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"Anti-gourmet" grocery stores in SF?

When I travel overseas (from my home in Australia), one of my very favourite activities is devoting large chunks of time to browsing grocery stores (like many Chowhounders also love to do, I suspect!).

For my visit to San Francisco next week, I've already got plans to hit Bi Rite, Boulette's Larder, Berkeley Bowl and a couple of others, but..

I also have a hankering to browse the kinds of products that aren't quite gourmet but quintessentially old school "American" (apologies for the mass generalisation, but you know what I mean..): Twinkies, marshmallow fluff, Shake n Bake, anything with processed cheese, transfat snacks, that kind of thing..and I really want to bring home a couple bags of specialty baking chips like peanut butter or toffee 'chocolate' chips.

So my question is; are there any good mass market consumer supermarkets around either the Union Sq or Noe Valley areas Chowhounds who can appreciate a little junk food lust can recommend?

Berkeley Bowl
2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

Boulettes Larder
Ferry Slip, San Francisco, CA 94111

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  1. I'd check out a Safeway. (Don't they have those in Australia?) Closest to Noe Valley might be the big store on upper Market St. in the Castro. There's also stores in North Point and the Marina but nothing near Union Sq.

    If you want to check out a discount low-end supermarket, there's Foods Co. on Folsom about half a block away from its polar opposite, Rainbow Grocery, a worker run collective that specializes in local, organic, bulk and doesn't have a butcher or fish monger but a big cheese section. I think it's the closest you'll feel to SF hippies, slackers and artsy freaks. I like it.

    Rainbow Grocery
    1745 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94103

    1 Reply
    1. re: ML8000

      The closest Safeways to Noe are Mission and 29th Street and Diamond Heights.

      Closest Safeway to Union Square is down by the train station at 4th and Townsend.

      I'd recommend going into smaller corner stores, especially ones with owners of different ethnicities (Middle Eastern, Latino, Chinese) for junk food. Lehr's German Specialties on Church has German packaged foods, like instant spaetzle.

      See's sells double sized chocolate chips made by local company Guittard.

      Lehr's German Specialties
      1581 Church St, San Francisco, CA

    2. The Safeway at 16th and Bryant is worth a detour, it's huge and has a bigger selection than most others. It's about a ten-minute walk from the 16th St. BART station. The 22 and 9 buses run by there.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Robert Lauriston

        Agreed. Plus, its strip mall setting feels more stereotypically "mainstream America" than much of the rest of San Francisco.

      2. Other grocery stores with plenty of junk food:

        Japanese: Nijiya
        Chinese/Asian: New May Wah

        New May Wah
        719 Clement St, San Francisco, CA

        1. Are you going to be driving to Berkeley? Because you might want to stop at the Berkeley Grocery Outlet. Places like the 99 Cent Store and Big Lots also have a lot of mass industrial foods, but cheap so you don't mind spending money on them. I noticed today, btw, that Berkeley Bowl has some different baking chips in its bulk foods section.

          Berkeley Bowl
          2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

          Big Lots
          3333 Mission St, San Francisco, CA

          11 Replies
          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Yeah, I was thinking as long as the poster was going to Berkeley, either the Berkeley or Oakland Grocery Outlets are worth a stop.

            Ya know, I guess I'm a little confused by the question. No, i don't know what you mean.

            it seems you have some A. merican stereo-type in mind where like lemmings we rush towards junk food ... and in California ... and SF of all places. It almost seems like mocking Americans. Tee hee ... look at the junk American s eat. Well, sure, some people. However, it is more about fresh food in this area. Go to the Alemany, Civic Center or any number of farmers. markets.

            So sure, go to any large chain market like Safeway, Cala foods, etc. FoodsCo was actually a good suggestion as they don't fool with gourmet crap like Safeway, Andronico's, etc.

            More interesting, IMO, would be 99 Ranch in a big Asian mall in Berkeley. Or a number of various ethnic markets as mentioned. In SF there are a number of Eastern Europen markets on Geary with World Market and Royal being the best.

            Go to one of the Mexican markets for that slant.

            If your intent is to load up on junk food ... go to 7-11

            1. re: rworange

              Actually, I do get what the OP is talking about. I do it all the time when I'm travelling b/c the boring things that a place like Whole Foods or Harrod's wouldn't stoop to stocking can sometimes be novel and fun for the traveler. These items can also make great gifts. I was once thoroughly searched by a security guy at Heathrow, who, after unrolling all my dirty clothes to expose a dozen packages of digestive biscuits from Tesco, asked with some irritation, "Don't they have biscuits in America?" Although I did resist hauling back bottles of fish sauce from Saigon.

              If I were in Safeway, I'd probably pick up some Ore Ida Tater Tots, Its Its, and salami. And if you were to spot some Oscar Mayer liver cheese, let me know.

              1. re: sfbing

                Thanks everyone for your amazing suggestions! I'll take up almost of all them at one point or another, I think.

                To rworange: I'm sorry you got that impression. I perhaps didn't make it clear enough that of course I know the main draw in CA is the produce and fresh food. It's the main reason I chose SF for this holiday, the main reason I'm going out to Berkeley Bowl (all those tomato varieties!), the reason I'm getting up at 6am most jetlagged to go to Ferry Plaza Farmer's markets and the reason I've specifically booked accommodation with a kitchen, so I can do some cooking with all the wonderful produce I know I'll find.

                But there is an element of 'nostalgia', sort of, that any food obsessed tourist who grew up outside the States has for American junk food..a yearning to try all the things you heard about as a kid in movies, even if you know they are cliches, and not actually representative of real food culture. Just as foodies visiting Australia might be tickled to pick up a jar of Vegemite, or a packet of Tim Tams. ;)

                And with all due respect, if I assumed that SFers/Americans do nothing but eat junk food, I wouldn't be feeling the need to ask for specific recommendations as to where to find it, would I? ;)

                Thanks again, all!

                Berkeley Bowl
                2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

                1. re: rarerollingobject

                  Don't get your hopes up for tomatoes. They're not in season yet so the ones you'll see at the Bowl are coming in from Mexico or something.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Berkeley Bowl is strong on seasonal stuff. While there are still tomatoes, as Robert said ... not so good

                    This is the time of year to focus on citrus. Try cocktail grapefruit for something different and, of course, Meyer lemons. The sweet limes are good too. You can eat them as is. I'd go to berkeley bowl west which has the larger selection of all.

                    BTW. ;if you can fit it in, you might look at Monterrey market which is bb's competitor, so to speak. the orginal bowl was closer to this.

                    Ok, I get it ... classic iconic American junk food as portrayed in the movies. seriously ... grocery outlet or foodsco. at grocery outlet you will get your shake and bake and all that stuff but for a fraction of what you would pay elsewhere. they also have east coast products that are rarely seen out here.

                    just off of shattuck in berkeley near the cheeseboard ... you are stopping by the cheeseboard, right? ... is a cupcake shop that stocks classic americana stuff that isnt really part of the mainstream anymore. i'm thinking stuff like marshmallow fluff

                    Berkeley Bowl
                    2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

              2. re: rworange

                He already mentioned going to Berkeley Bowl, Bi-Rite, Boulette's, and I assume he's also going to hit some farmers markets.

                But I know what he means: the kinds of food he describes are iconic foods that are part of pop culture. Good food is universal, but each culture's junk food has a unique cultural significance. Even if you could buy a Twinkie in Australia, it wouldn't carry the same emotional and cultural weight. After all, the "Twinkie defense" has become part of the language.

                Berkeley Bowl
                2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  Looking and experiencing mass-produced industrial food is like watching mainstream network TV in a country...it lends insight to many things. It's also plain old curio. I love looking at cookies, candy bars and chips from other countries. Given most of these products aren't more then 100 years, it's interesting on many levels. Post WWII industrialized food is of course huge.

                  p.s. the Safeway at 4th and Townsend is a smaller (less then half the footage of a normal store), yuppified store with a large deli/prepared food section and mostly basics, pretty much aimed at the loft dwellers. This variation is interesting in its own right.

                  1. re: ML8000

                    They still sell Kraft mac n cheese and barbecue sauce though.

                    1. re: Windy

                      I guess those are much needed basics in the U.S. (j/k) If I recall, isn't the frozen food section pretty big? I think the frozen food is really interesting and perhaps the most American of industrialized foods.

              3. re: Ruth Lafler

                Confirmed today: butterscotch, cappucchino, mint, white chocolate and peanutbutter baking chips in the bulk section at Berkeley Bowl West. Made by Guittard, so they're probably pretty good quality. BTW, they also had the Guittard unsweetened chocolate disks in bulk.

                Berkeley Bowl West
                920 Heinz Ave, Berkeley, CA

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  This isn't an "anti-gourmet" matter, but Berkeley Bowl also carries the bittersweet chocolate chips, which I appreciate.

              4. Lucky's is further down-market than Safeway but there are few in SF. As in, two. One out by the panhandle and might be the easiest to reach by public transit. In the burbs these are the sprawling 'plexes I think you're looking for - the El Cerrito one is particularly good.

                Also consider hitting some of the large mexican grocery stores. I remember one somewhere around Van Ness and 22nd, but can't place it on a map. Maybe someone else can remember.

                Safeway has been crawling upmarket, and although it's what you're looking for, it might not 100% satisfy.

                1. Since you mentioned this in particular...Smart n Final in Oakland has large bags of Heath toffee chocolate chips and possibly large boxes of Twinkies or other Hostess if you're thinking of them as gifts.
                  As far as doing some cooking with local ingredients..as previously mentioned tomatoes are at their peak here in August but the first California asparagus are coming in, as well as winter greens like amazing varieties of kale and of course artichokes. I would try all those.

                  12 Replies
                  1. re: cakebaker

                    Imperial Valley pencil thin asparagus 86 cents a pound, Safeway, with card.

                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                        Of course meyer lemons. In case the OP has never had one a cross between a lemon and a mandarin with a thin skin and sweet tart juice.

                        1. re: cakebaker

                          Can you actually buy meyer lemons? I walk around the neighborhood, knowing what houses are empty.

                          1. re: bbulkow

                            Yes...while free is of course...better. BB, Monterey market and even Costco to name a few.

                            1. re: bbulkow

                              Yes, even five years ago they were hard to find commercially, but now they're widely available during the main season (late winter-early spring). You shouldn't steal from your neighbors, though. The plants are so prolific most people will happily give you permission to pick some.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                By "empty" I mean abandoned. I know not to steal from my neighbors. And my own Meyer is growing, so my need is less and less.

                                1. re: bbulkow

                                  Mine, too! I have a source -- someone who doesn't cook and has no idea what a Meyer lemon is -- but someday I hope to be Meyer-lemon self-sufficient.

                                  BTW, as far as I know there's no reason you can't take commerically purchased Meyer lemons anywhere you want; Robert and I were just sidetracked by the whole "raid the neighborhood trees" issue.

                              2. re: bbulkow

                                I saw some at the Bowl yesterday, along with sweet limes and Bergamots.

                                It's illegal to transport backyard produce within the Light Brown Apple Moth quarantine zone (which at this point includes virtually all residential neighborhoods of the Bay Area) without a certificate from a county, state, or federal agricultural officer.

                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                  Yes. It's not as stupid as it sounds: the quarantine area includes a buffer zone that is not infested, so even moving produce within the quarantine area risks expanding the area of actual infestation. That said, I don't know of any individuals who have been subjected to enforcement actions. Like the rest of the state government, the Dept. of Food & Agriculture has been affected by budget cuts and even if they wanted to crack down on people sharing produce from their backyards, they don't have the resources to do so.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    that's a good point for people to know. I suggested the fresh items including adding to Ruth's comment re:Meyer lemons only because the OP mentioned he had a kitchen and wanted to cook with local ingredients...not to return them home as gifts.

                            2. re: cakebaker

                              Smart n Final in downtown Oakland (Broadway) has the Heath toffee chocolate chips for $13.99 for a 3# bag. It is the only place I've seen them in that quantity.

                            3. One decent-sized Safeway will have virtually all of the most common mass market junk foods. The real question is which ones to buy.

                              My suggestions--

                              (1) Look for junk foods that Americans crave when they are overseas. One friend exiled to Costa Rica sent desperate pleas for friends to bring Reese's Peanut Butter Cups when they visited. Last fall I carried some fish crackers and Velveeta cheese to a friend in Spain.

                              (2) People from Hawaii go into withdrawal if they can't get Spam. It's as all-purpose as vegemite but it's meat. You probably have it Down Under but it suggests another idea-- maybe you can score some black market American military rations (Spam's original purpose). They're called MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat).

                              (3) If you don't have something like Bisquick in Oz, it's pretty cool-- mix in some milk, stir a few times, bake for 10 minutes and you've got biscuits. I used it recently to make a much-complimented coconut pie-- just stir together a bunch of ingredients, pour into a greased pie tin and bake-- it magically forms its own crust!

                              (4) Do you guys have Cheez Whiz?

                              (5) Locally developed junk foods include Rice-A-Roni and Its-Its (an ice cream treat).

                              Good luck! And don't forget to pick up a good antacid as well!

                              7 Replies
                              1. re: charliemyboy

                                Peanut butter (Skippy or Jif) and bbq sauce are what my friends in Zurich ask for. Goldfish are a great idea.

                                1. re: charliemyboy

                                  I have to take Reese's peanutbutter cups to my cousin in England, too. The other request I had last time I was visiting an American ex-pat was burrito-sized flour tortillas. Since the OP is from Australia he probably has access to lots of Asian snack foods, but I'm guessing Mexican is pretty rare. Maybe on that trip to the East Bay he could head over to Mi Pueblo Food Center on High St. in Oakland as well.

                                  1. re: charliemyboy

                                    Ah, yes ... Cheez Whiz. I was wondering when that would get mentioned. Much blander than vegamite, but it used to be essential for hot dogs with Cheez Whiz and bacon (like Mission hot dogs), until I went upscale and started using one of those cocktail spreadable cheddars (that used to be in ceramic crocks) like Kaukauna brand. And, oh yes, B&M Baked Beans... I am allowed to make this dish once every 5 years by the local food police.

                                    ...and I should have mentioned, Nathan's Dinner Size hot dogs ...

                                    1. re: Thomas Nash

                                      Too bad there is no Walmart in SF, on an emegency diaper run in the East Bay I saw loads of junk food - hostess, little debbie etc. I have not had a Zinger or a Snowball in 30 years and felt a little tempted.... whenever i try a nostalgic item I nearly gag. But it is still worth it. Used to love Chick-o-Stick. And I like Tim Tams. They sell them here now at Cost Plus and I think someone is now manufacturing. I always buy the "weird" cadbury bars when overseas.

                                      1. re: myst

                                        Yeah, Walmart would be perfect. Sometimes they sell a red velvet twinkie type of snack ... tho that veers from the iconic twinkie. i prefer the Snowball and since this is easter time they should be selling them in lurid purple. A few packs of hostess cupcakes would be nice. I suppose you could google different methologies for eating one. my own preferred method is to eat the chocolate icing, then the white squiggle, lick the white creamy stuff and then the chocolate cupcake.

                                    2. re: charliemyboy

                                      My raised-in-Texas friend was crying for the flour tortillas also (the ones in the UK are packed in a gas that is just vile), pickled jalepenos, sharp cheddar cheese, and shamefully, the evil Velveeta (shelf-stable cheese imitator) and Ro-Tel (canned tomatoes and chilies, off-brands aren't any good) to make an artery-clogging hot dip for corn tortilla chips.
                                      Marshmallow Fluff (comes in vanilla/original, strawberry, and possibly other flavors) and Skippy Peanut Butter were required for Fluffer-Nutter sandwiches, and regular marshmallows were requested for making Rice Crispy Treats (a very different food from the pre-made ones found in the store).

                                      My Swedish friends took home dried cranberries with great pleasure, but were not impressed at all by macadamia nuts.

                                      My South American friends took boxes of brownie mix and chocolate chip cookie mix home. They hated maple syrup, though.

                                      Tabasco is popular with some visitors, too.

                                      While traveling, I was fascinated with all the things labeled as "American" that I'd never heard of before. "American Sauce" was slapped on many labels of random products, and "American Cookies" most everywhere were pretty darn wrong. However, considering that each family in the US seems to have their own variation on homemade chocolate chip cookies, I can let that go.

                                      In the meantime, rarerollingobject, if you have a dukkah recipe for us, or you are willing to tell us what you bought to take home, that'd be great!

                                      P.S.: The bagels in the sf bay area are wretched, skip them on this trip. Molasses may come in handy if you want to make some very traditional stuff when you get home, though. I just made a batch of Anzac biscuits with part molasses for the Lyle's Golden Syrup, pretty different!

                                      P.P.S.: Consider picking up some U.S. measuring spoons and cups if you want to cook/bake. They are often the subject of raging hatred and confusion for bakers outside the U.S., since so many of our cookbooks and old family recipes aren't by weight.

                                      1. re: vhanna

                                        When we lived in Rome, there was this one specialty store that carried hard-to-find ingredients from lots of different cultures. That was the only place we could get American-style flour--due to I guess lower gluten content, the Italian flour didn't work very well for baking.

                                        There's really no substitute for Lyle's Golden Syrup. I think we get it at Berkeley Bowl, which has a section of British and Commonwealth stuff.

                                        Berkeley Bowl
                                        2020 Oregon St, Berkeley, CA 94703

                                    3. Although not a grocery store and I'm not sure where one is in the City, I think your best bet is probably Target. While a grocery store will certainly have the stuff you are looking for, I think it might be hard to sort out some of the "old school" items amongst all the regular stuff without a specific list. Plus, their candy section is HUGE.

                                      My grocery shopping and cooking is very 'bay area' in its seasonality, sustainability, blah blah blah and my SO grew up with the stuff you're probably looking for. For Valentine's Day last year, I made him a gift basket with little packets of Kraft Mac 'n Cheese, single servings of Apple Jacks, Hostess products, and some other stuff -- all from Target.

                                      5 Replies
                                      1. re: adrienne156

                                        One of the Targets very south of SF is practically on top of a BArt station, can't recall which one. "Transit Trip Planner" link at 511.org should help you (rarerollingobject) figure out how to get there on public transit, though.

                                        1. re: adrienne156

                                          I'm not sure all Target stores have groceries. Didn't used to.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Oh, I could've sworn that was part of their new campaign along with their new line of household goods. All of the east bay locations I've been to have them (Albany, Fremont, Pinole, Richmond, Concord...)

                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                              Some are bigger than others, and the fresh produce side is a new roll-out, I think, but many have a good assortment of the junky Americana processed food that is shelf-stable. The Target that is nearly on top of BArt may be this one:
                                              The Shops at Tanforan
                                              1150 El Camino Real
                                              San Bruno, California 94066
                                              (650) 873-2000

                                              1. re: vhanna

                                                Right. He's looking for classic American "junk food" and I think all Targets have those, even if they don't have "groceries."