Auburn pit stop

You can mark certain seasons by the events surrounding them, such as the swallows returning to Capistrano in the spring. Ski season in the Sierra foothills is highlighted by the incredible traffic jams heading down I-80 from near Auburn through Roseville on Sunday evenings as those darn Bay Area types return from their weekend trips to the slopes. Smart skiers, of course, will get off at the Foresthill exit and wait out the rush at Ikeda’s while scarfing down some of the best burgers around.

If you’re a devotee of superior beef patties, you’ll follow those skiers down the frontage road and into the parking lot. At one time, Ikeda’s was simply a fruit stand for the family orchard. But marketing savvy prompted an expansion that has proved enormously popular. These days, the long, low-ceilinged building is divided in half. One side serves food; the other is devoted to fresh fruit and an incredible variety of salad dressings, jams, candies, nuts, dips and even packaged meat, all carrying an Ikeda’s label. Many people go ahead and order and then browse the sample table, which is amply stocked with tasty treats and tortilla chips. A loudspeaker will call your number, so don’t fear you will miss out on lunch.

Even though it’s fun to eat and shop in the store, the draw has got to be the food on the restaurant side. And Ikeda’s does not disappoint. The Sacramento area is home to some of the best burgers on the planet. I know this because I suffered through five years in Santa Cruz County, which is a great place to live but has no decent burgers. Within a 30-minute radius of Midtown, however, you can eat at Ford’s and Nationwide in Sacramento, Redrum in Davis and Ikeda’s in East Sacramento, at its branch at 6200 Folsom Boulevard.

Though Ikeda’s burgers don’t approach the heft of, say, those at Nationwide, they stand out thanks to a unique blend of spices. I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what that blend is, although I would have to guess a substantial dose of pepper and maybe a smidge of cinnamon. Back when I was surviving my Santa Cruz burger drought and writing a cooking column, I tried to wrestle the recipe out of Ikeda’s. But the cooks refused, even when I offered them lots of money and my first-born son.

Ikeda’s takes those seasoned patties and grills them just right, so they are a little bit crusty on the edges without being overcooked, and layers them on a bun with ripe tomatoes and real—not iceberg—lettuce. A basic burger will run you $3.49, and a bacon cheeseburger costs $4.38. My advice is not to adulterate the flavor of the meat with bacon; just go with a slice of cheddar. Fries do not come with that; you’ll have to order them on the side. Some places advertise fresh-cut french fries, and their fries still taste like flavorless cardboard (In-N-Out, anyone?). Ikeda’s fries manage to remain potato-like, although salt junkies might want to add more seasoning to their serving.

If you find yourself at Ikeda’s, and you are feeling contrary, there are other options on the menu, including several rice bowls and prime rib. Whatever you do, save room for pie. Ikeda’s makes some of the best pies ever, and they are also available whole in the back of the store. On a recent visit, the restaurant was offering these pies by the slice: peach, raspberry, marionberry, apple, Dutch apple and strawberry rhubarb. Some varieties were also available in cobbler form.

If there is any one drawback to eating at Ikeda’s, it’s the aforementioned skiers. The layout of the restaurant is such that the door opens directly into the line of people waiting to order at the counter. Also, those skiers clog the parking lot and take up all the parking spaces, which causes some resentment among us locals who’d like to enjoy our burgers without worrying that some flatlander in an Eddie Bauer parka will back his shiny SUV into our primer-gray pickup.

It’s always been a mystery to me that Ikeda’s regularly gets press from Bay Area newspapers and remains a secret to many Sacramentans. So, head up there and reclaim those parking spaces. Once you taste those burgers, you won’t be sorry.