Editor's note: Fields writes a monthly review of vegan options at local restaurants.
In this fast food nation where quick meals are the norm - not always healthy and rarely vegan-friendly - I have begun to frequent the unsuspecting dining areas of my local grocery stores.
Hear me out.
This makes complete sense. I'm already at the store to get the food I deem high enough quality to cook and eat at home, so why not enjoy it when I'm dining outside of the house? Mountain Mama Natural Foods and Whole Foods offer two distinct dining experiences with a similar outcome: a satisfying, plant-based meal consisting of mostly unprocessed, fresh foods made on site.
The busier Whole Foods on North Academy is a hubbub of activity and not a likely choice for a midday date with a friend or a business lunch, but you'll be pleasantly surprised. Avoid the main store entrance and walk directly into the covered patio area near the coffee bar. Rows of hot, cold and salad bars - with numerous vegan options - await. A well-rounded plant-based diet includes five food groups - vegetables, fruit, beans and legumes, grains, and nuts and seeds - and are ideally represented through a variety of colors (eat the rainbow!). I loaded up a vibrant, overflowing plate of all five: fresh greens and stone fruit, grilled vegetables, roasted corn, baked beans, spinach and quinoa with roasted garlic, coleslaw and Texas caviar with black-eyed peas. This may sound like an enormous amount of food, but let us not forget the beauty of a food bar: We control the portions and that means we can try bites and nibbles of a wide variety of items.
Many of the vegan selections at Whole Foods fall under "Health Starts Here," a chainwide program in which minimal oil or salt is used. The result is being able to truly taste the lightly prepared, fresh, seasonal foods. The roasted and grilled vegetables add a savory element to the cool plate of crispy vegetables that was particularly satisfying on a hot summer day.
Once I loaded up (OK, overfilled) my plate, we proceeded to the standard checkout lane where the food was weighed ($8.99 per pound); two plates of food ($10.34 and $9.53) and two ginger beers resulted in a $23.89 lunch tab for two.
We grabbed plastic utensils and napkins and made our way to the covered "patio" section. Not technically a patio, it does feel a bit like being outside as this section can feel warm in the summer and cold in the winter. Over the sultry lunch hour there were over 20 diners in the area (the area can easily seat 40 to 50), so we opted for the breezy outdoor seating under a tent.
The atmosphere at Mountain Mama Natural Foods is very different from Whole Foods. This small, family-owned business certainly has the occasional long line at the register, but the store never feels overly crowded. Tucked around the corner from the slight but robust produce section, the deli counter is a vegan treasure trove. Hopping at 1 p.m., we joined the line of hungry patrons already queued. I grabbed a marker and the laminated menus to jot down our order. Menu 1 offers a variety of signature salads, sandwiches and paninis, but the vegan offerings were slim. Menu 2 - build your own - has a long list of ingredients to select from to customize a salad or a sandwich. Oh, the choices. Organic vegetables and proteins (including falafel, veggie burger, hummus and red pepper hummus) plus vegan salad dressings, sandwich spreads, cheese and bread (herb bagel and focaccia). I went big: veggie burger on focaccia with vegan balsamic aioli, vegan cheese, lettuce and bell peppers ($7.95). Two sandwiches, one soup, two ginger beers and a bag of chips added up to $25.79.
From there we proceeded to the dining area in the back of the store. Recently brightened up with fresh paint, new furniture and artwork on the wall, the coffee house vibe encourages diners to sit back and enjoy the meal without rushing. The tables were filled with groups as well as solo diners and a couple of folks drinking coffee while taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi. We settled right in. The vegan burger - impressive in both flavor and size - is filled with vegetables, legumes and grains; enveloped in the dense focaccia the succulent patty stayed intact beautifully. The small serving of spicy red lentil soup filled with root vegetables and whole grains ($3.95) could easily stand alone as a substantial meal.
Whether busily running errands or seeking a healthier version of fast food, consider grocery shopping dining. Sure, the cost per person is higher than standard drive-through fare, but so is the quality of the food.