Every IKEA Food Court Item, Ranked
While IKEA is well known as a crucible for testing the waters of domesticity, it’s not actually the bickering over which disposable coffee table goes best in the living room that causes young couples to have meltdowns: it’s because they’re hangry. This may as well be the sole purpose of IKEA’s cafeteria -- a bright and happy place replete with quick and easy food options that exist solely to make you un-hungry in a manner so efficient that only the Swedes could pull it off with such élan. But what’s the best thing on the menu?
We made the trek to our local IKEA on what turned out to be the last “Kids Eat Free Tuesday” EVER, which was a somber and chaotic affair. While moms in Lululemon pants wrangled their broods between bites of meatballs, we shamelessly sampled every single item on the menu (minus breakfast and the $.50 hot dogs at the register) to offer you a comprehensive guide of what’s what at this glistening oasis of gastronomic delights. Then we napped in one of the fake bedrooms.
19. Veggie balls
There are two kinds of vegetarians in this world: the kind that’s perfectly happy eating like a rabbit, and the kind that’s vigilant about their ability to eat “the same exact food as carnivores” courtesy of ill-conceived meat-replacement options. The former shows up to your cookout with a salad while the latter ruins your grill by trying to char their Tofurkey links to a nice golden brown. This same asshole will claim the veggie balls, which are a dry, bland mix of dehydrated veggie chunks and odd spices served atop what’s essentially lukewarm baby food. This person is horribly wrong and should be ditched somewhere in the kitchenwares area, never to be heard from again.
18. Apple pie
The assumption before biting into this cafeteria staple was straightforward: if Burger King can figure out how to offer a decent piece of apple pie, IKEA could easily knock it out of the park. Not the case. While we had no gripes with its frozen-and-then-defrosted nature, the texture was seriously off-putting. The apples were mealy and fibrous, as if they were reconstituted from some kind of blended apple-product slurry. The lattice of “pie dough” across the top had the texture of a wet fortune cookie, and the creamy white sploosh that accompanied the pie tasted like congealed melted ice cream.
17. Chicken with black bean salad
Thrifty calorie-counters would likely fool themselves into championing this dish over time, but you just spent an hour burning calories by wandering through a maze and loading dead weight into the back of your car. You deserve better than a bland slice of rubbery chicken with stamped-on grill marks over a bed of beans and wilted lettuce.
16. Greek salad
It’s like a grocery store salad bar salad, only the impossible task of scooping greens and feta out of a bin and onto a plate has conveniently been done for you ahead of time. The dressing was zesty and flavorful, but I’m 99% sure it was just cheap house Italian with mustard added for color.
15. Rhubarb crisp
This odd little miniature pie-looking concoction had promise, but the generic flavor tasted more like an off-brand Fruit Roll-Up than any kind of discernible berry, let alone actual rhubarb. I would consider eating this if it replaced the brownie thing that comes in Hungry-Man dinners. You can do much, much better for dessert here, which we’ll get to in a minute.
14. Penne pasta
After sampling the veggie balls, I started to wonder where all the salt that cafeterias use to gussy up their fare went off to. We found it! The pasta itself was surprisingly decent, landing somewhere between Olive Garden-caliber al dente and something a college student would prepare in their dorm room’s microwave. The sauce had a smooth texture accented nicely with small chunks of tomato and perhaps onion, but you’re not tasting much else besides the mountain of sodium chloride they dumped the mix. If you’re a parent who just needs to cram something in your kid’s mouth to shut them up, this is a fine option. If you’re an adult, it’s best you move along.
13. Chicken with mango salsa and mixed veggies
This was the same slab of rubbery chicken as seen in the chicken with black bean salad, only this time it came with a tiny ramekin of sweet, tangy mango salsa that we could not get enough of. IKEA probably nixed the idea of having a full-service condiment bar offering various sauces like this due to the endless torrent of children running around making a mess of things, but if they ever go forward with this idea, it’s safe to say I would dump mango salsa all over anything I could find.
12. Macaroni and cheese
Like the penne pasta, IKEA’s mac and cheese is a salty pile of starch tailor-made for the kiddos. It reminded me a lot of the mac and cheese at KFC, which is an anomaly in that its texture actually gets better the longer it’s been warming under a buzzing heat lamp. The ice cream scoop used to plop two little piles on your plate even leaves a few of the crusty bits on top in tact, which every mac and cheese connoisseur knows is the absolute best part of the dish.
11. Princess cake
This was the hardest dish to rate objectively considering how profoundly strange it was in both flavor and presentation. It’s essentially a little circle of cake coated in neon-pink marzipan, both of which tasted absolutely fine relative to how unappetizing they look to anyone who’s either male or over the age of 5. The cake was the best part, but the topping was a perfect complement in smaller doses than what was originally presented. I never thought I’d be the guy scraping off the sweetest part of my dessert and throwing it in the trash, yet there I was doing just that.
10. Chicken fingers
Of all the cafeteria staples offered at IKEA, chicken fingers scared me the most. You have a lot of moving parts in this simple dish -- the moistness of the chicken, the texture and seasoning of the breading, the quality of the dipping sauce -- and the whole thing is lost if one of those is even a little bit off. Kids love chicken fingers, which meant showing up on “Kids Eat Free Tuesday” guaranteed a high rate of turnover that gave us access to chicken fingers at peak freshness.
The seasoning was -- take a guess -- salty, but the cut of chicken itself was juicy and not as rubbery as I’ve grown to expect from most other lunch counters. The barbecue sauce is just right: sweet and creamy with just a little kick at the finish. I would gladly revisit any and all of IKEA’s underwhelming chicken dishes if they opted for the fried variety, but I can’t see that happening any time soon given our nation’s interest in half-assed health-food options.
9. Carrot cake cupcake
For a dessert item that’s so obviously pulled from a giant box in a freezer and left out to thaw, the carrot cupcake is a real shocker in terms of flavor and texture. It’s hard to screw up the cake part itself if you add enough sugar, butter, and preservatives, but the real icing on the cake was, well, the icing. It stood atop the thing at roughly the same stature as the cake part itself, but the cream cheese that’s usually added to carrot cake icing did wonders in cutting the sweetness and adding enough density to keep it from sliding off in a fluffy mess after each bite. Adding a cup of coffee -- another remarkably pleasant feather in IKEA’s hat -- makes this a perfect bookend for a long day of pushing a shopping cart around.
8. Southwestern chicken wrap
I wasn’t wrong in expecting little more than the aforementioned chicken with black beans thrown in a wrap, but the triumph of this dish is the sauce that keeps each bite balanced and chewable. Chicken doused in some kind of peppery chipotle ranch is nothing new at grocery stores, but the surprising amount of success with which IKEA pulled this one off made me wonder why they don’t throw a bunch of these things in boxes and sell them alongside the hot dogs and soft-serve at the to-go counter between the checkout line and the exit. They could be onto something here.
7. Chicken balls
It would stand to reason that meatballs made from real meat would be a tastier, healthier upgrade to the original, but that’s just not the case. That’s not to say the chicken balls were bad, because they certainly were not. It’s impossible to pin down exactly what made them taste a little bit off, so we’ll chalk this one up to magic (or delicious preservative-laden “meat product”) and move along.
6. Lox salad
This was the only item on offer that truly felt like a risk. As much as I trust the Swedish to do uncooked salmon right, I spent the rest of the day after eating this waiting to double over in anguish. That turned out to be a non-issue, and praise Odin for that because this dish was outstanding in its simplicity. You get a mixed green salad with a generous cut of shimmering lox draped over it, and you don’t need much else to experience this Nordic treasure of salty deliciousness. I was tempted to grab another serving on the way out to take home and throw on a bagel, but I draw the line at transporting raw fish across town in the 100-degree afternoon sun. Seriously, it’s that good.
5. Melon and arugula salad with feta
Speaking of simple, this about as basic as it gets in the cold case. Folks are prone to overdoing it with melon in the summertime, but the thin slices paired with a light dusting of feta and crispy arugula go a long way in both flavor and the wholesome feeling you get from snacking on a dish with just three ingredients that are easily traced back to their origins. If anything, it’s inspiration for a guilt-free snack that has everything a hungry person could want -- crispy greens, sweet and juicy fruit, and the delicately salty funk of feta. You can make this at home, and you damn well should.
4. Salmon filet with dill sauce and spinach gratin
The change-up from raw to cooked salmon had me worried if IKEA could continue its hot streak, and this dish did not disappoint. The fish itself was adequately cooked but somewhat bland, which is where the cool and tangy dill sauce does it’s magic in making this dish a Scandinavian essential that only a massive warehouse of cheap furniture and wares near the airport could pull off. The spinach gratin is pleasant in the overall sense, though the flavor could use a bit more spinach-ness and a little less of the creamy goop that splatters out of the potato-y center when you dig in with your fork. The harmony of these items together is a wonderful thing to behold, and I would certainly order this again and again.
3. Swedish meatballs
The unimpeachable classic that people who’ve never even set foot in an IKEA know all about. As a former child who threw a fit when my food was touching adjacent items on the plate, the beauty in which the flavors of the meatballs, mashed potatoes, and lingonberry dressing mingle together has taught me what a miserable little shit I was for consuming food in such a manner for all those years.
The meatballs hold up well on their own -- salty and seasoned just enough to curb the “what exactly is in this?” feeling that lingers when consuming processed meat products -- but the sea of trimmings on the plate just beg to be dove into fork-first. If some cataclysmic event forced you and other shoppers to bunker down in an IKEA while waiting for rescue or death, this is a safe bet for what may be your last meal on Earth.
2. Chocolate cake
No metropolis large enough to support an IKEA is without a pretentious dessert cafe, and I’m being 100% serious when I say that the chocolate cake could easily be sold for $10 a slice at any of those places. This five-layered slice of heaven had me reinstalling the MyFitnessPal app on my phone (courtesy of IKEA’s free Wi-Fi!) for the 15th time in anticipation of quickly becoming addicted to this very cake.
The layers stack up from bottom to top like this: a crunchy Oreo-like cookie, ridiculously moist chocolate cake, fudge icing, more cake, more icing, and then a fudge ganache topped with delicately flaky chocolate shavings. I would eat each layer of this cake alone by the fistful, but the kind folks at whatever factory assembles these things have put it all in one awe-inspiring pile of sugar and heaven and rainbows and magic. I’m blabbering at this point. GO EAT THIS. NOW.
1. Barbecue rib dinner
With the exception of McDonald’s McRib sandwich, very little precedent exists to use for the judgment of this cafeteria masterpiece. To say my expectations were low is mostly false; I had none whatsoever. In that sense, IKEA’s rib dinner, which includes double-fried French fries and a hunk of cornbread, is a lot like Radiohead’s In Rainbows. That it was even willed into existence out of nowhere is remarkable, but what actually matters in the long run is the insatiable urge to revisit it over and over again. I won’t tell you this is the best rack of ribs I’ve ever had (it isn’t), but I will tell you that it decimates anything and everything in its class and beyond.
The sauce is sweet, smooth, and plentiful. The meat itself is fall-off-the-bone good, and there’s about twice as much between ribs as you’d find at Chili’s. Yeah, I said it: I love me some Chili’s, but its baby back ribs can go jump in a lake for all I care. But it doesn’t stop there: the fries. Sweet Jesus. Remember in the late '90s when Burger King made a big deal about the reinvention of its fries? It’s a lot like that memory, which has only been tarnished by 15+ years of eating BK fries on the reg in hopes of chasing the high I got off that first free hit on “Free Fries Day.” Putting ketchup on them is an affront to their flavor, unless putting ketchup on everything is your jam for whatever reason.
Then there’s that piece of cornbread -- so sweet and soft you could ice it and pretend it was a cupcake -- that seems like an over-the-top gesture in goodwill at this point, but good luck not eating the entire thing in two gluttonous chomps. You will lick your plate clean, then you’ll contemplate seconds, then you’ll commit to memory which day your local IKEA runs this meal as a discounted special. I wouldn’t share this with a first date -- to give a stranger I met on the Internet such an intimate peek at my wildest gastronomic desires is a bit much. But I would almost certainly propose on the spot to someone who enjoyed it as much as I did.
Pete Cottell is a writer at Thrillist, and he still prefers to sleep on a pool raft after having lived in a van for a year. Follow his absurdist tips for minimal living: @vanifestdestiny.