If you are familiar with the Penzeys Spices store on University Avenue in the Shorewood Shopping Center, there won't be anything unfamiliar about the new east-side location, in the Essex Square shopping center near East Towne. That's the one with Pier One, Takumi and Half-Price Books, if you find the whole East Towne area to be a massive confusion.
In 1957, Penzey's began in Milwaukee as a spice and coffee business. Eventually, coffee was dropped (later on, the apostrophe was also dropped); the spice side expanded through mail order. In 1997, the second retail Penzeys opened in Madison. Today the number of retail storefronts nationwide approaches 60, located from the Grand Central terminal in New York City to Santa Monica, Calif.
Like the west-side store, the Essex Square shop does its best to make a roomful of spice jars look interesting. Stock is displayed on crates, and burlap bags are pinned on the walls, as if just you happen to be wandering the docks in Madagascar. The cinnamon and some other baking spices make their home in a 1930s-style American heartland kitchen. It does break things up a bit. The real reasons to shop at Penzey's, though, don't have to do with decor.
A) Availability. That recipe that calls for ajwain seed or guajillo peppers or mahlab? Despair not, it is here. B) Quality. I believe that once you try Penzeys stock of the basics, like cinnamon or paprika or curry powder, you won't go back to McCormick's. The flavor does come through. C) Every herb, spice, seasoning blend, soup base, or extract is open in a sample jar or cruet for you to sniff. So you can begin to discern just what the difference between Mexican vanilla, regular vanilla and double-strength vanilla might be...besides the price. Would you prefer ground ancho pepper or ground chipotle? Turns out chipotle has a deeper, friendlier aroma.
Penzeys is always coming up with new seasoning blends, like the new salt-free Forward! and Arizona Dreaming. And stores carry nearly everything that's listed in the mail order catalog, "except the minced onions," according to a clerk at the new outlet. "Just about everything else we should have."
Customers on the catalog mailing list know that just about every one comes with a coupon for a free half-cup of a featured spice or seasoning. So what's stopping you? You don't even have to venture over to the west side any more.