The first time I went into Lois’ Natural Marketplace on India Street in Portland, the new(ish) branch of an established Scarborough market, I didn’t intend to eat and run. I didn’t intend to eat at all. I came to pick up groceries for dinner. But as I poked at the avocados, investigated the yogurts and inspected the cheeses, there was no missing the big order counter at the back of the store with its list of sandwiches and daily specials, nor the many prepared salads and other grab-and-go foods.
The next time I went back, I had lunch on my mind. It was around noon, and the place was hopping. The big menu – 17 sandwiches (from Black Forest Ham & Brie to a vegan Fakin’ BLT with tempeh), six salads and several daily specials – made it hard to choose, and the temptations didn’t end there. By the order window sat a pan of tall cream cheese biscuits for 99 cents apiece. Near the pickup window was a tray of cinnamon buns ($1.99 each). And the cashier was freely dispensing samples of a snack chip that claimed to be made of vegetables but looked and crunched suspiciously like Cheetos.
Lois’ is a natural food store, but not a militant one.
The chicken enchilada special I got that day (priced by the pound) was hearty and so satisfying on a cold winter afternoon that I returned the following week. It was 3 p.m. and this time, I had the place to myself. As I entered, the cashier called out a cheery greeting, reflecting the unfailingly polite service at Lois’. Later, when I asked the women at the sandwich counter how the tofu filling for my sandwich was made, they happily shared and added that it was good because of the tofu itself “is really, really good,” a sentiment that is echoed the store’s website, which also highlights the store’s use of organic dairy products and meats, and eggs from free-range, antibiotic-free chickens.
“We are proud to be able to cook using such quality ingredients,” the website reads. “We always tell our customers ‘the food tastes so good because we start out with really fresh quality ingredients.'”
As I waited (but not long) for my Thai Tofu sandwich, I strolled through the store, noting the usual natural foods mix of bulk bins, natural moisturizers and soaps, bottles of coconut oil and of fermented things, and cartons of organic produce. When I ambled by the prepared foods’ section, I had a moment of menu orderer’s remorse: Why had I bypassed the quinoa and black bean burger? The kale and tofu salad? The hummus of every stripe and hue? Reasons to return, all, as is the terrific apple, ham and kale hand pies ($6.25) with smoked gouda, thyme and honey that were set out in bites for sampling that day.
But my tofu sandwich was so good – fresh and gently spicy – perhaps I’ll stick with it. A bargain at $6.90, it was generously stuffed with lettuce, shredded red cabbage, shredded carrots and baked, peanut-butter-spiced tofu. It handily avoided the two cardinal sins of commercial sandwich production – the (French sourdough) bread did not get soggy, and the stuffing was not piled up in the center of the sandwich leaving the edges bare and bready.
Instead of carting the sandwich back to the office and eating at my desk, I parked myself at the counter up front at Lois’. The late winter afternoon sun streamed in through the large windows. The counter was clean, spare and white. The tall, counter-height chairs had backs, so the seats were actually comfortable. The quiet was periodically interrupted by the sound of a customer or the hum of the refrigerator case. I lingered. I did not eat and run. I savored an all-too-rare feeling of stillness, contentment and virtue from having eaten well in both senses of the word.
Lois’ Natural Marketplace
WHERE:47 India St., Portland; 210-6500; loisnatural.com
DELI HOURS: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday
WAIT : 10 minutes or less
PARKING: On street
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes