A Visit to Penzeys in Menlo Park

Can't wait to try the jar I bought.

Much like a visit to a neighborhood bookstore, a trip to Penzeys’ new Menlo Park store will have you happily perusing the shelves while losing all track of time.

The new store, which opened at 771 Santa Cruz Ave. in late November, is the Wisconsin-based spice giant’s first Northern California outpost.

Since opening in 1957 in Milwaukee, the company has become a mail-order phenomenon, with cooks nationwide clamoring for its more than 250 herbs, spices, and seasonings.

The Menlo Park store already seems to be a hit. When I visited on a Tuesday afternoon, about 10 customers were browsing their way through the small store. Employees behind the counter said the holidays have been quite busy, with customers loading up on spice gift assortments.

Find super long vanilla beans, and vanilla sugar, among the items for sale.

What I especially love about the store is how informative the simple displays are. You’ll find apothecary jars on each shelf, containing a large sample of the spices contained in the surrounding smaller jars for sale. On the outside of each apothecary jar is a short description of each herb or spice, where it comes from, and suggested culinary uses. Best yet, you can uncap each large jar to take a whiff of what’s inside.

A charming old-fashioned kitchen is set up in the middle of the store, displaying baking spices, and the longest vanilla beans I’ve ever seen.

In the old-fashioned display kitchen, find for sale bottles of orange extract, whole nutmegs, and cinnamon from around the world.

I toted home a bottle of Mexican vanilla extract (per the advice of FoodGal reader, Rena Takahashi), a jar of Chinese cassia cinnamon (because FoodGal reader, Moe Rubenzahl, raved about it), a tiny jar of powdered pure wasabi (made from the real-deal rhizome, and not just colored horseradish), and some Singapore Seasoning because one sniff convinced me it would be magical in a sauce with coconut milk.

If you’re ever at a loss as to what to cook or bake next, wander over to Penzeys. You just can’t help but discover inspiration there.

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  • Northern California has been waiting for a Penzey’s for a long time. I hope that they do well!

    Did you see if they had Mural of Flavor there?

  • Wow, I had NO idea there was a Penzeys in the Bay Area. Good news — you’ve just saved me shipping fees as I need extracts and cinnamon, too.

    I just read about Ceylon cinnamon, so now I’m confused about which is more intense — Ceylon or Cassia. I imagine they’ll be able to answer that question at the store. Thanks, Carolyn.

  • LOL!! As I was reading I was mentally getting ready to rave ab the China Cassia. Thank you for saving me the trouble!

    Cheryl: Try both 😉 I have not tried the Ceylon but have tried some of their other cinnamons. The China Cassia is the most intense. The Ceylon is a true cinnamon. Americans are used to Cassia being sold as cinnamon. They are similar but cassia is stronger and spicier.

    Other faves to try at Penzeys (from an article I wrote in 2005, See: http://feedme.typepad.com/my_weblog/2005/09/superior_spices.html):

    “Try their peppercorns. I use the Indian Special Extra Bold Tellicherry black pepper and it much more pungent and complex than anything I have bought in a grocery.

    Their exotics, like curry and paprika, are complex and rich.

    Herbs, like bay leaf, dill weed, parsley, and basil, are bright green, fresh and still fragrant.

    I love the ground chili peppers. This is not the same as chile powder, which is a blend. These are dried and ground chili pods, of various types. I especially like the smoky ones. The Ancho Chili is smoky, complex, and full of flavor, and not at all hot. The Chipotle is quite hot and full of flavor.

    Try the blends, such as Fox Point seasoning, the sandwich or pasta sprinkles and specialty mixes like pumpkin pie spice. I especially like Fox Point on popcorn. ”

    I’ll add the Mural of Flavor as a new favorite.

  • Holy cow, a Penzeys in our very own vicinity?? This is phenomenal news. Maybe it will even convince my friend in Arizona who originally turned me on to Penzeys mail order to come visit us. If it does, you can count on another “Oh, the power of your blog, Carolyn!” comments the day it happens 🙂

  • ( Gah — feel free to mentally insert the missing e for me in both places there, OK?)

  • Gads, Moe! I should have consulted with you before I went. Hah! I will definitely get some peppercorns next time.

    Nate, inquiring minds want to know: What is Mural of Flavor? And what do you like using it for?

    Cheryl, I should have dragged you to the store with me as I did to the cupcake bakery. As with that, I’m sure it would have taken no convincing, either.

    Carroll: Your “e” wishes will be my command.

  • From the Penzey’s website:

    Mural Of Flavor
    Mural of Flavor blends over a dozen spices and herbs, creating a wall (hence mural) of flavor so delicious, there’s no need to add salt. Try it on chicken, fish, pork, and beef. Add it to soups, rice and potatoes. Shake it over tomatoes, corn, popcorn and scrambled eggs. Hand mixed from shallots, onion, garlic, thyme, rosemary, basil, coriander, lemon peel, citric acid, black pepper, chives, green peppercorns, dill weed, and orange peel.

    I like this salt-free blend because it doesn’t overdo the lemon like a lot of other salt-free blends I’ve tried. And it tastes fresh, not chemically like others. I like it sprinkled on top of Kettle chips.

  • Looks like another Caltrain ride for me down to the Peninsula! Thanks for the heads up Food Gal!

  • Glad the Menlo Park Penzey’s finally opened. Try to visit the Naperville, IL, store when we visit family. The in-store experience is a much better experience than just flipping through the catalog/online version and Menlo Park is MUCH closer than Naperville.

  • more than 250 variety to choose from?! I will be so spoiled! btw, what’s the Singapore seasoning actually? I have never heard of one such seasoning before! 😀

  • Mrs. Ergul, in answer to your question: Singapore Seasoning is “Hand-mixed from: Tellicherry black pepper, lemon peel powder, citric acid, garlic, onion, tumeric, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, fennel, cinnamon, fenugreek, white pepper, cardamom, cloves and cayenne red pepper.” That’s from Penzeys’ Web site. It says it’s great for grilling Cornish game hens, or for stir-frying pork, or using on steamed fish.

    When I took one whiff, I just thought immediately of adding some to coconut milk with a squeeze of lime juice, and then maybe using it for a sauce for chicken. Can’t wait to try it.

  • I’m looking to do some experiment with wattleseed. This may be just the place to find it locally. Thanks for the great lead!

  • Glad you enjoyed your trip there – it’s less than a mile from my house and not only is the selection phenomenal, the pricing is actually better than buying plain old McCormick’s at Safeway (believe it or not!)

  • It’s always fun to visit Penzey’s — such a charming little shop.

  • Nate, I saw a whole basketful of Mural Of Flavor by the register when I was there in mid November. I’m sure they still have it in stock – it is definitely good stuff, especially for the sodium-conscious!
    Carolyn, I’m glad you found the Mexican Vanilla extract. My mom got very anxious when she heard about it because she had heard about possible coumadin(?) coumarin(?) contamination in Mexico, where slimy manufacturers cut the vanilla with this toxic plant extract that smells exactly like vanilla. I guess one has to be careful to buy from a reputable source when buying Mexican vanilla. I notice that Penzey’s doesn’t say anything about it, but they’re about as reputable as spice purveyors get, right!?
    We like the Chinese cinnamon here too, but think that the Vietnamese cassia cinnamon has even more punch – it’ll really knock you over!

  • Just made it here last night – awesome to have one close by. I was spoiled in that anytime I went back to the midwest I could conveniently stock up.

  • I LOVE YOUR BLOG! I just happened upon it today! I can’t wait to browse some more!

  • This spice store envelops you in a whirlwind of cinnamon, pumpkin spice, thyme and other deliciously satisfying scents. Penzey’s boasts a large selection of premium spices in a well-organized layout that appeals to amateur and professional chefs.

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