I love buffets.
It’s not because of the American supersize me, one price, all-you-can-eat factor. I love buffets because of the variety.
I can have just a small bite, a taste of whatever I like. More, I have the freedom of choice and the pleasure of finding the best bits by myself.
Buffets can be bland, overcooked and carb-laden steam-table trays with lots of fried food. Sometimes, most of the time actually, I crave spice: a good soy sauce’s savory mouth-watering umami, the lip-tingling heat of chili; a nose-full of a good balsamic; and the heady bloom of cumin, asafetida, garlic. I long for texture too: slippery noodles; the nutty chew of quinoa; the crispness of braised bok choy or fennel; the feel of fullness in my mouth when I find a good meatloaf or roasted pork.
So here’s where the Ashland Food Co-op comes in. It has an exceptional deli that features a rich and changing assortment of seasonal foods and flavors served up in a hot bar, cold bar, salad bar and soup stand. At $9.95 per pound weighed at checkout, the Co-op food bar is a buck or two more than similar establishments, but it has hands down the freshest, tastiest and most nutritious meals you’re likely to find in the Rogue Valley.
When I really don't want to cook for a day or two, it’s off to the Ashland Food Co-op. Sometimes, I just get the protein at the Co-op and make the sides at home, and sometimes I make up a full box meal to go.
The Co-op’s monthly hot bar menu is posted at ashlandfood.coop/deli. Due to supply, demand and any production issues, the menu is not guaranteed to be 100 percent accurate.
My favorite, pork chili verde, was on the menu when I stopped in on a Thursday. I picked up a pound of hot, juicy pork, steamed broccolini and a couple of wedges of herb-roasted Yukon potatoes. The honey chipotle wings looked tender and succulent, but I passed them today in favor of just a small bit of kale with paprika and a couple of steamed green beans.
I thought longingly of what I’d missed yesterday — butternut squash lasagna and Italian herb chicken — and what I might miss tomorrow — beef Sukama Wiki and gingered collard. Fish is on the menu a couple of times a week, always three or four seasonal vegetables and two carb sides. And yes, if you choose to ignore your diet, you can load up on macaroni and cheese at least once a week.
The cold bar always has several ferments, and in the summer the most delicate and delicious fruit panna cotta can be had. Rice and beans with all the fixins’ are available to order, an inexpensive and filling dish, and there’s a wide variety of made-to-order sandwiches and smoothies.
All of the food bars at the Co-op are clean, orderly and well maintained. You never find old, dried-out food, and the attendants bring out small batches of fresh food often. Signs at each of the food stations name the dish and list all the ingredients and spices used, though calorie count and nutritional values are not described.
Organic, non-GMO, vegan and gluten-free dishes are noted clearly. Not sure you’ll like something? Ask for a sample, and staffers will be glad to assist. From 7 to 10 a.m., the hot bar has breakfast items, and between 10 and 11 a.m., the day’s menu items come out of the kitchen and are served until 8 p.m.
If you live in Ashland, you’re likely to be pretty familiar with the Co-op and made up your mind long ago whether to be a member. Lack of parking and parking-lot congestion probably had something to do with your decision. It’s time to reconsider, because parking has improved recently, with a lot attendants during busy times making it easier to find a parking space and quicker to get in and out.
If you’re from out of town — and maybe just a bit nervous about all those Ashlanders you’ve heard about — check out the Co-op’s deli for a good meal. If the weather is fine, take your cardboard box outside to the gardens and enjoy the sun. You also may find music by buskers and colorful folks, families and kids.