Gotta Get Some Groceries!

I do most of the grocery shopping in our household. That’s because I do most of the cooking in our household, and cooking requires raw materials. It is possible to grow your own food, even here in the desert, but our yard is too small for cows and chickens -– never mind corn -– so it’s off to the grocery store I go.

There are two basic ways to look at buying groceries in Las Vegas. One is that it’s just like buying groceries everywhere else. For the most part, this is true, but that’s not the whole story. This is Las Vegas, after all. We have a reputation for being different, and we do sometimes put our own twist on things. I don’t mean that there are slot machines in all the supermarkets (although there are); I mean there is a spirit of enterprise here that can make grocery shopping an adventure.

The Big Three

Smith'sPhoto by Steve Fey
The author’s first choice for

First let’s consider the “just like everywhere else” segment of the Las Vegas grocery market. The store I use most is Smith’s. Smith’s is headquartered in Utah, as are many prominent businesses in Las Vegas. However, Smith’s looks exactly like the old King Soopers I used to shop at in Centennial, Colorado. Whether it’s called Smith’s, Ralphs, Fry’s, King Soopers, Kroger, Dillons, or City Market it’s all essentially the same store, owned and operated by The Kroger Company, of Cincinnati, one of the “Big Three” American supermarket chains (SuperValu and Safeway are the other two). If you like one of those other stores I just mentioned, you’ll like Smith’s.

When I don’t go to Smith’s I most often shop at Albertsons. Super Valu, the Minnesota grocery giant, bought Albertsons in 2006, but they haven’t changed anything important, so Albertsons is still the same store you’ve come to expect, right down to the somewhat quirky layout of some of the stores, which feature, e.g., “Beverage Boulevard” and “Snack Central.” I read somewhere once that there is a science to the layout of American supermarkets. Sometimes I think nobody told Albertsons about that branch of knowledge.

Then we have Vons. Vons is an old Southern California grocery chain, but if you’re from that neighborhood you know that Vons is really a Safeway; in fact, Safeway took control of the chain 11 years ago. Here, too, I guarantee that you won’t find any surprises. Vons, Safeway — it’s all there for you if that’s your store.

Natural alternatives

Together, Smith’s, Albertsons and Vons number more than 30 stores in the Las Vegas area, pretty much controlling the mainstream, middle-class market. Upscale, natural-food-minded shoppers will more often be found at Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats, now a subsidiary of Whole Foods. Both of these stores offer high-quality grocery items and a wide selection of organic foods for more discriminating tastes — and, often, more money. Recently, Sunflower Farmers Market made an end run on this market, opening its first location in Nevada at Tropicana and Pecos, where it advertises “Serious Food … Silly Prices.”

Whole FoodsPhoto by Steve Fey
Whole Foods: Nice lighting,
gorgeous produce

We also have the Fresh & Easy chain, which is a good grocery store, although it looks a bit odd at first to an American shopper. Owned by the Tesco chain from Great Britain, it looks and feels more like a British supermarket than a typical American one. I like Fresh & Easy stores because they have portions for two people, something you don’t find as often in the mainstream stores.

Se habla supermercado

So, that’s the way grocery shopping in Las Vegas is like grocery shopping all over the country. Now for that Las Vegas twist I promised.

Las Vegas may be the most cosmopolitan and immigrant-rich city in the country and our grocery selection reflects that fact. The city is home to a great many Asian and Mexican grocery stores, especially Mexican. In fact, the store where just a year ago I bought ingredients for tikka masala is now a Mexican grocery. Although many Asian stores can be found in the Las Vegas Chinatown area, they are rapidly becoming a fixture in nearly every neighborhood in the valley. And there are scores of specialty establishments offering food stuffs from around the world. The International Marketplace, on Decatur, is just the tip of the iceberg of this developing trend.

Mariana'sPhoto by Steve Fey
Mariana’s: Full-service Hispanic
grocery store

People wanting a Mexican grocery are no longer limited small neighborhood markets. In 1999, Hipolito Anaya, an entrepreneur who was born in Jalisco and once operated a tortilla factory in east Las Vegas (according to the chain’s Web site), opened the first of three Mariana’s Supermarkets in the valley. Mariana’s is a full-size, full-service grocery store catering to the Hispanic, and particular Mexican, market. If you’d like a fresh shopping experience, you could do worst than trying Mariana’s, where you’ll probably find all of your favorites, plus a host of brands and foods that you might not recognize but just might love.

For instance, the bakery carries favorites like cochitas (ginger pigs) and other treats you would find in a bakery in Mexico. The store is divided into sections that make it feel more like a series of interconnected smaller shops than a large grocery store, which is similar to the experience I’ve had shopping in Puerto Penasco, Sonora. Mariana’s is an example of the rapidly growing influence of Hispanic residents in Las Vegas, an area which, amazingly enough, experienced almost no Hispanic influence (aside from its name) prior to the latter decades of the 20th century.

Las Vegas is a large and diverse city, and its grocery stores are equally interesting. You can go right on shopping at your favorite national chain store – or you can try something new. There is something for every taste.