Free Lunch…Almost

Whole Foods Market

711 University Avenue, Hillcrest

Hank should so be here. So many freebies, and all healthy. I’m lost in a swirl of customers, ranging up and down the lunchtime food counters, the sushi counter, the pizza counter, the salad counter, the hot-foods counter, the olive counter, ogling dishes like Painted Desert coleslaw and quinoa cakes.

I came in off University to — like, kaboom! — this mighty floor of food, grog, herbs, and more food. Kinda like a Vons, but greener, classier, and smellier, in a good way. Blue cheeses, Indian curries, that sort of thing. But I was here to check out something a guy on the #11 bus told me about.

“Whole Foods has a whole lotta freebies,” he said. “Even more on weekends.”

And the guy was right. First up: Vivien, in aisle three. She has a small table with samples of a spicy Italian sausage and mozzarella cheese. Mmm... Nice and spicy. Then a couple of aisles down, Elaine’s holding out little pots of Wallaby yogurt, “inspired by Australians,” whatever da heck that means. Maybe there’s more fruit Down Under — in the bottom of the pot. I slurp a strawberry, then vanilla, then pineapple- coconut.

It goes on like this till finally I grab a handful of Bear Naked granola and head for the main eat-in food court. And, guess what? They’re giving out samples here, too — a whole crew of guys, mostly, standing behind wildly stocked glass food displays with everything from cactus salad to chicken curry.

“Piece of Jim Lee’s wild mushroom pizza?” asks this guy. I nod. He roll-cuts a two-by-three-inch chunk. Oh, wow. This is absolutely scrumptious. “There are four different kinds of mushroom in it,” the guy says. “Pizza’s $9.99 a pound.”

Huh. Pizza by weight. That’s new. Don’t know if I can tell the portobello from the shiitake, but it’s a tasty black mess.

Then I let the feller twist my arm and I try the pesto-roasted tomato pizza ($7.29 per pound) and oh, yes. That pesto. Can’t get enough of the grassy-green taste of it.

“We’ve got some nopales salad over here!” says this guy a little further along. “It’s our daily special.” Name’s Zack “Hamilton” Zuber. He hands me a little cup. Nopales, red onions, lumps of white feta cheese, red pepper. Pretty refreshing, with a tequila aftertaste to it.

Oh, what the heck. I’m feeling so good about this bounty, I start ordering a couple of things to actually buy and eat upstairs in the ground-level eating area (we’re half-underground here).

I start off with the nopales, a little plastic bucket of that combo in the display case. Then, next to it is a luscious-looking Sonoma chicken salad (chicken, celery, red grapes, and pecans in a mayo-mix), then I see a curry chicken salad giving me the come-on look. I get Hamilton to scoop me a spoonful (sold by weight) of that. Then, heck, big, wicked, and reminding me of the school cafeteria: potato pancakes. I get one. “Anything else?” says Hamilton. I shake my head. But then, just before I retreat, I can’t resist two small pieces of those pizzas, the mushroom and the pesto. Plus, on the way to the checkout, I get some (organic) coffee with, uh, honey, seeing as we’re all being PC ’round here.

Oh, Lord. The shock comes at the checkout. I’ve just spent $18.43. Man! Those salads. Turns out my Sonoma was $11.29 a pound — my half-pound cost $5.53. The third-pound of nopales, at $8.99 a pound, cost me $3.42, and the third-pound of chicken curry cost $3.25. Just seemed like one scoop. The organic coffee was $1.99.

Sigh. Well, the eating area upstairs is nicely decorated with orange-cushioned benches, maroon, orange, and mustard walls, cool hanging lights (with snaky, energy-efficient bulbs, natch), banners showing giant windmill generators, and a display of “team member art,” mostly surfing pix.

I’m kicking myself for spending like a drunken sailor, as they say, but manage to start in on the salads anyway. I realize two things: one, there’s way too much for me to eat (after all those freebies), and, two, I can take half back to Carla. So that halves the cost. In theory. And, three, they’re pretty delicious. ’Specially the Sonoma, with its celery and pecans and grapes. And the curry, with its chicken and raisins. But still, I’m grinding my teeth at every chew.

“Next time, ask for them by dollar amount,” says Hamilton. He’s just got off his shift. He sits down a moment across from me in the booth. “That keeps your bill in control.” Turns out he is a retired French teacher. Works here part-time. Is 72. I can’t believe it. He looks 52.

“I eat right,” he says. “Salads from here. Just the best vegetables and fruit, and canned seafood, mainly. I didn’t always. I used to smoke and drink. Then my father died of heart failure. I knew it was smoking-related. That changed me. Now my diet gives me a positive outlook. I spark better.”

He says there’s only one downside. “I don’t enjoy going out with friends for big, meaty meals with rich desserts. It’s made me a bit of a recluse.”

“Ooh!” says this gal at the next table, Elysa, to her friend Karen. “Our plastic knives and forks, they’re biodegradable.”

Huh. I look at mine. “Tater Ware,” it says.

“Yes,” says Hamilton. “They’re made of potato. True. They degrade pretty quickly.”

He gets up. “Off to the big meal of my day. A mesclun of baby lettuces, carrots, grape tomatoes, asparagus, shallots, fava beans, and fish. Or maybe lamb sausage. Au revoir.”

I shut the plastic salad boxes while there’s still enough for Carla. I’ve just gotta plunge back downstairs to the half-underground store floor one more time. There was something else I need to try. It was called “Y-Water.” The sample gal had four different flavors: muscle water, immune water, bone water, and brain water. The very areas where a man could do with help. Plus, hey, free helps, period.

The Place: Whole Foods, 711 University Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-294-2800

Type of Food: Health

Prices: Dozens of items sold by the pound include pesto roasted-tomato pizza, $7.29 lb; cheese pizza, $6.29 lb; mushroom pizza, $9.99 lb; quinoa cakes, $2.29 each; potato pancake, $1.99 each; smoked mozzarella pasta, $7.69 lb; kung pao chicken, $11.29 lb; kung pao tofu, $9.99 lb; curry chicken salad, $10.59 lb; Sonoma chicken salad, $11.29 lb; nopales salad with feta, $8.99 lb; sandwiches, e.g. Monte Cristo with ham, turkey, cheddar, $7.49

Hours: 8:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m., daily

Buses: 1, 10, 11

Nearest Bus Stop: University at Seventh Avenue

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I love to read Tin Forks. Last week we went to that Pizza Station at the tenth street trolly station. I loved the atmosphere, and Jenny had her first calzone. She said it a lot of dough to chomp through, but she liked it.

This week we went to Petrini's and it was as good as Mr. Bedfore said it would be.

I've sampled the goodies at whole foods, but they aren't as much fun to watch as the Sunday brunch crowd at Costco: where they circle a sample table, hold hands, say 'Grace' and dig in and chomp down.

I've gone to lotsa places after reading about them in Tin Forks.

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