Sunday, June 2, 2013

Grocery Store Dining

As published in Ojai Quarterly Spring 2013 Issue

I don’t like grocery shopping. I’m not good at it. I get lost in the condiments aisle, picking up each bottle and jar to feel its weight in my hands, noticing every curve, pondering its handling and ergonomics and wondering how it will look next to its counterparts taking up space in the door shelves of my refrigerator. I scrutinize the ingredients for too much sodium and words I can’t begin to pronounce, and mentally calculate the price per ounce before ruling it out and moving onto the next bottle. By the time I choose what I think is the perfect salad dressing, I realize I haven’t seen my husband since we walked in the door. I waltz through the aisles, stopping at the butters, repeating the whole sorted process.       
By the time I find Bill, he’s already at the checkout stand, shaking his head at me. He shows me the butter he already bought – the same one that took me an eternity to choose – and reminds me that he’s making the salad dressing from scratch. Of course! He always makes it from scratch.
The truth is, he hates it when I shop with him. I’m not on task. For me, it’s about discovering and exploring. For him, it’s all business. Get in, scoop, get out. And he never forgets the reusable bags. I’m the one who holds up the line and says, “No, no bag for me, I’ll be right back.” Yeah, I’m that person.
So most every Sunday, he gladly leaves me at home to write and heads out on a short mission to shop for the week’s groceries. He prefers to shop at Starr, because, he says, he can count on ample parking, wide carpeted aisles and Bob, the same produce guy who’s been there for years. He keeps his head down, grabs the basics and gets home in time for whatever televised sporting event has his attention this week.
On the other hand, in my discovering and exploring, I’ve come to find that Ojai’s independent grocery stores offer something you can’t get at the big chains: an alternative dining option. You read that right. You can dine at the grocery store, and we’ve got some gems. In addition to the old-school macaroni and cheese and fried chicken you’ll find at Bill’s favorite store, Starr Market, our three other independent grocers offer their own signature flavors.

The Farmer and the Cook
339 El Roblar Drive
            The local hippie market in the small enclave of Meiners Oaks sells fresh-from-their-farm produce and basic organic staples, but, best of all, they have a café featuring recipes inspired by their weekly harvests. The menu offers Mexican specialties for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including huevos rancheros, huaraches, raw tacos and tamales. Tortillas are hand-rolled and salsas are made from scratch. A self-serve, pay-by-the-weight soup and salad bar is great if you’re in a hurry. On weekends, hand-thrown pizzas with fresh herbs and vegetables, and organic beer and wine are added into the mix. Everything is homemade and organic. Order at the counter, grab some utensils and make your way to a rustic table with mismatched chairs indoors or out. Don’t forget dessert. I repeat, do not forget dessert. The bakery case is the big attraction here, with vegan, raw and gluten-free baked goods that will make you wonder what all the fuss is about butter and eggs.

Rainbow Bridge
211 East Matilija Street
          Think of it as an upscale hippie market if you want. Fancy, perhaps. I don’t know, it just seems more shiny, and the cars in their parking lot look like they just came from the carwash. Tucked behind the downtown arcade, Rainbow Bridge is a natural foods market offering a wide range of fresh produce, sustainably-raised meats and specialty packaged health foods. It’s the only market in town with a vitamins manager, who oversees an entire aisle of homeopathics, supplements and herbal remedies. The personal-care aisle includes chemical-free cosmetics, deodorants, lotions and oils. The tea aisle is a sight to behold. A deli counter in back offers a hot case brimming with hearty selections for breakfast, lunch and dinner, including lasagna (if the butternut squash lasagna is there, order it), baked chicken, grilled salmon, sautéed vegetables, stews, casseroles and homemade soups. The oatmeal pancake, as big as a dinner plate, is so popular you’ll have to get there early before it runs out. Sandwiches (try the avocado melt or the tuna on squaw bread), salads, burritos, juices and smoothies can be ordered to-go or dine-in (ample seating is available inside and out). Grab-and-go items include sandwiches and salads made fresh daily. Rainbow Bridge is my idea of fast food whenever I want a quick healthy meal.

Westridge Market
802 E. Ojai Avenue
          On the east end of town, a flaming grill in front of the store cooks up the most mouth-watering tri-tip you’ll ever have. Originally established in the late fifties as a meat locker for local ranchers, Westridge has managed to maintain their reputation for offering quality meats, and they’ve got a real, honest-to-goodness butcher counter at the back of the store to prove it. There, you can order premium cuts of beef, lamb, pork and poultry by the pound, or just hold your thumb and forefinger out to show how thick you like your steaks cut. They’ve also got what I think is the most genius offering in town: thick-cut smoked bacon by the slice. A grab-and-go deli case houses an irresistible tomato/basil/mozzarella panino, their famous (and messy) tri-tip barbecue burrito and an assortment of sandwiches, wraps and sides. Underneath you’ll find the usual accompaniments: chips, cookies, fruit and, of course, splits of Veuve Clicquot French Champagne (Westridge boasts a terrific wine selection). The pièce de résistance at the sandwich counter is the Westridge burger to-go. Ground fresh twice daily, the 80/20 all-beef patty is hand-formed when you order, seasoned with their special herb and spice blend, and cooked to your liking while you shop. Served on a fresh brioche bun, this burger weighs in at a hefty two-thirds of a pound (you can order a petite quarter-pounder if you prefer – you are charged by the weight). Unwrap it and devour it at one of their outside tables, or do as I do and take it home to eat over the kitchen sink.

Keep your eyes open at the grocery store. You’re sure to discover a gem just around the corner from the salad dressings in the condiments aisle.