BUN APPETIT

Wolfie's, 5010 East Shea, Phoenix, 991-0707. Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Remember the most memorable hamburger you ever had?
Lee Iacocca does. In his best-selling autobiography, he lovingly recalls an absolutely scrumptious burger in almost the same detail as he does the Ford Mustang.

He was lunching in the company's executive dining room with Henry Ford II, who ate almost nothing except hamburgers. Ford remarked that no one, not even his personal cook, could make a burger like Joe, the Swiss-Italian chef there. Curious about the chef's exceptional talents, Iacocca went back to the kitchen after lunch to find out the secret of the perfect burger.

The chef was happy to oblige. He went to the refrigerator and pulled out an expensive hunk of prime New York steak. He stuffed the meat through a grinder and formed it into a patty. Then he slapped it on the grill.

"Any questions?" Joe asked.
It's almost eerie to realize how much Henry Ford and I have in common. He made cars. I drive one every day. He liked the company of rich, glamorous women. So do I. And we both appreciate simple, well-made American fare.

So I set out to track down some old-fashioned U.S. favorites--soups, burgers, sandwiches, fries, desserts--that could satisfy an itch for quality without forcing you to skip the monthly payment on the Taurus.

First stop, Wolfie's. Although not related to restaurants of the same name in Miami and New York, it's got a similar air. Sink into plush, black-vinyl booths, gaze at celebrity photos and listen to piped-in Neil Diamond. Patrons into proofreading can also amuse themselves by counting the errors on the ten-page menu. We started off with a substantial cup of homemade split-pea soup, perked up with flavorful bits of bacon. It came as thick as lava, nearly as hot and just as filling. The soup might not be too appealing in July, but it went down real easy on a cold winter evening. Then we plunged into burgers. The plain, half-pound steak burger would have pleased even the fussy Henry Ford. It's outstanding, a juicy, beefy hunk of cholesterol and animal protein. Even cooked at the government-mandated temperature of 155 degrees, this is a burger to sink your canines into. There's lettuce, tomato and red onion on the side to gratify any latent herbivorous instincts.

Wolfie's also offers two alternative burgers that Joe wouldn't have admitted to the executive dining room. The chicken burger--it's ground-up chicken, with a strong, off-putting taste--has a lot in common with the Ford Pinto: You wouldn't want to run into either one. Sure, it's better for you than the steak burger. So what?

The turkey burger, having somewhat less taste, is correspondingly somewhat better. But it costs almost twice as much as the steak burger, and isn't even half as good. Even though it came with a pleasing bowl of homemade fruit salad--apple, pineapple and grapes--you don't need an M.B.A. to figure out that it's still not much of an investment.

If burgers aren't your style, you won't go wrong with the hot-beef sandwich. The meat's very lean, but not dry. It's also packed into a French roll that actually had a fresh-baked taste.

Wolfie's side dishes are a mixed lot. The half-sour pickles set out on the tables had the appropriate crunch. The mayo-drenched potato salad had a sweet and tangy touch. The coleslaw, though, seemed to have undergone a lengthy deflavorization process.

Most disappointing were the French fries. The burger plates arrived with tons of crosshatched spuds, but these sodden critters had clearly spent a great deal of time lounging in the kitchen before making an appearance on our plates. I'm certain Henry Ford, like me, preferred his fries hot and crisp.

We turned to a couple of all-American desserts and willingly paid the caloric price. The sour-cream apple pie was a delight, made with tart Granny Smiths.

The thick malted, rich with Ben & Jerry's ice cream, was so luscious that I successfully rationalized its consumption: I'm not too heavy for my height, I told myself, just too short for my weight. Wolfie's is hardly a burger-and-malt shop, but I'd come back for them. I think Lee and Hank would, too.

The Rare Bird, 7730 East McDowell, Scottsdale, 949-9705. Hours: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

I don't think I've ever encountered more cheery service than I received at the Rare Bird, a new Scottsdale bar-burger-sandwich joint. The effervescent waitress was grinning as if Ed McMahon had just shown up at her door with a large check, a subscription to Sports Illustrated and a free sneaker phone. I liked her attitude--who wants to be served by a sourpuss?

Obviously, though, she hadn't been sampling the Rare Bird's chicken potato soup, a foolproof cure for a case of the smiles. Despite being microwaved to the surface temperature of Venus, the soup featured unwholesome lumps of undercooked potatoes.

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