Diamonds in the Bulk

Photo by Matt OttoThese are the hollow goods, the foodstuffs filled with straw—pecan sandies, shaving cream, extension cords, the unwanted dregs of upscale food retailers, culinary victims of neglect, overstock, failed marketing schemes, the chaos of capitalist production.

But if the 99 Cents Only franchise were 100 percent crap, they'd call it that. But they don't in deference to the cache of actual gourmet foods. Great things. Things worthy of the 400 percent markup they slap onto the same products at your neighborhood boutique supermarket. With some assembly, care and searching, these 99 Cents Only gems can add sparkle to a menu seemingly designed for jailbirds—and for an unbelievable fraction of the sucker price.

The trick to culling the haute cuisine from the 99 Cents Only bulk and batteries is to go at it like a diamond carver. When I shop, I dedicate at least a solid hour. I start at one end, ignore the harsh and Spartan lighting, the Third World Babylon of languages—I ignore all this and methodically parse each aisle for the edibles. I read labels as if they were lurid novels. And when I find something good, I buy a lot of it because I know it won't last the afternoon. And I don't go looking for anything in particular because the 99-cents gods are random and cruel.

The psychological stance is here, as in meditation, to be open to whatever arises. I've found slender, dignified glass bottles of organic dark cherry soda for just less than a buck—the kind you drop $2.50 for at a chic Corona del Mar panini shop. Another label reads “Limonade Artisanale. Made in France by Rime Boissons.” Elsewhere, the accentgravealone fetches a buck.

But the real gold is usually in cans, jars and bottles. You'll find all manner of chic canned seafoods: whole oysters, intensely salted anchovies, minced clams, delicate bay scallops, smoked mussels, even sweet baby octopuses in vegetable oil. Or how about some Bavarian-style sauerkraut worthy of Orange's Mattern Deli?

You'll discover whole crops of earthy heirloom beans, too—European Soldiers or Scarlet Runners—that can cost $2 per can at a health-food store. I use them to make poor man's pt: chopped-up garlic, carrots and onions bought from the 99 Cents Only produce side sauted in rendered bacon fat (99 cents per pack), soy sauce (99 cents per jar), and some juicy yellow Roma tomatoes (two 28-ounce cans for 99 cents) that even Whole Foods doesn't stock, all mashed up and spread on toast.

99 Cents Only also has an array of difficult-to-find gourmet condiments. Skip the Not-So-Sloppy Joe sauce and grab the regal jar of stone-ground honey mustard. Or get some prickly Thai ginger marinade. Or a pungent, smooth flask of Santa Barbara Olive Company Chunky Olive Dressing ($3 at Mother's market). Or Figaro Hickory Liquid Smoke. And there's multiple other small snacking options—roasted red peppers, capers, olives, pickled garlic, albino asparagus spears, cocktail onions, even fiery salsas—waiting for your picnic basket.

Once you've got your staples, starches, pickled oddities and new white socks, spend the rest of your money on greenery, as the great food scholar M.F.K. Fisher once said. 99 Cents Only Store has a vast produce section, but the same rule applies: scrutinize. I generally consider bananas the color of limes untrustworthy, for example. A sturdy head of broccoli, however, is as good as any from a chain grocer. Dressed with butter or olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or some charactered vinegar (like tart Luv Yu brand rice vinegar, two bottles for 99 cents), this sneered-at vegetable can be rather grand. And just the other week, I saw a quiet huddle of fresh, pale golden raspberries next to the Strawberry Qwik. You're not going to find these babies easily, even when they're in season.

What compelled me to enter the 99 Cents Only Store in the first place was an unassuming can of wild Alaskan Pink Beauty salmon sitting atop my ex's fridge. For lovers of fish, this is the equivalent of finding a Stradivarius in a lumber yard: a fresh slab of West Coast salmon can run anywhere from $10 to $18 per pound. Savor every bite if you ever find this because you never know if the salmon will be there next time—or ever again. Then, too, one of the most wretched things I've ever forked from a can was a 99-cent can of something that was Crayola-pink and gelatinous, packed into a can marked “Angler Atlantic Salmon Chunks.” Atlantic, Alaskan—pretty clever, those 99 Cents Only folks.


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