Saturday, March 28, 2009

Apricot Tree Restaurant: Where Desperate Equals Delicious

I am not a food snob, despite what my mother says. My disdain for Denny’s and restaurants of that ilk notwithstanding, I consider myself generally open-minded when it comes to eating out, especially when traveling in unfamiliar towns. It’s a decision I’m sure many travelers have been forced to make: Do I eat at the familiar, fairly safe but boring fast food chain, or the small roadside diner that caters exclusively to truckers and tourists (since there doesn’t appear to be a residence for hundreds of miles)? With the first option, though it may sustain you for another couple hours of your drive, you risk eating a meal you’ve probably had hundreds of times before. With the second option, you risk heartburn, food poisoning, dysentery or, depending on your region of the country, being unceremoniously killed and served to unsuspecting tourists the following day.

To anyone who believes that I am some sort of pretentious nose-in-the-air type where food is concerned, a highbrow who shuns the simpler culinary pleasures, this entry should change your opinion. My wife and I are in Southern California this weekend, and in fact we will be here through Wednesday. We make the trip several times a year, and seeing as it is roughly a six-hour drive from Sacramento to Los Angeles on Highway 5 (and as we are incapable of packing substantial food for the trip), we invariably stop to eat along the way. In years past, we have eaten at Pea Soup Andersen’s in Santa Nella, and Harris Ranch in Coalinga, amongst other places. Last night, rather than eating at one of these familiar locations, we decided to try someplace new.

One place we’d been considering for awhile is Apricot Tree, located in the town of Firebaugh. Having passed it regularly on the way to and from Los Angeles, we were familiar with the vaguely pyramid-shaped structure and its reputation as a tourist trap, if little else. Friends have recommended stopping there to see its massive collection of antique lunchboxes and thermoses, if not for the food itself. While I do prefer good food to mediocre, after a couple hours spent staring at blank, uninteresting vistas along Highway 5 – where food choices are at best limited and at worst virtually nonexistent - I dare say that I would settle for just about anything. Except Denny’s.

Before leaving, I read some reviews of the restaurant on Chowhound and Yelp, and was dismayed by the fact that opinions of the food were almost universally negative. Some Yelpers gave the place one star because giving zero isn’t possible; others gave an extra mercy star for good service or the overall kitsch; some were more generous with their ratings, citing friendly staff, decent service, or surprisingly, good food. I say surprisingly because the negative reviews include phrases like, “bland and tasteless,” “worst sandwich of my life,” “their food sucks,” “Yuck,” and perhaps most telling, “If salmonella has a nick name [sic] it is the Apricot Tree restaurant.” Needless to say, I was a bit nervous about actually eating there, envisioning swarms of flies hovering over plates of inedible food, slow or inept service, and sticky floors, tables and seats. But at the same time, we thought it might be a fun place to go once, just to say we did, and the retro-hip allure of a huge collection of lunchboxes from the days of our youth and before proved overwhelming, even if I was aware that the food might not.

The town of Firebaugh is approximately three hours south of Sacramento. We exited the highway at about eight o’clock, well after the first pangs of hunger hit us. We lingered in the parked car for a moment, full of giddy anticipation, almost as though wondering whether to actually go through with it. We did, of course; without eating, there was no way that I was going to be able to stave off hunger much longer, much less for the duration of our drive. As we walked through the parking lot I tried to get a picture of the exterior, but the low light of early evening made for lackluster results. Inside we found a gift shop to the left, and the restaurant to the right. The restaurant resembled a typical roadside diner, with padded wooden swivel chairs at the long green counter, and formica tables and cushioned bench seating in the booths. I assumed that the food would be comparable to typical diner fare as well, not that this was in any way a bad thing.

We were seated promptly. Our booth provided a good vantage point from which to check out a portion of the restaurant’s thermos collection on shelves within a Plexiglas-type case. Many of the thermoses in our section were from way before our time, including The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Zorro, though we also saw E.T., Pac-Man, The Dukes of Hazard, and others from our late ’70s and early ‘80s childhoods. The lunchboxes lined the walls high overhead, and were grouped by category: Disney, Peanuts, Happy Days, and numerous other subgenres which I was surprised to learn spawned a single lunchbox, much less enough for an entire section.

After we'd gotten over the shock of decades of aluminum pop culture, we sat down and began to peruse the menu. As with their collection of lunchboxes, we were both impressed with Apricot Tree’s menu. It was indeed standard diner fare, but the array of choices was more extensive than we’d seen in most comparable places. Though the menu was mostly limited to traditional American favorites including sandwiches, burgers, and homestyle entrees, it all certainly sounded good, moreso because we’d been driving for three hours with only a medium-sized bag of Sun Chips between us. Despite the wide variety of options, we both somehow decided on the same thing: The hot and spicy chicken sandwich. My wife ordered it with fries, and I got mine with onion rings. While we waited for our food, we considered that Apricot Tree was the first restaurant we’d ever been to that offered apricots as a choice of side item.

During the longer-than-expected wait for our food, we perused the thermoses within our view, and we also noticed that every other patron in our area of the restaurant was middle-aged. In fact, my wife dubbed the place an “old people magnet.” There were two white-haired gentlemen sitting in the booth behind me, a sixtysomething couple eating dinner across from us, and at least two elderly people a couple booths behind us who we noticed when they passed us on the way to the restroom. I’m not sure if it is coincidental but it was certainly surprising, and led us to speculate exactly why everyone eating there but us appeared to be age sixty or better. Then again, had the food been served in a more timely fashion, we probably wouldn’t have noticed, much less engaged in a whispered discussion about it.

Our dinner arrived accompanied by profuse apologies from our server over the delay. To be honest, it hadn’t been that big a deal. Our sandwiches certainly looked appetizing, served on sesame seed buns with lettuce, tomato, red onion, and dill pickle spears. The chicken was lightly breaded and looked crispy and, true to its name, well-seasoned. I was disappointed with the onion rings, which were beer-battered. I generally prefer my onion rings with a non-beer batter as these are crispier and, ultimately, more satisfying to me. However, that aside, the onion rings were still good, and we were both quite happy with the food.

In order to minimize bathroom stops for the remainder of the trip, we didn’t order drinks. Two hot and spicy chicken sandwiches came to $21.55, which we found reasonable considering that we were in the middle of nowhere. If Apricot Tree was located in a more cosmopolitan area, the food would probably be cheaper, or perhaps the restaurant would have gone out of business years ago, lunchbox collection be damned. We would have liked to have browsed the gift shop after paying the tab, but the extinguished lights throughout the lobby area made it clear that they were getting ready to close, if they weren’t already. At any rate, we still had nearly four hours’ drive ahead of us, and we hastily got back on the road. I realize that admitting this will undoubtedly damage my reputation as a food blogger, but we will probably eat at Apricot Tree again.

Good: Decent food (though not spectacular, based on the one dish we ordered). Good service. Lots to look at.

Bad: A seemingly excessive wait for our food. A few gnats here and there. But no deal-breakers.

As a last word of sorts, I will quote a Chowhound user’s review of Apricot Tree. “Do not, DO NOT eat the food there. It makes Denny’s look gourment [sic].”

Apricot Tree Restaurant is located at 46272 W Panoche Rd, Firebaugh, CA 93622.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wine-Tasting, From the Perspective of a Decidedly Non-Snobby Wine Drinker

My wife Katie and I are very proud of California's viticultural heritage. As people who enjoy and appreciate a good glass of wine (or several), we consider ourselves quite fortunate to live close to so many American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs. Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, certainly the two best-known wine-producing regions in California, are at most a two-hour drive from our home, and invariably make a fun wine-tasting getaway whether we are alone or with a group of friends.

Last weekend, however, we spent our Saturday visiting the California Shenandoah Valley AVA, which can be found in Northern California's Amador and El Dorado Counties. There are sixteen wineries in this region, itself a part of the larger Sierra Foothills AVA. The region is known for its Zinfandels, which tend to be more sumptuous and robust than those from other regions.

We took our first visit to the wineries of Amador County one Saturday last September. We found a list of the wineries in the region, looked at their websites, and culled reviews of each from the internet before assembling a list of the ones we wanted to taste at. One of these was Renwood, which was highly recommended by regular readers of this blog MrManuel and Miss Sassy Pants. It was a beautiful early-autumn afternoon as we drove along scenic rural backroads, basking in warm sunshine and optimistic about discovering an exciting new wine to bring home. As we turned onto Shenandoah School Road in the town of Plymouth, however, we came upon Wilderotter Vineyard and, tired of being in the car, decided to make an unscheduled stop for good wine, complimentary snacks, and engaging conversation in the tasting room.

After two more unscheduled stops at Bella Piazza and CG di Arie Wineries, we came to the first winery that was actually on our list, Montevina. This winery featured the most extensive selection of wines we saw that day, all available for tasting. Unfortunately, before we were halfway through their list it was clear that we were approaching our limit, in spite of a generous selection of snacks. We didn't last much longer, and we certainly didn't make it to Renwood.

Our second visit to Amador County this past Saturday was decidedly less sunny; the sky was a lifeless gray all day, and when it wasn't raining it was hailing. Although we made no list this time, we were determined to stop at Renwood, and used its address on Steiner Street in Plymouth as a destination for our GPS to guide us to. With no set itinerary, we stopped first at Bray Vineyards, touted as "Home of the Brayzin Hussy Red" on signage throughout the grounds. A placard along the main driveway depicts the aforementioned hussy reclining in a bathtub while enjoying a glass of wine.

One of Bray's logos, depicted on a yellow traffic sign, features a farmer popping a wheelie on a tractor while drinking wine directly from the bottle. In the tasting room, Bray sells apparel with this logo, accompanied by the slogan "Farm Responsibly".

Among the wines we tasted were Bray's 2007 Viognier and Barbera Rosato, their 2006 Barbera and the aforementioned Brayzin Hussy red, their 2005 Sangiovese, and their 2004 Syrah. Although I found the Brayzin Hussy quite good for what is essentially table wine, our only purchase from Bray was a bottle of their extra virgin olive oil, which we sampled with bread after we'd finished tasting. It was delicious, and will certainly be put out the next time we have dinner guests.

We made no other unscheduled stops and continued on to Renwood.

Though we hadn't made it there on our previous trip, we had tried their wine late last year, and we were looking forward to trying more. Renwood's tasting room was larger than many we've been to, but other than the two of us, it was empty. This was surprising, especially in light of the fact that Bray's much smaller room was crowded. We spent a few minutes browsing Renwood's selection of merchandise, including cookbooks, clothing and art. I considered getting a black baseball cap with their logo to add to my extensive collection, but ultimately left without it.

Among the selections that we tried were Renwood's 2005 Old Vine and Jack Rabbit Flat zinfandels, as well as the 2005 Barbera Amador County and Amador Syrah. We finished our tasting with a trio of dessert wines, including their 2007 Orange Muscat, which I especially enjoyed. Katie is less interested in dessert wines, port especially, but she also found the Orange Muscat pleasant, not particularly heavy or syrupy, with a number of compelling aromas and flavors.

Our third and final stop of the day was Deaver Vineyards, situated beside a small lake. We sampled a number of wines here, though by then I admit that remembering the specifics was the farthest thing from my mind. We did enjoy their Deaver's Blend, which was a mixture of Sangiovese (65%), Zinfandel (25%) and Barbera (10%); and we also tasted their 2004 Sangiovese, 2005 Barbera and Pinot Noir, and 2006 Zinfandel. Wanting sustenance, we also sampled the various cheeses, spreads and condiments Deaver offered for sale, and ended up buying a jar each of their tangerine habanero mustard (which I look forward to eating on a hot link or other sausage on a bun) and their apricot red pepper jelly (which will probably be paired up with cream cheese and crackers during an upcoming party).

In spite of the weather, the winding roads leading into Amador County, and the fact that I was driving, it was a terrific day. On our way out of Plymouth, I even returned to Renwood for that baseball cap.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Salad So Nice...

I know that at least one regular reader of this blog doesn't eat vegetables. If he was Superman, vegetables would be his Kryptonite. This reader would get along smashingly with my father, who in the nearly thirty-three years I've known him hasn't eaten many vegetables, and would certainly never order a salad.

My mother, on the other hand, is partially responsible for my love of a wide variety of foods, including salad. Even at a young age I was accustomed to occasionally ordering a salad as a precursor to a meal. I almost always eschewed the Caesar salad in favor of a garden salad when one was available as I liked the varying tastes and textures. Crisp lettuce, crunchy cabbage, seasoned croutons, smoky bacon and pungent blue cheese. It always had to be blue cheese. In fact, I don't think I tasted a salad dressing other than blue cheese until I was a teenager at the youngest. Over time I learned how different restaurants prepared their garden salads - Denny's, for example, sprinkled hard-boiled egg atop theirs, while Lyon's did not - and if necessary asked for my order to be adjusted to my preference.

In my early-to-mid teens I enjoyed the salad bar at our local Sizzler restaurant, although eventually it seemed that the restaurant considered salad a mere afterthought, an opening salvo to the various other items corralled beneath the "all you can eat" umbrella including soup, tacos, and soft-serve ice cream. By no means did I have a problem with the excess of it all, and while I may have been looking forward to potato skins and chicken wings, I always made sure to get a helping or two of salad. With blue cheese, of course.

When I began fending for myself later in life, I would frequently make salad. The reasons for this are many, including but not limited to the fact that one need not know a thing about actually cooking in order to prepare a satisfying salad. Measuring ingredients? Seasoning? Turning on a stove or other kitchen appliance? All thankfully non-applicable. I knew how to chop lettuce (though I frequently bought a bagged pre-cut salad mix consisting of iceberg lettuce, purple cabbage and shredded carrot), and I could open a can of corn, kidney beans, or any other vegetable or legume. For me, there was nothing simpler: Begin with lettuce, add ingredients as desired, then top with salad dressing. There was almost no thought required.

It occurred to me that a salad can be as simple or as complex as one likes. As with a sandwich, a salad is essentially a blank canvas, an art project that you can eat. As my tastes developed I began to experiment. Sometimes I preferred spinach to lettuce. Sometimes I added grilled chicken for protein. I would frequently include sliced mushrooms, diced apples or shredded cheese. Sometimes I topped my salad with sunflower seeds, chow mein noodles, dried cranberries or golden raisins, though never hard-boiled egg. And yes, I eventually branched out beyond blue cheese and learned to appreciate a good vinaigrette or a zesty Italian dressing. But blue cheese is still my favorite.

Saturday night's dinner was a very simple, very satisfying salad. I started with iceberg lettuce, purple cabbage, and shredded carrot - that's right, the bagged salad mix mentioned above. Piled atop this base was a generous amount of grilled chicken strips, as well as kidney and garbanzo beans. Crumbled blue cheese and sunflower kernels topped the salad, which was then drizzled with El Torito brand cilantro pepita Caesar dressing, then tossed.

There was some leftover chicken, so I had more for lunch on Sunday. And here it is - the salad so nice I ate it twice.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Some Random Food-Related Facts About Yours Truly

In assembling this list, I tried to come up with some really obscure and surprising food-related facts. Had I once been locked in a warehouse overnight with nothing to eat but boxes of uncooked pasta, I probably would have included that as one of them. Had I once been a model at an erotic bakery, yes, that is also the sort of thing that would bear mentioning. Had I ever escaped serious prison time by successfully persuading a jury that I committed a heinous crime because I hadn't yet had my morning coffee, rest assured that that fact would be somewhere on the following list. Alas, I am a pretty unsurprising, middle-of-the-road sort of guy.

Nonetheless, here are thirty random facts about me, and they all involve food or drink in some fashion.

1. My absolute favorite food is Mexican food. Oh, and burgers. Burgers are my absolute favorite. And pizza. I could live on pizza. And soul food. Authentic Southern soul food is my absolute favorite. And Chinese food! I really love Chinese food. But my absolute favorite is seafood. And let's not forget about Italian food, which is my absolute favorite. By now, you should have a good idea as to what kind of blog this is.

2. Despite my somewhat discriminating palate, I can discern no tangible difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi. I'm sure there is a difference, but if the local supermarket has Coke for $1.59 and Pepsi for $1.49, well, sorry Coke. Maybe next week.

3. My favorite Jelly Belly flavor is Juicy Pear.

4. Although I enjoy - or at the very least will try - most foods, I do not like eggs at all. Hard-boiled, over easy, egg salad, omelettes - any variety is an effective means of killing my appetite.

5. In 1985, I gave up sweets for the entire year, and it was easily the most difficult New Year's resolution I've ever had to maintain, especially at age nine. But I did it! At midnight on January first, 1986, I ate a Snickers bar.

6. I enjoy eating spinach, whether cooked or raw. My mother convinced me to eat it at an early age because it's what gives Popeye his strength.

7. My least favorite restaurant is easily Denny's. Nothing personal, Denny's. I just don't like you. Not even after a concert or drinking binge, when nothing else is open. There are far too many better places to eat a meal during normal business hours to even consider sitting at one of your formica tables, and if it's the middle of the night and you're the only game in town, I can probably wait until morning.

8. I'm overweight given my height, but underweight considering how much - and what - I eat.

9. During my early adulthood, I became partial toward Vanilla Coke. I'm not talking about the bottled product that Coca-Cola has been marketing on and off since 2002, but regular Coke flavored with vanilla syrup, because that's what John Travolta's character drank in Pulp Fiction.

10. My favorite breakfast cereal is, and has always been, Lucky Charms, though I will gladly eat virtually any generic equivalent, such as Magic Stars or Marshmallow Mateys.

11. In my opinion fried foods are always better than the baked equivalent. That's not to say that I've never eaten something that was baked when I had the option to enjoy it fried, but I can certainly taste the difference.

12. As a child, my favorite restaurant meal was the beef and bean burrito from Casa Maria (now El Torito) in Burlingame, California. I would usually place broken tortilla chips in my side of refried beans and pretend that it was a graveyard.

13. Although I do enjoy bologna and salami in sandwiches, for me neither of these meats can carry a sandwich on its own. For that matter, both meats together do not a satisfying sandwich make. I much prefer a sandwich with a variety of other meats in addition to bologna and/or salami.

14. Pizza My Heart is my favorite by-the-slice pizzeria in Northern California, thanks to a wide variety of delicious slices, Cherry Coke in the soda fountain, and relatively late hours. If they'd only open a location in the greater Sacramento area, I'd be all set.

15. I can't tell you which human being was the first to steal my heart, but I can definitely state for certain that Hefeweizen was the first beer I ever truly loved. And I still do.

16. I consider Hillshire Farms' current crop of "singing about cold cuts" spots to be easily the most abrasive and annoying commercials in the history of the universe, and definitely a good reason to purchase a DVR if you haven't already.

17. It was always a privelege to lick the beaters when my mother made mashed potatoes. I once got my finger caught in the mixer when I stuck it into the beaters well before it was actually turned off. I was at least ten years old and thus should have known better.

18. One of my favorite food-related locations is B Street in San Mateo, California, dubbed "Burrito Alley" due to an intensive concentration of taquerias along a several-block stretch. In addition, B Street also features pubs, pupuserias, Thai Food and at least one '50s style burger joint.

19. As a very young child, I preferred eating hamburgers with ketchup only. I would generally order my hamburger with "no salad."

20. Though a purist in my younger days, in my relatively older age I am much more open to California pizza, fusion cuisine, and Tex-Mex. If it tastes good, I'll give it a try.

21. Last November I ate six lobster rolls in two days while vacationing in Boston, and now I'm hooked. The lobster roll is among the most perfect sandwiches in existence.

22. When In -N- Out Burger opened its first location in San Mateo County in 1998, I made the thirty-five minute drive (each way) from my home in San Bruno six times in the first week.

23. I prefer broader pasta noodles (e.g. fettucine) over narrower ones (e.g. capellini), though it's unthinkable that I will turn down a hot plate of pasta simply because it's not my preferred type.

24. At two years of age, I opened the refrigerator, took a bite of every piece of lunch meat I found, and threw the remainder on the floor.

25. Given the choice, I'll skip Godiva and go straight for the See's Candy every time.

26. Food Network's Unwrapped is one of my favorite basic cable shows.

27. My favorite kitchen appliance may very well be my blender. Sure, you may not be able to cook with it, but it's ideal for making blended drinks and preparing ingredients for homemade salsa.

28. In the fifth grade, I would frequently stop at a local convenience store on the way home from school and buy a small bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a New York Seltzer (often vanilla cream) to enjoy during my walk. This remains a very fond memory of my youth, and I often wonder whatever became of New York Seltzer.

29. I prefer canned corn over frozen corn, and frozen peas over canned peas.

30. When it comes to dessert, I'll usually skip the cake and the pie in favor of cookies and/or ice cream.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Let's Get This Banquet Started!

Yeah, I know I could have called it "Let's Get This Party Started", but keeping with the theme and all...

Welcome to my blog! I am a die-hard food lover. Whereas some people eat to live, I proudly live to eat. I believe that, like so many other things one experiences, the quality of one's life is directly influenced by the quality of the food he or she consumes, whether one consumes it alone, or surrounded by beloved friends and family. Though food and drink are essential for survival, I believe that they provide much more than mere nourishment. They are a means to true fulfillment.

I'm not big on labels, but if I had to give myself one, I'd say that I am a foodie. Traditionally, a foodie has been described as an enthusiast of food and drink. Although the people who've cooked for me over the years would probably say that I have a discerning palate, I don't consider my tastes particularly refined. I am not a gourmet or an epicure by any means. It's not because these terms convey images of high-brow snobbery; some who know me well would certainly call me a food snob, so it's not the connotation of elitism that turns me off to such nomenclature. No, while I do appreciate so-called haute cuisine, I have been known to frequent the Taco Bell drive-thru when the urge for cheap pseudo-Mexican food strikes me. I doubt that the gourmet community at large would welcome me with open arms.

Simply put, I love food. I'm not sure from whence my passion sprung: My parents are not particularly adventurous eaters. Although my mother introduced me to Mexican food - not Taco Bell but legitimate Mexican food - at a very young age, as a child most of the meals I enjoyed at home were tailored to my father's preferences. It is notable that my father has lived on a diet of meat and starch for the majority, if not the entirety, of his life. No produce. No spices. No sauces. Little seafood (no shellfish). Very little ethnic food. When you're an adolescent, it can be very difficult to seek out the more exotic elements of the culinary spectrum. But seek them out I did.

This blog is devoted to - and a celebration of - all the things I love to eat (and drink). It will be a repository for recipes, reviews, anecdotes, and food-related photography. I hope you enjoy reading it.