By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Unless you know IKEA well, you can quickly feel trapped by its lengthy, windowless pathway by the time you zigzag past the first showroom of assemble-it-yourself furniture. The regulars know the hidden shortcuts for fast-tracking to the checkout lines. And most of them are also aware that between 9:30 and 11 a.m., the Swedish department store offers an under-promoted breakfast for 99 cents everyday, except on Mondays, when the meal is completely free.
No lie. You don’t have to be a kid, a senior or active military, or show proof of a store purchase to qualify. Both the weekly giveaway and the 99-cent bargain are available to all visitors (one per person) and feature a scoop of scrambled eggs, a plop of cubed potatoes and either two thin strips of bacon or two sausage links that are akin to Brown ‘N Serve by Banquet.
If you’re arriving only to eat, ascend to the second floor from the foyer, make a hard left and enter into IKEA Restaurant, which operates technically as an all-day cafeteria with clean Scandinavian flair.
The food line greets with illuminated photographs of menu items hanging above a refrigerated display case that allows you to pluck out plated desserts, salads and smoked salmon — in that order. Just ahead is the hot food, dispensed with brevity from steam trays by spoon-wielding employees flashing pleasant smiles.
The dining room is pure IKEA, an airy space filled with blond-wood chairs, sleek white tables and groovy light fixtures that seem lifted from the glory days of ABBA. Parked near the cash registers are metal carts designed to wheel multiple trays of chow to your table, should you be the one fetching for your group.
If there is such a thing as cheerful institutional food, this is it, whether it’s sausage and eggs, smoked salmon or the restaurant’s wildly famous Swedish meatballs in gravy. Nothing is greasy or overly salted. And everything is served on ceramic dishes with real silverware. Better yet, the meals are dirt cheap, perhaps as compensation for having to purchase a tote bag for your store purchases or for the work you’ll invest in putting that new desk together screw by screw.
In an initial visit to the restaurant, I upgraded my breakfast for $2 to include a foursome of Swedish crepe-like pancakes. Served with a daub of lingonberry sauce that also accompanies the Swedish meatballs, each was folded into half moons and sported lacy edges and crispy brown “veins.” They were good but not sensational.
Coffee with unlimited refills, by the way, is something like 79 cents, though free anytime you visit if you obtain a “family” card.
A few days later I came for lunch, which netted me 15 Swedish meatballs draped in decent brown gravy for only $5.99. The plate included real mashed potatoes speckled with some of their skins, as well as the wonderfully tart lingonberry sauce that pairs with the little orbs of beef like lemon does to seafood.
When chatting with a customer at a nearby table who also ordered the meatballs, she too counted 15 of them on her plate. The food servers are apparently highly adept at exact rationing, despite the fast and loose fashion in which they spoon the meatballs onto the plates.
In a final visit amid the crush of Christmas shoppers, I considered the open-face shrimp and egg sandwich bedded on dark bread and garnished with fresh dill. It looked fresh and tempting, like a buffet dish served aboard a Scandinavian cruise ship. I opted instead for smoked salmon sashimi plated with mild horseradish sauce and toasted bread.
The fillet was somewhat thin and slightly dry, but it sprung to life from the creamy sauce. For only $4.99, I couldn’t really complain.
From the dessert case, there’s chocolate overload cake and various pies. I caved in to the cream cake, though unsure if the recipe adhered wholly to Swedish tradition, which incorporates buttermilk into the batter. But within the little pink dome, encased in marzipan frosting, was the conventional thin layer of fruit jam along with a sheet of cream verging on the richness of butter. It was cold, spongy and super refreshing.
The faux-Swedish culinary experience, however, doesn’t end there. If you go through the entire store, the journey concludes with packaged goods from a Swedish food market, where you’ll find imported Bryggkaffe Mellanrost coffee, Atlantic salmon and creamed smoked roe in a tube. Or if you’re not feeling so international, you can grab a plain ole hot dog at the exit doors instead.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.