The weather was too hot to stay in Sacramento, so we made a plan: Go for a bike ride and a swim at South Lake Tahoe, stopping at a few restaurants on the way up and down the hill.
Outside of Placerville, we pulled off at the Red Apple Cafe. For years, its interior has been "kountry-kitchen kitsch," a charming clutter of homey knickknacks.
Step out back, however, and there's more breathing room. Fancy wrought-iron fencing borders a 3,700-square-foot stamped concrete deck overlooking rolling, pine-covered hills dotted with yellow and purple flowers. Decorating the deck are a wood-burning fireplace and strategic landscaping, nice touches for the newly initiated weekend dinners. Adding to that, owner Sabrina Choe says, she's planning wine-tasting events this summer.
We sat at an umbrella-covered table and fueled up on an apple-studded Belgian waffle ($7), City Scramble (chicken apple sausage, spinach and mushrooms whisked in eggs, $8.99) and a side of crisp applewood-smoked bacon ($4). Lunch is also served.
Fitting the cafe's Apple Hill theme are jars of cinnamon-y homemade apple butter on the tables and house-baked apple strudel and pies in the display case. Red Apple Cafe, 2740 Highway 50, Placerville; (530) 626-8144. Breakfast and lunch, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. daily; dinners on the deck, 5:30-8 p.m. Fridays-Sundays, T-bone pork steak, salmon, Korean barbecue.
Working up an appetite
Approaching the lake, we turned left at the "Y" (the intersection where Highway 50 meets Highway 89) and rented soft-seated bicycles at Anderson's Bicycle Rentals (13th Street and Highway 89, also called Emerald Bay Road; 530-541-0500).
We cruised the 10-mile round-trip Forest Bicycle Trail, with tourist stops at Camp Richardson and the 19th century buildings at the Tallac Historic Site farther along. A side ride to Fallen Leaf Lake really got the appetites going.
After checking the list of our usual lunchtime destinations, we went for something different and ended up at the counter of the Timber House restaurant in the retro Lakeside Inn-Casino in Stateline, Nev.
The lengthy lunch menu was varied, but most dishes were standard: soups, salads, 12 sandwiches (French dip, grilled teriyaki chicken), 14 entrees (pot roast, fish 'n' chips; look for daily specials).
We settled on the half-pound Infinite Burger, choosing from 10 toppings (a bargain at $7.50), and "surf and turf sliders" (ahi slider and beef slider; condiments included wasabi mayo and horseradish sauce; $8.50, another good deal).
Lunch was a pleasant surprise of fresh ingredients sparked by loads of tastes and textures.
Timber House at the Lakeside Inn, 168 Highway 50, Stateline, Nev.; (800) 624-7980, www.lakesideinn. com. Lunch is 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner (steaks and seafood) is 4-10 p.m. daily; breakfast is served 24/7.
A family affair
On the way down the hill, we pulled into the parking lot of Merry Woods, situated in the Eldorado National Forest and overlooking a stretch of the American River. It was remodeled and opened last September, occupying the vintage building abruptly vacated by a former favorite of this column, the German-themed St. Pauli Inn.
Merry Woods is a family business, run by owner Mary Wood and her daughters, Stacy Vanina and Jackie Wood-Luna. Most of the recipes were supplied by Mom.
"We cook what we like to eat," said Mary Wood. "My original vision was more of a fine-dining restaurant, but my specialty is really old-fashioned home cooking." The menu is to the point, with business hours limited to three days a week for now. Lunch items include fresh-roasted turkey-breast sandwich, clubhouse sandwich, hamburger, entree salad and tuna melt.
Dinner is more interesting meat loaf with homemade mushroom gravy, grilled tri-tip, poached salmon, from-scratch lasagna and more.
Jambalaya was the nightly special when we visited.
"It's my boyfriend's recipe," Mary Wood said. "He showed me how to make it, and once I mastered it I put it on as a special. Customers like it so much that we might add it to the menu."
We could see why. The traditional Creole dish was chunky with andouille sausage and chicken in a nicely seasoned "stew" that married well with the rice.
Over the years, readers of this column have asked after the whereabouts of homemade fried chicken.
"We're not equipped with a deep-fat fryer by design so we use a skillet to cook old-fashioned fried chicken and chicken-fried steak like Grandma used to make," Mary Wood said. "Of course, they're accompanied by milk gravy."
Isn't that dish a project? "We are not fast food," she said with a chuckle. "We are homemade food."
Merry Woods, 10120 Highway 50, 10 miles east of Pollock Pines; (530) 293-3384. Open 5-8 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Open for special events by arrangement; special-order dishes by arrangement.