Ode to Joe
It was when we moved to San Diego in 2001 that I first visited a Trader Joe's grocery store, and while I immediately appreciated the friendly pricing, it took a good year before I was totally converted. That's about how long it took me to hone in on my favorite, and now essential, TJ items.
I have also discovered that those who find fault with the TJ concept have not really "experienced" Trader Joe's. They've tried it out once or twice and then complain that:
It's too small.
Exactly, why I like it. You can get in and out without a major trek up and down countless aisles. In fact there is a huge, full-service Ralphs' next to my TJ's that I rarely frequent.
They don't carry everything.
Exactly why I like it. Once you discover the store's treasures, you don't need much else. And, because they focus on seasonal produce, what they do have is typically darn good and priced well.
Isn't that the place that sells the super cheap wine?
Yes, TJ's did give rise to "two-buck chuck" (which I have yet to sample), but this is hardly indicative of the grocer's offering. Their wine selection is also pretty good, by the way, and rivals Costco pricing.
So, just for you I will reveal the contents of my TJ's treasure chest:
1. Cereal: Not only do they sell popular brands at better prices (Barbara's, Kashi), but the private label cereals are awesome. Try the Organic Morning Light, Toasted Oatmeal Flakes, or High Fiber cereal. I also like Hi-Low (NOTE, my TJ's just stopped carrying this one), Kashi's Mightly Bites and Barbara's Peanut Butter Puffins (as dessert).
2. Trail Mix: There are a ton of options. I like the Cranberry mix. It's got almonds, raisins, cranberries, cashew pieces, sunflower seeds and pepitas. Great on salads or by itself.
3. Eggplant Hummus: Looks just like regular hummus, but the flavor is stronger and it's slightly healthier.
4. Greek yogurt. Yum.
5. Guacamole. They sell fresh stuff that comes in the sealed plastic. Mix with salsa and fresh cilantro and it's nearly as good as homemade.
6. Brushcetta Topping: It comes in a jar and is amazing. Try it on bread, with veggies, on eggs or over fish or chicken. Total crowd pleaser.
7. Salad dressings: Check out the ones in the cold case. The cilantro and the champagne pear are two favorites. My very picky and suspicious friend pitched a fit when I drizzled the cilantro one on her mahi-mahi, until she tried it...and now it's in her refrigerator. The Asian sesame (on the shelf, not refrigerated) is another winner.
8. Spicy Flax Tortilla Chips: Healthy and tasty.
9. Soy Crisps: I prefer the Bbq over the white cheddar. What's not to love about a sweet, salty, crunchy snack that ponies up 7 grams of protein per serving.
10. Frozen stuff: The prepared pastas, rice and veggie/rice combos are great. Check the nutrition, cause some are not too healthy, but there are a number that are really good and sensible. Open the package, throw on a skillet and heat. Great for side dishes. Try the nasi goren.
11. Sweet red pepper spread. Better than any other version I have made or tried. Try it with feta and fresh basil on chicken or pizza dough.
I could list a few more-like the tortilla corn chowder, no-pudge brownie mix, garlic aioli mustard, packaged fresh veggies, salmon burgers (the ones in the fresh case, not frozen)...
Last and not least, is the great service. I don't know if it's just my TJ's location or if it's this way everywhere, but these folks know how to pack groceries. It's an art and they've got it down. The check-out line chit-chat is also typically pretty darn good and is how I've discovered some great items. TJ's customers like to share.
You'll notice that we've included a number of TJ locations (along with Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and other grocers) in our Eat Well sections. These places offer a quick and cheap option for prepared eats.