The last time I went to Trader Joe's, the cashier only said "Oooh, great choice!" about two or three of the dozen-ish items I'd selected, remaining unnervingly quiet as he dragged everything else across the scanner. I stared at the pattern on his shirt until the flowers all blurred together, wondering what I'd done wrong. Why didn't he seem impressed by all of my choices?
As I carried my shopping bags through the parking lot, avoiding drivers who were blind to everything but cauliflower rice and gluten-free chicken nuggets, it hit me: He'd only complimented the cheeses.
It's hard not to think "Oooh, great choice!" when you're filling your basket with TJ's cheese. There's always a pretty great mix of everyday staples and imported or artisan specialties. And, because a lot of the store's cheeses are less than $10 per pound, you'll have money left to spend on cookies and candy. (Yes, I am an adult whose food groups are cheese, cookies, candy, and pizza. Fight me.) (Please don't fight me — I'm pretty sure my bones would all shatter.)
On my next trip, I decided to try an assortment of the best cheeses at Trader Joe's, not because I wanted the cashier to shriek loudly, call everyone over to his register, and announce that he'd just met a Hall of Fame customer, but because, well no, that's really why I did it.
Since there are so many terrific options, I asked my Facebook friends to suggest their favorites and, after scrolling through a lot of enthusiastic comments, I made a list and drove to TJ's.
My best fella, Jeff, and I spent one glorious Saturday night eating the nine cheeses that were all highly recommended by people I haven't spoken to since 2004 — and they did not disappoint. Here's what we tried and how they ranked.
An Official Ranking of the Best Cheeses at Trader Joe's
- Unexpected Cheddar, $4 for seven ounces: We kicked the evening off with the Unexpected Cheddar, which seems to be universally loved. The "unexpected" part is because — spoiler alert — there is a hint of parmesan blended with the aged cheddar, which gives it a crumbly texture and a salty, nutty kick. "This cheese comes in the door with an attitude," Jeff said.
- Cheddar & Gruyère Melange: We both liked this one because of its mild-but-interesting flavor, because it sliced well, and because we both immediately started daydreaming about using it in grilled cheeses. And we both described the flavor as being familiar, but not unexciting. "This cheese," Jeff said, gesturing at me with a cracker, "This cheese would want to know how your day was."
- Toscano Cheese with Black Pepper, $10 per pound: I'd hoped to pick up the incredible Syrah-Soaked Toscano, but there was just an empty basket, soaked in sadness. So I got this one instead, which combines the bold Parmesan-ish flavor of Toscano with the bite of cracked black pepper. TJ's seems to experiment with various Toscano combos, and I've yet to have a bad one; the Chipotle Toscano is currently in stores, and is also super.
- Cotswold Double Gloucester Cheese with Onions & Chives: "This cheese would walk into a party and people would say 'He's not from around here, is he?'" Jeff said after his first bite. He's actually imported from Gloucestershire County, England, and we both loved him for his creamy, savory flavor. (And we loved him even more when we put him in scrambled eggs the next day).
- 1,000 Day Gouda, $12 per pound: I love everything about this cheese, from its robust, nutty flavor to the slight crunch it has after literally enduring a 1,000 day maturation process. (1,000 Day Gouda is the "jewel in the crown of Dutch Gouda cheeses," one cheesemaker boasts). If you grabbed this from a cheese tray, you would not be disappointed.
- White Stilton with Apricots: "This is like an adult candy," Jeff said. "It's here to please, but doesn't care if you don't like it." We both liked it, though, because the mild Stilton married perfectly with those sweet dried apricots — and you're almost guaranteed to get both flavors in each bite. (I may have eaten this entire wedge before we finally stood up from the table).
- Wild Blueberry Vanilla Chevre: We allowed this one to sit at room temperature while we worked our way through the other cheeses, so it had the texture of a thick yogurt when we finally sliced it — and holy cow (or goat), it was good. We both liked the natural sweetness of the berries, which softened the tanginess of the chevre.
- Manchego Anejo: I'll be honest — this was a little too much Manchego for me. (Manchego is categorized by age; anejo means that it has been aged for at least one year). Those who love it praise the "lingering" taste, which is an apt description; that unmistakable taste of sheep's milk stayed on my tongue until I scrubbed it with a paper towel.
- Délice de Bourgogne: This is a French triple cream cheese, made with a decadent combination of full-fat milk and crème fraîche. Of everything we sampled, this had the most pungent flavor — and it also had the creamiest texture, like you had a mouthful of moldy wood glue, which can be a good or bad thing. One French cheesemaker describes the taste as "salty and acidic" with "notes of fungus." Jeff called it "aggressive," and I cannot type the words that came out of my mouth as I rubbed my tongue with my Manchego rag. If you like rich cheeses with a powerful flavor, this one's for you.
There are still so many Trader Joe's cheeses left to try — but we're sure that all of them would be rewarded with a sincere "Good choice!" If you have any favorites, let us know in the comments.