A recent trip to Kroger's new location in Fort Worth brought back more than a few college memories. There was a time when I didn't think twice about making late-night trips to the store for cookies, Baked Cheetos and, um, beverages. My scale may not have thanked me, but looking back, it was part of the happy college experience, a time of newfound autonomy and not-so-careful nutrition.
Clearly, I was not as lucky as the kids over at TCU are now. When most of them return from the summer break, they'll find not only a new Kroger store in their back yard, but one with a new concept: "Fresh Fare," a more compact grocery that offers a convenience-driven array of to-go foods and a welcome Mother Hen touch. It's the first such store in Texas.
We checked out the new Fresh Fare during its opening weekend -- perhaps not a great barometer of what Joe College will find in the coming months. Unless Kroger plans to continually station a Boar's Head deli meat truck in the parking lot for giveaways, someone at the door to give you a free bouquet of flowers and everywhere-you-turn-employees doling out samples of chocolate-covered strawberries, cupcakes, ham and Dr Pepper. But you never know. The barrage of friendly employees, pretty food and low low prices (my favorite frozen meals were $1 each) plus some middle-aged fellows playing synthesizer and guitar certainly added up to an engaging, if not slightly entertaining, experience.
Distractions abounded, but we were here for the to-go foods.
Make no mistake, this is no Central Market. Near the entrance, you'll find a small counter full of good-looking food. Standard-fare salads such as potato and coleslaw share space with the more adventurous (read: ethnic) items, like Gen. Tso's chicken. The store offers a dinner deal for $4.99 -- one entree plus two sides -- so we decide on a half portion each of the orange chicken and the Gen. Tso's, plus two wildly disparate sides: the "krab" salad and the rosemary potato wedges. Later, we'd either have a stomachache or we'd have to re-enroll in college, our tastes had become so sophomoric. (Get it?)
Adjacent to the to-go foods is a small sushi counter, stocked with a couple of sushi chefs and a large selection of rolls. After tasting the shrimp New York Crunch Roll sample, we picked up a version of it made with crab ($8.99). The tempura batter gives the roll an almost-sweet crunch, and the inside -- packed with avocado and fried shrimp -- is spicy and tasty. The sushi is priced similarly to its brethren offered at Central Market and Tom Thumb, and it's equally as fresh and appealing.
For the healthy-minded collegiate, there's a nice selection of grilled chicken and premade deli sandwiches, as well as a salad bar.
A few hours later at home, we reheated the chicken and potatoes and lined up the wasabi and soy sauce. Much like its sample at the store, the sushi is very good. (An interesting side note: A few days later, I discovered that Central Market has started offering its own "crunch" roll.) No one can deny the allure of a good fried sushi roll. This isn't the stuff of celebrity diets, but we can't all eat like Jennifer Aniston. But if she had a Kroger Fresh Fare concept near her, she might be eating this, too. It's that good. We couldn't resist getting one very ubiquitous grocery-store offering: the krab salad. But next time, we will. This one was drenched in mayonnaise -- so much so that the krab was overshadowed. Similarly, the rest of the food lacked oomph. The potatoes were a bit dry and unseasoned, and the chickens just tasted fried and one-note with their respectively cloying sauces.
OK, so most of the food's not the tastiest we've ever tried. But on the whole, this Kroger has the collective backs of the collegiate set. With its warm-and-fuzzy employees, plus its modest menu of healthy, prepared foods, at least it might save the dietary lives of some impressionable incoming freshmen. I wish the store was around when I was in school. It would have shaved 15 pounds off my life.