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Tahoe a la carte

LAKE TAHOE -- Mark Twain proclaimed the air at Lake Tahoe to be "the same as the angels breathe," and that's probably closer to the truth than not. We Sacramentans often take for granted the paradise that lies only 100 miles to the east, a celestial playground that draws visitors from all over the world.

Of course, if you pave paradise and put up a parking lot, as singer Joni Mitchell cautioned, you're courting trouble. Lake Tahoe has its share, certainly, especially during the summer months: crowded roads, polluted air, wall-to-wall people. For the locals, it's a Catch-22: Tourism juices the economy, but the price is high. Demands exceed the resources, an old story at any vacation resort.

The best news for us is that post-Labor Day weekend marks the start of the "in-between" season, when the tourists leave town and the lake clears out. Hiking trails and bike paths that looked like the floor of the Republican National Convention will be free of traffic; swimmers won't have to fear being run down by speedboats piloted by goofy guys who have been drinking beer all day; and walking on the beaches without slipping on oiled sunbathers will again be possible. From now until the first snows fall in, oh, late November, the Lake Tahoe Basin will be at its most mellow.

It's all good -- and it gets better if you find the right places for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I recently invested some time in the area -- again -- eating at an eclectic bunch of restaurants, nosing around kitchens and dining rooms, generally being a nuisance. Between some old favorites and new businesses, it became clear that the Tahoe dining scene has never been more interesting.

It's also apparent that the biggest problem facing restaurateurs here is finding dependable staff. Meals can be uneven, service can break down and bickering behind the scenes can undermine a manager's best efforts -- unless it's the manager who's the problem.

"Frankly, lunch has been a struggle for us this summer," admitted the general manager of a lakeside hot spot. "We can't get the people we need, especially at lunchtime. Everyone would rather be outside playing than inside working."

Added the owner of another restaurant: "There's no doubt about it: You have to be on the premises yourself, watching everyone, or you're asking for trouble."

Anyway, here are a dozen restaurants that won't burn you. I'm not saying these are the best restaurants around the lake. Some are places I had heard about, some I just happened upon, others I've visited for years. Bottom line: I would go to all of them again and bring you along.

My hiking partner and I usually grab breakfast on our way out of town, and used to frequent the Bell Tower Cafe in downtown Placerville for its Hangtown fry, but the cafe betrayed us one morning by not being there. We needed a replacement, so we tried the Apple Cafe, a few miles outside of town. We expected it to be staffed with life-size apple head dolls in gingham aprons -- "Hi, my name is Granny Smith and I'll be your waitress" -- but instead we found real people serving real food.

The current incarnation is decorated in a country-cute motif, and that's nice, but we prefer to eat on the deck under the trees and enjoy the view of the valley. The breakfasts are substantial; for instance, the city scramble ($7) is a mix of ground beef, spinach, mushrooms, and Jack and Cheddar cheeses, scrambled in eggs and served with potatoes and toast, biscuits or tortillas. The applewood-smoked bacon is a treat, but the real star is the house-made apple strudel: golden delicious apples, almonds, raisins and cinnamon in a puff pastry splashed with fondant (a sweet white icing). Oh, yeah.

Apple Cafe, 2740 Highway 50, Placerville; (530) 626-8144. Breakfast: 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Lunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Dinner: 4-8 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays; 4-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Open daily.

The breakfast scene in South Lake Tahoe can be hectic. Uh, let me rephrase that: It's closer to a semi-controlled frenzy as tourists and locals jam the small restaurants with the big breakfasts, places such as Frank's (530-544-3434), Ernie's (530-541-2161), the Red Hut (530-541-9024 and 775-588-7488) and the Zephyr Cove Resort (775-588-6644).

Carina's Cafe is a calmer scene, serving breakfast and lunch in a clean, attractive dining room. Owner Carina Evans, who is from Sweden, describes the fare as "American home cooking with a Swedish touch. We have Swedish-style oatmeal and Swedish pancakes. Every Tuesday for the 7 1/2 years we've been open, we've served Swedish meatballs, which I make from scratch."

We're fans of the breakfast special (two pancakes or two pieces of french toast with two pieces of bacon or sausage and two eggs ($6); and the Florentine omelet (three eggs, spinach, mushrooms, onion and cheese topped with sour cream, served with homefries and toast, $6.25).

This should say something: For the eighth year, Carina's catered the Edgewood Celebrity Golf Championship luncheon in July.

Carina's Cafe, 3469 Lake Tahoe Blvd. in the Bijou Shopping Center, South Lake Tahoe; (530) 541-3354. Breakfast: 7-11:30 a.m. weekdays and Saturdays, 8-11:30 a.m. Sundays. Lunch: 11:30-3 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays, 11:30-2 p.m. Sundays. Open daily.

Most locals avoid Heidi's like they avoid those bubonic plague-carrying ground squirrels that run amok through the campgrounds here, even though Heidi's has been around since 1962. Why? Maybe because it's a well-known tourist spot, maybe because it's part of a chain (there are six in California and Nevada), perhaps because it's decorated in a way that might prompt Martha Stewart to actually express an emotion: "Oh, God, it's so Tyrolean!"

I say: Good, stay out. That leaves more room for the rest of us.

Inside Heidi's are pine wood booths, exposed beams, old cooking utensils, and murals of the Swiss Alps and Heidi the goat girl (the chalk-board special one morning was the Swiss Miss omelet).

Though the menu is one of those slick plastic jobs with the words printed over color photos of ham and eggs, toast and butter, out of the kitchen come some mighty fine breakfasts: pancakes, french toast, Belgian waffles, fruit crepes, skillet meals, fat sausages, crisp bacon and ice-cold milk. Heidi's even shows a sense of humor with its "kitchen sink omelet," which literally could hold anything, depending on the cook's whim ($11). In the '80s we nicknamed it "The Trough."

"This is one of our favorite places ever for breakfast in South Lake Tahoe," said technical recruiter Sylvia Trammel of Walnut Creek, who shared a booth with a friend and was intent on joining the Clean Plate Club. "The service is great, the food always comes fast, there's plenty of it and it's good."

Quite the endorsement, Sylvia. Someone deserves a free meal.

Heidi's, 3485 Highway 50, South Lake Tahoe; (530) 544-8113. Breakfast: 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Open daily.

Rojo's will celebrate its 25th anniversary in October, an amazing feat given that restaurants here close faster than the weather changes.

Rojo's is in a historic building from the 1920s-'30s, a rustic dining house hewn out of native rock and wood timbers, the ideal spot to kick back in front of the fireplace and catch a football game.

There are a lot of good things on the menu -- charbroiled burgers, pasta with garlicky house-made sauce, calamari steak, great tempura mushrooms and onion rings -- but the clear winner is the barbecued baby back ribs ($8 for seven meaty, tender ribs and trimmings at lunch; $17 for a full rack at dinner). Rojo's ribs placed second (behind Carson City Barbecue) at last weekend's 10th annual Best of the Mountain Rib Cookoff at the Horizon Hotel-Casino.

Sitting at the bar the other day was Gary Holmes of the San Jose-based Coast Concrete Co. "I travel throughout the Bay Area and these are the best ribs I've had in a long time," he said. "Last time I ate them, people had to get out of my way they're so good." To emphasize his point, he patted his Buddha-like belly.

Rojo's is a watering hole for locals, but a major portion of its business comes from Sacramento and the Bay Area. "Our clientele is the skiers in the winter season, who are starving and crabby and want to eat right now, and the gamblers and campers in the summer," said Sharon Gramprie, who co-owns Rojo's with her brother, Joe Hansen, and her son, Gary Gramprie. The three come from the Bartelli clan of Wisconsin, and many of the Italian recipes were handed down by older family members.

People-watchers, know this: Among the celebrities who have dropped in are Huey Lewis, Kevin Costner, Mickey Gilley, Matt LeBlanc, John Stamos and the Beach Boys, who arrived in a limo.

Rojo's, Highway 50 at San Francisco Street, South Lake Tahoe; (530) 541-4960. Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Open daily.

The Fresh Ketch can be forgiven for the pun (a ketch is a small two-masted boat) because its seafood has been so consistently good over the years (it opened in 1982). The gig (that's a boat, too) here is to grab a table out back, cool off under the umbrellas and check out the boating scene; the Ketch sits alongside the Tahoe Keys Marina (take Tahoe Keys Boulevard off Highway 50).

There's always interesting traffic in and out of the marina and some handsome boats to appreciate, like the sleek Scarab docked there last summer. The Scarab is the Lamborghini of the boating world, designed and manufactured in Miami by offshore racing champion Don Aronow, who also conceived the Donzi (featured in the upcoming movie "Charlie's Angels") and the Cigarette offshore racers, and who was murdered gangland-style in 1987. But I digress.

The lunch specials have included grilled sea bass, and calamari kebabs in Asian ginger sauce. On the menu, we've always liked the skillet-roasted mussels ($10; $6 during happy hour) and mahi-mahi tacos ($9).

Dinner is served upstairs in a good-looking dining room. There used to be a rack of lamb that was outstanding, but in its place now are lamb chops ($24). Other good things: the pear and blue cheese salad with candied walnuts ($8), osso buco ($22), peanut-crusted pork tenderloin ($19) and, when it's the dinner special, swordfish.

Fresh Ketch, 2433 Venice Drive at the Tahoe Keys Marina, South Lake Tahoe; (530) 541-5683. Seafood bar and grill menu available from 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner is 5:30-9:30ish p.m. Open daily.

Why would anyone go to a fast-food joint when they can score a major hamburger at Izzy's Burger Spa? Which, in its own way, is a fast-food joint, only it's not fast.

Izzy's cooked-to-order 1/3-pound burgers come in a variety of styles: the bonsai (teriyaki and pineapple), onion orgy (a ton of grilled onions), mushroom and Swiss (you know the drill) and seven others. Top-quality beef and aged cheeses make the difference. There's usually a crowd, so ordering by phone is encouraged.

Izzy's has a collection of "Best Burger in Lake Tahoe" awards from the annual Best of Tahoe edition of the Tahoe Daily Tribune (as voted by its readers), and has been around for 20 years.

Izzy's Burger Spa, 2591 Highway 50, South Lake Tahoe; (530) 544-5030. Serving 11 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. weekends; $3-$4.50. Open daily.

Depending on where you happen to be, there are several names for the same sandwich: Call it a hero, a submarine, a hoagie, a grinder or a poor boy (that's "po'boy" if you're in Louisiana), we're talking a bunch 'o' good stuff on a long roll.

There are several sub-sandwich shops around the lake, but one stands out. That would be the Yellow Submarine, in biz since 1975 (with outlets in Sparks and Reno).

No kidding, they heap it on. Choose from whatever: ham, roast beef, salami, turkey, pepperoni, pastrami, Italian sausage, meatballs, cheeses, lettuce, tomato, avocado, sprouts, pineapple, onion, pickle -- dusted with spices and Parmesan and splashed with oil and vinegar, on white or wheat, six inches or 12. Plus, there are four wraps, homemade lemonade and even a salad. The place is tiny, the folks friendly.

Yellow Submarine, 983 Tallac off Highway 50, South Lake Tahoe; (530) 541-8808. 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; $3.15-$7. Open daily.

As casual as most Tahoe restaurants are, some do a very professional job with upscale dining. Places like LewMarNel's(530-542-1072), Nepheles (530-544-8130), Cafe Fiore (530-541-2908) and the restaurant at the famed Edgewood golf course (775-588-2787) come to mind. If the 2-month-old Black Olive in Zephyr Cove maintains its present heading, it could join that company.

The dinner menu is ambitious, yet the kitchen seems to have a grip: herb-encrusted ahi with ginger-Dijon vinaigrette; swordfish piccata in lemon-caper butter; double-cut pork chop in a sun-dried cherry Port glaze; and calamari stuffed with fresh herbs, spinach, feta cheese and bread crumbs, garnished with mussels and clams (entrees range from $14-$22). Then there's the signature appetizer -- house-made lobster raviolis in sherry-based cream sauce (which we thought could have had more punch) with spinach and tomato ($9).

A casual lunch is served in the bar, which was jammed on our visits. The locals were wolfing Caesar salads ($6), calamari sandwiches ($6) with house-made tartar sauce, and very tasty meatball sandwiches ($5 blue-plate special).

Restaurateur Dale Dodd -- who owns three other places in town -- said the Black Olive is off to a good start: "We're still in the honeymoon stage and we're getting a lot of repeat business from the locals, who are very finicky. If one little thing doesn't please them, you never see them again."

Black Olive Bistro at the Round Hill Square on Highway 50, Zephyr Cove; (775) 588-9030. Lunch: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: 6-10 p.m. Breakfast is served on weekend mornings. Open daily.

There's a lot of bad Italian food out there -- tomato sauce like acid, pasta like rubber, grated cheese like the sweepings in a sawmill. Come to think of it, they're all like that. Oops -- just kidding.

Fortunately, there are a few Italian restaurants here where dining is not a misadventure, places like Scusa (530-542-0100), Tep's Villa Roma (530-541-8227) and Ivano's.

Ivano's is a small, mellow room where a late-afternoon lake breeze can swirl through an open window, blowing the curtain to and fro, as good smells waft from the kitchen. Nice.

What we had most recently was just fine: wonderfully flavored bruschetta ($5.25); spaghetti di mare (pasta, shrimp, green-lip mussels, squid and scallops in a tomato, white wine and garlic sauce, $14.75); and scaloppine al Carciofo with penne pasta (veal with artichoke hearts, sauteed in white wine and butter, $16.50). The pasta was al dente, the vegetables perfectly cooked and the garlic toast first rate. It would help, though, to pound the veal thinner before cooking; it makes it more tender.

For the pizza crowd, there are a dozen pies and a create-your-own-stuffing calzone ($11.75-$16.50).

Ivano's, 290 Kingbury Grade (take Highway 207, off Highway 50, next to Love's Wedding Chapel), Stateline; (775) 586-1007. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays.

I cruised out of south shore on Highway 89, through Camp Richardson, past Emerald Bay and D.L. Bliss State Park, to the lakeside town of Tahoma on the west shore, where the first stop was Angela's Pizzaria.

Angela Haag visited Truckee 17 years ago for her sister's wedding, and wound up buying a run-down pizza joint with a high school friend (she bought him out 12 years ago); this was after six years of formal culinary training. "Before I walked in here, I never made a pizza in my life," she said. "I wanted to be in charge of something. I made up the menu and we remodeled this place."

What we have here, essentially, is a professional chef running a pizza parlor, and it shows. Haag makes everything from scratch, from the pizza dough ("I've got some semolina in there and a little whole wheat. I use bread flour, not pizza flour"), cookies, lasagna and soup, to the tomato and pesto sauces ("I go to the farmer's market and buy fresh basil for the pesto") and the sourdough bread for the sandwiches (from an 18-year-old sourdough starter).

Lorraine DiMaggio, a Tahoma artist and photographer, was sharing a pesto-mushroom pie with a friend. "Angela's is a long-standing tradition for vacationers," she said. "They'll be in town for a week and they've got to eat here at least once or twice. It's the best pizza on the lake."

No argument about that. There are 10 pies on the menu, or choose from 29 ingredients to create your own combination. The crust is thin and delicious, the toppings fresh and plentiful. It's a New York-style pie that smells yeasty and garlicky. In a word: Yum!

Angela's Pizzaria, 7000 W. Lake Blvd. (intersection of Highway 89 and Pine), Tahoma; (530) 525-4771. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; pizzas run $7-$19.50. Open daily.

Down the street is the Stony Ridge Cafe, another small restaurant that prepares stuff from scratch -- breads, cakes, soups, sauces. I've liked the breakfasts here since I first walked in three years ago: house-made buttermilk pancakes, oatmeal-molasses wheat toast, french toast dipped in vanilla egg batter, thick slices of bacon, eggs scrambled with red peppers, green onions, mushrooms, parsley, Jack and Cheddar.

After a hike on the Rubicon Trail, a close call involving a boulder and a cliff, and a healing swim in the lake, we were ready for lunch: thick, garlicky gazpacho ($2); chunky hummus with homemade sourdough pita, cucumber, red onion and house-smoked trout ($7.50); and a killer BLT on thick sourdough toast with tri-color pasta salad ($7.25), washed down with locally roasted Alpen Sierra coffee. Bring on the world.

Mary Catalano does the cooking by day, while Doug Baher (who owns the Stony Ridge with wife Dawn) prepares the dinner menu three nights a week. Why the emphasis on Asian and Indian dinner dishes (Vietnamese five-spice pork tenderloin, Thai beef and mint salad, Indian vegetable medley)? "Because I like the strong flavors represented by those ethnic foods," said Doug Baher. "And because they're something you can't get around Tahoe." Fair enough.

Stony Ridge Cafe, 6821 W. Lake Blvd., Tahoma; (530) 525-0905. Breakfast: 6:30 a.m.-1 p.m. daily. Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: 6-9:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Note: The cafe is open daily through September, but is closed Tuesdays from October to May. Dinners are $7-$17.

Once upon a time, I drove the length and breadth of Switzerland and never had a decent meal; in fact, the food was rather Ö neutral. I should have spent that time at the Swiss Lakewood instead. Here, renowned Swiss chef Albert Marty and his wife, Helga, have held court for the past 27 years in a handsome chalet built in 1920 and remodeled by the couple in a 15-year project. It now looks more Swiss than any structure I saw in Switzerland.

This is a pricy, four-star (is that redundant?) restaurant featuring classical French continental cuisine and fine-dining service, with a wine list of surprisingly mainstream vinos, some vintage, some non-vintage.

The menu offers items such as baked Brie on fresh pear, escargot, chateaubriand, beef Wellington (24 hours' notice), cheese fondue, venison, roasted duck, rack of lamb, tournedos of beef, sweetbreads, peach Melba, cherries jubilee flambÈe and Grand Marnier souffle.

Our meal was solid: two meaty, juicy crabcakes with bay shrimp and tangy caper-lemon-mustard sauce; excellent roasted red pepper soup; Black Angus filet mignon with bearnaise sauce; tender weinerschnitzel with sauteed mushrooms and lingonberry sauce; chocolate mousse with an optional shot of kirschwasser poured over the top.

Chef Marty has cooked all over the world (including New York, San Francisco and Havanna) and has a roomful of awards -- including the rare Antonin Careme medal -- that testify to his expertise. This is a dining experience for those seeking something special.

Swiss Lakewood, 5055 W. Lake Blvd., Homewood; (530) 525-5211. Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Entrees range from $13.50-$29.50; entrees for two are $39.50- $55.50.

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