Where I go to get cheese and seafood, but not necessarily for the same meal.
Hello! I’m back after a long winter hiatus. Apologies for once again reviewing a big corporate chain grocery store. I will get to the more local places soon enough but I prefer to visit 3-4 times before giving you my thoughts. As always, suggestions for cool stores to check out are always welcome from anybody. Bonus points if you’ll come on a field trip with me.
I come to Whole Foods mostly for one thing: the cheese.
“But Becca, when are you gonna talk about something other than cheese?” Never, you assholes.
The cheese section at Whole Foods isn’t as vast as the Woodman’s cheese aisle but the cheese here is probably more fancy. I really don’t need to go to Whole Foods for anything other than their blocks of Parmesan. But when I go specifically for that, I tend to pick up other things as well.
What’s so great about the Parmesan at Whole Foods? It’s not pre-shaved or pre-ground, it literally comes in a chunk. I know I can wholeheartedly trust that it’s real “Parmigiano Reggiano” because I can still see part of the rind attached to the block of cheese, there’s no way this kind could possible consist of any *ahem* sawdust shavings.
More benefits to shaving your own cheese is you can shave it to whatever size or shape you want. Microplane it, grate it, or take a fruit/potato peeler to it to get those wispy rustic chunks like you’d find in a Bon Appetit-esque citrus/radicchio/whatever salad. Then save the rind for making that trendy pot of “brothy beans” literally every food media platform has a recipe for these days.
Of course you can get other cheese at Whole Foods. More cheese I would categorize as “fancy” is Brie, smoked gouda, goat cheese (but all kinds, not just that gooey soft log kind), and aged cheddar (is it even cheddar if it’s not aged for a minimum of 4 years? Speaking on behalf of the people of Wisconsin, it is not). Still trying to track down a reliable source for French feta––apparently milder than the “Greek” kind––so I can finally make that viral tomato feta TikTok pasta without fear of tasting the Dead Sea in my mouth for the rest of the day.
I like how the cheese is actually divided into two sections. Some of the cheese can be found next to the pre-packed deli meats, that would be the standard grocery store pre-sliced or pre-shredded stuff of course. This aisle I assume is like the one stop shop for all things sandwich filling.
Ok fine so you’re lactose intolerant. You could instead come to Whole Foods for the seafood counter, which I find to be a little better than the ones at other national chains. I specifically come here for oysters. This past fall I threw a party for 20 people and only served oysters. If you’re wondering where one can go to pick up a couple hundred oysters without needing to set up a wholesale account, the answer is Whole Foods. And it’s super simple too, you just have to go in the morning of the day before you plan to eat them and pre-purchase them so the seafood guys can make sure to get it in the next day’s order.
There are typically three different varieties of oysters available, one of them is almost always on sale. The sale price if I can recall is 89 cents per oyster, while the regular price tends to hover around $1.70. May not seem like much, but that sale price does amount to a decent discount when you’re buying 200 oysters. Must have your own oyster knife.
Things to skip at Whole Foods: the produce section. Yes, really. It’s just fine. Honestly it’s kind of unnerving how all the fruits and vegetables are super perfect and neatly lined up, all the apples and cartons of berries so uniform that I feel like I’ve been dropped into a scene from Star Wars: Clone Wars.
Whole Foods misses the mark on so many basic produce things for me. Ginger: for an ingredient that is canonically a favorite with wellness/health nut types, theirs is dry as shit. Being a staple pantry item in Thai cuisine, I take my ginger seriously. When you know how satisfying it is to slice and cleaver-smash your ginger and the fragrant, spicy juice splashes out, then a fibrous ginger root just won’t do.
I actually like the mushroom selection at Whole Food. The problem is it’s not consistently stocked. They’re one of the few big chain stores that sell more than just “white button mushrooms”––I’d rather go out to dinner in West Hollywood on a Friday night than consume those mushrooms. I tend to go for the shiitakes, and they tend to come smaller than the cracked cap Asian grocery store shiitakes with a more tender edible stem. Again, the issue is the consistency. I can bet on an empty gap in the shelf where shiitakes are supposed to be (both loose by-the-pound and clamshell packaged) maybe 50% of the time.
Also shallots. Not consistently stocked at Whole Foods either. To be fair though, it is actually kind of hard to find good, not dusty shallots in most grocery stores. Every time I go I’m shocked that more shelving is dedicated to sweet potatoes than shallots. Nothing against sweet potatoes, they used to be a pantry staple of mine back when I was cooking simply to fill my body with sustenance and not for gourmet culinary purposes. But shallots are definitely a more versatile ingredient than sweet potatoes in my opinion, and I find it odd that the demand isn’t there with Bon Appetit-style cooking having taken off in the last decade. Having listened to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential on audiobook recently, what comes to mind is the part where he mentions how many shallots a restaurant will go through versus regular onions. Mind you, he cooked French food in the “I went to the Culinary Institute of America” and “I had a restaurant in New York City” sort of way. I hope I don’t use shallots in that same snooty way, but I will go on the record and say that shallots are severely underrated. And always under stocked!!
Maybe a lot of these inconsistency problems would be solved if Whole Foods didn’t dedicate a whole refrigerated section to pre-diced and pre-chopped fruits and veggies. Offering little plastic packages of diced mirepoix, diced butternut squash, and chopped up fruit cups seems so unecessary to me. If you’re going to go through the trouble of cooking something from scratch at home, why not take the extra 5 minutes to prep your own veggies? However, I can see how having the perfect portion of pre-diced mirepoix could help with reducing food waste. How many of us have used only half the bundle of celery we purchased and let the other half wilt away in the crisper drawer? That’s been me for sure. And yeah ok I admit cutting up butternut squash is a bitch.
Great cheese and seafood. Not my favorite produce.
There is much more to say about Whole Foods. The Amazon stuff, the gentrification stuff, the expensive “health” and “wellness” trends… I simply do not have the capacity to comment on all that in as smart a way as I would like right now. So I’m saving that for a potential Whole Foods part II. Today, the hot take you’re getting from me is that their ginger is “dry as shit.”
Other Things I Bought
Chilean Sea Bass
I find that the people who work the seafood counter are pretty knowledgeable on the products offered in their department. One evening when I was feeling adventurous and in the mood to splurge, I asked the staff member helping me at the seafood counter what her favorite product was. She pointed to the $29/pound Chilean sea bass. Pricey but worth it, the flavor rich and buttery, the texture flaky, giving off qualities of both an oily fish and a white fish at the same time. Probably the best grocery store-purchased fish I’ve ever eaten.
Tartine Sesame Loaves, pre-sliced >:)
Is it just me or is it hard to find good bread in Los Angeles?? So I was happy I discovered that the downtown location of Whole Foods sells loaves of Tartine bread. I believe the reason why is when Tartine came to LA and opened a giant bakery at The Row, it didn’t do so well, so they pivoted to wholesale only. Sometimes they’re selling half loaves actually, and sometimes they’re pre-sliced, perfect for someone who mainly cooks for themselves and whose diet consists mostly of rice anyway (me). The addition of Tartine bread is necessary because sometimes the in-house bakery will run out of your standard sourdough loaf by mid-afternoon and you’re stuck buying the olive or cinnamon raisin loaf (ew). Unfortunately I haven’t found any other locations that sell Tartine bread. I will also be accepting any non-Whole Foods recommendations for good crusty loaves of sourdough at this time.