January 02, 2004

To market, to market

I'm sure this is going to turn into a rant by the end of it. But at least like Jake Johansen (when is someone going to release "This'll take about an hour" on DVD?) I'm telling you up front...

As I was preparing to step out of the house this AM in order to pick up foodstuffs, I found myself dispairing at the current state of food markets here in the wilds of suburbia. And no, if you live in a city where you've got these neato daily markets within walking distance I am not interested in hearing how good you have it. I already know how much you suck. Hmm, sliding downhill already I can see.

Now I'm not going to include individual meat markets, and produce stores, and farmers markets, and bakeries. a) these are few and far between and b) the hours just stink unless you don't work. What I'm talking about is trying to find a good quality, reliable, one-stop, not-break-the-bank expensive place to pick up the half-dozen things I typically need for a given meal.

When I first moved to California, the markets were not nearly so bad. I've watched the one most convienient to my house steadily head down hill, and it has now gotten to the point where I only use it when I must. The problem is that no one good alternative exists, and thus any reasonable shopping trip involves multiple stops. My current options are thus now:

Safeway -- the above mentioned chain. The prices are reasonable enough, but you've got to enroll in their stupid frequent shopper program. Meat department is now good only for battery raised chickens. Reasonable selection of beer and wine here. For some strange reason they carry a good assortment of Indian prepared condiments. Much more troubling is that like most chains now they seem to carry more non-food items than food items. And the bulk of the food is prepared/frozen. Not my bag, baby. Open 24/7, however. That can come in handy.

Trader Joe's -- a west-coast based chain. Strange assortment of goods, sometimes at good prices. They carry my beloved Plugra butter at basically the same price as I would pay for normal butter at another chain, and less than half what a high-end store would charge. But there is always something you need that Trader Joe's won't carry (a recent example is that they have every sugar related product you can think of, but no molassass), so you have to also stop someplace else. If I recall they carry every variety of non-dairy based frozen ice cream like products, but no actual ice cream. Reasonable bread selection. But they also suffer from the "huge aisles of frozen prepared foodstuffs" problem. They also don't open until 9 AM.

Andronico's -- a high-end mini chain. Everything you need, and usually pretty high quality, but at jacked up prices. They carry a good cross section of Bay Area artisinal bread. I usually go here for speciality meat, or basic produce if I don't need to buy a large amount. They of course have plenty of prepared foods, but not at the cost of not carrying the basics. Also, the frozen stuff tends to be a better quality. For example, they carry a locally made frozen raviolli rather than national brands. And their frozen puff pastry is made with butter rather than shortening. If I just don't have the energy to run around to everyplace, I go here and try hard to limit the quantities of the purchases to avoid sticker shock.

Draeger's -- an even higher-end mini chain. The prices here are insane, but if you need it, they probably have it or can get it. Quality of goods generally even better than Andronico's, but boy do you pay for it. Did I mention expensive? The one nearest to me also isn't their best. meriko used to live in San Mateo near their mega-store and man is it sweet! I'd probably ignore the prices and shop there if I lived close to it. But I don't, and I don't.

PW Super -- a mini chain. Reasonably close to home and what looks like a good replacement for Safeway. They also "feature" a frequent shopper card, but I've noticed that if you don't have one the checkout people will scan theirs. For some reason I never leave here satisfied. It might be the dank lighting and a certain hard-to-place dingy-ness. What I probably should do is some week or three make a point of always driving home that way and stop there. Maybe if I got myself more oriented to the store I'd do better.

Cosentino's -- another mini chain. Actually, they are probably the best bet for me for a single source shopping experience. They're price-wise someplace between a chain and a higher-end grocery store. Unfortunately, they are "the other direction" away from my normal vector of travel down a city street with more than the normal share of cops and lights that always seem against you (I know, I lead a hard life). A plus is that this same said street gives me a return trip past Ranch 99, PW Super, and Safeway. So if I miss something, I can always grab it that way.

Costco -- you never get out of Costco for under $200. But for sub-primal cuts of meat, recently cut, generally Choice quality, at rock bottom prices they are pretty hard to beat even with the yearly $35 "membership fee." Also handy for that 25 pound bag of potatoes, or 6 pounds of mushrooms, or 4 pounds of lettuce. Cheapest and best source of lamb racks around. But you can never tell for sure what they will have, specialty items are of course out of the question, and sometimes you just don't really need that much nutmeg. Not open until 11 weekdays, and 9:30 weekends. But I probably go once a month or so to stock up on canned goods (tomato products mostly) or pantry staples like oil and rice or large cuts of meat or "root cellar" items.

Smart & Final -- another warehouse style store. They sort of place themselves as the 7-11 of the resturant industry. It's fun to shop here, but you are bound to need something they don't have. Only cheap and ready source of subprimals for real BBQ (like pork butt and packer cut brisket). They also carry "manufacturing cream" in large and cheap sizes.

Whole Foods -- increasingly growing national chain. Great for produce, good priced bulk foods, and (in what always seems to me to be non-obvious) an excellent meat department. But they let their politics get in the way of selling stuff I actually need, so it turns again into another stop on the drive. Whole Foods replaces the aisle of useless non-food toys and greeting cards and Christmas lights with aisles of useless supplements and annoying smelling potions and lotions.

Ranch 99 -- I think a West Coast based mini chain. Specializes in Asian food. As such, it is the best place to pick up seafood. Also duck priced like chicken. Only cheap and easy source of block-frozen shrimp, live clams, live crab, live lobster. They'll also sell you the smallest quantities of meat you can imagine if you need only a bit. But it obviously isn't going to fill out Joe American's shopping list. And, sad to say, that includes me. An added bonus, however, is that when you spend more than some amount you get coupons that you take into the deli and pick up free pork buns. Mmmmm, porks buns.

On today's shopping list is:
- charcoal
- ice
- some kind of chutney
- naan-style bread
- lemons
- cillanto
- bell pepper
I've got chicken marinating in a tandorri-style sauce, and am going to grill and serve with bread and perhaps also make a side of channa masala. Also, I've got everything I need to make a duck gumbo except for the bell pepper. I think I'm going to make a play for Cosentino's and see if I can't do this in one shot.

Wish me luck, it's a nightmare out there.

Posted by dowdy at January 2, 2004 07:56 AM