THE FOODINRIGA GUIDE TO GROCERY STORES

I regularly receive emails from people telling me how they've had to give up their favorite style of cooking after moving to Rīga because they just can't find the proper ingredients here. I feel your pain, believe me. Upon arrival in Rīga, with all the naive elation so telling of a newcomer, I went shopping for exotic foods. It was like running nose-first into a brick wall. I couldn't find anything, anywhere. Googling proved virtually pointless. I also quickly gave up the idea of ordering stuff online, since my shopping baskets looked like this: ”Products: £7.49. Shipping: £54.99”  So, I did what any sane person would do: I gave up.

Instead, I started manually importing stuff every time I went home to Sweden. At the time of writing, chances are that my apartment is where you will find the largest assortment of exotic foodstuffs in Riga. If there are any airline security staff wondering what's really up with all those jars and stuff wrapped in nasty socks, even nastier underwear etc. – Rīga is the reason.

However (drum roll!), after countless hours of legwork all over this town, year in and year out, I have managed to find a few useful shops. Since I was stuck in limbo for years, I thought I'd lend a helping hand to those of you who are now in the position I used to be in. Now, the shops in the list below are by no means the solutions to all your problems. However, if you pay them a visit, I think you'll be able to get most of the basics you need for more exotic cooking. As should come as no surprise, when I say exotic, I mean spicy and/or Asian. This list is by no means exhaustive, nor is it intended to be. There are other specialty stores in Rīga (Italian, French, Spanish, veggie, eco, gluten-free etc.), but hopefully someone who's more knowledgeable about those things will write an article somewhere. Also, it's quite likely that there are shops which I don't know about, in which case I would love to hear about it.

So, without further ado, here is my list of the grocery stores that I wish I had known about six years ago. In case the stores in question have some kind of website, you can click/tap the name and it'll take you to it.

Garšu Bode

Here you'll find what is probably Rīga's biggest selection of non-European foods. This store sells a fair amount of stuff from Asia, Central Asia, India, the US etc. Brands-wise it's a mixed bag – I can testify that some brands are authentic and really great, while others are real bottom-shelf stuff which is to be avoided unless you really have no other choice (which is often the case in Rīga). As with all imported stuff in this city, the prices are really steep (even compared to the same exact products in otherwise expensive Sweden). The selection is far from perfect, there are many things that I miss, but if you've just moved to Rīga and you want to build a basic pantry of non-European foodstuffs, Garšu Bode (next to Rīga Plaza) is a good place to start.

Avokado

Avokado, quite conveniently located on Tērbatas iela 49/51, is a little favorite of mine, even though their selection is not nearly as wide as at Garšu Bode. It's a small and very cozy shop, and while they seem to focus on dried spices of all sorts (hey, they got Sichuan pepper!), they also have not only a little selection of Asian ingredients, but also American hot sauces. The prices are kind of steep here too, though. Also, Avokado apparently provides some foodstuffs for Stockmann.

Gourmet Studio

This is a shop you will probably never pass on your Sunday stroll. Although the distance from the center is not that great, the location is off enough for the shop to feel a bit hidden. It's a pity, because Gourmet Studio is also a very useful little store. Especially vegetarians will like this – they have all kinds of beans, lentils and other crucial vegetarian ingredients. It also sells lots of dried spices, and it differs a bit from the two stores mentioned earlier by having a decent selection of Japanese and Korean imports. Today, I found my favorite ramen soup there, great success! But apart from this, they also have some Thai, Indian etc. things. Gourmet Studio is well worth a visit.

Austrumu

Walking around Rīga is a bit like exploring a village in an 80's RPG video game. Many establishments don't have names, but instead they have signs saying ”Food”, ”Shoes”, ”Restaurant”, ”Clothes” etc. I'm surprised I haven't yet found a shop to upgrade my ”Armor” before picking fights at the ”Tavern”. Anyway, ”Austrumu” on Brīvības iela 132 is one of these places. It's an odd little shop, a bit like the 4DecorAsian stores, and it sells incense, strange outfits and, yes, some spices and things. At Austrumu, the selection is quite tiny, but it you're looking for Indian spices and stuff for cooking, you can always give this place a shot.

Hanumans

Hanumans, directly under the Hare Krishna place, is almost the same as Austrumu, but they have a slightly bigger selection. Considering how word travels about this spice shop, though, I'm surprised that the foodstuffs section is so small. But, again, if this is what you're into, you should pay them a visit.

Stambula

Just down the road (the road = Brīvības iela) from kebab joint Stambula is a Turkish grocery store with the same name. This is a medium-sized shop with a lot of Turkish foodstuffs, with everything from snacks, tea and spices to meat and dairy products, as well as a lot of canned vegetables and the like. I must admit that I'm not overly familiar with Turkish foodstuffs, but at least to me it seems like you can buy the basics here.

Gastronome

This super expensive, upper class specialty store (I walked in there with street clothes, a big beard, a hood covering most of my head, and was instantly stared down by a hostile-looking security guard) doesn't seem to be geared towards any specific cuisine, but seems to simply be happy to serve whatever customer walks in with shitloads of cash. That said, I am happy that they are there. At Gastronome, you'll find lots of quality meats, cheeses, alcohol, sauces and spices. Just be prepared to cough up a lot of hard-earned money for their products.

Stockmann

To my mind, Stockmann is the best ”regular” grocery store in Rīga. The quotation marks are there because the prices are so steep that many people shy away from shopping for groceries there. However, they do have a much better selection of things than Rimi, Maxima etc. My favorite section is (surprise!) the international section, which, it must be said, is a mix of highs and lows. Some brands are awesome, others... not so much. I especially like the American products which are largely imported by the Swedish company Risberg Import. If you see their name on a product label, you can pretty much be sure that it's quality stuff.

Rimi

Now, Rimi is a really basic grocery store which would normally have no place in an article like this. However, believe it or not, Rimi sometimes surprises me. The reason I bring them up in this article is because certain larger Rimi stores have started selling a Mexican brand called La Costeña, and this brand really makes great Mexican food. While writing this piece, I enjoyed their Salsa de Habanero Rojo, and their canned chipotles in adobo sauce are to die for. So hurry, show your local Rimi that you support their initiative before they take La Costeña off the shelves!

I hope this article has been useful to you (I know I would have loved to read such an article when I was new to Rīga...). If you know of more good places deserving to be on this list, please let everyone know in the comments section below all the photos!

PHRASE BOOK FOR DINERS

The owls are not what they seem. What restaurants in Riga write in menus, on signs etc. is quite often not to be taken literally, but to be seen more as exercises in creative interpretation. As a guide for people who are new to the city, I've put together a little phrase book.
 

(Please note: this article contains sarcasm...

...but not nearly as much as you'd think.)


We accept Visa/MasterCard = We accept only cash.

Card reader out of order = Happy Tax Evasion Day!

Darba laiks* = Our opening hours are only rough approximations. We might change them without warning, reason or apology. We might even be closed completely, because we woke up to awesome weather and decided to hang at the beach instead. Hey, coming here is an adventure, isn't it fun?

Contact us = You're welcome to write, but we have no obligation to read, much less reply to, your message.

Take-away = Despite the fact that we save time and money by not having to wait on your table, clean up after you, do the washing-up etc. (which should really entitle you to a discounted price), you will instead have to pay extra for the Styrofoam box so you can carry the food home.

Opening soon = Will not open anytime soon, if ever.

Suggestions? Send us an email! = ”Don't email us. We are on Foursquare, you can write something there.” (actual reply from a restaurant)

Vegetarian = May contain traces, or chunks, of meat.

www = wwwhat?

Tehnisku iemeslu dēļ, restorāns ir slēgts uz nenoteiktu laiku** = We have gone bankrupt.

Ļoti ass*** = Ass my ass.

Atvainojiet, sakarā ar rekonstrukciju esam slēgti**** = We have gone bankrupt.

Mērce***** = Ketchup or mayonnaise.

Additives = Side orders.

Šodien restorāns ir slēgts****** = We have gone bankrupt. And not just today. This sign will be here tomorrow too.

* opening hours
** for technical reasons, the restaurant is closed indefinitely
*** very spicy
**** sorry, we are closed due to reconstruction
***** sauce
****** the restaurant is closed today

FOODINRIGA 2.0

Greetings, friends!

With the number of reviews and articles on this website slowly but surely approaching three figures, my old design became increasingly inconvenient. So, to make Foodinriga.com easier to navigate, and to freshen up the design a bit, I hereby present to you the latest incarnation of your favorite food blog! Things have been a bit slow lately, with few new updates and whatnot, but the new design is the reason. The plan now is to go full throttle ahead and start posting new reviews and articles again.

I hope you will like the new design, and if you haven't already done so - follow Foodinriga.com on Instagram and Facebook (check the CONTACT link).

Let's go off to new adventures in Restaurant Land - labu ēstgribu!

RE: ONLINE PRESENCE

”Send me a link.” Show of hands – how many of you haven't gotten this reply when you tell someone about something? No one? That's what I thought. In 2016 there is just no getting around it: if you're not linkable, you don't exist. Latvian establishments have everything to learn about this. Take, for example, the owner of an establishment in Riga that I visited. When asked if he has a website, he gave me a sheepish look, like I had just been beamed down from a UFO, and said ”what for?”. I know I've complained about this in previous posts, but I keep finding reasons to reiterate it. It doesn't have to be pretty, but you do need a decent online presence. The widespread lack of one is particularly baffling in Riga, where the life of restaurants is often solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. I'm not saying that having a website will magically propel your business to astonishing success, but I'm absolutely convinced that it helps.

 Also, if you do have a website, make sure that it's actually functional. There is just no excuse for broken links, out-of-date information, email addresses which don't exist, etc. Furthermore, if you claim to be reachable by email, Facebook messaging and the like, please show people the basic courtesy of replying to their requests. Ignoring people who write to you creates a disproportionate amount of badwill. Perhaps you object that communicating with customers online takes time and energy away from your business, but the fact of the matter is, this is your business. Provided that you actually want customers, that is.

Nowadays, it's neither expensive or difficult to make a website, and I really hope that Latvian food and drink establishments will start taking their online presence more seriously. It really is an investment in money and time that will benefit everyone.

FECES AND BRAINS

My michael@foodinriga.com inbox is a very quiet place. The same goes for the comments section beneath every review and article. For whatever reason, most of my readers seem content with reading what I have to say and then going about their business in silence. Some, however, actually let me know their thoughts on what I’m doing. Some ask why I treat restaurants with such leniency, while others think of me as an ignorant tourist who would do best to just shut up, pack up, and go home. Yet others, amusing characters with a flair for conspiracy theories, seem to think that I have a hidden agenda to dis all things Latvian, while people who obviously work for the restaurants reviewed are convinced that I’m hired by competitors.

What I am not, however, is someone who promotes the concept of fine dining. And by this, I mean really fine dining. During my Christmas escape to Sweden, I entertained myself with reading in the White Guide about the best restaurants in the Nordics. And what I read in front of the family fireplace baffled me to the point that I had to read it out loud.

”exquisite eggs cooked in the ashes of sheep feces”

Not only was every restaurant reviewed in a style which would make even a broken-hearted poet blush, and not only would every dish photographed be better suited hanging on a wall than sitting on the table, the very content of what I read was just outlandish. In the White Guide I was told of the sheer and utter brilliance of butter, wrapped in bark from a tree and immersed in a swamp, ”with all the exciting decaying processes which follow”. I was told of the exquisite eggs cooked in the ashes of sheep feces. Less remarkable, perhaps, but still noteworthy, was the grouse's brain with a taste of liver.

For the record, it should be noted that I have never eaten at these restaurants, but judging by the elitist snobbery of the critics, I doubt that I would be very impressed.

”if you think that's too cheap, they also have main dishes for around €650”

Common for all these places are the microscopically small servings on massively oversized plates. What they also had in common are the prices. Telling is the fact that some of these restaurants don't even state any prices on their website. However, I was surprised to see that a few of them actually charged ”only” about €100 for a menu, but I wasn't surprised to find that the next restaurant on the list charges a modest €300 for a burger. If you think that is too cheap, they also have main dishes for around €650. Lucky, then, that the baked tomatos are only €110.

I have always viewed modern art as something appreciated only by a small, self-proclaimed elite, embracing the excuse to hang at the free-for-all red wine buffet, flirting and smiling through purple teeth, big words of deep insight floating around like bubbles waiting to pop at the first hint of scrutiny. On the level described in the White Guide, the art of cooking comes dangerously close to this. Sure, since I have no firsthand experience of such grandiose cookery, maybe I'm just dead wrong and will be all forgive-me-father-for-I-have-sinned later. Or maybe, just maybe, the Emperor got no clothes.