When we first moved to the Chicago area in 1989, I knew that we would miss our San Francisco friends and family, the gorgeous view from every vista, the nearby wine country, and, of course, the fog. What I didn’t consider was how much I would miss Trader Joe’s.
That realization hit me, hard, when I arrived in Evanston and made my first foray to the grocery store. It was September, and I had left Bay Area markets full of gorgeous late-summer produce, burgeoning with ripe tomatoes, fresh corn, plump peppers, and regal purple eggplants. “Exotic” ingredients for Asian and Latino foods were readily available. And our once-a-week trips to the Trader Joe’s in San Rafael, where we would load up on all varieties of nuts, dried fruits, grains, rice mixes, frozen foods, and more, were a bargain hunter’s delight. Reader, I’m a little ashamed to tell you that I started weeping in the produce aisle of the Jewel in front of the insipid, rock-hard, and barely pink tomatoes.
Needless to say, for many years, every trip back to SF entailed the packing of a small empty duffle bag that would return to Chicago filled with TJ products. And then, in 2000, a miracle occurred. Trader Joe’s heard our pleas and opened their first Illinois stores, one in Northbrook. The commute was much improved, and pilgrimages went from annual to monthly.
Flash forward to five years ago, when after YEARS of negotiation with the City of Evanston, Trader Joe’s finally opened on Chicago Avenue. I am within easy walking distance, and it’s not unusual for me to stop in a few times a week. There are now 23 stores in Chicagoland, and they are always busy. Always. Why the obsession? For the uninitiated, TJ’s is not your usual grocery store. Certainly, you’ll find a far larger selection of products in any given section at one of the big boys like Jewel or Mariano’s, and other than a very small selection of cleaning and paper supplies to do in a pinch, you really need to shop elsewhere for those. This is not the store for laundry detergent, nor do they carry school supplies, diapers, or other drugstore items. Don’t look here for econo-size packaging. And if you buy produce here, be vigilant about sell-by dates. I often find myself reaching far back for the newest bags of salad greens.
Where they really shine? Many of their items are private label, found only in Trader Joe’s stores. Having a party? This is one-stop shopping, with a wonderful cheese selection, charcuterie, olives, nuts, and crackers galore. Anything covered in dark chocolate — raisins, almonds, graham crackers, sunflower seeds, pretzels, potato chips … the list goes on. Their wine selection is on point with plenty in the $10 and under range. Stocking up the freezer? Their mochi are half the price of other brands, as are bags of shrimp, organic pizzas, and hors d’oeuvres.
Some of my personal can’t-live-without items include:
- Trader Joe’s Cauliflower Pizza Crust (actually quite yummy and a good substitute for a regular pizza crust)
- Trader Joe’s Everything but the Bagel Sesame Seasoning Blend (I put it on everything from avocado toast to egg salad and tuna fish)
- Trader Joe’s Seedy Almond Salad Topper (sure, they cribbed this product from Ottolenghi, but do I care? Not when it’s a quarter the price and comes in handy individual packets so they stay fresh)
- Trader Joe’s White 100% Whole Wheat Flour (I sub this in for regular flour in many recipes because it’s higher in fiber and it’s whole grain)
- Trader Joe’s Almond Butter Granola (because delicious)
- Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate-Covered Almonds (I’ll eat three or four a day as a little treat)
- Salad Kits: Pepita & Apricot Slaw with tahini-orange dressing and Yellow Curry Chopped Salad with yellow curry-ginger-lime vinaigrette (so easy to accompany grilled proteins)
- Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter (on whole-wheat English muffin with cream cheese)
- Trader Joe’s Pub Cheese (horseradish flavor is the way to go — reminiscent of the Win Schuler’s Bar-Scheez that I grew up with in Michigan — and perfect for dipping celery or pretzel sticks)
- All the nuts. ALL OF THEM. And the nut butters! The pricing is still crazy reasonable.
I could go on … but I’m not alone in my obsession. I asked a number of chefs and restaurateurs what was on their must-buy list at Trader Joe’s, be it guilty pleasure, family essential, party must, or otherwise. Here’s what they had to say.
Chef/Author/Chicago Tribune Columnist; Chicago
“Last week I bought the ready-made fresh pizza dough and the IQF [individual quick-frozen] corn kernels for when I make fritters and to add to cornbread. The former was because I’m tired of weighing/measuring flour and waiting for yeast to wake up! The latter because it’s a guarantee that it will be sweet, no cutting off the cob, and available year round.”
Chef-Owner, Prairie Grass Café; Northbrook, Illinois
“I love that they offer a good selection of sheep- and goat-milk products. That is something that can be hard to find. It recognizes that people might have dairy restrictions. And the cheeses are really delicious. I also buy the organic dried apricots, and they have a good selection of nuts that have been carefully sourced. I think they are great in salads.”
Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski
Josh: “Dehydrated fruit! Mandarins and lemons! We use them in salads and just to snack on, or as garnishes.”
Christine: “What Josh said. I also happen to think their frozen margherita pizza is on point.”
Chef/Owner, Boltwood; Evanston, Illinois
“Without question, chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels.”
Partner/Baker, Zingerman’s Bakehouse; Ann Arbor, Michigan
“I have a cut-flower fetish and love stalking Trader Joe’s for inexpensive but beautiful flowers. When I’m there I often can’t resist some sort of snack food — usually something coated in chocolate, like the dark chocolate peanut butter cups.”
“If I’m having a houseful of weekend guests, I will get their snacks … like peanut butter pretzels and the cashews with chili and lime.”
Chef/Owner, In the Kitchen Cooking School; Haddonfield, New Jersey
“Just found a new fave! Trader Ming’s Kung Pao Tempura Cauliflower. Also love the black bean flautas, and stock up when they have them (which is not always) — I love them for breakfast. Cashews and almonds, ‘natch. Love the macadamia-cashew-almond “beverage.” Frozen mango chunks are amazing for a mango-habañero mojo that I’ve been making for 20-some years, and for smoothies, lassis, or a refreshing snack. I like to eat a frozen chunk or two. Organic cherries, and the organic teeny peanut butter sandwich crackers. Chocolate-covered graham crackers, best cold from the fridge.”
“I love TJ’s and have been shopping there for a decade. I love that none of their products have artificial ingredients or preservatives. I truly trust what they sell. The people who work there are genuinely nice. My family’s current favorites are the parmesan breadsticks, corn tortillas, and the faux breakfast sausage. But my absolute fave product is the Almond Butter Turmeric Salad Dressing. I mean seriously, when I am not combining it with carrots and hummus … shhhh … I drink it!”
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Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.