When I was a boy in Omaha, my parents used to take the family to dinner in a supermarket. The place was an honest-to-God restaurant inside the grocery store, a full-service operation with a host stand and booths and a menu that you could hold in your grimy little kid hands. I remember next to nothing about the food, except that the kitchen griddled up a good burger. Of course, back then, I thought any burger was a good burger.
What I remember most about the restaurant was its design: It had no street entrance. To reach the host stand, you had to walk through the grocery store, with its florescent, interrogation-bright lights. It was sober lighting for the sober task of inspecting the meats, vegetables and boxes of Fruity Pebbles necessary for a growing family. (Hey, the cereal was necessary to me!)
Once you safely navigated past the prison-guard floodlights of the supermarket, however, you could retreat to the relative shadows of the restaurant itself. Even this modest eatery, positioned near the refrigerator chill of the dairy section, understood the benefits of mood lighting: It allowed you to release your tight grip on life and indulge.
Dining in supermarkets has changed significantly since the 1970s. The international menus available these days are far removed from my white-bread Midwestern youth. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Whole Foods Markets lately, and not because of the distant-cousin relationship between my employer and America’s favorite organic punching bag. Amazon bought Whole Foods last year, and the tech giant’s founder and chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post, in case you haven’t read that 10,000 times already in this paper.
No, I’ve been visiting Whole Foods stores because they’ve become as much dining rooms as grocery stores. You can buy ramen, sushi, tacos, bubble tea, barbecue, Peruvian chicken, Neapolitan-style pizza, craft beers, wine, steamed buns and so much more inside these super-snob-markets. The stores even have places for you to sit, as long as you don’t mind dining in spaces that overlook grocery aisles or stare out onto suburban streets or seem like cut-rate sports bars that, simultaneously, are too good to serve Buffalo chicken tenders.
You might notice that some dishes are conspicuously missing from my list, such as the smoked pork shoulder ramen from Paper Horse, chef Erik Bruner-Yang’s part-Chinese, part-Japanese concept at the Whole Foods stores on H Street NE and in Foggy Bottom. That’s because the noodle soup can’t begin to compare to Bruner-Yang’s best work at Toki Underground, back when he was still building bowls there during the shop’s heyday. The pork buried in this Whole Foods ramen is chewy and charred, not the luscious, soy-and-sake braised slices of chashu that melt in your mouth. I also couldn’t detect any smoke flavor.
Nor did I include pizza, even though several stores produce fine pies, particularly the Tenleytown location (4530 40th St. NW, 202-237-5800), where I love the cheese slices — oversize triangles sauced with San Marzano tomatoes, then cooked in a Wood Stone oven till nice and crispy. Pizza just seems too obvious to feature on this list.
5. Baby rack ribs, $8.99 for a half rack and $17 for a full, at the Fair Lakes Whole Foods (4501 Market Commons Dr., Fairfax, Va., 703-222-2058). Years ago, this location had a robust barbecue menu, including brisket that, while poorly trimmed, was smoky and succulent. You can still order baby backs at the Sports Spot, a section of the supermarket that serves as a communal space for those who want to watch manly games on TV. The ribs are dry-rubbed, smoked for several hours and then reconstituted on the grill for an extra layer of char. They’re not fresh from the smoker, but they’re plenty tasty.
4. Peruvian chicken, $8 for a quarter and $10 for a half, at the Arlington Whole Foods (2700 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va., 703-527-6596). The half chicken I ordered here looked as if its ancestral home were New Orleans, not Peru. The skin was almost blackened, like some evolutionary land-based relative to Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish. Yet, under that layer of carbonized char, there lay juicy bird meat, light on seasonings but smoky and tender. When dipped in the bright, herbal green sauce, the chicken found its full voice, a Peruvian folk song sung by a choir.
3. Taco bowl, $8, at the Riverdale Park Whole Foods (6621-B Baltimore Ave., Riverdale Park, Md., 240-487-7575). Every Saturday, from about 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., this store sets up a small station, where you can build your own taco bowl, starting with a fat, puffy flour shell, fried in-house. The key is not to pile on the ingredients, but to choose them wisely. Skip the rice, which has no place in this dish, and tell your builder to go easy on the sour cream or else your lunch will quickly turn into taco bowl soup. And that’s no good.
2. Double cheeseburger, $7, at the Silver Spring Whole Foods (833 Wayne Ave., Silver Spring, Md., 301-608-9373). When you punch in your order at the Burger Bar in Silver Spring, the touch screen will not ask for your preferred degree of doneness. Which blows, right? I mean, who wants a double stack, made with quality, 80-percent-lean ground beef, and then have the patties incinerated to medium-well? The trick is to flag the griddle man after you’ve ordered, who will happily cook your burger to a desired temp. Should you forget, though, there’s still plenty of beef flavor hiding in this burger, even when most of the fat has been rendered out.
1. Philly cheesesteak, $12 for a seven-inch sandwich and $16 for a 10-inch, at the South Capitol Hill Whole Foods (101 H St. SE, 202-469-7280). In October, Kith and Kin chef Kwame Onwuachi debuted Philly Wing Fry, a fast-casual fever dream featuring three of his favorite foods: Philly cheesesteaks, chicken wings and waffle fries. If you order all three at once, you’re either really stoned or trying to win a bet. The cheesesteak alone is rich enough to stop time. Built with Roseda Farms rib-eye that is dry-aged at least 50 days, the cheesesteak has that blue-cheese funk common to such beef. The meat is then slipped into a roll toasted in dry-age beef fat and topped with smoked provolone, roasted garlic mayo, pickled pearl onions and caramelized onions. If a traditional Philly cheesesteak is heavy, then this is a collapsed sun sucking matter from all corners of the universe. There’s no reason for this sandwich to exist, but I’m so glad it does.