Friday, April 27, 2007

Foodland Mercado: La Vida Dulce in El Cajon

Being so close to the Mexican border, San Diegans have long had a natural affinity for Mexican and Latin food. But, authenticity hasn’t always been part of the experience, especially if all it embraces is Taco Bell, El Torito or Acapulco. I was stunned when I moved here from L.A. almost 20 years ago to find the offerings so bland and limited. That, however, has long since changed and both the restaurant scene and the markets embrace our region’s strong Hispanic roots.

It’s easy now to take for granted the selection of tomatillos, chayote squash, papayas and half a dozen different fresh chiles in Henry’s or even big supermarket chains. But if you want real immersion on this side of the border, it’s available at Foodland Mercado. Last Sunday, I visited the El Cajon store with my friend Angela Nava and her mom Bertha. While the El Cajon store is their favorite, Dallo Enterprises, the company that owns Foodland, also operates two others, on Highland Ave. in National City and in San Diego on Federal Blvd. near Euclid Ave. They also own Eduardo’s in San Diego on National Ave. at 32nd St. and Hometown in Chula Vista on E. St. And, something that may surprise you. Dallo Enterprises owns the upscale Jonathan’s, Harvest Ranch and Orchard Market.

The Foodland in El Cajon is a bustling place. Along with a bountiful produce department and aisles filled with the usual supermarket fare, Foodland has a pasteleria, or bakery, that turns out sweet breads and pastries, a taqueria serving fresh hot foods, a tortilleria that makes corn tortillas daily and flour tortillas on Wednesdays, a cheese counter overflowing with wheels of queso fresco and queso panela and containers of cremas (sour cream), and a robust meat department. Piñatas hang en masse from the ceiling and festive Latin music completes the feeling that you could easily be shopping in a prosperous Mexican neighborhood.

What hit me first when I walked in was the sweet scent of the bakery. That fragrant melding of sugar and yeasty dough embraces you at the door and tugs you in. Long tables are filled with cakes and flat rounds of bread made with molasses called cema. I bought a loaf of cema con fibre, a whole wheat bread with an undertone of sweetness to it, delicious sliced and lightly toasted, topped with butter and honey. In bins across from the breads are the pan dulces, or sweet breads. Most of us are familiar with churros, the long fried doughnut-like pastries rolled in cinnamon sugar. Foodland has those, but there are also a variety of sweet rolls, nameless unfortunately. Some were frosted with coconut.

Others were thinly iced on top with vanilla or chocolate. Still another, called a bisquete, looks like a cross between a biscuit and a brioche. I bought one and had it for breakfast the next morning. A few minutes in the toaster oven brought it both warmth and a slight exterior crispness. Inside, folds of a yellow dough, like egg bread, peeled away in layers, soft and just a little sweet. Definitely something to return for.

Like many markets, Foodland has a deli case with prepared foods. Pre-chopped containers of cilantro seemed a little silly to Bertha, but nearby were containers filled with more promising products: both fish and shrimp ceviche, tuna salad with corn, ensalada de nopales (prickly pear cactus pads) and, naturally, a variety of salsas. Roja, verde, Mexicana and a surprising red salsa de tomatillo (tomatillos, with their papery husks, are decidedly green). I bought a container of the salsa Mexicana—basically a flavorful pico de gallo, sans the heat—and the ensalada de nopales.

For the salad, the nopales undergo a cooking process that includes pulling out sharp spines, peeling/scraping the pads of remaining nodes and boiling to get rid of the okra-like mucilagenous liquid (let's just be honest and call it slimy stuff). Once they're sliced, they look and taste like slightly sour al dente green beans. Then they're tossed with thin slices of red onion and crumbled queso fresco. Recipes I've seen also include olive oil, salt and pepper, of course, along with sliced green onions, diced radishes, cilantro, diced serrano chiles and dried oregano. If you're feeling adventurous, you can buy nopales at Foodland and try this. Grilling is also a popular technique and I'm told they're delicious with grilled meats. As for the salsa and salad, for days I enjoyed both, tucked inside corn tortillas from a package still warm when I picked it up at the tortilleria.

The tortilleria. This is authentic down to the vats of limewater in which the dry maize grain soaks to remove the outer hull before being ground into masa (if you want to get technical, the process is called nixtamalization). While corn tortillas are easy to make (buy a bag of masa and follow the recipe on the package) and taste so much better than commercially packaged tortillas, if you can’t make them yourself, buy them from a tortilleria. They’re a wondrous thing. And, the chips that follow are just as sublime. For decades I’ve been mad for the fat, paprika-laced chips from El Indio, but Foodland’s may just have displaced them. Lighter, less salty and less greasy, they still stand up to a thick, chunky salsa and complement the flavor. El Indio’s chips are assertive lead actors. Foodland’s are delicious ensemble players. The tortilleria also makes gorditas (thick corn tortillas), fried tostadas and buñuelos (flour tortillas fried and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar). And, if you’re motivated to make your own tortillas, Foodland sells aluminum tortilla presses and tortilla warmers as well as bags of masa.

Opposite the tortilleria in the back of the store are the cheese counter and meat department. In the cheese case are 12-pound wheels of queso fresco—mild, salty and crumbly—and wheels of queso panela, which is less salty and has less fat. Both have a texture similar to feta. Angela and I were curious about the queso enchilada, an aged, part-skim milk cheese coated in red chili powder.

We asked for samples, and agreed it was extremely salty. When you go, feel free to ask to taste the many cheeses they stock. You’ll also find large tins of olive oil, jugs of olives, pickled pig’s feet and other delicacies.

Surrounding the cheese counter are cases of fresh meat and poultry as well as a fish section. While some of the fish and shellfish looked frozen/defrosted, the meat was clearly fresh—honeycomb beef tripe for menudo, beef marrow guts, tongue, oxtails, large cuts of pork shoulder and pork feet. In another case were packages of fresh—not frozen—Cornish game hens. And stacked on a table nearby were three-pound packages of very white slabs of pork lard. Angela insisted I try the chicharonnes (pork cracklings), both plain and con carne, something I’d never had. I may never eat it again because it’s simply pure deep fried fat, but, oh, it proves how unfair life can be that something so delicious is so bad for you.

Once I got that out of my system, we headed over toward the produce section. On the way, I stopped to ogle the loose dried chiles, beans and tamarindo, a brown, pod-like legume often made into a drink, but also made into hard candies. In front of the dried products was a basket filled with piloncillo, unrefined Mexican brown sugar (the name refers to its cone shape).

You can substitute it for brown sugar in recipes. I found an intriguing recipe for pralines using piloncillo on

Piloncillo Pralines

1 1/2 c. sugar
8 to 9 oz. piloncillo, softened and chopped
1/2 c. plus 2 tbl. whole milk
6 tbl. butter
1 1/2 c. pecan pieces, toasted
1/2 tsp. ground canela (cinnamon)
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Grease a 24-inch sheet of wax paper. Set it on several thickness of newspaper.

Combine all ingredients except the vanilla extract in a heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil slowly so that the piloncillo melts and continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage, 238°F.

Add vanilla extract, remove the pan from the heat, and continue stirring as the candy cools. When the mixture becomes creamy and cloudy, and the pecans remain suspended while stirring, spoon the mixture onto the wax paper. You can make pralines of any size. Work quickly, before the candy hardens in the pan. The pralines set as they cool.

These are best the day they are made, but they will keep for several days if tightly covered. Use leftover pralines by crumbling them over ice cream. You can also pour the praline mixture into a pan and cut it like fudge.

The produce at Foodland is sparkling fresh. Of course, we found a wealth of chiles—deep green jalapeños, vibrant orange habaneros, anaheims perfect for stuffing with cheese and a variety I hadn’t seen before, manzanos.

These gorgeous round chiles take their name from their apple shape. Hot? Mild? I had no idea. Bertha said they could be either, depending on the color, which ranged from a light green to yellow to bright orange, and sometimes, just the individual chile. She prepares them by slicing them thinly and adding sliced onion, lemon or lime juice and salt. Marinate them overnight and enjoy them as a relish or add them to meat or poultry on the grill or in the saute pan. I bought about half a dozen and followed her directions (adding both lemon and lime). The chiles have the thick, firm consistency of a bell pepper and, as she said, some slices were full of fire while others were perfectly mild. I’m still working my way through the relish, but today I added cubed roma tomatoes and cubed avocado to make more of a salsa cruda (jicama or cucumber would be other good additions). I’ll probably top a grilled seabass fillet with it or just stuff it into a warm corn tortilla.

Another unfamiliar fruit I saw Bertha told me was a “tuna”—cactus fruit or prickly pear in English. She was right. And wrong. The store labeled them “xoconoixtle” and it turns out they are cactus fruit, but not the sweet tunas Bertha eats; instead a very sour variety often used for seasoning stews and salsa.

My friend Armando, a gallery owner who was raised in Mexico City but now lives and works in Rosarito, explained to me later that a buddy of his from Arrandes, near Tequila, slices them very thin and eats a slice after every sip of tequila instead of lime. It sounded interesting so I tried it. I loved the xoconotli (another spelling and pronounced “so-con-know-slee”); it has the texture of a ripe pear and the flavor of a Meyer lemon. However, it didn’t work for me as a tequila chaser because the tequila overwhelmed it. When I reported back to Armando, he pointed out that by the time the fruit gets up here, it’s lost some of its potency so it’s a better partner to tequila before it travels north. As a child, Armando spent a lot of time at the local markets with his mother and aunt and recalled a stew they made called caldo de olla, with vegetables and oxtail. In the last hour of cooking, sliced xoconotli would be added to provide a slightly acidic taste and help cut the fat.

The Navas wouldn’t let me leave Foodland without trying something from the taqueria, which got no argument from me. There were tacos, tortas and burritos to try, but Angela decided on sopes. It’s not unlike a small tostada, but instead of a flat tortilla, the sopes base is a very thick corn tortilla, almost tart-shaped in that the sides raise up about half an inch. They’re filled with beans, carne asada, shredded lettuce, cheese, crema and salsa. This is not date food. You pick it up and take a bite and whatever doesn’t go in the mouth slides down your face, your hands, your arms. In short, it can be a mess, but a delicious one.

Foodland Mercado is located at 1099 E. Main St. in El Cajon.

Have some thoughts about Foodland Mercado or other Latin markets in San Diego? 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:

Friday, April 20, 2007

Caffé Calabria: Full of Beans in North Park

One Wednesday last October, the LA Times food section devoted most of its space to coffee. Where to find great roasters. The best brewing methods. Recipes that incorporate coffee. I’m not a coffee fanatic, but I do enjoy the stuff and, because my rebellious body can now only tolerate decaf, I’ve felt challenged to find a truly flavorful roast.

So, I scoured the stories for any hints on where to buy good decaf beans in San Diego. They were filled with great information, but the Times doesn’t cover San Diego anymore so I was left to my own devices. Research led me to Caffé Calabria on 30th St. in North Park, a coffee roaster and coffeehouse that also serves panini and desserts. And, the lovely and very knowledgeable folks who work there, in turn, led me to two different coffees: their full-bodied decaf Costa Rica, a hard-bean Arabica that is indescribably flavorful (not just strong for strong's sake) and their decaf Calabria blend, a rich house-blend espresso that is so much better than the canned Illy I've been using on the weekends with my Gaggia classic.

At the time, I told the saga of my frustrating quest to one of the baristas, who called over owner Arne Holt. He stopped what he was doing and showed me around the premises, which are far more than a mere coffeehouse storefront. It’s a full on coffee mecca with 22- and 45-kilo roasters, the latter a restored 1958 German machine with gleaming stainless steel.

In a back room, he was preparing to set up a retail space for selling home brewing equipment and accessories. Upstairs are the business offices. In the basement, bags and burlap bags of coffee beans. He told me about his plans to add an authentic Italian pizza oven. All this, and I was just a person who had walked in off the street looking for a good cup of coffee.

I stopped back a couple of days ago to buy some more coffee and the first thing I noticed was the blue-and-white tiled beehive-shaped pizza oven, still a work in progress, but a formidable presence in the coffeehouse.

Holt was in, having just returned at 5:30 that morning from a trip to Italy where he had bought a coffee bar that will be the centerpiece of a remodeling aimed, as he says, “to bring the culture of Italy to our front door.

“We’ll serve coffee and panini during the day, and five nights a week we’ll shut down at 3 p.m. and re-open at 5 p.m. as an enoteca, or wine bar, and serve pizza,” he says. “And, it will be verra pizza Napoletana,” he emphasizes, “authentic, true Neapolitan pizza."

In fact, the oven is being constructed out of materials from Naples by Neapolitan builders. Holt has also brought over master pizza maker Ernesto Caciolli from Naples to train the staff. Stay tuned for the opening date; there’s a lot of remodeling to take place, including the addition of mezzanine seating, before pizza will be served.

In the meantime, however, there’s always the coffee. Caffé Calabria roasts between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds a day, both for the store and customers throughout Southern California and beyond. Holt counts 15 varietals and numerous blends among the offerings. A full listing can be found on their website,

And, for tea lovers, the back room, still in transition mode for the retail space, has endless canisters of teas, blended by the staff and sold under the name Sochi Teas.

In the coffeehouse, I noticed a stack of burlap bags below a cup with the lettering, “Get Smart,” and asked Holt what this was all about. Before I knew it, we were heavy into a discussion on Fair Trade issues. He explained that for years, they regularly piled the bags there for people to take, but that they have started a donation project, Get Smart, to raise money to help pay for children in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, to attend school. Take a bag, put a little money for it into the cup and help provide an education, with Caffé Calabria matching donations.

More than that, though, it represents a larger effort spurred by a profound skepticism Holt has with the Fair Trade certification program. “I don’t think the money’s going to the right people,” he says. Concerned about abuses in the program, he has decided to visit the farms he buys beans from to determine for himself if they meet his criteria, which includes using organic fertilizers and compost, maintaining the land and trees and treating the people who work on the farm with respect. “I want to see that they’re growing coffee with the earth, making sure everything is sustainable, whether they are ‘certified’ or not,” he says. “It’s a matter of treating the land with love and the people who work on the farm with love.

“The goal is to have all our coffee purchased under this criteria,” he notes. “The larger goal is buying consciously.” His first farm visit was to Matagalpa, where he’ll be returning soon. Hence, the burlap bag donations.

While buying sustainably is commendable, ultimately, the coffee has to taste good or there are no customers. Monday through Friday, Caffé Calabria holds coffee cupping sessions, a technique to evaluate the flavor profile of a coffee. ( has a good step-by-step guide to this.)

“Coffee is so volatile,” says Holt. “It’s always changing. It can start out with a fruity flavor, then develop more citrus tones. We need to cup it out everyday to make sure we’ve got a good product.”

As if the pizza and sustainable buying projects aren’t enough, Holt has one more novel twist to add to the business, a Clover bar.

If you haven’t heard of this, it may be because San Diego doesn’t yet have one and they’re only just springing up in other parts of the country. Three years ago, two entrepreneurs, Zander Nosler and Randy Hulett, started The Coffee Equipment Co. (in Seattle, of course) to developed a sophisticated machine they call The Clover. At its most basic, The Clover produces upgraded drip coffee by the cup, combining vacuum brewing with the French press. So, we’re talking brewed coffee, not espresso, but this isn't any old drip coffee. The technique of matching the brewing to the specific flavor profile of the bean creates a coffee experience that is apparently far superior to and more complex than any brewed coffee you’d get out of traditional equipment. If this appeals, head on over there May 10, when Holt says that The Clover will be installed and ready for action.

Caffé Calabria, which has been in business for six years, has become a gathering place for more than buying a pound or two of coffee or tea. They hold tea tastings on the third Saturday of each month from 10 to 11 a.m. and the San Diego Home Roasters meet there on the first Saturday of the month at 10 a.m. I was also happy to find that Caffé Calabria is dog friendly.

Oh, and if you go in to buy coffee beans at lunchtime, pick up the grilled vegetable panini (a wonderful melding of eggplant, zuccini, red onions and tomatoes on crunchy foccacia) and have the barista make you a Café Viennese. This (decaf, for me) espresso concoction made with steamed milk, honey and cinnamon is layered with so many delicious, complementary flavors, it made me weak in the knees with pleasure.

Caffé Calabria is located at 3933 30th St., just north of University.

Have some thoughts about Caffé Calabria or other coffee roasters in San Diego? 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:

Friday, April 13, 2007

Balboa International Market & Deli: Globetrotting in Clairemont

We all know what armchair travelers are. Well, I think I’m turning into a grocery store traveler. In just the last couple of months I’ve traveled to Japan, China, India and Israel without having left San Diego. This week, in just one stop, I was able to globe trot once again, journeying through the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Balboa International Market & Deli is one of those places someone has to tell you about because its location, in a row of storefronts behind another row of storefronts on Balboa in Clairemont, is not something you’ll just happen upon serendipitously. But, it’s worth the minor effort to find it. My friends Paula and Armando, who introduced me the market, are regulars here, even bringing a large cooler to fill up with perishables for the trip back down to their home in Rosarito.

Owned by the Javdani family, Balboa International Market & Deli is in its third year of business. Manager Elie Raad emphasizes that it is truly international; indeed, a look at the labels on cans, jars and packages whisks you from Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey east to Iran, Israel and India.

Before getting to the business of shopping, the best start is with lunch at their deli. With half a dozen tables set up inside and nine outside, diners can enjoy a variety of Middle Eastern dishes, like chicken and beef kabobs or tender lamb shanks, accompanied by a salad, rice fragrant with saffron and dill and a traditional grilled whole tomato. They also have tabbouleh, spanikopita, tomato and cucumber salad, hummus and falafel. Just put in your order at the deli in the back of the store, take a number, pay for your meal at the register and then find a table. Someone from the deli will bring your lunch to you when it’s ready.

Once fortified, make your way past the pastries and refrigerated section behind the check out lines to the produce. The selection isn’t large, but the quality is good, with gorgeous smooth Persian cucumbers, robust fava beans and a variety of herbs a stand out. Most intriguing were the fuzzy young green almonds. These are a traditional Middle Eastern snack with a very limited period of availability during the year, perhaps three weeks. Perfect with a beer, they need only a quick rinse. Then dip them in salt (or not) and pop them in your mouth. They’re crunchy on the outside with a slightly bitter, herb taste. Inside, the seed is a translucent jelly, kind of like a lychee. Green almonds are not only eaten raw; they are frequently brined or pickled.

You should also check the front of the store to see if bread making is in progress. The store produces fresh Barbari bread, a Persian flat loaf topped with sesame and caraway seeds. It’s very similar to Italian foccacia—crusty on the outside and soft inside. I watched as one of their employees worked the giant dough mixer before shaping the loaves into large flat ovals about an inch and a half high and, after letting them rest, put them in the oven.In the two hours I spent poking around, fresh loaves were regularly brought out in stacks to be placed next to a big basket of plump green raisins. These loaves are best enjoyed hot out of the oven, but can be frozen and reheated. Top a slice with fresh feta cheese or perhaps fig jam.

The market also sells baklava, walnut cookies, Afghani sweet bread and other pastries, as well as chocolates from Russia, Halvah from Israel, real licorice and Turkish Delight. I bought a small package of pistachio nougat. It’s not as sweet a candy as Hershey's would make—probably a good thing—but it's compelling, with a distinctive rose water flavor.

Balboa International Market & Deli is a wonderful place to stock up on herbs and spices. They have a vast selection and very good prices. And, if you’ve found recipes calling for unusual ingredients like dried lime, lemon omani, fenugreek leaves or rose buds, you can pick them up here.

Also in amazing abundance are the oils. Most of one aisle is filled with huge cans of olive,
grapeseed and other oils from different parts of the world, all sporting
delightful labels. I particularly enjoyed the Socrates oil from Greece. You’ll also find both bottled and canned ghee and a good choice of vinegars.

Condiments and relishes are big here. Pickled turnips, both yellow and bright fushia from an infusion of raw beets, are in ample supply, as are pickled mango, lemon, eggplant and cauliflower. There are jars of ajvar (a puree of peppers, eggplant, garlic and hot peppers) and lutenica (a puree of red peppers, tomatoes, carrots and hot peppers). There’s zuccini spread, marinated garlic and shallots and jams in flavors I didn’t know existed—slivered Pergamot, barberry, rose, cedrate, carrot, watermelon peel and pumpkin.

Then there are the cans of stuffed grape leaves, stuffed eggplant and stuffed cabbage leaves, some as large as four pounds. They’re worth picking up to serve at parties, when unexpected guests drop by or as easy appetizers for a dinner party. Or, in the case of the jams, a delightful addition to brunch or tea.

The selection of flavored waters on the shelves was baffling, to be honest. I could understand peppermint water and certainly rose blossom, but oregano leaves, borage, cumin seeds, sweet briar and hedysarum threw me until I learned that they are traditional waters used for medicinal purposes.

Finally, there’s the deli. I love the smooth creaminess of French feta, which they have, along with five other types of feta. You can pick up sausages and olives, prepared foods, fresh beef and chicken, and almost every part of the lamb—from the tongue to the kidney, the heart, shank and feet.

There’s plenty more to explore—like the Turkish and Armenian coffees and wide choice of teas, the rows and rows of dried beans and grains. And, if you’re looking for a movie to watch, there’s a video rental corner up front.

Balboa International Market & Deli is located at 5907 Balboa Ave. across the street from the mall with Target, Ralphs and The Home Depot in Clairemont. Look for the strip mall with See’s Candies and pull into the driveway between the two banks. The market is straight ahead.

Have some thoughts about Balboa International Market & Deli or other ethnic markets in San Diego? Add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

Monday, April 9, 2007

Foodstuff Miscellany

May 6 San Diego Press Club Event Features 22 Top Area Chefs

For the past several years, the Press Club has hosted an annual salute to locals who've had a significant impact on San Diego journalism and media. And, every year, the event, which is open to the public, has featured close to two dozen star chefs and regional wineries. I've been to each one and it's a great time with an opportunity to taste wonderful food and wines.

This year's event is on May 6 from 2 to 5:30 p.m. at SDSU's Hepner Hall Quad, and will honor local radio personalities, including Jerry G. Bishop, Joe Bauer (Hudson & Bauer) and Reid Carroll. Tickets are a deal at $40 per person until April 20 and $50 thereafter for an afternoon filled with dining samplers from Bernard Guillas (The Marine Room), Paul McCabe (J. Taylor's Restaurant, L'Auberge Del Mar), Riko Bartolome (Asia Vous), Patrick Heymann (Loews Coronado Bay Resort) Stephen Window (Roppongi), Ryan Johnston (Fresh), Victor Jiminez (Jordan Restaurant, Tower 23), Andreas Nieto (U.S. Grant Hotel) and more.

To purchase tickets or for more information, call 619-231-4340 or email

Big Lots: Shopping with Mr. Pic ‘N’ Save

There are a lot of people who would never deign to enter a 99-cent store. Not my dad. Despite an illustrious career leading some of the most prestigious art museums in the country, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in our family he’s always been Mr. Pic ‘N’ Save. A popular childhood outing with him was a trip to the neighborhood Pic ‘N’ Save, where he would give my younger sister and me $5 each and tell us to go crazy.

Years later, when he was director of the Palm Springs Desert Museum, we would drive out to Yucca Valley, have dinner at what was really a pretty marginal Chinese restaurant, then head on over to the local Pic ‘N’ Save. I still have the set of eight French bistro glasses I picked up for, of course, five bucks. Decades later, the tradition continued with my younger nieces, who were routinely astounded at their good fortune, since they got a “sure” every time they asked their generous grandparents if they could have the next 50-cent tchotchke they picked up, resulting in bags bulging with treasures. Pic ‘N’ Save, the name, is now a memory, having become Big Lots, but not much has changed beyond the name. And, not much about my dad has changed either. He adores Big Lots.

So, I wasn’t surprised last week when the phone rang and he asked, “You still like skinless and boneless sardines, don’t you?” (This is actually not a strange conversation opener in my family.) “Sure,” I said. "Well, then," he continued, "you should go over to Big Lots. They have them for 99 cents. "In fact," he added, "you should write about Big Lots in that blog of yours. They sell lots of food."

If that was a dare, I was game to meet it. Mr. Pic 'N' Save, my mom (more of a Mrs. Gelson's, a much beloved high-end market in L.A.) and I decided to hunt down the big bargains at the Point Loma store.

Normally, I don’t talk about prices here, since they can change so quickly. But, really, the whole point of Big Lots is the prices, so just know that both the prices and availability of the products mentioned are subject to change. After all, they are a closeout store.

Big Lots has been in the midst of renovations—not that you can really tell. It basically looks like they’ve just been rearranging things a bit. So, now when you walk into the Point Loma store, the food section is the first thing to hit you, with the aisles set at an angle compared to the rest of the store. Mr. Pic ‘N’ Save led me straight to the sardines. Sure enough, tins of Ocean Prince skinless and boneless (made by big name Crown Prince) were 99 cents, a great deal. (I like to mash them with white vinegar and chopped onions, then spread them on a toasted “everything” bagel or a bialy.) Above the sardines were 14.75-ounce cans of Bumblebee pink salmon for $1.95. Lightly smoked fish steaks, also the Ocean Prince brand, were a whole 60 cents.

That’s just the appetizer. What you’ll find food-wise at Big Lots is a wide variety of items you would probably stock in your pantry—spices, beans (canned and dried), cereal, chips, noodles, soup and the like—and some things that might leave you questioning what marketers were thinking. Like Slosh, a bubble gum flavoring you add to water. If it sounds tempting, hurry on over. It’s a dollar a box. A related product is a canister of Dubble Bubble gum that touts it can be used as a bank once the gum is gone.

The pantry fillers are a mix of incredible deals. Jars of Encore spices and herbs, made in Montreal, include cinnamon, crushed red peppers, oregano, cumin and garlic powder. They’re 55 cents each. (How fresh they are, I have no idea.) For two bucks, you can pick up cans of cooking sprays. There's an aisle filled with Doritos, Fritos, Tostitos and Lays. I found re-sealable, supersize (32 ounces) bags of Malto-Meal brand corn flakes for $3 and a 10-ounce box of Kellogg’s organic Rice Krispies for $2.50.

Big Lots has a nominal “International” section. It’s primarily Hispanic products, like large cans of hominy, menudo ($2.50 for a one-pound, 13 ½-ounce can), black beans (one pound for 70 cents) and Maseca Masa (a 4.4-pound bag is $1.99). They also carry Jumex nectars in peach, guava and strawberry/banana flavors.

My parents pointed out the T. Marzettis brand of salad dressings, which they see at Bristol Farms under a different label but from the same manufacturer. At Big Lots, the garlic, raspberry and sun-dried tomato vinaigrettes are $1.70 a bottle. Mr. Pic ‘N’ Save is a big fan of Picklefair Fresh Pack Dill Kosher Spears for $1.30, while my mom enjoys Anna’s cookies, thin biscuits that come in orange, blueberry and cappuccino flavors at a dollar a box. I picked up the orange and cappuccino. I liked both, but especially the orange with its full citrus flavor. They’re a nice addition to a cup of green tea. For $1.29, bakers can get great deals on bags of Nestle morsels in butterscotch and a milk chocolate and caramel combo.

Big Lots is big on liquid refreshments. They have a good-sized wine section for a jobber, with some familiar names, like Forest Ville and Forest Glen. If you’re willing to shell out a few bucks for cheap bottles at Trader Joe’s, you’ll feel right at home here. Sorry, but I wasn’t adventurous enough to try the 2002 Chardonnay Aussie Wine in a Can at $4 a liter.

And, if you’ve plunked down $11 at Costco for a case of San Faustino calcium water, you’ll have to drop by Big Lots to get it at 60 cents for a one-liter bottle.

Finally, Big Lots has some pretty good deals on kitchen equipment. For six bucks, you can pick up a mandolin with three interchangeable blades. They have pizza slicers and cookies sheets and all sorts of other gadgets and necessities that are inexpensive enough to richly outfit a college grad’s first apartment.

With all these savings, you can afford to indulge in a new cookbook by Nancy Silverton, the LA chef now partnering in restaurant ventures with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. Among other accomplishments, she opened the La Brea Bakery back in 1989. The bakery, since sold, now sells their baked goods at markets like Bristol Farms and 99 Ranch Market. Her new book, “A Twist of the Wrist: Quick Flavorful Meals with Ingredients from Jars, Cans, Bags and Boxes,” has just been published by Knopf for $29.95 (Amazon has it for $17.97.). The New York Times wrote it up yesterday and it sounds great. Now, you’ll probably have to spring for more exotic or higher caliber products than what you’ll find at Big Lots, but still, think of the possibilities. Of course, if you have a fondness for all those recipes printed on the packages of products you buy, you’ve just got to get a copy of “Best Recipes From the Backs of Boxes, Bottles, Cans & Jars” by Cecil Dyer. I’ve had mine since 1981, but it’s still in print. The Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe is in there as is Kellogg’s Crunchy Baked Chicken made with corn flakes and the Frito Chili Pie Casserole. A step back in time for many of us.

And, speaking of time, Happy Birthday, Dad!

Big Lots in Point Loma is located at 3705 Rosecrans St. There are over a dozen other locations in San Diego County. You can find one near you using the store locator at

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