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Jan 5, 2007 07:33 PM

A tribute to Trader Joe's

I just wanted to take a few minutes to pay homage to Trader Joe’s.... the everyday, workingman gourmand’s best ally. IMO, Trader Joe’s consistently & broadly delivers the best quality for the $ of any store I’ve been to in the U.S.

When compared to the traditional supermarket chains, TJ’s delivers substantially superior products (particularly gourmetish products) at lower prices.

When compared to Whole Foods & their neighborhood wannabes, TJ’s usually delivers comparable quality for better prices. When both TJ’s & WF carry the same product (I am thinking some brands of cereal, chicken broth, yogurt, wines)... TJ’s is always significantly less expensive. Sure WF might have the better cheeses or wines... and I will stray into WF when I want a special ingredient, but when it comes to everyday fine dining... TJ’s is usually the superior choice for me.

Now some of that might have to do with my budgetary constraints. But on paper, at least 95% of U.S. workers make less income than I do. Our monthly budget for food & going out is $1,000... I don’t see how I could possibly shop at WF or the local gourmet shops exclusively with that budget in mind... specially considering that this weekend I stopped by the local Pacific Market for a few ingredients I didn’t find at TJ’s & payed $80 for two very light grocery bags... almost as much as the TJ’s bill!

Another argument could be, that my palette just can’t tell the difference. That may be so. But when I worked for POM Wonderful I was part of the sensory panel. One of the first things that the food scientist did was to organize a blind taste test for all the members of the company to figure out who had a sufficiently discerning palette to taste all the lots of juice prior to going to market. Among 10 sets of juice samples where we had to choose which samples came from the same lot... I scored 10 out of 10. So my palette is decent... yet I still find many TJ’s products to be very good. Is every product good? No but, at TJ’s more than anyother store I feel confident buying something I’ve never tried before.

What I like about Trader Joes? In order of how I shop at the local TJ’s:

Hearts of Romaine ($1.79)... for the price of a mediocre iceberg at Whole Foods or the traditional chains... TJ’s offers decently fresh, nutritious romaine that holds up the entire week. Very convenient and decent quality.

Lambs Lettuce ($2.50)... a very fine green that is dear to my heart (they grow wild in Central Mexico) that are a nice canvas for a fine Manzano Olive Oil, Sonoma County Champagne Vinegar, in season Avocados a little sea salt & white pepper... or a nice Avocado-Roasted Poblano thin salsa.

Baby Green Beans... for $2.29 a pound, great for roasting, cooking with Mole or Chile Colorado they are higher quality than any green beans I’ve purchased at WF, at about 1⁄2 the price.

Whole Crimini Mushrooms.... $1.59 for 12 ounces... as good as the bulk Criminis at WF, substantially cheaper... great roasted or in sautees.

Baby Spinach... a big bag for $3... goes great in a cooked Tomato-Jalapeno salsa with a wedge of Queso Fresco & some refried Mayacoba beans.

Brocoli & Cauliflower a substantial, convenient bag for $2. I bake them in a covered casserole for 15 minutes... then put them in a pot of hot Green Pipian... let them poach for 10 minutes... voila tasty... also do the same with Indian & Thai sauces.

Outside of my local Mexican market... TJ’s is one of the better places to shop for everyday tomatoes. Romas are cheap enough to use in sauce. The high lycopene tomatoes on the vine (from Dutch hothouses) are very decent in fresh uses, better & cheaper than the average tomato at WF. I am sure tomatoes are probably one of my most controversial choices... specially the Dutch ones... sure there are local shops here in Wine Country that have better vine ripened tomatoes but my experience has taught me to appreciate TJ’s tomatoes. First, most places in the country have no hope of getting better tomatoes. I’ve had my fair share of tomato salads at upscale restaurants in Manhattan to know, there is a huge population of people there that have never had a real tomato (sorry Garden State you don’t stack up to California... or Dutch hothouses for that manner). Second, even the best tomatoes I’ve had in California are at best comparable to the average dirt cheap tomato in Mexico City’s mercados. So when I pay $6 a pound for tomatoes at WF, only to find that they don’t come close to the $0.25 pound tomatoes I used eat in D.F., it just pisses me off. Somehow paying $3 a pound at TJ’s is a lot easier to swallow even if they aren’t the best around.

From the Cheese Case... good quality Monterey Jack for $4 a pound makes a decent melting cheese, Parrano at $8 a pound makes a great dessert cheese, grated Pecorino Romano a bargain at $5 a pound, reliable wedges of Brie, Bleu Cheese, Feta and Goat Cheese for everday cooking... superior than their traditional supermarket counterparts and cheaper.

From the cured meats section... the “Christopher Columbus” brand of Italian sausages is the same they carry at my local WF deli... substantially cheaper. Niman Ranch hot dogs make a good lunch. I find the prepared Carnitas to be decent if you know how to reheat them.

From the fresh meats section... Angus skirt steak, Filet Mignon, Atkins Ranch Lamb Chops, Baby Back Pork Ribs, Cagé Free Chicken... I have found all these to be of great quality for everyday cooking at half the price of their WF equivalents. On the seafood side, the WF in Mar Vista had such an uncommonly good seafood offering inspired by a very knowledgeable monger with a pirate accent... that TJ’s fresh seafood never really attracted me. But I have now learned that not all WF are created okay... and most have a disappointing offerings (lots of previously frozen products, very limited breadth & depth). Reliable products at TJ’s include the marinated kabobs & salmon cakes.

From the Dairy Section... Cage Free eggs for the same price as traditional supermarket conventional eggs, virtually all milk based products are RBST free for less than conventional store prices, Fage Greek yogurt (even WF doesn’t have it consistently), French line of yogurts are very good. Inexpensive, decent quality everyday butter.

From the frozen section... Uncooked Shrimp for $8 a pound are something we eat at least once a week, they go very good with Prik Khing Green Beans ($1.70)... or seared then served with Tomato-Jalapeno spinach, or sauced with Tequila-Lime; White Wine-Lemon, Mojo de Ajo, Chipotle sauce etc., also decent (once you get the hang of how to cook with them are the Langostines, Scallops, & Frozen fish (Tilapia, Halibut & Shark). The fully cooked Brown Rice is extremely convenient... and great with the Prik Khing, also for Arroz con Leche.

TJ’s frozen fruits are excellent, at very low prices allowing us to enjoy all the phytochemicals in berries, mangos, peaches at a time when the WF & local gourmet shops have mediocre fruit (other than Apples, Pears & Oranges). We routinely bake them with some homemade granola cobbler topping, or blend them into smoothies.

We don’t eat much processed frozen food, but it sure is convenient to have some in the freezer for a bind. The Chicken Chile Verde burritos are the best quality frozen burrito on the market (No Rice!) and well priced at $2.29 for two, the Gorgonzola Gnocchi & Tomato Farfalle make decent pastas. The breaded chicken, buffalo wings and battered halibut all make decent last minute meals.

For the pantry... I love their Jams, Grade B Maple Syrup, Mesquite Honey, Whole Wheat Pastas, Forbidden Rice & other Grains, Better than Chicken Bouillon, Free Range Chicken Broth, Trader Giotto’s Olive Oil (for cooking), some of their prepared sauces can be decent (Red Mole, Green Curry, Punjab Simmer Sauce, a few Pasta Sauces).

Among the processed products... the Granola Bars are a healthy snack, the cereals are the best deal anywhere (I like the Maple flakes, Hemp Granola & Pumpkin Granola). The low carb chips with Corn, Soy & Flaxseed are my favorite chip on the market (love the nuttiness... goes great with a little Red Mole & some Queso Fresco... they remind me a lot more of the pre-hispanic style chips they make in Oaxaca).

Great choices among Alcohol... I don’t care what anybody thinks.. $2 chuck is still a steal. Overall very good wine selection with better prices than anybody else. McTarnahan beers & Chimay. And Tres Generaciones, Patron & Cazadores for less than you can buy them in Mexico! Plus decent Scotch (Glenlivet) & Bourbons (Knob Creek) at bargain prices... all under $30.

I am sure there are many products I missed... but overall you get the gist. I prefer to do the bulk of my shopping at TJ’s and just supplement from other places as needed.

Finally... thank you Trader Joe’s for allowing me to eat better than most noblemen throughout history, on a working stiff’s salary. Keep up the good work and don’t sell out like Whole Foods did.

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    1. I don't want to repeat what I wrote in the anti-TJs thread, but I will add that I concur with your general sentiments, if not all your food choices.

      The beer and booze selection and prices make it a damn good liquor store, if nothing else.

      1. "I am sure there are many products I missed... but overall you get the gist. I prefer to do the bulk of my shopping at TJ’s and just supplement from other places as needed."


        I'm just the opposite.

        I prefer to do the bulk of my shopping at OTHER places (like Costco, Asian markets) and supplement selectively from TJ's.

        5 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          We have a Costco card but rarely go, we mostly buy paper goods, plastic freezer bags, laundry detergent etc., We were looking at the vacuum sealer & was starting to get excited about the possibilities (I think Costco has pretty decent meats etc.,)... and then realized that Trader Joe's basically offers the same prices for any of the products I was considering... skirt steak, new york strip, frozen shrimp etc., Risk Management 101 tells me I am better off buying in TJ's smaller quantities.

          What do you buy at Costco or Asian markets that you could get a TJ's but prefer elsewhere?

          (BTW, I do shop at Lola's Mexican market as much as I can... and have found that the Chinese owned G&G market has the best vegetables around town... but overall I still do most of my shopping at TJs)

          1. re: Eat_Nopal

            I prefer my fruits and produce from Asian markets (better selection and cheaper).

            I get my liquor (hard stuff and wine) at Costco.

            Meats and seafood I get either at Costco or Asian markets - generally depends what I am looking for and what is in season.

            1. re: ipsedixit

              That is interesting I have found Asian markets to generally not be good purveyors of fruits (outside of some Asian fruits like pears etc.,). Things like Mangos, Pineapples, Peaches, Nectarines, Plums, Figs have almost always been the lowest quality on the market.

            2. re: Eat_Nopal

              Glad you've found G&G, was reading along poised to tell you about it. Some of the seafood can be quite good there too, keep your eyes open though, and good prices on cheeses. Check out Bottle Barn for better prices and far more selection of wine and spirits than TJ or BevMo.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Yes G and G (at least in Petaluma) is da bomb- besides it is only three blocks from my house. Once I got over some of the surley cashiers, I realized I could find some great buys. Made super gumbo from crab and shrimp that I bought there over New Years'. G and G has a great Asian and other ethnic food section. I go to Trader Joes for many things (it was a life line when I lived in Bakersfield and Modesto over the last 10 years). The dry goods and dairy products are the best prices around. However I have become a local egg and milk snob of late so I try to get those dairy products from G + G. Eggs from Ripon (just north of Modesto) do not send me into a frenzy of thrills. Also once found Petaluma Tea and Coffee- I found a cheaper places for recently roasted fair trade beans. Sill laughing too hysterically at the prices at "Whole Paycheck" to do any serious shopping. Besides WF is so pretentious and precious, I really don't want to buy there.

                And Henrietta the Chicken (in the Petaluma TJ store) kept my son busy for the time I was shopping (sadly Henrietta- a stuffed chicken has found another home).

                When one has lived in the "epicurean diaspora", Trader Joes is a viable alternative to the big chains.

                Staying out of the $100 dollar store (AKA Costco) these days. Just doesn't make sense for a family of two to buy any food items there.

          2. Good to know about the burritos. I've never tried them.

            I like Trader Joe's a lot, except for their overpackaged produce. I won't buy that.

            Besides Trader Joe's, I shop at a produce place(the Monterey Market), and half a dozen or so small ethnic markets within walking distance of my house. I haven't been in a "normal" supermarket in at least five years.

            1. The original comment has been removed