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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Trader Joe's Favorites for the Big Day

It's finally happening.  After years of rumor and conjecture, the first Trader Joe's in Miami is opening tomorrow.  For anyone heading out this weekend to see what all the fuss is about, here's some help.  This completely biased list spans 20 years.  Favorites have come and gone only to be replaced by new ones.  Below are some current favorites that will hopefully be around a while:

The tarte d'champignon is one of the first items to get used after TJ's run.  Imported from France, it's a savory puff pastry/phyllo-like crust is topped with creme fraiche, emmental and mushrooms.  It's a 15 minute or so bake in the oven an the result is a light, crispy ridiculously addicting snack that, when finished, will make you wish you had more, which is why you are going to buy at least two of these. (Related products: Tarte d'Alsace)

Speculoos Cookie Butter is good example of Trader Joe's taking a snack that is popular in one part of the world, in this instance speculoos cookies, of which Biscoff is probably the best known brand, and making it a craze in the US.  Cookie butter is basically the same ingredients as a speculoos cookie (think a not so gingery gingerbread) but in a consistency not unlike peanut butter.  Though the ingredients are natural (wheat flour, vegetable oils, etc.), the product is stable enough so that it is encouraged that you do not refrigerate it after opening.  Recommended as a topping for ice cream, pancakes, waffles, etc. my favorite use is scooping a spoonful when you want a quick hit of something sweet to satisfy a craving. (Related products: Speculoos Crunchy Cookie Butter)

You love Mexican chorizo, but you're in Miami and it's tough to find.  You eventually find it but realize your Lipitor prescription ran out two weeks ago and a shock of ground pork bits might be too much for your body to take.  Your choices are skipping a delicious chorizo taco meal or ditching authenticity and shooting for soy chorizo.  This TJ's product ditches the pork for soy protein but leaves the spices that make chorizo addicting intact.  The product cooks up to the same consistency as chorizo, even to the point of charring, and once stuffed into a corn tortilla and topped with chopped onion, cilantro and hot sauce, you'd be hard pressed to miss the pork.  Not to say you won't miss it, I almost guarantee you will, but this product comes closer than any I've had to mimicking the real thing, making it easier to convince yourself that you're not sacrificing flavor for health.

Keeping with the Mexican theme, the mini beef tacos are one of the items you'll love or absolutely hate.  These remind me of the taco joints in LA that would fry the tacos, shell and meat together, then stuff them with pre-shredded lettuce and Reagan's free cheese.  If you didn't grow up with it you'll hate these.  But TJ's other frozen Mexican products, including mini chicken tamales as well as a host of frozen tamale duos (chicken, chile and cheese, beef) will probably be up most people's alleys.

One of the things I missed most about Trader Joe's were their reasonably priced pates.  Local grocery chains carry the usual brands at absurd prices.  TJ's carries as many, if not more brands, at about half the cost.  My favorite of the lot is the truffle mousse pate made with chicken liver and truffles and sealed with a brandy aspic.  The consistency is velvety smooth and at less than $6 it's a steal.  (Related products: Les Trois Petit Cochons Mousse Truffee, Everything Crackers, Classic Original Water Crackers)

Olives are another TJ's strong suit, with different varieties from California, Spain, Greece, Italy and beyond.  None however compare to the lucques olives from France.  Their meaty texture, not too crisp and not too mealy, and clean taste from just a light brine make them a favorite.  Stock up on these.

These country potatoes with haricots verts and wild mushrooms (including chantrelles) are incredible.  It's imported from France which explains the use of the palm oil that adds so much richness. Try it once and you'll want more.  

These are the tres leches of the cookie world, but instead of the three different types of milk products used in the dessert, these cookies use three different ginger products (fresh, ground and crystalized).   The result is a very gingery cookie that forces you to make a strong chai to accompany it.  

Don't get these mixed up with the thai lime and chile cashews (which are awful).  These lime and chile mixed nuts not only contain lime and dried chile, but also an extra flavor kick from dried lemongrass.  It's a favorite out of the bag or crushed to and put on green papaya or other thai salads.

There's tons more to try than what I've covered here so if it looks interesting give it a shot because one great thing about Trader Joe's - if you don't like it you can take it back, no questions asked.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

PSA: Countdown to Trader Joe's: The Staples

The countdown to South Florida's first Trader Joe's started on September 2012 when exMiami
broke the news that that cult grocery store chain had signed a lease for the old Borders location on US1 in Pinecrest.  The plot instantly became one of the most watched construction sites in the area.  Every move was reported on, from the permitting process (which resulted in TJ's being asked to resubmit plans for a structure that would actually withstand a hurricane) to the knocking down of a wall.  All of this in anticipation of the store's official opening on October 18.

With the opening just a month away,  I'm being asked by more and more friends unfamiliar with Trader Joe's what all the fuss is about. For them, and anyone else curious enough, here's a TJ's primer (first in series) counting down to opening day.

First off, the two main things to remember about Trader Joe's are:

  • The vast majority of their products are company-branded and, with a few exceptions, they carry only one type of each item (i.e. if you want garbanzo beans you are not going to find Goya or Libby's, you will find the Trader Joe's brand and that's it)
  • Although possible, don't think of TJ's as a supermarket where you can do all of your grocery shopping. Most people will be disappointed if they go in with that mentality.  Set the expectation that it'll be a supplement to your regular grocery shopping and go from there.
  • Pick up the latest Fearless Flyer (or access it on TJ's website).  It's a seasonal guide to what's new or on special.

For a quick rundown of a visit to Trader Joe's (this one in Naples, FL) click here

To kick off the series is a list of pantry and other staples that I always stock up on.

This South African Smoke seasoning goes on everything from vegetables to deviled eggs.  The ingredients are simple: paprika, garlic, salt, basil, but the combination and the process for slow smoking the paprika give this a depth of flavor that the most placate the most umami-obsessed of us.  The ingredients are coarse but the seasoning comes in a grinder container which brings out even more flavor. At $2.29 it's a steal. (Related products: Smoked Salt; Himalayan Pink Salt)

Just like at one point in your life you thought bread is bread is bread and that Wonder Bread was the be all end all. Then you took your first bite of a San Francisco sourdough or a fresh baked baguette.  You'll get the same feeling when you make your first quesadilla with these handmade flour tortillas.  They're chewier and denser than factory cranked tortillas and crisp up when making quesadillas unlike any tortilla I've used.  Top with some of TJ's canned Hatch chiles and it's an unforgettable combo.  (Related products: handmade corn tortillas, Mexican cheese blend)

A TJ's staple for years, this aioli garlic mustard goes wherever you'd use dijon or, if you're so inclined, French's.  It's less harsh than typical dijon and more complex.  I use it straight from the jar as a sauce for fish (alternatively you can top thick fish fillets with the sauce and roast).  Also great for homemade dressings. 

Shelf stable whipping cream is ideal for those of us that use cream occasionally and either never have any when we need it or end up throwing away half of the carton when we do have it. At $1.29 it's not only cheaper than half as much as regular cream, it'll last that much longer and, as an added bonus, it's perfect for your hurricane survival stash.

Yes, it's simple garlic powder, but this garlic powder made solely with California garlic is the most aromatic version I've found.  And at $1.99 it's also one of the most reasonable.

I usually make salad dressings from scratch and usually it's olive oil based.  But when I don't, and I feel like something creamier, this is cilantro salad dressing is my go to bottle.  It's tangy and herbaceous with tons of cilantro along with cotija, pasilla chiles and pumpkin seeds, and goes well with pungent greens like arugula or endive.  Two pluses: is it carries way less fat and calories than similar salad dressings and its lack of preservatives means it's kept in the refrigerated section.

It's organic, it doesn't contain sugar and it's about half the price of similar items at Whole Foods. Sold.

I'm glad TJ's identifies this as Italian Orecchiette otherwise I wouldn't be sure what I was buying.  This cooks up faster and firmer than other orecchiette I've used (Fresh Market's being the worst).  It's also 99 cents.

You can buy this creme fraiche anywhere. It's cheaper at Trader Joe's.

Because you don't want to make this at home.  Portion size is perfect for a dinner for two

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

ROAD TRIP: Shanghai - On the Hunt for Xiaolongbao

Shanghai is awesome.  At the same time it's old and new, hectic and tranquil, traditional and modern.  No other city I can think of can offer a view of turn of the 20th century baroque and art deco monoliths within 180 degrees of some of the tallest, most modern buildings in the world.  Where else can you walk from parks modeled after traditional English gardens to gardens built for emperors who never bothered to visit them?  You can walk down a quiet leafy street feeling like you're in Orleans, or even New Orleans, only to turn the corner and suddenly be underneath Shanghai's purple-lit, elevated highway. Coming from Beijing, probably the only city in the world that can compete with Shanghai in terms of new construction activity, it was like a slap in the face. Beijing was modern, but incredibly stoic, whether you're talking about its people or architecture.  It seems everything in Beijing is meant to intimidate.  Shanghai on the other hand is like the friendly uncle that you'd only see at Thanksgiving that would give you a sip of his whiskey when no one was looking. Then when adults started getting suspicious as to why you were all of a sudden slurring, would fall in line with the rest of the adults and give you an stern look.  In other words, there's few outward vestiges of communism in Shanghai.  Red stars that were prevalent on hats, cars, shop windows, etc. in Beijing were almost non-existent in Shanghai. And while the Mao mausoleum in Tiananmen Square had 3-hour long waits, the Shanghai site of the first meeting of China's communist party had barely a trickle of tourists.  Although bigger in population and the center of the Chinese financial world, Shanghai still plays second fiddle to Beijing on the tourist agenda.  It's hard to compete with the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and Peking duck. But The Bund, Yuyuan Garden and xiaolongbao would make Shanghai the prime destination of any other country in the world.

Shanghai was probably the city I've visited which filled the biggest gap between what I knew about the city before visiting and what I took away with me after leaving.  One thing I did know about Shanghai was that it was the center of the universe for one of my favorite snacks, xiaolongbao (aka soup dumplings).  For those not familiar with xiaolongbao they're incredibly delicate, thin skinned dumplings which contain a mix of ground meat (pork, chicken, etc.) and, more importantly, a bit of delicious porky broth that gushes out of the dumpling as soon as you bite into it.  They're difficult to make right, but when they are, there's nothing else like it.  I've survived on soup dumplings in the US for my forty-some odd years and now realize I've been seriously deprived.  Our stay in Shanghai was short, and there was an incredible array of dining options, so our exploration of xialongbao was limited.  Even still, we managed to hit some of the city's favorite soup dumpling spots and here's what we found.

China Art Museum at the
China Pavilion on the
site of the 2010 Expo
This place is in every guide, every website and pretty much every mention of xiaolongbao in Shanghai.  Jia Jia is centrally located off of People's Square park (again, one of those places that should be world famous but remains relatively unknown) and it's tiny, maybe 20 to 25 seats.  We arrived on a rainy afternoon at around 12:30 after visiting the spanking new China Art Museum, a museum so ostentatious and with such an impossible mission statement (to be the Chinese version of the Musee d'Orsay or The Whitney) we had to visit despite a ticketing system that does justice to the world's biggest bureaucracy (and that even our hotel concierge had trouble mastering).

Jia Jia Tangbao is difficult to find just because (i) there's no English signage, (ii) the address numbers in Shanghai are not always readily visible and (iii) Apple maps placed the restaurant in the middle of the Huangpu river.  Once you find it you get ecstatic.  Then you realize you're going to be dining in one of the most spartan, sparsely decorated places you'll ever eat (and by sparsely decorated I mean the cups holding the chopsticks at each table have to serve their utilitarian duty of, well, holding chopsticks as well as providing the only aesthetically pleasing decor in the place). I can deal with dives, but a dive in China has that little extra element of danger. The restaurant is cramped, dingy and incredibly humid, which I guess are the ideal conditions for dumpling-making. There's a guard/hostess at the entrance who takes your order, hands you a ticket then lets you fend for yourself to nab a precious, available seat.  She was incredibly efficient though, pulling out an English menu before I even opened my mouth (the alternative being ordering from a board with removable placards that are taken down as items run out).  There's only so many things you can stuff into a dumpling so ordering is quick.  I was proud of my order of one set (12 pieces) of pork ($2.00) and one set of pork+crab dumplings ($4.00).  While putting in the order D jostled for a table across from the open kitchen.

Furious dumplingmaking
Looking into the open kitchen you see a horde of dumplingmakers.  I hope there's a better term than that, kind of like barista is a better term for coffeemaker, but for now "dumplingmakers" will have to suffice.  And let me tell you, these ladies were badass at dumplingmaking.  About five ladies surrounded a mound of ground pork and crabmeat and churned out dumplings faster than (insert cliche for something that's really really fast here).  I've heard that well made dumplings should have a certain number of creases and the more creases the better and blah, blah, blah.  These dumplings could have no creases for all I care because within less than 10 minutes of ordering, our table got the first round of freshly steamed, piping hot dumplings along with our side of fresh sliced ginger (which cost an extra $0.10).
Hot out the steamer

Worried about seeming inexperienced in the correct way of eating xiaolongbao in the place where it was conceived, I intently watched the tourist channel at my hotel for an entire morning waiting for the excerpt on soup dumpling etiquette.  It turns out it's pretty simple.  First grab a dumpling with chopsticks and hold it over your spoon. Next take a bit out of the top of the dumpling and slurp out the soup.  This is the trickiest part as the soup may be scalding hot, causing you to burn every part of your mouth.  This may then lead you to let the dumplings cool which unfortunately makes the skin gummy and the soup fatty tasting (the broth is, after all, gelatinized into a solid first so it could be put in a dumpling, dissolving into a tasty broth when heated).  After leaving a gaping hole in your dumpling you dunk that puppy in vinegar and top with grated ginger.  It's like heaven when done correctly and Jia Jia's soup dumplings were incredible.  After the first bite they became my instant favorite. Until the pork+crab dumplings arrived.  I've always been a fan of the swine/seafood combo (chorizo and clams, lardons with mussels) and these dumplings brought the best of both worlds into one tiny package.  We splurged and ordered another dozen (again, these were $4.00).  I've resigned myself to knowing I will never have a soup dumpling experience like this outside of Shanghai ever again.  The mix of ingredients, freshness, kitsch and the absurd value make it special.  So how to top this experience...?

The Yuyuan complex is one of the must sees in Shanghai.  It's a sprawling area of shops ("Rolex sir?  Would you like to buy Rolex?  Or Gucci, ma'am, would you like to see Gucci?") and food stalls that you must maneuver in order to get to the beautiful central courtyard with koi ponds and the nine corner bridge (evil spirits hate corners so if one is following you, head to this bridge and that spirit is S.O.L.).  One of the attractions of this central area is the Nanxiang Steamed Bun restaurant which has served xiaolongbao to hungry shoppers and visitors alike for over 100 years.  There are plenty of imitators in the area.  Just know the more signs there are touting the restaurant, the faker it is.  Nanxiang is very nondescript, until you see the line.  The endless line.  The endless, non-moving line.  Then you know you've reached the place and you're deciding what you're next move will be because you're not going to stand in line for hours for any kind of food.  So you make your way up to the third floor where instead of waiting to get your dumplings at a window you get to sit and have them brought to you.  With a slightly smaller line but a minimum charge per person it can be a turnoff.  The happy medium lies on the second floor, where you order from a hostess and fend for your own seat (sound familiar!?).

Jumbo xiaolongbao
and stinky tofu
Now accustomed to such processes, we opted to dine on the second floor where only one type of dumpling, pork, is served at a cost of about $3.50 for 12 pieces.  There's also the kitschy jumbo dumplings that come with straws to suck out the broth.  Someone like me would never be caught dead tucking into one of these so I made sure my pics were only of the dumpling and not of me enjoying them.  And enjoy them I did along with another Naxiang specialty, fried stinky tofu, or tofu injected with bacteria which impart a funkiness to the tofu, much like it does to blue cheese, etc.  The result is a deep, flavorful tofu with enough umami to make soy sauce its little b-tch.
Not so great dumplings

But Nanxiang is about dumplings and the pork dumplings we ordered were, frankly, disappointing.  Thick skin that sometimes stuck to the bamboo and tore, releasing the soup and making it just a plain old dumpling.  After reading, hearing and seeing so much about Nanxiang my expectations were huge.  I wanted to warn the people waiting in the endless line to turn around and grab a pigeon on a stick instead.  But Nanxiang is a tradition in Shanghai and although some traditional places have lost their way, there are those that see past faults and inadequacies just to grab onto some old memory of what was once great.  So what do you do if an old stalwart dissappoints...?

Wait a minute, a Taiwanese restaurant expanded to Shanghai and had the audacity to serve its denizens the very food that is most associated with their city?  That's exactly what Din Tai Fung did, and to huge success. The Taiwanese chain has expanded worldwide to build an empire spanning mainland China, Japan, Australia, the U.S. and beyond.  The gripe with DTF?  The price.  Xiaolongbao enthusiasts find paying $7.00 to $10.00 for an order absurd. But from experience, the price tag is worth it.  DTF goes a bit beyond the offerings of specialty dumpling places, adding truffle dumplings and pork/liver dumplings to the usual pork, crab, etc.  The setting is also a heck of a lot more upscale so you're paying extra for unheard-of-at-divey-dumpling house things like napkins, plates, placemats and a waitress.

For the uninitiated
Din Tai Fung also gives you a handy guide on how to eat soup dumplings which, to my horror, differed from the tourism video lady (I knew I shouldn't have trusted her, her English was way too good).  Apparently the order of the process should be grab, dunk in vinegar, place in spoon, pierce, top with ginger, enjoy.  I'd apparently been eating like a heathen for my first two days in Shanghai.  No longer, I adopted DTF's method and became an expert.
Double the price,
half the portion

As expected, the dumplings here were as good as they should be.  Thin skin, rich broth and the differentiator of having out of the ordinary offerings (both of which we tried, the liver and truffle, overpowered the rest of the fillings).  They truly were superior to those at Jia Jia, but in the same way that a Mozart concerto is technically superior to a Green Day single.

So in my mini-xiaolongbao battle in Shanghai the winner is Jia Jia Tangbao.  Great dumplings in a sufficiently suspect environment and dirt cheap.  The value proposition makes it the obvious choice, although if you want less of a hassle, Din Tai Fung is the place the head to.  Jia Jia Tangbao isn't a secret and the lines outside give away that this place is special.

Follow the line to Jia Jia Tangbao

Monday, September 24, 2012

ROAD TRIP: Me vs. NYC...Part 1

Road trips for college football games usually don't involve the Big Apple. So when my alma mater dear, USC, contracted to play the Syracuse Orange not at the Carrierdome in Syracuse, NY, but at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands, well, that was an offer I couldn't refuse.  The weekend of September 7th was food, football and Fashion Week (not that I know anything about fashion nor did we even have any idea about the events, but I love alliteration).

Our last trip to New York included an addition to our private pantheon of epic meals, Eleven Madison Park, and, well, it was such a revelation I forget most of the rest of our meals (Momofuku Ko was one of them, but EMP was so outstanding that MK faded into the woodwork).  This time around there was no knockout on par with EMP, but there were plenty of places that were memorable and worth a recommendation:

Sashimi at Sushi Yasuda

SUSHI YASUDA: After checking into our hotel we made a beeline uptown straight to Sushi Yasuda for a steal of a lunch.  $25 gets you a soup/salad and pristine fish served as nigiri, sashimi and roll(s).  We augmented our meal with a toro cut roll leaving us full but not stuffed - a perfect feeling for the meal that lay ahead.  

The only decor you'll see at Blanca

BLANCA: Getting into Carlo Mirarchi's weekly tasting at the Bushwick neighborhood's Roberta's was, for a while, the hipster holy grail.  Only 8 people a week got to enjoy the small plates coming out of what is arguably Brooklyn's best pizza joint.  The Blanca space was the answer to alleviate the pent up demand (and months-long wait list).  Entering through the Roberta's space, which was eerily empty due to a wrapped-up film shoot for the HBO series Girls, you're mood is initially set to casual.  Roberta's is extremely casual, exposed brick and wood beam casual.  From there you're led through the container garden and into the Blanca space, which looks like it's from another planet in comparison.  Blanca is a sleek, white space with counter seating for 12 overlooking a good-sized kitchen.  Having arrived early we were treated to Chef Mirarchi and staff prepping the epic 20+ courses we'd later receive much like an orchestra prepping for its performance.  It felt a little aseptic, the chef/cooks prepping the meal with no acknowledgement of the diners having arrived (the fourth wall would stay up for most of the meal until Mirarchi joined in serving and explaining dishes).  Instead of going into a course by course description, a general overview should give you a good idea of what to expect (also photos, messaging, tweeting etc. are discouraged and all diners, including myself complied). The majority of early dishes are extremely small, one to two bites, with heftier courses coming out as the night progressed. As you'd imagine, courses start out light (like caviar with goat cheese and the soon-to-be-famous grass shrimp with celery) and move on to heartier (sweetbread with aioli) with some refreshers in between.  It was an epic 2 1/2 hours made more so by the constant alcohol being served (we opted for the pairing which included whites, reds, sakes and beers).  While pictures were discouraged during the meal, I did snap a pic of the big mounted fish head, the only decoration of any type on the main wall.   

Pit stop at Momofuku Milk Bar

BOOKER AND DAX:  There's a lounge behind Momofuku Ssam that I didn't know existed.  Apparently a lot of other tourists didn't know it existed before either because we all seemed to find ourselves here.  A brief cocktail menu and limited food menu makes it a good place to end the night.

Ramen at Ippudo
IPPUDO:  A place I've always wanted to visit but never got around to because of the well known epic waits.  It was lunchtime and we were prepping for the other big meal of the trip at The NoMad so we figured ramen would be ideal.  Ippudo's ramen was ideal with a broth that was rich but not overpowering, pork that was lean but not dry and a soft boiled egg so creamy you'd have thought it was churned.
Tourists or people who don't
work at the Standard Biergarten

STANDARD BIERGARTEN:  Another place I didn't know existed and in which we found likeminded tourists, the biergarten at the Standard hotel in the Meatpacking district is a fairly good sized space on the south side of the hotel property.  What makes it unique besides being outdoors is its location under the High Line.  There's three beers on tap and a full bar along with German bar food (including pretzels the size of a New York studio apartment).  Nice place to catch your breath and it was right down the street from the new Meatpacking Market

LURE FISHBAR:  I'd heard many times about the happy hour at Lure.  It sucked, the drinks were lame and the place looked like it was stuck in the '90's.  Stick it and go to...

JOHN DORY: I love seafood and this is one of my favorite restaurants in New York.  Besides the happy hour special of 6 oysters and a pint of stout or glass of cava for $15, the menu's snack items make it a perfect happy hour spot.  Always ordered are the parsley anchovy toast - a chunky spread of pulsed parsley, anchovy, garlic and other goodies on toasted country bread, and the carta di musica which, in its simplicity, is one of my favorite dishes of all time.  The snack is simply two pieces of ultra-thin Sardinian flatbread (called carta di musica) slathered with butter and topped with shaved bottarga and some red chili slices.  It is crunchy, chewy, savory, buttery and umami-y at the same time.  Alas happy hour ended which left us time for a nap before heading to a late dinner at...
A cross-section of The Chicken at The NoMad. Meat,
truffled foie gras brioche, crispy skin

THE NOMAD: Downtrodden about EMP's closure during our stay, the next best thing was to try The NoMad.  Located in a boutique hotel of the same name and with the same chef/owners of EMP, the restaurant screamed "You have to visit here or your trip will be for naught".  Enough so that I really considered not going until the recommendations to go rang loudly.  I'm glad we heeded them.  The menu follows EMP's style where each dish is named by its main ingredient (i.e. Egg) but unlike EMP there is a description of each dish which is deceiving because even the description does not cover the ingredients and complexity of the dish.  My Egg appetizer stated egg, ham and corn.  What it was was a perfectly poached egg sitting under a thick foam (think your dad's Gillette shaving cream) made from cured ham.  It was like cutting into a savory flan with an egg yolk center.  For the entrees there is one dish that stands out from the others, and you wouldn't think it at first glance.  With options such as Lobster, Scallops or Suckling Pig, you'd probably skim over the Chicken dish.  Don't.  This is THE dish.  This is the one that people will travel from far and wide to try.  That is why I was hesitant to order it because the expectation was so high.  That is why I was shocked when the dish easily met my expectations as the best chicken I've ever had.  I won't go into detail on how the chicken was prepared, the NY Times has done that for me, but suffice to say it is worth every one of the 7,800 pennies it cost.  Add to the chicken excellent service and right-sized, rich desserts and The NoMad becomes not EMP-light, it stands on its own as The NoMad.  

Quite a few places for our first two days.  Part 2 will come up soon with visits to Mission Chinese and the world's biggest, gayest ice cream shop.

Sushi Yasuda, 204 E. 34th Street, New York 
Blanca, 261 Moore Street, New York
Momofuku Milk Bar, 251 E. 13th Street, New York
Booker and Dax, 207 2nd Avenue, New York
Ippudo, 65 4th Avenue, New York
Standard Biergarten, 848 Washington Street, New York
Lure Fishbar, 142 Mercer Street, New York
The John Dory, 1196 Broadway, New York
The NoMad, 1170 Broadway, New York

Thursday, September 20, 2012

TRADER JOE'S: The Southernmost TJ's is opening in Miami in 2013

A minor ripple in the Twittersphere erupted late Wednesday afternoon.  A rumor was reported on, uncertainty ensued until finally the rumor was substantiated again and again and again. Trader Joe's is indeed opening their southernmost outlet, and its first on the east coast of Florida, in suburban Miami. The location, an old Borders bookstore on US-1, which I recall thinking when Borders started closing up shops that it would be an ideal place for a Trader Joe's. My thoughts must've travelled the 3,000 miles to Monrovia, CA and today word got out that Trader Joe's signed a lease for the 17,000+ square foot space. Word is the opening will be in 2013.  I've waited 15 years for TJ's to open in Miami. A few more months isn't going to hurt to get my hands on some great items I've missed for a long time.  For a sneak peek at the types of products to look forward to, here's a link to a previous post on a trip to Trader Joe's in Naples, FL.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

TRADER JOE'S Naples: A Miamian's Guide (Part 1)

The discovery and exploration of Florida was fueled by legend and rumor.  Rumors of undiscovered islands led Juan Ponce de Leon to depart from Puerto Rico in 1513 and land in what he named "La Florida". Later, the legend of of the fountain of youth led him to further explore it (although Ponce de Leon died before finding the legendary fountain, it turns out all he had to do was follow the sign).  The legend of Jose Gaspar basically gave Tampa an excuse to throw its annual Gasparilla Pirate Festival.  In the 1960's, parcels of land in and around Orlando were being swallowed up at one time by various unrelated companies.  An Orlando journalist did some digging to verify the rumor going around town that turned out to be true - the Walt Disney Company was behind the purchases to acquire enough land to build Walt Disney World.

In the last decade I can't remember a rumor that I heard more, besides Osama bin Laden is dead, than "Trader Joe's is opening in Florida soon." Every Trader Joe's I visited, from New York to Chicago to California to Atlanta, had at least one associate that would say "Yeah, Trader Joe's is opening soon" or "Yeah, they're going to open four at one time in Florida."  Long story short, in February 2012 Trader Joe's opened their first Florida store in Naples (and for that other rumor, well, bin Laden is dead).  They chose not Miami, Miami Beach, Tampa, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale nor West Palm Beach.  Trader Joe's works in mysterious ways, so the rationale for opening their first Florida outpost in Naples (pronounced in a Jerry Seinfeld "Newman" kinda way) can be a source for endless conjecture.  But what's done is done.  This post is about trekking over to Naples to raid Trader Joe's and get the goodies back to Dade safe and sound.  Here's tips on what to take, how to get there and what to buy. Tips on what else to do on a daytrip to Naples will come up in a future post.

Check out the most
recent Fearless Flyer
BEFORE YOU GO: Go to Trader Joe's website and check out the Fearless Flyer, TJ's quarterly "newsletter" of featured items.  It'll give you some ideas of what's new and could be a good start to your shopping list.

PACKING: Depending on what you're planning to buy, you may need to take certain equipment.  Coolers are a must if you're getting frozen food or any kind of meat or dairy (Part 2 of this series will focus on TJ's frozen food, meat and dairy sections).  A hot/cold thermal bag should be enough if you're getting produce and cheese.  If you're planning on just getting pantry and dry goods there's no worries.  Trader Joe's only uses paper bags made out of recycled paper and they will expertly pack your groceries like nowhere you've ever been.  An alternative is TJ's reusable shopping bags, usually around $0.99, or they're thermal bags which are a couple of bucks.  They make nice souvenirs of your Naples safari.  One way to Naples from downtown Miami is a solid 2 hours, so that should give you an idea of what you need to prepare for.

PRODUCTS: The vast majority of Trader Joe's products carry the Trader Joe's name.  Their business model is to search for, and then carry, only one type of each product.  So when you're shopping at TJ's there will only be one brand of tomato soup, one brand of garbanzo beans and one brand of salted caramel sauce.  What you lose in choice you gain in quality and price, so keep in mind if you're looking for Dole or Heinz, you won't find it here.  Those products where Trader Joe's either can't find it feasible to buy a run of, or simply need to keep the brand name for recognition will be seen throughout the store, especially in the wine and beer section.

GETTING THERE: Get in your car.  Follow the sunset. The store is in 1 of the 500 or so strip malls in Naples so it's easy to find.  If you still have trouble, here's my guide to the strip malls of Naples that matter.

ONCE YOU'RE THERE: Parking is your standard strip mall setup.  Most spaces are in front of the store with a few in back.  The days of police having to direct traffic from the influx of customers are long gone.  Weekends are still busy, but nowhere near the chaos of the first couple of weeks.
ONCE YOU'RE IN: Grab a shiny red cart outside and make your way into the store.  First thing you'll see as you look up to your right is a mural.  Many of the newer TJ's decor pay homage to the particular store's city or neighborhood.  In New York the Chelsea TJ's  has a 1920's Great Gatsby look while the one in Culver City, CA, where I was raised, has a Batman theme.  Naples' theme is, surprise, beachy.  While I didn't see walker tracks on the painted sand in the mural, it does capture the laid-backness of Naples and it fits with the Hawaiian shirts that are TJ's signature uniforms (yes, everyone from store manager to bagger gets to wear Hawaiian shirts to work every day).

Your strategy once you're inside: hit the dry goods and pantry items first, followed by produce and meats, then dairy and ending with frozen food (I'll cover frozen food, produce, meat and dairy in an upcoming post).  Here's your strategy (with pics):

So called because of the variety of nuts, dried fruit, Tiger's Milk bars that'll make you feel like you're back in the early 70's.

The aisle that runs along the left of the produce section starts with grains and such.  Here there's oatmeals of all kinds, organic and conventional, boxed or bagged, flavored or plain. I came across a couple of items I'd never seen at a TJ's.  Given we're in the South it's only proper that TJ's sell grits. And farina? Well, I haven't seen that since I was six.

Further along the same aisle are some of TJ's best-loved items that harken back to its beginning as a health food store - dried fruits, nuts, trail mixes, energy bars, etc.  Here you'll find not only Clif and Luna bars, but old school Tiger's Milk bars (just how old is your school depends on whether or not you remember these).  Choice of dried fruits include the usual suspects along with treats like salty chili lime mango and dried dragon fruit.  Among the nuts my favorites are the skin-on Marcona almonds (along with the blanched variety which are flavored with rosemary) and the Thai chili lime nut mix (a mix of peanuts and cashews with dried lemongrass, chilies and kaffir lime leaves).

Breads, cakes, pastries and other items that make Dr. Atkins roll over in his cholesterol-ridden grave.

At the end of the hippie aisle you'll reach a stand with very unhippie items.  All the warm and fuzzy that you made yourself feel by loading up on dried bananas, trail mix and Clif bars goes out the window when you see peanut butter cup cupcakes, inside-out carrot cakes (think whoopie pies) and chocolate fudge Bundt cakes.  Close your eyes and keep walking.  Or pick up a mud pie cake.  Not that I did, or at least will tell anyone that I did.

Past temptation table and along the right wall are TJ's great selection of breads.  It's not your typical supermarket bread, at least not the bread those of us stuck with Publix have to endure.  There's spelt breads, various naans, parathas, crumpets, sourdoughs, baguettes and batards.  There's also a brand of flour tortillas aptly named "Trader Jose's Handmade Flour Tortillas" and they are, by far, the best flour tortillas I've ever had.  You may think this is an exaggeration, but give these a try and use them for a simple quesadilla. You'll see why they're so special.  On this trip we also picked up a sourdough loaf which, as expected, blew away the soft, mushy crustless mounds at Publix.

Olives, pickles, simmer sauces, marinades, etc.

My recollection is a little hazy at this point as to the layout, but the descriptions of the remaining sections should give you a good idea of how to tackle the store and what to look for.  Being from California, olives have always been a TJ's staple.  Nowadays their olives come from all over the world.  Of particular interest are the Lucques olives imported from France, among the meatiest and most flavorful in the world (and judging from the emptying shelf on left pic, one of the most popular for TJ customers).  Further along are canned tuna, salmon, Cherrystone clams from Maine and tiny shrimp from Oregon. Prior to the canned seafood, in the picture on the right, are ethnic items, mostly marinades, simmer sauces and dipping sauces that lean towards Japanese and Indian.  Favorites are the masala simmer sauce (actually a great way to get you to eat tofu), the gyoza dipping sauce and the soyaki marinade.  The soy sauce is from Japan and unlike many brands, the second ingredient after water is soybeans, not wheat.  Also there are ready-to-eat Indian meals, noodles, etc.  

Syrups, jellies, jams, butters, honeys and anything you can spread on anything else.

There are some exceptions to the "one of each item" rule at Trader Joe's as evidenced by the sheer number of maple syrups available (I'm convinced one of their buyers is a raging Canadian).  While you may think all maple syrups are the same, here is a good place to learn that they're not.  There's different grades and different shades, there's organic versus conventional - more differences than I care to get into.  One thing is certain, you won't find synthetic maple syrup.

Along this same aisle are jellies and jams which are good and fine.  One line of new products I came across were butters (mango, fig and apple).  They're thicker and creamier than jams and according to the jar, must contain more fruit than sugar to be called a butter.  The mango butter fits that bill, but there's not a strong mango taste.  The fig butter is waiting in the cupboard from some blue cheese.  This section is also the first place where I saw Nutella in the U.S. in the early 1990's.  And on this recent trip we discovered a product that'll give you the same feeling you had when you tried Nutella for the first time. It's called Speculoos Cookie Butter and the item is so popular it has its own Facebook fan page and some entrepreneurial fellow has taken to reselling it on

Salts, spices, pastas, pasta sauces

The salt and spice section at Trader Joe's is fairly limited but given their availability and low cost at regular grocery stores it's not a big loss.  Where TJ's excels is in finding exotic salts and spice mixes packaged in disposable grinders.  Pcitured above is Himalayan pink salt with a clean taste.  To the right is one of my new addictions, South African Smoke Seasoning Blend.  It's a simple blend of paprika, sea salt, garlic and basil that gives a huge umami kick to anything you add it to from deviled eggs to pea soup. Not pictured are various sea salts, peppers and other spices.

Pasta is cheap so it's not worth losing precious storage space in your trunk.  But in case you're interested, TJ's pasta is imported from Italy, made from hard durum semolina, and is 99 cents.  Of note, but not pictured, are gluten-free pastas made from corn.  In fact, Trader Joe's carries a number of gluten-free items with a clear "g" symbol while vegans can look for the capital "V" to denote products with zero animal ingredients and for members of the tribe, the capital "K" denotes Kosher items.

Chips, crisps, dips, salsas

Just like any grocery store in America, Trader Joe's carries an inordinate number of bagged snacks. TJ's has a few types of potato chips from basic (which at $1.99 are a steal compared to the Lay's they're trying to replicate) to a their take on popular "popped" chips.  Beyond potato and tortilla chips are a load of snacks including baked lentil chips (made with lentil flour) and falafel chips made with chickpea flour.  You'll probably find some of these items at Whole Foods, but you'll be paying Whole Foods prices.  Also in this aisle are another TJ's favorite, salsas.  I'm partial to the garlic chipotle while others are partial the the TJ's classic salsa autentica.  

Wine and beer but no liquor because this is the South

If there's one item that made Trader Joe's famous in cities without one it's Charles Shaw wines, more affectionately known as Two Buck Chuck.  The wines were $1.99 ten years ago when they debuted and they're $1.99 today (but only in California.  Floridians have to pony up an extra $1.00.). Pass by the inevitable Charles Shaw display and check out TJ's other wine and beer offerings (Florida doesn't allow liquor to be sold in grocery stores so we're missing out on great prices on Tito's vodka and Junipero gin).  One of TJ's knacks is finding value offerings before they get popular.  It was over 20 years ago that I first discovered Spanish and Chilean wines through Trader Joe's.  Marques de Caceres and Santa Rita 120 were staples back then, and now they're available at any decent supermarket. Back in 1990 they were exotic.  The stronger euro has dug into the value proposition of Spanish wine, but TJ's still carries many from the old continent (including a line of sherries pictured on the bottom left).  You'll find good prices on wines that have had price spikes due to newfound popularity like riesling and gruner.  TJ's also has a good beer selection with a section dedicated to Florida brews from Cigar City, Florida Brewing and others.  (unfortunately my pic captured the sign, but not the beers themselves).  Lastly there's the beer equivalent of Two Buck Chuck - Name Tag Lager.  It's $3.99 in Naples ($2.99 in other TJ's) and while I haven't tried it, here's a description from the Fearless Flyer

Some of TJ's best items lurk on the shelves above the freezers

The last section for this post takes you down the freezer aisle.  We're not ready to pick out frozen food just yet.  Instead pay attention to the shelves above the freezers.  After Carb-plosion Corner this is the next most-dangerous section.  Here is where cookies, candies and other sweet snacks are shelved.  These shelves contain my main source of snacks that I sneak into the movies.  Dark chocolate-covered candied ginger, pistachio-covered English toffee, milk chocolate-covered potato chips (don't knock 'em till you've tried 'em) and triple ginger snaps (containing ground, fresh and candied ginger).  There's also a few mustards, salad dressings etc. along the shelves in case you missed them in the other aisles.  

Here's the dry goods that made it back from Naples

So here's a list of the stash along with prices for each item (note this doesn't show the frozen and refrigerated food we had to put in the cold storage as soon as we got home).  This should easily tide us over through hurricane season, after which there'll be another trip to Naples. The next post in this series will cover produce, frozen food and how to get these back to the County of Dade without spoiling.
  • Australian Strawberry Licorice ($3.99)
  • Milk chocolate covered potato chips ($2.99)
  • Chocolate chip fudge bundt cake ($5.69)
  • Lucques olives ($3.99)
  • Triple ginger snaps ($3.99)
  • Feta salad dressing ($1.99)
  • Fair trade turbinado sugar ($3.49)
  • Dark chocolate almond bits ($3.99)
  • Tiger's Milk bars ($0.99)
  • Dark chocolate candied ginger 
  • Dark chocolate honey mints ($3.99)
  • Coffee Rio coffee caramels ($2.99)
  • Falafel chips made with chickpea flour ($3.49)
  • Mushroom rice noodle soup bowls ($0.99)
  • Peanut butter oat bars ($2.29)
  • Oregon wild pink shrimp ($1.99)
  • Vanillamynts ($0.87)
  • Speculoos Cookie Butter ($3.69)
  • Soyaki marinade ($2.99)
  • Strawberry licorice lines ($2.99)
  • Mango butter ($2.29)
  • Fleur de sel salted caramel sauce ($3.49)
  • Baked lentil chips ($2.29)
  • Veggie chips ($1.99)
  • Handmade flour tortillas ($2.99)
  • Asiago pepper sourdough bread ($2.99)
  • Japanese low sodium soy sauce ($2.99)
  • Fig butter ($2.29)
  • Garlic chipotle salsa ($2.99)
  • Vegetable green and panang curry bowls ($1.99)
  • Puttanesca sauce ($2.99)
  • Hansen's natural mandarin lime soda ($2.79)
  • Gyoza dipping sauce ($2.29)
  • Teajava bottled tea ($1.69)
  • One Man Band Sonoma Zin ($9.49)
  • Alsatian Gewurtzraminer ($9.99)
Not pictured:
  • Lentil chip curls ($2.69)
  • Beet/purple carrot juice ($2.49)
  • Greek style giant beans ($1.99)
  • Artichoke hearts in water ($2.29)
  • Marcona almonds ($3.99)