Disneyland for Foodies

Don't go to the new Whole Foods in Tustin on an empty stomach. Trust me on this.

On my first foray, my hungry eyes got the best of me. After a half-hour in the store, my hand basket grew so heavy that I traded it for a cart. An hour later, I was in the checkout line with a building sense of dread. I gulped nervously as each sweeping beep of the bar-code reader sent the register tally higher and higher.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in realizing I'd gotten in over my head. There's just too much temptation at every turn. This is a store whose size and scope can't be overstated. What else do you expect with a market that's got the acreage of a Costco and the variety of a Trader Joe's times 10? Make that 20.

Think of a food item, and they probably have it. Think of a fruit currently in season, and it'll be there in bountiful stacks, labeled with its place of origin. A particularly sweet fragrance rising out of a pyramid of nectarines, peaches and pluots invited all passing nostrils to take a long, deep sniff. Most were grown locally and organically by farmers whose grinning faces beamed from oversized posters hanging above the produce aisle.

I moved on from the rows of fruit and came upon the seafood counter, where an entire section of smoked items glistened with a golden burnish. Among the species on display were cod, trout, scallops, shrimp and, of course, salmon. The latter looked like it was polished in a coat of caramel and was aptly called “Indian Candy.” Next to it, more seafood. Marinated tuna steaks. Red snapper wrapped in banana leaves. Bass encased in rolled sheets of cedar. And a boatload of seafood skewers ready for grilling.

I turned around and ran into self-serve islands of chilled seafood, including vats of cooked shrimp seasoned with Cajun spice. Poke—the raw cubed fish and seafood dish indigenous to Hawaii—came in four varieties. Behind this, another station was devoted to nothing but seafood soup.

There's whole roast duck, barbecued chicken, even ribs. At the carving station, an enormous slab of slow-smoked brisket fell away in pink ribbons under the knife. Across the aisle, a butcher's section can only be described as red-meat heaven.

The spectacle continued as I strolled into the other half of the store, where a wine-tasting bar, an olive bar (yes, an olive bar), and an entire wall of charcuterie made me ask myself, “What food-obsessed madman imagined this layout?” In the same area, a Brazilian churrascaria dominated a prepared-foods maze of chafing dishes and salad bars. I ordered the Super Gaucho Sampler from them, a selection of rodizio meats and nine mini side dishes.

A stop at the Asian-foods stall added agedashi tofu, a salmon teriyaki bowl and Korean barbecue short ribs to my cart. Although the boxed sushi looked fresh, I passed on it, gravitating instead to the pastry counter, where I picked up some petite fruit tarts and bite-sized Key lime pie.

Resistance was futile at the nearby gelato and chocolates counter. Before I knew it, I had a few of their $1.25-per-piece truffles in a bag.

It was at that point I knew I might have gone over budget. It's easy to spend too much, since prices are set at a premium. Dazed first impressions of the store's bounty will inevitably be replaced with one of sticker shock.

Unfortunately, mine didn't melt away so quickly when I got home to taste the longaniza, a Brazilian sausage in my churrascaria haul. The first piece I ate had sat too long under the heater, so it was shriveled to a dried-out state of jerky. But a bite off another was as juicy as it should have been.

The rest was hit-or-miss. The morsels of lamb were tender, but the chicken was dry despite being wrapped in bacon. The sides were more consistent—a hearts-of-palm salad crunched with vigor, while a shrimp stew was rich with coconut cream.

Among the Asian dishes, the agedashi tofu was surprisingly faithful. The Korean short ribs tasted exactly right—and tender, to boot. The pastries and chocolates were good, too—the Key lime tart wasn't too sweet, the cannoli crumbled, and the truffles gushed their concentrated fillings in our mouths.

Some raw lamb kebabs and beef satays I bought met the grill the next day for an impromptu backyard barbecue. The best was the most expensive skewer of all—the bacon-wrapped scallops. I roasted them till the bacon crisped up. Then I unthreaded the meats onto a plate and served them to a few hungry friends. I regaled them with tales of my trip to the new Whole Foods as they ate, culminating with the punch line: a receipt that validated the nickname “Whole Paycheck.”


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