Lunchbox collection will spark memories, and Harris Ranch is a meat-lover’s dream

By M’Liss Hinshaw
12:01 a.m., June 5, 2011

Zipping along the monotonous drive between Los Angeles and the Bay Area on Interstate 5 are two fun places, one loaded with nostalgic lunchboxes and one with mouthwatering-quality beef helping to ease this notorious long drive.

I had a chance to stretch my legs when I spotted the Apricot Tree Restaurant, in the Central Valley. I expected to find apricot pie but instead found a treasure trove of old and classic lunchboxes.

Disney, westerns, sports, movies and popular characters on metal lunchboxes are displayed in categories throughout the dining room. The oldest lunch box is a Hopalong Cassidy and the most current is Rambo and if you had a favorite lunch box from years past, you just might find it in this very large vintage collection.

A classic lunch box brings back sentimental memories more than a zippered container with compartments for prepackaged foods and no latches to open. The satisfying sound when the latches snapped open on a square box with action figure heroes and princesses was our comfort during a long school day. I walked slowly through the restaurant looking at hundreds of retro boxes and Thermoses that told a story of a bygone era from 1950-1983. It wasn’t hard to imagine sitting with classmates in the schoolyard and admiring each other’s lunch box.

I bought a piece of the homemade apricot pie, which was chock full of big apricot halves, and talked with the owner, Carlos Delgado. He told me his lunchbox collection is one of the largest in the country and people come from all over to experience a taste of yesteryear.

I had recently visited the retro lunchboxes exhibit at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum with Gunsmoke, the Jetsons, Kung Fu, Sleeping Beauty and many more characters decorating the shelves outside the museum’s cafeteria. However, the lunchbox hall of fame is found on the lonely stretch of Panoche Road right off Interstate 5 in Firebaugh.

Continuing 45 miles south on I-5 is Harris Ranch Inn, and you will know when you are close from the distinct smell of cattle feed yards drifting in the air. Thousands of prime cattle graze near the Coalinga home of Harris Ranch where travelers can enjoy a beefy meal, a meat counter and fun gift shop. It’s a straight shot from the turnoff of Highway 198 and I-5 to the hacienda-style facility.

After enjoying a tender steak dinner, the Olympic-style pool helped me burn off those delicious calories and the country-style hotel room was a perfect ending to a long day on the road. I couldn’t head for home without perusing the butcher shop and loading up on tri-tips and filet steaks, all vacuum sealed with ice packs for the long drive.

These side excursions on the long road of freeway 5 add a new experience to asphalt and billboards.