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San Diego Grocery Guide

Where to go to buy food and stuff like that.


In 2003, the San Diego area was affected by a long and bitter labor strike of grocery store workers. At the time, shoppers were met by loud and angry picket lines in front of their neighborhood Ralphs, Vons or Albertsons , and as a result, many of us changed our shopping habits by seeking out alternative markets, such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and Henry's. Nevertheless, we do have to frequent the neighborhood supermarket, if only for the sake of convenience.

Whether you live here or are visiting San Diego, at some point you're going to need some food...or toilet paper. And the likelihood that you'll need to find a grocery store for some reason is pretty good. I'm weird -- I actually like grocery shopping. In San Diego, the grocery market field is dominated by the big three -- Alberstons, Vons and Ralphs -- along with some smaller local and specialized markets.

A supermarket's a supermarket, you say? Not in the highly competitive Southern California marketplace, where you have megastores that offer banking, dry cleaning, Starbucks and, oh yeah, food. Here's a subjective rundown of what you'll likely find here in town.

Head to head with Vons with the largest presence in San Diego, Albertsons offers your usual supermarket fare. Personal choice: Albertsons' has the best -- and typically cheapest -- fried chicken. Go with their eight-piece chicken dinner...a much better value than KFC.

Part of the Safeway family, Vons is also your standard supermarket major player. You need a club card for their store discounts, and if you like friendly service and your cashiers to thank you by your name (via the club card database and your receipt), this is your place. Most of the stores are going through makeovers, with softer lighting and more inviting food displays. Personal choice: Those Vons' with in-store bakeries make some awfully good, fresh bagels.

The third major player, Ralphs is part of the Kroger chain. By my experience, prices at Ralphs tend to be a bit higher than Albertsons and Vons, but not by any significant margin. Ralphs also uses a club card for in-store discounts. I've found that the Ralphs stores aren't quite as nice with the amenities as Vons or Albertsons. Personal choice: Ralphs house-brand staples are pretty good quality. And the Ralphs in Hillcrest has one of the best prepared/deli food sections that I have ever seen in a supermarket. Absolutely impressive.

Whole Foods
This upscale, specialty market offers high-quality (trendy?) grocery fare as well as more eclectic and health conscious items and brands. Prices are quite a bit higher (hence the nickname "Whole Paycheck"), but selection is unique. Prepared foods are available, as are a cafe and juice bar. Where else are you gonna go when you need your morning cup of wheat grass juice?

Henry's Marketplace
This funky local chain specializes in produce and grocery items with a healthy living angle. Along with your carrots and oranges (which are priced extremely low), you can pick up up your vitamin supplements from a huge selection, and a variety of bulk staples like granola and trail mixes. The parent company of Henry's was recently bought by Whole Foods, so expect many of the Henry's locations to convert to Whole Foods markets.

Trader Joe's
This cool chain specializes in quality food at reasonable prices, many under the Trader Joe brand. Frozen foods are their specialty, as well as their eclectic selection of wine and beer, many of which are from boutique wineries and breweries. Irresistible are the large variety of chocolate candies, and they have a growing selection of fresh and package produce. Personal choice: The Trader Joe frozen enchiladas are the best bang for the buck in terms of quality, and this is the only place where you can get the cult favorite Charles Shaw (Two-Buck Chuck) Wine.

Fresh & Easy
You may not have heard of Tesco, but this company is thought of as the WalMart of the U.K. and Europe. And one of their signature brands is the Fresh & Easy neighborhood grocery store concept. Smaller than your standard supermarket, Fresh & Easy are more the size of a typical Trader Joe's. But they are located within neighborhoods, and unlike some independent grocers which often have spotty selection and high prices, Fresh & Easy offers lots of fresh and wholesome food choices, including prepared meals and organic foods, make healthy eating easy and affordable. And their own Fresh & Easy brand is the primary brand they stock. Fresh & Easy plans on opening several San Diego County stores, and the first one has opened in Chula Vista at 865 East H Street, Chula Vista, CA 91910, (619) 216-1508.

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