Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Love letter to Bodegas.

In my pre-San francisco life, I was quite the cook. Dinner parties for 30+ people? Not a problem. Thanksgiving in my two-bedroom apartment? Bring it. Since moving here, well, let's just say I've been a little more... restrained. I don't have any money, I just acquired pans, and ultimately it's just me and The Roommate. So save a ridiculously overpriced chicken parmesan exploit and a whole crab episode (I live somewhere that has a CRAB SEASON!), there hasn't been a lot of cooking in my life.

Part of this is that my grocery exploits are a little different here than in the midwest. Midwest grocery shopping, oh my god, is one of my favorite things in the whole world. You drive your car (this is the one place where I will defend an automobile to the death) to a giant food warehouse where ingredients are usually fabulous quality and you stuff your cart with enough food to cook for weeks and then you get home and unpack it all and it got there IN YOUR TRUNK rather than you carrying it for miles and oh my god I might be hyperventilating.

Non-believers may have thought I was kidding about how much I love grocery shopping. Non-believers are probably wrong.

The grocery thing is the hardest one for me to get over when moving to a bigger city - or, at least, a city with no car. Now, San Francisco, let me hand it to you - here's your advantage over New York. You've still got those sprawling, ridiculous grocery stores with fantastic quality items, and god love you, you have the courtesy to sprinkle them all over the place. (I know Safeway might be boring, but I love them. I know this is probably going to cause problems between us. It's the midwest in me.) San Francisco is this funny little hybrid city. A lot of residents still own cars. It's certainly urban and populated enough that you don't NEED a car, but having one isn't impossible, like New York.

The bulk of my grocery shopping in New York happened via Fresh Direct. I could wax poetic for days, but let's just say it would be in the top five reasons for me to move back to the city. Amazing ingredients, delivered to my door when I want, FOR FREE. I have recently learned Safeway delivers, but they want to charge me $15 or something ridiculous if I don't order enough stuff. (Perusing FD's website now leads me to believe you do have to pay for delivery, but it's still way cheaper. Love. Fresh Direct.) Also, I lived on the fourth floor, and they would bring my groceries into my kitchen, because they are awesome and I am easily winded.

Delivery services are your best friends if you need a lot of groceries. It certainly makes life more convenient. My NYC train stop was also right in front of a local grocery store. It was an awful grocery store, mind you, but not the end of the world if I needed something they couldn't screw up. (No meat. No meat ever from the C-Town on 145th.)

Then there are what I consider specialty grocery stores. They have ingredients of absolutely the best quality you can imagine and they are sprinkled all over the place. Some are really specialized - cheese shops, meat markets, etc., like Lucca's. Love to Lucca's at 22nd & Valencia. An Italian market that makes fresh pasta and has fantastic sandwiches, a good cheese selection and a nice wine spread. Some are just small grocery stores that carry a sampling of amazing ingredients. This is where I give a shout-out to my baby, Bi-Rite. 

Bi-Rite, you beautiful bastard. You heartbreaker. You are my favorite place in the city and if I had $100 to drop on a meal for two people you better believe I'd do it every day inside you. Your meat is exquisite, you have fresh whole crabs, you just got in actual Jamon Iberico for $100 a pound, you have truffles, your ice cream is the most sinful thing that has ever passed my lips and it is $8 for a damn quart. This is the downfall of the specialty grocery store. You are going to spend too much money, and you are not going to know how it happened. Chicken parmesan for The Roommate and I this weekend? $42. Yes. That included an $8 pint of ice cream (Mexican chocolate with salted peanuts, I'm looking at you). But other than that it was two chicken breasts, box of panko, italian seasoning, half a pound of shredded mozzarella, pasta, jar of pre-made tomato sauce, aluminum foil. $42. I could have gone to Valencia Pizza & Pasta two blocks away and gotten twice as much food for half the price and wouldn't have had to cook it myself. But, in all fairness, it was an apology dinner since I had just been a giant jerk about my bicycle's gears slipping and I needed to be nice to The Roommate. This was my $42 penance.

This is where I introduce to you... the bodega.

San Franciscans, you probably call it something else. I don't know anyone, so we never have a chance to talk about these little bundles of joy, so I have yet to test the waters. Rest of the country, you call them convenience stores, and they're usually attached to gas stations. You will probably not get why bodegas change my life.

First of all? They are everywhere. Everywhere! Between me and the Bi-Rite, I think I pass four of them. In two blocks. There are literally two on the same block and I can see a third one from there. There is one on every block. They are slightly overpriced but they are RIGHT THERE. Mere feet from my door! You want milk? You don't want to go all the way to the grocery store because you have to do that on your bicycle and you just know it's going to blow up in your bag in the mile and a half it takes to get home? You should probably walk down the hill less than a block and get a gallon of milk. Okay, it costs $5.50 and that is obnoxious. But... it is right. there. And god bless San Francisco, your bodegas always seem to carry the most beautiful array of Pepperidge Farm cookies I've ever seen. Out of my apartment and back into my apartment with Double Chocolate Milanos, a gallon of milk and a Chronicle in less than five minutes. 

They occasionally serve food. The bodega at 19th & Guerrero (you could probably call this one a deli if you really wanted to) actually has a fantastic array of food. You can walk in and get lasagna heated up and then walk to the park and eat it. And here, god love you, they often have huge selections of wine. Decent wine, even! 

People usually have preferred locations. It entertains me when these preferred locations are not actually the closest one to their homes. In NYC, I was all about 144th & Broadway. I was 6-pack of Heineken girl there. I'm loyal to 20th & Guerrero and 21st & Mission. Some bodegas have names. Some don't. The Roommate understands what I mean when I ask if we can go to the bodega. That is all that matters. They don't need names. They are nearly identical but all of them have their little quirks. 20th & Guerrero has rogue board games hiding in the little side room. One day, I'm buying one.

This is the trade-off I accept for losing my car and my giant grocery stores. I will suck up the delivery charge and let Safeway bring me my groceries. I will strap a big messenger bag on my back and go to Foods Co. or Rainbow and buy as much as I can fit into it and ride it home awkwardly down 20th Street. I will go to Bi-Rite and spend way too much but eat like a queen. And I will sure as hell stop at my bodega every day, where the incredibly nice man talks to me about the weather every single time and never remarks that maybe I'd be less of a fatty if I could buy a gallon of milk without a bag of cookies, for once. 

The bodega does not judge you. It knows what you need. It does not judge when you're a single female walking in and picking up two six packs AND a 22 oz. of Anchor. You can walk in sweaty and disgusting after you've ridden home from work, and it doesn't even make a catty remark about how you probably just ride a bike to overcompensate for all the Milanos. (It's kind of true.) The bodega is slightly over-priced, but humble and unassuming. It is there for you in the best and worst of times. Thanks, bodega.

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