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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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Whole Foods ... And Other Great Grocery Stores In Tampa [Tamales At Felton’s, Anyone?]

Posted Nov 9, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Nov 9, 2012 at 04:14 PM

Whole Foods Carrollwood

They came by the thousands. They came in Acuras and Priuses and on Cannondales. They stood in line for more than an hour, so thick were the bodies that they bottlenecked at the entrance. They sampled and tasted and perused. They oohed and ahhed at what they had found. They left with complimentary fruitcakes.

Tampa’s apostles of food flocked to their holy retail shrine, the new Whole Foods Market that opened Nov. 1 in Carrollwood, to honor all that is great and good and organic and cruelty free.

They came for their locally sourced orchids. They snatched pre-marinated, vacuum-sealed packages of mango coconut mahi mahi. They pondered which carton of cage-free eggs was best for their dietary conscience. They marveled at the 8-foot-long swordfish prone on a bed of ice inside an upraised dinghy.

It was all very over the top and conspicuously consumerish and, at times, grotesquely pretentious.

Whole Foods Carrollwood

But it was fun. Lots of fun. As silly as it was to see grown human beings thrill to the sight of Veuve Cliquot stacked in sardine tins like a champagne fortress, it was fun to wade into the giant pool of enthusiasm and get a little wet around the knees. The positive energy of the new employees was infectious.

Whole Foods Carrollwood

Then again, it’s easy to get jazzed about working in a place where they sell roasted Brussels sprouts with candied chestnuts and bacon.

It is life-affirming in this time of great electronic distractions that we still go a little nuts when a new grocery store opens. That people would arrive in droves on a Thursday morning and stand in line while a high school band played music for a ribbon cutting — just so they could have the chance to buy expensive food — warms the heart a little bit.

I asked a few people why they thought there was a frenzy whenever something like a Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Trader Joe’s or a Publix Green Wise opened.

“I’m bored with where I shop,” one man told me. “I’ll still shop there, but it’s fun to explore somewhere new. It feels adventurous.”

Ah, adventure. We all want to feel like the Vasco de Gama of collected foodstuffs.

Although I’m all about the feel-good human hurricane of going to market, I’d like to suggest that waiting for another big-box opening to reinvigorate your taste buds is unnecessary. Grocery adventures already exist under our collective nostrils.

For every sprout-friendly, bulgar-wheat bonanza at the high-minded chains, there’s a great neighborhood place such as Felton’s Market in Plant City that is worth your attention.

Felton's Market

If you haven’t been to Felton’s, it’s worth the drive a little east of the quaint downtown. You won’t find 30 t kinds of tofu, or “meat alternatives,” as Whole Foods refers to them. There are no organic stone-ground Mexican chocolate discs. No one will hand you a sample of creamy, vanilla pudding-like Alpha Tolman cheese wrapped in birch bark.

Felton's Market

What you will find are tomatillos that are right-size, not like the frozen pea-sized ones you see at other groceries. You’ll have your pick of bone-in, ready-to-eat pickled pigs feet in see-through jars that showcase their nuclear-red seasoning.

Felton's Market

They sell tubes of Butcher Block Chittlin Loaf that are big enough and round enough to provide lower lumbar support on the ride home.

People who shop at Felton’s were eating nose-to-tail before “Portlandia” said it was trendy. That means finding ways to make beef feet tasty. And pig ears. And honeycomb tripe. And pork kidneys. And beef pizzles. (If you want some fun, run the word “pizzle” through Google. You won’t see that ingredient on “Iron Chef” anytime soon.)

Felton's Market

Felton’s sells smoked turkey necks by the pound. Why? Because it would be a waste of the animal not to and, let’s face it, there are a lot of people who can’t afford prime rib. The market’s packages of whole mullet are local, too. Wild caught, as well. They just don’t brag about it the way the hipsters do in the cool stores where naan bread and the latest issue of Saveur are sold in the checkout aisle.

Felton’s had a ton of customers at the beginning of November, too. Not for a grand opening, but because they got paid by the government, and someone has to cash the checks and wire the money back home to Mexico. Financial services means something entirely different in Plant City than it does in Northdale.

Yes, Whole Foods will give you an exciting, fulfilling, spiritually invigorating shopping experience. The deli case features cheeses found only in the Encyclopedia Fromage. The expansive inventory of gluten-free products is like an Ikea for celiacs. If your version of shopping nirvana includes Buffalo-style skinless chicken sausages filled with blue cheese and no antibiotics, this is your Wonkaland.

Whole Foods Carrollwood

And sure, you can surf immaculate, lightning-fast WiFi on your MacBook Pro while sipping fair-trade coffee at Whole Foods. But then you won’t meet a salt-and-pepper-haired woman named Gina in the parking lot selling homemade, piping-hot pollo verde tamales, complete with fresh salsa, from a cooler in the back of her Lincoln Navigator.

Felton's Market

You’ll also miss the “Duck Dynasty” lookalike in front of you at the checkout, dressed head-to-toe in RedHead Predator hunting camouflage with four packages of meat in his cart next to his walking cane. You’d miss him turning to you with your three items and saying in a soft, kind voice, “You go ahead. You have fewer items, and I’m not going back to work today.”

And those things would be a shame to miss, because Felton’s has plenty of company nearby when it comes to unique, beloved, locally owned groceries.

Duckweed Urban Market

Places such as Duckweed Urban Market in downtown Tampa (pictured above), Mazzarro’s in St. Pete, Cacciatore and Sons in Tampa, Rick’s Meats in Lithia, Oceanic Supermarket in Tampa Heights and Latin Touch Spanish Grocery in Brandon. The list goes on and on. Shopping magic awaits.

How do you get started? Being curious helps. Broadening your expectations is a bonus. A sense of adventure is a plus. Shopping outside your comfort zone is an important step toward becoming a better cook and a better eater. That’s true at the brand new Whole Foods, too, as well as your everyday grocery store.

Here endeth the lesson, food disciples. Now, go forth and shop.

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