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Monica Eng: Why this foodie loves Aldi

I didn’t always love Aldi.

The first time I visited I couldn’t figure out the shopping cart system—it requires a quarter to release each one. I didn’t know I had to bag my own stuff, and had no reusable bags. And I was mildly traumatized by a crazy mom who was screaming at her teenage son.

So, I didn’t return for a decade.

But when I finally I did, I came prepared with quarters. I kept a stash of reusable bags in my car. And—as a mother of my own teenage son—I’d become much more understanding about parental outbursts. (Although I haven’t witnessed any new ones.)

This Aldi visit was a totally different experience. Sure, the store still features cheesy knock-offs of processed foods and a no-frills atmosphere. But these days, it also sells organic baby kale, organic apples, manchego cheese, German whole grain rye, goat cheese, wild Atlantic salmon, brightly colored Dutch ovens, organic granola, creamy avocados and some of the hottest freshest jalapenos I’ve found in Chicago.

This Dutch oven for $30 is one of the seasonal purchases I value most from Aldi. The store has recently started stocking items--like organic granola and kale--that have been traditionally aimed at a higher-income audience. (WBEZ/Monica Eng)

Plus, I can get in and out of there in about half the time as my regular store because it’s much smaller and there is no equivocating over which brand to pick—there’s usually only one.

Over the last year, I’ve found terrific German coffee, a decent Riesling, tasty Christmas stollen and even a swimming pool at this discount mart where specialty offerings can disappear quickly.

The fleeting nature of these items makes each visit a kind of adventure—but it can also trigger a hoarding instinct I picked up when I lived in the former Soviet Union, where your favorite product could disappear for months.    

I may never use Aldi to buy my milk, eggs, meat or yogurt (unless they start selling full fat, organic and pastured) but it has become a regular part of my monthly shopping rotation along with Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s (an Aldi sibling), farmers markets and CSAs.

Many friends still give me puzzled looks when I gush over my latest Aldi find, but a recent piece in Slate on the wonders of Aldi made me realize that I’m not alone. The Gimme Some Oven blog also did a great primer for new Aldi initiates here.

I don’t know if I am happy or sad that the word has gotten out. On one hand, it’s great that more people are recognizing the gem in their midst, but I also don’t relish fighting in the aisle with other shoppers for the last carton of organic baby kale.

Do you shop at Aldi? If so what are your favorite finds? Sound off in the comments section. 

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the food podcast Chewing The Fat. Follow her on Twitter @monicaeng.

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