Shopping makes us ravenous.
Striding down interminable aisles, making decisions under duress — Are we out of weed killer? Orange-blossom honey ... or clover? — is a workout, especially at this time of year. Add to that the relentless lure of nearly all merchandise. This is capitalist heaven, where even S.O.S. pads are packaged in life-is-glorious yellow complete with sun-rays and pictures of radiant pots. Given all those hungers — mental, retinal, and duodenal — it makes sense for retail stores to have their own restaurants right within their own four walls.
Such setups were mid-20th-century staples. Nearly every American over forty remembers drugstore soda fountains, variety-store lunch counters, and department-store dining rooms, where cottage cheese glimmered in firm, perfect domes and cold drinks came in conical paper cups. Berkeley natives bought 35-cent hot dogs at the S.H. Kress five-and-dime, downtown.
Most such oases vanished during the '70s, victims of space-saving tactics and fast-food chains. Yet they're bouncing back, because a good idea remains a good idea, and today's updated versions — having left hot dogs far behind — give "real" restaurants a run for their money. At least around here.
In the northwestern corner of the Berkeley Bowl's 44,000-square-foot vastness, hungry shoppers fill knockabout tables and chairs. It's a shuffling, protean, bus-depot ambience: A middle-school kid nibbling a cookie over homework; pals chatting in Cantonese; a woman pouring picante sauce over fried rice; a ponytailed couple examining a six-pack of toilet paper that they've just bought in the store.
Dining options fall into three main categories: made-to-order sandwiches, made-to-order Mexican food, and precooked Chinese food. While the latter has that unpromising, gelid gleam of Asian cuisine left for too long in metal vats under hot lights, the first two rival trendy non-supermarket establishments in ingredients and efficiency. An expansive sandwich menu ranges from smoked Virginia ham to three-cheese-avocado to meat loaf. Serve-yourself soup is sold by the quart and pint: We tried thick, bland cauliflower-asiago and wide-awake curried lentil, heavy with welcome ballast in the form of enormous new-potato chunks. Generously cheesy pizza is festooned with tomato rounds. Sushi is fresh daily — but, unlike most of the fare here, it's not prepared on-site. Cold drinks come in plastic cups bearing a solemn, self-congratulatory message: "This cup is made from corn, environmentally sustainable, and 100% compostable."
Supermarket restaurant though this is, it's an independently owned Berkeley supermarket restaurant. Thus, it's bold enough to proffer at least one I-dare-you novelty: a lamb burrito. Tiny tender cubes cut from an oven-steamed leg of lamb literally melted, Ina said, in her mouth. But she found that their intense, unmistakable, lamb-is-supposed-to-go-with-mint-jelly flavor so suffused the other ingredients — rice, beans, a tomato tortilla, even the salsa — as to be jarring.
We finished up with five-high cake, its five fudgy layers topped with dense, candy-like frosting.
A few blocks away at Whole Foods, absolute glories await. Resplendent behind glass is a seasonally appropriate, ever-changing array of clever, inventive California cuisine — endeavors so pretty yet so wholesome that you'd assume they were made with a genuine, personalized kind of love if you didn't know better, if the servers behind the counters weren't strangers, if you didn't have to jostle with an unruly crowd to get your portions, or have to pay rather dearly for these, or have to eat them at the sole indoor table, or at one of the covered outdoor tables with their grim gas-station/parking-lot vista. Well, you could eat them somewhere else. But then you'd have to wait.
From chili chicken breast to citrus salmon to forbidden black-rice salad to apple-glazed parsnips to mushroom-risotto patties to beef stew, this is the sort of food that spoils you. Old standards reemerge, now sneakily zippy. Potato kugel is salty, stolid, with an earthy edge. Finely shredded, peppery spaghetti squash is studded with fat whole hazelnuts that burst between the teeth like earnest martyrs, as if to shout: Forget me not. Black sesame seeds and two kinds of onion sweeten crumbly yam-millet patties, so humble they're noble. Curried tofu salad looks and tastes like sunshine. Here, too, I-dare-you territory beckons: thin, sweetish, chewy coriander/tamari/Tabasco-tinted slabs of jerk seitan — aka wheat gluten — taste for all the world like beef. Whole Foods also has a soup and salad bar, the former boasting such surprises as carrot-ginger and turkey-wild-rice, and the latter such exotica as cipollini onions and giant white beans in vinaigrette.
Whole Foods also has Chinese food — sesame tofu, teriyaki chicken, fried rice — steaming in the obligatory metal vats. As at the Bowl, these exude an overexposed torpor.
For cheerier precooked Chinese food in a retail setting, try 99 Ranch. The northeastern corner of this sprawling pan-Asian supermarket sports a hot deli with dim sum (shrimp balls, daikon cakes, shark-fin dumplings, and dozens more varieties), barbecued meats sold by the pound, and bargain-priced serve-yourself selections that are stocked in metal vats yet replaced so frequently as to nearly always taste fresh. At our homely booth, Susie declared the curried fish balls smooth, bouncy, and salty, their brown gravy "simple," she said, "like Mom would make." She called the balls comfort food: So, too, the pork riblets, braised in black-bean sauce and the perfect size for eating with chopsticks. Her boneless teriyaki chicken was jeweled with lots of caramelized bits that she savored. The braised eggplant was authentically, generously garlicky.
Generous, too, was the way the woman behind the counter urged us to fill our paper containers to the brim, as one pays per container, not by weight. When we set them down to pay, she took them back and filled them even higher.
Swedish meatballs at IKEA. Smoothies and popcorn at Target. Coffee and pastries at Borders: If that shopping list guarantees that you'll have to stay in the stores until dinnertime — heck, stay.
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