When it’s this hot out, who wants to cook at home? This is just the sort of logic Whole Foods Market’s ever-expanding prepared foods department thrives on. While you’re picking up your weekly ration of local hormone-free milk and organic sprouted grain bread, the thinking goes, why not make a quick stop at the hot bar for a ready-to-eat supper?
Seems simple enough, but the sheer number of choices can turn a short detour before checkout into a prolonged deliberation. The salad bar alone feels a mile long, and then there’s the hot food and soup bar, the Indian bar, the pizza station, the sushi corner, the deli case, the dessert bar, and now even a hot dog and chili island.
Cold salads are generally the best bets and display the most creativity of all the offerings. Thai mango slaw pairs sweet pepper with slivered mango in a lime vinaigrette, and tropical sweet potato salad tosses large chunks of yam with grilled onion and peppers dressed with pineapple juice. My favorite is the edamame and arame salad, a perennial on the salad bar combining firm green soybeans, chewy strings of black seaweed and julienned carrot.
The sushi bar is the most reliable section of Whole Foods’ prepared foods department. All the usual sushi and maki combinations are available in refrigerated grab-’n’-go packages, and brown rice, vegetarian and vegan variations are plentiful. The rice tends to be a bit sweet and the fish a tad cold but, on the whole, the sushi is about as good as you can find around here.
Dishes from the hot bar are less satisfactory. A recent lunchtime visit, with lemon-pepper rotisserie chicken charred and dry throughout, was disappointing. Pizzas were doughy. Curried cabbage with peas was fairly bland and the Madras beef was overwhelmed by raw, untempered spices.
I also sampled a number of prepared dishes from the deli case. BBQ beef brisket was fork-tender and swathed in a thick sweet-and-sour sauce. A thick puck of a New England crabcake stuffed with diced peppers and canned corn and encrusted in Panko crumbs was enhanced by a nice remoulade.
The best items from the kitchen were also the best bargains. Spinach pie substituted a pastry crust for phyllo but the savory filling was well seasoned with plenty of spinach and feta. Adobo turkey chimichanga enfolded succulent meat with chipotle, cheddar, black beans and poblanos in a flaky wheat crust warmed in the panini press. At $2.99 and $4.99 respectively, it’s hard to find fault.
When you get right down to it, this is gourmet fast food; a serving of turkey tagine with garlic green beans is healthier than a Big Mac with fries. •
Whole Foods Market Hadley Café
327 Russell St., Hadley, 586-9932
Hot Bar Hours: Mon.-Fri. 8-10 a.m., 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m., 4:30-8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. 8-10:30 a.m., 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Entrèes: $7.99 per pound.