Saturday, January 28, 2006

Wholesome Choice - Irvine



I gotta hand it to that surly gentleman who works behind the Persian food counter at Wholesome Choice in Irvine. His grimace is unflappable. His brow is forever furrowed. It actually seems like he's making a concerted effort to avoid eye contact with anyone or anything.

As he scribbled my order for a Chicken Koobideh ($6.99), his death stare was focused somewhere over my shoulder, at nothing in particular. A mischievious side of me wanted to re-enact a certain scene from Seinfeld.

You know the one.

ELAINE:
Has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Al Pacino? You know, “Scent Of A Woman.” Who-ah! Who-ah!

SOUP NAZI:
Very good. Very good.

ELAINE:
Well, I --

SOUP NAZI:
You know something?

ELAINE:
Hmmm?

SOUP NAZI:
No soup for you!

ELAINE:
What?

SOUP NAZI:
Come back one year! Next!

But I knew better than to piss-off a guy who has a stash of long metal skewers within reach of his burly, hairy arms. And a grump is better than a Soup Nazi. So I took the stub of paper with the order number from his grip and quietly stood aside. I watched and waited as his co-worker took out two more swords from the fridge, its blades packed with ground meat, which he placed over an open pit of fire.

As I counted the minutes until my dinner was ready, I surveyed the rest of this food court within a store. There's an Italian stall with fresh pizzas and pasta across from me. Next to it, Mexican food and American home-style. On the opposite side of the same island, Indian and Chinese. And when you're not feeling peckish for the cooked flesh of landborne animals, there's both a salad and sushi bar towards the back. It's quite literally, a trip around the world in less than forty footsteps.

It wasn't long ago when Wholesome Choice was a Whole Foods Market, and before that, during my undergraduate years at UCI, it was a Ralphs. Of all the things in Irvine that has changed for the better over the years, I think Wholesome Choice is at the top of that list.

An international supermarket with a Middle Eastern accent, it has sparkling aisles and boasts unique products the Whole Foods/Trader Joe's demographic craves, while still pleasing the traditional Persian tastes of its core customer base. A prime example of this is their offering of sangak, a Persian seeded flatbread baked hourly, and doled out hot and fresh from a hearthstone oven to an eager line of customers.

The other staple of the store was this Persian food counter, where The Grump works. Along with the koobideh I ordered, there are shish kabobs, chicken barg, Persian salads, and even colorful stews ready and waiting in steam trays.

But the koobideh is the reason I come to Wholesome Choice. I leered hungrily as my koobideh took on a burnished orange color and a little bit of char. Noticing the ravenous glint in my eye, The Grump's co-worker slid it off the skewer into a waiting styrofoam box of rice. From another spit, he extracted one grilled tomato from a dozen others which were strung together like a gigantic fruit necklace, and off it went on top of the mound, along with a crusty piece of burnt rice.

The Grump took the container from him and pushed it towards me on the counter. He tossed on top of it, a plastic bag with half an onion, a wedge of lemon, and butter. When I noticed that the onion I got was discolored, I meekly asked if I could exchange it. Without a word, he took back the one he gave me and tossed me two new bags. This was his way of saying, "You think I care about the onions!? Take two! Take as many as you want!"

I thanked him profusely and went home to enjoy my dinner (which coincidentally was enough for two).



When I got home, I tore open a packet of sumac, a spice that looks like red dandruff with a citrusy tang, and sprinkled it all over the rice. After a drizzle of lemon juice went on the glistening lobes of the chicken koobideh, we were ready to eat.

The loose grains of basmati were nutty and fragrant, with a sunny streak of yellow rice running down the middle. The koobideh, made from a mixture of egg, ground chicken and turmeric was firm to the touch but tender to the teeth. The grilled tomato was promptly squished and torn apart with a fork. We used its pulp and juices to moisten the rice. And each time I took a spoonful of rice and meat, I peeled off a layer of the raw onion and chomped on it. It's both refreshing and spicy. But the plank of crunchy burnt rice, I ate sparingly. Although it provided a satisfying textural contrast to the meal, it was too jarring and tough to eat for an extended period of time.

With food like this, how can anyone stay grumpy.

Wholesome Choice
(949) 551-4111
18040 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA 92612

20 Comments:

At 9:36 PM, Blogger russkar said...

Having been to Wholesome Choice several times I've come to the realization that the best Kabob is the one you cook fresh yourself.
I normally purchase from their meat dept an already marinated batch of Chicken and Meat, then cook it on Skewers on the BBQ (no Grills, just over the flame), its far better than the Furrowed Brow Stare and his semi dried out fare.

 
At 8:09 AM, Blogger MEalCentric said...

I know exactly who you are talking about. I think he sat on one of the skewers and it just stuck.

Great post. Love to see that you know how to use sumac. Also, besides the sangac bread, the other white bread they make is tastey if you give it a few minutes in the toaster.

 
At 8:11 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

russkar,

Thanks for the tip. Didn't even realize that they had the kabobs raw and already marinated. Definitely would be a lot cheaper too!

 
At 8:15 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Mealcentric,

LOL! Well at least he's an equal-opportunity Grump.

 
At 10:37 AM, Blogger ChristianZ said...

I was just there on Friday night. I don't know if I saw the grump or not but I ordered a slice of the veggie pizza and the guy kept asking me if it was really pepperoni pizza I wanted. I go there once every couple of months.

 
At 11:55 AM, Blogger Kimberly said...

Hahah, I live across the street from Wholesome Choice-- I'm gonna go look for him.

 
At 12:57 PM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Christian,

How's the pizza? I haven't tried anything else in that food court yet. The Chinese counter looks like it knows what it's doing too.

Kimberly,

Are you going to tell him he looks like "Al Pacino"? ;)

 
At 1:27 PM, Blogger ChristianZ said...

The pizza was good. Good combo of veggies. I completely forgot to pep it up a little in the oven when I got back to my place but that was my fault. And right when I got back my roommate had a bunch of friends over and they were all chowin' down on pizza. I've got some of the dessert and salad and Mexican food there before. Might try the gyros or the Chinese or the Persian next time.

 
At 7:02 AM, Anonymous Kirk said...

Hi Elmo - Can't believe I missed this post with the Seinfeld reference. Sumac has become a staple in our household as well.

 
At 9:13 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Christian,

Thanks! Gotta try the pizza next time. Perhaps for lunch.

Kirk,

Sumac and furikake makes it okay to just eat rice without anything else!

 
At 10:08 PM, Blogger Daily Gluttony said...

OK, before I write my comment, I gotta tell you that the word verification below says "iceydke" LOL!

Anyways, great post! Love the Soup Nazi comparison! Does he have an armoire full of old koobideh recipes?

 
At 9:28 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Pam,

Oh I hope there's an armoire...and that Kramer's guarding it. That's hilarious about the word verification! I wish I could say I had something to do with it.

 
At 10:15 AM, Blogger MEalCentric said...

Just wanted to give you a heads up, right now, Wholechoice has the BEST red grapes I have ever. They are super large, firm and sweet as candy. You really got to pick some up

 
At 10:33 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Excellent! Thanks Mealcentric!

 
At 6:39 PM, Anonymous Kyle said...

I really enjoy the gyros at Wholesome Choice. But I actually had my mom make gyros the other day and it turned out quite tasty.
In addition, I remember when Wholesome Choice first opened and boy did that food court evolve into something big!

 
At 10:58 AM, Anonymous George said...

I read this and knew EXACTLY what you were talking about....I think I might have it for dinner now tonight. I have two children and HATE to cook so we get the chicken and rice there about 2 times/week. It's surely better than them eating McDonald's everyday, right? FYI...there's also a grumpy woman there at night...I wonder if her and Grumpy Man are married??

 
At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found your blog when searching for info on Irvine forcing McDonald's to stop using styrofoam (Irvine+styrofoam+McDonald's).

Looks like lots of interesting food places to visit when I'm back in OC.

Thanks.

 
At 9:59 AM, Anonymous Qushibo said...

I found your blog when searching for info on Irvine forcing McDonald's to stop using styrofoam (Irvine+styrofoam+McDonald's).

Looks like lots of interesting food places to visit when I'm back in OC.

Thanks.

 
At 8:47 AM, Blogger elmomonster said...

Kyle,

It has evolved hasn't it. Despite the grumpiness of that guy in the Persian counter, I am glad it's here in my city, and I continue to be a regular customer.

George,

Who knows?! I wouldn't be surprised if there was some sort of kinship between him and the Grumpy Lady. But I don't think it will ever be the same without The Grump...he's part of the spice!

Qushibo,

Glad you found me! Hope you are enjoying my posts!

 
At 8:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved the hot food Wholesome Choice until I found a hair in my chicken tikka.

 

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