Saturday, August 18, 2007

A.J.’s Fine Foods: Gourmet Feasting in Phoenix


Last weekend, I found myself in Phoenix. Samantha, my 11-year-old niece was making her theatrical debut in the children’s chorus of The Valley Youth Theatre’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” No eye-rolling, please. Even if I weren’t fulfilling my auntie obligations, I’d go see this show because this is an amazingly professional group, and it’s celebrating its 10th anniversary. The kids were fantastic. For those of you who are American Idol fans, this is the theater group that this season’s AI winner Jordin Sparks performed with while in high school. My sister-in-law Dina saw her perform Cinderella a year or so ago, and she tells me that even then, she knew Jordin would be a star.

Okay, enough of that. When in Arizona, if you’re into markets and great food, one of the best places to go is one of the 11 A.J.’s Fine Foods markets. If you’re from L.A. or Orange County, you’ll understand when I say that A.J.’s is the Phoenix version of Gelson’s (only without the fabulous Viktor Benes baked goods). If you don’t know what I’m referring to, just think of it as a variation on Bristol Farms or a non-organic Whole Foods. Very upscale. Lots of beautiful looking displays. Equally gorgeous looking and tasting foods.

A.J.’s is one of four types of markets owned by the Basha family—Bashas' (mainstream supermarket), Bashas' Diné (markets found on Native American reservations), A.J.'s Fine Foods (gourmet/specialty) and Food City (catering to the Hispanic market). Drive around Arizona and you’ll see Basha supermarkets throughout, as well as in Needles, Calif., and Crownpoint, New Mexico.

The first sight you see when you walk into A.J.’s is a large spread of pastries in their “Boulangerie.” You’ll find everything from bagels and croissants to scones and cinnamon rolls. And, then there are the sweet treats spanning Europe—luscious fruit tarts, cream puffs, lemon bars, éclairs and cannoli.

There are adorable, wildly colored sugar cookies and cupcakes, enormous chocolate-covered strawberries and individual Grand Teton Chocolate cakes.


Check out the foot-long twisted pretzels and the pretzel rolls. And, if all this isn’t sweet or fattening enough for you, there’s a large case filled with chocolates, including Joseph Schmidt truffles in flavors that include champagne, double latte, mushroom and Kahlua.

Nearby is “The Bistro,” where you can pick up takeout. But, this isn’t just any takeout. You’ll find prime rib, roasted turkey and different hams. Love chicken salad? They make a moist, basil-laden pesto chicken salad, a sweet curry chicken salad and several other varieties. You can get the makings for Sunday brunch, with their sliced smoked Nova. Miss your Nana’s chopped liver? They’ve got a yummy onion-y version, freshly made. Also, pickled herring in wine and in cream, a variety of pates—foie gras, peppercorn mousse and mousse truffle—and even dolmas. I was intrigued by the sweet curly peppers antipasto, with pickled peppers, dried tomatoes, whole garlic cloves and olives. Too bad, I was flying home in a couple of hours…

You’ll also find a large case filled with sausages, smoked meats and wheels of cheese—the makings of some great sandwiches, like the Grand Canyon—thin-sliced pastrami and corned beef with Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing on fresh pumpernickel bread—or the Caprese—fresh mozzarella, tomato, fresh basil leaves, red onions, olive oil and black pepper on a baguette.

More interested in pizza? No problem. They have a large menu of different combinations like spinach feta, garlic chicken, chicken cacciatore and vegetarian.

Keep going and you’ll head into an odd combination of foods—a sushi bar surrounded by the cheese counter. There’s sushi to go, but feel free to take a seat, order some saki and the usual fare you’d find at a sushi bar. Or ignore and head over to the cheeses.

They have a great selection, including some of my favorites, like the mosaic-like Cahill’s Porter Cheese, goat mozzarella, double- and triple-cream bries and five-year aged cheddar. If I were staying in Phoenix longer, I’d have picked up the Amber Valley Sage Derby, a green mosaic that combines a cow’s milk cheese with dried sage.

Also on display is an antipasto bar with jugs of olives, baby mozzarella, marinated mushrooms, roasted red peppers, marinated artichoke hearts, sweet red peppers and vibrant peppadew peppers from South Africa.

Of course, this being a grocery store, A.J.’s has much of the usual fare, including jars of pickles, a favorite of Shea’s, my youngest niece. But, this being A.J.’s they have a very cool brand—Bubbie’s. If you or your mom can’t make fresh pickles, buy these. They are the best, hands down. My favorites are the kosher dills, the pickled green tomatoes and the sauerkraut.

Now one of the reasons my brother Jay shops at A.J.’s is the meats. So, I had to take a look. If meat is your thing, you’ll enjoy this. They’re known for their all-natural beef, chicken, turkey and pork. No antibiotics or growth hormones here. And, they sell only choice or prime grades. You can find a rack of lamb or standing rib roast, veal shanks and all the usual cuts, along with some lovely looking prepared foods—at least prepared to the point of going in the oven. How about honey mustard pretzel chicken breasts?

Or cream cheese and bacon stuffed Portobello mushrooms? Or an Italian pork roast, stuffed with a sensuous looking combination of ham, Swiss, provolone, proscuitto and fresh spinach?

My last stop—Jay and Shea were waiting outside for me by this point—was the produce department. It features almost all the regular stuff you’d find at a good market, beautifully displayed, of course. But, there were a few things that stood out. The deep purple pluots, pointy ends all lined up.

There were plump English peas as well as my favorite sugar snap peas. But, I was stopped in my tracks by lobster mushrooms, accompanied by morels, chantrelles and oysters.

The heirloom tomatoes in their baskets were stunning. I think I recognized some Mr. Uglies that are now growing in my garden.

And, I liked the looks of the Dapple Fire pluots so much I bought a few for my family. I ate one and loved the sweet, juiciness of it.

And, then it was time to leave. It would be easy to drop a lot of money here, especially if I were just visiting and needed some great prepared foods for a family treat that required no cooking.

A.J.’s Fine Foods is located at 56th and Ray Road in Chandler, as well as 10 other locations in Arizona (two more are opening soon).

Have some thoughts about A.J.’s Fine Foods or other gourmet markets? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:


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