Many good choices for local food shopping

There is certainly no shortage of markets in North County and more are on the way with the soon-to-open Whole Foods in Encinitas, and the recently closed Vons on Santa Fe being expanded into a mega Vons. One really could spend an entire day, and a boatload of money, driving from market to market to make up a complete shopping experience. Each of these stores has their own personality, strengths and weaknesses, so I thought I’d take a look at several in the area.
Trader Joe’s definitely tops my list for their deals on alcohol with my current favorite the $5.99 Zonin Prosecco, which is an amazing price for a decent Champaign alternative. Frozen food is also a draw with their innovative pre-made meals, fried rice, Mexican favorites, meatballs and desserts to name a few. Did I say desserts? It seems like every aisle at TJ’s has sweet temptations lining the upper shelves. I tend just to look away though the malted milk balls occasionally lure me in.
I’m also a big fan of their applewood smoked bacon, marinated pork loin and pre-formed beef sliders with mini-buns to match. My cat Ancho is very appreciative of their tuna for cats, having been known to devour a whole can in one sitting then disappearing for days at a time, presumably in a cat food coma somewhere.
The sample stand at TJ’s is also one of the best around. There is always a good mix of sweet and savory going on with a drink sample to wash it down. The eclectic staff is a mix of surfer, granola and alternative, all with a great attitude and ready to help. I’ve seen random karaoke happening on a Saturday afternoon and the soundtrack in the store is the best around by far.
The downside to Trader Joes is a limited fresh produce section, lack of any national soda brands, and no meat or fish counter with all of those options being pre-packaged. I’ve purchased really nice cuts of meat and sushi grade tuna at TJ’s, but there is something to be said for a meat and fish counter. The limited produce usually means a trip to Henry’s.
Henry’s is like a larger Trader Joe’s with an amazing produce section; a decent meat, fish and poultry counter that also serves up some killer sandwiches; and a natural health care/vitamin section that keeps the holistic types in stock of their essential this and that oils. Another differentiator of Henry’s is the bulk section where you can scoop your own granola, nuts, rice, flax seed or dozens more options.
They also carry Cooks Illustrated, which says something about the foodie nature of Henry’s shoppers. They have recently expanded their cheese, wine and pre-packaged meals offerings, which prove to be temptations when my primary intent at Henry’s is their spectacular produce section. It’s also where I get my cholesterol checked on a regular basis by a monthly mobile unit that provides those services. While not as good as Trader Joe’s, Henry’s music selection is still way better than traditional grocery chains.
Smart and Final Plus is a recent addition to the local scene in the space formerly occupied by Albertsons on Encinitas Boulevard. In the past, trips to the old Smart and Final were reserved for getting party supplies when I did not feel like dealing with Costco. As a single dad with a hungry teenager, I found the new version to almost be a one-stop shopping experience. Now with the boy off to university, I find the only real reason to stop by for the great prices on cases of Pellegrino or Perrier, which I’ve been using as a substitute for my longtime soda habit. As far as the vibe of the place, I can’t say that I’ve ever noticed one.
In the past, when I needed a traditional grocery store experience to stock up on processed food and cleaning supplies, it was either Albertsons or Vons. With my local Albertsons closed, I found myself heading to Vons and found it satisfied that need just fine. Nothing special and not a lot of character, but it had the basics and caught up eventually to the industry trends. I know both these chains and Ralph’s have their super deluxe versions and I’m assuming that is the way the Vons on Santa Fe is heading. This can only be a good thing for Vons given the competition in the area.
I will at some point devote an entire column to Seaside Market as it really is a foodie and people watching paradise. I call it the beautiful people market as I’ve never gone there without seeing some absolutely stunning physical specimen, female or male. I’ve wondered where are these people coming from, then I remember that I am in Cardiff, the heart of beautiful people country. Anyway, this place is quite the scene and once you get comfortable with the hot people, it’s a great market with an amazing meat, poultry and fish counter and one of the best gourmet deli counters anywhere in San Diego. I frequent it for lunch then sit outside in the courtyard soaking in the Cardiff vibe. I will get into much more detail on Seaside Market in a future column but one of the standout local products they sell is Basiltops Pesto. Grown and produced in Cardiff, it’s absolutely the best pesto I’ve ever had and they have many varieties.
Just Peachy in funky Leucadia always draws me in with really great prices on their Highway 101 sign then I get in and am not quite sure what it’s all about. The specials are worth a stop though. I’ve not spent enough time in Jimbo’s Naturally, but the time I have I’ve been impressed. Same with Stater Bros., which always seems to have some killer barbecue thing going on out front although it was a little mega market for my liking.
All of these stores are about to face new competition in a few months when the Whole Foods opens in the heart of Encinitas. While I have enjoyed Whole Foods immensely, it’s always seemed pricy to me and more of a special occasion market than a place to stock up on staples. I’m hoping they prove me wrong as I’d gladly put a couple more baskets on my bike and make the ride there on a regular basis.
Over all, there is no shortage of market options in the area. If anything, it seems a little cluttered. But choice is good and we certainly have that.

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