A Trader Joe's Primer for Manhattanites

A Trader Joe’s Primer for Manhattanites

TJ’s sackIf the Most E-mailed Story ranking on nytimes.com is any kind of indicator, news is travelling fast that Trader Joe’s is soon to cut ribbons on its first ever markets in Manhattan. TJ’s culty reputation–quirky inventory, good prices, irreverant mail ads w/ 19th C. line art that wouldn’t be out of place on a Decemberists e.p, etc.– has no doubt preceded its arrival. As a service to our NYC friends and an invitation to readers to chime in, below is a cursory list of a few points on shopping the much-beloved grocer. Our readers will surely provide their own sage counsel on getting the most out of your brand-spankin’-new TJ’s.

Getting in, getting out. First off, as a largely peripatetic city, you are not going to have to deal with the infamous TJ parking lot clusterfuck-by-design we do. And that train experience will come in handy when jockeying through the narrower than usual aisles. So right off the bat, you’re ahead of the game. Grab a basket and let’s go.

Selection. Once inside, the temptation to buy everything in sight is strong; after all, the shit is cheap. If you are on foot, this actually makes it easier, limiting your take from the get-go. You really should only be coming out of TJ’s with a bag or two per visit. It generally takes a few visits’ worth of trial and error to arrive at your core TJ’s list and then you’ll work from that, adding on an experimental seasonal selection here and there.

Wine. TJ’s has this rep for decent wines at decent prices. I don’t know how variations in regional exporting will affect the labels they will stock for you there, but if you see this $2 bottle called “Charles Shaw,” (yes, that infamous ’Two Buck Chuck’) resist the temptation. It is some serious gutter swill. Stick with the California wines, maybe $8 and up. They have some kind of deal with the lower-end Coppola Rosso wines, so those are a safe bet for a daily wine. Once in a while they get an assload of some Argentinian or Australian off-label and pass the savings on to you. I’d steer clear of these for the most part. Oenophiles can chime in on this.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. A lot of their produce is imported, often from exotic locales and the day-to-day selection is dicey. Turkish apricots are currently in season, for example. I’ve always thought most of their selection in this dept. is a bit dull in flavor. Functional stuff for recipes, but not the greatest. If you have a local farmer’s market you like, do that instead.

Empty shelves. A curious phenomenon for a thriving retail establishment, but regularly TJ’s shelves will go bare. As in area-natural-disaster-emergency-evacuation wiped-out. They often will sell through their stock before the next batch arrives. Probably has everything to do with keeping prices down. Still, can be annoying as hell when you want to dash in for some pita chips.

Frozen Foods. Here is where they separate themselves from the pack with unique offerings. You won’t find any Swansons crap here. Frozen soy chorizo and potato flautas or chicken lasagne, for example. Lots of Mexican, Asian, vegetarian and ice cream offerings. Mochi ice cream is stocked regularly. Vegetable side dishes galore. Just get your slabs of protein from a butcher or a plain old supermarket to go with.

Party Foods. This catch-all category is arguably what made Trader J’s rep. Along with the aforementioned wine, here you have all manner of sparkling beverage, imported artisan cheeses, those hummi variants, passable sushi, unsalted chips, salsas, dips, even quiches. This is where you go nuts and load up.

Final Words. As a rough comparision, think of Trader Joe’s as the IKEA of markets: A few funky items throughout the apartment is OK, but you probably don’t want the whole damn house full of their stuff. Something as basic as eggs or milk under the TJ’s label is a risky proposition. But you don’t go there for milk and eggs. You go there for Trader Joe’s Sparkling Blueberry Juice and Fire-roasted peppers. Butter? No. Three Layer Hummus though? Sure. White bread? Nah. Jalepeno Blue Cornbread? Absolutely. Catching on? In summary, you cannot fully stock a working kitchen if you are a halfway serious amateur chef on the mostly-readimade TJ’s catalog. You will still have to suffer Whole Foods if you need, say, a stalk of lemongrass to make that green curry. You can however fill in the snacking gaps on your list–finger foods, chips, booze, novel frozen goods. Basically, you can set up one hell of a party spread with their gear.