The Cursed Safeway and Other Grocery Stores of San Francisco

The other day, I walked to the Safeway on Diamond Heights instead of taking the train to the Safeway on Castro, which as everybody knows, is cursed. Anton LaVey cursed it, the story goes, when he attempted to bring his pet lion there and they wouldn’t let him. Ever since then something has been off about that place. And I don’t mean that as some sort of slight against its use as a place for gay men to pick up each other. Every Trader Joe’s is a place for straights to pick up each other and I’m not going to say it’s cursed.

Big grocery stores give me bad feelings because of the illusion of choice. You see 10 kinds of instant mac and cheese but God help you if you want celeriac root. Like that’s some kind of weird vegetable. It’s in the Penguin book of Cordon Bleu cooking!

The best grocery store I ever shopped at was a green market on Ocean Avenue when I was in graduate school. It was downhill from me so I’d have to take my backpack downhill and then walk up hill laden with groceries. That green market, aside from its elevation, was perfect. It had every kind of thing you might want but only one of them. So yes it had green, red, and french lentils. It had one kind of fusilli. One kind of penne. And one time someone came in looking for something, I don’t remember what anymore, artichokes maybe, and asked the grocer why he didn’t have any. He briskly informed the customer that the desired item was out of season and therefore both expensive and not very good so he didn’t carry it. Imagine that! It meant I didn’t have to have some kind of mental checklist of what was in season to buy only fresh and good things. I could just trust the green grocer.

One time I had to walk out of a big grocery store (maybe it was a Safeway too?) in Alameda because it made me ill to be there. It’s hard to really explain it. I suppose I was feeling alienation. When you have dozens of choices and you’re supposed to feel like life is bountiful but yet nothing is satisfying, it’s utterly alienating. It was better to stand in line for coffee in Communist Poland! Well maybe not better, but less corroding to the soul.

Speaking of Communist Poland, when my family first moved to the US, I loved to go grocery shopping with my mom because of all the amazing fruit and produce in the stores. We didn’t have a lot of money but we could still afford to buy one experimental fruit or vegetable. This was before the internet was really a thing so I couldn’t just for example type in “quince” and know that you have to cook quince or else they taste like wood infused with apple scent. Starfruit, kiwi, passionfruit, mango — these were all pretty great though. Kiwi is the only one that made it into our regular rotation. Hellishly, my mom thought kiwi was an acceptable substitute for strawberries in desserts and salads (it is not).

When I first moved to San Francisco I lived way out in the avenues of the Richmond District. I moved from Astoria, Queens and the thought of living walking distance to an actual sandy beach was unutterably charming so when I chose a room to rent based only on Craigslist and map data, I chose to live all the way by the edge of the Pacific. I could walk to Ocean Beach, and often did. I was kind of a night owl at the time, and there wasn’t much to do for entertainment in that part of the city, except going to the beach, or Safeway. So that’s what I did. This was before they disallowed burning bonfires on Ocean Beach wherever you pleased, so a fun thing to do was to buy some Duraflame logs at the Safeway and then have a bonfire at the beach. Or, if you wanted to do it on the cheap, you could go behind the Safeway and see if they had any damaged wood pallets you could take away. You could ask the people who worked there and a lot of time they’d give them away. I don’t know if you can still do that. I’m not so much of a night owl anymore, and I don’t live there, but I still like to go to the beach even though it’s almost an hour on Muni.

Right next to Ocean Beach, at LaPlaya and Balboa there is a large Russian grocery store called Europa Express. This place is like the spiritual opposite of a depressing Safeway. The food is amazing, largely labelled only in Cyrillic, and the staff is very Russian. By which I don’t mean they are just ethnically Russian. I mean their style of customer service pleasantly reminds me of Eastern Europe. When you’re shopping, they leave you the fuck alone. No one asks if you need help. If you need help in a grocery store, you are probably beyond help, is the thought, I imagine. When it’s time to pay there is no small talk or unnecessary smiling, not even for the Russian speaking customers. Also for whatever reason they always speak to me in Russian. I don’t know if I look so Slavic they just make the assumption (I do have a pretty classically Slavic face, big, round, pale, and with a very severe resting bitch face) or if it’s the stuff I buy, or if they just talk to everyone in Russian and assume you can sort it out. I’ll have to send my husband one day, because he looks so English there is absolutely no way you could mistake him for a Russian.  

Europa Express isn’t organized in any way I could convey to you, yet it makes perfect sense to me. Obviously the cheeses and tvarogs and kefirs are in one place, because they need refrigeration. There are glass fridges full of every kind of sausage you might want, if you’re Russian. If you’re Polish it’s just almost every kind, which is still better than Safeway which carries such abominations as Polish Kielbasa (Turkey). It’s fine I guess if you’re not expecting kielbasa or are on a diet and fat will make you sick (I had to be on a diet like that for a while and it was very sad, every time I ate something with more fat content than 1% milk I got nauseated. Horrible. Luckily I got better.)

There is of course the smoked and pickled fish section. Yes that’s a section. I have to use all my self-control not to buy every kind of herring. There is herring in oil, herring in water, herring in vinegar, herring in cream,  herring in jars and herring in shrink-wrap plastic. Unlike at Safeway where the best you can hope for is herring in wine sauce which is always very expensive, and weirdly sweet. They always have both hot smoked and cold smoked mackerel. I have to confess that the texture of cold smoked mackerel doesn’t agree with me, which makes me feel like a weakling. But what can you do?

Right across the aisle from the smoked and pickled fish are all kinds of canned fish. Not just boring (and dolphin murdering) tuna, but sprats, and mackerels and yes, herrings, and anchovies, and sardines. Next to that are all kinds of other wonderful preserves like cherries and pickled mushrooms, and pickled cabbage and pickled beets. I’m sure I’m leaving some things out. Just trust me it’s good.

They even have vaguely subversive foods. For example the other day I saw a woman buying multiple flats of fresh blackcurrants. I would have bought some too, but it turned out she bought out the entire supply. As you may not know, growing blackcurrants was banned in the US in the 1900s because they spread a tree disease that threatened the logging industry. So for nearly a century Americans lacked access to one of the world’s most wonderful fruits. In 2003 some states started lifting the ban, but no one grew up with blackcurrants, so grocery stores don’t carry them.

There’s also a tea aisle where you can get all kinds of really good black teas, and an astounding variety of herbal teas. A lot of the herbal teas are imported from Poland so it’s a bit easier for me to navigate around them. There are also what I consider to be Advanced Russian beverages like wines made out of fruits I would not normally think to ferment, and of course, kvass. Kvass is made from fermented dark rye bread, is black, and carbonated. It looks like Coca Cola but if you took a sip expecting Coca Cola you would be very surprised and probably disgusted. It’s mildly sour and tastes a bit like liquid essence of pumpernickel. It’s an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired. There’s nothing else like it though, so I imagine if you’re used to it, going without would be a hardship. What with the craze for kombucha, I’m surprised that kvass hasn’t also caught on. Perhaps it’s because it’s not gluten-free.

They used to carry Inka, a Polish chicory and roasted grain coffee substitute. It’s funny how Inka has come around. It was what we used to drink when you couldn’t get coffee because of Communist era shortages, plus it was what you could give children and people who couldn’t have caffeine and they’d get to have the pleasure of drinking something at least a bit coffee like with the healthy adults.

When I was a kid in school in Poland, we used to get mugs of Inka during break between classes in the winter. I don’t remember ever having to pay for it, or my parents having to pay for it. The mugs were big metal enamel mugs, and the Inka was milky and over-sweet. Break would happen and suddenly ladies with big tea trays laden with the mugs came into the classroom and every kid got a mug. Even though I thought it was too sweet I drank it and I liked it because it was so nice and warm. Now that I think of it, I don’t know if they gave us the Inka before or after they sent us to play in the snow for a recess. Anyway fake coffee is full of childhood nostalgia for me, and I’m a bit disappointed Europa Express no longer carries it.

They do have my other big nostalgia treats though: Delicia and Krowki. Delicie are a Polish version of Jaffa Cakes, a soft vanilla cookie coated on one side with chocolate, and with a bit of fruity gelatin in between the chocolate and the cookie. Orange and cherry seem to be the most popular flavors. Krowki are a kind of toffee. The name means “little cows” and it’s not so much a brand as a method. If you have the patience you could make your own krowki with condensed milk and sugar. But it’s a bit like making your own bread. Maybe fun as a novelty now and again, but honestly, better to leave it to the professionals who know better. In Poland there are always stands at green markets where people who have mastered the art of making krowki sell an astounding variety of them. Besides the basic, you get chocolate flavored, and then all kinds of different add ins like poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, hazelnut bits, or hazelnut flavor. Europa Express carries many of these, but truth be told, now that I am an adult and do have the choice, I prefer the simple classic. Krowki are about the size of a thumb, and individually wrapped in little bits of parchment paper, and then those parchment wrapped packets are wrapped in colorful paper wrappers with pictures of (what else) little cows on them.

Although it should go without saying, I will say that Europa Express is definitely not cursed. I would not even be surprised if it had been officially blessed.