AMERICAN BLANDSTAND

You're busy. It's hot. I won't waste your time. Here's a handy quiz to see if you should read Cafe this week.

Please answer yes or no:
1) Do you, like the Thief in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, have piles of money lying around your house which you toss on a nightly--or weekly--basis at your favorite chef in your favorite restaurant?

2) Do you own a house, a new car, have kids, live on a fixed income, go to school, teach or write poetry for a living? If you answered "yes" to Question 1, ciao, baby. See you back here next week--same time, same station. Unless you're a real penny-pinching tightwad, the gist of the paragraphs that follow will be meaningless to a person of your material stature.

If you answered "yes" to Question 2, rejoice! Things are not as bleak as they look. It is possible to be a normal person and afford an occasional dinner out with the family.

Oh, you sniff, here she goes advocating ethnic restaurants again.
Wrong-o.
While it is true that carefully chosen Mexican and Asian restaurants can offer great eating on a strict budget, we're talking traditional American dinners here. The kind featuring all four food groups, and in some cases, beverage or dessert.

Wow, you say. You're kidding.
No, I'm not. Read on for three such places. One of them may be in your wash of the desert.

The Country Corner in Chandler is one of those joints where the so-called country look has been taken to the extreme. Frenetic wall-stenciling verges on op art. Freestanding wooden cow, piggy and chicken knickknacks abound. In sum, shall we just say that hearts and flowers have been embraced wholeheartedly by this establishment?

The menu is big here. And, to quote an old acquaintance of mine, the food is big, too. Big food for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I haven't eaten lunch at Country Corner, but a morning meal shared here recently with a dining accomplice was quite good and quite, well, big.

But, I digress. I'm supposed to be telling you about dinner. What's for dinner? Well, all-you-can-eat daily specials served from 4 to 8 p.m. include fried chicken (Monday, $6.55), meat loaf (Tuesday, $5.75), spaghetti and meatballs (Wednesday, $5.95), stir-fry (Thursday, $6.45), shrimp and fish fry (Friday, $6.45) and bratwurst (Saturday, $5.95). Don't ask me what happens on Sundays, it's not on the menu.

There are thirteen other dinner entrees listed, all under $7, if mass consumption isn't your thing. Bread, salad or soup, potatoes and veggies come with each of them.

We slink into Country Corner on Meat Loaf Night. This is fine with my dining accomplice. He's a meat loaf-loving guy whose wife continues to resist his exhortations to stick her hands into raw hamburger, egg yolks and breadcrumbs and mush it up for him. (Good for her!) He tells me she also refuses to have ketchup in her house. (Hmmmm . . . )

For my part, I'm tempted by the "tender, oven-roasted turkey breast" dinner for $6.35, which promises "special-recipe sage dressing with delicious turkey gravy." Boy oh boy! With mashed potatoes? Is this heaven?

No, it's not. Our waiter informs me that the kitchen is all out of mashed potatoes.

This is a tragedy. Out of mashed potatoes? At 6:30 in the evening? Shattered, I tell him I have to reconsider my order. Turkey dinner with French fries or, God forbid, a baked potato just doesn't cut it. I ask for more time to think.

When our waiter returns, I'm all set to go with chicken fried steak and French fries for $6.85. But wait, he says, one last scoop of mashed potatoes has been located in the kitchen. Great, I tell him, I'll have the turkey. My dining accomplice has long ago placed his order for all-you-can-eat meat loaf. He's as happy as a clam.

The soup tonight is supposed to be vegetable, but what comes is beef vegetable. No, make that beef gravy with vegetables in it. It is thick and incredibly salty.

The tossed salad is decent. Yes, it's iceberg lettuce, but this is American food, remember? Iceberg is quintessentially American. Alfalfa sprouts provide an unexpected touch, and the blue cheese dressing is above average.

Two platter-size plates, mounded with food and garnished with an orange slice and parsley, are deposited in front of us.

I'm immediately let down by the turkey plate. Despite the menu's claims to the contrary, this is turkey roll: sliced rounds of half-white, half-dark processed turkey meat. The mashed potatoes look and taste old--did they find these in the back of the refrigerator? Not even the salty "turkey~" gravy can mask their age. The dressing is moist and sagey, as promised, but not outstanding.

However, the sauteed veggies--zucchini, carrots, mushrooms--are genuinely good. Fresh, hot and only mildly seasoned, they bode well for Thursday's all-you-can-eat stir-fry.

The meat loaf is so bready, my dining accomplice and I think it should be renamed meat toast. "Just pop a slice in your toaster," Mr. Meat Loaf snickers. "It's ready in seconds." Indeed, this is meat loaf crossbred with Texas toast. Incongruously, the accompanying gravy is highly spiced. It is not a nice combination.

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