HOLLISTER Paralyzed by a surfeit of choice, I stood glazed-eyed and slack-jawed before the almost obscene bounty and variety of almonds spread out before me.
This, I figured, must be what a person from a remote third-world region experiences when stepping into a Safeway. It reminded me of a scene in the movie "Borat" when a winking Sasha Baron Cohen marvels at an array of cheeses that spoiled Americans can buy from the dairy case.
Only this was real. At Casa de Fruta, a farm stand on steroids plopped down in the middle of wide-open Pacheco Valley, there are 19 flavors of almonds from which to choose. And, at $10.99 a pound, one better choose wisely, because there's much more produce and dry goods to be had in what is a veritable Disneyland of conspicuous locavore consumption.
I'm not going to tax your attention spans by listing all 19 varieties. But let's just say the almond choices ranged from tequila to onion garlic, guacamole to mocha, cheese jalapeño to tamarindo. Oh, they also have raw almonds for those of timid palate.
Unable to decide, I ended up buying no almonds at all, not even the decadent dark chocolate kind I so crave.
That's the thing about Casa de Fruta. There's so much citrus to be thumped and sniffed, vegetables to be squeezed and ogled, and bottled condiments to be perused that it can lead to chronic indecisiveness.
Actually, I saw two types of shoppers on a recent swing by this roadside attraction located on the Pacheco Pass between Interstate 5 and Highway 101: Those who mindlessly filled their carts with bounteous amounts, as if stocking up for a long winter's hibernation; and those who wandered the aisles seemingly incapable of making a commitment to the half crate of Watsonville strawberries or the Castroville large artichokes or the roma tomatoes from Camarillo that were beckoning them.
One of the latter was Linda Lail of Modesto. She had roamed the casa for at least 10 minutes, yet her basket was empty. It was not so much indecisiveness as a sense of being overwhelmed.
"I've seen this place before, but I just never thought to stop," she said. "People have told me about it for a long, long time, so today I decided to do it. It's amazing out here in the middle of nowhere to have a place this big."
But Judith Hart of Fresno, on her way to visit friends in Salinas, recommended zeroing in on a specific fruit or vegetable. She's veteran of Casa de Fruta and was picking and choosing carefully. On this day, she was giving a long, hard look at the oranges.
"Boy, they do have more variety in one spot than any place else," Hart said. "Even the store I shop at, Vons, doesn't have everything."
Indeed, calling Casa de Fruta a farm stand would be like calling the Taj Mahal a cottage.
Its sudden appearance on the side of the road is jarring, coming after miles of ag fields and tawny brown scruffy rolling hills. It's not unlike a tribal casino erected in rural milieu a sudden vertical amid a lulling horizontal landscape.
The directional sign in the parking lot is almost comical in its bevy of choices:
Casa de Fruta →
Casa de Gifts ←
Casa de Choo Choo ←
Casa de Sweets ←
Casa de Wine →
Casa de Deli ←
Casa de Sluice ←
Casa de Carousel →
Say, friend, can you point me toward Casa de Overkill?
This wondrous place wasn't originally meant to be a quasi-amusement park with a petting zoo featuring buffalo, deer and llamas; a kiddie park with rides, hotel and RV park; site of Civil War re-enactors, Renaissance Faire aficionados and biker rallies.
No, it all began in 1943, when matriarch Clara Bisceglia Cribari Zanger's three teenage sons opened a single cherry stand on the Pacheco Pass Highway.
Faster than a banana goes bad in the hot sun, they soon expanded to seven cherry stands in the southern Santa Clara Valley. Eventually the family opened a restaurant (1967), a gas station (1971), a 14-room inn (1977) and a park for family reunions and corporate events (1982).
With expansion naturally comes the risk of diluting what made Casa de Fruta so special in the first place the produce.
On the afternoon I visited, two tour buses spat out a stream of high school students from Clovis. Most headed straight for Casa de Sweets. It was enough, no doubt, to send their parental chaperones straight to Casa de Wine though, of course, being responsible adults, they refrained.
Two older customers, Paul and Ginette Smith of Huntington Beach, stuck with the fruit stand. They make Casa de Fruta a regular stop when driving up from Southern California to visit their son in Mountain View.
"We did take our grandkids here to the train once," Paul said.
The train, the sluice water wheel (to pan for "precious gems and minerals") and the stoic-looking buffalo can be dismissed as attempts at re-creating a past that may not have existed in the Pacheco Valley. But the main building, the fruit stand, is authentic.
Many of the tables on which the produce rests come from local farms. One is a wagon, circa 1920s, donated from Louis Scaglione Orchards in Hollister. A placard tells shoppers that the 8-by-12-foot cart once hauled prunes, apricots and walnuts from the fields to the plants.
These days, the hauling is done by big rigs, of course and by the steady parade of SUVs, minivans and sedans that come and go in search of just the right flavor of almond for them.
Casa de Fruta
6680 Pacheco Pass Highway (Highway 152), Hollister
Hours for the fruit stand: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Check website for hours of the train, carousel, restaurant, wine and deli and other attractions.
Directions from Sacramento: Take Interstate 5 south for about 110 miles and take Exit 407 toward Gilroy. Merge onto Highway 33 South for about two miles and then merge left onto Highway 152. Go about 25 miles west to Casa de Fruta.