The $20 Trader Joe's Challenge

Categories: Grocery Guide

Trader Joe's 001.jpg
Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Editor's note: We asked five Eating Our Words bloggers to head to Trader Joe's with $20 and write about what they were able to get. We've gathered their stories together here.

Katharine Shilcutt: Objective: Two meals for two for $20

My boyfriend and I hit Trader Joe's a little before 5 p.m. on a weekday, which ended up being a great time to miss most of the crowds. By the time we left an hour later (yeah, you get swallowed up gawking at everything -- even if there are only about five aisles in the entire place), the crowds were thickening and pulsating like The Blob. It was all we could do not to run out the exit.

Our goal was to cook two meals for two on $20, something which proved remarkably easy as long as you have some basics of your own at home (olive oil, salt, pepper, etc.). Josh went in one direction and I went in another, each of us purchasing products for two $10 dinners we planned to cook that weekend.

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Josh ended up with a large packet of tofu, ready-cooked brown rice, Thai yellow currry in a jar, carrots, an onion, two potatoes and a bottle of Trader Joe's infamous Charles Shaw wine, a.k.a. Two Buck Chuck. I had gone the road less hippie-d and got two thick pork chops, a bag of pre-cut and washed kale and two potatoes. Potatoes. They go with everything.

That night, Josh whipped up a terrific vegan curry that we both wolfed down. The brown rice was particularly good, considering it had come from the microwave. We don't always have time to cook rice in the evenings when we're rushing around, so the Trader Joe's stuff was a pleasant find. Also good was the yellow curry, although it needed to be fleshed out a bit with some minced ginger and red pepper.

Far less pleasant was the Two Buck Chuck, a Shiraz that tasted like rancid butter and rubbing alcohol had been left to ferment in the July sun. We both spit out our first sips and vigorously threw the bottle out like it had killed our childhood pets. It was a disappointment to have spent even $3 on the bottle, so offensive were its contents -- especially considering that the bottle was supposed to stretch across two meals.

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Photo by Katharine Shilcutt
Josh also bought me flowers from Trader Joe's (on top of the $20 we spent). They died in a few short days.
The dinner I cooked was served with milk, because that's all we had left in the fridge to drink -- but it worked out: I pan-fried the pork chops in olive oil and a few herbs from my spice rack, boiled and then mashed the Yukon gold potatoes with some butter and salt and steamed the kale, which only needs a bit of olive oil, salt and red pepper flakes to make an excellent side dish.

I was disappointed to find that the Trader Joe's bag of kale was more tough spines than it was leaves, but the produce and meat were otherwise top-notch. The thick, juicy pork chops were the star of the two dinners, leaving us both very full for only a hair under $6. And while I'm still more comfortable buying my meat from an actual butcher (Trader Joe's has none of the traditional grocery store accouterments like butcher counters or delis or fishmongers), the inexpensive meat would definitely do in a pinch.

Location Info

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Trader Joe's

2922 S. Shepherd Drive, Houston, TX

Category: General

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28 comments
stina
stina

Can you guys replicated this challenge at Phoenicia?  I bet it'd be just as easy to pull off a $20 coup, but the results would be different.   (A few years ago, someone in my group of friends was bitching about the lack of Trader Joe's here in the Houston area.  Someone else remarked that they'd rather have a Phoenicia than a Trader Joe's and everyone who'd been to both places agreed.  This was before the downtown location opened.) 

Fluerie
Fluerie

Here's a problem with groceries, and TJ's does zip to remedy it: I live Downtown/Midtown area and went last week to the Randall's near Spec's looking for Jerk seasoning to roast some wings. Walker's Wood, generally considered the best, nearly the only around was nowhere to be found. I searched and found 28 BBQ sauces, all essentially the same ingredients. Ditto with salad dressings and hot sauces. My coveted Jerk I used to get a Fiesta on Dunlavy? None. Same true at Spec's, home of 392 Pinot Grigios and 230 hot sauces. Jerk? Zero. 

 

Overall we have some really impressive groceries nearby: HEB, Whole Foods, Kroger Montrose, Central Market, Kroger and HEB in West U. How in god's name does a place like TJ's compete with them? Slightly lower margins for people who don't cook? My prediction is they won't be around in two years...there's no rationale at all, but nostalgia/interest might buck them up for a while. Or am I wrong, which I admit is a strong possibility, in thinking the young among us just have no idea how to cook, despite watching more cooking shows than ever. It's really confounding.

overmatt
overmatt

cool article, but this line made me chuckle a bit: "We don't always have time to cook rice in the evenings when we're rushing around". Sounds like someone needs to "invest" in a rice cooker/steamer.

clubtraderjoes
clubtraderjoes

Anyone who shops at Trader Joe's knows that you are going to have to go to another grocery store eventually to get things like bags and cleaners and light bulbs, but for every day shopping you can't beat it (well sometimes the produce and meat are lacking). Once you get the hang of it you can be in and out of there in a hurry. If you do a lot of cooking from scratch, you might just want to hit a regular grocery store instead. Especially if you do a lot of baking. Some of the specialty items you'l not find anywhere else. Many of the quick meals either int the frozen section or the fridge section are super delicious. Not every one likes Trader Joe's but those of us that shop there all the time love it! 

Loona_c
Loona_c

I think it was summed up perfectly as a store for "impulse buying."  I went to the Woodlands store after the hype had worn down.  I was there 6:00 ish p.m. on a Saturday and there were a handful of people there (including the help).  I was very disappointed with the size of the store.  It looked like a health food store of yore.  Those 5 aisles that were mentioned above.  I got a nice size basil plant (that I think I "misread" the price of as well).  Some nut and seed  mixtures and some really FABULOUS red velvet cupcakes.  But otherwise I was underwhelmed.  And I was VERY disappointed to see that of their large seafood selection, ALL seemed to be marked "product of Thailand."  Ewww.

HTownChowDown
HTownChowDown

I'm a TJ's fan, but the takeaway from this article is how adorable Phaedra and Chuck are.  Have fun out there, you crazy kids.

theoShu
theoShu

@EatingOurWords you’re doing it wrong. 10 bottles of two buck chuck, passed out in a ditch, end scene.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

I went yesterday to peruse the aisles and pick up some cheap wine for a dinner party.  (I picked up 6 bottles of the cab, and all 6 of us thought it was decent.)  I agree with Nick in that it isn't really a grocer; it more reminded me of the small grocer/convenient stores you find in New York or Europe.  It was interesting that almost all of the products were store-brand.  I ended up getting some "Avocado Number " guac and some white corn tortilla chips.  Both were pretty good, although we all scoffed at their notion that 5+ avocados were in the dip.  I think the best way to approach this would be to google what are the particular favorites, such as Mai's suggestion on the condiments.

 

I will be back, but I'll do some research beforehand.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham topcommenter

@Nhallfreelance It sounds like you were predisposed to dislike Trader Joe's for some reason I don't get. I, for one, LOVE Trader Joe's. I used to make trips to TJ's every time I visited California because of the condiments. Balsamic glaze is amazing, chipotle salsa, yumtastic!  The condiments section is a dream. A champagne vinaigrette costs something like $2.99 compared to $12+ in a gourmet food store. My precious mango and fig butter was only $2.99, a steal. Organic products are also much more inexpensive than elsewhere: regular grapes were $2.69 vs. $2.99 for organic. If you talk to the people who work there they are very helpful, and if you buy something you don't like, you can take it back and get a refund. I was inquiring about breads and the girl ripped open a loaf so I could taste it! 

Mai Pham
Mai Pham topcommenter

 @Fluerie I'm sure you can find that jerk spice at Phoenicia Specialty Foods at 1001 Austin...

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @overmatt Believe me, I've thought about it for a while. But we have a very small kitchen and limited counter space. Also...we just don't eat enough rice to justify it in the end.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham topcommenter

 @FattyFatBastard I agree that it's more like a small grocer in NYC -- but, they have everything you need, which makes getting in and out easier, more efficient -- you just have to be familiar enough with the layout and their selection to get it.  That takes a bit of wandering. Wander around, see what treasures  you can find, because they are there. My Peppermint Castille soap is $9.99 vs. $13-$15 elsewhere. Fresh produce and meats are very reasonably priced, especially the organics. A lot of the frozen foods are very good -- think crab cakes, enchiladas, gourmet cheesecakes and flatbreads. 

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @FattyFatBastard Yeah, it's worth mentioning that Trader Joe's is more of an oversized convenience store than a pure grocery store. When my manpanion lived in Chicago, the TJs there were corner store-sized affairs. He was shocked to see how large the Houston TJs was. I imagine it's the size that makes people think it's a full-on grocery store, although I wouldn't compare TJs to Randalls, Kroger, Fiesta or H-E-B.

nhallfreelance
nhallfreelance

 @Mai Pham  @Nhallfreelance Mai, I don't think that's it at all. In fact, I very much wanted to like TJ's. As I said, I have strong personal connections to the building, and would love to have it be a major part of my life again. I just don't think that's going to be the case. I suppose a lot of it comes down to priorities. TJ's seems like a combo of convenience foods and gimmickry, all fancy mustard and jarred "simmer sauce." That's just not the way I cook or approach food and, thus, I have little use for TJ's. I will say that I didn't spend as much time in the meat case, as that had little to offer for my particular objective, but it did seem reasonably well stocked and affordable. The produce section was laughably small, and I couldn't find several basics. Obviously, based on Katharine's post, they have onions in forms other than pre-diced, but not when I was there.

 

Grocery stores are like restaurants in their relative usefulness. This one just doesn't fit my personal description of a useful store. My wife agreed with me on that, laughing at my suggestion that it's semi-random assortment of semi-fancy food made it feel like the world's nicest $.99 Only store, or like tacking some fresh foods onto the "grocery" section at a Cost Plus World Market. 

 

As with everything, your mileage may vary. I will say I was somewhat surprisingly impressed with their beer selection. While not large, there was a clear focus on Texas/local brews. That's cool. My wife insisted on picking up a six pack of one of their house label beers, so stay tuned for that in a week or so.

 

I have to admit, though, that I found it interesting that I'm the only outlier in the bunch. Everyone seemed to have done very well meeting their needs for $20.00. I think, again, that it's a matter of purpose. Planning a picnic is a very different exercise than stocking a pantry. Maybe TJs is better at putting the icing on the cake than it is at the cake, itself. Or some better metaphor. 

overmatt
overmatt

 @kshilcutt

 yeah that makes sense. Something about microwaved rice just sounds wrong, but I cook mostly Asian-y dishes so my opinion is definitely biased

NikJ
NikJ

 @nhallfreelance  @Mai Pham I agree with Nick, it's primarily a store for people whose idea of cooking is to heat 'n serve. Or to cook something basic and pour bottled sauce over it. At least Katharine was able to find a decent cut of meat, but you could have done that and lots, lots more at a regular grocery, with a real meat and produce section.

Still mystified by Trader Joe's.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham topcommenter

 @nhallfreelance 

 

"Maybe TJs is better at putting the icing on the cake than it is at the cake, itself. "

 

I think a lot of aspire to be great cooks; not all of us can aspire to be great chefs. I think that's the difference. TJ's lets you be a great cook and it makes it easy and affordable. It's kind of like Whole Foods light to me, at least in atmosphere and stock. I will still make special trips to Central Market.

Megan
Megan

@nhallfreelance @Mai Pham I thought the same thing as you, Nicholas - $20 is hardly enough to properly stock a pantry at any grocery store. I go there because their gluten-free pastas and rice macaroni and cheese (SHUT UP) are less expensive than my local grocery stores. They have frozen zucchini and eggplant, which is nice in the dead of winter and those veggies are not their best. (Sometimes I just want a hint of summer when it's -20 degrees out.) And their wines, while not the best in the world, are passable enough. (We exclude Two-Buck Chuck from this description, though, because it's like drinking battery acid mixed with the tears of Texans fans now that Cushing's out for the season.)

nhallfreelance
nhallfreelance

 @Mai Pham Oh, I will agree with you that the staff was super friendly and helpful. Almost overbearingly so, but that's mostly a quirk of my own personality. Clearly, it's a customer service-forward business, and I appreciate that. I took nearly a full ten minutes of time away from a guy busily replacing stock, picking his brain about the future potential for the space, what they've done with the balcony (break-room is on mezzanine, balcony will likely be left untouched and unused, sadly), my history with the store, what they did (if anything) with various bits of Bookstop/theater ephemera that I know got left behind. . .

Mai Pham
Mai Pham topcommenter

 @NikJ  @nhallfreelance actually that's not true. there's lots of stuff at TJ that you won't find at the grocery store. That's why they have a rabid fan base. Like I said, I wasn't trying to convince you one way or another, just explaining why I happen to love them. We'll just have to agree to disagree.

NikJ
NikJ

 @Mai Pham  @nhallfreelance Point is, you can find everything at TJ's in a decent grocery here. Plus much more that you won't find at TJ's. So why would it be rational to shop TJ's instead of HEB Montrose, Whole Foods or Disco Kroger? To save a couple bucks?

Mai Pham
Mai Pham topcommenter

 @nhallfreelance 

 

"TJ's seems like a combo of convenience foods and gimmickry, all fancy mustard and jarred "simmer sauce.""

 

From your response, I read that you would prefer everything from scratch. My point is: of course scratch tastes butter, but not everyone has the skills or the time. If I can get a bottle of great-tasting balsamic glaze (I used it on top of a foie de volaille mouse I made once, and it was fantastic) that costs less than the balsamic vinegar that I'd have to buy to reduce and make the glaze, I'm happy.

 

That champagne vinegar (not vinaigrette, my bad) for $2.99 costs just as much as the regular red wine variety vinegar you would buy at a Kroger's, and the fragrance and flavor from the champagne vinegar will elevate the vinaigrette to something more gourmet. That's what TJ's allows you to do. I saw organic ground beef for something ridiculous like $5-6 that would cost me $8-10 elsewhere.

 

I cooked as a student and always wanted to be able to do more. We had Whole Foods and Ralph's near my university but the prices for organic and some of the more "gourmet"- type ingredients made them inaccessible at the time. TJ's made it affordable, made it easier for me to eat better, and for less.  The charcuterie/cheese plate I made would cost probably double elsewhere -- just the truffle mousse pate alone would have set me back $8++ elsewhere. 

 

They keep their prices low, you don't have to wait for sales and clip coupons, the quality of the raw food products and pre-prepared food products is high. I'm not trying to turn your opinion around, just explain why, to me, it's a great store. 

 

nhallfreelance
nhallfreelance

@Mai Pham @nhallfreelance I'm not entirely sure I understand the point you're making, RE: cooks vs. chefs. I don't think that jarred champagne vinaigrette makes anybody a better cook. Cooking does. TJs seems less about cooking than about neat single serve items and prepared foods. That's fine, but it's not for me. In not trying to knock anyone who shops there. If you find it useful, that's great. I was just trying to add more meat to my reasons for not digging it, in response to the assumption that I'd had a prior agenda/bias.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

 @Mai Pham  @nhallfreelance I picked up 6 bottles of wine at the front of the store and then had to walk ALL the way to the end of the store, courtesy of the velvet rope, and then ALL the way to the front of the store to the checkout caller-outer, and then ALL the way to the end of the store to the available checkout clerk and then ALL the way to the front of the store to get to where I parked.

 

Have I mentioned I'm lazy?

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