To say I have a love-hate relationship with Fresh Farms off of Touhy Avenue in Niles might be a little too harsh. I love everything about it. The hate comes because I really can only ever get there on a weekend when it’s pure chaos. However, this is a true one-stop international market with one of the best fresh fish selections I’ve ever seen. So you might want to do a little mediation and park as far on the outskirts of the parking lot before going in, because you’re food mind will be blown.

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms International Market Niles

Park far away, take a deep breath, and grab a cart on your way in.

I decided to feature Niles’ Fresh Farms sooner than later for two reasons. The first reason is because the fish selection is just insane – quality and prices are out of this world. Thick, sushi grade wild ahi tuna steaks for $14.99 a pound? Yes, you read that right. The second was a Facebook challenge. A friend wrote he could never truly appreciate Men At Work until he could try some Vegemite. If anywhere in Chicago would have Vegemite, it had to be Fresh Farms in Niles. Grocery Gal was on the hunt!

While this Fresh Farms is a sister store of the one in Rogers Park, it’s a true international market catering to all different ethnic backgrounds. I seem to be the only person there who’s native language is English – and it’s not limited to one continent or region within the continent. It’s a true Grocery Gal store.

I first learned about Fresh Farms through a random text I received from my dad. My dad is awesome; he’s 71 going on 35, but not big in the world of texting. A picture of fresh fish appeared on my phone. A lot of fresh fish. All for sale. I replied back “Where is that??” but of course there was no response. I had to wait to get the answer in person.

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms International Market Niles

Fresh fish as far as they eye can see. Turn around for more!

Fresh Farms has a great location somewhat off the Edens, which could be why it’s packed all the time. I think the Jewel across the street has felt Fresh Farms’ impact. I’ve made the mistake shopping on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and any Saturday or Sunday, but it’s still worth it. I’ll just grab a sample of wine to help me make it through the masses. If you’re able to make it during the week at all, your sanity will thank you.

You’re welcomed into Fresh Farms with an amazing, but chaotic, produce selection. It’s a true variety o produce, each appealing to the different ethnic palettes shopping there. The quality is outstanding. The prices for Grocery Gal are fair. I can’t do everyday shopping here, because I know where I can get it a little cheaper. But by no means is Fresh Farms overpriced. I usually come here for one thing: seafood. Then I grab whatever else I’m missing, along with a handful of choice finds, while I’m there.

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms Niles

Fire up the grill for calamari and octopus

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms Oysters

My family is crazy for blue point oysters. At 75¢ each, who wouldn’t be?

There’s always a lot of samples to try, but they’re pretty strict on doling it out. There’s usually an older gentleman cooking up some fish with a lemon/garlic coating on it. They give you tips on how to cook the fish, and the quality and prices are unheard of. Afraid of a whole fish? They’ll clean it, remove the head and filet it for you, if you ask. But why waste it? The cheeks have yummy meat you’ll miss out on, but it’s ok to stay away from the fish eyes. I’ve never bought a bad piece of anything here. I get their emails that highlight weekly specials, just tempting me to come in… even on a Saturday.

Grocery Gal Chicago Fresh Farms

Oooh! Mussels on sale this week? Break out the vino and grab some fresh bread!

After making it through the produce and seafood areas, the place seems like a traditional grocery store – except each aisle is like it’s own ethnic specialty store. This is great when you have wasabi powder, jerk seasoning, olive oil and fresh ricotta all on the same grocery list. Normally, that would be 3 Grocery Gal pit stops, but at Fresh Farms I’m finding the same brands (no sacrifices here) all under one roof. Since that saves me time, I’m fine dealing with slightly more expensive produce and the crowds.

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms Niles

Greek cheeses made from goat and sheep milk

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms Niles

Dried dates and figs from the Mediterranean and the Middle East

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms Niles

Ukrainian style pierogis

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms Niles

Canned clams and sardines from Spain

So on this trip I was on the hunt for Vegemite for Brian. I was on my third grocery stop for the day, so I although I was a little tired by this time,  I still zipped through the aisles in searching for Vegemite. No dice. This makes me think it either is unavailable in the Chicago area – or I missed it. But I did find some nice finds I hadn’t noticed before. In the “Croatian Section” which usually just consists of Vegeta, Ajvar and Kras wafers, I saw they also had Cedevita, the Tang-like drink I’d have every morning at my Aunt’s house.

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms Niles

Ready for a Croatian breakfast?

But don’t worry, my Austrian heritage is well represented, too. Milka Chocolates originally come from the Vorarlberg province of Austria, where my mom was from. The company has since been bought by Nestle and then Kraft, but I grew up with those purple cows. Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t like milk chocolate, so I’ve never been a fan of Milka. Doesn’t mean it’s not tasty to everyone else, though!

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms Niles

Milka comes in pallets to Fresh Farms

Some of the other things I buy from Fresh Farms is their olive oil. They have a nice collection of Greek and Tunisian olive oils, also at unbelievable prices. It feel like the Greek brand is somehow owned by the family owning Fresh Farms; they’re always pimping it out. I love the organic one, but each time I go I still try a sample with some fresh bread, even though I already know how good it is.

Try and buy their extra-virgin olive oil

Try and buy their extra-virgin olive oil

They also have a great selection of items you don’t think of, like pot stickers and fillo dough. The fillo doughs are from the different Mediterranean regions, so you can choose which brand you prefer based on country of origin.

Grocery Gal Fresh Farms Niles

So many fillo choices to choose from

Items I haven’t touched on that are also great are their bakery, butcher shop, prepared foods, deli and, well, just about everything. They have a small liquor section to pick up wines, but the beer selection has some opportunity to improve. So while they don’t carry Vegemite (I’m convinced it’s just outta stock…), it’s probably one of the best grocery stores in the entire Chicagoland area. Don’t let the crowds scare you. They’re just all on to a really good thing.

Fresh Farms International Market. 5740 W Touhy Ave, Niles, IL 60714. 847-779-7343. Open 7 days 7am-10pm. www.myfreshfarms.com

 


Part of the allure of Grocery Gal is to give myself a reason to stop in a grocery store I’ve never been to before. On a recent trip home from work, I stopped at the glowing LED-lit Middle Eastern Market on Harlem Avenue at Irving Park Road. It was a Tuesday night and it the store empty. It has been open for five months, and seems to be family owned. One of the sons told me in the next week they plan on adding a hot bar with their own food they cook in-house. I felt I couldn’t do an honest write up without them being fully functioning, so I’ll go back. I felt I needed to still write about a middle eastern grocery store since I can only write about different smoked meats for so long before there will be an uproar. I have a great Middle Eastern recommendation from a friend, but didn’t have time to stop there yet. So I went to an old reliable shop, which I’m happy to hear will be expanding soon.

The Middle Eastern Bakery & Grocery has been a staple in Andersonville for countless years. It’s a nondescript place with an old sign that I often forget about. When I finally do inside I think why has it been so long since i’ve been here last?  Since I was up in Andersonville running errands, I thought it’s as good of a time as any to go, and in the process grab some food to make a nice family Saturday lunch. While their name says bakery, and they bake their own amazing pita breads, the place doesn’t scream bakery. They have lots of packaged dried legumes, beans, snacks, fruit and spices, and all in nice manageable sized containers. I’ll buy spices I use a lot from Kamdar Plaza, but if I just need a little of something, the small containers at Middle Eastern Bakery are a great size.

Grocery Gal finds nicely sized spices at Middle Eastern Bakery & Grocery in Andersonville in Chicago

Bulk spices in nice, manageable sizes.

In the back of the store is bakery area. They sell mini pizzas which are more like heavily-seasoned focacia bread. Some of them are vegan, too.

Grocery Gal finds homemade fresh mini pizzas at Middle East Bakery & Grocery in Andersonville, Chicago

Freshly baked mini pizzas

Grocery Gal visits Middle Eastern Bakery and Grocery Andersonville

Freshly baked savory pies

In the display case are different meat and vegetable pies, I’ve tried the lamb and artichoke cheese one. While they’re good, they’re even better with some of their Baba ghanoush added to it. The refrigerated cases stock a variety of hummus, Baba ghanoush, yogurt dips, marinated beans, vegetables and olives, This is a great place to get a variety of snacks for a party, but at $3 each container they can add up.

Grocery Gal finds homemade spreads & salads at Middle East Bakery & Grocery

Snack goodness!

Grocery Gal finds homemade tzatziki at Middle East Bakery & Grocery

Tzatziki for one or party size

Also in the bottom of the refrigerated case are pickled turnips. I’ve never seen them anywhere else for sale in Chicago. If you’ve had a doner kebab outside of the US, or an amazing sandwich at Taste of Lebanon just across the street, you’ll know what these are, and how they have a delicious tangy crunch.

The pita I grabbed to go with my dips and falafel was still warm in it’s bag. I love how they have a variety of pita sizes and counts. All I needed was 5 medium pitas for $1.59. They also carry a great selection of jellies, exotic flavors like rose petal and hibiscus, that I grew up with as a kid.

Grocery Gal finds fresh coffee beans in East Bakery & Grocery in Andersonville, Chicago

Turkish coffee, anyone?

For Turkish coffee lovers, they carry fresh beans and the proper tools to make it at home. I have a memory of my Croatian grandmother visiting us in the US, reading our fortunes from the grains left inside the cup of Turkish coffee, though I was too young at the time to drink the dark beverage.

Grocery Gal finds Baklava at Middle East Bakery & Grocery in Andersonville

Baklava Upgrade: Pistachio and Chocolate!

Middle Eastern Bakery will be expanding in the near future. If that expansion includes food service, it would be a great, and hopefully affordable, dining option in Andersonville. If you’re hosting a party or don’t feel like cooking a meal at home, stop by Middle Eastern Bakery and stock up on some great homemade foods.

1512 W Foster Ave, Chicago, IL 60640. 773-561-2224. Monday-Saturday 9:30am-8:00pm. Sunday 11am-5pm.


Almost three years ago I moved west of the Kennedy. I had sworn I’d never move west of Western, but Beatrice, a big, blonde and buxom bunaglow, called for me and my husband. Life in Jefferson Park has made my quest as Grocery Gal much easier than in my Uptown days. Montrose Deli is probably my favorite place in the neighborhood.

Grocery Gal Chicago Montrose Deli

Unassuming deli on Montrose Avenue with plenty of well-needed parking

I often drove past Montrose Deli, surprised by their two parking lots and a third overflow lot attached to a school half a block away. I couldn’t see much from their windows, but after about a month of living in the neighborhood I finally stopped in. What threw me for a loop was the lighting – I kinda felt like I was in a friends’ rec room in the late 70’s, getting ready to watch a movie on ON-TV. The store itself is rather small. I walked past the decent selection of Eastern European brands of mineral water, and came across  the oddest looking produce section I’ve ever seen. There was nothing wrong with the produce – it was good quality and a good price,  but the fluorescent lighting they use really made the dill look electric green and the radishes look crazy red! It kinda hurt my eyes, so I just grabbed what I need and then I stopped in my tracks.

Grocery Gal Montrose Deli Produce

Don’t let the lighting scare you. That’s real produce.

While the parking lots had lots of cars in them, the store itself seemed somewhat empty when I first walked in. I turned the corner from the produce area and saw at least 35 people hovering around deli cases, numbered tickets waving in the air to announce they’re next, and about 12 ladies in white lab coats and red visors feverishly pulling smoked sausages along the back wall, slicing smoked tenderloins, weighing smoked ham hocks and veal sausages, and then wrapping them all up in white paper for hungry customers.

Grocery Gal Montrose Deli

Yes, the lighting does really look like this. Get a pair of the chicken sausages on the end – next to the smoked chicken. Heaven for under $3.

They called the numbers out in Polish, but luckily for me, they follow it up with it in English. Almost 3 years later, Montrose Deli is my go-to place anytime I host people at my house. The smoked chicken sausage cost about $3 a pair, and they’re always a hit. There’s a whole world of other polish sausages I have yet to try, but if I can ever make it when it’s not busy, maybe I’ll see if they can recommend how I should cook it.

Grocery Gal Montrose Deli Fresh Sausages

Homemade veal wieners. You can buy six of these for less than a package of who-knows-what-it-really-is hot dogs. Your guests at your next tailgate or barbecue will thank you,

Fans of Grocery Gal, please don’t be discouraged by a busy deli! There is enough staff working the counter that a wait often isn’t too long. The trick is to grab your ticket as soon as you get in the store, and then backtrack getting your celery root, leeks and other fixins to make your dinner. We get a little pierogi happy at our house, and the potato pierogis from Montrose Deli are so good and so cheap (there… I said it!) we don’t waste any time and just cook two packages at a time. Got a sweet tooth? Pick up a Pączki or two. They’re in fresh daily.

Grocery Gal Paczki Polish Donuts from Montrose Deli

They’re not donuts. They’re Pączki and they’re delicious. And fresh. And cheap!

Grocery Gal Montrose Deli Fresh Bread

Don’t let the funky lighting scare you. Great, fresh bread from local Chicagoland bakeries.

Don’t like to cook? Well then Montrose Deli is really for you! Besides having an amazing deli/butcher area with extremely affordable prices (stop buying chicken and pork chops at Jewel), they also have an entire deli case with premade soups, pierogis and salads. Everything from tuna to wheatberry salad, and vacuum packed smoked meats if you’re in a hurry. A pint? quart? not quite sure, but a container of soup perfect for a work lunch costs $2. Over the past year they’ve opened a hot bar to take a home cooked meals to go, that’s on my to-do list!

Montrose Deli Homemade Soup

Pick up a different homemade soup a day for a quick, easy and cheap lunch.

Montrose Deli Hot Bar Food to Go

The hot bar gives many choices for non-vegetarians out there.

Don’t let the fluorescent lighting or lack of knowing Polish scare you. Drive to Montrose Deli, choose whichever parking lot is available (they do really need that overflow lot), get your number at the deli, fill up that cart and thank me.

5411 W Montrose Ave, Chicago, IL 60641. 773-725-6123. Open 7 days 7am-10pm. www.montrosedeli.com


I have a lot of first-generation American friends. They like food, but they’re not as incessant as me to scour the Chicagoland area for the best place to buy something. I was trying to think of why I’m this way, and it really comes back to my parents. I remember our Saturday visits to Edelweiss Delicatessen for a Leberkäs Semmel growing up in Palatine. In the summers when my dad would want some Croatian-style roasted lamb on a spit,  we would drive an hour to some grocery store in the South Suburbs that had the best lamb. Don’t worry, I’m going to ask him more about it and will report back!

My last real family food road trip memory was in 1998 while looking for my first condo with my parents and sister. After we were done checking out Sheridan Park, my dad insisted he had to take us to this market that had great cherries. For those familiar with Chicago we drove up Clark Street from Wilson (4600 North) all the way to almost Touhy (7600 North). Really? For Cherries? Were they that good? Honestly, all I remember is him pulling into a parking lot and the store was on the east side of the street. He was going to take “just a minute,” which means at least ten, and for some reason we weren’t allowed to go in with him… but that’s my dad. He was right. They were good.

I was driving up Clark street toward Evanston yesterday and I thought, now that I’m writing a blog about food, I should at least check out the cherry place! The only problem is I couldn’t remember which place it was.  I found two – and convinced myself it was the second place, because the parking lot was bigger.

Azetca and Chapala

Azteca looked older but was a butcher shop; Chapala had a familiar awning but a new facade. I went with Chapala

Chapala

The entrance to Chapala’s parking lot with Romanian Deli in the background. Stay tuned for a further post about Romanian!

The parking lot was packed, so I went in ready to fill up on produce I was planning for an experimental 3 day juice cleanse. I was sadly disappointed. No, it wasn’t just because there weren’t any cherries, but there wasn’t any produce I’d want to bring home. It was more of the I-need-to-make-tacos-for-dinner-let-me-grab-an-avocado-zucchini-tomato-stop-before-home place. But how was that parking lot was packed?!? I turned the corner and saw tables filled with families on a Sunday afternoon. Wilted produce and a packed taqueria? In the name of research I decided to find out why this place was packed. I ordered two tacos: a pastor and carnitas one. It’s hard for me not to like a taco, but I was disappointed, here, too. The pastor taco had bits of pineapple making it promising, but lacked the flavor that those huge spits of rotisserie meats at the Mexican-meets-Döner Kepab joints.  I expected the carnitas one to have bits of crunchy fat filled with flavor, but it tasted like a bland pork loin. Bummer. The most interesting things I did see were a great selection of religious candles and bags of jamaica – hibiscus flowers – which would be perfect for making tea at home.

Supermercado y Taqueria Chapala, 7117 N. Clark St. Chicago, IL 60626.

produce not quite up to my standards

Produce not quite up to my standards

tacos

Carnitas and pastor tacos

religious candles

Religious candles