I have lived in Houston a long time and it a lot of different neighborhoods around town. As a result, I have shopped at more than my fair share of grocery stores. From the Randall's that used to exist on the North Freeway as a kid to the Kroger where I worked all through high school to a Food Town on 11th that is now a bank (or Ghetto Kroger on Shepherd) where I went with my grandmother every Tuesday in the summer followed immediately by a trip to the farmer's market at Canino's on Airline. From the Fiesta on Main Street with its slow jams over the loud speakers to the one on Patton rocking the Tejano. From every Whole Foods inside the loop when I decided to go vegetarian and healthy for a few years to the Central Market on Weslayan where I used to buy pre-marinated salmon filets and fresh produce.
Food City, H-E-B, Randall's, Kroger, Food Town, Joe V's Smart Shop, Whole Foods, Central Market, Canino's and Trader Joe's...from the Galleria to downtown to the Heights to Spring to the Third Ward, I've tried everything in my immediate radius, and when a usually polite checker asks if I found everything I was looking for today, I always respond politely with, "Yes," even though that was quite often not the case.
One of the problems inherent with most grocery stores is their need to cater to a certain demographic and only fill shelf space with things they can and will sell. This is why, as amazing as Central Market is, the lack of cleaning products and cat food always leaves me one trip short of a complete shop. The slow jams at Fiesta along with the ridiculous Mexican food options are great, but the modest produce section and aisle after aisle of boxed, processed food leaves me wanting.
Up until recently, there wasn't a solution that didn't include multiple trips to various locations, certainly a first world problem and one unique to a city like Houston -- in New York, this is a way of life -- but an issue nevertheless. And even though I love to shop for food -- a trait I inherited from my father -- and will travel great lengths to get what I want, I'd prefer to find it in one place.
This is how the H-E-B on Bunker Hill and Interstate 10 became my wonderland, my perfect grocery store, the one store to rule them all.
My wife and I both like to cook. She particularly enjoys cooking ethnic food and she's good at it. A few months back, a recipe called for the spice sumac. The only thing I knew about it was that, like poison ivy, you could get hives if you rubbed up against it. I was convinced we would never find it at H-E-B. I figured this would require a trip to a specialty store. My wife was more optimistic. Guess what we found on the spice aisle? This is indicative of my experiences at this particular H-E-B, a place we now frequent given the paltry choices of stores in our area and the fact that it is only about a 15-minute drive away. For the love of God, we found tamarind paste there on the first trip, an ingredient in numerous recipes we wanted to try but something we had decided was a myth akin to Bigfoot and the alien landing at Roswell.
Even the non food items are in rich abundance here. My wife walked up to me and our last weekend in stunned silence and said, "Have you seen the hair care aisle? It's a mile long!"
This is what makes this particular H-E-B unique. The combination of a massive produce section, one of the better grocery store seafood and meat departments, an incredible amount of ethnic food options and more cleaning supplies, personal care products, pharmacy items and pet food options that previously thought possible outside of a Target or Costco (the latter of which is directly across the street, the former directly across the freeway).
The sign above the candy aisle even has an entry for "Latino Gum." This store has a freaking section specifically dedicated to gums from Latin America.
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Of course, the store has to be massive to house it all, but it doesn't appear to be that much bigger than my old friend, Ghetto Kroger, on Shepherd and 11th Street in the Heights. Yet, the selection is infinitely wider and more diverse.
Thus far, the only weird item I have searched for and could not find were frozen samosas, an admittedly bizarre request I wanted to round out an Indian meal for friends that found me traveling to Trader Joe's. And if I did have any complaints it might be the horrible traffic (pro tip: enter from the feeder road, not Bunker Hill) and the crush of people buying groceries at all hours of every day.
But even crowds don't seem to impact their ability to move people through -- they have enough checkout aisles open most times to handle toll stops during rush hour on the Jersey Turnpike -- and keep shelves stocked, something I can't say about many stores late on Sunday afternoons -- I'm looking at you H-E-B on Alabama.
This may be more than what most people want or need. I'll admit that when a last minute need arises, my neighborhood Food Town or Kroger will do most of the time. But, for everything else, my weekly shops and any unique item I think I'll never find outside of a spice market in Mumbai, the H-E-B on Bunker Hill is the one.