The “Best” of LA: The Unofficial Chain Store Confessions Edition


Photograph courtesy

Every August we put out our annual Best of LA issue with a cheer—and a sigh of relief. Putting the package together requires months of reporting (eating, drinking, shopping, doing—hey, we’re just sayin’, not complainin’), writing, and designing. The issue celebrates L.A.’s best local resources: independent mom-and-pop shops and L.A.-based brands, businesses, and people. But we’d be lying if we said we’re not familiar with the big box stores dotting the city. Heck, we even have some favorites. So in the Best of LA spirit, here is our first-ever unofficial list of chain store picks. Grab a hat, a pair of shades, and a cart. We’re going shopping.

The parking lot and pickup area of the Burbank IKEA are packed and hellish. The bizarre layout and sad cafeteria at the Carson location is just depressing. But if you’re willing to drive to Covina, a shopping mecca awaits. This IKEA branch is spacious and usually well stocked. We don’t want to know what sort of wage-slavery the Swedish chain engages in to produce those $9.99 faux-mod throw pillows. We just want the flow of birch veneer bookshelves and cheap beveled mirrors to never stop. 848 S. Barranca Ave., Covina.

Fresh & Easy
If you can make your way past the union protesters outside, the Glassell Park branch of the chain we call “the Freasy” is the ultimate in-and-out grocery destination. The spacious parking lot—a flat plane of asphalt, not a garage—includes spots for hybrids and “families.” With the Eagle Rock and Silver Lake Trader Joe’s accommodating much of the fancy-grocery population, the aisles here, except on Monday nights, are relatively clear. And let’s not forget that Fresh & Easy stocks a huge selection of organic, preservative-free produce and foodstuffs at prices that are regularly below those at TJ’s. 

Trader Joe’s
Speaking of TJ’s—yes, there’s a spankin’-new one on Fairfax across from the Grove that features wide-open aisles and freshly written signs for tomato-basil hummus and other Trader Joe specialties. But we’re partial to the West Hollywood location on Santa Monica Boulevard at Poinsettia. It’s rarely crowded on Sunday mornings, the staff’s especially helpful, and there’s plenty of parking.

A trip to the Los Feliz Costco can be a battle of epic proportions. Should you survive the dizzying spins around the parking lot and make it through the zombie-like crowds, you can score some sweet deals. We can’t quite bring ourselves to shop for processed bulk food here, but we love the electronics, garden, and optical departments, where you can find discounted scanners or iPod speakers, composting bins, patio furniture, and contact lenses at a fraction of the cost elsewhere. 

We hadn’t been inside a Gap in years, but a recent trip has us declaring that the go-to-basics chain is cool once again. While we cooed over tan suede platforms and ikat print shorts, it was the workout clothes that really caught our attention. The Gap’s GapFit line of performance wear in bright colors and edgy designs makes you look like you’re ready for a role as an extra in the Tron sequel. 

From accessories to seasonal wardrobe staples, H&M is our favorite spot for inexpensive, trendy pieces. Sure, we get excited every few months by the latest designer collaboration, but it’s the quality of the garments that we particularly admire. We have H&M hats, blazers, and dresses that have stood the test of time—years and counting for some pieces—and unlike other cheapo chains, these items aren’t disposable after one season.

What’s not to love about Sephora? After years of drugstore mishaps, being able to try on foundation or the latest shade of lipstick before you buy is a revelation. For its sheer size, parking ease, and late hours (it closes at 10 p.m.), we’re partial to the one at the Americana at Brand. 

Here’s what a veggie burger looks like at most restaurants–particularly 
food chains: a “medley” of corn, broccoli, black beans and other non-meat
 salad bar fixins’ compressed into a spray-tan orange air-hockey puck on a 
hamburger bun. Usually, it’s the extra $1.50 avocado you order to mask the 
nuked Gardenburger knock-off that does most of the flavor lifting. Houston’s 
veggie burger, however, is a whole different meatless beast: First of all, 
it’s massive and messy, just like a real burger, without trying to imitate
 the flavor and texture of beef with soy or gluten products. It’s also a 
gorgeous shade of dark red, probably from the beets mixed into the brown 
rice, oats, beans and vegetables that don’t look like they’ve come from a
 baby food jar. Then there’s the special sauce, some kind of molasses-tinged 
barbecue situation that many home cooking vegetarians and cult-followers of 
the Houston’s original have tried to emulate. I don’t know why or how
 Houston’s conceived of such brilliance on a bun, because goodness knows they don’t have to, but it gets my vote for Best of Everywhere.