I gotta hand it to that surly gentleman who works behind the Persian food counter at Wholesome Choice in Irvine. His grimace is unflappable. His brow is forever furrowed. It actually seems like he's making a concerted effort to avoid eye contact with anyone or anything.
As he scribbled my order for a Chicken Koobideh ($6.99), his death stare was focused somewhere over my shoulder, at nothing in particular. A mischievious side of me wanted to re-enact a certain scene from Seinfeld.
You know the one.
Has anyone ever told you that you look exactly like Al Pacino? You know, Scent Of A Woman. Who-ah! Who-ah!
Very good. Very good.
Well, I --
You know something?
No soup for you!
Come back one year! Next!
But I knew better than to piss-off a guy who has a stash of long metal skewers within reach of his burly, hairy arms. And a grump is better than a Soup Nazi. So I took the stub of paper with the order number from his grip and quietly stood aside. I watched and waited as his co-worker took out two more swords from the fridge, its blades packed with ground meat, which he placed over an open pit of fire.
As I counted the minutes until my dinner was ready, I surveyed the rest of this food court within a store. There's an Italian stall with fresh pizzas and pasta across from me. Next to it, Mexican food and American home-style. On the opposite side of the same island, Indian and Chinese. And when you're not feeling peckish for the cooked flesh of landborne animals, there's both a salad and sushi bar towards the back. It's quite literally, a trip around the world in less than forty footsteps.
It wasn't long ago when Wholesome Choice was a Whole Foods Market, and before that, during my undergraduate years at UCI, it was a Ralphs. Of all the things in Irvine that has changed for the better over the years, I think Wholesome Choice is at the top of that list.
An international supermarket with a Middle Eastern accent, it has sparkling aisles and boasts unique products the Whole Foods/Trader Joe's demographic craves, while still pleasing the traditional Persian tastes of its core customer base. A prime example of this is their offering of sangak, a Persian seeded flatbread baked hourly, and doled out hot and fresh from a hearthstone oven to an eager line of customers.
The other staple of the store was this Persian food counter, where The Grump works. Along with the koobideh I ordered, there are shish kabobs, chicken barg, Persian salads, and even colorful stews ready and waiting in steam trays.
But the koobideh is the reason I come to Wholesome Choice. I leered hungrily as my koobideh took on a burnished orange color and a little bit of char. Noticing the ravenous glint in my eye, The Grump's co-worker slid it off the skewer into a waiting styrofoam box of rice. From another spit, he extracted one grilled tomato from a dozen others which were strung together like a gigantic fruit necklace, and off it went on top of the mound, along with a crusty piece of burnt rice.
The Grump took the container from him and pushed it towards me on the counter. He tossed on top of it, a plastic bag with half an onion, a wedge of lemon, and butter. When I noticed that the onion I got was discolored, I meekly asked if I could exchange it. Without a word, he took back the one he gave me and tossed me two new bags. This was his way of saying, "You think I care about the onions!? Take two! Take as many as you want!"
I thanked him profusely and went home to enjoy my dinner (which coincidentally was enough for two).
When I got home, I tore open a packet of sumac, a spice that looks like red dandruff with a citrusy tang, and sprinkled it all over the rice. After a drizzle of lemon juice went on the glistening lobes of the chicken koobideh, we were ready to eat.
The loose grains of basmati were nutty and fragrant, with a sunny streak of yellow rice running down the middle. The koobideh, made from a mixture of egg, ground chicken and turmeric was firm to the touch but tender to the teeth. The grilled tomato was promptly squished and torn apart with a fork. We used its pulp and juices to moisten the rice. And each time I took a spoonful of rice and meat, I peeled off a layer of the raw onion and chomped on it. It's both refreshing and spicy. But the plank of crunchy burnt rice, I ate sparingly. Although it provided a satisfying textural contrast to the meal, it was too jarring and tough to eat for an extended period of time.
With food like this, how can anyone stay grumpy.
18040 Culver Dr
Irvine, CA 92612