Grocery Shopping In [Houston, Texas]

My name is NotDoobieWah, and I am a groceryholic. Grocery shopping, as an adjunct to cooking, has become an oft practiced hobby providing hours of entertainment perusing the aisles at any number of local, regional and national shops, stores and outlets.

If you really love to cook then you probably like to seek the produce of the season, find new sources for quality cuts of meat, try new spices, bottled sauces and pastes. I’ve always liked to cook, but my fondness for grocery shopping came much later. Like most of us I was content to visit the same store week after week and procuring pretty much the same goods at each visit. My choice of grocer changed from time to time based on convenience more than anything else.

I think the change came when I bought my first inexpensive wok and went looking for ingredients to match. This was before the internet and my recipes came from books. I needed to find Asian ingredients like ginger, bok choy, bean sprouts and other ingredients not found commonly at the major grocers. This led me to explore a large Asian market near my mother’s house and I was utterly entranced. Aisles and aisles of fascinating new ingredients.

These days, I may have four different olive oils, three different lettuces, and ten or twelve different pastas; (I just went and counted – I have seventeen different kinds of dried pasta). We now have so many choices for groceries that it can be bewildering. But it’s also awesome! Houston has been dubbed the most diverse big city in the country, and our immigrants are pretty much able to obtain many, if not all, of the tastes of home. And I feel extremely fortunate to be able to tag along and I take full advantage of the opportunities.

It’s the exact opposite of the sentiments inherent in the “eating local” movement but I’ll own it. My pantry is full of packages that crossed an ocean to get to me. I think it’s a great thing and a wonder of the times we live in. The ugly truth is that I will typically hit four to five different stores a week as I have favorite products at each and it’s worth the time for me.

So let’s look at Houston’s major grocers, and maybe a few of the more modest ones. Feel free to add your own or dispute my opinions.

These are provided roughly in the order in which I encountered them, starting in 1967.

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Randall’s

Growing up in Houston in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s my mom shopped at a Randall’s grocery, (http://www.randalls.com/ShopStores/Home.page), at I-45 North and Tidwell at Northtown Plaza. Randall’s was a quality grocer in a fairly barren grocery landscape. Even then, I remember the produce and meat selections were far superior to the options. When I set up my first household in Houston, Randall’s was close by and became my standard go to. If Randall’s didn’t have it, I probably didn’t need it.

In 1999, Randall’s was acquired by Safeway and the quality suffered. In 2015, Safeway sold the chain to Alberston’s, but I haven’t noticed much improvement. Many stores closed and while there are still several of them around, it is not rare to find more employees than shoppers strolling the aisles. Honestly, every time I (rarely) enter one, I wonder how they’ve managed to remain open. Let me reiterate, they used to be great stores. The best in town.

But it’s been a while. The nadir for me came about ten or twelve years ago at the Dairy Ashford/Memorial store. I spotted an island display of navel oranges about six or seven high. I’m guessing there were maybe two hundred, two hundred fifty oranges. About one in every six or seven had gray green fuzzy mold covering anywhere from ten to thirty percent of the surface. WTH?

I grabbed a produce guy and drug him over and showed him what I had discovered. You should have seen the look on his face. Sheer, utter…

Apathy.

He couldn’t possibly have cared less. I don’t know what I expected because you couldn’t really miss them. It’s not like he didn’t already know he was displaying a huge stack of “fuzzy navels”. (Sorry – couldn’t resist.)

I went and found a manager and drug him over to see them, and he seemed genuinely shocked and perturbed, but again – “He had to know, right?”.

While I had already abandoned Randall’s as my primary grocer, that was pretty much the end of any respect I once harbored for them. I‘m in the area of that same Randall’s pretty much weekly, but I only stop in once or twice a year. I even usually buy something and have never again seen anything as nasty as those oranges, but I have so many other choices that I enjoy so much more, why bother?

One thing they do very well is their in-store fried chicken. It’s a holdover from before the sale of the chain and when fresh, it’s excellent.

What makes it Special: Fried Chicken. Not much else.

What makes it Avoidable: Higher prices, poor meat and produce departments.

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Fiesta

Fiesta ( https://www.fiestamart.com/ ) was the first “ethnic” grocery I fell in love with. The first one I visited is still there at 6200 Bellaire at Hillcroft, (it actually faces Hillcroft). I would have sworn it was the very first Fiesta store, but it is listed as Store#7. It was kind of hard to get to from where I was coming, but I used to hit it a couple of times a year back in the late ‘80s to mid ‘90s, to load up on things hard to find elsewhere. Things like dried ancho and chipotle peppers, cumin seeds, habanero peppers, etc. And of course, all things “Goya”.

Obviously, all of those are much easier to find these days as are much more conveniently located Fiestas. When they opened the I-10 at Blalock store I was able to visit more often and by then, Fiesta was catering to a much larger clientele base and I was especially fond of their east and south Asian ingredients. A typical visit would reward me with numerous pastes, spices and even hard to find fresh vegetables.

Frankly, I took it hard when that store closed as the result of it losing a big chunk of its parking lot for the freeway expansion. That store eventually became the first Houston area 99 Ranch Market – more on it later.

Now I have a moderately sized Fiesta just a couple of miles from me and it is in my typical weekly rotation. My usual pickups include fruits and vegetables, tortillas, bolillos, Goya products, beans, popcorn, etc. I don’t buy very much meat at Fiesta but only because I have other places I prefer for meat. They do have a good fish market. I have seen skinned and dressed iguana both fresh and in the freezer case. Iguana. Big Lizard. Yeah.

Iguana.

No, I didn’t try it. As I have explained elsewhere, I’m way too frugal to pay $19.99/lb for something that “tastes like chicken”.

There are over sixty stores in the chain, mostly in Houston, Austin and the Metroplex. Like Randall’s, Fiesta has been sold a couple of times, most recently just earlier this year, changing hands from an investment firm to a California based grocery chain. Hopefully it will only get better with more products from more regions.

Aside from a mediocre meat and deli department, Fiesta is really bad about the marked prices not matching the cash register prices. About every four or five trips, I’ll have an item ring up for more, and often considerably more, than the price marked. I understand that “errors” happen, but they never seem to ring up for less than the marked prices!

What makes it Special: Excellent produce and seafood departments. Excellent international selections, especially from Latin America.

What makes it Avoidable: Mediocre meat department. Must check your receipts carefully.

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Kroger

Back when Randall’s failed me I started going to Kroger, ( https://www.kroger.com/ ). Kroger is of course a large national chain with almost 2800 stores.

According to Wikipedia.com, Kroger is the country’s largest grocer, second largest retailer, (behind Walmart), and third largest private employer. Wiki also tells me that Kroger first entered the Houston market as one of the chain’s earliest expansions back in 1955 with the acquisition of a local chain called Henke & Pillot which I had never heard of. Kroger retired the Henke name in 1966, just “six years short of its 100th anniversary”, (and a year before I hit town at the tender age of seven).

Truthfully, I really don’t visit Kroger much more often than I hit Randall’s. Usually when I go, it’s with someone else and at their behest. However, when I do go I usually find something to buy. Most recently, I picked up some excellent store baked bread. Their meat department is usually pretty good as well and I have found their butchers to be particularly helpful.

Overall, I find Kroger to be a little more expensive on most things than some of my other options, but without those other options, Kroger would be an acceptable… uhmmm …. “option”.

What makes it Special: Good meat department. Well stocked aisles.

What makes it Avoidable: Higher prices than at comparable quality competitors.

Hong Kong Market

I found Hong Kong Market, ( http://hkcitymall.com/store.html ) about twenty-five years ago when they were located on Gessner at Harwin. I had just recently become a single dad and was really starting to seriously teach myself to cook. I loved the aisles and aisles of mysterious ingredients wrapped in paper, and tins and glass. Sauces and pastes and powders, fragrant and enticing.

And the vegetables! A half dozen different kinds of cabbage. Fifteen or twenty kinds of fresh mushrooms. It was a home cook’s wonderland and that store alone probably had more to do with my love of grocery shopping than any other single thing. It was there I discovered Szechuan Peppercorns, Maesri Thai Curry Pastes, Shrimp Chips, Enoki Mushrooms, fresh Lemongrass and so many other mysterious and incredible ingredients. I was also awed by the shelves and shelves of soy sauces that weren’t named Kikkoman or La Choy and an equal number of exotic vinegars.

I was further awed when they built their new big store at what had been a failed and mostly vacant mini-mall out on Bellaire. At that time, Houston’s “Chinatown” was just east of downtown. But when Hong Kong Market moved in to anchor that mall, and the other smaller shops quickly filled it up, the current Chinatown was born. If you’ve never been down that strip of Bellaire, you’re missing a big part of the beauty of Houston. It’s not really “scenic” per se , but it just has to be seen. So many shops and restaurants in strip center after strip center. Uniquely Houston to be sure.

If you haven’t been out there just go walk the mini-mall where Hong Kong Market lives. There are all sorts of cool little shops to wander around in. If possible, head over there around 11:30 on a Saturday morning and start at Ocean Palace for dim sum. It’s upstairs on the Bellaire end of the center. Then walk into the mall and walk around to Hong Kong Market.

This is a “wet market” with a couple of dozen tanks with live fish in the very back. The produce section alone is as big as some smaller grocery stores. You can get a bbq duck on the right-hand wall. Freshly baked bread back there as well. It has whole aisles of sauces and vinegars, pastes and powders, spices and… more spices. It’s a magical palace for anyone who loves to cook.

Grab a cart or at least a hand basket on your way in the door. You’re gonna need it.

What makes it Special: Just about everything.

What makes it Avoidable: I have no idea.

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HEB/Central Market

It was a great day in 2001 when HEB, ( https://www.heb.com/ ), came to Houston.

HEB is rapidly dominating the grocery market in the state’s largest cities. The chain started in Kerrville in 1905 and has grown to 350 stores operating in 5 related brands: HEB, Central Market, Mi Tienda, Joe V’s, and HEB Plus.

I love HEB and it’s my go-to all-around, major grocery shopping destination. I go at least once a week, every week.

One caveat however, HEB varies from store to store more than any grocery I’ve seen. When I talk glowingly of my ardor for HEB, I am referring to the big “HEB Flagship” stores. They have great meat, vegetables and fruits, and large selections for just about everything down the aisles. Just awesome stores.

But some of the smaller, older HEBs can be kind of dreary; (I’m looking at you Memorial at Dairy Ashford, which has just been reported as scheduled for closure). They are still typically better than their competitors, but only marginally.

And Central Market, ( https://centralmarket.com/ ), is a whole ‘nuther deal. It’s a gourmand’s wonderland. Imagine your favorite gourmet cheese shop, butcher, baker, green grocer, coffee seller, wine shop, fishmonger, etc., etc., etc., all under one roof. It’s almost that incredible.

What makes it Special: Great meat, veggies, seafood, choices for everything else.

What makes it Avoidable: If you just need one or two things, it can be a bit of a chore. The big superstores are seemingly ALWAYS packed.

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Phoenicia

Phoenicia Specialty Foods, ( http://www.phoeniciafoods.com/ ), is a huge store specializing in an amazing array of foods from the Middle East and Mediterranean area including Eastern Europe. It’s located out west on Westheimer between Kirkwood and Dairy Ashford. I was introduced to Phoenicia via the old houston.eats newsgroup about twenty-five years ago. At that time it was across Westheimer from its current digs and was much much smaller with shelves packed from the floor to the ceiling. It was kind of a secret hideout that only a few of us had the password for. It was fun. I like it even better now, tho’.

This is another store full of wonderful things you’ve never seen before. Unless of course, you’ve been there before. It has an entire aisle of the most incredible spices and another with just olive oils. (My favorite olive oil is Spitiko, a fresh, green Greek oil.)

It has a deli area with eight or so different kinds of feta on sale. And an entire section of cheeses from Parm to Paneer. And most everything in betwixt. Do you need goat butter? They have it. Do you need a goat? They have that too. They also have a separate cooked-to-order counter area for kabobs and whatnot.

They make their own pita bread in a variety of styles and sizes in the upstairs bakery, and it’s delivered to the store shelves via an elaborate erector set of a conveyor belt to be bagged. Ask them for a fresh bag, and they’ll hand you one still warm from the conveyor. It’s great fresh and the next day you can freeze any that’s left for a great quickie pizza crust.

They also have a great selection of Zergut products from Bulgaria. I just love this stuff. Some of my favorites are the Roasted Red Pepper Strips, Ajvar, Pickled Peppers, Olives, and more. I can’t find a specific website for Zergut, but here’s a gallery of some of their products. If Phoenicia doesn’t carry all of them, I’m sure they can get them.

( https://www.bing.com/images/search?q=zergut+products&FORM=HDRSC2 )

My latest trip to Phoenicia reminded me of the old store as they’ve begun putting up metal shelving in between many of the aisles and piling them high with even more new stuff you’ve never seen before. I just love that place.

Around the corner from the grocery is Arpi’s Deli named for the matriarch of the Phoenicia Empire. It’s a cafeteria style eatery with lamb, beef and chicken shawarma, salads and mezze, a number of rotating hot entrees and great house-made desserts, (like four different kinds of baklava). Also a gelato bar and coffee bar. (Try the Turkish coffee – it’ll stick to your ribs!)

There’s also a Phoenicia market downtown that advertises a wider “night life” but I’ve never been there.

What makes it Special: Spices, freshly baked breads, Zergut products, deli, selection of olive oils, reliable source of goat and lamb, cheeses, condiments.

What makes it Avoidable: Don’t even think about going on a Saturday. It’s packed.

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I once downed a bottle of wine there while the Wifeacita very slowly navigated each and every aisle over several hours. Yes you can drink beer and wine there.

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This happened to me once at a Kroger when I pointed out a pack of tortillas to a manager that was turning blue. Several days later it was still there.

That small HEB’s been cosed for weeks and being used as some sort of stocking/shipping space for HEB. The powers at HEB are aware that the area is interested in a large store but so far it’s still Bunker Hill, which as you know is a mad house much of the time.

I agree about grocery shopping as a fond activity. When I find myself alone for a few hours with no agenda, I will spend a couple of hours grocery shopping in peace, looking for new and different. I thought I was alone in that! Haha.

I like to go to Trader Joe’s occasionally to get some of their produce, olive oil, butter or croissants. It’s the best place to find shishito’s and avocados, the produce is remarkably inexpensive. For the most part though it’s frozen or processed food, which is not up my alley.

Good write up!

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Canino’s

When my mom calls me at 9am on a Saturday morning and says, “Hey, you wanna run out to the farmer’s market with me?”, she’s not asking me if I want to accompany her to one of the fru-fru urban markets that have started popping up everywhere with little stands specializing in gluten-free doggy treats and $5 “organic lettuce”, (yeah right, bub). No, she’s asking me to drive her out to Canino’s on Airline. It’s a pilgrimage we make five or six times a year and we make it an adventure by taking advantage of being out of our own neighborhood and visiting any number of other venues “out that way”. We used to visit AAA Café right next door, but it’s gone, (there’s a tamale place there now I think, but I haven’t been). We do however sometimes make it out to Alamo Tamales on Berry, and/or BBQ Inn for CFS or fried chicken, and/or Flying Saucer Pies for a couple of slices of cheesecake to go, and believe me, I could go on.

And on.

But Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to talk about Canino’s, so let’s. We’ve been going out to Canino’s for as long as I can remember. We especially love going during the hot summer months when we can reliably expect to find fresh legumes like blackeyed peas, lady cream peas, field peas and pinto beans. They also excel at seasonal fruits and their annual pecan-o-rama with several crackers going nonstop - (such a racket!). To be perfectly honest, I’m not too fond of their green vegetables which seem to especially suffer from the lack of air conditioning.

But my very favorite part of the visit is the excursion “Out Back”. As you walk straight through the main building and out the back door, you find yourself walking down a very crowded aisle with tables on both sides covered in a wide array of vegetables, fruits, flowers, dried peppers and beans and all manner of assorted delectables. I’ve seen it reported that these tables offer nothing more than the veggies going bad from the wholesalers but I don’t believe it. You’ll find all kinds of great stuff not seen anywhere else like the dried bean guy with a dozen varieties of common and not so common choices, and the cut fruit vendors and the radishes and strawberries and mangoes and coconut drinks and lots more. It’s definitely got a Latin American flavor, (and it tastes fantastic). Seriously, it’s my favorite part of our visit to the “farmer’s market”.

By the by, Canino’s has recently been bought out and is being reimagined as a tourist destination. There are plans to refurbish and expand the existing space and bring in some additional vendors like a coffee shop, etc. ( http://houston.culturemap.com/news/restaurants-bars/02-21-18-houston-farmers-market-mlb-capital-partners-rendering-animation-video/ )

I can’t help but think they’re going to ruin it. I sincerely hope to be wrong.

What makes it Special: It’s just plain fun. Unique stuff.

What makes it Avoidable: It’s hot, (sometimes it’s cold!), it’s crowded, parking sucks and it’s not really all that cheap.

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Houston Dairy Maids

No trip to Canino’s is complete without a quick jaunt up the street to see Lindsey and the Cheese Ladies ( http://www.houstondairymaids.com/ ). Many years ago, I was perusing an online menu from some hoity-toity restaurant or other and I noticed an appetizer platter of cheeses “Curated by Houston Dairymaids”. Huh?

A quick online search led me to their website showing their location just a block down Airline from Canino’s and across the side street from Tampico restaurant. I loved it right from the first time I visited. They specialize in small Texas dairies but in the last few years have begun carrying more imported cheeses. And by “imported”, I mean from outside of Texas. Almost everything is domestic though. And by “domestic”, I mean from the U.S.

They have this ritual of offering daily cheese tastings. They will usually have six or seven different cheeses from various dairies and of different styles. There will be a “bleu”, a semi-firm, etc.

These are their featured cheeses and always represent a variety of styles.

They have a few other items as well like Slo Dough Breads, Texas wines, and the like, but cheese is their bread and butter.

So to speak.

My one complaint is that I always feel limited to buying one of their six or seven featured cheeses from the tasting or a few of their small wrapped chunks from the fridge case, (my favorite secret stash!), despite the fact that their website specifically points out that they have over 150 cheeses available. I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to see an old world style glass cheese case with all of those displayed with little flags sticking out of them with their trade names and origins. I don’t think their cool old building is big enough for that, but I hope they figure out a way to swing it.

You know… As a favor to “Me”!

If you haven’t been there yet, I hope you figure out a way to swing it.

You know… As a favor to “Me”!

What makes it Special: It’s a unique and worthy destination for any cheese lover. Make that “EVERY” cheese lover. Really nice people also.

What makes it Avoidable: Pace yourself. It’s pretty easy to get giddy and drop some serious coin on some incredible cheeses. Don’t overdo – just plan on coming back often.

99 Ranch Market

As noted above, 99 Ranch Market, ( https://www.99ranch.com/stores/houston-texas ), opened their first area store in the space that Fiesta vacated at I-10 and Blalock. These days it is my go-to Asian market as it is much more convenient that Hong Kong Market and is equally fascinating. To be honest, I only visit three or four times a year to stock up on pantry staples like coconut milk, 5 spice powder, Datu Puti vinegar, Maesri curry paste, rice paper spring roll wrappers, and the like. Nevertheless, it has become one of my favorite stores and is utterly indispensable. A few years ago I could reliably pop in to pick up a whole beef tenderloin that I would go home and break down into its constituent parts, (roast, chain and several petite filet mignons). I want to say I was paying no more than $4/lb and felt like a king.

My last visit netted me the pantry staples noted above as well as a pound of bok choy, a pound of snow peas, a package of enoki mushrooms, some fresh red Thai chiles, and probably a few other things. One interesting thing they have are various meats sliced thin for hot pot preparations, (shabu shabu), but I haven’t ventured into those realms yet. Maybe sometime soon.

Anyone who likes to cook will have a ball in there. Frozen fish balls that is.

Have fun.

What makes it Special: Fresh vegetables, seafoods, Asian pantry staples and a great associated bakery. If you go in hungry, there’s a great food court including LA Crawfish.

What makes it Avoidable: It’s packed on weekends. (But it’s worth it!)

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Hebert’s Specialty Meats

I found Hebert’s ( http://hebertsspecialtymeats.com/ ) when my little sister wanted a “turducken” for Thanksgiving and a little research located the Mecca of Turduckens just a couple of miles from home. On the very off chance that you don’t already know, a “turducken” is a whole boned chicken, stuffed inside a whole boned duck, stuffed inside a whole boned turkey. And even the chicken is stuffed with stuffing.

It’s a thing.

Anyway, Hebert’s is a great spot for Cajun specialties like Andouille Sausage, Boudin, Deboned Chickens stuffed with any number of weird stuffings, (alligator for instance), Etouffe, etc.

It’s a great spot to pick up a wide variety of party eats and unusual main courses.

There are three locations, one on Dairy Ashford across from the Straford High School stadium, one on Richmond just inside the Loop and one up north across the freeway from the Woodlands.

It’s fun food. Enjoy.

What makes it Special: Unique and very tasty Cajun inspired delicacies.

What makes it Avoidable: It takes some practice to cook the frozen items just right.

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Crawfish etoufee? Have you had it?

I saw the etoufee on the website and the stuffed chickens look good for the two of us for the holidays.

Have you had either?

I’ve not had the etouffee, but we’ve had many many of the deboned stuffed chickens. They’re good.
My sister liked the Broccoli Cheese Rice stuffing but I seem to recall the Crawfish Jalapeno with some fondness.

I used to buy Andouille Sausage and Tasso there but I can get those at HEB more conveniently these days.

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Wow. How the empire is growing.

Before the 9/11 miscreants ruined it for us law-abiding types, we went to Hebert’s mother ship in Maurice on the way to catching our flights home from New Orleans. Bought frozen turduckens, then hit a Walmart and then gas station for styrofoam coolers, plastic bags to contain the delicacy and ice, and ice, managed to get them on respective flights, and later have ourselves Thanksgivings to remember.

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WTH?? I thought Canino’s was long gone!! It’s still operating?

They took out AAA so Canino’s can do a remake into a tourist/hipster trap.

https://www.khou.com/article/news/local/caninos-farmers-market-set-to-get-major-makeover/285-458347061

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