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I have a love-hate relationship with Ellwood Thompson's Local Market. I've been shopping there since its original incarnation as City Market on Patterson Avenue, and I've watched it evolve over the years. Lately, owner Ryan Youngman's been preparing for the heightened (and hyped) competition that Whole Foods in Short Pump and an additional Fresh Market in Midlothian will bring to the area by expanding the store into a former laundry next door and cafA© across the parking lot.

Here are some of the things that used to annoy me from time to time:

1. A young staff who seemed oblivious to customer service and had an undeserved holier-than-thou attitude.

2. Unclear labeling of which produce was organic and which wasn't. And sometimes the conventional produce outnumbered the organic.

3. Poor sale prices.

4. The ability to make me weep at the cash register while I watched my checking account empty out before my eyes.

Fortunately, a lot of things have changed.

Customer service has made a 180-degree turn for the better. The store has some of the best sales in town. And the signs are there for the reading. I still get a little upset at the register, but you know what? Now that all food prices have risen, it's not quite as painful anymore - and besides, I'm a lot more concerned with where my food comes from than I used to be. If I can't make it to one of the many farmers' markets around town, I'm willing to buy it at Ellwood's, secure in the knowledge that its buyers are actively sourcing as many local ingredients as they can.

Some people I know live on Ellwood Thompson's prepared food. I'm more of a pizza or Asian takeout kind of person when I don't feel like cooking, and as a big fan of Michael King, the former chef at E-T and now owner of Relish downtown, I felt a little disloyal bellying up to the big glass deli case and carting away dinner. Still, it gave me pause when Jannequin Bennett, former executive chef of TJ's at The Jefferson and author of "The Complete Vegan Kitchen" was hired last fall to run the prepared foods kitchen.

Many of the old favorites are still available, but new items rotate in daily. The wild salmon in a dilled compound butter is still tender, and the mashed potatoes are still fluffy and satisfying. But better versions, like mashed potatoes shot through with bits of jalapeno and fattened up with cheddar, make me upgrade the size of the container I'm taking them home in. The peppery vegan macaroni and cheese tastes pretty good for a dairy-free alternative, and the forbidden rice salad, dramatically dark with flecks of bright carrot and red pepper, is soft with a hint of sesame and the occasional crunch of peanuts. The Asian slaw needs narrower slices of red cabbage and carrots, and as for the gingery lime dressing - I want more of it.

Boneless chicken breast dishes are a lost cause, I think, especially when you have to reheat them. The Parmesan chicken is fine and possibly even very good when it comes hot out of the oven, but it just can't be saved once it cools and makes a trip at home to the microwave. Better are such dishes as portobello mushroom caps filled with spinach, a vinegary and sweet balsamic potato salad rounded out with roasted red peppers and sautA©ed onions, and a watermelon-blueberry salad crunchy with matchsticks of jicama. Best of all is the vegetarian lasagna, with spinach that makes its presence known, flavor-wise, instead of providing local color, slices of sliding mushrooms and layers of ultrathin pasta that defy the usual gummy stereotype. A dollop of ricotta binds it all together just enough to emphasize the mushrooms, the marinara and the pasta.

The hot bar, trending toward flavors of India and the Middle East, is consistently good, and the vegan desserts are a revelation. I'm not so sure about the vegan chicken salad, but the vegan barbecue, once I heated it through, positively surprised a pork addict like me.

I still don't know if my wallet can stand too many trips to Ellwood Thompson's, but somehow I find myself there, nose metaphorically pressed to the glass, wondering which new dish to try next. S

Ellwood Thompson's Local Market 4 N. Thompson St. 359-7525 Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Nonsmoking and handicapped accessible. www.ellwoodthompsons.com

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