Thursday, April 30, 2009

Shopping at Specialty Produce

Specialty Produce Collage

I first heard about Specialty Produce several years ago from Chef Hanis Cavin, when I took a cooking class from him at the Prado in Balboa Park. As we scooped up bites of seared scallops topped with a freshly made blood-orange hollandaise (it was a sauce-making class) someone asked about the itty bitty sprout-like microgreens on top. Hanis told us they came from this great warehouse-style store that specialized in restaurant supply, but was also open to the public - Specialty Produce. After that, it seemed like I started hearing about them everywhere, and whenever I would say I hadn't been, the response was some incredulous exclamation: "Oh, you HAVE to go!" It's not exactly the kind of place where you just do your regular grocery shopping though, so it took me a while to find the right opportunity.
Pickled cauliflower, carrots, onions and grapes
It finally came last summer, when I decided to make a mess of pickles for our annual September barbecue. I found great baby carrots, cauliflower and even grapes for pickling, and bought vinegars by the gallon jug. I also bought potatoes for my favorite potato salad, and lots of edible flowers (including lavender) for the cheese tray and decorations. (The lavender looked especially nice floating in the jar of fresh lemonade - perhaps accounting for the fact that it had disappeared after the first half hour of the party!)

When I was there, I noticed the pallets of produce and other items heading out to some of the better local restaurants. J Six, AR Valentien, etc. It seems they ALL get their stuff there. You don't have to be a restauranteur to shop there though, and they're trying to get the word out on that fact. They stock bulk quantities of dry goods, higher end pantry items (like the aforementioned vinegars) and dairy items as well as produce. (Their refrigerated warehouse is huge, and COLD, so bring a sweater or a jacket if you're planning to spend any time browsing in there!)
Goat Cheese, Olives and Bleu du Auvergne
Lately I've struck up a friendship with the lovely Kelly Orange, who I "met" on Twitter, and who invited me to come down and take these photos and do some shopping. I waited until I had another party opportunity coming up - it was a double whammy actually - dinner with friends, followed the very next day by a barbecue, where we served that chocolate cake, along with grilled sausages from Sausage King, potato salad, heirloom tomato bruschetta with with burrata cheese, the rest of the pea and fava dip, some steamed artichokes, and Labne topped with zataar spice and pita bread. It was quite a spread - we got some good use out of the items overflowing out of the box in that picture above, let me tell you. I had heirloom tomatoes, peas, favas, blood oranges, micro chives for the potato salad, spring onions, baby creamer potatoes, blackberries, champagne vinegar, even McCann's Irish Oatmeal. They've got it all, baby.

Shopping there is a little bit intimidating at first, or at least it was for me. If it's your first visit, you might want to call and let them know you're coming - they will be happy to show you around. You park on Hancock street, but enter on the North side of the building, up the stairs on the far side of the loading dock. Once inside, you sign in at the desk, get a card to wear around your neck, and you're free to shop. It's definitely a wholesale operation first and foremost though, so watch out for forklifts and pallets stacked all over the place piled high with boxes. You'll need some plastic bags, which you can find by the scales next to the entrance to the refrigerator room (or you could bring your own.) There are no carts, so you just pile up your stuff and they'll get you a box when you're done. You can pull up to the loading dock to get your stuff, or carry it out if you don't have that much. Be warned though - like Costco, it's one of those places that's hard to walk out of without a heavy load. Unlike Costco though, you won't have buyers remorse when you get home and survey your goods - you'll be too busy cracking your cookbooks and calling your friends to invite them over for a fabulous homecooked meal!

Specialty Produce
1929 Hancock Street, Suite 150
San Diego, 92138
(619) 295-3172

Check out their website for a complete list of their in-stock items, updates on their selections from the farmers markets (including the Santa Monica market) and new seasonal specialty items - as well as information on the restaurants they serve.


  1. Great post on Specialty Produce. They sure are some special people down there aren't they? Wonderful place to visit.

  2. OK, I'm now seriously considering making the three hour drive just to go. Probably not a good idea, right?

  3. Sounds awesome. I wonder if we have anything special like that here?

  4. holy crap, I think that was me that asked about the microgreens at the class at the Prado a couple of years ago. Weird. Small world.

  5. It is really a wonderful place to visit .

  6. Those pickles look delicious. I am intrigued by the grapes--did you make them spicy or sweet?

  7. one can easily find delicious items to shop at "speciality produce"