You'll Never Cook Again The Deli Explosion
The American population was increasingly urban and employed, and there was less time for growing, processing, and preparing food. By combining cleaning supplies, dry goods, aisles of factory-baked breads, meat, cheese, and dairy sections with refrigerated produce counters, supermarkets promoted the idea of one-stop shopping. Farmer's markets, neighborhood Mom and Pop butcher shops, bakeries, and greengrocers slowly disappeared.
As American life has become busier and most families require two incomes to survive, cooking at home is often seen as a luxury. Once again, the American supermarket has come to the rescue. These days, any market worthy of the name "super" has a fresh prepared food or deli section stocked with a tempting array of comestibles that demand a bare minimum of attention (a little boiling water or a quick zap in the microwave) before they can be fed to the family.
Austin is currently grocery store heaven, with major chains involved in a "can you top this?" contest of creativity and innovation. By shopping around, lucky Austinites will encounter a true embarrassment of riches where take-out, deli-type foods are concerned. Between the two new Whole Foods store delis, the "Grab & Go" area at Central Market, Cook's Night Out at Fresh Plus, and the delis at Wheatsville and Simon David, it's possible to dine creatively without ever cooking again.
When Tom Thumb brought its upscale grocery outlet, Simon David, to Austin in the late Eighties, Whole Foods was still a small, regional health-food chain, and the HEB folks had yet to even conceive of Central Market. Simon David opened with great fanfare, and Austin shoppers responded positively to the large selection of higher-end gourmet products, the in-store bakery, cafe, and salad bar, plus the freshly prepared salads and side dishes in the deli section. The northwest Austin neighborhood surrounding Simon David is much more densely populated these days, and they have a new, competitive neighbor in the Gateway center across Hwy183.
Although Simon David became a Randall's grocery with the Tom Thumb buyout, the store retained its name and has a loyal clientele. The quality of the deli items is unchanged. The original Blackened Chicken Pasta Salad is still smashing, with large chunks of tender chicken and al dente pasta spirals in a sauce that is warm, spicy, smoky, and creamy all at once. Another tasty option is the Spicy Sesame Pasta, which features pasta tubes in a zippy dressing sprinkled with crisp sesame seeds. The Greek Salad is a melange of marinated tomatoes, herbs, artichoke hearts, briny olives, and feta cheese that is wonderful tossed with fresh lettuce. In fact, the deli selections at Simon David are among the most flavorful and well seasoned available in town. You can augment your deli selections with sliced meats and cheeses or order a spiral-cut ham and pick up fresh bread or rolls at the bakery.
Wheatsville Co-op has been a viable alternative grocery option in Austin for 19 years. Although sales were adversely affected by the opening of Central Market right up the road, this year Wheats-ville sales seem to be rebounding as a result of the closing of the original Whole Foods store at 10th and Lamar. The small deli at Wheatsville presents a selection of salads, hot and cold soups, and an entrée that changes daily. The fare here is not particularly polished; it has much more of a homemade aura about it.
Emphasis at Wheatsville is on health food, and there are vegetarian and vegan options. The day we shopped, both soups were vegan choices - the cold soup was Gazpacho and the hot soup was Gumbo. The Gumbo was spicy with an appropriately dark roux and chunks of tofu as a milder counterpoint. I could understand why the vegan Gumbo was made with tofu, but why there were bland, white chunks of tofu in among the buttery bites of avocado in the otherwise pleasant Gazpacho, I cannot fathom.
The Fresh Plus grocery stores in two of Austin's oldest neighborhoods are the second generation of Austin's last local, family-owned grocery chain. The Fresh Plus on West Lynn is a Clarksville institution, and the Cook's Night Out deli has a clientele that is very loyal to the French country and Mediterranean-influenced selections in the deli case. We must have caught the deli on an off day, because the entrée choices were pretty limited and included a sad looking piece of fried chicken that seemed somewhat out of place. However, there was a tempting display of salads from which to make a meal. We enjoyed Marinated Green Beans with Almonds, a tasty version of Tabooleh, a toothsome Greek Pasta salad with tangy olives and crumbled feta, a garlicky Hummus for dipping, and a Tortellini Salad with chunks of sausage.
Our favorite purchases that day, however, were the decadently creamy pieces of divinity we found atop the deli case and the small, round Penny's Pastries shortbread cookies displayed in big glass canisters. Cook's Night Out can round out your meal with sliced meats and cheeses, sandwiches, and soups, plus cookies and muffins made fresh every day. There is also a convenient wine department from which to select a bottle to augment your take-home dinner.
The "Grab & Go" area in Central Market could be a permanent home for folks too busy or disinterested to cook. You could shop here for days and never feed your family the same meal. Central Market features the largest offering of Austin-made products we found in the city. There's a case overflowing with homegrown favorites: beautiful sandwiches from both Out to Lunch and The Herb Garden Cooking Company; both regular and turbo versions of the UT-area favorite Solar Falafel; myriad packages of Mangiamaccheroni pastas; and several flavors of the fast-selling Marta's Flan. Farther down, you'll find a hot case full of rotisserie chickens and an entire hot line of Threadgill's Vegetables, with big slabs of their cornbread for good measure.
There is a long salad bar with fresh greens and a whole world of garnishes and salad dressing on one side and an equally dizzying supply of American and ethnic salads on the opposite side. This area also includes the largest variety of olives and herring in the city and a cheese counter where you can get freshly sliced, grated, or marinated cheeses from the international bounty set before you.
If pasta is your passion, you can grab some designer pasta and match it with the appropriate sauce (Marinara, Alfredo, Tomato with Sausage or Meatballs, etc.) and be on your way. The only cooking skill required is boiling water; then you can enjoy Tortellini Stuffed with Wild Mushrooms, Lobster Ravioli, Spinach or Egg Gnocci, Manicotti, Stuffed Shells, Tri-Color Orzo, Farfalle, or Stars, all imported from Bertagni in Bologna, Italy. They even sell gigantic wheels of aged Parmesan to top it all off. For the family who desires more traditional Texas fare, there are individual and family-sized portions of creamy, cheesy King Ranch Chicken casserole; tender, delicious Smoked Pork Tenderloins; and Chicken Breasts prepared in every manner, from Cordon Bleu to Smoked with Chipotle and Tomatillo Salsa.
Just around the corner, you can stroll into the Central Market Cafe and order food to eat in or take out from menus sporting Italian foods, Cowboy cuisine, vegetarian fare, burgers, and sandwiches, as well as baked goods and ice cream. Among the locally packaged delicacies, I found some Focaccia with various toppings from Balducci's in New York. Seeing them made me realize that Central Market's vast selection of national, regional, and international foodstuffs ensures that I no longer envy the clientele at stores such as Balducci's or Dean & DeLuca anymore.
Both of the new Whole Foods grocery outlets are designed with their take-out food areas readily accessible in the front of each store. When you enter the left door of the downtown flagship store, you are immediately bombarded with a mouthwatering, eye-popping array of prepared foods. There is a cold case with pre-packaged drinks, salads, and sandwiches and a self-serve salad bar complete with hot and cold soups. If a freshly made sandwich is your pleasure, choose one of the many house sandwiches named for local music venues such as the Antone's Muffaletta, the Maggie Mae, the Liberty Lunch, or the Hole in the Wall, served with tangy pickles and crisp chips. The sandwiches were rendered rather unappetizing by a staff far more involved in their conversation about mutilating body accidents than in service. At least they weren't discussing it over the intercom system, as they would have been in the old Lamar store.
For my money, the best thing about any sandwich can be the bread on which it's made, and the Whole Foods sandwiches do not disappoint in this regard. They are made on bread baked fresh daily at George Eckrich's stellar Whole Foods Bake Shop. The Muffaletta here is made on divinely chewy round loaves of Chiabatta-like bread with a generous dusting of crunchy cornmeal on the bottom. Although the sandwich filling was enjoyable, I was immediately reminded of New Orleans native Margaret Moser's admonition that true Muffalettas can only be purchased and consumed in certain Louisiana parishes. The Whole Foods version lacks the salami and truly juicy olive salad of the genuine article.
Leaving the sandwich bar, you progress to a hot line, where you can purchase one of the rotisserie chickens roasted in styles ranging from Herb to Achiote and Jerk to Tandoori, whole or in pieces. The selection of side dishes is large but has somewhat less of an ethnic flair. The Achiote Chicken has a crisp, pleasantly spicy outer skin and was moist and delicious. The dressing, potatoes, and rice dishes chosen to accompany it were unmemorable.
Just past the hot line, you'll encounter the real show-stopper: large deli cases packed full of lovely salads and entrees, with every ethnic background imaginable represented. The kitchen here is under the able direction of a chef popular with many Austinites, Janet Chaykin. We found French CousCous, Thai Black Rice, Greek Salad with Olives, Feta Cheese and Fresh Basil, Marinated Vegetables, Fruit Salads, and entrée choices such as Crawfish Lasagne with Saffron Cream Sauce. Everything we chose was beautifully presented, tasted fresh, and was obviously made with quality ingredients. However, with all that ethnic diversity represented, I longed for stronger flavors, perhaps just a little more assertive seasoning.
The Whole Foods Gateway store has a somewhat smaller version of the same format as downtown, but the food seems a bit more flavorful at the north location. Also, the still-evolving Galaxy juice bar, under the direction of Susan Fein, is located very near the deli, and you can appreciate the whimsical Dale Whistler sculpture as you indulge yourself with excellent juice drinks and ponder what to take home for dinner. Our favorite selection was the Turkey Aram Sandwich, an interesting arrangement of shaved turkey, lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, and grated carrots wrapped in a big, fresh pita and bias-cut so as to resemble a giant piece of sushi. There is also a vegan variety of this sandwich, but the turkey version was attractive, light, and delightful with a bowl of Chipotle Potato Soup.
The in-house preparation of take-out food is a very natural progression for a grocery store. The raw materials are already on hand, and hungry people are in the building every day. We've barely scratched the surface of what is available out there for you if you can't or won't cook for yourself. After all, you do live in grocery store heaven. n