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Neither good food nor subtlety was a strong suit at the busy suburban mall food courts of my youth. In those pre-Sbarro years, kitsch was king. Over-the-top Union Jack displays heralded the fish and chips stand, and garish, if not stereotypical, lanterns and kimonos indicated where greasy tempura was dished out. Last and perhaps least, there were those poor folks peddling lemonade wearing puffy chapeaus that made Smurf hats look like Vivienne Westwood creations by comparison.

Nowadays, Boulderites would be mortified by such displays. We pride ourselves on our refinement and erudite dining sense, and we expect understatement when it comes to our food courts.

Such is the case with the prepared food section at the expanded Whole Foods Market. While the wide open space rivals the size of most old-school shopping mall venues, subdued colors and signage make it obvious this isn’t our

parents’ food court. One thing that time has not changed, however, is the crowds.

Navigating through the lunchtime crowd with friend Kon, our experience fell somewhere between the first level of Frogger and the running of the bulls at Pamplona. We bounced off the salad bar, rebounded off the sushi case and bypassed the taqueria before settling in for main courses at the BBQ stand and Asian noodle kiosk.

Kon picked up a $10.78 barbecue combo plate, consisting of ribs, chicken, slaw and macaroni and cheese. A subtle measure of smoke flavor and tenderness were the highlights of the ribs. The chicken was simply tender white meat doused in basic barbecue sauce, not necessarily a choice that broke new culinary ground. Purple and green slaw was satisfyingly crisp, with both fresh taste and lighter saucing than retro mayonnaise-based versions. While the texture of the mac and cheese was comfortingly soft, it lacked the appealing dairy tang common to most gourmet interpretations of this pasta found around town.

We also sampled a $1.68 bite-sized assortment of fennel salad, horseradish polenta and Chinese pork. The fennel had a snappy freshness and delicate anise tones. “Creamy” best describes the polenta, but the bite of the horseradish was scarcely detectable. The Asian pig pleasantly surprised with its char siulike flavors, although the taste was not as assertive as its butcher shop inspiration. To its credit, this pork lacked the shockingly red food coloring found in most versions.

Another Asian-inspired item was the $6.99 pho ga, a take on Vietnamese chicken and rice noodle soup. Cooked to order, this dish took a while to prepare, as the lunchtime crush created a bottleneck at the noodle bar. I did appreciate the ability to choose what veggies went into my soup, and I selected the triumvirate of bok choy, snap peas and scallions. Once it was finished cooking, the noodles were correctly al dente, and the overall impression was that this was a satisfying soup. However, a Vietnamese restaurant version would have a more deeply-flavored broth with complex herbal notes.

While Kon and I exercised restraint in our choices, we noticed it’s all too easy to run up an expensive tab among some of the options here, particularly with selections sold by weight (salad bar, anyone?). Some dishes, like the pho ga, are competitively priced. But finding these more affordable selections requires some prudence and investigation on the part of the value-conscious diner.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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