Appetizers
March 7, 2012
How do Fresh & Easy's instant meals rate against the competition?

Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market opens the first two of its five Sacramento locations starting today, with the grocery chain emphasizing low-cost and freshly made instant foods as a core part of its business plan. Check this story from today's Food & Wine section for more about Fresh & Easy, but in the end, we really wanted to know this: How do Fresh & Easy's grab-and-go foods rate against the competition? You'll find similar sorts of freshly prepared meals at Trader Joe's and Raley's, so a tasting panel was rounded up and we fired up the microwave and oven to taste away. As a bonus, we also tried Two Buck Chuck against Fresh & Easy's $1.99 house wine.

The tasting panel included Chris Macias (Bee Food and Wine Writer), Allen Pierleoni (The Bee's "Counter Culture" columnist), Matt Chong of the www.getsrvd.com food blog, and local social media consultant Beth Diebels. Here are the results, on a scale of 1 to 5:

MAC 'N' CHEESE

Fresh & Easy Macaroni & Cheese ($2.99, 16 ounces): Average score of 1

*** Raley's To GO 5 Cheese Macaroni & Cheese ($5, 16 ounces): Average score of 2

Overall: Tasters were struck by how bland both mac 'n' cheeses were, especially with Fresh & Easy's version. Raley's took the edge for better chew on the noodles. In the end, Chong preferred Kraft to both.

PIZZA

Raley's Rising Crust Supreme Pizza ($4.98 on sale, 28 ounces): Average score of 1.5

*** Trader Giotto's Pizza Parlano ($4.99, 18.25 ounces): Average score of 3.5

Fresh & Easy Supreme Pizza ($3, 16 ounces): Average score of 2

Overall: Fresh & Easy's $3 pizza price is hard to beat, and it looked good at the outset, but the finished crust was still too doughy and soggy. The oily sheen of Raley's pizza and fairly flavorless cheese turned off tasters, and Trader Joe's took this category for its pleasingly crunchy crust and "surprisingly good" pepperoni.

SOUP

Nob Hill Trading Co. (under the same ownership group as Raley's) French Onion Soup with croutons and swiss & gruyere cheese blend ($3.99, 14 ounces): Average score of 1

*** Fresh & Easy Gourmet French Onion Soup ($2.99, 14 ounces): Average score of 1.5.

Overall: This was one round nobody really enjoyed. Both soups lacked flavor and body, and received more "zero" scores than any other food product tested. A somewhat sweet version of French onion soup from Fresh & Easy barely took the edge here. Bleh!

CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA

*** Trader Joe's Chicken Tikka Masala with Basmati Rice ($4.99 for 16 ounces): Average score of 3.5

Fresh & Easy Chicken Tikka Masala ($2.99 for 15 ounces): Average score of 3.

Overall: Now this battle was much better. Both chicken tikka masala's ranked fairly well, though judges agreed that both brands were playing it too safe with spiciness. While the Fresh & Easy version held its own with flavor, and is a pretty good deal for the price, Trader Joe's was the winner, winner chicken tikka masala dinner for the quality of its rice .

TORTELLINI

Raley's To GO Cheese Tortellini with Peas & Ham ($5 for 16 ounces): Average score of 1.5

*** Fresh & Easy Cheese Tortellini with Creamy Tomato Sauce ($7.99 for a 2 pound, 10 ounce family size): Average score of 2.5.

Overall: Raley's got knocked for its "bad pot pie components with something resembling cheese" and gummy, paste-like texture. Tasters preferred the tomato sauce in Fresh & Easy's take on tortellini - and these were some huge pieces of tortellini - that had "potential to doctor" with shrimp. Fresh & Easy for the win.

BONUS ROUND: WINE

Charles Shaw 2010 California Cabernet Sauvignon ($1.99 for 750ml bottle): Average score of 1

*** The Big Kahuna Cabernet Sauvignon ($1.99 for 750ml bottle): Average score of 1.5.

Overall: There was a lot of wincing around the tasting panel when pitting "Two Buck Chuck" against Fresh & Easy's The Big Kahuna budget wine brand. Both wines lacked body, especially for California cabernet sauvignon, with artificial-looking purple color and overall bitter flavors. But if forced to choose, Fresh & Easy's cranberry-ish flavor profile and better aromatics gave it a slight edge - and then straight down the drain.

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