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Chump Change

Search out the cheap and tasty at Trader Joe's.

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When Whole Foods opened, everyone was excited, but over and over I heard people say, “I really can't wait for Trader Joe's to open up.” Smaller and less varied, this holy grail of the gourmand lures customers with the promise of crazy-low prices.

Trader Joe's also tries to position itself as the cooler, hipper alternative to the hoity-toity earnestness of its competitor down the street. It's similar to the difference between your Prius-driving, historic-house-restoring lawyer friend and your vegan, bicycle-riding barista younger brother. Both have similar convictions but work from an entirely different economic model.

Lots of big, flashy murals wrap the store, punctuated with slabs of pine and plenty of industrial shelving. The bright colors and faux hand-lettered signs might have come from Jimmy Buffett's college dorm room.

It's a store filled with a lot of inexpensive staples and a variety of unusual items. The prices are mostly low, but given that much of the produce is the quick, prepackaged variety and the frozen food often holds far fewer portions than expected, it pays to read labels carefully.

That said, a 2-pound bag of rainbow-colored carrots in light orange, yellow, and bright orange was a real find at $2.99. The sliced Yukon potatoes ($2.99) seem like a real timesaver for frying or making scalloped potatoes, but the package was slightly bubbling when I got home, and ultimately, I just couldn't bring myself to use precooked, store-bought potatoes. I mean, how hard is it to slice a potato?

The apple tart tatin ($6.99) looks lovely in its little round wooden container, but it's dry and began to grow mold after a day or two. I liked the minicranberry and white chocolate scones ($2.99), but like so many scones everywhere, these are really butter cookies, not soft biscuits like they're supposed to be.

The frozen food section shows lots of promise. Things such as mushroom risotto ($3.29) aren't bad, maybe a little starchy, but with a five-minute prep time and lots of melting disks of Gruyere, it's hard to complain about it on a weeknight. The French onion soup ($4.49 for two) takes a long 40 minutes in the oven, but the result is better than what I've had in some restaurants around town, although a lot of the cheese sank to the bottom of the bowl. The frozen garlic fries ($2.69) won raves from my family and have just a handful of simple ingredients instead of a catalog of synthetic fillers and preservatives.

One of the more unusual items is the dark chocolate-covered edamame ($3.29.) On the front it says “7 grams of soy protein,” which is, I guess, a way to make eating something covered in chocolate seem healthful, but the darkly decadent sipping chocolate ($4.49) is a much more pleasurable way to get more fiber (6 grams), protein (11 grams), plus calcium (35 percent of the daily requirement) for about the same amount of calories.

Seriously unusual items like ginger senbei snacks ($2.49), which taste like gingersnap chips, or the freeze-dried mangosteen ($2.99), which tastes faintly of berries and pineapple, or the freeze-dried rambutan ($2.99), which tastes faintly of banana peels, add a lot of (possibly) unnecessary exoticism to the normal shopping trip, but you can make up for it all with a couple of budget-conscious bottles of Two-Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw, $3.29).

Cases of the stuff fly out of the store like the starlings downtown, but frankly, I found it undrinkable unless I'd had three or four glasses of something better. I'm not a wine connoisseur and consider any bottle over $10 an extravagant treat, but it's really worth forking over the extra six or seven bucks for a decent bottle of wine.

Since it's not around the corner from me, I'm not convinced Trader Joe's is actually worth a special trip, but once in a while the search for a few bargains and special items isn't such a bad way to spend an afternoon. S

Trader Joe's
11331 W. Broad St.
360-4098
Daily: 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

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