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Store Wars: Rating Charlotte's best (and worst) grocers 

Page 3 of 5

Bahia de Gracia, a restaurant against the back wall, has excellent hot tamales, empanadas -- not so good -- and so-so grilled maduros. A half aisle is devoted to corn oil, and several dairy cases contain brands of quesco fresco. The meat bins are filled with packaged ox tail, goat shoulders, seven-bone steak, offal, smoked pork neck bones, as well as a variety of beef, pork and chicken.

One aisle in the center of the store is devoted to foods from other Central and South American countries. There is a selection of aji peppers from Peru and chimichurri sauce from Argentina. Language can be challenging (especially in the butcher shop and the prepared food areas). Spanish is helpful, but cashiers do speak English.

COMPARE FOODS QUICK TAKE

Layout: Easy to navigate, good signage.

Produce: Excellent fruit price. Inexpensive, extensive root and chile section.

Fish Department: Good selection of the less expensive fin fish, whole catfish.

Meat Department: Includes house-made sausages, whole pork legs, and offal.

Prepared Foods: Excellent tamales.

Specialty Items: The entire store.

International: One center aisle is divided into foods from various Latino countries including Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, and some island nations of the Caribbean.

Finds: Freshly baked corn tortillas (25/$2.50).

Hours: Hours: Monday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday and holidays, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Compare Foods, 818 E. Arrowood Road

COSTCO

COSTCO is a membership store and food is only part of what the store sells. As a warehouse, though, not all items are on hand all the time.

In the cost comparison, Costco won for having the least expensive whole milk in town, and if you buy in bulk, produce can also be a deal.

COSTCO QUICK TAKES

Layout: Gargantuan, but the food section is easy to navigate. Chilled produce section abnormally cold.

Produce: Good.

Fish Department: Limited, but good. Crab claws, wild and farm raised salmon and tuna normally on hand.

Meat Department: Above average.

Bakery: Best deal on large cakes for birthday parties.

Prepared Foods: Rotisserie chicken, chicken pot pie. Packaged dinners.

Specialty Items: Depends on when you go.

International: Large international cheese selection offered in large pieces.

Finds: Good deals on some wines; frozen cooked lamb shanks $5 a piece (4 to a package)

Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Costco, 500 Tyvola Road

EARTH FARE

Earth Fare's interior reminds me of mushrooms -- dark, earthy -- but this regional grocer based in Asheville has an extensive selection of local products, including an assortment of goat cheese. Bosky Acres (Waxhaw), Split Creek (Anderson, S.C.), and Carolina Moon (Chapel Hill) are all available here. Honey and bee pollen produced in Charlotte is available here as well.

Also in the cheese bin is Belle Chevre Pimento cheese from Birmingham, a sensational product. Earth Fare offers a good selection of organic wines and carries Hickory Hill Farms dairy products from Edgefield, S.C. Bins of grains and spices can be bought by pound. Earth Fare has an excellent prepared food area with entrées, sandwiches, soups and smoothies. Employees are very knowledgeable and helpful.

EARTH FARE QUICK TAKE

Layout: Moderate. Overall, the store is dark.

Produce: Small, but lots of organic and locally grown foods.

Fish Department: Average, but all items labeled with country of origin.

Meat Department: Above average. Australian grass-fed beef, whole organic and domestic legs of lamb, helpful meat cutters.

Bakery: Scones, including spelt cranberry, cookies, breads.

Prepared Foods: Excellent with a soup counter and an eat-in café. Kids eat free on Thursday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. (with an adult meal of $5).

Specialty Items: Abundance of products for people (and pets) with dietary restrictions.

International: Not the focus here.

Finds: Belle Chevre Pimento Cheese.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Earth Fare, 12235 N. Community House Road

FRESH MARKET

Many of my friends go to Fresh Market, Strawberry Hill, for their extraordinary orchids, which greet customers at this store. Add to this the soothing effect of the classical music, free samples of good coffee and the exceptional meat counter, and the popularity of this store can be understood.

Fresh Market is a regional grocer established in Greensboro, N.C., in 1982. They now have more than 15 stores in North Carolina. At times -- especially during lunch and after work -- both Charlotte stores are plagued with aisles congested. In general, customers do not go here to get "bargains"; instead, they come for the prepared foods, ready-to-eat meals, and such items as aged balsamic vinegar and Moravian spice cookies.

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