By Frank Sabatini Jr.
I never cared much for soda drinks, cookies and chicken cordon bleu. But that all changed when grazing through the prepared foods section of Lazy Acres Natural Market, the upscale organic-conscious grocery store that recently opened in Mission Hills.
Hang left after entering and you’ll see the area’s first food station, where smoothies are made to order and fresh orange juice, kombucha and “natural” house sodas are available from self-serve taps. If you’re struck by indecision, ask for a sample.
The same applies when proceeding to the bakery, the sushi/ceviche counter, the soup/salad bar, the deli, etc.
In their grand-opening fever, staffers are eager to captivate you with the store’s bounty of eat-in and takeout delights. Just be careful your eyes and taste buds don’t jump ahead of your wallet because this isn’t the cheapest of places to buy fresh meals and groceries.
Sipping from a small sample cup of kefir soda containing apple, ginger and lemongrass resulted in a 16-ounce purchase for $5.99. So invigorating and non-cloying, I would have paid even more for the stuff. In another visit I bought an icy “strawberry strut” smoothie for a buck less, a decent deal given that tangy yogurt, a banana, and apple and orange juices also go into it.
In addition to cake pops, macarons, fruit pies and other pretty desserts, Lazy Acres’ signature bakery item is “the cookie.” Priced at $2.99, it’s a big, beastly thing combining Belgian chocolate, walnuts and sea salt. Mine still had a trace of gooey warmth in the center, and yours probably will, too, because they’re baked regularly throughout the day. Chocolate cookies always taste the same to me, but not this one.
A glistening array of raw and cooked seafood marks the counter where you order poke bowls, ceviche and sushi rolls. I haven’t purchased any of them yet, but I did ask for a sample of the spicy salmon poke, which was dynamically seasoned without obliterating the clean essence of the fish.
Dozens of colorful, freshly chopped veggies, cheeses and proteins comprise the two-sided salad bar, headed up at one end with abundant lettuces. The bar was exceptionally clean and tidy in both visits. The possibilities are infinite when you’re staring at everything from peas and jicama and yellow bell peppers to roasted carrots and cauliflower, crumbled Gorgonzola and salad dressings like miso-ginger and vegan ranch.
A nearby island of hot foods features meats and garnishments for making tacos. I skipped the tortillas and other fixings and tossed into my supposedly biodegradable carton some cubed lemon-chicken and shredded carnitas. Both were under-flavored and a little dry, and the pork was chewier than I expected.
But a few chafing dishes down, past chicken enchiladas and salmon Italiano, is where I found a winner — chicken cordon bleu. None of the stuffed breasts showed scrapes, breaks or leaks in their sturdy breading.
I bought one ($8.99) and savored its crispy exterior and judicious filling of Swiss cheese and smoky ham. Unlike versions I’ve had in restaurants and from other markets, this wasn’t messy or overly salty or fraught with gristle.
My favorite purchase so far has been the ground turkey lasagna, found in a deli case of prepared cold foods that include pasta and potato salads, grilled lemon-herb tofu, meatballs and a bunch of other items fit for a gourmet picnic basket.
The lasagna is the tallest-standing I’ve seen anywhere. It visually upstages everything displayed around it. I took home a hunk for $7.97 and gave it a quick zap in the microwave. It unleashed many virtues: creamy ricotta, fresh basil, dried herbs, lean meat, lightweight sheet pasta and bright-tasting marinara sauce, which I would have preferred in greater measure.
From the pizza station, I tried a pepperoni and a veggie slice ($3.49 each). They’re cut into sizable squares, similar to Roman-style pizza, but breadier and with softer underbellies.
Most of the prepared foods and deli offerings are sold by weight. Some items, such as the lasagna, tally to less than what you’d pay in a restaurant. Although five slices of blended Swiss-Gruyere cheese I purchased from the cold-cuts section cost a whopping $5.80. And the crusty French baguette I bought to go with the cheese was $4, although it was practically the length of a baseball bat.
Can Lazy Acres be compared to Whole Foods? Yes and no. Prices hover in the same stratosphere and the aisles at both stores tempt you with lusciously displayed meals, perfect-looking produce and many non-commercial brands of grocery products.
But Lazy Acres appears to take the lead in the number of items labeled “organic,” which you’ll see on everything from pastas and condiments to nut butters, cereals, juices and body care products. It also features an attraction you won’t find in other large grocery outlets — a live beehive hovering appropriately over the honey section.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.