Whether you live here or are visiting San Diego, at some point you're going to need some food... or toilet paper. The likelihood that you'll need to find a grocery store for some reason is pretty good. In San Diego, the grocery market field is dominated by the big three -- Alberstons, Vons, and Ralphs -- along with some smaller local and specialized markets.
A supermarkets a supermarket, you say? Not in the highly competitive Southern California marketplace, where you have megastores that offer banking, dry cleaning, Starbucks and, well, food.
Here's a subjective rundown of what you'll likely find here in town.
Head to head with Vons for the largest presence in San Diego, Albertsons offers your usual supermarket fare. Personal choice: Albertsons' has the best -- and typically cheapest -- fried chicken. Go with their 8-piece chicken dinner, a much better value than KFC.
Part of the Safeway family, Vons is also your standard supermarket major player. You need a club card for their store discounts, and if you like friendly service and your cashiers to thank you by your name (via the club card database and your receipt), this is your place. Most of the stores are going through makeovers, with softer lighting and more inviting food displays. Personal choice: Those Vons with in-store bakeries make some good, fresh bagels.
The third major player, Ralphs is part of the Kroger chain. By my experience, prices at Ralphs tend to be a bit higher than Albertsons and Vons, but not by any significant margin.
Ralphs also uses a club card for in-store discounts. I've found that the Ralphs stores aren't quite as nice with the amenities as Vons or Albertsons. Personal choice: Ralphs' house-brand staples are pretty good quality. And the Ralphs in Hillcrest has one of the best prepared/deli food sections ever seen in a supermarket.
This upscale, specialty market offers high-quality (trendy?) grocery fare as well as more eclectic and health-conscious items and brands. Prices are quite a bit higher at Whole Foods (hence the nickname "Whole Paycheck"), but selection is unique. Prepared foods are available, as are a cafe and juice bar. Where else are you gonna go when you need your morning cup of wheat grass juice?
Sprouts Farmers Market
This funky local chain specializes in produce and grocery items with a healthy living angle. Along with your carrots and oranges (which are priced extremely low), you can pick up your vitamin supplements while at Sprouts plus a variety of bulk staples like granola and trail mixes.
This cool chain specializes in quality food at reasonable prices, many under the Trader Joe's brand. Frozen foods are their specialty, as well as their eclectic selection of wine and beer, many of which are from boutique wineries and breweries. Irresistible are the large variety of chocolate candies plus it has a growing selection of fresh and packaged produce. Personal choice: The Trader Joe's frozen enchiladas are the best bang for the buck in terms of quality, and this is the only place where you can get the cult favorite Charles Shaw (Two-Buck Chuck) Wine.
Fresh & Easy
You may not have heard of Tesco, but this company is thought of as the WalMart of the U.K. and Europe. And one of their signature brands is the Fresh & Easy neighborhood grocery store concept. Smaller than your standard supermarket, Fresh & Easy are more the size of a typical Trader Joe's. But they are located within neighborhoods, and unlike some independent grocers which often have a spotty selection and high prices, Fresh & Easy offers lots of fresh and wholesome food choices, including prepared meals and organic foods. This helps to make healthy eating more attainable and affordable. And their own Fresh & Easy brand is the primary brand they stock.