We’d heard a lot about Trader Joe’s when the beloved grocery chain moved into Portland.

Most of it involved cheap alcohol.

Admittedly, neither Bag Lady nor Shopping Siren are liquor connoisseurs. (Give us a Diet Cherry Pepsi and we’re happy. Cheap dates! It’s served us well.) But we’re always eager to check out any new only-one-in-the-state hot spot whose customers are so enraptured with the shopping experience that the store has to set a two-hour time limit on the best parking spots.

We sallied forth.

With little to go on other than exulted, breathy praise from Trader Joe’s fans, we pictured it as an upscale Whole Foods-type market — filled with national and local organic and speciality foods — but at regular ol’ supermarket prices. What we got was more discount-grocery-meets-warehouse store, with some sporadic shelving (frozen pizzas, olives and knock-off Oreos within a foot of each other), ’80s music over the truly-loud loudspeaker and a campy nautical theme (The restrooms: “Port of Potties.” The intercom system: a hand-rung bell at each checkout).

The good news: We saw a lot of organic and speciality foods, and at prices that rivaled (or, in some cases, completely obliterated) those of traditional Maine grocery stores. The bad news: You won’t find your favorite name brands here. Nearly everything in sight carried the Trader Joe’s private label, whether it was cereal, canned spaghetti, potato chips or pet food. No Pringles or Cheerios here, don’t even bother looking.

In all, Trader Joe’s was more fun and funky than upscale and trendy. We’re OK with that.

We were more than OK with the fact that the peppermint hot chocolate mix actually contains chocolate shavings and the checkout person unloads your grocery cart for you. Would that make us linger two hours? Maybe not, but we’ll be back, matey.

(All items are house brand unless otherwise noted.)

* Gone Bananas, 4-pack, $1.99

Frozen bananas dipped in chocolate on a stick. Mmm?

* Premium extra virgin olive oil, 32 oz., $7.99

Tall, pretty bottle with an add-on spout. For those of us who like our olive oil to be aesthetically pleasing. Frankly, who doesn’t?

* Organic reduced-sugar blueberry preserves, 15.2 oz., $3.49

Bag Lady has been all about blueberries lately (bring on the antioxidants!) This hit the spot in a PB&J. Mr. Bag Lady even approved.

* Lobster bisque, 12 oz., $3.29

Perfect warm meal on a cold, cold day. Like any of those in the next three months.

* Organic wood-fire Sicilian-style pizza, 14.4 oz., $4.99

Our pizzas are not normally organic, wood-fire or of a particular style. We are intrigued. 

* Bananas, 19 cents each

Most of the time we buy our bananas by the pound, so we were surprised by Trader Joe’s unusual pricing. Even after due consideration, we’re not sure whether we’d come out ahead or behind in per-banana pricing. Done the math yourself? Then, please, regale us with your banana-buying prowess.

* Charles Shaw wine, 750 ml., $2.59

An array of options, such as 2008 California Sauvignon Blanc and 2010 California red table wine, 2009 California Shiraz. Buy by the bottle or mix and match to buy by the case.

We know nothing about spirits, except that when the price is painted on the wall, it probably doesn’t change very often.

* Nature’s Path organic hemp granola, 11.5 oz., $2.88

One of the few non-Trader Joe’s products we saw on the shelves, and we’re pretty sure we’ve never seen this product in any local grocery store. We would have remembered the hemp.

* Guacamole kit, 20 oz., $3.49

Fresh tomato, onion, avocado, jalapeno. Ta-da!

* Fat-free white milk, 1 quart, 97 cents

We recommend pairing it with the hot chocolate. (Go, calcium!)

* Habanero lime flour tortillas, 16 oz., $2.69

Package says these tortillas are medium hot, with a hint of lime. We’re not sure we’d like a tortilla with that much sass, but life and shopping are all about adventure, right?

* Creamy almond butter with sea salt, 16 oz., $4.99

See previous nod to adventure. Taste. Repeat.

* Druid Circles, 16 oz., $3.99

Chewy raisin oatmeal cookies with walnuts. That’s what they are, but c’mon. Druid Circles sounds much cooler.

Best find: Peppermint hot chocolate mix, 8 oz., $4.99

Since this is one of the few items we’ve been able to taste-test, we can happily attest that it includes real chocolate shavings and offers a rich chocolate-mint flavor. The display sign cautioned, “When it’s gone, it’s gone … til next year!” Heed the warning, sailor.

Think twice: Freeze-dried blueberries, 1.2 oz., $3.29

A high cost for so few berries, particularly since you can get them free — and fresh — in your own backyard some places in Maine. Stick with the peppermint hot chocolate. We’re pretty sure that’s not freely available in anyone’s backyard.

* Prices as of 1/11

In defense of chilled chicken

We got a note from a reader named Jane this week, taking us to task for not highlighting Whole Foods’ organic choices and poking some fun at chicken priced at $6.09/pound, advertised as “air chilled.” Neither Bag Lady nor Shopping Siren was familiar with the chilly merits. Jane filled us in:

“(It’s) not dumped into a cold water bath in processing to kill bacteria. Air chilling makes the flavor much better and makes it more tender. If you tried it you can CLEARLY taste the difference and it is always moist even if overcooked. I will NEVER go back to grocery store bought chicken. If you watch the flier you can buy the air chilled for much less than the $6.09 price you shared.”

We’re never too chicken to hear from you. Thanks.

Bag Lady and Shopping Siren’s true identities are protected by a pair of stylish, sweater-wearing Doberman pinschers (who aren’t brand conscious; they’ll never turn up a nose at generic pig ears) and the Customer Service counter at the Sun Journal. You can reach them at [email protected] and [email protected]


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