We'd be the first to tell you, when you want the real stuff, go to Little Saigon, the countless Asian plazas in Irvine, heck, even Little Tokyo, Thai Town or SGV if you've got the time. But if you need a quick Asian-food fix and have just a few minutes to spare, Trader Joe's is a pretty good bet. Sure, ready-to-nuke bibimbap, pho and tikka masala may sound blasphemous, but some of the dishes are surprisingly satisfying. Grandma, stop scowling.
Here are five dishes that don't suck. All were cooked in the microwave because when you're at the office, that's usually what you've got.
5. Bibimbap Bowl
It's not quite bibimbap without the raw egg or the hot clay pot that cooks the rice to a crisp, but despite its shortcomings, the TJ's rendition is admirable. The veggies -- spinach, a scrambled egg, soybean sprouts and carrots -- all come to life pretty well in the microwave, and the bulgogi is well-seasoned. The sauce tastes pretty much like gochujang, the real stuff, though the rice sadly tastes like re-heated rice.
4. Beef Pho
Because we have the pho capital of the universe in our back yard, we suggest that you only crack open this box in the case of extreme pho emergencies. The broth, made with ginger, lemongrass, lime and basil, is slurpable, especially when you squeeze in the requisite amount of Sriracha, though far from special in any way. The beef, on the other hand, is good, tender and peppery, if you're okay with your beef not tasting anything like the slabs you get at any authentic Vietnamese establishment. Overall, it'll tide you over until the next time you can make it out to one of the restaurants on our list
3. Spicy Shrimp Bao
I expected to hate these, but I didn't. In fact, I couldn't stop eating them. Inside the spongy, doughy bun is a tasty mix of of shrimp, Thai basil and spicy hoisin sauce. A fine snack.
2. Shrimp with Green Curry and Jasmine Rice
While the curry is watery and wimpy with a total of four shrimps (what can you expect for $2.99?), the flavor is shockingly good. Lime, coconut milk, chili, basil, peas, eggplant -- it was all devoured eagerly, and leaves a pretty mighty kick. A winner!
1. Chicken Tikka Masala
The heartiest of the dishes, and a meal that I'd actually be excited about. While the chicken could be more tender, the curry spices are just right, an impressive feat considering the complexity of Indian flavors. The Basmati rice is fluffy and flavorful. After you're done, you'll have to hold yourself back from lapping up the remains.