15 Popular Items From The Whole Foods Hot Bar, Ranked

No dinner plans? Well, as long as you live near a Whole Foods Market, you don't need any. Theoretically, you could probably carry out a solid meal every single evening on your way home from work, if you so desired. And when the options are this good, the probability of us cooking tonight dwindles with every taste. The hot food bar offers everything, including creamy, dreamy macaroni and cheese; a lighter side dish like steamed vegetables sprinkled in za'atar seasoning; vegan main courses like warming, savory spinach dal; and a big hunk of meat covered in barbecue sauce. We love a little diversity in our prepared food.

The Whole Foods hot bar has a lot going for it in terms of looks and convenience, but how do the food options actually taste? Some were just okay, some were quite nice, and some knocked our socks off. You deserve to know what's what, especially since your judgment might not be at peak performance if you're wandering in hangry at the end of a long day. Luckily, we ranked them for you — and we know exactly what you should get.

15. Paleo Beef Skillet

We can respect this Paleo Beef Skillet dish that caught our eye at the Whole Foods hot bar. It can be hard to find ready-to-eat beef these days, and it's not like we expected to sink our teeth into a full-on filet mignon during a quick run to the store for a premade dinner. A steak would be, quite obviously, paleo, but a multi-layered skillet-style dish is not necessarily equally purist. And even though we are rarely on the hunt for a specifically paleo meal, we suppose it's nice to have the option there for those who do partake. 

Now, it says a lot about the dish when our favorite part is the garnish. Those fresh, crunchy, biting slices of radish and savory, aromatic basil made the dish something to look at and were a welcome, tasteful respite from the beef itself. Sadly, we found the meat slices to be a little tough, moderately chewy, and very fatty. Fat is flavor, but this much fat disguises that flavor and distracts with its unfortunate texture. But hey, at least we liked those radishes, and at least paleo people will like the consideration.

14. Za'atar Vegetables

Steamed vegetables are not just for those minding their nutritional needs. We are actually big supporters of all kinds of modes of cooking vegetables since variety is the spice of life. But speaking of spice, this melange of carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower comes topped with the lesser-known seasoning blend, za'atar. This seasoning hails from various regions of the Middle East and thus has various interpretations. Across the board, za'atar is savory, slightly umami, and slightly sweet; it might show up as cumin, oregano, coriander, sumac, marjoram, sesame seeds, and more. 

You can see why this might be a really nice, unusual way to give some novel flair to run-of-the-mill steamed vegetables, and we agree. That's why we wish there was more of it — a lot more. There wasn't enough spice to provide much of any flavor profile at all. Also, as you can see in the photo, the vegetables came in large chunks, which is an issue when they are undercooked — the carrot was pretty hard to cut into.

13. Collard Greens

You gotta eat your spinach, but do you gotta eat your collard greens? In some American households, it's a staple. In others, you'll be met with a puzzled look if you even mention the stuff. We've had some pretty snappy collard greens, especially at down-home Southern soul-food joints. A plop of these mean greens from Whole Foods didn't exactly make us feel the same kind of way. These were pretty "meh," demurely flavorless, and the texture of hastily cooked spinach. It needed more salt, at the very least, and preferably a little more to zhuzh it up. 

But overall, there are worse ways to eat your leafy greens, and just a small amount of these collards will do the trick. They went nicely with the forthcoming Macaroni and Cheese, the Smoked Pork Shoulder, or BBQ Chicken if you want to have a feel-good side dish to balance out the stick-the-your-ribs main course.

12. Chicken Vindaloo

Here is the first of the Indian-inspired foods we tried at the Whole Foods hot bar. There were lots of options, and we love to see it, especially if you don't have a solid Indian takeout spot nearby. Unfortunately, this Chicken Vindaloo wasn't as good as take-out, even the mediocre ones. It just didn't have enough flavor. Honestly, it's the age-old issue of Whole Foods hot bar fare. Many of the items could have been better if they tasted a little more robust. 

If you don't like spicy stuff, you'll do alright over here, because there just was not enough spicy, savory flavor. Cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves ... you would almost think that this is the recipe for gingerbread cookies, not a main course. But most gingerbread doesn't include garlic and peas, so there's that. Anyway, this chicken dish didn't bring enough of that lovely push and pull of spicy (as in hot) and spiced (as in utilizing warm, aromatic spices like cinnamon and cloves), so it fell a little flat.

11. Cracklin' Cauliflower

It's funny how Whole Foods' Indian food options are better when they don't involve any meat. You'll see a little more evidence towards the top of the list, so stay tuned. At least we think it's Indian-inspired, judging by the vegetables and spices chosen. These vegetables had a lot more flavor than their za'atar counterpart, maybe because the seasonings are just more aggressive. Curry has a strong, distinctive flavor that successfully perfumes anything it touches, including this medley of cauliflower and onions (and supposedly peas, though they seem to have rolled off of our plates). 

The turmeric gives it a pretty golden hue and dusky flavor, there were some nice charred edges, and a touch of those lush olive oil notes. It's really nice texturally, too. Overall, this is a great side dish, but there are so many great ways to cook cauliflower, so our bar is set high.

10. Grilled Zucchini and Red Cabbage

Look, we know this is potentially the least sexy vegetable pairing anyone could imagine. Once upon a time, it would have involved Brussels sprouts, but now the world knows that a good sprout can be dang delicious. But zucchini, the overflowing produce of summer that people get sick of because they have too much to know what to do with, and red cabbage, the Depression-era favorite that stains anything in the vicinity a deep maroon, are seemingly a match made in the middle of nowhere. Whole Foods begs to differ. We scooped this dish up diligently but ate it with much more optimism. It's actually really tasty. 

The zucchini, often watery and bland, is plump and juicy. The cabbage, often somewhat stinky and flaccid, is tender and full of hearty, slightly briny tasting notes. Who would have thought we would end up enjoying it? Maybe it was a one-time thing, but we're confident that we'd even choose it on our own terms next time.

9. Smoked Salt and Pepper Chicken Wings

Chicken wings can go really good, or really bad, with plenty of wiggle room in the middle. These Smoked Salt and Pepper Chicken Wings from Whole Foods are floating around in the middle. Despite only having, quite literally, the three titular ingredients, we thought that each little wing had some great flavor. They aren't kidding when they use the word "smoked," because we would have sworn that someone really slid each wing into and out of a high-class smoker. And salt and pepper are just enough to bring out the natural smokiness and add a bit of kick without distracting us from the meat itself. 

The problem? The wings are just too small. We didn't get enough bang for our cluck (okay sorry, that one was really bad). There was very little meat to be clawed off of each bone, and for that, we have to dock some points. If you do decide to bring home a pile of these for dinner, might we recommend some quick and easy side dishes like herby zucchini ribbon salad and feta and orzo stuffed peppers?

8. Macaroni and Cheese

Are you looking for a lighter, more casual, nutrient-dense macaroni cheese, maybe made with Greek yogurt or chickpea pasta? Look away, then, because this Macaroni and Cheese is not for you. Oh well, guess that means there's more for us! This stuff is just so, so indulgent. Look at that picture, and now imagine looking at a whole tub of it glowing in the middle of the Whole Foods hot bar next to collard greens and chicken wings. It's cheesy, it's carb-y, and it's the ideal comfort food. 

This macaroni and cheese proved just as irresistible when we tasted it as when we gawked at it. We couldn't believe how creamy, thick, and rich it was. Maybe too much so, because we could only eat a few forkfuls. If you really look at the pic, you can see how few "noodles" are actually visible underneath those layers and layers of bright-yellow cheese ... a little goes a long way, and we think it's a little over the top.

7. Marinated Vegetables

There is no cooking technique that imbues food with flavor quite like marinating. Marinate even the barest-bones and least appealing foods — like raw chicken or vegetables — and once you cook them, you find out that they have 10 times more flavor than they ever did before. We felt very chic twirling forkfuls of these silky roasted peppers, eggplant, and zucchini around like pasta. Speaking of which, these would go great in some pasta. The vegetables are a little on the greasy side, and some of those cooking oils would rub off into whatever pasta you decide to pair them with.

Alas, that grease was also our biggest complaint; these had deep flavor and a lovely slow-roasted texture, but they left a greasy taste in our mouths. Like the decadent macaroni and cheese, it's just too much. If you go to the Whole Foods hot bar and get these marinated vegetables, we recommend going easy on them and then heading on over to the Mediterranean items at the salad bar for some contrast.

6. Sour Orange Chicken

Orange chicken. The words call to mind one of our absolute favorite fast-casual meals, courtesy of the inimitable Panda Express. That chicken is barely detachable under a solid, candylike coating of greasy, chewy yet crunchy, fried, flavored batter that tastes more like orange Skittles than the fruit that grows on trees. Nevertheless, it's crazy good, and variations like Trader Joe's Mandarin Orange Chicken are top-sellers and customer favorites. 

We were so excited to try the Whole Foods version, and even though it's neither sour enough nor orange enough, it's still got it. There's still sweetness, though here it's at the exact right level, not glaringly obvious like at Panda Express. The sour notes (rice wine vinegar, perhaps?) are the right element to emphasize, but they could have been even bolder. We love some good sourness in our meals! Also, maybe because it's more natural, the orange flavor is slightly muted, but that's to be expected and excused when it tastes much more fresh and authentic.

5. Smoked Sweet Potato

You can save all your russets, Idahoan, and red potatoes for someone else. We're taking the sweet potato any day. Whether it's fries, tater tots, shepherd's pie, or just simply roasted, we are so happy that sweet potatoes are not getting the credit they deserve as one of the most delicious foods available. It doesn't hurt that they are extremely nutrient-dense, too. 

If you think we're crazy for wanting the Smoked Sweet Potatoes over the Macaroni and Cheese or a pile of rice, fine then, we're okay with that. Whole Foods polishes up the pure potato with ... absolutely nothing. There are no ingredients listed here other than "sweet potato." True, we think it could benefit from some salt, but still, the method of cooking paired with the tender, natural flavor of the spud is all we need. This is a warm, nourishing side dish choice that shows off the quality and care we come to expect from Whole Foods. If you want something with tons of fun flavors, though, this is fine but could use a little something more, and we do kind of wish it had a crispy skin. 

4. BBQ Chicken

Just about every food we test and rank has some good qualities and some bad qualities, and that makes our job a little more interesting. It would be much easier to rank dishes on a scale of one to 10 than deal with all these mixed bags — but we press on. In Whole Foods' BBQ Chicken, we were prepared for the worst. Look at the ridiculously huge size of each piece of chicken, and look how much of that rust-colored sauce is spread all over it; we thought it looked dicey. 

The BBQ sauce proved us right, because it's too thick, sweet, and cloying. But the chicken underneath is really good chicken. Wow, did this chicken exceed our expectations. It's juicy, succulent, fork-tender, and full of subtle flavor without having soaked in too much of that overt sauce. We would absolutely go back for this chicken, even if we're scraping off some of the red stuff and using the chicken as the basis of a whole new meal.

3. Smoked Pork Shoulder

Pulled pork is a Southern staple and for good reason. One of our team member's favorite meals as a kid occurred on days when her mom stuck a huge pork shoulder in a huge crockpot and let it roast low and slow, hour after hour, until it peeled effortlessly off the bone and got soaked in barbecue sauce. 

The Whole Foods' Smoked Pork Shoulder didn't quite live up to that memory, but then again, maybe nothing ever will, so it's still a strong showing. We really appreciated how the pork, unlike the aforementioned BBQ Chicken, was not smothered in sauce. Instead, there is just a little bit of sweetness, but mostly a peppery, sincerely meaty flavor. The texture is also lovely, and would definitely be falling off the bone if there was a bone to fall off of. It just needs some good sides, which are readily available, and this is the centerpiece of a fine (prepared) meal.

2. Achiote Pork

Well, well, well, how did we end up right back over here again? Close to the classic pulled pork at our local Whole Foods, we saw a fiery red-orange counterpart called Achiote Pork. The treatment is similar to pulled pork, in its tendrils and nuggets of juicy roasted meat, but the flavor is expanded upon. "Achiote" (or annatto) refers to the seeds that give food an electric color and slow-burn, slightly spicy, slightly bitter flavor. If you aren't big on spiciness, don't worry — this is widely tolerable to a range of palates. 

Each bite of pork had everything good about the classic pulled pork that we just tried, only more pizzazz. Since annatto is more elusive that, say, regular chile pepper, we were less accustomed to the flavor and therefore more intrigued. Plus, the ingredients include hibiscus, cilantro, orange juice, and pickled onions, among many other things, so you can see why our taste buds were over the moon. Overall, we loved it. If you put this on your plate alongside an array of Whole Foods sides, this time, no one will be talking about the collards or cauliflower.

1. Vegan Spinach Dal

No, we haven't lost it. We're really, seriously putting a vegan pick at the very top of this ranking. Even though it uses coconut milk, this mixture of stewed chickpeas and spinach is decadently creamy–and even without meat, it fully delivers on flavor. We loved that it didn't have a mushy and dull texture, either; the beans had some substance while the greens melted in our mouths. 

Our only recommendation is to stir it a few times, and heat it up gently if you're able to, before eating. We have a few recipes for dal if you're interested in trying your hand at this traditional dish, and we strongly recommend that you do. It's not that hard to make, and extremely easy to eat. Maybe this vegan sweet potato dal will become your new comfort food, or this healthy moong dal will be better than chicken soup when you're feeling under the weather.