After the news broke a couple of weeks ago that Trader Joe’s was making moves to open a store in Maine, the calls and e-mails from the faithful came pouring in.

One woman said she would “hope and pray” the grocery store becomes a reality at the former Wild Oats site on Portland’s Marginal Way.

“That would be so amazingly wonderful if that happened in Portland,” said one caller in a message on my voice mail.

Really? Hope and pray? Amazingly wonderful?

That must be some grocery store.

So here’s my big confession: Until last Friday, I was a Trader Joe’s virgin. Never set foot in one. I had, however, heard all of the glory hallelujah stories about the cheap wine, friendly staff and fun food finds to be had within its walls.

So I decided it was time to see for myself what all the fuss was about. I got onto MapQuest and plotted a route to Cambridge, Mass., to find out if I wanted to join the cult of Trader Joe’s. (When it comes to Trader Joe’s locations, Massachusetts is like the head cheerleader who’s dating the captain of the football team. The state has a whopping 17 stores, while Maine — the nerdy little sister who didn’t get invited to prom — has none.)

I chose Cambridge because I’d heard the store was a good one, and it’s one of only three Massachusetts locations that sell beer and wine. I figured I couldn’t go to Trader Joe’s without picking up a bottle of Two Buck Chuck, the inexpensive but supposedly good wine the chain is known for selling.

I pulled into the small store off Memorial Drive a little before noon, a small cooler in my trunk for bringing back items that needed to be refrigerated. It was not what I was expecting. The store was tucked into the back of a parking lot, behind a small strip of other stores and across from a computer center.

From the outside, this little foodie sanctuary looked a little like it was past its expiration date. The beige brick in front was a bit drab, but one side of the store was brightened by vividly painted murals of people and places around Cambridge.

The parking lot was packed, and a steady stream of customers grabbed red shopping baskets and headed inside.

I followed.

BLOOMIN’ GOOD PRICES

My first stop was the flowers. The prices were definitely a bargain — $4.99 for a good-sized bunch of tulips and just $7.99 for a dozen roses. Roses at Maine markets easily run about twice that price and aren’t always the best quality. The Trader Joe’s tulips were beautiful, but most of the roses actually looked ready for the garbage can.

Not an auspicious beginning.

But then I was lured farther into the store by a 2-pound bag of blood oranges for $2.49, smoked Gouda for $4.99 a pound, 10 ounces of sliced baby portobello mushrooms for $1.99, and a papaya big enough to club a horse (not that I would ever do that).

I spied a package of fresh blackberries for $3.69, which is about what I pay here in Maine, then noticed that the container they were in was twice the size. Half-price blackberries: Can I hear an “Amen?”

I picked up some white bean-and-basil hummus, one of the Trader Joe’s-brand products that gets raves on the Internet, then turned to find an employee offering me a free sample of banana chips. She asked if I need help finding anything.

The service was, indeed, friendly, but the way ecstatic Trader Joe’s fans talk about it, I was expecting foot rubs by the dairy case, given by Polynesian hunks bearing mai tais.

More bargains ensued, including a couple of jaw-droppers: a large bag of frozen, pre-chopped red, green and yellow bell peppers for $1.69 (yes, I prefer fresh, too, so don’t send me e-mails); 2 pounds of basmati rice for $2.99, or $3.99 for organic; a 12-ounce bottle of Grade A syrup for $5.49; and a 2-pound package of Trader Joe’s-brand frozen stir fry (chicken or shrimp) for $4.99.

Not everything was a great buy. Yogurt, both Greek and regular, and those convenient bags of pre-shredded cheese cost about the same as anywhere else. Spices were just $1.99 a jar, but you can get them cheaper than that at the Christmas Tree Shops.

READY-TO-MAKE TEMPTERS

The store had some prepared food, including sushi, but nothing in amount or quality that would compare to Whole Foods.

What it did have was some tempting ready-to-make foods to pull out of the refrigerator or freezer on nights you just don’t feel like cooking. In the meat department, there were curried chicken tenders, pollo and carne asados, and a filet mignon roast from Australia (no antibiotics or hormones).

Trader Joe’s frozen dinners cost the same as, say, the Shaw’s Culinary Circle brand, but they come in much more interesting varieties. Instead of the standard lasagnas, eggplant Parmesan and shepherd’s pie, Trader Joe’s sells chicken gorgonzola, tilapia citronette and mojito salmon.

One of the things I liked about the store was stumbling upon items that you’re not going to find at the local Hannaford or Shaw’s, or maybe even Whole Foods. How about wild mushroom and black truffle flatbread with mozzarella? Chocolate of all varieties comes in gigantic “Pound Plus” packages, or you can pick up a container of tiny, dark chocolate-covered pomegranate seeds.

A friend had told me to check out the 100 percent Kona coffee for $7.99 a pound, and I looked at her like she was crazy. “It can’t be 100 percent Kona at that price,” I said. “It must be a Kona blend.”

Turns out she was thinking of Kauai coffee beans, grown in a less well-known spot of the islands but without the high-priced Kona label. There was 100 percent Kona, too: 13 ounces of beans for $19.99 (with no costly shipping from Hawaii).

Around the corner from the coffee, I found the holy of holies: Two Buck Chuck. The famously cheap wine is actually $2.99 a bottle here, so shouldn’t it be called “Three Buck Chuck”? Or, since the price has gone a little higher, maybe just “Up Chuck”?

Cartons were stacked everywhere for customers who wanted to stock up on wine. I found the $3.99 D’Aquino Pinot Grigio that has been called “Two Buck Chuck’s Italian cousin,” and a $3.99 Chilean cabernet sauvignon known for being a Trader Joe’s value wine.

Great prices aside, overall I expected more of an “experience” at Trader Joe’s. After hearing all the raves, I half expected to be blessed by a shaman as I walked through the door. But the only exotic atmosphere came from the employees’ Hawaiian shirts and a tacky tiki statue in the window.

The bottom line: I didn’t have a religious conversion, but I do get why people are so in love with Trader Joe’s. And I think it would find a good niche here in Portland without compromising the existence of Whole Foods or any other local stores. The Wild Oats space seems like a perfect spot for Joe to move in.

So keep those prayers and supplications coming.

 

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]