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.
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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.
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):
THE HIPPIE AISLE
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).
THE CARB-PLOSION CORNER
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.
SAVORY THINGS IN A CAN, BOX OR JAR
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.
SWEET THINGS TO PUT ON OTHER THINGSSyrups, 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 amazon.com.
THINGS TO SEASON WITH, THINGS TO STUFF YOU WITH
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.
THINGS TO SNACK ON
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.
MORE THAN JUST TWO BUCK CHUCK
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
WAIT, THIS LOOKS LIKE FROZEN FOOD
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
- 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)
- 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)