Shopping at Trader Joe’s: It’s a combination of quirkiness, odd products and idiosyncratic signage; it’s low prices and smiley, chatty cashiers. After months of fun at The Woodlands store near my home, I'm offering a little primer on what you inside-the-loopers should look for, including my favorite products, as the Montrose store (at Shepherd and West Alabama) opens Friday:
Roasted Seaweed Snack (99 cents)
Food preference is as subjective as art appreciation. I have friends who had to be coerced into trying these, but I’m addicted. This crunchy, salty, low-calorie chip-like item comes in Wasabi flavor as well: one of the many, many strange snack-y things Trader Joe’s has to offer. Try something previously unheard-of; you’ll find a favorite.
Speculoos Cookie Butter ($3.69)
Think a smooth peanut butter tasting like gingerbread spread, made with crushed cookies in lieu of peanuts. A European delight, now you can get your hands on it too. Not very healthy. Fabulously delicious, though.
Expect close crowds on opening day – but don’t expect a cart. You won’t want or need one: Get that free shopping bag, grab up a few intriguing items, and hit the register quickly before the lines are halfway into the frozen section.
Trader Jacques Orange Blossom Honey French Liquid Soap ($3.99)
It smells nearly as good as Cookie Butter tastes. Find moisturizers, sunscreens and soaps on the same aisle as vitamins, protein bars and pet supplies, milks (almond, coconut), and the vast array of juices (Pomegranate Limeade, Lemon Ginger Echinacea, Beet and Purple Carrot, Unfiltered Cranberry, Cherry Cider...).
The chocolate-covered items and chocolate
Assuming you like chocolate, any time Trader Joe’s gets cacao onto or into anything, it’s worth buying. We’ve loved their Chocolate Sunflower Seed Drops ($2.99), Dark Chocolate Covered Ginger ($4.49), Belgian Dark Chocolate bars (three 50g bars for $1.79) and 72% Swiss Dark Chocolate (3.5 oz bar for $4.29). The quirky award goes to the Dark Chocolate Edamame ($3.49 - “7 grams of protein per serving!”).
The Chopped House Salad with Chicken ($3.99)
It's one of our favorites. So many pre-made salads to love: Lemon Chicken Arugula ... Chicken and Roasted Beet ... Spinach and Bacon ... Kale and Edamame ... Mexicali with Chili Lime Chicken ... Pile your lunches for the week into a cart and call it a night. Easy.
The Jalapeño Cilantro Hummus ($2.99)
Halfway between hummus and salsa, and fantastic either with pita chips or rolled up in a corn tortilla. You could make it – online recipes abound - or you could just buy it from Trader Joe’s. So much easier to do the latter.
The Chicken Tikka Masala (microwaveable; $3.49)
Yes; it IS “all that.” Other frozen items we like: Paneer Tikka Masala ($2.99); Stacked Eggplant Parmesan ($3.49); Shepherd’s Pie ($3.99); Mojito Salmon (for two-$7.49); Coq Au Vin (for two-$6.99).
The New Mexico Piñon Coffee ($6.99)
The aroma of piñon in the air is Old Mesilla or Santa Fe; it’s Taos during ski season. Piñon pine flavor - and the taste of piñon nuts - are to New Mexico as Mesquite is to Texas. Imagine pecan coffee – with a distinctive twist.
It used to be called Two-Buck Chuck but the price went up in 2010; still a great bargain for sophisticated palates in a pinch.
The Three-Buck Chuck
Inexpensive ($2.99 per bottle) Charles Shaw blend wine made with California grapes. It used to be called Two-Buck Chuck but the price went up in 2010; still a great bargain for sophisticated palates in a pinch. You’ll find that TJ’s sells a wide variety of constantly-changing beers and wines priced for experimentation. Continuous items include the store’s own JosephsBrau brand of beer, as well as local brews from Rahr & Sons (Ft. Worth), Shiner, Real Ale (Blanco), St. Arnold, Karbach, and Southern Star.
More inside tips
The Turtle: There’s a stuffed plush green turtle in hiding, every day, always in a different place, almost always high above the displays. Inside the grill atop the meats is a favorite location. When you’ve got children in tow, if your progeny can point out the turtle to the cashier, he or she can then be hitting the “treasure box” of lollipops and small toys to choose a treat while you check out (temporarily unencumbered). This is also one of those stores with child-size shopping carts; a bonus is – opening months aside – aisles are large enough for tiny people to maneuver without running into others.
On opening day: Presume a few freebies, like a Trader Joe’s bag, a lei, and in-store food samples. Expect close crowds on opening day – but don’t expect a cart. You won’t want or need one: Get that free shopping bag, grab up a few intriguing items, and hit the register quickly before the lines are halfway into the frozen section. And after you check out, check out the walls. There will be city scenes you’ll recognize, uniquely represented in murals high above the food sections.
It’s easy to eat healthily and well via Trader Joe’s, for not very much. It’s also easy to get carried away with the junk food: Cat Cookies ($2.79)! Milk Chocolate Crisps ($2.49)!
Whatever your pleasure, your new neighborhood grocery will probably be a bit more crowded and less stocked than you’d like for it to be during the first few months of its existence. Once the honeymoon period is over though, it’ll be yours to peruse leisurely, with or without children, always a cart, your favorite items in stock. Cheers: Raising a glass of three-buck Merlot to upcoming exploration and revelations at your new Trader Joe’s!