TRAYS OF OUR LIVES

Luby's Cafeteria, 4550 East Cactus (Paradise Valley Mall), Phoenix, 494-9722. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

I can't set foot in a cafeteria without thinking about The Goon.
The Goon remained an 11th grader throughout the LBJ presidency. For three years, in my tough New York City high school, he'd wait for me and my tray just outside the cafeteria line. "Hey, man," he'd say, "for a quarter I'll walk you to your table and keep you out of trouble."

The particular "trouble" the two bits would forestall was his beating the living daylights out of me after school.

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Luby's Cafeteria

4550 E. Cactus Road
Phoenix, AZ 85032-7711

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: North Phoenix

Impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit and prison record, I dutifully forked over the daily tithe.

Apparently, customs are different here in the Southwest. None of the three Valley cafeterias I visited offered protection, or needed to.

Cafeterias, I discovered, no longer merely aim to be the feeding grounds for snowbirds hungering after Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. Instead, they're shooting for mass appeal with a touch of culinary innovation.

And while the adjectives "fresh," "healthful," "imaginative" and "flavorful" still can't compete with "cheap" and "filling" to describe what's in the rows of chafing dishes, in a few instances, at least, the concepts seem to have trickled down. Luby's, for instance, boasts that everything is made from scratch, on the premises. The food is fresh, cheap and, occasionally, pretty tasty.

Apart from a few plants and an American flag standing sentinel at the entrance, Luby's is absolutely bereft of decor. That's what makes the big clock, prominently hung on the bare, long wall across from diners, so mesmerizing.

Its message is hypnotic and subtle. Every tick in this crowded room says, "You're busy, don't linger." Years ago, a New York coffee-shop chain aimed for high turnover by installing seats that would give patrons a backache after 15 minutes.

The food choices here are just as calculated. You're not likely to dally in line discussing the fine points of chicken-fried-steak preparation. Nor will you mull over the complex blend of cheeses melted over the macaroni.

But I really enjoyed the big bowl of creamy clam chowder, thick with potatoes and clams. That is, until I scraped bottom and scooped up a spoonful of grit. But except for a mushy, flavorless garlic breadstick, that was the only truly unpleasant item I ran into here.

The main dishes ranged in taste from palatable to surprisingly palatable. Fried haddock featured a thick hunk of fish in a light, crispy batter--sort of a grown-up fish stick. The mild baked cod was not overcooked, but flaky and moist. And for $2.19, I got a ton of fried chicken, a meaty breast and wing encased in puffy, nongreasy batter that actually had a fresh, out-of-the-fryer taste.

Only the dismal ham had that unmistakable cafeteria flair. Supposedly glazed, it lacked any hint of honey or cloves. The principal seasoning seemed to be air, a favorite cafeteria condiment. Panning through the side dishes rewarded us with several nuggets. Turnips, heavily sweetened and buttered to negate any potential nutritional benefits, were scrumptious. Sliced new red potatoes, still sporting their skin, could perk up any main dish. The mushrooms in the mushroom rice couldn't be picked up even by an electron microscope, but the savory rice had a pleasing peppery kick. And the spinach made eating my greens a pleasure rather than a chore.

But if you closed your eyes, you couldn't tell the mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas and macaroni and cheese apart by either taste or texture. And it's a good thing the macaroni was slathered with yellow glop, or even the gift of sight wouldn't have done much good.

Desserts look tempting enough, but cafeterias are not a good place to let your imagination run wild. Pecan pie had the right caramelized crunch on top, but the sweet inner goo was unappealingly gelatinous. Cheesecake was way too light, a fatal defect. And the chocolate cake tasted strictly generic.

If you must have a sweet with your coffee, skip the dessert counter and pick up one of the cinnamon rolls. They're quite good, dripping with raisins, nuts, sugar glaze and calories. Furr's Cafeteria, 8114 North Black Canyon Highway, Phoenix, 995-1588. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

Like network-television fare, cafeteria food is also pitched to the mass market. That's why lowest-common-denominator shows like Laverne & Shirley get on the air, and why lowest-common-denominator grub like chicken-fried steak gets into chafing dishes. In both cases, it's the bland leading the bland.

A trip through Furr's food line bears other eerie similarities to boob-tube programming. Both diners and viewers confront incredibly uneven quality. Most of it is tasteless; a small percentage escapes mediocrity; and all of it is unbelievably cheap.

Furr's makes a stab at decor, opting for the Western lodge look. It's woodsy, with touches of brick. Western art from the paint-by-the-numbers school adorns the walls. So does the inevitable clock. The customers jammed in here hardly fit my preconception that the average age of a cafeteria diner is deceased. Furr's attracts a lot more than the nursing-home crowd. Families, couples, workers and even some Generation X members made up part of the long line we ran into.

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