A parking lot lined with red tassels marks the opening of the 18th Gelson's Market location in La Cañada Flintridge. Food chat sites like Chowhound suggest that the shopping experience at Gelson's is somewhere between that at Whole Foods and Ralphs. In an effort to get to know the store better, I took it upon myself to test that theory with a very unscientific experiment. Below are the results.
By most accounts, Gelson's is renowned for their high-quality meats, seafood and produce. So I decided to treat my family to a pricey surf and turf dinner. At each of the three markets, I purchased one filet mignon, one filet of wild-caught Coho or Sockeye salmon, an heirloom artichoke, a pint of kale salad from their delis, and a carton of organic strawberries. (I attempted to include another local market in the mix, Sprouts, but they didn't carry some of my test items. Still they have great produce at reasonable prices and an expansive bulk food section.)
I cooked all the proteins the same way, seared with salt and pepper. Let me say from the start it was an outstanding meal. However, we did notice some differences. We kept the assessments as blind as possible, literally closing our eyes to test.
We found Gelson's to be the winner in the filet mignon category. It was tender as butter with an exquisite flavor. A close second, however, was Ralphs — juicy, flavorful but with a slight metallic taste. Whole Foods' filet was tender but lacked oomph. Here, I must admit to a flaw in my scientific process as well as respect for government meat-rating agencies. I assumed the filet I bought at Whole Foods for $28.99 a pound was USDA Prime (top classification). In fact it was a Choice cut. They had no Prime that day. So while the meats from Whole Foods and Gelson's were hormone- and antibiotic-free, only Ralphs and Gelson's had the more flavorful Prime. Ralphs made no mention of hormones or antibiotics, only that the beef was "raised and harvested in the U.S."
In the salmon category, Gelson's won yet again. All test specimens were previously frozen but the Gelson's filet had a springy freshness and a delicate flavor that was hard to top. Regarding the artichokes, I had to chuckle because when I got them home I realized they were all from the same farm. They tasted exactly the same.
The kale salads were a wildly divergent bunch. Whole Foods won in this category. The properly cut dark kale and mushrooms tasted great with the balsamic vinaigrette. They're the pros in the prepared food arena. The Gelson's version with carrots, sunflower seeds and feta was also good. Both Whole Foods and Gelson's had more tasty-looking kale options to choose from, not to mention other salads. Ralphs' only kale salad, with its unripe tomatoes and cranberries, was inedible.
Finally, the strawberries provided an interesting comparison. Though much pricier at $6.99, the Gelson's organic strawberries from Watsonville were visibly plumper, more vital-looking and tasted the best by far.
Gelson's has other things going for it as well: a specialty French patisserie with Peet's coffee and heavenly almond croissants, Wolfgang Puck pizzas, an entire aisle of gourmet frozen treats, a sizable gluten-free section, unique healthy snacks stacked side by side with Doritos and jarred cheese dip. The people at Gelson's appreciate quality and nutrition but they're not snobs. You can get a case of Coke as well as a $200 bottle of wine.
Finally, the atmosphere is pleasant. The smooth flooring makes for a quiet journey around the store, not like the clackity-clack of cart wheels on the tiles at Whole Foods. Ralphs beats them at mood lighting though.
As you can see from the sidebar, the prices are not as widely disparate as one might think. If you shop for sale items, the total will come down. I'm dedicated to Trader Joe's for everyday family food but for special occasions, Gelson's might just be my store.
LISA DUPUY has reviewed area restaurants since 2008. She can be reached at LDupuy@aol.com.