TENDER LOVING SQUARES

You're trying to save money. Or maybe you're struggling to make ends meet. Times are hard, but there are a few things you're not willing to give up. Like a meal out with the family or friends every once in a blue moon. But where can you go if you're strapped to a tight budget and want sit-down service and good, old-fashioned American eats?

No discoveries here. Head to 24th Street and Osborn, in the heart of Phoenix, where you'll find Ham's Tavern & Restaurant and R.J.'s Osborn Restaurant. This is old news to many of you. To the newly frugal, however, these two venerable institutions of penny-wise dining may come as a revelation. If it's Tuesday, this must be meatloaf. And if it's meatloaf on Tuesdays, this must be Ham's. Actually, we miss out on the meatloaf. At Ham's the dinner specials change nightly. We stop in on a Wednesday, so our choices are confined to grilled ham steak, fried fish, barbecued beef ribs or the steak and shrimp special.

No biggie. My dining accomplice chooses the ham steak. I splurge and order the $6.95 steak and shrimp special. Not so secretly, I wish it was Monday so I could have Yankee pot roast, or Tuesday, for Southern fried chicken, or even Thursday, for the corned beef and cabbage.

Alas, daily dinner specials are offered that day and that day only at Ham's. I know, I ask. When I do, our kind waitress looks at me like I've got a few screws loose. Wednesday is Wednesday, her look implies--what are you, nuts?

But don't let me mislead you. If the daily dinner special doesn't appeal to you, there are a few other options available each night. Specifically, any night, Monday through Saturday, you may select an eight-ounce top sirloin, the sirloin steak sandwich, the minute steak, or two grilled pork chops for your dinner. That's because these items are listed in a section called "Daily Dinners."

When I was growing up, we had a similar arrangement. Each night there was a dinner special, i.e., what my mom cooked for dinner. Sometimes it was pot roast, sometimes baked chicken or spaghetti or Swiss steak. As at Ham's, it depended on the day of the week. But, if Mom's "daily dinner special" didn't appeal to you, you could with a certain amount of pleading and begging, obtain a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In our house, this was sort of analogous to Ham's minute steak--always available. Of course, if you opted for PB&J, you made it yourself; that was your punishment for turning thumbs down on Mom's nightly selection.

Yep, Ham's menu reminds me of home. So does the ambiance. No, I didn't grow up in a corner tavern, but corner taverns were part of the general landscape in the section of the Northeast where I came of age. All over New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, you'd see them at the intersection of Oak and Elm Streets, half brick, half aluminum siding, with neon signs in the steamy windows advertising Genesee Cream Ale and Carling Black Label.

I never actually visited one of these joints. But as a child, I saw them as warm, friendly and inviting. Quite often, these taverns were located in the middle of urban residential neighborhoods. They seemed like the kind of place where a workingman could commune over a beer or two with his neighbors after a hard day. Ham's strikes me like this, except lots of folks come to Ham's just to eat, not drink. "Mama said there'd be days like this." Our busy waitress says this aloud as she hustles back and forth across the linoleum between blue vinyl booths. There's a baseball game on the multiple TVs, and sports posters are tacked to the wood-panelled walls. Ham's has no nonsmoking section. When you exit, that smoky corner-tavern smell goes with you.

But it's a small price to pay for the authentic blue plate specials. My accomplice's ham steak and pineapple ring are grilled, as promised, and come with canned corn and a scoop of instant mashed potatoes. A plate of fresh, hot muffins and margarine are served with the meal.

My steak and shrimp special satisfies that basic surf-and-turf urge. The shrimp are breaded, but taste fine when dipped into cocktail sauce. The small strip steak is lean, watery and tasteless--nothing a shot or two of A.1. sauce won't fix. My vegetable is an acceptable tossed salad. The small, aluminum foil-wrapped baked potato I receive is not up to Chart House standards, but costs a whole lot less.

Hey, you gotta expect tradeoffs, right?
There's no dessert at Ham's, but your check will leave a sweet taste in your mouth. Not including alcohol, dinner for two, with tip, should cost you well under fifteen bucks. If Ham's reminds me of a corner tavern, R.J.'s Osborn Restaurant brings to mind a diner. That's a compliment. Before the recent boom in retro-cooking, diners were the last bastions of family-oriented, traditional American-style cooking. Places where you could order a burger with fries or liver and onions or a slice of homemade pie and coffee. Interestingly, on the outside, R.J.'s doesn't look like a diner. But inside, the restaurant is long and narrow and cozy like one. R.J.'s is busy. A cross section of society gathers in its booths and at its tables: families, couples, folks young and old. A round, Fifties-style mirror hangs above each booth in the space, where, at a real diner, you'd find those mini jukeboxes. I miss the jukeboxes, but like the mirrors.

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