Monday, November 9, 2009

Grocery Stores: A Curmudgeonly Rant with Maybe Some Practical Use

For a long time I had been meaning to write some kind of guide to area grocery stores, but I'd never felt much urgency about it until one day recently when I was shopping at the Bethesda Trader Joe's and thinking a steady diet of raw cabbage salad might help awaken my girlish figure from the dead. There wasn't any cabbage in the produce department, so I went ahead and paid for my other items. The cashier kindly asked me if I found everything I was looking for and I asked if they had any cabbages lurking in the warehouse. Her answer: "Oh, we only stock cabbage around St. Patrick's Day."

WHAT?!? It was hard to maintain my composure and I had to remind myself that these ridiculous policies are not up to the cashiers. It's unbelievable to me that any grocery store, even a self-proclaimed "unique" one like TJ's, would fail to stock such a mundane item as cabbage, one that something like 90 percent of humans consume. On the other hand, I think it probably says more about the way people cook (or don't cook, as it were) than it does about the store itself. The ideal Trader Joe's customer, I suppose, thinks it's quaint to make corned beef and cabbage for their annual St. Patty's Day drunkfest, but otherwise would never cook such a lowly vegetable with any regularity (heh, regularity and cabbage, get it?) -- or cook at all for that matter, considering the store's emphasis on pre-made foods. This might also explain why TJ's sells Orange Muscat Champagne vinegar, but you'd be SOL if all you want is plain old white vinegar to make brining solutions or Almost-No-Knead bread.

Despite my frustrations with Trader Joe's (and just about every other food purveyor I've ever visited), I still shop there almost weekly. When it comes to dairy products, TJ's prices-relative-to-quality can't be beat. Wait -- scratch that -- their milk's expiration date is often, like, tomorrow. But it is the place for cheese, butter, and eggs. Love-hate, that's how I am with every grocery store. Below, my take on where to shop (and not to shop), depending on what you're buying. Sadly, even in this age of one-stop shopping, I have yet to find a grocery store that satisfies most of my (admittedly demanding) needs.

Some caveats: This list definitely has a southern MoCo bias since I live in Bethesda and work in NoPe, not far from Silver Spring, but most of the stores I go to are major regional or national chains that don't have too much variation from store to store. I have left out Giant from this list; I personally find it's a lot more expensive than Safeway and the quality is not much better, though I know some people will vehemently disagree. I've also left out Harris Teeter -- I'm a Marylander through and through, and it's only just recently made the long trek from Virginia.

Trader Joe's

Love: Like I said a couple paragraphs ago, this is where you go to buy most stuff that comes from an udder. Just be sure to always check dates on milk, half-and-half, and cream -- you may come across some rare antiques. Cage-free eggs are also a lot cheaper here than at most grocery chains. Some other things I buy at Trader Joe's because of the price/quality correlative: coffee, olive oil, dried pasta, some jarred goods (e.g., olives, capers, pickles), granola bars (only $1.99 per box and the best store-bought variety I've tried), lemons (only $1.59 for a bag of six! That's pretty much unheard of, unless you live in Florida or California), frozen fruit and veggies, canned beans (unfortunately they don't sell dried beans, grrr), bread, jams and jellies, nuts, dried fruit, and two novelty favorites, smoked salmon pieces and mini boiling potatoes. I don't often buy meat there, mainly because I hardly ever cook meat, but I have found that their ground beef and ground turkey is reasonable.

I hate them 'cause they hate me. It's clear that Trader Joe's likes you better if you don't make anything from scratch because they make more money off all their pre-packaged stuff (a lot of which, I'll admit, is pretty good, but I'm too cheap to buy it). For example, they sell lasagna "kits" but not lasagna noodles. *Wrings hands in fury!* I also avoid most of their produce since it's usually pre-packaged and I prefer to select my own quantities. TJ's is pretty lame when it comes to baking ingredients -- some of their mixes aren't bad, but if you do a lot of baking from scratch, better stick to Safeway or Shopper's. No 5-pound bags of flour to be found. Don't bother shopping here for cleaning supplies or toiletries, unless you can justify spending $5.50 on a tube of Tom's of Maine. And finally, don't get too attached to any one particular item, because TJ's may just decide to drop it one day. I've asked employees on separate occasions about decisions to stop selling Kashi Good Friends and frozen edamame (which has since been brought back), and the reason both times was "a disagreement with the vendor." Be wary of any grocery store that hides behind a chipper nautical theme, all the while burning bridges!

In short: a great place to shop if your idea of cooking means removing from box and reheating; otherwise, stick to mainly dairy products, bread, nuts, and jarred goods.


Really, the main thing to love about Safeway is watching all the numbers drop down on the cash register screen after you've scanned your bonus card. The sales can be great, but if you don't have a bonus card, there is absolutely no point in patronizing this pit of putrescence. The produce is pathetic, the meat is....oh, right, I'm supposed to say what I love about Safeway. Okay, so not all their produce is pathetic. Root vegetables and members of the onion family are inexpensive, plus they're hardy enough that it's okay if you don't buy them brand new (trust me, you won't be doing that if you shop here). There's a good selection of baking ingredients with a good range of prices and quantities. The same goes for peanut butter, cooking oils (but not olive oil - TJ's is the best value), and some dried goods like rice, beans, and pasta. Prices on cleaning supplies, food storage items, and hygiene products are competitive, though not as good as Target's. But in all honesty, I'm just here for the cat litter -- the Arm & Hammer brand, which I've determined after rigorous testing and observation has the most effective clumping ability and therefore the lowest changing frequency and consequently the best value, is usually on sale!

Sorry, I forgot for a moment that this blog is about food. If you're still reading...

Hate: Where do I even begin? Produce is often old and overpriced relative to its quality. Most greens are pre-bagged and those that aren't are no longer very green. Citrus fruit is exorbitant, berries are moldy, etc., etc. You know how it's supposed to be best to shop the outer aisles of the grocery store? Well, the opposite is true of Safeway. Stay away from most produce, most dairy (unless, again, you are going antique shopping), most poultry (Perdue's flavorless birds rule the Safeway roost), all fish (it's expensive and already smells before you even take it home; that's a bad sign), and all bread (way overpriced compared to TJ's). So what does that leave you with? Things you should generally avoid eating, such as Chips Ahoy and Clorox.

In short: Go here for vegetables with long lifespans, baking ingredients, some dried goods, and items that are not actually food.

Shopper's Food Warehouse

If Safeway is food purgatory, then Shoppers is food hell, as many people seem to believe. I tend to disagree. Yes, their produce can be questionable, but not much more so than Safeway's, and at least it's cheaper and there's a better variety of it. The good things I've found at Shoppers are always-inexpensive generic Richfood brand items (Safeway, on the other hand, has good sales but can't always be counted upon) and huge baking and "ethnic" aisles. Seriously, I did not know Goya made so many products till I started shopping at the Rockville location. There's a lot of other legitimately ethnic stuff, too, though I do appreciate the wide variety of Goya dried beans. Meat can be hit or miss, but I did luck out one Easter with a $10 spiral cut ham that fed a whole army and happened to also be delicious.

Hate: Hate may be a strong word, for once. I am very forgiving of Shoppers' shortcomings, because at least it acknowledges them by billing itself as a warehouse. Safeway, on the other hand, does not always seem all that safe. Still, I recommend you tread carefully at Shoppers: examine produce closely and check expiration dates.

In short: Go go Goya!

H Mart

Love: H Mart is a Korean grocery chain not for the prudish of palate. If pickled pig's feet and ugly fruit are your thing, you will love it here. I sure do, but mostly for the prices, not because I buy that many exotic items. The place gets packed on weekends and it's not uncommon to hear shoppers sniping at one another in loud Korean or Vietnamese. I think this, along with the incredible variety of produce, meat (and meatlike things), and seafood, makes for one of the more interesting shopping experiences you will find in the DC area.

Hate: Locavores, stay away. Just about everything is imported. Also, though H Mart does carry non-exotic items like milk, eggs, and bread, these can be found a lot cheaper elsewhere.

In short: Go here for rice, tofu, coconut milk, soy sauce, chili sauce, basically anything with an Asian flair, and just about every kind of common fruit and vegetable, plus some very unusual ones. Oh, and don't forget the pig uterus.


Snider's, a Silver Spring institution, is old as dirt. This of course adds to its appeal, since everything else in these parts is so damn new. It's also one of few independent grocery stores left in the area, which earns it a very privileged status in teetotaling Montgomery County: yes, it sells beer and wine, too! There are some pretty good sales here, most of them organized on a shelf near the entrance of the store, or in bins toward the dairy department. The other day my roommate brought home a bunch of spices all priced around $1. Most notably, of all the grocery stores on this list, Snider's has the best value on meat and produce (ask my mother, a champion grocery shopper whose experience and expertise far outpaces my own, if you don't believe me).

Hate: Brand names and prepackaged items are pretty expensive here (and there's no generic, obv). Also, the aisles are really narrow and the parking lot is often jammed. I'm wracking my brain to think of bad things to say about Snider's. It's really a good place -- just not for everything.

In short: Stick to meat, dairy, sale items (all clearly marked in the same sections), and beer and wine, and avoid most other things.


Sarah said...

Fantastic list. Though I am one of the people that will disagree with you in the Giant vs. Safeway debate. There's a Safeway next to my office and every time I go to buy something I'm lamenting that it's 20 cents cheaper at Giant. Plus, Giant has the bomb salad bar (great way to get a whole lot of baby spinach for cheapies).
Moving past the snub of Giant, may I add to your list?
The TPSS Co-op (The SS version on Grubb Road, trying to get to the one in TP is like swimming up a waterfall. Plus SS has meat!) While the co-op can be a little (OK, very) expensive, nothing else can beat it for bulks. They have a whole wall of bulk food items which 'regular' grocery stores seemed to do away with sometime between me going shopping with my mom when I was a kid and starting to cook my third year on my own. This is especially useful for someone like me, cooking for one and not needing a whole box or bag of anything taking up space in my tiny kitchen.

Anonymous said...

For your girlish figure:

(Assuming you can find cabbage, that is.)

HungryGrad said...

I'm pricing brussels sprouts for my tgiving contribution, and when I called my dad and told him how much they are at TJ's, he shouted "WHAT???" Kind of like Lil Jon (see for reference:

My parents live in NY, outside the city. NY produce? Much cheaper, oddly enough. Oh, and Snider's occasionally has a random fruit/veggie ludicrously on sale. Like one time I scored a buttload of local apples for $0.66 per pound, and they were awesome.

DEO said...

Sarah -- yes, the TPSSes are great for the bulk grains and legumes, good one! I guess my beef with Giant is that its sales are not as good, but if you think the prices are generally better then maybe I should give it another chance.

Anonymous -- Um...thanks?

Miriam -- did you respond to your dad with an "Okaaaaaay"? Get the brussels sprouts at HMart or Snider's if you have time! Or just wait till you get home to NY. I can't understand why things are more expensive here. Weird.