Food & Drink

Steam-Table Utopia

The Iffy Business of Dining at Whole Foods Market

Shena Lee

The new 2.5-acre Whole Foods Market—in the ground floor of a sparkling new condo complex on Denny Way—is a glittering temple of green consumerism, a shrine to the notion that if you just spend enough, you too can lead a more virtuous, sustainable existence. The place overwhelms. Walking through the doors, you're assailed by the smell of thousands of cut flowers mixed with chicken tikka masala mixed with wood-fired pizza and chicken teriyaki and every other food you can imagine. Belying its name, Whole Foods mocks those who deign to buy raw, unprepared foods. Why would you bother, the rows of loaded steam tables suggest, when all this ready-made bounty could be yours? And you can sit down and enjoy it right here—in the Whole Foods Market Cafe, a cordoned-off collection of 20-plus IKEA tables and a counter that faces an open kitchen. Everywhere are signs exhorting the shopper to buy Whole Foods products, and, by consuming them, become healthy: "Get hooked on fish oil for a healthy heart!" "Healthy meals for four under $15!" "Take your health to heart!"

The message: You're busy. Don't cook. Let us do it for you. It's for your own good. At Whole Foods, you can actually buy a piece of fish, turn around, walk five feet, and have someone unwrap and grill it.

I tried this on a recent visit. It was weird. The fish itself—a $4.99 salmon burger with feta and spinach (dry, no evidence of feta or spinach) and a delicate $5.99 filet of sole stuffed with crab and shrimp (a bit gluey but moist thanks to the heroic quantity of mayonnaise involved)—was okay. But I didn't understand why eating in the middle of a supermarket (at the SeaSmoke Cafe, one of half a dozen in-store "venues") would appeal to anyone. To the left of the cafe was a case filled with my dinner's brethren—to the right, a narrow aisle showcasing hundreds of bottles of oil and vinegar.

If you don't have time to let someone cook for you, you can always buy premade foods at the bars in the front of the store ($7.49 a pound), which include salad, "ethnic flavors" soup (those ethnicities being Indian, Mexican, and Chinese), and "gourmet favorites" (which translates to comfort food). There's just so much food, such an incredible diversity of options, that you assume it has to be good.

Allow me to disabuse you. All the hot foods I tried—from a "beef picadillo" that was a dead ringer for tacos made with powdered mix to a "chili macaroni and cheese" I swear was made with Hamburger Helper—were simultaneously mediocre and retrograde, as if Whole Foods shoppers' tastes hadn't matured in the half-century since convenience foods were invented. Several dishes, including "tofu stroganoff," chicken pot pie, and the chili mac, had the strangely uniform flavor of canned chicken noodle soup—creamy, bland, and comforting but hardly "heart healthy" or even "whole." A "$7.25 Thai basil shrimp" soup bowl, meanwhile, consisted of limpid thin rice noodles and steamed shrimp and veggies briefly dipped in boiling water and served with a broth that tasted almost exactly like Top Ramen; only by adding black-bean garlic sauce, Thai chili paste, and hot sauce at home did I render it edible. Forget convenience foods—these tasted like foods you could buy at an actual convenience store.

The cold prepared foods were a little better, although they, too, failed to benefit from their long sojourn behind the sneeze guard. A "cabbage crunch" salad with green cabbage, black sesame seeds, and toasted almonds had ample cabbage but lacked adequate crunch; a forlorn, overdressed caesar salad looked and tasted like something abandoned at a wedding buffet. A "couscous and feta" salad was the most palatable of the bunch, but it cheated: Really, it was feta with a couscous garnish, and while a brick of crumbly, salty cheese may be yummy, it's not exactly what you reach for when you want a "salad."

The "fresh fare" at the cafe itself proved costlier but not appreciably better than the premade stuff. A "crisp romaine" salad with "apple vinaigrette and spiced nuts" ($6.99) was sprinkled indelicately with cinnamon sugar; combined with an already-too-sweet dressing, it reminded me of cinnamon toast. A chicken breast ($10.99), allegedly stuffed with "mushrooms and fresh herbs," tasted suspiciously similar to the creamy chicken-noodle-soup concoctions at the gourmet favorites steam table; the Herculean mound of chunky-mashed red potatoes that accompanied it, though more acceptable, was twice as much starch as any human could consume. And a pulled-pork sandwich ($6.99) was drenched so liberally with olive oil (and accompanied by a sweet coleslaw drenched just as liberally with mayo) that eating even half was a greasy chore.

Is this really what Whole Foods (and, by extension, its yuppie, condo-dwelling customers) considers "heart healthy"? From what I can tell (and Whole Foods doesn't reveal its nutritional information), a steady diet of this stuff would turn the most svelte upwardly mobile condo dweller into an immense, broke fatso. And for the 80 bucks I spent (50 of it at the deli, 30 at the cafe), you could easily feed two for a week—with actual whole foods, maybe even from Whole Foods itself.

barnett@thestranger.com

 

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