A Guide to Supermarkets in the Berkeley Area

Recently, I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for the supermarket shopping experience itself-the luxury of strolling down the aisles with shopping basket in hand, wide-eyed and spellbound at the overwhelming amount and variety of foodstuffs available.

One would think that as a stereotypical frugal graduate student living on a tight budget (in the expensive Bay Area no less!), my ability to take pleasure in supermarket shopping would have diminished considerably, especially since, for all my strolling and contemplating and fingering various products, the contents of my basket in the checkout line end up being quite unimpressive: bread, inexpensive vegetables and fruits, cans of beans, cans of tuna, etc. Ironically, as my purchasing power has diminished, my love for the actual time spent in the supermarket has increased dramatically. Like a Holly Golightly gnawing at a breakfast-pastry and staring wistfully at the window displays at Tiffany’s, I marvel at all the amazing items to which I may treat myself someday when I’m feeling more the spendthrift. I weigh the papaya in my palm carefully, examining the color and feel before putting it back on the pile with a sigh. I gaze longingly at the rosy pinkness of wild salmon steaks before pressing onward toward the canned tuna section. I luxuriate in selecting which jam I would like to buy: shall I treat myself to the organic Frog Hollow Farm nectarine and pear preserves, or should I go with the plain and simple-a jar of marmalade or blueberry jam perhaps?

Like the guy in that song, I get no kick from champagne. But I sure get a kick out of doing the grocery shopping. I would even go so far as to call myself a supermarket connoisseur. Which is how I am now able to present you with this modest guide to supermarket shopping in the Berkeley area.

Berkeley Bowl

One of the first questions that people will ask you when you first move to Berkeley will be, “Have you been to Berkeley Bowl?” Indeed, shopping at Berkeley Bowl is quite the experience. It’s certainly a feast for the eyes, especially for vegetable and fruit lovers. The produce section is paradise on earth. I’m serious. If the Bowl weren’t constantly so infested with large crowds of people (I’ll get to that later), someone would have to forcibly prevent me from frolicking through the peppers and peaches and sweet potatoes while singing “tra-la-la” at the top of my lungs. My roommate can personally attest to the fact that I spent 15 minutes trying to select what type of yam I wanted from their massive yam selection (Satsuma? Beauregard? Garnet? White JapaneseMountain?)

Other highlights of the Bowl include:

-A great selection of “things from bins” (dried beans, granola and cereals, dried fruits, nuts, pasta) which you pay for by the pound. Just shovel as much or as little as you’d like into a plastic bag and go the weighing station to get it weighed.

-A vast freshly-baked breads section, with representation from all the best bread-makers in the area.

-A wide selection of luxury, gourmet items and A LOT of organic, healthy, and vegetarian-friendly food. If you’re a gung-ho vegetarian, vegan, organicarian (?), or health-nut, you will love Berkeley Bowl. As the natives would say, “It’s soâÂ?¦.Berkeley!”

Drawbacks to the Bowl include:

-Too many people. For some reason, Berkeley Bowl is always packed to the proverbial gills with shoppers, resulting in extremely long queues (even in the express lanes), and much unpleasant jostling in the aisles, as spacious as they are. Even on weekday mornings and afternoons, it can be tough to find a parking spot.

-A tad expensive for everything but produce, bread, and “things from bins.” In comparison to other supermarkets (besides Andronico’s and Whole Foods), items such as canned food, boxed cereal, and tofu often cost more. Meat and seafood are pricey at the Bowl.

-Sometimes you just don’t want to buy the organic, gluten-free, fair-trade brand of toaster pastry. Sometimes you just want to chomp down on the made-for-the-masses, sell-out, evil corporation Pop Tart you saw in a TV ad. The Bowl will often carry the former, but not the latter.

Andronico’s

There are about three Andronico’s locations in the Berkeley area, one of them being the closest supermarket to my apartment building. It takes me about 10 minutes to walk there by foot. But my visits to Andronico’s are strictly window-shopping experiences: I look, I sample, I leave refreshed and grocery-free.

Andronico’s is the gourmand’s supermarket of choice. The finer things in life, such as special Milanese sausage, designer sparkling fruit drinks, and swiss chocolate, can all be found at here. The supermarket is very generous with giving out samples, especially on weekends, and if you have no shame, you can walk into Andronico’s with an empty stomach, and emerge reasonably satisfied. Around Halloween season, they even were letting their customers sample large chunks of gourmet artisan caramel apples! In keeping with this graciousness towards the customer, the staff is friendly, efficient, and polite. Their produce selection isn’t bad, but nothing special, other than the fact that they sell a lot of organic produce.

The One Major Drawback to Andronico’s is:

-Overall, it’s too darn expensive, except for its freshly baked bread. Andronico’s charges a lot more for its products than other places, even generic non-gourmet things such as Philadelphia cream cheese and Wonder-bread. In my opinion, the produce is far too overpriced, with avocadoes, peaches, and the like costing anywhere from two to three times as much than at Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market, or 99 Ranch. But if you can afford the Andronico’s shopping experience, by all means go!

Safeway

AhâÂ?¦.grocery shopping for the masses, the peons, the rabble, the hoi-polloiâÂ?¦you get what I mean. As unpretentious you can get, Safeway is the most widespread chain in the Bay Area. (The equivalent of Ralph’s in Los Angeles, or Star Market in Boston.) Unfortunately, I’ve heard tell that the Safeway branches in the Berkeley-Oakland area are more “ghetto” than the branches in other parts of the Bay Area. I’m inclined to agree. When I went supermarket shopping with my aunt in San Mateo, my jaw literally dropped when we walked into the Safeway there. “Hardwood floors? Special Safeway Artisan Bread? Dang! We don’t got none of this where’s I come from!” I exclaimed in indignation.

Good things about Safeway include:

-Their weekly special offers, which are genuinely good deals most of the time! The best part is that special offers often apply to not just seasonal items, but everyday necessities such as bread, flour, canned goods, eggs, and milk.

-The generic in-store brand of a product is almost always available and at a much better price.

Drawbacks to Safeway include:

-Their produce, which is expensive and not very fresh.

-All in all, shopping at Safeway doesn’t feel as special or enjoyable as shopping in other supermarkets, but it gets the job done.

Monterey Market

In my humble opinion, Monterey Market is the best place to grocery shop, not to mention the relatively best kept secret of the Berkeley area. With a very good selection of fresh produce (outdone only by Berkeley Bowl, admittedly) and “things in bins” one might call Monterey Market the “Mini-Bowl”âÂ?¦except that the prices for said foodstuffs are even lower than at Berkeley Bowl! Monterey Market has a humble mom-and-pop feel to it, with friendly staff, and a modest but adequate selection of dairy products, canned food, cheese, bread, and other necessities. The market also stocks freshly-baked breads from bakeries in the area, but not as wide a variety.

Something to keep in mind:

-Monterey Market is closed on Sundays.

Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s is a wonderful supermarket chain which somehow manages to sell fresh, organic, and healthy food at exceedingly reasonable, if not downright cheap, prices. TJ’s tends sells many vegetables pre-packaged, pre-washed, and pre-sliced for the convenience of your average joe-on-the-go, which saves one some time and effort in the kitchen, but except for certain vegetables, this convenience comes at a higher price than what you would pay for a vegetable (say, spinach or butternut squash) in all its unwashed, unpeeled glory. Still, buying one’s vegetables wrapped nicely and neatly in plastic wrap has a certain allure to it. More often that not, Trader Joe’s sells its own brands, or alternative brands in lieu of more commonly known brands (i.e. you can find Trader Joe’s toilet-paper, but you won’t find Charmin; you can buy Trader Joe’s pancake mix, but you can’t buy Bisquick mix), so be warned. The staff are often friendly, but tend to be a little too laidback to provide really efficient service. Trader Joe’s makes it a point to always have a counter stocked with samples of some sort.

99 Ranch / Ranch 99 Supermarket

For some reason, most ethnic Chinese people I know, including myself, will call the 99 Ranch supermarket, “Ranch 99.” I do not know the reason. But as a card-carrying Asian (figuratively speaking), this is the place to go to get ingredients for any Asian dishes I need to prepare, or for Asian snacks such as rice-dumplings, steamed pork/chicken buns, tea-eggs, tofu pudding, etc. The produce selection is very large, but consists mainly of vegetables used in Asian cooking, and seafood and meat are to be found here at unbeatable prices. The supermarket stocks a limited variety of non-Asian food, so if you’re looking for cheese, tortillas, applesauce, and the like, it’s probably best to shop elsewhere. Service at Ranch 99 is practically nonexistent, so be prepared to fend for yourself, and to defend yourself against pushy Chinese grandmothers who believe that old age automatically endows one with the right-of-way.

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