The answer is that for me, there is no one-stop solution in Los Angeles. In any given week, I visit a combination of Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and "ethnic" grocery stores. Below are my recommendations of what to find at each, and the reasoning behind my preferences.
Trader Joe's: I used to live one block from the original Trader Joe's on Mission St. in South Pasadena. I never stocked up on groceries for the week, and instead relished my daily walk to the neighborhood market to pick up frozen dinners. I still visit TJ's on a weekly basis, but now skirt the packaged meals in favor of ingredients for dishes that I make from scratch (or nearly from scratch).
Produce is more reasonably priced than at "conventional" grocers such as Ralph's or Vons, but Trader Joe's is a packaging nightmare. There is very little produce that isn't presented in plastic bags or boxes, and the prices are not lower than at the farmer's market.
However, Trader Joe's does have very good prices on the following:
- Whole wheat pasta: about $1.29 for a 1 lb. bag
- Whole wheat bread: the cheapest bagged, pre-sliced loaf is $1.99
- Recycled toilet paper and paper towels
- Pine nuts and Flax seeds: surprisingly cheaper than from the bulk bins at other stores
- Water crackers: the price just dropped to $0.99 per box, down from $1.29!
- Bananas: $0.19 each for regular, $0.29 each for organic; yes, they are imported tropical fruits, but if you're going to eat them, this is the place to get them.
- Free-range eggs: roughly the same price ($3/dozen) as the farmer's market, though more likely to be "factory organic" than farmer's market eggs
- Fair-trade coffee
- Gourmet cheese: priced by weight, and labels indicate whether the milk was hormone free, and whether they were made with animal rennet or microbial rennet (my preference).
- Baking needs (chocolate chips, flour, organic sugar)
Whole Foods: Shopping at Whole Foods is kind of like reading a fashion or design magazine - inspiring, drool-worthy, but I can barely afford many of their offerings. They have decent prices for a few items if you look carefully, but most items are quite expensive. I only buy things there that I can't find easily elsewhere within a few-mile radius, such as:
- Raw, whole milk: the Glendale location offers 2 brands of unpasteurized milk; one is about $6 for a quart in a glass bottle, and the other is $10 for a half-gallon plastic jug. I bought the plastic one because the label gave a lot of information about the farm, and I liked what I read.
- Gourmet cheese: fancier than the Trader Joe's selection, offering some of the same speciality varieties as cheese boutiques such as the Cheese Store and Say Cheese, such as the popular California goat cheese brand Cypress Grove Chevre.
- "Natural" beauty products: my favorite brands such as Earth Science, Desert Essence Organics, and Kiss My Face have wide selections at Whole Foods. These types of companies tend to use non-irritating ingredients, recycled packaging, and don't test their products on animals.
"Ethnic" grocery stores: These range from small, family-owned neighborhood shops to big-box stores, but what they have in common is exceptionally low prices on some types of items, and less-flashy real-estate and merchandising. Examples include:
- Super King in the Pasadena/Altadena area
- Golden Farms in the Glendale/Burbank area
- India Sweets & Spices in the Glendale/Los Feliz area
- 99 Ranch Market (the closest one is in Monterrey Park)
I shop at these stores purely for low prices, because that's the advantage these stores offer. "Food ethics," particularly with relation to animal products, is not what concerns their main customer base the most - low prices and ingredients specific to cultural cuisines is what they provide. I recommend visiting these stores for the following:
- Bulk spices, dried herbs, and nuts (with the exception of flax seeds and pine nuts, which are cheaper at Trader Joe's): They generally come in crinkly plastic bags, but there are some bulk bins as well. You will never buy a little bottle of dried thyme from a regular grocery store ever again after seeing the pries at one of these stores.
- Cheap produce: I try to get my produce from my friend's garden or the farmer's market, but in a pinch, I stop by an ethnic grocery. There is no reason to spend an exorbitant amount at a Ralph's, or accumulate lots of plastic packaging at Trader Joe's.
- Bulk Mediterranean goods: Imported olive oil, canned chickpeas, and tahini (sesame paste) are by far cheaper at these stores than anywhere else. TJ's has reasonable prices on California olive oils, but for Italian or other European oils, you can get 2L for $14 or so at an ethnic grocery store.
- Meat, eggs, and milk are all very cheap at these stores - but I do NOT buy these products. I prefer to spend more money in order to get better nutritional quality and flavor, and also to know that the animal was not raised in a factory environment (both for animal ethics and environmental concerns). I am a little more flexible on whether my fruits and vegetables were raised on pesticides and chemical fertilizers, but I do not like to compromise with animal products.