Cooking in Kitchener-Waterloo
Given that I trash just about every
restaurant in town, it's time I say something about the
alternative, namely cooking for yourself. Even here I cheat: my
luggage coming back from trips tends to be heavy with dried, canned,
bottled, and sometimes perishable food. Still, the situation in town
has improved in recent years. Here are some of my local sources of supply.
Zehrs is owned by Loblaws, and except for the name is more
or less identical, though they are good about community involvement
and their personnel tend to be friendlier. When Dave Nichol left
Loblaws, the idea of "President's Choice" products as high-quality
basic ingredients (an idea he ripped off from Trader Joe's) seems to have
evaporated. New products are just overprocessed prepared foods,
triumphs of packaging and marketing, and they have inherited Loblaws's
recent supply problems. Zehrs Beechwood (the most upscale in town) has
gone through several renovation cycles, and each time it seems they
have less I want to buy. Still, it remains my main supermarket, mostly
due to its proximity to my house.
The one decent Italian deli and source of "gourmet"
ingredients in town. I have mixed feelings about Vincenzo's, which
haven't gone away with their latest move to spacious quarters in the
Bauer Buildings at Caroline and Allen in Waterloo. There are
too many prepared foods and overpriced items in small packages with
florid labels, and on weekends too many Old Westmount matrons buying
them. There are a few friendly long-term
staff, but turnover is considerable, and many of the young women who
work there are clueless about what they are selling; I have on
occasion received the wrong cheese, turkey instead of chicken (or
vice-versa), or meat cut so thin that I cannot
extract a slice without shredding it.
Now for the good news. Prices on deli meats and cheeses are below that
of Zehrs, and they are cut to order and for the most part handled
properly and carefully, which means they last longer. You can get real
prosciutto and French raw-milk cheeses for decent prices, and they're
okay on dried Italian pasta, rices for risotto, and upscale chocolates
like Valrhona and Michel Cluizel. Their selection is fairly extensive
and they can be talked into trying new products, though it takes
work. The new location includes fresh seafood and fresh meat
counters. I missed Vincenzo's when I was in Vancouver for a year,
because there there are a hundred lousy mom-and-pop Italian delis
instead of one decent one. For once, the parochial nature of this
region actually does us some good.
I remember going to the first incarnation of Vincenzo's (Vincenzo was
running it then, and it wasn't called that) in the cramped converted living
room of a house on Bridgeport to buy cheese, meats, and olives, back
in the late '80's and early '90's. I can't deny that what they've
achieved since then has been through honest, hard work, and offering
what people want to buy.
There are other shops around town with the word "gourmet" in their
title, meaning you pay a premium for something unexceptional sold to
you in a manner that lets you think yourself superior, if you avoid
thinking too much about what you are doing. Particularly annoying is
one ambitious mini-chain, whose owner made a heavy-handed attempt to
block food distribution to the homeless within sight of his downtown
Kitchener store. It's not clear to me why he doesn't just stick to
strip malls near monster-home suburbs.
A depressing discount supermarket, the deliberate opposite of the
"gourmet" stores. Food is on ugly metal shelves, you
bag your own bringing your own bags or using old boxes (clever idea,
to save their recycling costs). The idea is that you think you're
saving money because it is all so grim. Sometimes you are; prices on
canned or boxed staples are usually lower than at Zehrs, and there are
real bargains in the produce section, which is quite erratic but
always worth a gander. I go to the one on Fischer-Hallman at
University; there's also one down on Highland.
City Cafe Bakery
Bagels are competent, takeout pizza does not reheat well (better eaten
on the premises), croissants are not bad (that makes them the best in
town), and they now make four varieties of tarts. The reason to go
here is the bread. They make one variety only: pane pugliese, country
bread from Puglia, dense and chewy sourdough with a good crisp
crust. No longer the best bread in town (see Golden Hearth below), and
both quality and size have dropped in recent yeas. On Victoria at
Strange, next to Lai Lai; second location on King Street in Cambridge,
just off the 401.
An Eastern European deli and bakery. Their fancier cakes are imported
from Dufflet's in Toronto; I tend to go for the homier in-house stuff
(look for the presence of poppyseeds). There's seating
for desserts and light meals, a meat and cheese counter, lots of cans
and bottles, and some refrigerated units. Worth a visit. On Queen
Street near the railway tracks.
A bakery opposite the Kitchener Farmer's Market started in 2007 by two
young and enthusiastic bakers (under new management now). Quality is
variable, but their pain au levain (naturally leavened bread) is
probably the best commercial loaf in town. The epi (a baguette form
snipped on alternate sides so that it looks like a wheat stalk on
baking) is also good. Croissants and sweets are a work in
progress. There's also a small selection of "gourmet products",
emphasis on organic.
Eating Well Organically
The two women who run this store split from Full Circle in downtown
Kitchener (itself under new management now). They focus on organic
bulk foods (packaged in plastic bags, not in open bins), some organic
produce, and of course a selection of those icky Swiss vitamins and
trendy "nutritional supplements". Most importantly, they order many of
their bulk foods from Grain Process Enterprises, carriers of superior
white and stone-ground whole wheat flour as well as hundreds of other
grain products, and they will take orders for large bags. This saves
me the drive to Scarborough.
I'm not as big on these markets (St. Jacobs'
Farmers Market and Waterloo County Farmers Market just north of
Waterloo, now owned by the same person; Kitchener Farmers Market in
their brand-new building at King and Cedar in downtown Kitchener) as
most people around here are. The out-of-town produce comes from the
same distributors that the supermarkets use, and the local produce is
available only for a short while in the late summer and early fall and
is often inferior (examples: romaine lettuce, peaches) to imported
stuff. The interior stalls are filled with country kitsch, and those
offering meat and bread are too heavy on the Germanic theme. But there
are reasons to go in the summer: cases of mangoes, bushels of peppers
and roma tomatoes, heirloom apples. And of course maple syrup from the
source (get the #2 amber grade, better flavour than #1 light). The
Country Bulk store is a reasonable place to get grains and dried
goods, and the Kitchen Help stall offers a selection of quality
mixers, grinders, and juicers that you won't find elsewhere in town.
There are good free-range eggs and chicken at Hilltop Acres Poultry
If you wish to actually drive out to local farms, or find out which produce
is actually local,
this link may help.
New City Supermarket
Reasonable Asian market in downtown Kitchener (on King south of Market
Square), heavy on Vietnamese and Chinese (mainland, HK, Taiwan) items
with some Thai and very few Japanese or Korean things. Good produce,
greens, fresh lotus roots, Chinese chives, herbs (e.g. fresh Thai
basil year-round at a decent price). The meat counter
looks okay (things are labelled, though communicating with the
butchers is tricky) and the seafood selection, much of it swimming
around in tanks, is interesting. This is in the same location that Ka
Seng occupied before they moved out to Krug Street and then suffered a
slow decline. A recent renovation has doubled the space.
A small store north of the intersection of King and
Victoria north of downtown Kitchener, carrying items you will need to
cook Korean food at home, including kimchee, sweet potato noodles, and
House of Latin
A small but respectable Central American grocery: plantains, tamales at times,
queso fresco, crema, a chaotic selection of dried chiles, canned
tomatillos and chipotles, masa harina. There's a kitchen that
reportedly serves pupusas at meal times, though I have not been
there. Across from the bus station on Ontario Street in Kitchener.
East Indian supplies, including some seasonal produce. Two locations,
one in a small mall on Bearinger Road, and the other somewhat north of
Victoria between Fischer-Hallman and Westmount.
Golden Cash and Carry
Much smaller than Onkar, and further out of the way on Weber Street
down near Fairview Mall, but here's something I never get at Onkar:
friendly and helpful service. Plus they have Bedekar mango pickles in
stock, which Onkar never does.
This generically-styled store has bulk food in large bins. Cheaper
than the health food stores if you can find what you want; I buy
specialty flours and grains here. Lots of forms and supplies for
cake making and decorating. On Bridgeport west of Weber.
Ayre's Baking Supplies
On King Street near Columbia in Waterloo. Similar idea to Bulk Barn,
but a more restricted selection, concentrating more on baking. Prices
are better but still not cheap. About the only place I know of to get
instant yeast in 1 kg packages, and real almond paste. This is the
store I tend to patronize most for my bulk supplies. See also Country
Bulk in the Waterloo Farmer's Market.
Natural Food Market
This place irritates me, because it goes over the line (as far as I'm
concerned) in promoting nutritional habits of dubious and
coincidentally lucrative (to them) value. However, they do have many
bulk items in bags, including some things hard to find elsewhere (like
wheat flakes and stone-ground cornmeal).
Across from the Zellers plaza
on Bridgeport in Waterloo. Next door is an outlet of Glenbriar Water, with the
cheapest bottled water in town ($12 for three 18.7-litre bottles, plus