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.