Hybrid City

One of the quirkiest lunch secrets in town is the spiffy little Swedish steam table at Ikea, the I-10 furniture superstore. My mom will kill me for saying this, but the diminutive Swedish meatballs purveyed here rival my Scandinavian grandmother's -- they're that tender, that fetching, and swathed in a brown gravy that light and lucid.

Fifteen of them, along with steamed red potatoes in their jackets and a lively jolt of tart lingonberry sauce (the Swedish equivalent of cranberry sauce), make a swell lunch for the modest sum of $4.75. For a buck more, you get a whack at a salad bar stocked with surprisingly reputable lettuces, a good, opaque vinaigrette and all the marinated red and yellow peppers you can eat.

Some days, the resident cooks concoct an amusingly effective spaghetti bolognese, in which Swedish meatballs, a bright-tasting Italian tomato sauce and California-esque zucchini manage to live happily ever after. At $4.95 with a salad, it's a deal. There's a seductive looking gravlax plate in the refrigerated box, but the cured salmon involved is strong enough to discourage folks who really don't like fish, and the dilled mustard that comes with it is too sweet for my tastes.

Random curiosities: lingonberry juice on ice, dispensed from a big, lemonade-style container, and Swedish Kristall waters intensely flavored with such fruits as pear or orange. Free entertainment: the ebb and flow of a virtual United Nations of Ikea shoppers, capped off by a running acrobatic display in the kiddie Ball Room downstairs -- a mountain of primary-hued inflatable balls that, if there were any justice, would be open to grownups one day a week.

Mudbug Alert: Quick, while crawfish are still in season: go directly to either of Pico's two locations and order the mudbugs in chipotle sauce, an inspired Houston hybrid in which Louisiana meets Mexico. Owner Arnaldo Richard has devised a smooth, vibrantly red sauce that warms without burning -- and without smothering the crawfish tails' gentle sweetness, either. A molded dollop of rice gives the dish the substance of an entire meal, but it works fine as a means of whiling away happy hour, when it's a steal at half its regular $6.95 price.

-- Alison Cook

Ikea, 7810 Katy Freeway, 688-7867; Pico's, 4527 Lomitas at Kirby, 942-9945; 5941 Bellaire, 662-8383.


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