Sometimes, what I need can't be found in a restaurant
The best thing I ate in Seattle, the other week, was a prime rib sandwich made with a nearly overwhelming quantity of seriously quality Pacific Northwest beef, and the perfect amount of horseradish. The bread was warm, and very fresh; the sandwich came with—because they asked, and I said yes, a thousand times yes—a considerable vessel filled with fragrant au jus, no charge. This was one of the finest French dip sandwiches I’ve eaten, anywhere—classically beautiful, but with the benefit of ingredients almost too good to be served between two slices of bread, not to mention eaten on the fly, not that there’s anything wrong with that. This sandwich, a sandwich well-appreciated by many a Seattle area prime rib lover, came from a supermarket.
Not just any supermarket, mind you, but the Metropolitan Market, one of those regional chains, this one being extremely specific to the Puget Sound region, that does almost everything right. This is, we can just get it out of the way, one of the best supermarkets in the country, never mind the prices, which are, it must be mentioned, quite high. So maybe I wouldn’t do my weekly shop here, if I were lucky enough to live down the street from one, but whenever I am in Seattle and feel the need for prime rib, there aren’t a lot of other places I’d bother with—it’s just so easy to come here, instead.
They’re terribly accommodating, that's half the point. If you don’t want a sandwich, they’ll hack off as much as you want (well, as much as you want to pay for), nice and thick, and serve it alongside very fine mashed potatoes and gravy, if you’re feeling spendy—it nearly always comes out perfectly pink in the middle, but with the most rustic/elegant bark around the edge, which you don’t always get with classic restaurant prime rib. This is Medieval banquet-level meat for true meat lovers, from one of the Northwest’s most sought-after ranches, and you can eat a pound or more of the beautiful stuff sitting in a park, or by a beach, or in bed at home, after a hard day’s work, and how is that not just about the greatest thing?
After twenty years of travel on assignment, supermarkets have time and again proven to be the closest, next best thing to being home, at least for me; from rotisserie chickens and big salads to some of the world’s most expensive macaroni and cheese (selling the stuff by the pound has to be one of the most blatant scams of all time), supermarkets are tirelessly faithful resources for simple comforts, which is sometimes all you want after the sixth week on the road.
They can also do more than just meet basic needs—typically, the best ones will offer a window directly to the local culture, both food-related and otherwise, and sometimes, they’ll even feed you a meal so good, something so memorable that you won’t even mind that you’re not at a proper restaurant. With the benefit of years of experience grazing the aisles of the nation’s supermarkets, I offer just a few of my favorites, for the next time you’re on the road.
Metropolitan Market Washington
Keeping your eyes on the prize that is that prime rib sandwich might be a challenge, if you’re walking through the door of this Seattle-area institution for the first time—from extensive poke bars, to busy bakeries turning out endless supplies of the store’s famous signature cookie (lots of expensive chocolate, lots of walnuts), there’s a lot going on. Around since 1971, and still with only seven stores scattered about the Puget Sound region, the focus on quality over quantity seems to have really paid off—this is where you’ll find some of the best prepared foods available in any American supermarket.
Dorothy Lane Markets Ohio
Dating back to the 1940’s and to this day a prized local brand in the Dayton area, it’s rare to find such a small operation working so hard to give their customers something different—from a top-of-class bakery turning out Bakewell tarts and Pithivier like it’s nothing (seriously, if you know of another American supermarket doing either of those things on the regular, please tell me, because I need to go there), to the butcher’s counter where they’ll grill you up a rather magnificent half-pound burger, to one of the most carefully-laid salad bars around (the dressing / topping bar alone is a thing of beauty, the multigrain croutons are outstanding), this is one of those places you might find yourself visiting again and again, if you are lucky enough to be anywhere near Dayton, where they have three stores.
Hy-Vee Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota
Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in smaller towns around this part of the Midwest have been in the cafes at the region’s favorite supermarket, an employee-owned gem with a great line of house brand product. You don’t even need to make new friends to feel like you’re a part of whatever town you’ve landed in—just get yourself a plate of biscuits and gravy in the morning and be seated, anywhere near a table full of locals nursing cups of coffee. Within a half hour, you’ll be completely up to speed on the local gossip.
New Seasons Markets Oregon, Washington
There have been days in Portland where I’m so busy pecking away at my keyboard, I’ve ended up eating all three meals at this local institution—it’s their fault for making their supermarkets such pleasant places to work, but at least I know I paid my rent, eating very good bagels and smoked salmon the morning, salads and burritos or even nachos made-to-order for lunch, not to mention their excellent, giant-portioned stir-fries for dinner, once again made to order—here, all tastes are catered for, and once again, they are not messing around, when it comes to baked goods. In case you need a snack. (Or two.)
Wegmans East Coast
Pretty much anyone familiar with this Western New York original—now found everywhere from Boston to The Carolinas loves a Wegmans sub. They are served on fresh, double-wide house-baked rolls, of which a large size will feed three people, if you are inclined to share, no judgements if you’re not. While prices have started to tick up at the sub counter and at the hot bar—which is now more expensive than Whole Foods, which at times can be worth the money, not so much Wegmans—these subs, along with their on-premises sushi bars, perfectly serviceable pizzas and too many other solid prepared options to mention at once will see you through any Eastern Seaboard road trip; I long ago starred every Wegmans near an interstate highway on my Google Maps, just so I don’t forget.
Publix Florida & The South
Now found everywhere from Nashville to Richmond, Virginia, this Florida original is slowly becoming a tradition in a lot of other places as well, and like Wegmans, one of the things people tend to like best—besides the excellent, reasonably priced store brand product and their solid business practices (Publix is employee-owned)—are the subs. The subs are not better than Wegmans—a side by side comparison of the bread is almost unfair—but they are generally delicious; the very best Publix stores are the ones in the parts of Florida with large Cuban populations, because there’s nothing like popping into the supermarket for a few ham croquetas on the way to the beach, right? All stores seem to feature their well-known mojo pork sandwich—juicy marinated tenderloin, served simply with onions and cheese—and a pretty delicious Cuban sub, made with Boar’s Head products.