Tag Archives: hellscape

Earth Fare

Regular readers of this blog know that we express our opinions with a reasonably ruthless honesty. If we like something, we are more than happy to sing its praises. But if something unfashionably crosses our critical gaze, we’ll also tear into it with great relish.

I think we’re always fair, but we do have opinions, something at odds with the “say something nice or don’t say anything at all” crowd. We try to back up said opinions with facts — and articulate them in a way that you can relate to. And while we know that we come from a set of particular perspectives that perhaps most people in our city don’t share, we also do our best to go into situations with an open mind.

All of which is a sort of meaningless preface to our review of Montgomery’s new grocery store. It feels necessary because we went there expecting to hate it. And we loved it.

Why would we expect to hate a grocery store? Well, for starters, it is in a part of town that we have dubbed “The Hellscape.” This is the part of town that you might call “the east side.” It is comprised entirely of sprawl, driven by environmental disregard for beautiful country farmland that once surrounded Montgomery, fueled by racism and a fear of city life. It is a land of McMansions and facially race-neutral explanations involving school districts and land values, a realm of soul-crushing big box stores and mono-cultural consumerism, big churches and people clinging to their gas-guzzling SUVs as if they were lifelines. You know the place, even if you’ve never been there. It’s evil.

And yet, as health-conscious vegetarians, quasi-foodies who shun the label, we couldn’t resist the allure of a new grocery store devoted to things we revere: locally grown grown produce, organic foods, fresh bread, succulent fake meats. We figured we’d go, take some pics, and then come home and rip the place for being over-priced and full of yoga-pants-wearing bourgeois soccer moms beaming self-satisfaction and stocking up on quacky new age medical cures.

But even if there are a handful of walking stereotypes in the new Earth Fare, the bottom line is that this store is amazing. The only negative thoughts (other than the ad hom cheap shots added for humor value) we really could muster was a sort of profound sadness that this grocery store is so far away from our house.

We just posted a lament about how downtown re-development has been hindered by a lack of a grocery store. And there’s an entire blog’s worth of posts to be written about the starvation and malnutrition being inflicted on the parts of Montgomery that qualify as “food deserts.” (see also here for a look at another major Alabama urban center dealing with this disgraceful phenomenon).

So perhaps we can be forgiven for celebrating the arrival of a health-themed grocery store in a state that has some of the least-healthy children in the nation.

But really, it’s not about how this amazing grocery store serves the greater needs of a state that seems allergic to being healthy. Nope. Our sense of consumer desire, our urges grounded in food-buying lust … that’s selfish. And we’re at least somewhat OK with that.

We follow the organic food industry with all of the righteous zeal of modern crusaders consumers . We try to buy from corporations that behave in ways we approve of. And we track the boardroom political debates as best we can. Check out this blast from the Organic Consumers Association regarding the reprehensible Monsanto — and then check this (also persuasive) reply from Stonyfield Farms.

And Earth Fare has got what we need.

There’s an entire post to be written about the awful Fresh Market, which is out on the Boulevard. But whatever acid-tipped daggers we had for that overpriced joke of a grocery store were rendered wholly unnecessary by the opening of Earth Fare, which ought to drive Fresh Market out of business within a year.

In the words of one of the total strangers emerging smiling from Earth Fare last week, “Now, tell me again why we’d ever go to Fresh Market again?”

So … what makes it so great? (“Finally,” you grumble to yourself, “the review part of the review …”

It’s not the fruits and vegetables. Sure, there are good deals to be had there (niche items like Meyer lemons and the only organic oranges and lemons in town — besides the ones at sinking ship Fresh Market), but in general you’re going to get a better overall value and selection at the Winn-Dixie or Publix. We might be shrugging it off more than most because we already get local and organic produce from  our magnificent CSA share (spring shares may be available, get yourself to the Red Root Farm Facebook page).

The bulk food section is good. It’s better than Healthwise (though theirs is good too, this one has more stuff and also has bulk spices). It’s a little spendy, of course. We got organic tri-color quinoa ($5.99/lb) and organic pinto beans ($2.49/lb). The beans have a date with the New Mexico green chile we peeled and brought home in freezer bags this summer. (Note to Montgomery grocery purveyors: whoever starts stocking Hatch in the freezer case will win my eternal patronage.) There’s an unbelievable amount of bulk and pre-bagged coffee. It smelled amazing. It was expensive, but it smelled amazing. Next time. The coffee and bulk foods are next to a kind of specialty imported foods rack with the ultimate Stuff White People Like rows of specialty salts and delicious looking imported anchovies that we did not buy but wanted to melt into a pasta sauce.

There is a really big personal care products section with all the quasi-obscure soaps and lotions you might care to purchase. Some of this stuff is hard to get around here – I noted the selection for future trips, thinking it might end up saving me shipping on inevitable online orders. Also there are rows and rows and rows of vitamins and “herbal treatments.” Seemed like Healthwise had that part of the market all locked up, but I’d be surprised if the vitamin-and-cleanse crowd decided to shift its loyalties just because organic olives can now be purchased at the same time as flaxseed oil and protein powder.

The fake meat divisions were a big hit with us. We don’t need you getting all preachy with us about the need to get away from meat substitutes, or talking about dioxin, or just trying to convince us that there’s nothing wrong with inflicting suffering on sentient beings so you can consume their flesh with a light dusting of truffle powder. When you don’t eat meat, you (may) miss its texture. This doesn’t mean you want to eat Tofurkey (really, nobody should). But it does mean that sometimes you just want to buy packaged seitan rather than always making your own, that veggie dogs can be delicious, and that Publix doesn’t have to have the tempeh market cornered. Earth Fare had all that and also a bunch of weird stuff in the freezer case. We’re gonna keep making our own seitan, but it’s nice to know we can get packaged foods like the rest of the bourgoise.

There’s an olive bar, of course. The thing about olive bars is that you can’t tell until you’ve tasted the stuff. The one item we got was really good, but we’ve only tried that. More sampling required.

The cheese selection was lavish, what you’d expect, really, and is by far the most exotic and well-curated in town. We’re merely amateur turophiles, but we felt confident that their vast (and expensive) collection of cheese contained many gems.

The deli looked great. One of us was sort of overcome by all the vegetarian food in the deli, and wanted to try/buy it all. Fortunately, she was prevented from emptying our bank account into various kale-soy concoctions by the hordes of dimwitted idiots mobbing the understaffed counter. These are the people who have tons of time to study the menu and look in the case and still get to the counter with a “hmm, let’s see. I think I might like to have…” So we opted out. We couldn’t escape the desserts, of course we couldn’t, with our well-documented sweet tooths – the kindly man pushing apple pie samples ended up selling us single serve treats instead (good, not great). We also got bagels. Needed salt. And onions. For “everything” bagels they were curiously nihilistic. But still, they had bagels! Can’t get fresh baked bagels at Publix or Winn-Dixie. At least not in our neighborhood. Depressing.

Of course by the time we got to the register we’d already spent way too much money. An avocado here and a salad dressing there meant it was pretty easy to rationalize the seasonal sixer of Sierra Nevada at the register. Sigh. A trip to observe and sample ended up as a triple digit expense. Ouch.

Still, we’re glad the store is there. It exploded our expectations and we’ll likely be back. Yet, all of the above commentary about sprawl and the abandonment of Montgomery remains spot on. We’re glad Montgomery has a top notch store in Earth Fare. But when Trader Joe’s comes to town, can they please find some way to build it on the Boulevard?

The Book Cellar

The waves of heat radiate off of the amusement park-sized parking lot, reminding you that you are in the Hellscape and it is June.

The massive, largely full Sunday parking lot is for the gigantic corporate movie theater screening various early-summer Hollywood excretions. But we are there, not for the overpriced CGI mindrot, but for the bookstore. More importantly, it is a used bookstore — that rarest of the bookstore breed. Because we don’t really care for the overpriced and lame offerings of Books A Dozen. But we do love used bookstores. And when we find a good one, we not only write about it, we go back often and spend a whole bunch of our money there.

So we’re not THAT picky. We’re not looking for first editions. We don’t need it to have a coffee shop. We just want a couple of good shelves (or even boxes) to browse. We’d like some serious attempt to stock non-fiction, and we’d like prices to be reasonable, if not competitive with the Internet. If you’ve got to traffic in romance novels and run some kind of manga trade operation, so be it. We support the circulation of crap pulp novels (your Grishams, your Dan Browns) if that’s what’s needed to keep the lights on.

But there’s got to be some there there. The Book Cellar is like a bookstore as if run by someone who had never been to a bookstore, but had once had one described to them over the phone. They clearly purchased a ton of shelves. They rented a place in the shopping center. And then they skipped to “next step: profit.

A few points: There’s nowhere to sit. Well, that’s not technically true. There is some sort of grandmotherly arm chair set up in the front of the store that looks more like a decoration to be seen through the window than an actual comfortable chair that someone would want to sit in.

There’s no step stool for getting to top shelves. We didn’t need one, but heard a customer ask and be told that there was none.

There’s no sense of value. Some of the used paperbacks with creases in the cover and other small cosmetic problems are $6. Too high. There’s a 25-cent table, which would ordinarily be a great thing. But the only thing worth noting about that table is that the books there were slightly better than the books on the $2 shelves. In that they weren’t guides to the year 2000 (we wish we were joking). Not that the quarter books weren’t nutso too, but at least there were multiple copies of FutureShock (sensing a theme here…). And the only thing that makes it remotely worth looking at those shelves is the likelihood that you’ll find some kind of crazy religious self-published thing. You might briefly consider buying one of these as a joke for a friend, but really, you just end up feeling depressed that this is the quality of the books being stocked here.

The books here are like a window into the mind of the average Hellscape resident. There are no college textbooks or even semi-academic stuff. There’s no philosophy section. The non-fiction section is too hilarious to describe properly. There are a curious amount of books about owning pets, with hilarious titles like “So, you’d like to own a Great Dane.” There are self-help books galore. And, like we said, plenty of crazy religious stuff.

There’s no literary fiction besides a Louise Erdrich novel and a handful of other readings that smack of Book Club. There are certainly slim pickings on the “classics” front. The children’s section seemed okay, if a little heavy on the heirs to Goosebumps and other trashy pre-young-adult type offerings. It made us reflect on how important it is for young people to read fiction and how much good fiction there is for young readers, little of which was represented here.

The non-fiction section is just awful – entirely bereft of legitimate histories (we bought one of the only serious nonfiction books on offer — a medieval history book) and it’s rife with conspiracy theories, half-baked right wing diatribes and weight loss pep talk manuals. The bottom line on the bookstore is that it reveals either how awful the store owner’s taste is or what slim pickings she has to work with around here. Probably we’re looking at some of both, but our opinion of the Hellscape is so low that we could certainly imagine someone coming in to resell the O’Reilly Factor For Kids to partially pay their ticket to see Prince Of Persia — not despite but because it is based on a video game. And there, dear readers, is your explanation of Vaughn Road in a nutshell.

It’s a damn shame. It’s a shame that this is what passes for a passable used bookstore in this town.  It’s a shame that the Thomas Pynchon book they stocked (Vineland) was priced the same as the Oliver North novel they stocked. Mostly, though, it’s a shame that people once bought these books and (shiver) read them.

Red Robin

This giant plaster bird will consume your soul.

We just had to check it out. We were on one of our “as rarely as possible” trips to East Montgomery (a.k.a. The Hellscape). We had been doing something or other at Target perhaps and, needing a lunchtime bite to eat, opted to check out a nearby chain restaurant called Red Robin.

We were under the false impression that this was a sort of In and Out Burger, when, in reality, it is more of a Ruby T.G.I. McApplebees sort of deal: a “fast casual” hyper-Americanized sit-down place that specializes in burgers.

Red Robin is a national chain with about 400 stores. There is a plethora of the familiar placeless bric-a-brac that fills the void. When you don’t have anything local, just go with some baseball, some neon, and some Elvis references. Sure, you might as well be in Cleveland or Wichita, but as long as your theme is militantly American and one step on the class ladder above license plates on the wall, people will be content with your “art” and continue to eat your food.

There are a lot of burgers on the menu with all of the usual options: blue cheese, mushrooms, swiss cheese, pineapple, etc. There are also fish and chicken burgers. And salads. And etc, etc, etc. All laid out colorfully in a genero-swirl of fakey diner type nostalgia.

We of course had to try the (somewhat expensive) tower of onion rings. As promised, it is indeed a tower: a stack of onion halos, a column of 65 grams of vertical love and 1250 calories worth of light brown flaky mind erasure. That is to say, the onion rings are really good – crispy, with the breading soft yet not slipping immediately off the warm onion center.

Afterward, we split off into our different dining directions. The carnivorous member of our party ordered the french onion soup and some kind of “Banzai” (meaning served with pineapple and teriyaki sauce) chicken burger. The soup was pronounced bad (while looking slightly worse than that), with its Exxon Valdez-style slick of cheese grease and sad little side croutons. The chicken sandwich was massive and described as good, even though no human has a mouth large enough to take a bite of it as served, and it must be somewhat dismantled prior to consumption.

Also at our table were a veggie burger and a salad. The former was actually quite delicious, with a good bun and decent, fresh-seeming toppings. It came with fries, because we totally needed more fried food after the Caligula-esque assault we mounted on the onion rings. The fries were fine. Like competitor Ruby Tuesday’s (which we like better in our nation’s “fast casual” race to the bottom), the fries are “bottomless,” meaning they will keep bringing them to you for as long as you can cram them in your gaping foodhole.

The Caesar salad with salmon was surprisingly good. The dressing, even though probably bottled, was still MUCH better than the Caesar dressing at Sinclair’s. Heresy, I know. Just saying.

And the fish, even though it was probably frozen and farmed by way of a process that is wreaking some ecological holocaust in some part of the world most people have never heard of, tasted pretty ok. It was better than the equivalent fish served on a salad at Ruby Tuesday’s, in that it managed to taste fresh. We would eat the salad and veggie burger again, in a pinch, if we were in some part of America where telling people you are a vegetarian is likely to get you killed (but you can order quietly off the menu in a place like this while warding off anti-Communist persecution with your Banana Republic shopping bags and a generous spritzing of the new Britney Spears anti-stink spray perfume).

You can say about this place (or any of the other “eateries” in the Eastchase circle of hell) that it is soulless, or evil, or empty. But that kind of ranting just rings a little hollow since they are all those things and more as a matter of principle. They are animated by the same spirits that bring you Rooms To Go and Spencer’s Gifts – an aesthetic that makes maudlin seem like something that Damien Hirst made. They leave you tired, not so much from the food and the decor and the relentless cheer of the flair-adorned servers, but from the slow and torturous death of The Interesting.