Someone recently asked me, “Who has the best produce?”  The answer I gave was simple: it all depends on where you live. I was trying to think of landmark neighborhoods to answer her with and realized I hadn’t written about a great grocery store for people living near Lincoln Square and Albany Park: HarvesTime Foods. Located on Lawrence, between Western and California, you’ll notice HarvesTime as the building covered in solar panels alongside their large parking lot, and the delicious tamales for sale outside the entrance.

Grocery Gal visits HarvestTime FoodsHarvesTime is a nice mashup of a store who can cater to the variety of people living in Lincoln Square and Albany Park. HarvesTime is your standard Produce Stand meets Middle Eastern/Balkan Deli meets Latin Grocery Store meets Organic Foods meets Locally Sourced Products at reasonable prices and all under one roof. What else could anyone need? Well, booze, I guess…

Grocery Gal HarvestTime Homeade Guacamole

I was first introduced to HarvesTime at a party years ago, where their in-house salsas and guacamole were being gobbled up by everyone. I was familiar with the store and stopped in, happy to see many Balkan favorites of mine, including Vegata Natur, a nice deli selection and thorough meat selection. With such a heavy Eastern Euro/Balkan influence, I’m still surprised they don’t carry lamb. Years later, the store continues to expand to the needs of their clients, with a big push of organic and locally produced items (but I still need to buy lamb somewhere else). Grocery Gal HarvestTime DeliTwo local brands HarvesTime carries are Big Pork and Chef Martin’s Alpine Brand Sausages. I have yet to try Big Pork’s brand, but I am very familiar with the Chef Martin brand, and every type I’ve tried is outstanding. If you have your heart on sausages from Paulina Market and they’re closed, stop in at HarvesTime and try a few varieties from these two local Chicago sausage makers.

Chef Martin and Big Pork Sausage at Harvesttime FoodsAnother favorite that HarvesTime carries is Breadsmith breads. My husband (and I, before I went gluten free) go CRAZY over their French Peasant bread. As I stopped in late on a Saturday, I had to settle for their Rustic Italian bread. Their breads are absolutely amazing, and if you’re ever on the fence whether or not you should buy it, read their ingredient label and compare it to your other option. They use no additives or preservatives which is exactly why it tastes incredible. They also offer fresh Vie De France options along with a bunch of other very good local bakery breads, but my family’s choice for sandwich bread is always Breadsmith.

Grocery Gal buys Breadsmith bread at Harvesttime FoodsWhen you leave HarvesTime, make sure you have a few dollars cash on hand for the tamales for sale outside. The family selling them have been there for years, and I believe it’s 6 tamales for $5. I grabbed six cheese ones to share with my husband and they were still warm even after my bike ride back home.

HarvesTime Foods. 2632 W Lawrence Ave, Chicago, IL 60625.  (773) 989-4400


When I first moved to Chicago almost 20 years ago, I fell in love with in Lincoln Square. It was a little one way slice of Germany on Lincoln Avenue with a great Oktoberfest that made me love living in the city.  I would visit a friend who lived in an apartment near the cul-de-sac  at Giddings Plaza. We’d spend Sundays at the Hüttenbar eating Snackmaster snacks with my Spaten. Despite the hipster influx over the past few years, it’s still one of my favorite bars in all of Chicago.

Grocery Gal in Lincoln Square

The Hüttenbar for some delicious German Adult Beverages

There were little shops selling figurines and magazines which made me think of my Grandma in Austria, whom I’d visit whenever I could score a cheap $400 flight in the winter for a long weekend. Yes, back in the day you could fly to Europe on the cheap.   I would grab a ticket inside Meyer Delicatessen, excited for my turn to ask one of the ladies behind in the counter if the Leberkäs was still warm, in German.  It has only been a few years since studying abroad in Vienna, so I didn’t want my German to get rusty. Years later, there are more strollers in Lincoln Square than German speakers, but the area is still part of a wonderful German experience, thanks in part to Gene’s Sausage Shop.

Grocery Gal in Lincoln Square's Gene Sausage Shop

A mecca of German goodness in Lincoln Square

I remember being sad when Meyer Delicatessen closed down. It was the only true German store I knew of in Chicago. Sure, you can get a ton of European foods at all the Eastern Euro shops on the NW side of Chicago, but they didn’t carry Oblatten for my mom’s date Christmas cookies, hot Leberkäs on Saturdays or Lebkuchen at Christmastime. It took Gene’s a long time to open up, but when they did it was a true gourmet experience. They went all out to design a store that’s beautiful, and I think I sighed out loud when I saw they saved the original delicatessen sign and gave it a prominent display up the grand stairwell.

Grocery Gal in Lincoln Square's Gene Sausage Shop

The original signage from Meyer Delicatessen greets you in Gene’s

Grocery Gal in LIncoln Square's Gene Sausage Shop

Two levels of goodness

It seems to me that everyone who lives East of California raves about the smoked meats at Gene’s Sausage Shop. They do smoke all their own sausages in house, and offer a pretty big selection. However, you’re much better off heading farther west to places like Montrose Deli for a better tasting sausage at a cheaper price. Gene’s sausages, to me, seem to be missing the extra flavor that other delis (coming soon to Grocery Gal) offer. Here, you’re paying for convenience and a beautiful space.

Grocery Gal in Lincoln Square's Gene Sausage Shop

Schnapps they way it’s supposed to be. From Austria.

When I do come to Gene’s, it’s for specialty items. On this visit, it was for some Austrian Schnapps, which is rather difficult to find in the city. This isn’t the schnapps that you knew as a college kid; it’s a distilled spirit made from fruit, is a great digestive and is just wonderful. My favorite is a Williams Pear. I can’t wait until the day Chicago distillery Koval offers a traditional Obstler or Williams (hint, hint). This is the perfect after dinner drink, especially after a filling dinner. You sip it; don’t slam it.

Gene’s also has a great beer selection: German/Austrian, Eastern European (since the original Gene’s is located on Belmont near Central), Craft Beers and old reliables like PBR and Schlitz. I was excited to even see cases of the mini Rhinelander bottles – a perfect beer back to a Bloody Mary.

Grocery Gal in Lincoln Square's Gene Sausage Shop

Little Rheinlanders – first time I’ve seen them outside of Wisconsin

A fan of German chocolates and sweets? They have my favorite, Topkuss; marshmallows in a hard chocolate shell. Yes, they do look like the ghosts from Pacman… and they’re delicious at the same time.

Grocery Gal in Lincoln Square's Gene Sausage ShopMy purchases at Gene’s are rather limited, but I consider Gene’s a part of the whole Lincoln Square experience. They would make the original Meyer Delicatessen proud: they do offer warm Leberkäs, alongside the many other premade foods available at both Gene’s locations every day of the week. However, you will have better luck speaking Polish here than German.

Grocery Gal in Lincoln Square's Gene Sausage Shop

Hot Leberkäs and Alpine Sausage

I treat Lincoln Square as an overall experience – this post is not just about Gene’s. I would say I shop at Merz Apothecary more regularly than I do Gene’s. I admire the German bath oils, and find myself stocking up on Swiss-made combs for $5 and natural bristle toothbrushes from Germany. Their pharmacist will recommend homeopathic options for almost anything, and I have yet to be disappointed. They keep it to real European styles: they close promptly at 6pm and are closed Sundays.

Grocery Gal in Lincoln Square

My favorite European shop in all of Lincoln Square – Merz Apothecary

I took these images one evening before heading to a cooking class at the DANK Haus. It’s the German American cultural center in Chicago. If you’re looking for a little more German culture in your life, they offer German language classes, cooking classes, concerts and speakers. They have a beautiful Skyline Lounge that is available to rent, and should be open on Friday evenings. The view is killer.

While it’s not European, there are two other stores worth noting in Lincoln Square. Tigerlilie Salon is an amazing salon which specializes in vintage hairstyles. Not into vintage? Don’t worry – they do a spectacular job with any style cut or color. A new spice store called Savory is a great place to find individual spices, but what makes them special is their spice mixes and gift packs. They’ll be featured on Grocery Gal soon, too.

I always will love Lincoln Square. I do plan on spending more time at Gene’s this summer. Last year they opened up a rooftop Biergarten, and which is on my “to do” list. After a winter as long as this has been, I foresee it being on a lot of other people’s “to-do” lists, too.

Gene’s Sausage Shop. 4750 N Lincoln Ave. Chicago, IL (773) 728-7243. Mon-Sat: 9am-8pm, Sun: 9am-4pm.


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

 


For today’s installment, please don’t laugh.  Why would I write about a mainstream store? Well, if you grew up in the early 80’s, you probably have a stigma of shopping here. I know I did. The stores had no character and little or no windows. You could only pay in cash, everything was stacked on top of itself, and you had to bag your own groceries. Sounds like Costco without the samples, right? Well, it’s not. It’s Aldi.

In the early 80’s, I remember feeling like a poor kid because I didn’t have Jordache jeans or a pair of robin’s egg blue Nike’s with the gold swoosh. We had a blue Nova with a hole in the back seat floor pan that we covered with a piece of plywood. Not poor enough for you? Well, my mom also would shop at Aldi. While we didn’t shop there all the time, I was somehow more embarrassed by their unknown brands of canned goods than the generic brand with the stencil font from Jewel. Those white and black Jewel labels screamed my family is poor,  but since Jewel had baggers, it somehow was more acceptable than Aldi. When I studied abroad years later, I was surprised to learn Aldi was a German grocery store, with it’s Austrian counterpart called Hofer. And that was the end of my Aldi story.

In the late 1990’s, Trader Joes came to Chicago. I was excited for the store to open. My boss at the time was from California and she always raved about the place. There was a lot of press, and in there I read that the good-feelin’ organic-lovin’ affordable Trader Joe’s was owned by Aldi. Aldi?!? Really? But when you think about it, Trader Joe’s is merely a distributor who rebrands everything under a different version of the name Joe. Pretty obvious it’s the same business model as Aldi.  TJ’s just does it with better graphics, and baggers in Hawaiian shirts. Oh yeah, they have samples, too.

After connecting the dots, a few years ago I hesitantly went back to check out Aldi. Yeah, you need the quarter deposit to use the carts, but I realized it’s because they’re European, not because they’re afraid poor people would steal their carts. I walked in and immediately saw bars of chocolate. Hmm, not just milk chocolate, but dark chocolate with different cacao percentages, with orange, and with chili pepper. All made in my motherland, Austria. Just like the Lindt brand that’s often over $3, but these were a mere $1.29. Hmmm, not bad….

Each Aldi is different. I think they really rely on what their customers are purchasing in each store. If you go into one and aren’t wowed, then check out another. Some carry alcohol. There’s a great everyday Cabernet Sauvignion that’s $4.99 and a real winner. No, it’s no Castano from Vin Chicago, but it’s a great one to have on standby at home. I’ve just started trying their German Pils for $5.99, not bad.

They carry a lot of seasonal specials, just like Trader Joe’s. My favorite time is before Christmas — incredible selections of Germany chocolates, including advent calendars for $0.99 and chocolate ornaments, for $3, both staples from my childhood. I remember my parents buying these for an arm & a leg as a child from the German delicatessens. Smoked meat, cheese and frozen appetizers  fill the shelves for holiday parties. What’s been catching my eye now is their organic selection. Yep, organic at Aldi.

Grocery Gal Chicago Aldi organic foods

Baby Kale and Arugula for $2.49 at Aldi. Perfect dinner addition.

 

Grocery Gal Chicago Aldi organic foods

Organic cookies, cereal, apple sauce and jams… just to name a few. All under $2.50.

If you’re a label reader like I am, you’ll find most of their breads do not carry high fructose corn syrup. The fancy Brownberry bread with it’s whole grain claims has high fructose corn syrup in it. Not the bread at Aldi! Aldi’s quart of Greek yogurt just dropped in price and it’s about same as an 8oz container at any other store. Our family loves adding hash browns to our egg tacos on Sundays, and the package of 20 is the same price as a package of 10 from Trader Joe’s. And I’ll bet you 2 cartons of fresh-not-from-concentrate orange juice they’re from the same distributor!

They do carry a decent selection of produce, albeit prepackaged. Their avocado (an essential ingredient to egg tacos) are often $0.49 each so I grab a handful. More recently I’m finding organic onions and apples, too. I love seeing the tricolor fingerling potatoes for $1.49 and then going to Trader Joe’s to see the exact same ones for $2.99! Kumato tomatoes (best tomato ever) $1.29 at Aldi, $2.99 at sister store TJ’s. In the exact same packaging!

Grocery Gal Chicago Aldi Old Oak Farms Purple Potatoes

Old Oak Farms tri-color fingerling potatoes for half the Trader Joe’s price

They carry organic honey and agave nectar. Unfortunately they still haven’t gotten around to 100% natural peanut butter, but I’m hopeful!  Great, affordable pasta sauces, all with no high fructose corn syrup added. A previously seasonal item that I’m finding more often in their stores is red and green pesto. A small jar is $1.49, which would easily be over $4 anywhere else. Sundried tomato red pesto is amazing, I had only ever seen it before in Italy. It’s a killer base for your homemade pizzas. Try it… you’ll never go back to traditional pizza sauce. Side note: I’m currently on a work trip in California and just received a text from my husband asking me where the red pesto sauce is…. unfortunately we used it all two days ago!

Grocery Gal Chicago Aldi Rosso Pesto and Pesto Alla Genovese

Pesto this delicious and cheap makes me want to eat Italian every day.

Most of their beauty items are made in Germany. Their aluminum foil is good and cheap. Pass on their paper towels and toilet paper. They have rock salt and peppercorns in their own acrylic dispensers. Their packaged guacamole is perfect for a party dip. They have cheap Kerrygold cheese and great fancy cheese selections around the holidays.

Grocery Gal Chicago Aldi Kerrygold cheese

Wine and cheese party anyone? Offer a great spread for under $20

And, it being Aldi, there’s always some random household items that change seasonally. Since it’s still January, go on in and get some workout gear before the gardening stuff shows up for the spring. I did buy pretty decent lawn seed their last year.

While I don’t buy everything there, I always run in at lunch to stock up on their cheese and dairy products, great German and Italian foods, and their growing organic selection at prices that are just unbelievable. If you grew up with a stigma of shopping at Aldi like I did, go with your own grocery bags and a quarter for your cart and your mind will definitely be changed!