OY MEETS GRILL

Kibitz Delicatessen and Restaurant, 430 East Bell Road, Phoenix, 548-1918. Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

A receding hairline and an expanding paunch are not the only signs of growing older. I look in the mirror and ask: What happened to my former irresponsible self? Where's the guy who cut all his college classes for a fraternity-record five straight semesters? Where's the guy who got stranded at the racetrack after betting his bus fare home on a sure thing in the last race? Where's the guy who managed to get arrested and charged with a federal crime less than 24 hours after returning home from two years overseas?

These days, like an obedient zombie, I drive 55 mph on the Squaw Peak, tone my body at the gym and dutifully place my dirty clothes right-side out in the family laundry basket.

But age hasn't completely crushed my spirit. In a form of gastronomical bungee jumping, I now leap blindly into Valley delis, looking for the ultimate matzo-ball-and-pastrami rush. I jumped into a packed, lunchtime Kibitz Delicatessen and Restaurant and immediately got some good vibes. Mismatched tablecloths--a few with holes in them--cover the tables. Two wall-mounted televisions interfere with conversation. Artificial plants line the walls, and obligatory hanging salami dangle over the deli counter. I figure the crowd's not here saluting aesthetic breakthroughs in restaurant design. Is it the food?

For the most part, yes. A busperson swiftly swooped over with a platter of crunchy pickles and sour, green tomatoes tart enough to make my eager lips pucker with delight.

Then we started off in earnest with an outstanding chopped liver appetizer. It arrived as a huge, thick, chunky, oniony mound, dense enough to substitute for mortar and about as filling. To make my happiness complete, it came with great, fresh-baked rye bread, crusty and chewy, a perfect vehicle for transporting chopped liver.

Fortunately, my highly trained belly enabled me to forge ahead as easily as a marathon runner at the five-mile marker.

Deli sandwiches here won't erase connoisseurs' memories of the departed Carnegie Deli. But you can't eat memories, and anyway, these are plenty adequate.

They come piled with hefty amounts of meat, and Kibitz gives humans with normal appetites the option of ordering half-sandwiches. The pastrami is best, with a mouth-pleasing, fatty texture and a wonderful, crisp edge. The brisket could have been a bit juicier, but it did sport a strong, beefy taste. The corned beef, though, seems to have been hijacked by health-conscious terrorists somewhere along the way. It's so lean that it's too dry to chew and too bland to swallow. Sandwiches come with both hot, thick-cut French fries and a zippy, oniony coleslaw that, happily, doesn't taste like a derrick just scooped it out of a 100-gallon tub.

Fearful of undernourishment (after all, it had been more than four hours since breakfast), we decided to load up on some green, leafy side dishes like potato pancakes, blintzes and a meat knish.

The potato pancakes are heavy enough to anchor a cruise ship, just the way I like them, although there are other schools of thought. Blintzes are wide tubes of fried dough stuffed full of farmer cheese. Kibitz doesn't ask if you want them with sour cream or apple sauce--it thoughtfully furnishes both. The meat knish isn't for the faint-hearted, either. It's a monstrous piece of dough overflowing with beef and onions, accompanied by a brown gravy so thick it looks like it bubbled up from the La Brea tar pits. Don't drop your fork in it.

Kibitz has dinnertime options, as well. But why does it close so early, at 8 p.m.? Judging from the full house we saw on a Wednesday night at 7:30, an extra hour or two wouldn't go unrewarded.

Main dishes come with soup or salad. Still reeling from the previous day's lunch, I launched a sober stab at nutrition. I went for the broccoli soup, a creamy broth that had the courage to live up to its name. I didn't need to do much trolling to hook several broccoli florets and stalks. The dinner salad, on the other hand, had no redeeming qualities.

My chicken-in-a-pot entree featured a gigantic half-chicken shoehorned into a glassware bowl. Unfortunately, the bird was a bit tough, lacking that tear-off-the-bone tenderness that this cold-weather dish requires. Neither broth nor matzo ball had the requisite homemade touch. And I really missed the vegetables--carrot, celery, parsnip--that were about the only vegetables Mom got me to eat when I was a kid.

We also tried the stuffed cabbage, another dish that didn't quite hit the mark. The complex blend of sweet and sour flavors was there, but not quite in the right proportion. And the platter seemed a bit greasier than necessary.

Like the wonderful breads, Kibitz's desserts are also homemade, but they're not in the same league. Rugalach, little pastry rolls, weren't moist and buttery enough, and required too many swallows of coffee per bite. Cheesecake was too dry, as well. And bread pudding was almost inedible, hard lumpy pellets that tasted as if they'd been sitting around since the last Democratic inaugural.

Desserts aside, good food isn't the only thing attracting crowds here. Prices are exceptionally reasonable--$20 can easily fill up two. For deli-starved desert dwellers who can't look at an armless saguaro without being reminded of a Hebrew National salami, Kibitz is worth a stop. Zweig's Restaurant and Deli, 10135 East Via Linda, Scottsdale, 860-4199. Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

Zweig's has a certain forlorn air, compounded the night we were there by a lack of dinnertime bustle. A few celebrity posters adorn the mostly bare walls, and big windows unrelieved by curtains or blinds provide a view of the parking lot. Our dining area (there are two) seemed cavernous, with only nine tables in an area that looked like it can hold twice that many. Naturally, an ever-present television blared out from one corner throughout the evening.

A dish of crisp pickles and some fresh, chewy rye bread from Karsh's Bakery quickly met us at our table. For a few moments, I deluded myself into thinking that Zweig's might be one of those restaurants where ambiance and the quality of the food work in inverse proportion. But a tour of the menu wrenched me back into reality.

The soups accompanying dinners won't conjure up warm pictures of mom merrily cooking in the kitchen, surrounded by steaming, fragrant kettles. Mushroom barley soup didn't taste much like mushroom or barley, and had an unpleasant, starchy texture. Chicken soup with kreplach--meat-filled pouches of dough--featured soggy kreplach and a broth that tasted like the chicken had taken a quick dip rather than a prolonged plunge.

As for the main dishes, the homemade stuffed cabbage is curiously devoid of ethnic flavor. The sweet tang I associate with this dish never showed up, but unfortunately, a thin, watery tomato sauce did. The only mom I know who might have come up with something this bland is June Cleaver.

I doubt whether June could have whipped up the accompanying potato pancake, though. It's an appealing, thick, crisply fried disk with an unmistakable ethnic pedigree.

Flanken-in-the-pot is a much better dinner choice than stuffed cabbage. It consists of short ribs of beef of an inexpensive cut that must be cooked forever to become tender. Three of them were, in a mild broth with potatoes, carrots, a kreplach and a big, squishy matzo ball. Still, like the soups and stuffed cabbage, this dish didn't tap any Proustian wells of memory.

Nor will deli sandwiches remind pastrami and corned beef mavens of the overstuffed heartstoppers they find back East. The pastrami, like the corned beef at Kibitz's, is so lean it makes the rye bread seem juicy by comparison. It's also so highly seasoned that diners risk that awful, bloated-but-dry-mouthed feeling you can get after gulping six glasses of water trying to quench an unquenchable thirst.

Marbled with a bit more fat, the corned beef is a lot more flavorful. But there's no need to ask for a half-sandwich here--even my kid could hold the full portion in one little hand and get her mouth around it with no trouble.

Freshly prepared blintzes are by far the best thing we had here. More crepelike than doughy, these thin beauties come filled with a sweet cheese mixture that had me making animal-like snorts of pleasure. If everything at Zweig's tasted like this, I'd be camping out in the parking lot. But our rice pudding dessert, fresh out of the kitchen, brought us back to Earth with a thud. Someone forgot to cook the rice long enough. As far as I'm concerned, rice pudding is one treat, like chocolate ‚clairs and custard doughnuts, that should never crunch.

With Carnegie Deli gone, several Valley temples to heartburn can make legitimate claims to the crown. Maybe Zweig's could have been a contender. But right now, it looks like it's got a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

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