Whoa! Cars were lined up on S Street, waiting to get into the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op's jammed parking lot. Was the store giving away Krugerrands? No, it was Anti-Depression Day, the first Friday of each month, when the public is invited to the same deal the co-op's thousands of members enjoy daily 10 percent off their grocery purchases.
My lunch pals and I were on site to explore the deli. Barbara Broughton, an optician, and Fred Hayward, a videographer, are veteran diners and eager to delve.
The Co-op, a Sacramento landmark since 1973, recently announced plans to build more spacious quarters near its present site. First, its membership needs to OK the proposal at meetings in March.
Does that mean the deli might get bigger?
"Our blueprints definitely include a larger space for the deli area," said kitchen manager Rene Talbot. "We're tossing around ideas for a burrito bar and a pizza station. One of my goals is to get an in-house baker."
We hope the expanded area is a clone of the marvelous cafe-bakery inside the 200,000-square-foot Natural Foods Co-op that opened in June 2005 in the Elk Grove Marketplace, then closed 18 months later.
Even though that store tried to stir buzz with special events barbecues on the patio, winemaker dinners not enough locals would walk away from their longstanding love affairs with the area's shoulder-to-shoulder fast-food franchises.
Anyway, we skipped the Co-op buffet and cruised the deli's cold case and sandwich boards, spotting soups, a salad bar, five panini, tuna and egg salads, hummus and tabbouleh, baked tofu, macaroni and "not cheese," quiche and spicy udon noodles. The adjoining pastry case held plenty of good-looking temptations.
We laid out an eight-dish spread at our table in the well-lit dining room.
"This has a healthful-picnic atmosphere," said Barbara, looking around. Our rundown:
Chicken-orzo soup, $2.80: Even though the excellent Mary's brand air-chilled chicken joined mini-pasta and veggies in Mary's stock, the flat soup had no depth of flavor
Hot wings, $9.99 a pound: Firm, well-chilled drumettes with some heat. "I'm not a fan of wings, but I like this spiciness," said Fred.
Slices of perfectly cooked peppered and seared Niman Ranch top round, $13 a pound: The quality beef was slightly tough, the flavor subtle. More cracked pepper, please, and less sunflower oil.
Curry chicken salad, $11.99: Chunks of moist curried chicken were wed to crunchy celery and almonds, honeymooning with raisins, honey and mayo.
"This is now my new favorite," said Barbara.
Beet and arugula salad, $7.49: This dish had it all quality ingredients, flavor and texture, and just the right amount of dressing.
"I could eat the whole bowl," Barbara said.
Cilantro chicken salad, $8.99: Another outstanding dish, with a melange of tastes. Plenty of spinach, but where was the cilantro?
Turkey wrap, $7.99: Tender slices of turkey breast melded with spinach, cream cheese, artichoke hearts, roasted red bell pepper, Kalamata olives and onion, all bundled in a tasty tortilla. Best dish on the table.
Cherry turnover, $2.45: Yummy sweet-tart cherries squeezed into light, crispy phyllo.
The (mostly) organic ingredients are sourced from top-end purveyors, and the fresh-looking and -tasting food is cooked and/or prepared in-house. The deli lets the ingredients speak for themselves, but do they speak loudly enough?
"I wanted to do some doctoring-up," said Barbara. "A squeeze of lime, a crunch of pecans, a squirt of horseradish, some salt and pepper "
Agreed, but let's also agree that the kitchen and its offerings have been on a continuing arc of improvement. As a bonus, it has a learning center and cooking school offering a wide range of classes. Knife-sharpening, anyone?
Valentine's dessert app
Just in time for Valentine's Day or any day, for that matter is the 75-page multimedia e-book for iPad, "Valentine's Desserts," 99 cents at the Apple store.
Step-by-step videos hosted by culinary arts professor Judy Parks show how to make three of the 10 dessert recipes (raspberry napoleon hearts, flourless chocolate cappuccino cake, chocolate mousse). The other seven are illustrated with step-by-step color photos and text. Included for all 10 are recipes, lists of ingredients and directions.
Judy and Bruce Parks maintain an international gourmet cake-delivery business (www.chocolatebakery.com) and a local online bakery (www.tartsandtruffles.com). Judy Parks has taught baking classes at American River College for 20 years.
Look for "Valentine's Desserts" soon at the Barnes & Noble Nook store and Amazon's Kindle store (for the Kindle Fire).
"We'll be making a series of multimedia books that will cover a range of baked goods, and the how-to techniques and tips for making them at home," Judy Parks said.
SACRAMENTO NATURAL FOODS CO-OP DELI
WHERE: 1900 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento
HOURS: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The deli will operate until 10 p.m. beginning March 5.
AMBIENCE: (including the rest of the store)
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 455-2667, www.sacfoodcoop.com
By Allen Pierleoni