Originally Posted Dec 2013

As Grocery Gal, I love to entertain friends and there’s always good food and drink aplenty at my house. How do I do it? As you’ve already read, I’m all about getting great quality food at outstanding prices. But that’s not just for food – it goes for drinks as well. Wine Discount Center has been open for twenty plus years, and I’ve been a faithful shopper for at least the past ten of them. When I was without a car for a few months, I filled side saddle bags – 6 to a side – on my bike. Don’t worry, I didn’t pedal down Ashland – my biggest pet peeve – and I made it all the way home without any casualties.  I’ve told everyone about this place, but only a handful have actually gone over to Elston Avenue to stop in and see what all my gushing was about. Those who have been just keep going back.

The hesitation some people have to visit had to one of the reasons why Wine Discount Center rebranded themselves a few months back to Vin Chicago. Were fancy folks too turned off by a place called Wine Discount Center? Must’ve been. Not Grocery Gal!

It’s a little harder for me to make it over to Vin now, so when I do stop in, it’s stock up central. They have multiple locations not only in Chicago, but also Highland Park, Barrington and Naperville.  This most recent visit was to stock up on my everyday F A V O R I T E wine that knocked my socks off for the price at Bin 36 a few years back. Bodegas Castano. Now, please. Don’t go buying up all the cases without saving any for me. The name change must be working for Vin, because normally when I come in they have cases of Castano in the back, but this time all they had left were the 30 bottles on display. You can go buy Castano at a few other places, but no where else will you find it for under $7. Since you’re going to be saving money from shopping at all the other grocery stores I’ve told you about, please leave the Castano at Vin for me.

But what about special occasion wines? Vin has it. What I love about Vin over any other wine shop is the tasting notes they provide for every bottle. As a graphic designer I have been guilty of judging a wine by it’s label, but I the experts at Vin help me narrow down my choices. I don’t do well with tannins – on the tasting notes? I’ll pass. I want a Pinot Noir, but a full one, and not a light one. Got it. I picked up some special wine (read: more than $10/bottle) for Christmas dinner at my house, along with a hearty mimosa stock-up of Cava for under $7 a bottle for weekend brunches at home. My recommendation – use apricot nectar instead of orange juice! I’ll tell you where to get it real soon!

I’m a little hesitant to reveal another cool feature at Vin, but I’m feeling a little generous today. They have a killer back room of closeouts and clearances. For some reason, Austrian wine hasn’t become super popular in the Chicagoland area, so as a first-generation American with Austrian heritage, I usually snap all they have up. They had a few remaining bottles of my favorite Grüner Veltliner – Lois – perfect with sushi, Indian or Ethiopian food. It’s wasn’t marked on clearance, but the retail price of $10.99 beats the $15.99 I’ve seen other places, and $36 at restaurants. If you like clean, crisp and mineral-y wines, buy some Grüner Veltliner stat. Newer vintages are cleaner tasting, while older ones (which are usually more expensive) have more of a buttery taste.

So the damage this time was $311. But what did that equal? 30 bottles of wine! Do the math. Go to Vin Chicago… Wine Discount Center… whatever you want to call it. Just go. But keep the last case of Castano for me, please.

Vin Chicago. 1826 N. Elston Avenue, Chicago. 773-489–3454. Open 7 days.


Originally posted December 2013

Yeah, I lied. I said I was going to write about the Kosher Jewel next, but if I threw in another Rogers Park/Evanston joint on Grocerygalblog.com, there would probably be some type of uprising.

I had a little accident with my grocery getter which required me getting a new windshield. The grocery getter was a little shorter than the 8 ft tube of steel that needed transporting. So while waiting for the repair on Harlem Avenue, I was trying to figure out where I could get some guacamole and Rick Bayless taco sauce for the night’s dinner stat.

I pulled into the parking lot for the flagship store of Angelo Caputo’s on the corner of Grand and Harlem Avenue, at the cross sections of Elmwood Park and Chicago’s Montclaire neighborhood.  There are different Caputo family markets in the Chicagoland area: Angelo’s (since 1958), Joe’s, a Cheese Market (all coming soon to GroceryGalBlog.com). Angelo’s has a pretty interesting history and it’s stores like these which makes me be Grocery Gal. Before I even made it into the huge store, I realized why I stopped buying produce at Fresh Farms and found other markets to shop at. There were huge, oversized boxes outside the entrance with acorn squash and Michigan apples, both for $0.49 a pound. Beautiful stocks of anise were 2 for a dollar; a perfect side dish when roasted with some sausage and/or butternut squash in the winter. The quality was just as good as Fresh Farms, but cheaper.

So I wheeled my cart in with a pair of anise, ready to get my two other items: guacamole and a New Mexico red chile sauce mix. Before I made it in through the breezeway, I stopped in my tracks, drooling at the imported Italian fig delicacies for sale only during the holidays. I grew up on figs, so I snapped up a fig salami, which is basically figs, walnuts and almonds pressed together in a salami shape. Perfect with some sheep cheese and crackers… and red wine at the holidays. I was dwarfed by Panettone cakes, but good thing Grocery Gal digs savories more than sweets, or I would’ve bought one of every brand.

Guacamole, where are you? Are you next to the pile of asparagus for $0.79 a lb? Or wait, are you hidden behind the $0.79 four packs of the most flavorful greenish-red Kumato tomatoes? I just saw these for $3.29 at Trader Joes – same packaging and all! My grocery cart is filling up and I came in here for what again? Rapini for $0.99 a lb and not $2.99 a bundle?!? Oh yeah, guacamole! Under normal circumstances, I always make my own guacamole, but it was a long day and I got lazy. Serrano peppers in my guac or not? Definitely with. OK, in my cart. Just one more thing and then I’ll be outta here.

Oh wait, I’m at Caputo’s! I need some PASTA! They always have a great selection of different brands of pasta: semolina, wheat, organic, cheap, not as cheap, and a great selection of shapes. Most of their pasta is imported from Italy, so I always try and pick up something a little out of the ordinary here.

This was more of a run in and pick up something quick excursion, so I bypassed the fresh fish, fresh meat, deli and cheese counters. They have a good selection of ready made food to go, and a snack bar (wait… I never noticed this trend before) at the front of the grocery store.

Even with all the bypassing, I still stocked up on various veggies, pasta, sauces, frozen pizza dough and, yes, a mini cannoli for being such a good shopper. And it was all packed together in a repurposed produce box. I love that they give you this option – it’s easier to transport and recycle instead of those stupid plastic bags. Please note, Grocery Gal usually shops with her own reusable bags, but getting the box this time was all in the name of research!

Caputo’s in Elmwood Park is one of the rare grocery stores that I could actually buy all my groceries at. Good, full selection of produce and staples, and overall really nice prices. They have multiple locations in the Chicagoland area, so if you’re not near the Elmwood Park one, check out another one of their locations. Angelo Caputo’s Fresh Markets. 2400 N. Harlem Ave., Elmwood Park, IL 60707. Open 7 days 6am-10am. 708-453-0155. http://caputomarkets.com/


Before the internet, there was mail order. Growing up in the late 70’s/early 80’s I’d love to get catalogs in the mail, addressed to me of course, from places like Current, Lillian Vernon and the chocolate motherload: Swiss Colony.

I didn’t know or care where the Swiss Colony was located. I would dream every year that maybe this was the year my mom would buy me a solid chocolate Chris Mouse, mint chocolate twelve layer log cake, or a box of petit fours for my birthday. What would I get? Some European style cake with real whipped cream  with a hazelnut or real fruit filling that everyone but me loved. In hindsight, her choices were much smarter and healthier, but as a kid all I wanted was buttercream.

Swiss Colony Chris Mouse Grocery Gal

Chris Mouse welcoming me to Swiss Colony’s signature gifts

Years passed with never a package arriving from the Swiss Colony. Packages from Austria came instead, filled with rich chocolates that I didn’t like, but I was still hopeful that one day a special red and white striped package would arrive addressed to me.

Fast forward years, no… decades, later and I’m heading off to New Glarus, Wisconsin. Better known as Little Switzerland, I drove a few hours from Chicago to camp with my husband and see the New Glarus Brewery. The town was great; structures built by Swiss settlers in the 19th century and, despite some expected touristy kitchiness, were the real deal. Driving through the region, we stopped in Monroe, Wisconsin to get some provisions for dinner. Along the way in a random strip mall, I read the words: “The Swiss Colony.” Those three words pulled at my heartstrings and brought childhood memories rushing in. I begged my husband to pull into the strip mall, and finally, I was going to make my childhood dreams a reality.

Swiss Colony Outlet Monroe Wisconsin petit four

The familiar logo from my childhood

Get this, it was an outlet store, to boot! I hoped they took credit cards, because I had big plans on stocking up. I walked into the cheese portion of the store and had a variety of soft pub style cheese to choose from. Port wine and cheddar was calling my name, so I grabbed one and put it in my basket.

Grocery Gal Swiss Colony cheese Chicago

Soft cheeses – including ones with Port Wine – from the Swiss Colony

What next? I didn’t want to waste much time; I was on a hunt for the evening’s dessert, but saw my favorite American-made cheese, Grand Cru by Roth, for 50% off. I first came across this amazing alpine-style cheese at the Whole Foods in Milwaukee (shhh, yes, I occasionally shop there), and it was the closest cheese I have found in the US to my beloved Bergkäse from Austria. That went into the basket next.

Roth cheese Grand cru swiss colony grocery gal

Roth Cheese at 50% off – the hidden gem inside the Swiss Colony outlet store

I then switched over to the next room which focused on Swiss Colony’s signature desserts. A bag of 25-30 random petit fours looked tempting, but I instead focused on the nicely packaged assortment of 9, 5 in vanilla and 4 in chocolate, for $1.99. They were also buy one get one free, so how could I resist? I exercised some discretion and passed on the layered mint cake. With it being May, there weren’t any Chris Mouse chocolates; I guess I’d have to come back closer to Christmas.

Grocery Gal Swiss colony mint chocolate toret

The mint chocolate layered torte I always dreamt of getting for a birthday cake

Happy with my bounty, I paid for my goods and excitedly waited for that night’s special dessert. A few hours later, I carefully opened up the package of petit fours and sat down to enjoy the dessert I had been waiting at least 30 years for. I took a bite, and was… disgusted.

Grocery Gal Swiss Colony Petit Four

I waited over 25 years to finally get these. I should’ve gotten them back in the 80’s

My childhood pastry dreams were shattered! It tasted super sweet, synthetic and somewhat stale. Ok, maybe that’s just the vanilla one. Maybe the chocolate one was better? Maybe it was because I bought these at the outlet store in May…?

How could this be? I took a look at the ingredients and found natural, but a lot of artificial ingredients. This couldn’t have been how they made them when I was a kid? Or did they, and that’s why my mom never bought them?

However, Swiss Colony fans, don’t fret; it is just my opinion. I brought the second unopened box of petit fours to work. The last Friday of the month is enthusiastically called “Food Friday,” where everyone brings in snacks to share. I was wondering if anyone would eat these discarded cakes of mine? Well, guess what, they were the hit of the day! My coworkers loved them so much that they quietly rationed them amongst the themselves and hid them from the other departments. When I offered to bring the other opened box on Monday, everyone eagerly said yes.

So, maybe I just have a selective palate and don’t like things super sweet? Then it’s just more petit fours for everyone else. While my childhood dreams of pastries from the Swiss Colony didn’t live up to my adult expectations, the price on the Grand Cru made it all worth while. See, there’s something for everyone. You might just have to drive up to the outlet mall and find out which is your preference.

Swiss Colony Monroe Outlet Store. 652 8th St, Monroe, WI 53566 www.swisscolony.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!