With the recent opening of Whole Foods and expansion of the Boise Co-ops deli, the Treasure Valley not only boasts two high-end grocery stores now, it also has two new restaurants with food unlike anywhere else in the area.
Both stores feature expansive ready-to-eat foods to take home or for dining in, with café seating set aside from the grocery traffic. Both feature almost exclusively made-from-scratch dishes from chef-led kitchens, with a strong emphasis on fresh, natural foods, free of processing and chemicals.
Whole Foods is professionally packaged and very good at telling a story about food. Anyone who walks in off the street can find something in the prepared foods area that they would recognize and enjoy.
The Boise Co-ops choices are more tailored to an audience already familiar with the soul-body connection that food can provide. They assume you dont need a definition of quinoa, tofu or seitan.
At either place, youll find a quicker, more healthful lunch than at many sit-down restaurants.
WHOLE FOODS: REAL FOOD FOR EVERYONE
The store is clean and contemporary, with reclaimed wood signs, chalk art, and striking small details like mason jar pendant lights that cast a showroom glow.
Everywhere, food is used as decoration: Vegetables stand on end in the bright produce case, fresh mozzarella is on ice near the tomatoes, whipped cream sits near the strawberries in wood crates. An employee in fishermans chest waders might spread smoked trout cream cheese on a cracker. It feels like a theme park for food.
The range of ready-to-eat foods is vast something more like a food court than a typical grocery store deli, with three large self-service bars of hot and cold prepared items (sold by weight, at $7.99 per pound) and manned stations of made-to-order items.
The prepared-foods area runs along the entire north side of the store, from the cheese shop to a coffee bar, where there are a dozen or so tables and a counter at the front window for dining. Upstairs is a space called the River Room, where you are also invited to eat anything youve purchased downstairs. There, the lighting is mellow, 16 Idaho and regional beers are on tap, and you can order a few items directly from the bar (although table service is not provided).
The salad bar is radiant with fresh fruits and vegetables, though its not as easy to tell which items are local or organic as it is in other areas of the display, where every dish is clearly labeled and recipes are detailed. (The salad dressings, for example, are bottled and contain stabilizers.) Much of the selection rotates. One tasty composed salad was chilled quinoa with cranberries and red onions.
A dozen from-scratch soups are served daily (from $2.99 on up), and with such variety, many interesting options are available such as chicken tikka masala in soup form. Across the board, the soups seem a little underseasoned, but I enjoyed the lobster bisque and cioppino, both brimming with seafood.
The hot bar had different dishes on each of three visits. My wife and I both were impressed with the chicken tikka masala even more than we liked those same flavors as soup (a lunch-entrée-size portion with white or nicely cooked brown rice was about $4), which shared the bar with smoky chickpeas and lentils. Most foods in a display like this likely will be rich, creamy, saucy or stewed to hold up and keep temperature. But the best item I tried was a crispy vegetable samosa an Indian pastry fritter filled with potato.
On another day, the mashed potatoes were still hot and buttery, but the barbecue chicken, though flavorful, had been hanging out a little long. Such is dining from a hot buffet its best to go when volume is high and the food turns over often, and your eyes will tell you when the food is at its best, which varies. One quiet Tuesday afternoon, everything looked fresh and full, but on a Friday evening, when the store was packed, the buffets looked picked over. In a half-dozen separate visits, I never actually saw someone refilling product.
From the manned stations, we liked the street tacos ($1.49 each) with chicken or ropy, shredded short rib on corn tortillas, served with a range of toppings. From the wood-fired pizza oven, the long, thin-crust pies are sliced in ribbons and sold by the pound; an 88-cent strip of classic margherita tasted fresh but was miniscule compared to a slice at Guidos. Though Id have probably liked it more if the meatballs were made in-store, a Spanish meatball sub ($6.99) on Café de Paris bread with a sweetish red sauce and peppadew peppers was a perfect cold-weather sandwich.
The street-food cart in the front of the prepared-food area is a nifty concept. Its featured item rotates every few weeks. When I ate there, it was a ramen noodle station ($6 for a huge, quart-sized container). This was better maybe in theory than execution, and the employee who dished ours up went on in perhaps a little too much detail about how easy this would be for us to make at home. But some of the other dishes that are featured such as baked potato, or grilled bratwurst made in-store seem like smart seasonal options, and a good way to highlight the street-cart concept.
We liked dining in-store for lunch, though the crowds are sometimes a little overwhelming, and service at each of the manned stations is clock-watchingly slow. At night, eating in the River Room feels a little lonely people with their coats still on eating from to-go containers though the frosty strip along the counter for keeping beer cold is something you wont see anywhere else in Boise.
BOISE CO-OP: NEIGHBORHOOD VIBES
Now remodeled, the Co-op seems filled with light. The aisles are shorter, spacious, and there is new logic in how things are arranged. The store is as clean as I have ever seen it.
It feels a little harder to love the Co-op now, though I understand all the reasons changes were made. Some of the character has been lost. But there is reason for optimism.
Strictly from an ease-of-use perspective, the remodel was a big move forward. Among the most visible features of the remodel was the overhaul of the deli. Here there is a singular self-service bar for hot and cold items ($8.49/pound for most foods, with soups priced separately), and though much smaller in scale than Whole Foods, the Co-op does a lot of work in that small space.
There is still counter seating along the windows, but the dining area has expanded to fill the whole front corner of the store opposite the deli. Sunny yellow, it has a kind of do-it-yourself, break-room feel, where youre as likely to see off-duty employees as a North End family sharing the large, central dining table.
Almost everything I had from the salad bar recently was strikingly fresh the carrots actually tasted like carrots.
There were freshly cooked beets and delicious roasted butternut squash among the raw veggies, and though the dressings all ran a bit thick, they were made in-house from a short list of ingredients.
On the hot bar, the roasted chicken was fall-off-the-bone tender, and a side dish of crackling cauliflower crispy cauliflower, red onion and peas sautéed with garlic, ginger, cilantro and fennel seed was absolutely delicious. I could have eaten a whole plate (or box) of it. Another day, the chicken cacciatore was exactly the kind of dish that does well in a steam table, stewy in a rich tomato sauce with mushrooms. But a roasted potato was a little chilly.
Here, three soups are offered daily. A vegetable bisque was good not just chopped vegetables in water, but given time for the flavors to develop. A cup of smoked trout chowder was as good as any soup Ive had in Boise this winter. But the pozole a simple blend of broth, chicken and hominy was out-of-balance, heavily spiced with clove.
The Co-op has added a burrito bar to its existing sandwich station, and the green mole chicken version was one of the best burritos Ive had on this side of midnight in Boise, with your choice of rice, beans, cheese and real avocado, with good homemade salsa.
The brown rice was flavorful, the beans were creamy, and the chicken succulent.
Like Whole Foods, you can get a more healthful, more unusual lunch at the Co-op than in most traditional Boise restaurants. But I found the people at the Co-op more personally invested in the food they had made and were serving, more capable of describing ingredients and where they were from. Because there are fewer choices, I didnt always find exactly what I was looking for. But I was happy with almost everything I tried. In the end, I have to give the edge to the local guys.
Email Alex Kiesig: firstname.lastname@example.org