Hey, did you hear there’s a recession going on? If not, news stories about rising food prices will tell you all about it. I hope you’re as amused by money-saving tips like “buy things that are on sale” and “don’t throw away leftovers” as I am. Kitchen economics actually is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a recession guide to grocery shopping in Milwaukee, but I hesitate because my guide would require the reader to a) have a car, b) have extra time to shop around c) shop mostly for produce, non-organic meat, dairy and some pantry staples, and c) shop for two adults, or two plus a young child at most. I won’t pretend to know anything about feeding teenagers.
What I can do is offer some Milwaukee-area shopping suggestions for the penny-pinching semi-foodie. This isn’t really meant for locavores, the strictly organic-minded, green activists, or those who would spend their last cent on artisan cheese. My target audience is people who want to make reasonably good food without blowing their budget.
Lena's—“Shockingly cheap vegetables under the glare of fluorescent lights…” is how I’ve described this chain in the past. You don’t go to Lena’s for the atmosphere; you go for the produce prices—$1 a pound strawberries, anyone? How about a huge bag of red, orange and yellow bell peppers for about 70 cents? The quality can be spotty, but more often I can’t tell the difference between these veggies and the ones sold across the street at the Outpost, a pricy, organic grocery store. To the “but food should be expensive!” crowd, I say: No farmer’s market or co-op initiative or corner grocery or eat local crusader will offer fruits and vegetables at these prices to people who couldn’t afford them otherwise. Also, Lena’s runs specials on whole chickens at 69 cents a pound. Just sayin’.
El Rey—This chain of Mexican groceries reminds me of the international stores on Chicago’s Devon Street. Busy, colorful, English rarely spoken. I like the big store on National Avenue and 16th Street. The last time I stopped by, 30-cent avocados and 50-cent super-sweet mangos were on offer. The meat department selections are well-priced and stocked with unusual items like tripe and tongue for you au courant nose-to-tail eaters.
Asian Mart--The place is rundown and the selection can be spotty, but the husband-and-wife owners are super-friendly and the prices are good. There’s a variety of produce and even frozen whole fish sold in the back, with prices written on a chalkboard. Call ahead if you want something specific. This store also carries a nice selection of Asian goodies, from sauces to rice to bowls and steamers.
Sendik's has a reputation as a high-end chain, and the Nehring-owned stores are indeed expensive. The Balistreri-owned locations, on the other hand, have some good deals on produce, fish and meat. You can find surprisingly good-quality vegetables on the reduced produce cart at the Silver Spring Drive store.
Coming next: More places to shop, including farmer’s markets. Plus, my very own money-stretching cooking tips.