THE LOX WEEKEND

Chompie's, 10858 North 32nd Street, Phoenix, 971-8010. Hours: Sunday, 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Monday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Tuesday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Without rituals, anthropologists tell us, life has no meaning.
That's why Hindus purify their bodies by bathing in the Ganges River.
That's why we sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before sporting events.
That's why corporations sponsor company picnics.

Rituals make our gods accessible, our patriotism visible and our bosses more human.

When I was a kid, my family had an unalterable Sunday-morning ritual: A breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, smoked fish and pastry.

We'd sit down together. Dad would complain about the high cost of herring. Mom would tell me my hair was too long. My little sister would threaten to reveal my misdeeds, or even make some up, to get me in trouble. But I'd just quietly go about stuffing my face, oblivious to the din, high on our kind of soul food.

After I got my own family, the characters in this ritual drama remained the same: Mom, Dad and the kids. Only there were new faces in the old parts.

So when the family goes out Sunday morning for a Jewish-style breakfast, the meal must fill more than my belly. It must also satisfy its ritualistic function.

So far, Chompie's, a family nest of Brooklyn natives, is the best place I've found in the Valley to conduct Sunday-morning services. By 9:30 a.m. one recent weekend, the place was humming, every table filled with squabbling families, loving couples, sweaty hikers back from Squaw Peak, old geezers escaping their wives and earnest yuppies immersed in the Sunday paper.

Chompie's was reassuring the moment we stepped in. Long salamis hang over the deli counter. A mural along the far wall displays a chorus line of top-hatted men and high-kicking Rockettes dancing across the words "New York" and the city's distinctive skyline. Other walls host the obligatory Broadway show and movie posters and celebrity photos.

We ordered as if we were underweight, underfed and overpaid. Actually, $14.95 for the "smoked fish fantasy for two" is not out of line for what you get: a platter of terrific, silky, hand-sliced nova (smoked salmon), a hunk of moist, baked salmon, pungent, smoked whitefish and creamy, smoked sable. The fish packed enough salt to preserve us through Thanksgiving.

There was also lettuce, three puny slices of tomato, olives, cucumbers, two bagels and a disappointingly small plastic cup of cream cheese.

I had built up my daughter's expectations by describing the way bagels with cream cheese are constructed in New York. If done right, a bagel will have about a quarter of a pound of cream cheese slathered (the New York word is "schmeared") on it.

Instead, Chompie's puts the cream cheese in a separate container and lets the customer schmear it herself. That's probably a smart idea. After all, who really wants to eat four ounces of cream cheese? Still, I mourn the passing of this unhealthful tradition.

For some inexplicable reason, the platter also comes with a choice of two side dishes: home fries, coleslaw, potato salad or pasta salad.

Home fries? Potato salad? With bagels and lox? What next, chile rellenos?
How about some fruit, instead?
We also went for a side order of my all-time-favorite Sunday-morning treat: pickled herring in cream sauce. Healthwise it must be the single worst thing for you on God's green Earth--full of fat, cholesterol and calories. It should probably come with the Surgeon General's warning. Or a skull and crossbones.

Chompie's version is miles better than the stuff you get in jars. They're small pieces of herring filet in an onion-studded sour-cream sauce. Yum.

Chompie's also does a creditable version of matzo brei, crumbled up matzoh dipped in egg and cooked pancake-style in a skillet. However, without some jam to accompany it, this dish can get mighty dry. After a few bites, I practically had to move my daughter's jaw manually.

I was impressed with the blintzes, which the menu describes as "Jewish crepes." They're lightly fried pieces of dough, stuffed with farmer cheese. Purists dip them in sour cream. The kind of people who simultaneously order cheesecake and ask for Sweet and Low in their coffee dip them in applesauce.

But at $5.50 a pair, blintzes are no bargain. On the other hand, I remember a conversation between my mother and grandmother about the high cost of living.

"Oy vey," said Grandma, as Mom shelled out $1.25 for a loaf of rye bread, "back in the 30s, this used to cost a nickel." "Yeah," said Mom, "except in those days, we didn't have a nickel."
Of course, without good bagels, the whole breakfast enterprise is meaningless, an empty ritual. Chompie's bakes its own bagels, about 20 different varieties. While they're not quite as good as my remembrance of bagels past, they're better than the ones I've had on recent trips back East, and better than I've had anywhere else west of the Mississippi. The sad fact is that it's getting harder and harder to get good New York bagels even in New York.

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