Whole Foods Grocery
711 University Ave.
"We are looking for some vegetarian food," a slightly stooped older man said. "What do you have with no onions or garlic?"
"I think just about everything has garlic or onions in it," admitted the cashier at the Whole Foods counter.
The man turned back to his expectant family. "You see?" he hissed. "Why did we come here? Why did we waste our time?"
Whole Foods, "the world's largest retailer of natural and organic foods," brings the Hillcrest crazies out of the woodwork. I should admit that includes me, although I usually stick to the $5.69-a-pound salad bar, my default meal. (Try the southwest lentil and four- bean salads, or use fresh hummus instead of salad dressing.) There is even an attendant to restock, keep things clean, and make sure the peas don't get mixed with the corn.
But there is also the prepared- foods counter, an overgrown (and overpriced) deli that allows yuppies to cocoon with home-cooked gourmet meals served fresh out of the microwave. It is an impressive spread, with an admirable variety: dishes are continually being tweaked, and seasonal dishes are rotated in and out. But far too many are pasta salads or snoozers like green beans almondine. And in the end, the variety and volume overwhelms the amateurish kitchen.
My vegetable dishes were all trendily undercooked-as if they had been rinsed in warm water-and under-seasoned. The meat dishes, on the other hand, were all seasoned heartily, and then cooked to oblivion. The common thread in the chicken salads-curry chicken, kickin' chicken-were chewy little nuggets of completely dry meat. (Fun fact: the majority of food-borne illnesses come from (a) produce and (b) home-cooked foods.)
I hate to admit that the best option may be the numerous tofu offerings, such as crunchy sesame, spicy rojo or sweet teriyaki. The seafood is a mixed bag. Catfish with ancho and chipotle chile sauce was moist and tender, even after reheating, and packed a satisfying spiciness. But the crab cakes tasted like those fishcakes they used to serve in the school cafeteria. The seafood gumbo is flavorful and satisfying, but "seafood chowder" is code for "We've got leftovers."
Of course, Whole Foods recycles. Leftovers sometimes show up in the comfort-food lunch bar ($6.99 for one entrée and two sides) or the hot food bar, where I saw a tray of "celebration field roast" that must have been celebrating the Carter inauguration. ("Celebration roast" is part of the Field Roast faux meat product line, although you wouldn't know it from Whole Foods, which proudly posts the ingredient lists as if they were their own recipes. Ironically, the celebration roast and smoked tomato field roast were among the best offerings I tried.)
Other times, Whole Foods puts leftovers in thin cardboard boxes under heat lamps. That treatment turned my artichoke triangle into an old dried sponge, and a chicken medallion into a fossilized little puck of white meat. The Border Girls beef brisket burrito-from the recipes of those supposedly health-conscious, supposedly celebrity chef partners-did not fare as badly, being an indestructible doughy conglomeration of meat, cheese, beans and tortilla. Another day, I saw the $17.99-a-pound steak being offered under the heat lamp. Curious, I tore open a steak box, only to find another chicken medallion, this one the consistency of a shard of glass.
The breakfast bar, served until 11 a.m., features always-abysmal buffet eggs-if they aren't abysmal now, just wait a few minutes, they will be-alongside dried-out sausage, and gritty, mushy potatoes in a thin cream sauce. The Border Girls contribute another bland carb party, a breakfast burrito filled primarily with cheese and potato. The two saving graces are the fatty, thick-cut bacon and the surprisingly decadent crème brulee French toast with crispy cinnamon edges and a thick cream sauce. But I get the feeling that might not be the kind of food the Whole Foods crowd is looking for, especially at 8 a.m.
Then again, it is vegetarian, and it comes without onions or garlic.
Are we really incapable of cooking our own green beans almondine? Tell me why at cityeat@SD citybeat.com.