The parking lot at Whole Foods Market in Folsom looked like an SUV-owners convention the other day, a reflection of the surrounding demographic. Perhaps ironically, it's the same parking lot where 1,000 locals camped overnight in anticipation of the store's grand opening in October 2011.
The store has been jammed ever since, so it's no surprise that its water-misted outdoor Bier Garten has a mob of regulars, too. After all, there hasn't been this much interest in beer locally since pre-Prohibition, when Sacramento was a major brewing center.
"The Bier Garten is definitely meant to showcase the beer first, but the food menu has grown as its popularity has increased," said beer specialist John Schmidt, who oversees the beer garden and its beer program, which offers a rotating list of craft brews. The beer selection you see one week may well have changed by the next week.
The beer garden – a gated "corral" with a bar, really – is adjacent to the store's main entrance. Out front was a sandwich board announcing an appearance at 3 p.m. Saturday by Italian model-actor Fabio Lanzoni. "Try Fabio's awesome protein powder," it said. "Take your photo and get an autograph."
Recently, the "tap list" featured eight beers, among them one called Retribution, whose ABV (alcohol by volume) is 9.29 percent. We won't be chuggin' that one in beer pong. On offer too is a flight of four 4-ounce pours ($7), plenty of bottled beer and Tap Tuesday – get a buck off the beer of the week. Also: six so-so red and three white wines by the glass ($5 to $8).
The reasonably priced pub-grub menu is tempting, with garlic fries, "loaded" cheese fries, guacamole and chips and the like ($2 to $7). Segue to salads ($6 and $8), four grilled cheese sandwiches ($4), and very good pizza by the slice ($3, two for $5). Move to sandwiches and seafood (fish 'n' chips, oysters on the half shell and more, $7 to $12).
All the food is sourced from various departments within the store, and it's mostly channeled through the prepared-foods department, which operates a kitchen.
On two visits we ordered barbecued chicken wings ($4 for six pieces; we'll stay with Buffalo Wild Wings), three tangy shrimp ceviche tostadas (lots of precooked bay shrimp in lemon juice, pico de gallo from the produce department, cilantro and red onion; $7), and a dense but well-seasoned cheeseburger with excellent hand-cut, skin-on fries made with sweet, dark russet potatoes ($9).
Given that Whole Foods is a treasure trove of artisanal, high-end goods – it sells some 200 cheeses, for instance – we expected the charcuterie-and-cheese plate to be wow ($9). We envisioned something like triple-cream Brie, Humboldt Fog and pecorino, perhaps matched with slices of coppa, soppressata and saucisson. Add some Spanish Marcona almonds, a pool of wild honey and some flatbread.
Well, no. Instead, we got slices of Applegate brand organic Genoa-style salami and the only absolutely tasteless provolone we've ever encountered, from California Premium. But the crisp flatbread did show up.
On the phone days later, Schmidt said, "That dish has changed and will change again. We struggled a bit with it in terms of trying to find the right balance. More specialized cheeses are on the cheese plate (without the meat)."
We're looking forward to the next incarnation.
WHOLE FOODS MARKET BIER GARTEN
Where: In the Palladio center, 270 Palladio Parkway, Folsom
Hours: The Bier Garten is open noon-8:30 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, noon-9:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays. Live music 6-8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and sometimes Sunday afternoons. The supermarket operates 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, and 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
Food: 1/2 for pub grub, for beer
How much: $-$$
Information: (916) 984-8500; www.wholefoodsmarket.com
Best fish 'n' chips
Fish 'n' chips are everywhere, but exceptional versions swim in a small school in a sea of mediocrity.
Our picks? We like the plates of haddock, cod and salmon at 36 Handles, served either battered and deep-fried or buttermilk-dipped, rolled in panko and pan-fried (1010 White Rock Road, El Dorado Hills; 916-941-3606, www.36handles.com).
We've also been known to knock back a plate of crispy fried wild Atlantic cod in beer-vodka batter (preceded by briny clam chowder) at The Boxing Donkey (300 Lincoln St., Roseville; 916-797-3665, www.theboxingdonkey.com).
Whenever travel takes us to Marin County, we detour to Nick's Cove on Tomales Bay for excellent (though costly) deep-fried locally caught rock cod (23240 Highway 1, Marshall; 415-663-1033, www.nickscove.com).
Closer to home, a group of us recently sat on the breezy patio adjoining Tugboat Fish & Chips in Carmichael, diving into a fried-seafood feast.
Though there are a half-dozen Tugboats around town, we favor this one because the cooks seem to know that deep-frying requires actual technique. The oil must be clean and just hot enough, the batter thin and not oversalted. Cooking time is crucial, as are freshness, handling and consistency.
A crisp, non-oily, tempura-like coating encased fresh-tasting cod fillets and sweet prawns, pieces of flavorful calamari and assorted fresh veggies (including thick, crunchy onion rings). The french fries were an also-ran.
We could have done without the fishy, pre-breaded frozen oysters and chewy fried clam strips.
Tugboat would be wise to upgrade its runny, subpar tartar sauce to match the quality of its fish and prawns.
Caution: Watch your step on the patio. The floor is on two levels, with a hard-to-see curb dividing them. We watched in shock as a woman tripped over it and crashed hard.
Tugboat is at 7601 Fair Oaks Blvd., Carmichael; (916) 944-4911.
Call The Bee's Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.