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The Way We Eat Now

Bargain imports at Cost Plus World Market

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A trip to the far corner of Powers and Constitution -- land of flapping banners and helium balloons, signifying a state of perpetual grand opening, where all doors open automatically -- usually takes the wind out of my sails. On this particular Sunday, PetsMart to the east and PetCo to the west, across six lanes of traffic in their respective shopping strips, are hosting competing grand openings. Families with large dogs on leashes cross the football-field-sized parking lot, straining to keep their beasts from peeing on the tires of neighboring SUVs.

Across the asphalt menagerie, Cost Plus World Market awaits. Founded in1958 in San Francisco, the first store is now a tourist attraction at Fisherman's Wharf, peddling imported food products, wine and cookware to millions each year. Now, 181 big-box stores in 23 states offer bargain-priced imports to Americans everywhere, including most recently, Colorado Springs.

Through the sliding glass doors, throngs of customers rush past the mass-produced folk art area, past floor coverings and furniture to my chosen destination -- the food market.

We are greeted by mountainous displays of chocolates -- Ghirardelli, Lindt and other brands from Germany and Switzerland glitter in their foil wrappers. Greedy children whine and salivate next to a gargantuan piles of candy bars while their parents admire jars of pickles and chutneys, pretending not to hear them.

I rush past chocolate, vowing to buy only pantry staples, but cannot resist the attractive tins of thin Ferro Wafer Roll cookies with cream filling in at least 10 different flavors. Lemon sounds less decadent than hazelnut and proves to be a good choice.

Cost Plus World Market's food section is a tastefully decorated but predictably sterile supermarket set-up, offering a variety of imported name-brand goods mixed with imports and domestic products made especially for the company. Displays of packaged rub mixes and marinades for barbecuing border aisles packed with mustards, oils, baking mixes, tea, coffee and various ethnic ingredients. Some are elegant and unfamiliar, like the slick, stainless steel boxes of spice mixes from Tulocay's Made in Napa Valley brand. Their labels alone are mouth-watering: Apple Chipotle Finishing Sauce, Korean Soy Ginger Marinade. The poultry rub I take home turns out to be sea salt, black pepper and herbs I can detect thyme and marjoram though the complete ingredients aren't labeled on the box.

A crowd gathers around World Market brand extra virgin, cold-pressed olive oil 1 liter for $6.99. Along with the pleasure of walking among fragrant pastes and sauces with attractive labels and exotic names, Cost Plus's greatest asset turns out to be the prices. Their custom-made pasta sauce with a suitably Italian name, Donaletta, is on sale this day for $1.99 per quart bottle. The balsamic marinara sauce I take home is delicious -- rich and deep brownish red, tangy and not too salty. Fancier name-brand sauces, like Coppola, share shelf space and are priced well below what they cost at the supermarket.

The beverage section beckons -- long glass bottles of French Lorina-brand sparkling lemonade with ceramic stoppers are going for $3.99, a distinct bargain considering that the bottles can be re-used for gift bottles of herb-infused vinegar later this summer. Pompadour camomile herb beverage from Germany in its lovely blue box is the best bedtime tea imaginable. At World Market it costs $2.99 for 20 bags -- less than at most gourmet or import stores.

You won't find hand-made or boutique items here. Most of the brands are mass-produced in another part of the world and bought in huge quantities by this conglomerate; hence, the low prices.

The cookware section could be dangerous for the compulsive cook: Glistening tart pans and thin cookie sheets from Germany are only $9.99. The variety of barbecue tools and accessories could keep a pyromaniac busy for a week. Individual porcelain baking ramekins from Portugal sell for $1.99, and delicate Cordon Bleu espresso cups and saucers are only $1.99 per setting. Brightly colored scrubbing brushes from Japan -- land of most clever cleaning devices -- skirt a display of Hello Kitty candy tins.

In a far back corner, a display of bargain wine glasses stands inconspicuously -- $2.99 for a large, red wine tumbler; $12 for a box of 12 champagne flutes. Next to them, a gorgeous display of wine gift bags sparkles and shines -- silk bags with drawstrings, embroidered with gold thread, imported from Thailand, stand next to bags of Chinese brocade and beautifully patterned papers.

Just as I am about to make my escape, a sign catches my eye: Balsamic vinegars, 2 for $5. The brands are familiar and good, Monari and Federzoni -- not the best but far better than the watered-down, bitter domestic brands that generally sell at low prices.

A glance around the checkout stand shows the top-selling item to be Eiffel Tower-shaped bottles of vinaigrette. To my left, a 5-foot tall tower of Lindt truffles in blue and gold wrappers whispers in my ear. No way, I'm almost out of here. I give it the cold shoulder.

The woman behind me has stocked up on spices -- a section I missed. Her huge tins of Hungarian paprika, -- one sweet, one hot -- were only $3.19 apiece.

The checkout girl politely offers me my very own Cost Plus World Market credit card. I pretend that I cannot speak, clutching my throat, and rush past her, through the sliding glass doors onto the heated parking lot. My car is a half-mile away and, what's that? A nervous dachshund appears to be peeing on the back right tire.

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