Autumnal pleasures

It’s something of an annual pilgrimage for Sacramento residents: As soon as the weather becomes crisp, everyone drives up to Apple Hill to buy apples, cider and pies from the farms up there. But most people don’t know there is another apple-farming community in the area: Chicago Park, minutes from Colfax. Get off Highway 80 in Colfax and take Highway 174 toward Grass Valley. Just past the Chicago Park store, keep your eyes peeled for Bierwagen’s Happy Apple Kitchen on the right and pull into the parking lot.

The Bierwagens also own Donner Trail Fruit on the other side of the highway and, on the weekends, sell their fruit and pumpkins at the fruit stand next to the restaurant.

If the stand isn’t open, you can buy apples from the bins lined up on the wall outside the restaurant. Currently, the Bierwagens are selling Red Rome, Black Arkansas, Empire and Winesap apples for between $1.25 and $1.50 a pound.

Just around the corner from Bierwagen’s is Belle Haven Farm, which sells both apples and rhododendrons. The draw here is that several pleasant picnic tables dot the grounds. Belle Haven currently has Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Winesap, Black Arkansas and Granny Smith apples for sale.

Part of the fun of buying your apples directly from the grower is the chance to try varieties that never make it to the grocery store because they’re too old-fashioned or fragile or oddly shaped. Winesaps, for example, would be hard to market because they are so small. But their sweet-tart flavor is reminiscent of Gala apples, and crispness makes them a winner in any apple lover’s book. The Empire, on the other hand, has a sweeter, soft flesh—good for eating out of the hand. And the Black Arkansas? My husband called it the apple of his youth. It has a lovely, old-fashioned flavor and is very firm. The skin has a more bitter taste than contemporary varieties have, probably due to a lot of pectin. This is a great baking apple, and it keeps far longer than other varieties do.

When you’re ready to eat, the 1950s-vintage Happy Apple is the place to go. Eat inside the knotty-pine-paneled lunchroom or outside on the patio overlooking the orchards. It is almost always crowded, but the wait goes quickly, and the service is fast and friendly. The restaurant serves most of the lunch standards, including burgers, sandwiches, salads and even homemade chili.

There are several apple restaurants in the area, including Apple Kitchen farther down Highway 174 and the Apple Fare in downtown Grass Valley. The Apple Fare serves a delicious apple-and-soft-cheese dish as well as wonderful pies, but the Happy Apple offers the most apple-enhanced menu around. You can get a Happy Apple burger ($4.85), which is a regular hamburger spread with homemade applesauce; a Happy Apple bacon burger ($5.50); or a Happy Apple cold turkey sandwich ($4.75), also with applesauce. Many of the entrees come with a small bowl of this applesauce, which is tangy and chunky and completely unlike all processed versions you may have tasted in the past.

The best-kept secret here is the chicken basket ($8), which is listed as a heartier eat. This consists of three pieces of the finest fried chicken around, served with a green salad, applesauce and a choice of French fries or potato salad. Again, this fried chicken bears no resemblance to, say, the Colonel’s. The coating is light and extremely crispy, and the chicken is tender throughout.

The Happy Apple is famous for its fresh-fruit milkshakes—and for good reason. The peach shakes are liquid heaven. Unfortunately, peaches are now out of season. Currently, the Happy Apple offers fresh apple and boysenberry shakes. One word of warning: A “small” drink is not the size you associate with fast-food small. Here, small means small—almost Dixie-cup size. Order a large.

Be sure to save room for dessert because the pies here are amazingly good. Although apple and boysenberry pies are almost always available, on a recent visit, the choices also included French apple, cream-cheese apple, pumpkin and cherry crunch. The Happy Apple offers pies plain, à la mode or with cheese. The restaurant also offers spicy, moist, apple-loaf cake and apple cupcakes. Of course, you can take a pie or cupcakes to go, and many people do. The last time I bought one, three men ate the entire thing in less than an hour.

So, make a day of it. Take a drive up Highway 174 through pine-covered rolling hills. Buy some apples and pig out at the Happy Apple. Then, try to walk some of the calories off, either on a hike through Empire Mine State Park or by strolling through downtown Grass Valley.