I spent the month of January in Los Angeles, and discovered a city of ethnic enclaves packed with restaurants, some fancy but mostly humble, all clamoring to be tried. Of all the places where I ate, my most vivid food experience was at a supermarket: Wholesome Choice Grocery Store in Irvine, just south of Anaheim and Disneyland.
The first thing I heard about Wholesome Choice was that they have freshly baked sangak, the moist, crispy, addictive flatbread that is baked fresh everywhere in Iran and is a standard part of breakfast and lunch. The market installed an authentic hearthstone oven imported from Iran, and you can watch as the bakers place the dough on a palette, slide it into the oven, and transfer it onto cool brown butcher paper and into your hands.
The first thing I saw upon stepping out of our car in the parking lot was a sangak the length of my outstretched arms laid over the back seat of a car. I later learned that this is done to preserve the crispness.
I felt like a tourist checking off must-sees, but as soon as we got to the market I assumed my place in the tense sangak queue. I felt like I was back in New York, because everyone was jostling to keep their place in line, and shoppers who wandered too close were given the evil eye.
Once we got our sangak — strict limit of two per person! — we continued shopping, tearing off a piece of warm, sesame-seed studded bread with every step. The market is huge, with a dazzling produce section carrying everything from fresh chickpeas in the pod to passion fruit.
There are shelves full of every ingredient I desire for Persian cooking, supplied in large part by Sadaf, the Persian food distributor based in SoCal that is the savior of every Iranian immigrant to the US. The selection of rose water, a key ingredient in Persian sweets, is stunning.
Half of the market is devoted to prepared foods. There are counters serving freshly prepared Persian, Chinese, Indian, and Mexican food. This is no ordinary buffet, though. These people are chefs who truly put love into their food. The Persian food section is manned by Persians, doling out favorites like Baghali Polo (rice with dill and fava beans) and Joojeh Kabob (grilled skewered chicken with saffron rice) with pride.
The food at Wholesome is so good that this is where my family in Irvine goes to eat.
They like it better than the Persian sit-down restaurants, although they are shocked that these days, even non-Persians sidle up to the counter and request tahdig — the delectable crunchy rice at the bottom of the pot — with their meal, just like the natives.
You can grab a bottle of doogh, the delicious Persian yogurt beverage, and eat your food inside by the video counter, or take it outside. Be cautious if you’re eating alone, though, there is a species of aggressive bird that haunts the tables looking for handouts, and they prey on solitary diners!
I can’t wait to get back to Wholesome Choice for more sangak, homemade Persian food, and perhaps to get the Persian cooking implements that I can’t find anywhere else, like the hair bonnet-looking thing that goes over the lid of the rice pot to soak up condensation.
If you visit LA, I highly recommend this place for a full-immersion food experience. Make sure, though, that you give yourself time to eat, shop, work up an appetite, and eat again!
Wholesome Choice Market, Irvine location: 18040 Culver Dr., Irvine, CA 92612, 949- 551- 4111. Store Hours : 7 AM – 11 PM Food Court Hours : 10:30 AM – 8:30 PM. www.wholesomechoice.com.