Cheap meatballs and runway views offer respite from IKEA chaos.

Where to begin?  IKEA, across the NJ Turnpike from Newark/Liberty International Airport in Elizabeth, NJ, is a fucking zoo.  Crowded with strollers and screaming kids, and smelling like my mother’s old third-grade classroom (hint: sweaty kids plus stale food plus crayons), any visit to IKEA is to be endured rather than enjoyed.  As my roommate so aptly put, it’s an amusement park of commerce – a truly staggering reminder of the inability of the American consumer to save money for quality goods (much less for saving’s own sake).

But you don’t read me for social critique, I realize, so let me get to the point: the high point of any trip to IKEA is, of course, the Café.  Not because it isn’t as crowded and loud as the rest of the place (it certainly is at many times of day, and I’m betting the 99-cent breakfast hour is the worst of all), but because it alone offers the things the rest of the store takes away: natural light, nourishment, and the ability to relax for a few minutes.

Thankfully, the IKEA café is CHEAP.  Damn cheap.  I don’t think there’s an item on the menu over $7, and it’s not all hot dogs and hamburgers – some genuinely interesting and relatively healthy-seeming meals can be assembled for not much cash, even if you avoid the dodgy salad bar.

As we were already relatively sated from our enormous egg sandwich breakfasts, my girlfriend and I didn’t truly take advantage of the plethora of options.  Indeed, we might not have even stopped, if I hadn’t earlier made it a personal mission to test out IKEA’s meatballs before leaving Elizabeth.  So I braved the line while she grabbed a table, and 10 minutes later (the process will remind you of your college dining hall, without question), we were happily seated by the window with our food.

I quite liked the meatballs, considering their origin in a freezer, but it would be tough to complain about paying $4 for 10 of the mysterious orbs, with gravy and lingonberry jam, at any rate.  The meatballs are as fresh and moist as could be, and given how many of them they go through on a typical weekend day, they probably haven’t been sitting around long.  The gravy is nice, too, but I thought the jam was rather bland (the same thing went for the lingonberry drink from the soda fountain).

We also sampled the lingonberry mousse ($1) and the D’aim torte ($2.50).  Of the two, the D’aim is certainly superior.  Kind of like a cross between a Kit-Kat, a peanut butter cup, and a toffee bar, the super-sweet slice was the perfect pre-fabricated dessert.  I’m sure they do a great business in selling the whole thing in their food shop (strategically located near the exit and directly opposite the waiting area for large items, natch).

The mousse, befitting its low cost, was low in flavor, but certainly not without merit.  Mounted on a sugar-cracker-cookie crust, it was gone in the blink of an eye.

The nicest thing about IKEA, and the café specifically, might not appeal to everyone as much as it did me.  As a kid, I frequently flew in a small plane with my grandfather to various small airports across New England.  The smallest airports might not have had much more than a coffee machine, but the slightly bigger ones usually had a café or restaurant overlooking the airstrip.   Either way, I spent much quality time with my grandfather lingering over a Coke or a meal, watching the planes fly in and out.  As I got older and had less time to fly with him, I would occasionally find myself in that rare airport terminal with a runway view, and would sit glued to the window until my flight boarded.  This of course before the terminals all became indoor malls, and many airport cafés were replaced with frozen-yogurt stands (reserving the good views for members of pricey airline clubs, it would seem).

At this point, IKEA stores and airports aren’t that far apart in terms of atmosphere.  Thankfully, IKEA left one nook for those of us who need a break from looking at particle board, though, and you needn’t be a member of the Admiral’s Club to gain entrance.  As we sat in the café next to the windows overlooking the airport, the simple pleasure of watching plane after plane touch down put a stupid grin on my face and, in concert with the meatballs and desserts, erased the stress of one of the least-fun places to shop in the world.

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