As a kid, supermarket lunches were always a form of decadent fast food. While my dad wandered around our local Ralph’s looking for radishes and rye bread to toss in the cart, I always headed straight for the deli department, into the loving arms of a butcher or potato-salad maker, who watched me as I scanned the smorgasboard of pre-batched food in the chill case and eventually weighed out for me a plastic container of goopy, steaming macaroni and beef.
Sometimes, I would get a tamale on the side, and sometimes I would grab a handful of gummy worms from the bulk section for dessert, but always, I would inhale it all at the cart, before checkout, and think that I was cheating dining norms (and impersonating adulthood) by eating so many disparate things while on the go.
Well, adulthood is here, and it’s not all gummy worms and mac ‘n’ cheese. These days, grocery shopping feels like the only time I can slow down enough to consider what food I want to put in my body. Supermarket deli sections must know this because they’ve been massively upgraded to lure me into grabbing lunch there.
Take, for instance, Long Beach’s sole Whole Foods, which started life as a Wild Oats Market and was converted over in the late 2000s. Another store reset a few years ago brought the location some indoor and outdoor tables along with an upgraded prepared foods section that includes a massive brick pizza oven, a sushi chef, a burger bar, a Chinese restaurant and a two-island salad bar that has almost as many options for leafy greens and spring mixes as it does for organic, dairy-free dressings. It’s nowhere near as extensive as the prepared foods at newer Whole Foods — which have been known to take up half the store with an entire miniature food court, including a coffee shop, a taqueria, a gastropub, a by-the-pound hot food buffet and grab-and-go ethnic food from around the world — but it makes the Ralph’s of my youth look like an empty fridge.
Now, my ritual consists of shopping for the few items I can afford at Whole Foods (hint: it’s mostly produce and beer) then moseying over to the food court for a seaside lunch. And instead of plastic containers of sloppy, homestyle comfort food, I can get vegetable-loaded vegan pizza (two slices for $6), gluten-free sushi (made with forbidden rice), a two-item combo plate (with vegetable chow mein) or a pre-packaged tuna salad wrap.
The salad bar is no afterthought either — it’s the centerpiece. Using nothing but raw ingredients — from kale to sunflower seeds — it’s possible to create a dense, colorful entree salad that, like a Yogurtland order, is limited only by your own creativity. Not feeling like Van Gogh one day? No worries. There’s still a selection of already mixed side salads, channeling flavors from India, Lebanon, Korea, China and more.
After I pay for everything at the front registers, I like to sit in the big patio furniture outside and feast. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll get a beach blanket out of my car and take the meal to the grassy knoll that lines the marina side of the store. If I’m feeling extra super-fancy, I’ll keep walking all the way across the parking lot to the marina itself, where secluded benches and more grass means I can pop open a beer while I eat my Whole-Paycheck lunch with a serene view of big-boy boats I’ll never be able to afford.
Now that’s adulting.
6550 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach; (562) 598-8687; wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/longbeach