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May 15, 2011 02:11 PM

My favorite things from Central Market

I treasure Austin’s grocery stores. My grocery shopping rotation includes: Central Market, DK Sushi Supermarket, Fiesta Mart, my trusty HEB, MT Supermarket, Randall’s, Sprouts, Wheatsville Co-op (which I only discovered last year!), and last but not least, Whole Foods, which calls Austin “home”. Each of these grocery stores carries products I crave that I can only purchase at that store.

Lately, I have been feeling the most love for HEB’s Central Market. I usually shop at the North Lamar & 35’th St. location, phone 512.206.1000

My favorite things from or about Central Market:

1) This store has serious depth of infrastructure. More than any other on the above list, Central Market buyers seem to do the best job at finding the unusual or unique products that make me stop and look and sometimes buy. Ex: Yesterday I went home with 1-meal quantities of 3 sauces from their sauce bar that I’ve never purchased before as well as that strange-looking vacu-packed Spanish omelet in their dairy section, opposite their yogurt wall.

MT Asian Supermarket and Fiesta Mart also carry products outside of my comfort zone. However, unless I have a recipe I’m ready to try, I am probably not going to go home with the fascinating thing swimming in the water cage at MT Supermarket, for example, especially since I’m trying to waste less and only buy what I’m actually going to use or cook.

2) I love the sauce bar across from the deli area. Buying sauces from Central Market makes a meal extra special but still keeps total cook time < 30 min when I'm sear-roasting a salmon fillet and roasting lemon-parm-broccoli. My favorite: Avocado tomatillo sauce, about mid-way down the bar. I can get exactly the quantity I want, and I save the prep time of avocados and tomatillo sauce making. Yesterday I bought small quantities of three different types of Spanish sauces: romesco, spicy sofrito, and a third Spanish sauce that can’t remember the name of but looked intriguing and had ingredients I rarely use. Each sauce came to < $1.xx each after weighing.

3) My third favorite thing is Central Market’s different themed events and celebrations that they seem to put a lot of energy and thought into.

Their “Spain” celebration is happening now. Yesterday afternoon there was a seafood Paella station outside of the café doors with 3 massive paella skillets going at the same time, and different themed items everywhere inside the store with their little Spain graphic near them. I purchased one order seafood paella at $8.95. All in all I liked it. It did have that crusty layer on the bottom, real saffron in it, a big head-on prawn, a scallop, fish, and a clam. I wish it had more protein (one more prawn?), and a bit less salt. The purchase process is a little roundabout – first, get the ticket from the paella chef outside, then take ticket inside and pay, then take receipt back outside.

A celebration-related detail I appreciate - the graphics their artist creates for each celebration are always in beautiful color combinations for the theme. I appropriated one of their fliers last year, went to Sherwin Williams, and based a room’s color scheme off it.

4) Central Market’s Café. I love being able to listen to live music under the shade of Texas trees before evening grocery shopping and enjoy one of their dinner specials. Where else in Austin can you do this then go grocery shopping, all without moving your car. I especially like Central Market’s French fries though I haven't had them in a while. They clearly understand the double-fry technique and their breading is light but tasty.

5) Central Market's brand of Chocolate Chunk Cookie Dough, found in their dairy section directly across from the yogurt wall. This is my favorite favorite favorite all time Central Market product.

I keep them in the freezer and bake exactly the number needed for 10 minutes at 350 in toaster oven. The taste is so pure and so delicious - brown sugar, serious chocolate, butter, eggs, vanilla. I eat one, and then writhe on the living room floor. They have 3 different flavors, but I can't bring myself to try any other flavor because I am so in love with their chocolate chunk. I eat exactly one, usually twice a week, at 150 calories of blissful impact on my daily calorie budget.

Last year around the holidays they had a shortage of this product which caused a crisis in my household. I called both Central Market's and 4 HEBs before I could finally locate one at an HEB. (HEB also carries this Central Market-branded product it in their dairy section


6) Real pretzel rolls. Occasionally Central Market will have pretzel rolls in their bread area, adjacent to the bagels or the scones. Making pretzels with that authentic pretzel taste involves lye, which I haven't had the courage to try at home yet. Last time they had pretzel rolls was during the fall.

7) Duke’s mayonnaise. Central Market is one of the a few places where you can find Duke’s mayonnaise. It’s hard to spot on that aisle though; look down to the very bottom row.

Duke’s is the next best thing to homemade. There was a central market employee cooking something for a demo sample across from the bakery area, and one of her ingredients she was using was Duke’s mayonnaise. I didn’t realize Central Market carried Duke’s . We both had a femme squeal-fest over how good it is.

8) The bread bakery’s “Alternative Loaf”. It’s a very soft whole grain bread that doesn’t taste like cardboardy "health food" and makes great sandwiches. The baker told me it’s extra soft because they use whole grain ___ flour which adds more moisture than most other whole grains. I enjoy it because while I am trying to eat more whole grains, I still prefer soft bread for most sandwiches.

9) Duck breasts vacuum packed. Located at the end of the meat aisle right before you get to the prepackaged meat section and then the dairy section. Excellent for grilling. I buy an extra 4-pack and vacu-pack freeze the extras. 2 months later they taste 90% as good as first night.

Next time I’m going to use Marcel’s trick that I saw on his Marcel’s Quantum Kitchen TV show of
1) Using a new dog hair brush spikey thing to put a million holes in the duck fat
2) Before I grill-smoke them on the cast iron skillet fat side down at a lower temp to render the fat, I will pop them in the freezer for a couple hours. Then, I can render the fat for longer since the meat will take longer to get up to temp.

10) Their new fresh-daily muffin selection near the breads at $1.79 per. My 2 favorite so far: strawberry goat cheese and chocolate cherry pistachio.

My least favorite things about Central Market:

1) Central Market’s North’s Café Wi-Fi is perpetually broken. For heaven’s sake, what is so hard about sending a Wi-Fi signal? A million other places have figured it out. Someone from HEB's IT department needs to prioritize fixing whatever problem they perpetually have.

Every so often, I want to have a working lunch with colleagues in Austin and eat upstairs where it's quieter. But no Wi-Fi, no work. Last time I called Central Market to ask if they had it fixed, phone answerer said no, and that I should fill out a complaint card next time I’m in. I asked if she would do that for me, and she said she would ask about it in their next employee meeting.

Yesterday, they still had a sign up that said their Wi-Fi was unavailable.

2) Central Market North needs more bathrooms.

3) I wish the store café manager would have someone tweet or post the lunch and dinner specials of the day. I usually call to ask once a week or so, but it can take the café a while to pick up. Electronic is more efficient for that type of timely info. On the good, I almost always enjoy the café specials, and I do like it that Central Market’s main phone is answered quickly by a very friendly human!

Thank you Central Market!

Central Market
4477 S Lamar Blvd Ste 100, Austin, TX 78745

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  1. Central Market has awesome fresh wheat tortillas.

    CM pecan chocolate chip raw cookie dough meant for home baking is diabolically delicious.

    I also love their moist muffins.

    I like looking at all the gourmet products and special produce, like the many varieties of potatoes which are so exotic for me, and so on. A few months ago in winter, I saw they had deep ruby red colored carrots (I think they were labeled black carrots) which reminded me of the carrots in South Asia. Another time, I saw an Iron Chef episode with raddish as the challenge food. There were all of these types of radishes I had never heard of. A few days later, I saw half of these exotic radish varieties all right there are CM. I love just going and perusing the vegetables. So many interesting and unique things to see! (I must say that Fiesta, MT, any Mexican market, and Taj grocer is gonna be a better option price wise for daily cooking with common Asian and Mexican vegetables/ingredients though.)

    I love Central Market, too. Thanks for thinking up this post to celebrate the place.

    1 Reply
    1. re: luckyfatima

      >> Central Market has awesome fresh wheat tortillas.

      Completely agree.

      Yesterday I bought their fresh multigrain tortillas. Had one as a snack with simply whipped butter and a very light sprinkling of sea salt.

      >> like the many varieties of potatoes which are so exotic for me, and so on

      They have a great selection of organic potatoes. I cook potatoes maybe once every couple months. After hearing a potato farmer explain why he won't let his family eat his own potatoes that he sells to the big companies, I only buy organic potatoes, and they do have beautiful colorful varieties.

    2. My goodness, I need to try this cookie dough! I have had the pretzel rolls, they are very good.

      I like the way they stock regional specialties, like Lebanon bologna in the deli and Utz Crab Chips in the snack aisle. I like the Love Dip in the salsa bar (we call it Crack Dip). I like the produce selection and the bulk salad greens.

      FYI, my local HEB now stocks Duke's, and I think most others do, too.

      7 Replies
      1. re: brentwood

        >> FYI, my local HEB now stocks Duke's, and I think most others do, too.

        Thanks for the tip brentwood! My HEB did for a while, then didn't, so maybe they do again!

        1. re: brentwood

          Yes, yes, yes to the Utz Crab Chips. My ManPartner is from MD and he was so excited to see these at CM. I have been converted, these things are amazing.

          Count me in as a muffin lover. The chocolate chip, toffee, hazelnut one is my favorite. I also love the chocolate chip/toffee cookies and the prosciutto/black pepper ficelle.

          Pesto from the sauce bar thingy is wonderful, and I love all of the smoked salmon varieties as well. The deli is the closest thing I have found to good charcuterie in town (before all of the little specialty guys like Kocurek, Dai Due and Salt and Thyme came along) and I love all of the pates.

          1. re: foodiegal71

            >> Yes, yes, yes to the Utz Crab Chips.

            Now that just sounds downright odd, but you all have convinced me to try it. Grocery IQ app even has a pic for it in the list to add. I thought it would be too obscure.

            >> prosciutto/black pepper ficelle

            Thanks foodiegal71 for my new word of the day:

            1. re: sweet100s

              That's my job, to educate. And provide snark.

              Mostly to provide snark.

              1. re: sweet100s

                They don't taste like crab, so don't expect that. They taste like crab boil; more specifically like Old Bay. If you're looking for other mid-Atlantic snack treats on the same aisle, I highly recommend the Unique "Splits" pretzels.

                1. re: brentwood

                  I wish I could find Herr's Old Bay chips around here! They are only sold in the east/northeast and they put the Utz chips to shame because they actually licensed and use real Old Bay seasoning on their chips. The Utz ones are a copy and too salty for me.

                  I order the Herr's chips online from Herr's:

                  1. re: blueclaw666

                    Well, to each their own - I prefer the Utz. I will say that I've seen select varieties of Herr's (ketchup, Kansas City steak, Texas Pete, but not Old Bay) at WalMart, of all places.

          2. I love this idea! I used to work at the south location (maybe I answered the phone when you called sweet100s - around 2001/2002), and am durn thrilled that I can actually shop there now. I worked there for christmas when I was broker than broke...I gave myself a $20 budget for a meal, and got one single quail, two bay leaves, three oysters, a ciabatta, some arugula, a tiny bag of fancy mushrooms, an 1/8th pound of Molinari hot coppa, a tiny piece of taleggio....I feasted, washing it all down with my Franzia box of cab. Memories....

            I have a similar grocery store rotation, but here's what I like about CM:

            Smoked whitefish salad

            A gazillion olives and people who like to talk about them and let you taste them

            Marinated little fresh mozzerella knobs....don't know whether I like the marinade or the cheese better!

            Steamed dungeness in season

            good salumi - creminelli (thanks, Stephen Dilley!) and my dearly beloved Molinari

            cilantro pecan pesto

            the wonderful meat guys who will cut marrow bones to order and steer me towards a good choice in other things

            bulk spices....I know almost everyone does this now, but CM seems to have a consistently well-stocked, abundant, fresh and diverse selection.

            flowers - the $4 bunches are usually great, and the flower people always make a stunning bouquet - sometimes two - out of three choices.

            Thank you, CM!

            (PS - are we going to do another store next? I hope so!)

            4 Replies
            1. re: reinadetostones

              >> cilantro pecan pesto

              Seconded. Delicious on rigatoni.

              >> good salumi - creminelli (thanks, Stephen Dilley!) and my dearly beloved Molinari

              I'll have to try those... As an alternative to bacon, I occasionally get the proscuitto di parma, saute it till crisp, then stand it up in scrambled eggs before serving.

              >> (PS - are we going to do another store next? I hope so!)

              The next store I was thinking about starting a topic on was DK sushi supermarket, because they are probably the least well-known and the owner (I believe it was the owner) seems like such a nice person. I talked with him for about 30 minutes before checking out. But first I need to call them to make sure they still have the product I love in their freezer that I've seen no where else.

              reinadetostones, or anyone else, please feel free to use the same title with a different store and start the next one. That's what CH is all about! I've been thinking about starting this topic for probably an entire year, so don't wait on me to start one for your faves at another :-).

              1. re: reinadetostones

                how recently and which CM? (you say you worked at the south one, but unsure if you meant the same one when you mention marrow bones)? i went to the Sunset Valley location last week and when i asked the butchers for marrow bones, he seemed.... perplexed, and then said they didn't have any. They had some beef bones in the shrink wrap case, but they were labeled "soup bones" and didn't look ideal for roasting for marrow.
                If i'm just going to the wrong one, i'll happily traipse up to the Lamar one if it'll yield better luck.

                1. re: willtryanythingonce

                  The Westgate CM is where I worked and where I have purchased marrow bones. Yeah, they try to steer you to the prepackaged soup bones, but if you ask, they will cut marrow bones to order. For some reason, I think this needs to be addressed in the morning - haven't gotten any for a year or so, but I remember that mornings were slower and easier to do "special" things.

                  I bet if you call the meat market in the AM, talk to a meat guy about your meat needs, and show up shortly thereafter, that you will have your marrow bones. Post if you get 'em or if you don't!

                  1. re: reinadetostones

                    Great point reinadetostones about calling ahead in general for special requests.

                    I was able to request 3 turkey breasts 6 lbs each for pickup 3 days later, for a grilling session on my Big Green egg. Those made delicious turkey-ranch sandwiches for months...

              2. Long ago, I was a starving student living in the UT dorms and Central Market was the closest big grocery store to campus. At the time, they didn't serve food in the dorms on Saturdays and there was no such thing as dining dollars, so I was left to fend for myself on a limited income. Central Market was this magical land with a million samples. They had a more robust salad bar back then and lots of itty bitty little sample cups. I'd sample my way through lunch and then eat ramen or sandwiches for dinner.

                The bulk section of the store is amazing. Whole Foods couldn't compete with it until they built their flagship. It amazes me that anyone would buy stale McCormick spices for $5 a jar when the same amount could be bought from CM for less than a dollar. Their cajun mix is one of my favorite snacking mixes.

                Some other things I adore:

                1. Big jars of Heinz Genuine Dill pickles.
                2. Several Pennsylvania snack brands, including Utz and Tom Sturgis.
                3. Belletoile Brie at usually 1/2 the price of other stores, including regular HEB.
                4. Deli meat ends for a dollar or two. I like to pick up roast beef for making hash and different types of ham ends for tossing into beans.

                7 Replies
                1. re: verily

                  I don't get it. Am I the only person in Austin who can't stand Central Market? I will take Wheatsville or Whole Foods over it any day. I WANT to like it, but every time I've been in, I get super stressed out and feel like I'm trapped in a labyrinth. I don't think it is a pleasant shopping experience.

                  Central Market
                  4001 N Lamar Blvd Ste 100, Austin, TX 78756

                  1. re: gillsnthrills

                    You have to follow the "flow" of travel there and not go against the grain. Going in the opposite direction can be stressful.

                    1. re: rudeboy

                      this for sure. Anytime I manage to not go in via the produce section (north lamar store) I have to re-route myself pretty quick to get back into the natural flow of traffic.

                      1. re: rudeboy

                        There are also shortcuts between depts. all over the place. If you don't eat meat, you can go straight from produce into the bulk/nutrition section.

                        I personally like the labyrinth style vs the racetrack style of most stores. The corridors are also wide, so I'm not dodging people non-stop like I have to in Whole Foods.

                        1. re: verily

                          I shop almost exclusively at CM but do feel like they cut corners a lot more frequently than they used to. Lots of expired dates on the shelves, etc. I'll probably look at WF more once they open the store on S Mopac.

                      2. re: gillsnthrills

                        I agree - I used to enjoy shopping at CM but then I got used to going to the newly rehabbed and expanded Wheatsville. I find it a much happier and relaxing place to shop. Plus the prices on many items, particularly organic fruit and veggies, are much better. They also carry a lot of locally made products that you won't find at CM.

                        Most people don't seem to realize that non-members can shop at Wheatsville too and the price they pay is the same as it is for members.

                        1. re: ridgeback

                          Oh, I love Wheatsville, too, and I agree that the renovation was a great success.

                    2. The blonde checker from Wisconsin.