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.

Food Basics
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.
Golden Hearth
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.
Farmers Markets
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 Products.

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.
Korean-Japanese Market
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 dried fish.
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.
Bulk Barn
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 deposit).