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CL's guide to Charlotte's best (and worst) grocers

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LOWES QUICK TAKE

Layout: Easy to navigate; curved aisles.
Produce: Excellent; large organic and fresh herb section.
Fish Department: Small.
Meat Department: Will cut beef to order and grind beef. Organics available.
Prepared Foods: Very good with deft and knowledgeable staff.
Specialty Items: Above average, including kosher freezer section
International: Average
Finds: Italian Bread a la the American Northeast, ready-to-go Flan, Anderson County's Split Creek Goat Cheese, pet section and cooking classes.
Reward Card: Specials, Cash coupons mailed.
Hours: Mon-Sun 6 a.m.-midnight.
Lowes Foods, 10828 Providence Road, Promenade on Providence Shopping Center.

COMPARE FOODS SUPERMARKET

Compare Foods shops seem to spring up where other grocery stores have pulled out. Owner Eligio Peña opened his first store in 1978 in Queens, N.Y., and opened the Compare Foods concept in 1989. Currently the Peña family operates stores in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and North Carolina.

While other American-styled supermarkets focus on healthy food choices -- organic, no trans fats -- Compare offers the food that the Latino market wants, which includes pork lard on the meat counter. The background music is Latino pop, and the aisle guides are in Spanish and English.

The produce aisles are amazingly aromatic and include dried codfish and shrimp, dried corn husks for tamales, and dried tamarind among the coconuts and fresh sugar cane. Trays overflow with dried chilies sold by the pound: ancho, arbol, chipotle, guajillo, Japanese, monta, pasilla, and puya. Fresh produce includes chayote conespina, Mexican squash, poblanos, serrano, bags of fresh banana leaves, Hass avocados, and baby bananas. The roots tables contain boniato, yams, malanga coco, panapen (breadfruit) and cassava, among others. Want corn oil? Compare stocks dozens of brands.

The meat bins are full of ox tails, goat shoulders, mutton, pig kidneys, large packages of chicken hearts, tripe, whole beef tongue, smoked pork neck bones as well as a variety of beef and pork cuts. In dairy, the store offers Mexican sour cream and a large assortment of Mexican cheeses. The bread aisle is filled with various brands of tortillas. Most of the cookies are made by Mexican companies, and in cereals you'll find both Kix and Nestlé La Lechera Flakes.

The international section focuses on the foods of Jamaica and Africa, and they sell palm oil by the gallon, fu-fu flour, semolina, and Jamaican curry powder. Oddly enough, between these products are cans of lychee in syrup. The prepared food section is limited to a handful of items, but the sandwiches are excellent, made on just-baked Cuban loaf bread.

COMPARE FOODS QUICK TAKE

Layout: Easy to navigate but plain.
Produce: Excellent, inexpensive, extensive root section and dried chilies: ancho, arbol, chipotle, guajillo, Japanese, monta, pasilla, and puya, dried cornhusks, fresh cactus and banana leaves.
Fish Department: Small, prepackaged.
Meat Department: Includes goat, Mexican cuts of steak, and offal.
Prepared Foods: Excellent Mexican bakery and sandwich counter; best Cuban sandwich in the city for $4.75.
Specialty Items: The entire store.
International: Small, but has African (fu fu flour) and Jamaican items.
Finds: Frozen empanada wrappers, spiced plantain chips by Goya and 5 limes for a buck.
Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Compare Foods, 5610 E. Independence Boulevard.

FRESH MARKET

The Fresh Market is a family affair. Owners Ray and Beverly opened the first store in 1982 in Greensboro and now have more than 60 stores in North Carolina and Tennessee.

The Strawberry Hill store, with a backdrop of classical music, is often crowded and difficult to maneuver. On hand are bins of dry goods, including forbidden rice and sea salts. New specialty items are brought in seasonally, including an excellent Christmas Stollen imported from Germany. Prepared foods have a following. Some shoppers like the stuffed chicken breast and ready-to-cook burgers. Others prefer the ready-to-eat rotisserie chicken, barbecue baby back ribs, salsas, sweet potato salad, and turkey meatloaf. Dairy items have always included quark as well as crème fresh, European butters and regional organic butters. The meat department takes orders for organic turkeys at Thanksgiving and will always ground and cut meat. They frequently have freshly ground lamb.

In the summer, shoppers at Fresh Market Strawberry Hill have the treat of buying McBee Peaches (which are legendary for sweet summer-forever taste) in front of the store.

FRESH MARKET QUICK TAKE

Layout: Small, difficult to navigate when crowded.
Produce: Above average; Florida strawberries, McBee peaches, and many locally grown items.
Fish Department: Small, but well chosen.
Meat Department: Excellent; freshly ground lamb available sometimes.
Bakery: Excellent cookies.
Prepared Foods: Above average; rotisserie chicken costs more, but it's worth it; salsas and sweet potato salad.
Specialty Items: Above average; especially in dairy and salad dressings.
International: Small.
Finds: Half Moon Chocolate, good Middle-Eastern-styled pita bread (the flat variety that many others stores no longer carry) and cooking demonstrations.
Hours: Mon-Sat 9 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

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