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Mar 19, 2010 11:45 PM

"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 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.