Last weekend, we were among the customers who tried to get there early enough to beat the heat to buy some groceries for the week. Like all the area farmers’ markets, this one has vendors selling everything from meat and seafood to knife sharpening.
Many of the prepared foods vendors offer samples, which is a big appeal for my young shoppers. Just like when we go grocery shopping at the regular store, the kids were with me to help decide what foods to get for the week, and this trip was no different.
We sampled and browsed the dozens of booths for about 45 minutes before it was time to seek cooler temperatures, but we had quite a haul. Here’s a look at the cool stuff we ended up taking home.
It’s safe to say we went on a sampling frenzy. I spent $50 on products I hadn’t tried before, as well as a couple of produce items and kombucha. It was a fun way to spend the morning with my kids and pick up some culinary treats at the same time. We didn’t have to buy so much stuff, but those vendors are working hard out there in the heat.
Plus they are making some really delicious stuff. I could have spent another $50 just on the way back to the car.
On Wednesday morning, my inbox and voicemail at work started to blow up.
Here’s a sampling:
I just read your article on rotisserie chicken. Is there any reason you omitted Randalls? I feel that most articles lean toward HEB, Central Market and Whole Foods. Just wanted to express that there are other stores in Central Texas.
Read with interest your article on tastiest chickens this morning. So sorry you did not include Randall’s in your appearance, price, and taste test. They are the best ones and we have tried all the others except Fiesta. A couple of undercooked chickens from Central Market. We enjoy the Randall’s chicken’s on a weekly basis.
There was this voicemail that implied I have it out for Sam Walton:
I just read your article that you wrote about rotisserie chicken. It’s funny that I’ve eaten every one that you bought, but the best one in town is at Sam’s and you didn’t even bother to include it. You didn’t include Walmart either. Is that because you have a problem with Walmart and Sam’s? It’s just not right.
I love hearing from readers, even if they don’t like what they see in the food section, but I thought I’d address this question with a follow-up to explain what I’ve been telling each of these readers: I don’t have it out for Randalls, Sam’s Club and Walmart. I also missed Trader Joe’s and Wheatsville. I don’t think Aldi and Natural Grocers carry rotisserie chickens, but you can start to see where I’m going: There are a lot of stores in Austin, so many that it’s hard to get to them all in one day.
It took two hours to buy five of the chickens that we tested, and one of them came from a co-worker who has a Costco membership. I shop frequently enough at the Walmart near my house to know that it’s not a place where people pop in to buy a rotisserie chicken on the way home from work. I don’t have a Sam’s Club membership, but not because I have it out for Mr. Walton. I just don’t buy enough bulk items to require a club membership anywhere.
(To further persuade you that I don’t hate Walmart: I am a huge fan of Crystal Bridges museum in Bentonville, Ark., whose admission is always free, thanks to Walmart. We’ve been nearly half a dozen times since it opened in 2011.)
However, I do wish I’d stopped by Randalls when I was at Central Market on Westgate on the day of the taste test. That reader is right: I don’t cover Randalls enough. I do tend to lean toward HEB, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Sprouts and the other stores in my coverage. I try to get to Randalls now and then, but they aren’t leaders in grocery innovation, they don’t carry many local food products and they aren’t rolling out new house brand products in response to the food trends that I cover, so shopping there doesn’t yield very many story ideas.
On a personal note, I find the prices higher at Randalls than other grocery stores, so I’m less inclined to do my own shopping there, but I will try to make more professional visits, including to try the rotisserie chicken that another caller swears is the best.
What other chickens did I miss? Have you tried the Fiesta chicken see we broadcast our taste test? I’ve love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
If you’ve ever lived in Houston or New York or Los Angeles or Chicago, you know what a big deal this is to have two of the country’s biggest and best-known Asian grocers opening within a month of each other.
“When H Mart comes to town, that’s when you know your city has graduated to the big leagues of Asian groceries,” Peter Tsai said on Instagram.
“Grocery shopping game changer for sure,” is how @theburgervore put it. “This is even nicer than the one in Houston or Dallas!”
Having been to both a 99 Ranch Market and Austin’s new H-Mart within the past week, I can concur: These are the biggest grocery openings since Whole Foods’ 365 or even when Trader Joe’s first opened in Central Texas in 2013.
On Friday, when I was visiting family in California, I went to a 99 Ranch Market in San Diego and bought mochi, thin slices of pork belly and pineapple drinking vinegar. On Monday, I shopped at H-Mart at 11301 Lakeline Blvd. in Northwest Austin for sashimi, kimchi, miso and baby octopus. These were my first visits to both of these chains, but from what I’m hearing on social media, my first impression aligns with what longtime shoppers already know: These grocery chains mean serious business.
They cater first and foremost to shoppers with cultural roots in the nearly 50 countries that make up Asia, but they know that there are millions of shoppers like me who didn’t grow up eating and cooking very much authentic Asian food but are increasingly familiar with the ingredients and culinary styles. Both stores have figured out how to sell thousands of products to people along all ends of this spectrum, not dumbing down the marketing materials or store presentation to cater to non-Asians while also making the shopping experience inclusive enough to be enjoyable to someone who has never shopped in an international market before.
The first Austin location of 99 Ranch Market doesn’t open until March 3, but this new H-Mart is slick. It’s housed in a huge, 68,670-square-foot space that used to be a Sports Authority and Bed Bath & Beyond. The owners painted the ceiling black so it doesn’t look so cavernous, and each section is well labeled to help shoppers sort through the products. The aisles are compact with end caps selling the hottest items, from canned lattes to frozen fish balls.
The store has a different vibe than the 100,000-square-foot MT Supermarket over on North Lamar, which opened in 1984 and will continue to maintain the title of “Austin’s largest Asian store,” but it’s more similar to Hana World Market on Parmer Lane or Han Yang on Airport Boulevard, two large Korean markets that some longtime shoppers, including Tsai, say are likely already feeling the pressure to compete with H-Mart. Hana World Market opened in 2011, and Han Yang has been around since the mid 1990s.
One of the biggest draws to both Hana World Market and H-Mart are the food courts, where you can grab a bite to eat. The Austin location of H-Mart is home of the company’s first Market Eatery concept, where you’ll find sushi, Korean barbecue and fried chicken, Taiwanese shaved ice, a Tous Les Jours bakery, as well as live music and a craft beer bar. You’ll also find a cosmetic counter and a place to buy window treatments, including blinds and curtains.
North Austin was an obvious location for both new supermarkets, but as a resident of South Austin who lives not too far from several Korean churches and often laments the lack of Asian and Middle Eastern markets south of Lady Bird Lake, I asked the company if South Austin was on their radar for a possible second location.
“We explored all options when looking for a location. However, this specific location [in North Austin] gave us the best opportunity to create a huge, redesigned H-Mart and 25,000 square feet for the Market Eatery,” Stacey Kwon, president of H-Mart and daughter of the chain’s founder and CEO Il Yeon Kwon, said in an email. “Right now, we are focusing our efforts on making this location have one of the best and most customer-oriented experiences, so we are devoting 100 percent of our attention to that. But, that said, we certainly see the potential for expansion in Austin and are excited to be a part of the community.”
To take you on a virtual tour of the space, here are ten things to look out for when you get there:
Dragonfruit greet you at the door. Turmeric, purple potatoes, pomelos tease your cart. Greens, green onions, carrots line the wall.
2. Ceramic nonstick cooking pans, called Eco-Tech Pots, take up much of the kitchen section, but you’ll also find all the fun bowls, tea sets and kawaii kid stuff you’d expect at an Asian houseware store.
3. You won’t find quite as many live fish tanks as you’ll find at MT Supermarket, but they do have fish swimming in beautiful blue tanks in the back corner of the store. Most of the shoppers were buying frozen and fresh fish, shellfish and octopus by the pound from fishmongers stationed in the middle of two rows of seafood.
4. Also in the seafood section, you’ll find sashimi-grade sushi to make your own poke, sashimi or nigiri. You can find the whole filets so you can practice cutting it at home, or you can buy a pick tray of sushi that looks fresher than any other you’ve seen at a grocery store.
5. Whole Foods’ 365 store just up U.S. 183 wins the mochi game with its mochi bar, but H-Mart has the same self-serve setup with more than a dozen kinds of frozen fish balls, which can be fried, simmered, steamed or sauteed.
6. Few grocery stores, if any, sell dry aged prime T-bones and ribeyes, especially those that the butcher will slice fresh for you, but you’ll find both at H Mart. Also in the meat section, you’ll find rolled-up frozen meats, thinly sliced, ready for Vietnamese pho or the Japanese hotpot called shabu-shabu, as well as slightly thicker cuts for Korean barbecue.
9. The food court is hoppin’, and my gut tells me it will be for some time. With more than half a dozen eateries, including Tous les Jours bakery, SnoMo shaved ice, a Korean fried chicken place and a craft beer bar, it’ll compete with just about every other lunch option in the area.
10. The crowds will be thick for weeks to come, but this store is a great place to take your kids. When we go to international markets, I always let mine pick out products that appeal to them, even if it’s a candy sushi-making kit or a $4 dragonfruit. For dinner last night, they made the “sushi” while I assembled poke bowls. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get them to try the octopus that’ll be on the menu tonight, but they are already asking when we’re going back to H-Mart.
After a morning meeting near the Trader Joe’s in Rollingwood, I stopped by the store for some snacks, flowers for the house and something quick to eat for lunch. I’d been cooking at home for the month of January and was craving one of those prepared salads. I knew Trader Joe’s would have lots to choose from.
I’d forgotten that Trader Joe’s salads are simply awful. I’m sure they don’t start that way, but it always seems that every salad on the shelves is a day away from expiring. Every. Single. One.
I noticed it when I was shopping in the store yesterday and had a sense of deju vu that I’d already learned this lesson before. I continued in my grocery shopping denial and I bought one anyway, the Mexicali with Chili Lime Chicken. It comes with roasted corn and a tangy dressing. The pepita seeds stayed crunchy in a little plastic container, but by the time I opened that salad on my desk, the wilted greens were the very definition of a “sad desk lunch.”
About a year ago, I finally learned not to buy baked goods at Trader Joe’s after a package of English muffins molded the day after I bought them, and yesterday was the moment I think I finally learned the salad lesson, too.
I tried to make the best of it and at least eat the chicken, corn and pepitas, but I couldn’t even choke down half of it. Frustrated that I’d fallen for yet another disappointing Trader Joe’s prepared food item, I asked around online to see if anyone else was ready to give up on TJ salads altogether. Kristin Sheppard confirmed that this isn’t just a one-off experience:
I was burned a few times before finally swearing off their salads forever. It’s a shame because they have a good selection. But yeah, always past their prime.
But the question at the top of this post remains: Why are they so bad?
Like many grocers, Trader Joe’s relies on a distribution network with a centralized kitchen. (The closest one to Austin is in Irving, near Dallas.) But unlike many grocers, Trader Joe’s has not figured out how to reduce the time from that kitchen to my shopping cart.
My gut tells me that the Austin grocery market is saturated, which leads to lower turnover rates at some stores and more stale salads on the shelves. But I also think that enough casual Trader Joe’s shoppers like me just aren’t buying their salads anymore.
The store always seems to display the just-barely-not-expired salads first. Yesterday, every single salad expired today. I imagine that the store had fresher salads in the back, but in an attempt to sell the back stock first, allowed those fresher salads to sit out of reach.
The good news is that all the local Trader Joe’s stores donate the still-edible but not sellable food to Keep Austin Fed, so all those salads are being donated. But let’s be honest, an expired salad is an expired salad. It can be a health risk, especially for people with compromised immune systems.
Trader Joe’s has a passionate shopping base and doesn’t seem to be struggling for sales, but they really need to fix this salad problem. I threw out half of what could have been a really great lunch yesterday, and I’m less likely to visit the store, in general, if I can’t trust the freshness of the goods.
Next time, I’m grabbing one of those Bistro Ready Pac salads from HEB’s produce section, which are usually at least a few days and up to a week from their expiration date. In general, high-volume grocery stores tend to have the freshest produce, prepared foods and meat, so if you’re at a low-volume store or an uber-thrifty one like Trader Joe’s, pay extra close attention to the expiration date on all your foods, including milk.
It’s worth noting that Trader Joe’s parent company is Aldi Nord, which now has an Aldi in Pflugerville. I’m not familiar enough with that store to know if they have similar expiration date problems on fresh produce, meat, dairy, etc.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve figured out how to get fresher salads at Trader Joe’s or if Aldi or other local stores have similar issues.
When grocery stores started carrying rotisserie chickens, most Americans stopped roasting chickens ourselves.
Why bother when you can buy an already roasted chicken for not much more than it would cost to buy a raw one?
Rotisserie chickens are now sold in nearly every grocery chain, right up near the front where busy shoppers can pick one up in a hurry.
That’s what I did on Wednesday morning, trekking to six local grocery stores to buy seven rotisserie chickens for a livestream taste test at the office. My colleagues tried all six of them and ranked them. To my surprise, they had an unequivocal favorite, which you’ll see pretty quickly into this video we made.
As part of my #30atHome cooking challenge, I’ve been trying to get out of my everyday grocery shopping habits, which is why I went by two East Austin farmstands last week.
Boggy Creek‘s farmstand is open Wednesday-Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and Springdale Farm, just a few blocks away, is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday.
Between those two places, I spent $14.87 on five items. I was hoping that these would be our veggies for the week. (I still had to stop at the store for apples, bananas and oranges, because with two young boys, we can’t go long without familiar fruits.)
The broccolini was the cheapest at $1.70 ($3/lb.) and the cauliflower the most expensive at $4.25 ($4/lb.). Kale and carrots were $3 each, and sweet potatoes were $2.95 ($2.50/lb.) These are some of my favorite kinds of produce, so I was excited to use them in several dishes, including a kale, carrot and butter bean soup, sauteed broccoli with pasta, roasted sweet potatoes and roasted cauliflower.
I was the most skeptical about the cost of the cauliflower, a produce ingredient you can find for less than $2 at most grocery stores, but when I roasted it with minced garlic, the simplicity of the seasoning allowed me to enjoy the small but super flavorful cauliflower head.
I’ve decided that unless you use the carrot tops, there’s little sense in paying so much for carrots. My $3 bunch had about nine carrots no bigger in width than my fingers, and once I trimmed the green stems and tiny roots, it didn’t seem like much food was left.
Just before I tossed the carrot tops in the compost, I realized that I had the stems from a bunch of cilantro left in my produce drawer and a bag of peeled pistachios that needed to be used up. I put the carrot tops, cilantro, pistachios, a few slivered almonds and peeled garlic cloves in a food processor with salt and lots of olive oil.
The combination of the greens created a herbaceous, somewhat grassy flavor that brightened my entire kitchen for the day. I originally made it to serve on that kale and butter bean soup, but it was a brilliant addition to all kinds of foods, from scrambled eggs to those roasted sweet potatoes and pongal.
The broccolini was the ingredient I felt like I got a deal on. Many more stores sell this ingredient that looks like baby broccoli, but it’s usually pretty expensive — and definitely more than regular heads of broccoli, which I love. At less than $2 at Springdale Farm, I bought two meals’ worth of broccolini, a brassica that bursts with earthy notes and just the right amount of bitterness. I’d make the trip to East Austin again just to stock up on it.
The other good news is that thanks to the pesto, not much of that $15 in produce went to waste. I can’t say the same for the cheaper produce I usually buy in the store and accidentally forget about in the fridge. The flavors in the ingredients were more vibrant than what you’d find in their supermarket counterparts, too, and buying seasonally forced me to come up with dishes that suited the produce, not the other way around, which is often what happens when I’m doing “regular” grocery shopping.
Now, did my kids eat any of this? Not really. They had fun with the raw carrots, and my oldest enjoyed the broccolini and roasted cauliflower, but he hates sweet potatoes and wasn’t ready for the pesto. They aren’t huge vegetable lovers anyway, but I ate more vegetables this week, which was my goal after a meaty first half of the month.
How does a trip to a farmstand or farmers market change what you cook? Do you spend extra on local and/or organic produce? Why? I’d love to hear from you in the comments or via the #Austin360Cooks hashtag.
Carrot Top Pesto
Leafy greens from one small bunch carrots
Large handful cilantro
1/2 cup pistachios
1/4 cup slivered almonds
3/4 cup olive oil
2 to 4 cloves garlic, peeled
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt, to taste
Place all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth, adding more olive oil if necessary. Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
I’m working on a salsa story for next week’s food section, and as part of that, I’m rounding up store-bought salsas for a comparison chart that will run alongside some recipes and homemade salsa tips.
I stopped by Wheatsville earlier this week to see what brands they sold, and although I knew they’d have a sizable selection, I didn’t realize they’d have nearly a dozen salsas either made or based in Austin. Some salsas, like Jaime’s or Ana’s, are available in lots of stores, but there were hard-to-find ones like a new-to-me one called Concha’s Salsa, which I only recently discovered at the farmers market.
This morning, I hit up the newly rebranded Poco Loco supermarket at South First and Ben White Boulevard, where I bought salsa-making supplies, including lots of dried and fresh peppers, which I’ll be broiling, roasting and dry-searing as soon as I get home this afternoon.
I’ve made a few batches of salsa so far and will be tweaking my recipes this week, but I’d love to hear any salsa tips you might have to share! Feel free to leave them in the comments or shoot me an email at email@example.com.
Over the weekend, I was visiting my sister and her kids in Boise. We ate out exactly twice (Chick-Fil-A and a local Mediterranean spot called Mazzah) and cooked the rest of our meals in her tiny kitchen that is only slightly larger than my cubicle.
Instead of cookbooks and calendars that have swallowed up my desk, her countertops are covered in drying dishes, boxes of tea, a blender for smoothies and a rainbow of plastic bowls and cups for her two kids, ages 4 and almost 2.
I love cooking with my sister, even in her tiny kitchen. I showed her that chicken soup recipe from my latest column and she showed me how to make kombucha, a kitchen project that will make its way into the paper soon.
But in order to do that cooking, we needed groceries, right? My 4-year-old niece, June, who didn’t know what a newspaper was, much less what her aunt does at one, was happy to accompany me to two stores on the very first day of my visit.
Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods — located just a block from one another — are the newest supermarkets to open in downtown Boise, and I hadn’t been to either location. They are just blocks from WinCo, a regional favorite that I’ll explain in detail in a minute.
Like in Austin, the Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods in Boise try desperately to appeal to the Keep Boise Weird crowd, which is nearly as fervent as the Keep Austin Weird demographic here, with murals of the nearby Capitol and signage touting local products. At Trader Joe’s, we picked up a sparkling limeade and a local IPA (my treats) and knock-off Fruit Loops and orange juice (her treats), plus some roses, a token of adoration for the woman who was — at the moment — pulling single mom duty while her husband is on a two-week mission trip to Africa.
She’d requested a kind of beer that Trader Joe’s didn’t carry, which was a pretty good excuse to pop into the Whole Foods. They didn’t have it either, but it was fun to walk through an Austin institution as a tourist trying to spot products from our booming consumer packaged good industry. On an end cap, I found Austin’s Boomerang Pie’s on sale, as well as Austin-based Skinny Pop popcorn, Rhythm Superfoods’ kale chips and Beanitos, the bean-based tortilla chips also based in Austin.
Austin has the flagship Whole Foods, and Boise has the original Albertsons, an unremarkable store just two blocks from my sister’s house that is good for last-minute purchases, like the toppings to go on the Trader Joe’s pizza dough I’d purchased the day before. With overpriced produce and mathematically complicated loyalty program pricing, Albertsons is like Randalls: totally forgettable and worth avoiding unless you really need pepperoni and mozzarella cheese at the last minute. (UPDATE: Apparently Albertsons does not have a loyalty card program. They did away with it in 2013.)
I saved the best for last. Chelsea had been under the weather all weekend, which — oh darn — meant that someone needed to go to WinCo to buy groceries for the week.
WinCo is to Boise as H-E-B is to Austin, but with a walk-in beer cooler, kombucha on tap and a bulk selection so large and so diverse that it’s enough to make a grocery lover weep.
Am I drunk on Winco because we don’t have it? Probably. Is it my sister and all her friends’ favorite place to shop, even though they have to sack their own groceries at the end? You bet.
The loss leaders — those items that stores intentionally underprice just to get you in the door — will make your eyeballs pop: $1.98 for a gallon of milk and 99 cents for eggs, specifically. The store-branded products can’t hold a candle to what H-E-B offers, but they are well-priced and good quality, my sister reports.
The flashing neon sign out front advertises kombucha on tap, but they don’t mention that Humm, the brand on draft, is the only kombucha sold by the bottle, too. The organic section is about as large as the one at Sprout’s, which is to say, not very large, but the prices were good.
But it’s the bulk and deli section that are so interesting to me. Although there are organic options in the bins, you can also buy powdered drinks (a la Kool Aid) or three kinds of gravy mixes or even bright orange cheese powder. These aren’t the foodie shoppers who stock up on quinoa at Whole Foods, but you can get quinoa and barley and farro at WinCo, too. They also sell pet food and nuts and cereals and gluten-free flours and Chex mix in bulk, as well as sell candies and gummies and chocolate-covered banana chips.
You could get lost in that section alone, but over in the deli, you’ll find about twice as many prepared foods and meats as most stores in Austin, including $4.98 rotisserie chickens and pre-seasoned taco meat and grilled chicken breasts that are a staple of my brother-in-law’s diet.
I bought a fried chicken salad for the plane ride home the next day, along with about half a dozen treats from the bulk section to surprise my kids with. (Chocolate-covered gummy bears, anyone?)
I gawked at the new-to-me ice cream brands, including one from Tillamook, on the way to the check-out stand, where my cashier rung up my groceries and then sent them down a conveyor belt so I could pack them into resuable bags I’d borrowed from my sister. (Our friends in our hippie sister city to the north do not yet know the joys of a citywide plastic bag ban, and after talking with my sister, it doesn’t sound like it’s even been a matter of public discussion. They don’t get the newspaper or watch the local news on TV, though, so I could be wrong.)
Anyone else out there like to grocery shop when they are traveling? What are some of the favorite stores you’ve found?
I can remember shopping with my mom when I was a kid, like that one day we got up extra early before school so we could go to the new grocery store on the day it opened. (That store, called Ramey’s, is still open and is the only dedicated grocery store in my hometown. There’s also a Walmart Supercenter, the elephant in the cereal aisle.)
Every time I have to go to the store for work, I have to pinch myself. Is this really my job? To go to the grocery store and think extra hard about how the products get there, how they are marketed, what’s going on in the minds of the cashiers? To count the Instacart shoppers or people shucking corn right there in the produce section? To look at the buy-one-get-one coupons and understand how a company can still make money by giving away goods? To see a Peruvian pepper and quinoa sauce – sold under the Sprouts store brand, mind you – and marvel at American consumerism?
For the past few years, I’ve been increasingly interested in the grocery industry, for a few reasons. One, I shop there. When I first started writing about food, I felt incredibly guilty that all my food didn’t come from a farmers market. That was just me going through what I think is a common phase of food writerism (call it Food Writer 1.0), but now I have a much greater understanding of the totality of how we buy food. Just as there’s not only way to cook food, there’s not one “right” way to buy it. We need Big Food and Little Food. We need large commodity farmers just as much as we need the little guys, and we need to be able to see how locavorism is influencing the multi-national companies that used to have a monopoly on the whole shebang.
In an effort to expand my reporting on supermarkets and all the ways we acquire food, I’m starting a new series called Grocery Diaries. I have a feeling it will mostly be Instagram and blog posts, but I’ll start reverse publishing some of those in the good old print food section, too.
To get things started, a look at my first few posts, including what I did with that quinoa sauce, which was even better than I’d expected, and how much I spent on four days worth of road trip groceries.