Diner: Foraging for Food Finds

Jump in the cart: It's a shopping expedition for unusual edibles

Matt Borgerding

Chowheads can breathe a sigh of contentment now that Trader Joe's has opened a Cincinnati location in Kenwood on Montgomery Road.

What defines us as food writers is that we write about food because we have a love affair with food. We chase our passion beyond the restaurant realm of luxury dining or discovering cheap eats, merely one aspect of our large appetites. Most of us are on the constant lookout for food finds — the new, the unusual, the memorable, the sublime and the ridiculous — we don't want to miss a single bite. We've become supermarket sociologists and bodega warriors. We're driven to deliciousness and we'll go way out of our way to find evocative eating at any price range. We're also savvy enough to appreciate value: We'd rather not pay $6 a pound for almond butter at Kroger whenTrader Joe's has it for $3.

For anyone who loves to eat, loves to cook and loves the adventure of food, we'd like to take you with us on little shopping expedition. OK, you can ride in the cart!

Big Lots (various locations around Greater Cincinnati). One of our guilty secrets, a shopping trip in a Big Lots food department, can be a lot like discovering a Prada bag in a thrift store.

Sure, there's an entire section of "potted meats" and grape soda, but with a constantly rotating stock of odd lots and slightly damaged case goods, it's possible to find basmati rice and mint chutney, British sugar cubes and Carr's Biscuits for afternoon tea, jerk sauce and benne wafers, Jamaican coffee and Belgian chocolates, jars of smoked eel, oat crackers from Scotland, our favorite German salad dressing — all for half the cost.

Cincinnati Asia Market (10400 Reading Road, Evendale; 513-733-1828). Armed with $20, an adventurous spirit and a cast-iron gastrointestinal tract, the average Joe can purchase a shopping basket full of items, which frankly, might not be food at all. Sometimes, it's difficult to tell. Industrial-sized tubs of curry paste? Sure, that's food. Thai noodles? Definitely food. Coconut milk? Food. Duck feet? Maybe food. Beef stomach? Probably not food. Hot marinated chicken eggs from Taiwan, chocolate brown and vacuum-packed like two strange little diseased testicles? Hopefully, not food. Shiny exotic Asian fruit and vegetables are piled high in the produce section, like strange exhibits. Dead fish stare glumly from the seafood aisle. Japanese mung bean cakes are arranged neatly on the dessert shelves. Elsewhere are squid and octopi, dumplings and buns, jackfruit, lychees and rambutans (a remarkable looking fruit), and almost an entire aisle of fermented fish sauces to choose from. Perhaps most impressive for the aspiring Doctor Frankensteins out there, it's possible to buy everything you need at CAM to make a completely new duck from scratch, except a needle and thread, and Walgreen's is right next door for that.

JagDeep's Indian Grocery (356 Ludlow Ave., Clifton; 513-961-2699). Vegetarians and vegans flock to this little store located next to Amol India for curry pastes, varieties of rice and naan. But carnivores will find a small selection of goat, fresh fish and halal meats in the back where there's no danger of cross-contamination. A good place to stock up on incense and Bollywood movies (boy meets girl, boy sings about girl for 90 minutes, boy gets girl).

Jungle Jim's International Market (5540 Dixie Hwy, Fairfield; 513-674-6000). If the moon were really made of cheese, Jungle Jim would sell it by the pound. The place is a field trip for us, but we wander the aisles in amazement and fill our carts with fruit and vegetables and international foods of all stripes and sizes. We like the atmosphere — big, sprawling and polyglot, as Jungle Jim's is a destination for immigrant communities and ex-pats who come for the extensive ethnic food sections. From exotic meats like emus (really, we mean it), buffalo, alligator, ostrich (and ostrich eggs), to Asian produce, Mexican chilies, German schnitzel, English marmalade, Belgian chocolate, weird dried Korean squid and trout so fresh they're swimming in a tank. (Don't throw your friend's car keys in there for a joke, though. Jim hates that.) The world is available for you to consume.

It's not often in Cincinnati that you'll hear Chinese, Thai, French and Spanish spoken in the same place.

Saigon Market (119 W. Elder, Over-The-Rhine; 513-721-8053). Located outside the market house at Findlay Market, this is the oldest Asian market in Cincinnati. Catering to primarily Chinese and Vietnamese, this diminutive, crowded store is loved for its standards and surprises. Dried seaweed for nori rolls, bamboo shoots, crystallized ginger and tofu? Got it. But how about plastic Asian dishes, perfect for outdoor picnics? Or Hello Kitty candy and exotic smelling, sandalwood soaps? If the owner is not too busy with customers, ask him to explain all the mysterious looking vials of pure ginseng extracts — a lesson in aphrodisiacs.

TJ Maxx (multiple locations). Not a food shopping destination per se, but if we're here looking for clothes or shoes bargains, we periodically take a few minutes to pop back to the kitchen section (where, by the way, you can often find great deals on utensils and cookware like Le Creuset) to dig up good bargains on foodstuffs such as gourmet olive oils and vinegars, marinades and spices, delicate cookies and chocolate covered yummies.

Trader Joe's (7788 Montgomery Road, Kenwood; 513-984-3452). Yes, yes, chowheads can finally breathe a sigh of contentment now that the industry darling opened a Cincinnati location several months ago. Trader Joe's brings out the obsessive-compulsive in us: We find ourselves turning off the Kenwood exit even when we're headed someplace else — like work! We love the low-budget, earthy vibe and the excellent quality products. Double Dark French Roast coffee, Gorgonzola and Walnut tortellini, red mole sauce, herbed goat cheese (the cheapest we've found anywhere), the hunks of Brie decorated with bay leaves and slices of sun-dried tomatoes, horseradish hummus, wonderful little potpies, roasted red pepper tomato soup (we love it for lunch with a dollop of the goat cheese) and great deals on dried fruits and nuts are just some of the bounty we crave from Trader Joe's. Check out the sample counter where you never have to be shy about more than one helping, located next to the free coffee and tea table — as if we weren't already revved up enough. ©