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Get to know Trader Joe's before you go

Posted 9:01pm on Thursday, Jun. 14, 2012

Welcome to Fort Worth, Trader Joe's.

We know folks might be lining up early Friday at the door to the grocery chain's new Hulen Street store, its first Texas location (OK, there is one in the Houston area opening the same day), and many eager shoppers have experience at other Trader Joe's across the country.

But if you are a TJ newbie, be warned: Trader Joe's shopping is not ordinary grocery shopping.

I know. I live in Pasadena, Calif., and have been a Trader Joe's addict since I moved here two years ago. (I grew up in Texas and went to TCU, so this obsession developed quickly.)

I'm here to tell you that you're sure to love discovering new products, tasting unbeatable frozen foods and not breaking the bank on delicious cheese and wine. But if you go with a grocery list of typical household items for the week, you're sure to be disappointed.

Trader Joe's aims to keep prices low on quality products, which means lots of on-the-shelf turnover, and many typical items missing from the store.

There is an art to shopping at Trader Joe's.

Here are some secrets to mastering that art, so you're not pulling your hair out looking for something like the ever-absent baking soda.

Season's eatings

Trader Joe's makes a lot of seasonal products, and even the ones that aren't seasonal rotate regularly. So if you find a product you love, stock up, because it may not be around forever.

Bakers' battles

Bakers often are frustrated with the baking aisle at TJ's. The store has an excellent selection of just-add-eggs-and-water mixes (be sure to stock up on seasonal pumpkin bread this fall), but it's lacking in traditional baking supplies. Powdered sugar, baking soda and baking powder often are absent, as is yeast. If you're planning to make a cake from scratch, Trader Joe's is not the place to go for ingredients.

Produce stock

The fruits-and-veggies section at Trader Joe's is unique in that you can't just buy one tomato. The store selects four or five and packages them together -- not ideal for shopping for a single meal, but perfect when planning for a week.

To keep prices low, Trader Joe's contracts with local suppliers, so the produce is typically fresh; however, this means that a lot of products are seasonal, and there's no guarantee that the store will have exactly what you're looking for. Sure, it'll usually have the most sought-after produce (onions, tomatoes, grapes, asparagus, apples, oranges, peppers), but it might be hit-or-miss with zucchini, shallots, artichokes and other less readily available items.

Be sure to check out the TJ's salad-in-a-bag options. The baby-spinach salad with blue cheese, candied pecans, dried cranberries and raspberry vinaigrette is simply delicious.

Wine and cheese, please

Trader Joe's knows wine. Famous for its "Two-buck Chuck" Charles Shaw wines (which will be sold for $2.99 locally), TJ's has made high-quality yet affordable wines a mainstay at stores.

The same can be said for cheese. The market has a great selection of goat, Gouda, Parmesan, brie and more -- and typically, prices are lower than at specialty shops and even regular grocery stores.

The goods on baked goods

There's an excellent selection of freshly baked baguettes, breads, tortillas and pitas, but it is worth noting that all Trader Joe's-brand products are free of artificial preservatives, so the shelf life is limited. Don't buy a loaf of bread unless you plan to eat it fairly quickly.

Try the vegan trail-mix cookies (yes, vegan -- you won't even notice) or the par-baked French baguette, a delicious not-quite-cooked loaf that you finish off in your oven.

Cuts of meat

Trader Joe's is no butcher, but it's a great place to get make-tonight cuts of beef, pork, fish and chicken. The preseasoned chicken breasts are tasty (try the sun-dried tomato and basil chicken tenders), but some of the beef marinades can get a little salty.

No freezer burn

This is where Trader Joe's excels. Almost all of its frozen foods, from appetizers to breakfast bowls to individually flash-frozen chicken breasts and shrimp, are unbeatable. Try the huge selection of frozen lunches, from Indian options to enchiladas, and you're almost certain to leave happy. Take a chance on the chicken tikka masala with cumin-flavored basmati rice, but skip the bland vegetable fried rice.

Top five Trader Joe's products

Everyone has their favorites; here are five that changed my life.

Honey Wheat

Pretzel Sticks

Try one, and you will be begging for more. These pretzel sticks achieve a unique flavor: a mix of sweetness and salt that makes stopping at one an impossible feat. But don't worry -- they're oven-baked and low-fat, so you can eat a handful with minimal guilt. $1.99.

Speculoos Cookie Butter

Buy with caution: You will not be able to resist this delectable cookie butter, and it's far from calorie-free. Spread it on Trader Joe's Social Snackers crackers, on pancakes or on bread, or give in to temptation and eat it with a spoon straight from the jar. It tastes just like gingerbread and is made with crushed biscuits. Unusual, yes, but also unbelievably addictive. $3.69.

Moisturizing Cream Shave

This 100 percent vegetarian shaving cream is unlike any of the foams or gels found at pharmacies. Its blend of ingredients is meant to encourage skin to soak up water, which almost negates the need for post-shave lotion. It's meant for men and women, and the honey-mango scent is soothing but not overpowering. $3.49.

Garlic & Herb Pizza Dough

You may never make your own pizza dough again. This super-tasty premade option, speckled with oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary and basil, is a great base for any combination of ingredients. Red sauce, mozzarella and prosciutto -- yum. Pesto with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes -- delicious. Baking instructions give you options for the oven and grill, as well as a separate recipe for turning it into breadsticks. We suggest cooking the rolled-out dough without toppings for a few minutes to achieve a crisper crust. The dough is made fresh regularly, so it can only sit in your fridge for a few days, but it won't last that long. $1.29.

Trader Ming's Mandarin Orange Chicken

Goodbye, takeout. Hello, bake and serve. Trader Ming gets it right with these battered dark-meat chunks and accompanying orange sauce. You can make it in the skillet or oven. The skillet option, which uses a quarter cup of oil, creates a crisper bite, but the oven option is just as delicious and slightly healthier. $4.99.

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