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JP’s Food Adventures: An Opinionated Guide to Food Shopping on the LES

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JP checks out the produce at Fine Fare. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Buying groceries on the LES really brings home the diversity of people and shopping styles here. In conversation, the topic can quickly devolve into a minefield of class signals and negative opinions about specific businesses. This place is “dirty”. That place is for yuppies. (Yes, for some the word “yuppie” failed to fall out of the vernacular 20 years ago).

People define themselves by how they eat, and by extension where they shop. Suggest that the highly processed foods that make up 80% of a supermarket’s offerings might not really be “food” in the traditional sense — and you risk being called an elitist. Question how meaningful the “organic” designation actually is and watch the faithful frown. Mention the price of “humanely” raised meat and watch some jaws hit the floor. After much shopping and talking food with neighbors, I’ve developed my own view of our grocery landscape here on the Lower East Side.

First off, there are people who go out to buy food, and there are people who buy ingredients that they turn into food through an arcane process called cooking. I’m in the latter camp, which probably has a strong effect on my views about the following places to shop in the neighborhood.

Pharmacies. European tourists are shocked to find American pharmacies selling items that actively undermine one’s health, such as beer and tobacco products. It is a little absurd. Over the last decade or so pharmacies have increasingly gotten into the game of selling groceries: high fat, high salt, highly processed stuff in cans and boxes. Ready to go sandwiches, too. Of course the pharmacies cast themselves as making valiant efforts to help eliminate urban food deserts by offering these goods. But the lack of what could be considered fresh food among their offerings leads me to take a more jaundiced view. It seems more like one stop shopping; eat this food then pick up the medicine you’ll need because of it. A variation on Paula Deen’s way of doing things, it seems.

Supermarkets. Some of my car owning neighbors swear by the Pathmark on Cherry Street. It’s a giant suburban style supermarket with a parking lot, very friendly to the “one big shopping excursion a week” mentality. Trader Joe’s on 14th also commands some loyalty among people I know, but it isn’t for me. Yes, they have some great deals, but if I’m just running in for a deal I’d rather not get in a checkout line that snakes to the back of the store. The Fine Fare supermarkets on Clinton and Grand evoke the most comment from my neighbors in the Grand St Co-ops. Some won’t set foot in them; others shop at Fine Fare several times a week. The main criticisms I hear are that they’re not as vigilant as they could be about expired dates and getting the prices right at the checkout counter. Over many years of shopping at the Clinton Street location I’ve only experienced these quibbles a handful of times. Sure, you can do much better for meat, fish and specialty items, but they’re just fine for staples. And their fresh vegetable section is on the ball (except on Sundays, when it doesn’t get re-stocked). I cook with fresh herbs, and they keep a large variety on hand, very reasonably priced. I’d shop there for that alone.

Whole Foods. Their customer base is even more loyal than that of Trader Joe’s, built on the premise that the food they sell is healthier and more ethically correct than the offerings at the average supermarket. As someone who does his best to navigate the murky waters of food ethics I respect that. But the degree to which they put across what Michael Pollan dubbed “supermarket pastoral” is a bit off-putting to me, even though the stuff they sell is all quality. It seems like an awful lot of top down corporate marketing to promote the idea of “local”. There’s another thing that rubs me the wrong way about Whole Foods, a class thing. Their prices effectively keep the riffraff out of the store. It’s a “nice” place, which is a code word for an upper-middle class aspirant “high maintenance” clientele. Which is a bit much for this rock and roller. I shop for groceries, not affirmation. Your mileage may vary.


Essex Street Market. Photo by Cynthia Lamb.

Essex Street Market. I love this place because it’s so reflective of the neighborhood. If you need some bacalao or ten limes for a dollar they’ve got it. Produce options range from utilitarian to exotic, and you can spot chefs from local restaurants stocking up during the day. If you’re feeling posh you can find sublime cheeses and salamis for $30-$40/lb. But price sensitive customers can stretch their dollars here as well. You’ve got three greengrocers, two fishmongers, two butchers, a French bakery, a Greek bakery, a juice bar/sandwich shop, a Japanese deli, a gourmet shop, a taqueria, a coffee shop, a chocolatier and more all under one roof. It’s not quite one stop shopping but it’s a great place to tick off a bunch of items from your list, and maybe splurge for a treat. The vibe might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and some may find the hours inconvenient, but it’s my fave food shopping in the neighborhood.

Fresh Direct. If you’re organized enough to place an order for a week’s worth of food online Fresh Direct will deliver it to you. You’ll pay a small premium for this service, but they have quality stuff. I can vouch for their cheeses, which are very good. I’m too cheap and disorganized for this service, not to mention I like going to the market to see what looks good on any particular day. It wouldn’t work for me. But some good friends of mine are quite happy with them.

Chinatown. In addition to some of the best restaurants in the neighborhood Chinatown has a vast wealth of grocery items available to the home cook. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a greengrocer, fishmonger, butcher, supermarket or specialty store. (Nor should you, by the way).  People who cook Chinese (and other Asian cuisines) at home come from all over the city to shop here. I buy plenty of fish, Asian vegetables and Buddhist chickens (which I’ve come to vastly prefer over supermarket chickens) in Chinatown. Been shopping there for decades, and I’m still learning the lay of the land. More on that in future articles.

JP Bowersock is a professional musician and music producer who has toured the world repeatedly, eating at top restaurants and hole-in-the-wall joints. He is a serious home cook with over two decades’ experience cooking for family, friends and fellow rock and rollers. Mr Bowersock keeps a toe in the wine business as well,  consulting for the wine lists of several neighborhood establishments, including Clandestino, 35 Canal St. When not on tour or in the recording studio he’s scouring the neighborhood for frugal food finds.

This week it’s straight to red Bordeaux. Readers may remember in a previous article I said that 2009 was a great year for Bordeaux, meaning even lesser appellations are likely to be quite good. The same holds true for 2010, as far as the Chateau Haut Laulion Cuvee Jean-Baptiste Bourdeaux 2010 is concerned.  It’s good, and consistent with the 2009 vintage.

It has just enough oak-y tannins and restrained fruit to please traditionalists, yet it’s soft and approachable enough to satisfy those accustomed to big, fruity New World reds. It’s a good vin ordinaire for Bordeaux fans, and a great training wheels Bordeaux for the uninitiated. Best of all it’s not expensive. A magnum (double size bottle) sells for $20 at Seward Park Wine and Liquors.


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  1. Interesting article! Makes me wonder where the local (possibly Essex-esque) markets are in St. Paul. Granted, I don’t have a lot of occasion for cooking at college, but it’s always fun to try out new markets when I get a chance.

  2. Public markets like Essex are a rare thing in America these days. Phila has the Reading Terminal Market. Cincinnati has Findlay Market. Seattle has Pike Place Market. Allentown, Pa has the Allentown Fairgrounds Farmer’s Market. Those are the one’s I’ve been to.

    I don’t know if there’s anything similar in St Paul, but you do have good farmers’ markets there during the growing season. And a good farmers’ market is tough to beat!

  3. Love the article..Ive read most of your columns..Really good..What is a Buddhist chicken,if it’s a real thing??..Not sure if you’re kidding.
    i came across your blog and was wondering if you will continuing with it..I really like it

  4. A few things…I’ve never understood the perception of high prices at Whole Foods – many of the staples are cheaper at Whole Foods than at Fine Fare.  Just check out dairy products to see what I mean.

    I love the Essex St. Market, but as far as the salumeria (Formaggio Essex, I believe) goes, I’m done shopping there.  They never wash their hands (or use gloves) before slicing meat or cutting cheese, which totally skeeves me out…especially when the clerk waiting on you keeps pushing her hair away from her face. Just another little thing that Whole Foods does right.

    Chinatown – most of the fish is either farmed unethically or, in the case of sidewalk fish, harvested illegally. Done with that. I only buy fish at Union Square or somewhere where I can be assured of its provenance. And in taste tests I’ve done, Bobo loses out to any brand of kosher bird.

    Of course, YAMMV, and it’s just my 2¢.

  5. Interesting slam on Fromaggio. I’ve bought alot of stuff there, and never noticed any of the issues you’re on about. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of latex gloves being around my food. I think it’s a wasteful, nanny-state rule, and kinda gross. Washing hands was good enough for grandma, so it’s good enough for me.

    As far as Whole Foods goes, I find the idea of Big Corporate Organic far more skeevy than whether or not people wear what amounts to hand-condoms when touching my food. If I want to feel good about my purchases I’d rather support small businesses I respect than be swept away by branding, marketing and ad copy.

    Sure, if you buy everything organic Whole Foods is cheaper than the supermarket, where organic is still a novelty. I love the idea of organic, but don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be since the 1990 OFPA. And the fact that most of it is wastefully trucked in from California. A little healthier? Probably. More ethical? Doubtful, but possible. More expensive? Usually. That’s what keeps the riffraff away. Worth it? Maybe in some cases, but I have yet to be convinced, given current standards and practices. But the designation sure helps when it comes to feel-good marketing.

    As for Chinatown fish: most fish sold in America is farmed. Not being a huge fan of farmed fish I tend to stick with cod, flounder and squid when shopping there. Those are still wild-caught. As for illegal fish, that’s quite the charge. I’ll admit once in a while I’ve seen some fish that might have been undersize, but I don’t bring a tape measure to market, so I have no way of knowing for sure.

    I agree that knowing the provenance of one’s seafood is a nice luxury, which is why for some things I hit the greenmarkets as well. I like Pura Vida at the Tompkins Square market.

    Finally, on the Bobo vs kosher chicken comparison: salt makes everything taste better. Did you brine your Bobo for the sake of this comparison?

    Thanks for the comments!

  6. Buddhist Poultry is an actual USDA exemption that allows the birds to be sold with the head and feet still on.

    In practice most of the Buddhist chickens sold in Chinatown are local, heritage breed, free-range birds from small farms. I’m fond of them because they taste like the chicken I remember from my childhood. They also don’t have weird gigantic breasts like supermarket chickens do.

  7. Right on the button, JP. I thoroughly enjoy your articles and your recommendations . I ran into you at Seward Wines last week, bought the wines you suggested and completely enjoyed them. You have a follower in me.

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