Best Gourmet Groceries On A Tight Budget

Trader Joe's

Imagine being in a grocery store check-out line with a cart chock-full of fancy-schmancy foods: a chunk of French cheese, a bag of exotic baby greens, some imported olive oil, a fresh slab of herb focaccia, Belgian chocolates and an assortment of attractively packaged, luxurious and completely unessential items, like sea salt body scrub and almond-scented soap. Now imagine the clerk ringing up everything and telling you the total. Is it a ridiculous amount of money? Do you choke and reach for the plastic? Well, maybe if you envisioned yourself in a typically pricey gourmet store. But if you were thinking of shopping at Trader Joe's, the tally is surely more manageable . . . maybe even cheap enough to imagine throwing in a bottle of Merlot and a bouquet of calla lilies, too!
Long considered by Asia to be a boon from the gods, tea is now supposedly being recognized by modern science to contain a treasure trove of health-giving and health-maintaining properties. So says Akbar's promotional literature. What do we know, except that it's what we love to drink crystal cold on ice during the summer, and vapor cloud hot during the winter.

Nobody has the seductive selection that Akbar's does, imported loose teas from all over the world, complete with Chatsford tea pots, tea accessories, gift baskets, tins and bags. Every variety we could want is available: black teas of China or India, green teas, oolong teas, blended teas, flavored teas, herbal teas. Essentially, anything leafy and lovely that can fit in a cup can be found here.

AZ Wine Company
AZ Wine Co. is one of our favorite places to explore wines. With some 20,000 bottles, it's the largest wine shop in Arizona, but the folks here aren't hung up on snobbery. Here, the attitude is relaxed, and the wines remarkably well-priced. We never feel intimidated as we wander concrete floors lined with long, collapsible tables topped with box after box of wines from around the world. The box tops are ripped off to expose slender bottle necks, the prices are scrawled on the cardboard in Magic Marker and, on some boxes, there might be someone's handwritten comment: Great!

The Wine Co. offers free tastings several nights a week, with us relaxed at the cozy bar or kicking back on one of the front-porch-style sofas and chairs clustered in a cradle of boxes. Pretty much any varietal we crave is in stock, but on a night that AZ Wine is out of our preferred Newton Claret, the proprietor suggests Catena, a 2000 Malbec from LunLunta Vineyards of Argentina. It's stunning, with intense aromas of ripe blackberry interlaced with vanilla and tobacco, and just what we wanted. For wines, that's as good AZ it gets.

If the bread for the bread and water diet being served to Sheriff Joe's unruly inmates comes from Willo, we'll be the first ones leading riots in Tent City. The bakery cranks out these miracle loaves seven days a week, and they're outrageous. So good, so golden crusted, they're almost worth doing time for.

There's no sugar used in these starchy marvels, and none needed. Instead, Willo relies on fresh fruits and nuts for its sweeter treats, like sun-dried cranberries in the cranberry-hazelnut roll. All the standard favorites are in attendance, too, but these are better breads than even the finest home kitchen could hope to achieve. The list runs the gamut from familiar to fancy: pumpernickel, sesame, earthy rye cut with chunks of real red onion, strong charactered Kalamata olive loaf, the signature Willo loaf (think French baguette), round ciabatta roll, olive focaccia, sunflower-seed, rosemary-focaccia and much more.

Willo is, hands down, our breadwinner.

Guido's Chicago Meat & Deli
Molly Smith
Sometimes we go into Guido's and just stare. Even if we're not hungry (a rare occurrence) or if we have no money (way too frequent an occurrence), we just love to look around, sniff, and imagine the many flavors on our mind's tongue.

The only thing small about this place is the shop. It's filled floor to rafters with everything Italian, imported, homemade, fantastically fresh and hardly shy in flavor. Olive oils. Dressings. Pastas. Wines. Fresh breads, cheeses, meats, sweets and savories. Everything our larder could long for.

Step up to the deli case and prepare to be stunned by salads. What a lovely display it is, long and fat with seafood blend (crab, calamari and shrimp in Italian marinade), tortellini primavera, zesty tomato and garlic (more correct would be garlic, tomato, garlic, garlic, garlic salad), marinated artichokes and mushrooms, antipasto, chicken, tuna and loads more. It's plump with prepared dishes, an ever-changing selection like ricotta-stuffed shells, lasagna (cheese, meat and cheese or spinach and cheese), stuffed peppers and cabbage rolls, pizza, homemade Italian sausage with peppers and onions, and pasta trays to take home and reheat. Desserts? Of course. Try handcrafted cheesecake, cannoli or casata cake, moist with layers of cannoli and seasonal fresh strawberries.

Guido's is simply deli-cious.

Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli
Lauren Saria
Middle Eastern eats are so outrageously delicious they transcend any culture. We still remember that first time we popped a dolmade in our mouth, relishing the tart grape leaf against strident beef, lamb, rice and spices. We shudder happily in the memory of when we first ventured in to try kifta, a patty of lean beef and lamb tucked with parsley, onion and spices under yogurt-sour cream. Wow.

For our fix, we go to Middle Eastern Bakery & Deli, a legend that's brought the Mediterranean to Phoenix for more than 20 years. The store may be tiny, but that's the only thing restrained about this wonderful place. Spices alone are amazing, spanning shelf after shelf of exotic temptations. The original blends are so special they're actually marketed under chef Mary Karadsheh's name.

There's so much to this eight-table operation, with good-smelling and even better-tasting dishes like spinach pie, baklava, tandoori chicken salad with pine nuts and currants, hummus and avgolemono, a luscious creamy egg-lemon-chicken soup. Now that, anyone can relate to.

Lee Lee Oriental Supermarket
We recently needed a water dish for our goats. It had to be plastic, so it wouldn't heat in hot weather. It had to be big, so the goats couldn't tip it over. It had to be cheap, because it's for, well, goats. We found the perfect thing at Lee Lee, in the form of a $4 wading pool, bright blue and merrily decorated with pictures of shrines and cherry blossoms.

Really, if there's something we want, and we can't find it at Lee Lee, we can't possibly actually need it. There are acres of fresh produce, including vast varieties of just cabbages. There are oodles of noodles, like fresh udon, ramen and lo mein. Staples startle with their selection, in a rainbow of hot sauces, soy sauces, chile pastes, dozens of rice varieties, canned goods with exotic names, liquor, frozen foods, jewelry, tapioca, cakes and . . . whew.

If it's fresh we're after, Lee Lee delivers an astounding assortment of exotic and familiar meats, poultry and seafood, including a massive area full of tanks to support live crab, mussels, clams, tilapia, carp and so much more.

The only thing we haven't found at Lee Lee is fresh goat meat. But that's okay. We know exactly where we can get that.

Desert at Lux
Dominique Chatterjee
Desert at Lux
Husband-and-wife team Daniel Wayne and Felicia Ruiz-Wayne have got a great gimmick. Don't spend any money on decor, just focus on premium coffees, sweet snacks and way cool reading material (funky magazines, art books, trendy tabloids). And don't hesitate to charge the big bucks for the experience.

Is it vintage? Is it modern? We can't tell, but we get a kick out of LUX's who-cares approach to stark white walls, mismatched furniture, concrete charisma and bare, gallery-style lighting. The only eye candy is rotating works from local artists, primarily photographers who can preview their displays on one of the light tables scattered around the small space.

The owners know their coffee, returning to Phoenix after operating a caffeine store in Seattle. The stuff is strong and flavorful, including old-fashioned drip brew. The patrons here are part of the scene, too, with wild hair, untamed expressions and deep, quiet countenances. That they're nibbling on snickerdoodle cookies is fun; just as tasty are the fruit Danish, muffins and cinnamon rolls.

Some attitude with your coffee? That's priceless.

We interviewed a dozen different caterers, in search of one who would handle every last detail of a casual Sunday night cocktail-and-hors d'oeuvres party for 90 people. Then we remembered the chic buffet dinner we'd enjoyed at a friend's wedding, catered by Dad's. The chefs had fused Italian cuisine with a Mexican fiesta menu and made it work. We worried that Dad's fancy service and tasty vittles would come with fancy prices attached, but we needn't have. After much comparison shopping, we discovered that Dad's -- which has been in business since 1975 -- offers the most for less. They said "yes" to every one of our requests -- glass wine goblets, black tablecloths, white wood chairs, and a separate china service for the birthday cake we planned to serve -- and "no" when we asked if we'd get charged extra for last-minute changes or a fudged head count. Dad's offers breakfast and brunch menus, and upscale-but-still-affordable cold buffets. It'll put together a casual dinner for 10 or a fancy feast for a hundred, and can customize any menu with a little notice. A complete bar service is available, and Dad's efficient, attractive waitstaff will even stay after to clean up.
La Grande Orange Grocery
Courtesy of La Grande Orange
Typically, our farmers' markets are a collection of locally grown produce, maybe some kettle corn, perhaps some bottled salsas and honey lined up on tables under a tent in the park. We've usually got to plan our weekend around them, since they're open intermittent Saturdays, depending on the weather.

Now we've got La Grande Orange, a charming oasis that's open every day, rain or shine (owned by Craig DeMarco, also owner of Postino Winecafé next door). It's an actual store, see, a little commune of the Valley's top food sources, like Tammie Coe Cakes (a former chef of Michael's at the Citadel), Victory Farms produce, wood-fired pizza from ex-Bianco guy Carl Bonacci, artisan breads, designer wines and beers (from neighboring Nonni's Kitchen), and Java Garden, an adjacent coffee stand in a tiny tranquil garden setting.

We come in through the kitchen in back, stopping to watch as staff crafts its pastries, carves its meats, and hustles so we can fill our baskets with fresh asparagus, Genovese basil plucked from tin buckets, sour cream blueberry muffins, a bottle of imported pesto, ciabatta, and a truffle of banana pudding, chocolate mousse and espresso angel food cake. We're low on Cheer detergent and Bounty paper towels, so we grab those, too.

While we've been shopping, the kitchen has been preparing our breakfast order: smoked salmon on an English muffin slicked with cream cheese, capers and onion, with fresh blackberries, raspberries, peach and lemon on the side. We eat it off plastic plates at one of the handful of tables in the front of the store. And by the time we leave, we're feeling grateful to La Grande Orange for not being just another farmers' market.

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