Everybody in Texas loves H-E-B, except for contrarians and Publix stans. As someone who likes the Texas-based supermarket mega-chain quite a bit, I’m here to tell you there’s a grocery store built in Texas that’s miles ahead of Howard E. Butt Sr.’s marquee creation. And no, it’s not Whole Foods, the Austin homegrown store-turned-chain that’s currently being watered down by Amazon. It’s H-E-B’s smaller grocery chain, Central Market, which is easily the best general grocery store in Texas.
Central Market has only 10 stores across Texas, in or around Austin, Houston, and Dallas. At a quick glance, the mini-chain looks like it’s H-E-B’s answer to Whole Foods, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. At the core of both companies, slogans can come across as Don Draper doublespeak, but when done right, they can offer a quick window into what a particular company stands for.
H-E-B — which proudly states that “here everything’s better” — is a great place to shop if you’re looking at food as a source of sustenance. Sometimes that’s all it is and all it needs to be. You’re hard-pressed to find a better option if your grocery list includes grits, beer, or spaghetti. However, Central Market — which considers itself a place for people “really into food” — is a hybrid where you can both pick up food to get yourself through the week or dive into specific or specialty items like blue grits, a bright gose, and dried squid ink noodles. Whole Foods may carry a few of those niche options, but good luck picking up any quality junk food there. Peruse its chips aisle and the options are going to put you straight to sleep, while at Central Market, you’ll find chips flavored with port wine and cheese or cheddar and shallots.
With all of that being said, here are Eater Austin’s tips on tackling Central Market like a pro.
Make sure to stop at the cafeteria
Don’t shop on an empty stomach. You’ve heard it before. Most grocery stores worth their kosher salt (except for Trader Joe’s, and some H-E-Bs) will have a cafeteria area for you to order items and eat, post or pre-shopping. You can get everything from gumbo to a sandwich to a burger. This isn’t a special thing that Central Market does, but as the parent company’s slogan goes, here everything’s better.
Central Market probably has your favorite stuff from H-E-B
Since Central Market and H-E-B are essentially the same company, there can often be great overlap in product and philosophy. The same things you love at H-E-B can be picked up at Central Market. This includes things like your favorite store-brand snacks and fresh guacamole or pico de gallo. The bakery also has H-E-B-favorite fresh tortillas, which are a must for every grocery run, big or small.
Don’t miss the fresh-squeezed juice
In between the produce and fruit aisles, Central Market keeps an array of freshly squeezed juices on hand chilling in a mountain of pebble ice. You’ll find a top-notch margarita mix, lemonade, orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, and watermelon juices, and plenty more options. Freshly squeezed juice is delicious and if something in your food or beverage recipe calls for it, grabbing a bottle here can save you some time and a mess.
Get lost in the wine and beer selections
Central Market’s wine and beer aisles are rivaled only by specialty retailers. You can find a variety of wines from throughout the world and some impeccable bottles vinified right here in Texas. Selections vary by location, but you can also choose from a couple of orange wines, sherries, ports, and vermouths. The options for beer are just as expansive, with a great deal of focus and attention paid to Texas breweries. There are also a few nonalcoholic alternatives like Seedlip and Kentucky 74.
Take advantage of seasonal ingredients
When Central Market uses seasonal ingredients, it’s generally worth trying whatever concoctions are on shelves. But the produce section in particular is always a hotbed of rare and seasonal delights. You can find everything from cherimoyas to fresh truffles depending on the season. It’s always worth taking a look to see if there’s something interesting to put in your cart that might not be around in two weeks. Beware of Hatch chiles though. You will get bombarded throughout the season with all the different ways the grocery store can use one pepper, including, yes, cookie sandwiches.
Spice up your life
Many grocery stores have bulk aisles, including H-E-B, but none compare to Central Market’s. It’s a labyrinth of flavors and also a place to find things like citric acid and agar in any quantity. From a wide variety of rice and granolas to coffee and teas and a whole lotta candy, the options are tremendously impressive. This makes it easy to try something new or experiment with an ingredient you aren’t sure about, because you’re in full control of the portions. A personal favorite is the lime-pepper seasoning, which packs a more robust flavor than its more popular sibling lemon-pepper.
A meat eater’s haven
Central Market’s butcher and seafood counters offer the usual suspects like chicken, beef, salmon, and shrimp — but it doesn’t stop there. You can get veal, dry-aged and wagyu beef, lamb, duck, and sometimes rabbit at the butcher counter. As far as seafood goes, fresh Chilean sea bass, whole red snapper, halibut, mahi mahi, and sashimi-grade fish are available too.
Go bonkers with tinned fish
Everybody knows tinned fish are so hot right now and the selection at Central Market is a prime spot to explore some marinated seafood. The tuna and sardine options are expansive, as they should be, but you’ll also have the opportunity to pick from squid, stuffed calamari, octopus, and more. You’ll find some recognizable brands like La Narval, José Gourmet, Ortiz, and even Patagonia (yes, that Patagonia), the last of which sells some surprisingly delicious mussels. A favorite is Donostia Foods based on the strength of its wider selection.
Take some culinary classes
Central Market offers a range of cooking classes taught by chefs and other experts. You can learn about firing up lamb, making fresh pasta, baking kolaches, and how to pair cider with cheese. Anyone interested in increasing their food knowledge should see if these classes have anything that sparks their interest.
Don’t throw away those coupons
A lot of people don’t think the hassle of saving a nickel on a pack of yogurt is worth the effort, but Central Market’s coupons aren’t something to be shoved in the recycling bin. Generally, they can save you a couple of bucks per trip, but you also might get lucky and find one that gives you $25 off of your groceries. (And if it’s expired, the cashier might just take it anyway.)
The superb flower selection
If you’re one of those people who needs to grab a floral arrangement for the home right before checkout, Central Market is a place that sets itself apart from other grocers. The options for flowers like bougainvilleas and daisies are beautiful, colorful, and most importantly, not too expensive. Peonies, when in season, are bountiful too.
Grab a complimentary bag of ice after check-out
It’s not the best ice because it probably shouldn’t be consumed, but at check out, you can grab a bag of ice, perfect for chilling food like oysters, a bottle of wine, or filling a small cooler.