Since the first Mariano�s hit Arlington Heights in 2010, giant sister stores have sprung up in Lakeshore East, the West Loop, Roscoe Village and Jefferson Park. The chain�s low prices meet an upscale design akin to Whole Foods. To compare prices and freshness, we shopped for the ingredients for a recipe for panfried sea bass from this season�s must-have cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi�s Jerusalem, at the West Loop Mariano�s and the South Loop Whole Foods.
You�ve never seen as much frozen pizza or cereal as you have at Mariano�s, but when it comes to sourcing ingredients for ethnic foods�such as harissa and rosewater�the store bombed. Whole Foods, on the other hand, had not one but three kinds of harissa!
Mariano�s Chilean sea bass was $24.99/lb to Whole Foods� Uruguayan sea bass at $29.99/lb�big savings, until I ate the cooked fish and was surprised how much fishier the Mariano�s product tasted. Fresh fish: definitely one of those things that�s worth paying top price for. (Plus, the Whole Foods fish guy was cuter.)
If you only need a small amount of spices or dried fruit, Whole Foods is a godsend: I was able to shake a tablespoon or so of ground cinnamon and cumin into bags. Mariano�s has a much more limited bulk section: At first, I was impressed that it was �full service��i.e., you tell an employee how much of each spice you want and she scoops it for you�but I�d rather have full control over how much I scoop. (Plus, for real cheapskates, the Mariano�s approach prevents you from buying amounts that barely weigh anything, as can happen with vanilla beans and bay leaves.)
Mariano�s produce section is insane�it�s gorgeous, vast and unbelievably priced. Identical onions: 59 cents/lb at Mariano�s and $1.69/lb at Whole Foods. Identical cilantro: 39 cents (sale!) at Mariano�s and $2 at Whole Foods. Definite win for Mariano�s, even though the Whole Foods� ones were organic. (Sorry, Alice Waters.)
On identical products, Mariano�s undercut Whole Foods by 64 cents on Gentle Breeze honey, and by 90 cents on Colavita aged red-wine vinegar. Gentle Breeze and Colavita were the cheapest brands at Whole Foods, but Mariano�s offers house brands of honey for 85 cents less and vinegar for $1.40 less.
Mariano’s was a landslide winner in terms of total price—$9.49 cheaper, to be exact—but what use were the savings if I’d have to go to a second grocery store to buy harissa and rosewater, the two main ingredients in the recipe besides sea bass? So here’s my take: If, like me, you consider yourself on a first-name basis with Yotam, the winner is Whole Foods (or a great Middle Eastern grocery store, if you’re lucky). If you don’t know or care: Mariano’s.