I had heard of Aldi, a culty value-centric European grocery store that fans apparently obsess over, for some time -- I remember reading a Times article about it a while ago, I think. But I didn't realize there was one semi-close to me until fairly recently. My wanderings in the city don't often take me over to East River Plaza, the very un-Manhattan complex at farthest east 117th street, featuring ample parking, Manhattan's one Costco, a giant Target, and assorted other suburban fixtures. And, it turns out, an Aldi. Always curious about new grocery experiences, and always in favor of saving money, I headed that way last week.
I deliberately wanted to keep myself objective about Aldi, so I didn't do any research beforehand, didn't look up best values, or just why it's so beloved. I knew nothing beyond the string of adjectives in my opening line.
Aldi: Right next door to Gamestop! This is definitely the most suburban I've ever felt on the island of Manhattan.
This picture is a good summary of my impression of Aldi. It's not much to look at. Definitely cheap. But nothing is presented in a way that makes you want to try it, take a chance, get something new. Unlike the other notable culty grocery store, Trader Joe's, which takes merchandising and presentation and friendliness to new heights. Aldi seems to say "we're cheap. Don't expect anything else." Produce was...there. I was a little iffy about it. Four bucks for a pound of medjool dates, though.
Brands were an interesting thing. There isn't an Aldi brand like there is a Trader Joe's brand, but it definitely leans heavily on various store brands. And yet there were familiar brands in the mix, seemingly at random, as well. It was, truly, a lot like a European grocery store. Everything was just a little bit off. Check it out, honey nut cheerios, alongside several varieties of "crispy oats." And above them, "honey crunch 'n oats."
The things Trader Joe's excels at, like bread and pastries, and odd and interesting cheeses, were disappointing at Aldi. Some staples were there, and things were, again, cheap, but for me at least, little was enticing. Bagels were pretty repulsive, though I think that about all prepackaged bagels.
And I won't even really talk about the terrifying and awful concept of frozen sushi, except I will. What the heck is frozen sushi? I should've bought some just to see. But I was scared of it, and beyond skeptical. Also, this freezer case is another good example of Aldi's general lack of care and presentation. You might see that sort of chaos at a TJ's late on a very busy day, but it would be short lived. I was at Aldi on a sleepy weekday afternoon.
So what did I get? I spent $40.43, and came away with dates, a great price on maple syrup, almonds, ground turkey, ranch flavored sesame seeds, some awesome bacon, brussel's sprouts, corn chips, black beans, chicken sausages, and dark chocolate cashews. Not a bad basket; I imagine if I'd bought equivalents at my local Westside Market I would've spent maybe $60 or even more. And everything I've had so far has been tasty, although nothing has me wanting to go back to pick up more.
I have spent a small amount of time seeking hymns of praise to Aldi. Slate and the Daily News both have them. The Daily News writer treks across town for a particular kind of face cream. Fair enough. And the Slate writer basically likes that Aldi has lackluster-to-bad customer service. Because in her mind it means the groceries are better (for some reason) and she has a general fetish for the German way of doing things. I'm not persuaded.
However, the Slate piece also informed me that Trader Joe's and Aldi are estranged corporate siblings, started by estranged real siblings. Read the article, I had no idea -- it's fascinating.
Finally, I realize Aldi's far East Harlem outpost may not be representative, just the way the madness that are Manhattan's Trader Joe'ses (how do you pluralize Trader Joe's, anyway?) is nothing like a TJ's experience other places. So I generalize with great care. I can't imagine making a special trip just to go to Aldi again. It's cheap, but the time and energy required aren't worth it. If you're in the neighborhood and need economical beans or dates or slightly weirdly branded cereal or chips, though, by all means, stop on by.