By Michael Goldstein
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By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
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Let's talk 99-cent menu. We can start with a spinach, pear and mushroom salad with a white-wine vinaigrette, all tossed together from ingredients at the 99. For housewarmings, small portable bites are best; some hearty, some light, since voyeuristic guests will no doubt want to wander the rooms. Position little saucers of mixed nuts and marinated olives near the front door to greet the newly arrived. Garbanzo beans from a can, blended with paprika, olive oil, sea salt and lemon (sorry, no tahini at the 99¢ Only Stores currently), make a nice homemade hummus, which can be served with wedges of toasted pita bread. Chips with a mango-and-black-bean salsa, with a bit of habanero chile for bite, can also be made from 99¢ ingredients. Traditionalists can, of course, go with a simple avocado-and-fresh-tomato guacamole. There's no crab for crab cakes at the Culver City 99¢ Only Store on Washington Boulevard when I go, but there are frozen salmon fillets that can be flaked and fashioned into salmon cakes to be lightly browned with garlic. Thin slices of the 99's USDA-choice beefsteak fillets, sold frozen, can be rolled around red, green and yellow bell peppers, sliced into matchstick slivers, then skewered onto toothpicks and grilled — a close approximation of Japanese negamaki. That, by the way, is an idea from Martha Stewart's Hors d'Oeuvres Handbook. Martha, that rare hostess both extravagant and frugal, suggests serving the beef rolls with a scallion-soy dipping sauce.
With some tweaking, a can of quartered artichoke slices becomes an artichoke spread avec tomato confit (organic, diced tomatoes in a can) on crostini. Toasted French bread will have to do for the crostini. If you manage to score some of the 99¢ Deli Fresh ready-to-eat chicken-breast strips, you're in good shape for a chicken-salad canape: Mix with diced celery, green onions, thyme, rosemary and chopped almonds (you'll have to toast them yourself).
Dessert is a piece of cake. A Pillsbury Moist Supreme lemon cake, to be specific, or an apple pie baked from 99¢ red-delicious apples, frozen pie crust and cinnamon, or perhaps some spiced apple-rum cider — but where has all the rum gone? Indeed, that will have to be procured elsewhere.
For a bit of nostalgic humor, consider chocolate moon pies. Shopping at 99¢ Only Stores or any of the many variations on the theme — Dollar General, Deal$ and Fred's all aim to give the 99 a run for its money — inevitably becomes either (1) a great annoyance at not being able to find stuff or (2) a treasure hunt. For instance, ants on a log (celery sticks, peanut butter, raisins), I decided, might be a fun way to elaborate upon a nostalgic dessert theme. "Raisins, raisins, raisins ... come on, raisins," I chant, scouring the aisles, dodging renegade grocery carts and small, weeping children. "Yes!" The raisins have been lurking behind the shell pasta.
You might think this organizational system is deranged, but it isn't. The 99¢ Only Stores' merchandise is perpetually in flux. The buyers might happen upon, say, a good deal for 18-ounce glass bottles of Coca-Cola sweetened with Mexican sugar cane on closeout, as they did last week, but they could easily have opted for a good deal on a shipment of Tylenol instead. Creative shelving is inherent to the 99¢ Only mystique.
"We had a lot of peanut butter for a while, then we sold out," says Mario, one of the Culver City store clerks, looking crestfallen after a search turns up empty for the missing peanut butter — usually shelved, naturally, beside the coffee creamer and sliced carrots. He happily finds me a jar of olives, though — next to the clam juice.
The Vendange '05 California Sauvignon Blanc at this location is virtually sold out, as is the Hillstone 2001 Sauvignon. Only a few dusty bottles of both remain. The 99-cent-wine wolves have been on the prowl, I suspect. But the shelves are packed with pink cartons of Bonnie 2005 White Zinfandel. No matter where you sell it, I guess, wine in a box is tres gauche.
Shop here long enough and soon you get to feeling like paying anything over 99 cents is criminal. A roll of paper towels for $2.99? Highway robbery! Whose party do you think this is, Rockefeller's? To shop at the 99¢ Only Stores for the first time is to experience a sort of exhilaration as you awaken to the genius of that Marxist-socialist philosophy that declares a bag of Mariani dried plums to be worth the same as a three-pack of ladies' sports socks.
Speaking of criminal, have you ever noticed that the gardening section of certain 99¢ Only Stores can be rather ominous? Plastic zip ties, a hacksaw, a wrench, pliers and some duct tape ... If someone — any neighbor you'd describe as a loner who keeps to himself — invites you to a party with those items on the shopping list, run!
In the event that your housewarming is a rager, and guests who have stayed for the after-party and lingered through the after-after-party are still around in the morning, fear not: The 99¢ Only Stores sell breakfast staples. The ultimate distinguishing mark of a good hostess is whether she maintains a stash of emergency morning-after buttermilk pancakes in her freezer (sold for 99 cents in packs of eight), as well as a hearty supply of T.J. Farms Potatoes O'Brien home-style hash browns, Farmer John old-fashioned pork links, and French-toast sticks (these can also double as party desserts in a pinch). By the same token, it's only right that those guests who intend to pull an all-nighter courteously supply their host with several new 99-cent nonstick frying pans.
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