Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A LONG-WINDED, OVERLY OPINIONATED PIECE ABOUT GROCERY MARKETS IN ATLANTA

Aside from being a great city for getting laid if you are a gay black man and a town with its fair share of potholes, independent coffeehouses and middle-aged women who smoke, Atlanta is, for whatever reason, an exceptionally fantastic city for buying food. Markets tend to be enormous, prices are reasonable and you can easily find fresh Vietnamese noodles or Manischewitz Egg & Onion matzos, if that's what you are looking for.


The best market I've ever been to and no secret to Atlantans who flock there is Your Dekalb Farmers Market (3000 E Ponce De Leon Ave, 404-377-6400) in Decatur, a massive, Costco-sized international market, which can get uncomfortably crowded on weekends. Besides a fine selection of imported cheeses, fancy crackers, Indian microwavable meals and wacky bananas, this bloated warehouse of yummy stuff produces much of the high-quality food it sells. The bakery is particularly scrumptious: red velvet cake, authentic New York rye bread, pecan-filled cookies, every type of croissant one could hanker for, hearty German breads and sugary muffins up the wazoo. There's also any type of spice you can imagine and not the weak, overpriced, not at all fragrant variety that you find at Kroger, but very reasonably priced plastic canisters of I imagine mostly imported spices of every sort. The produce section, which dominates Your Dekalb Farmers Market, is impressive in that there are three or four rows of assorted apples alone. Don't miss the salsa bar next to the deli and the crowded cafeteria with all sorts of international dishes that don't really go together. Remember to remove the baked potato from your plate before weighing it! It has its own separate price.



Your Dekalb Farmers Market (the signs say no picture taking, but I was not deterred)


Your Dekalb Farmers Market is also an odd place. You might not notice it the first time you go there, but go there every other week and you will start to be very aware of it. They do not accept credit cards. There are signs (rules) around the store that make you think the place may be owned by someone's paranoid grandpa. The weirdest of these rules is that when you buy bottles of water, the checkout person will give you a piece of tape to stick across the waters to prove that you have paid for them and are not trying to skip out with free water. Also, when checking out, don't put bags back in your cart until you've unloaded everything, unless the checkout person runs out of space and says it's OK to do that. It's not that it's oppressive at all, just weird. The majority or perhaps all of the employees are foreign and they all have name tags that state their first language, which is almost always a language I have never heard of. I believe most of them are from Africa or the Indian subcontinent. If you can't find something in the store, you're usually best off looking for it on your own as exemplified by the time I asked a couple of employees where I could find tortillas. I actually knew where the tortillas were. I wanted to ask if they had fresh rather than frozen tortillas hidden somewhere. "Tortugas?" "Tontullas?" Do you mean tomatoes?" they asked me confused. "No, tortillas" I repeated. They brought me over to another guy. "Is it a vegetable?" he asked. "Torullas?" He in turn brought me to another fellow. We were all laughing at this point. I described tortillas to the fourth employee as "like Mexican bread," after he asked me if it was a fruit. "Aaaaah," he said and pointed me toward the bakery, where there are no tortillas. This is what I imagine it would be like to ask for tortillas in Botswana.


(Update: The other day I was at Your Dekalb Farmers Market and someone approached an employee and asked "Where is the broccoli?" His response in an African accent "Boobley?")


Durians at Buford Highway Farmer’s Market

Another exceptional market in the Atlanta area with a completely different stock of international foods is the Buford Highway Farmer’s Market (5600 Buford Highway) in Doraville. Reflecting the neighborhood, the emphasis in this market is Asian and Mexican. There's also an incredible Eastern European section, which is like nothing I have ever seen in any market in this country. Many of the packages are in Cyrillic script with no explanation of what's inside. One refrigerator has a selection of caviar, while another one is filled with Latvian cheesecake kid snacks in many, not very tempting varieties (the one I bought was not edible). Nearby, there is expensive Eastern European goat cheese, all sorts of high quality chocolate with hazelnuts and the like and red pepper spreads. This market may have the wildest produce section I have seen anywhere, just all the odd Asian greens alone. Next to the produce is a panaderia that makes its own tortillas. They have an incredible selection of Mexican cheese and in the front of the market there's a taqueria that also serves boba drinks (though far from the best I've had). The most impressive part of the market is the Asian section, with aisles devoted to Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Indian, Vietnamese and Korean food. Next to this, there's a large Korean deli that makes sushi, kimchi and those little fish things with eyes. On the weekend, there are a lot of samples to be had and not the usual ones (Mexican cheese, Chinese dumplings, Asian juice, crispy wafer thingies). With wood floors and piped-in classical music, this is really not your average Asian or Mexican market.


Taqueria/Boba Stand/Oven Fresh Cakes


refrigerated cheesecake treats from Latvia


A ways down Buford Highway, there is the not so different and similarly named Atlanta’s Farmer’s Market (4166 Buford Hwy NE). While a fine market in its own right (also emphasizing Asian and Mexican products), it really doesn't compare to the humongous and more varied Buford Highway Farmer’s Market. They do have an exceptional selection of bottled and canned drinks from all over the world. There is also a boba counter and a deli where you can pick up fresh Vietnamese dishes. This place has the seafood smell common to Asian markets (doesn't bother me), as does the 99 Ranch Market (5150 Buford Hwy NE # B120), part of a large national chain, down the street. The 99 Ranch Market in San Gabriel, California, is my favorite market in the L.A. area. This much smaller one is fine, but the main reason to wander in there is that it's part of one of the better Asian mini malls in the area, which has all sorts of great places to eat. I recommend the Little Malaysia restaurant (5150 Buford Hwy NE #A110, 770-455-3211).


Along with being the best place to dine in the Atlanta area, Buford Highway has many other ethnic markets worth checking out, many of which I have not explored. There are at least a couple of good Vietnamese markets including Viet Tofu (4897 Buford Hwy), which is more of a deli and has all sorts of yummy, cheaply-priced, pre-made dishes and a báhn mì counter, as well as several fine Mexican markets.


One thing that irks me about all of the farmer's markets, as well as the big chains in Atlanta, is that they only offer non-biodegradable plastic bags. Being a Jew from the Westside, I am used to hearing "paper or plastic," though I know that must be infinitely annoying for grocery baggers to say. Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and most health food stores do offer paper bags for tree-hugging Jews like myself.


Before moving to Atlanta, when my wife and I lived out in the sticks (Acworth, Georgia) for eight months, my favorite market was Harry's Farmers Market (70 Powers Ferry Rd SE) in Marietta. There's also one that I haven't been to out in Alpharetta. Several years before I started going there, it was acquired by Whole Foods Market. I believe it was originally owned by the brother of the guy who owns Your Dekalb Farmers Market. This place is airplane-hangar-sized and laid out somewhat like an Ikea. It's a long walk from the produce section to the deli. Like all Whole Foods Markets, the emphasis is high-quality, natural (whatever that means) products. In particular, Harry's has an excellent European section, a fine bakery and a massive frozen foods section with an expansive variety of frozen vegetarian and vegan selections. (I'm a vegetarian, so you won't find many comments in this article about the meat or fish departments). Though, until recently, the main draw, for me at least, was the gigantic selection of free samples available every day (different varieties of hummus, all sorts of salsa, fruit, exotic cheeses, pieces of freshly baked bread). I'll admit that once I went through the whole store sampling and didn't buy anything. I also witnessed others, kids and the like, doing the same. More often, though, I came to sample, but purchased this and that or ended up with a full grocery cart. Anyhow, last time I went there, the samples had almost completely disappeared. At the same time, they had raised their prices, which were pretty expensive to begin with, and surprise, there were not many people there. Good recession move, Whole Foods!


Harry's Farmers Market (Here, the guy said "no pictures." I guess they didn't want me to steal their secret orange recipe.)


Aside from several Whole Foods Markets, with the one in the mall on Ponce de Leon being the most popular one (excellent pizza), Atlanta also has several independent health food stores. By far the funkiest one in town is Sevananda (467 Moreland Avenue NE), where it seems that every other employee or customer has dreadlocks. Sevananda, which is a co-op, is cheaper than Whole Foods and holds many similar brands. They have a lot of good pre-made lunch stuff and the usual giant vitamins and natural health products section ubiquitous in all independent health food stores. This or the Whole Foods on Ponce are probably the best health food stores in Atlanta.


Being an Angeleno, my nipples hardened when Trader Joe's arrived in Atlanta a few years ago. It is swell to have a Trader Joe's down the street I live on, but I must admit I go there not so often anymore. The store in Midtown plays some decent new wave mixes and employees often sing along. They are really into trying to make the store fun. Though, I don't know why a Trader Joe's in the South carries several types of unsweetened, bottled tea, but no sweet tea, when they once sold excellent sweet tea that came in a milk-shaped carton. Surely, that's a minor quibble. When I'm in L.A. I go to Trader Joe's all the time. Here, though, there really are a lot of great markets with more reasonably-priced and much better cheese, higher quality bread and larger vegetarian meat sections. Really, though, Trader Joe's is still an awesome chain. I don't mean to dis.


Here's a very clever video someone made about Trader Joe's:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdB7GDZY3Pk


The most common market chains in Atlanta (which I do mean to dis) are Kroger (owned by the same company that owns Ralphs in L.A.) and Publix, both of which feature an uninspired selection of overpriced, generic food. Publix is maybe slightly more expensive, while Kroger sells more crap that's just overpriced. Their otherwise excellent health food section is mitigated by the way everything is marked up nonsensically. Whole Foods may be more expensive than both Kroger and Publix (though if so, not by much), but Whole Foods doesn't sell stinky frozen dinners or factory-made bread for $4. One positive about Kroger is that several stores are open 24 hours. Recently, though, during the late hours, when they used to have one checkstand open, they closed it in favor of having all customers ring up their own foods. Maybe I'm old school, but I always feel like they should be paying me to find the bar codes on each thing I buy.


Much worse than Kroger is Ingles Market, which is found in the suburbs of Atlanta. This is the place to find iceberg lettuce, mayonnaise, rotting cottage cheese, bread that tastes like plastic and canned beans. (In a future piece, I will be exploring, via photos, rural, mostly independent or small chain markets in the South such as Food Lion or Food Tiger.)


I really can't imagine that there's anywhere that has a better selection of markets than Atlanta, even with L.A.'s diversity, it doesn't come close.



Oops, did I forget Piggly Wiggly?

1 comment:

EL CHAVO! said...

Great reviews! I also don't understand why markets are so scared of photos. Is it cuz they don't want you to catch some health code violation? Do they not want you to share the great deals of the day with others? I've been told to stop taking pics as well, must be some weird industry issue.