Shop ’n’ nosh
It’s lunchtime on a Thursday, and as the song by DJ Dave goes, “It’s getting real in the Whole Foods parking lot.” Subarus, Priuses, hybrid SUVs, and the occasional pickup are jockeying for parking spaces, and shoppers are wandering almost willy-nilly in front of oncoming cars. I didn’t spot anyone wearing yoga pants, but I probably wasn’t looking hard enough.
The prepared-foods section of the store isn’t much less congested or chaotic, but the employees stay somewhere on the professional-to-friendly spectrum to help keep things running smoothly. In addition to the well-stocked salad bar, the nearly overflowing deli case, and an array of prepackaged sushi, an almost global range of made-to-order foods are available here — “street food” (something like a fajita plate), rice and noodle bowls, pizza, sandwiches, tacos, quesadillas, and burritos.
Tacos are served à la carte and can contain one protein and up to three condiments (additional toppings are a buck apiece). Whole Foods calls these “mini” tacos, but ours were so stuffed that lunch quickly became an unmanageable mess, the filling tumbling out and the double-layered corn tortillas bursting with the first bite. We tried three — the lean, briny fish; the griddle-charred chicken; and the saucy, mildly spicy carne adovada — and it was hard to pick a favorite.
Over at the noodle bar, we sampled the veggie fun bowl, which bordered on the ascetic. It included fun (rice noodles) all right, but it was definitely not fun to eat. The spicy chicken noodle bowl — smoky grilled poultry pieces, fiery jalapeños, rice vermicelli, and veggies in a deliciously salty lemongrass broth — is a “soup for the soul” elixir perfect for colds or those days when you’re sick at heart. Loaded with deep-green leaves, the hot udon is a fairly simple but well-seasoned combo of chewy noodles, fish broth, seaweed, spinach, and green onions.
For some reason I’ve never been able to understand, restaurants outside New Mexico like to name turkey-avocado sandwiches after our city. The local Whole Foods serves something along those lines: the made-to-order Santa Fe sandwich delivers smoked turkey, sun-dried tomato pesto, garlicky guacamole, and mixed greens on focaccia. It’s a hearty sandwich — intensely flavorful but not overly filling.
Over on the other side of town, the deli at La Montañita Co-op offers some satisfying options as well. Customers use colorful pads of paper to select or custom-design a juice, smoothie, bagel, or sandwich (for a little extra, we opted for “box lunches” with sides of potato and pasta salad, but we didn’t think either one was worth it). My companion’s sandwich was piled generously with roast beef and slathered with a tingly horseradish cream cheese, but the meat was incredibly tough. The avocado veggie sandwich is filled with bright, ripe produce, from lettuce and emeraldgreen sprouts to red tomatoes and peppers. Avocado, nature’s butter, and an herby pesto mayo add some welcome richness and depth.
Breakfast is available at both markets in the morning. At Whole Foods, the hot bar is stocked with premade breakfast tacos (filled with eggs and either bacon or hash browns, they’re small and simple but also cheap) and burritos (meat and veggie, the latter living up to its name by including actual vegetables). You can assemble a plate, choosing from the predictable hot breakfast offerings as well as fruit, yogurt, granola, oatmeal, and polenta (Whole Foods-ese for grits).
La Montañita will toast a bagel; slather it with butter, cream cheese, or jam; or stuff it with a colorful array of veggies. At the full-service breakfast burrito bar, a staff member will custom-build your burrito with fluffy yellow eggs, tofu, smoky pork or turkey sausage, bacon, pleasantly salty and tender potatoes, pinto beans, veggies (spinach, onion, zucchini, bell peppers), a cheddar-Jack cheese blend, mild green chile (a spicier version is sometimes available upon request), and a bold red. My dining companion enjoyed his “sausage-red” burrito so much he was inspired to write haikus about it.
The indoor and outdoor dining areas at the Co-op are never too crowded, while at Whole Foods, you’ll see shoppers sitting next to their bags, parents with kids, diners parked at tables with their laptops, or workers in scrubs on their lunch break. The Co-op isn’t quite the shiny, well-oiled machine that Whole Foods is, but one thing’s for sure: the parking lot is a much more peaceful place.