.
Maybe these are some of yours, too? And if they aren’t, let me know which Trader Joe’s picks/hot takes I need to try ASAP for myself!
1. Kung Pao Tempura Cauliflower , $5.49 for 24 ounces
If this desert island I’m living on happens to have an air fryer, I hope to be able to bring a few bags of these with me. Cauliflower is having a major glow-up moment, and I especially am all about it when it’s coated in tempura batter, fried to golden and crispy perfection, then slicked with a sweet-spicy sauce (and maybe a drizzle of Chili Onion Crunch for good measure). I’ve also been known to forgo the sauce provided and toss these florets with a buttery Buffalo sauce, too, and they’re a pretty delicious canvas for riffing. It’s never been easier to eat my vegetables, honestly.
2. Chile Spiced Mango, $2.49 for 8 ounces
I first fell in love with Trader Joe’s on a road trip of all times. You see, they have the best (and often most affordable) options for taking on the road. Plus, Trader Joe’s stores are also scattered along many major highways meaning I don’t really ever have to go too far without my favorite snacks, namely the Chile Spiced Mango.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the original slices of dried mango available, but these really keep me going when I’m in need of a bit of a pick-me-up on those last miles of a road trip. They’re sweet, spicy, a bit smokey and very reminiscent of getting a bag of freshly sliced mango (dusted with chile-lime salt) from a street vendor on a sunny New York day. Big fan, can’t live without them.
3. Pork Gyoza Potstickers, $3.99 for 16 ounces
I love using Trader Joe’s items as a foundation on which to build a fancy-adjacent dinner. Namely, the gyoza selection is perhaps the most delicious of all starting points. In a pinch, TJ’s Pork Gyoza Potstickers are great, simply fried until crispy and ready to take a dive into soy sauce. But one should never just stop there. I like to pop these in a hot and sour-style soup, saute in a stir-fry, or even use for topping an Asian-style slaw or salad.
4. Thai Lime & Chili Cashews, $7.99 for 16 ounces
Speaking of ride-or-die road trip snacks, meet my other BFF: Trader Joe’s Thai Chili Lime Cashews. Alternate a handful of these tangy, herby cashews with the Chile Spiced Mango (sensing a theme here?) and you’re in for a real (albeit spicy!) good time. And when you reach the bottom of your bag, don’t chuck out any remaining seasoning; I like to use any leftovers to sprinkle over freshly popped popcorn.
5. Japanese Fried Rice, $3.49 for 16 ounces
Having worked for Trader Joe’s before, I noticed this frozen item often went overlooked when customers were grabbing the more popular rice options (i.e. the bags of Vegetable– or Chicken-Fried Rice). But I’m here to tell you, this is the only bag of frozen rice I’ll ever buy at TJ’s. Why, you might ask? Well, this Japanese-Style Fried Rice has so much going on; shreds of hijiki seaweed, crispy bits of fried tofu, and plump green edamame beans.
Each bite is different and not at all “same-y” (a very technical term, I swear), that I’d use to describe other pre-made bags of fried rice. It’s great whether you serve it on the side of soy-marinated steak, if you scramble a few eggs into it, or honestly? It’s great just on its own. 12/10, has never disappointed me.
6. Cheddar & Gruyere Melange Cheese, Priced Per Pound
As much as I love buying all different kinds of cheeses, it’s easy to venture into the budgeting danger zone in the cheese aisle. This is why I always like to make sure I have a cheese on hand that doubles as a kitchen workhorse. And by that I mean a cheese that can be seamlessly used in many dishes, yet still has plenty of depth on its own for snacking (very crucial and very important).
Consistently, this Cheddar & Gruyere Melange Cheese has proven to be a culinary MVP. The nuttiness of the Gruyere mixed with the buttery, crumbly English-style cheddar is a match made in heaven; I like shredding it into a macaroni and cheese, slicing for any and all grilled cheeses (especially with a layer of either toum, apples, or cherry jam), or cubing into a kale-apple salad tossed with a garlicky vinaigrette.
7. Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds, $3.99 for 10 ounces
Do you have those snacks that, without realizing, you find yourself in the kitchen snacking on? Like, you truly don’t remember grabbing a handful of said snack, but there you are, deep in bliss and snacking with reckless abandon. Well, that’s how I usually describe just how delicious these almonds are.
I’m not sure how I end up finding myself with the container in my hands, but I just do. It’s easy to see why, too: Each roasted almond is coated in a layer of dark chocolate that’s then studded with flaky crystals of sea salt and crunchy turbinado sugar, before then being covered in, yes, more chocolate. What else could you want in a snack? I’ll wait.
8. Truly Tortilla Chips, $2.79 for 9 ounces
Having worked for Trader Joe’s also means I’ve really eaten every single variety of most items, and that’s especially true of the chip section. Not a week goes by where I don’t re-up my stock of the Truly Tortilla Chips. Each restaurant-style chip is coated with plenty of tart lime and sea salt, thankfully void of that weird chemical lime taste you’ve maybe experienced from other lime-flavored tortilla chips.
You can’t go wrong with dipping these into my favorite dip of choice (ahem, Trader Joe’s Pepita Salsa) or using a hearty handful as a nacho base, of course. But they’re good for so much more, namely Alison Roman’s recipe for short-cut chilaquiles that’ll make your next weekend brunch feel very deluxe.
9. Quartered Marinated Artichokes, $2.99 for 12 ounces
When I worked at Trader Joe’s, this was overwhelmingly (yet quietly) one of the most popular items. Customers would even tell me they drove well across town in order to pick up a few jars, and I now do too. Each artichoke quarter is packed in a herb-packed brine that is basically liquid gold on its own.
My weeknight stand-by pasta dish is one I learned from an old, thrifted copy of Alice Waters’ cookbook, Chez Panisse: Pizza, Pasta, and Calzones (with a few of my own liberties, of course). My take includes tossing together an entire jar of these artichoke quarters, crisped-up pancetta, and degreasing the pan with a bit of the leftover artichoke brine. Toss that magical mixture with your favorite wide noodle (I like fresh pappardelle and fettuccine), and then shower with plenty of Parmesan and you have a dish worthy of a dinner party (or leftovers you’ll really look forward to).
10. Pastrami-Style Smoked Salmon, $5.99 for 4 ounces
I’ll never get tired of singing the praises of this Pastrami-Style Smoked Salmon. I’m nearly about to write an ode about it, I love it that much. It’s got a sweet-smoky char that really upgrades a cream cheese-schmear bagel, and I especially love this for an infinite (it seems) number of uses.
It makes for a perfect weeknight-friendly poke bowl when used for topping vinegar-y sushi-style rice, rolling into teriyaki-seasoned seaweed sheets as a snack, or folding into an omelet with plenty of dill. My new favorite use involves using it in an L-E-O-style scramble (lox, egg, onion) that’ll surely have you feeling like you’ve been transported to a New York-style diner instantly.
Did your TJ’s favorites make the list? Sound off in the comments below.