Youth Wants to Gnaw

Carnivores don't get shortchanged. Veal Parmesan, at $14.95 the most expensive platter here, features lots of tender, nongristly veal and a heaping pile of spaghetti. Chicken Vesuvio is half a roasted chicken, fragrantly freshened with herbs, garlic and lemon. However, the side of mushy roasted potatoes needs work.

So does the pizza, with its thin, crackerlike crust and undistinguished cheese and sauce. No matter how much your kids whine, for their own good I'd steer them away from it.

Instead, promise them dessert. They may appreciate the Italian ices, tiramisu and fudgy chocolate cake. Discerning adults won't.

A family meal at Tucchetti won't leave you with a knot in your stomach or a hole in your wallet. At this time of year, how many other family activities can make the same claim?

Ed Debevic's Short Orders Deluxe, 2102 East Highland, Phoenix, 956-2760. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

There may be people who've eaten at Ed Debevic's more often than I have. But not too many have eaten there as long as I have.

I stopped in at the first Ed's, in Chicago, soon after it opened in the early 1980s. I took many family excursions to the Los Angeles branch after it arrived there a few years later. We've been repeat customers in Phoenix ever since our move here seven years ago.

Over the years, there have been several changes in ownership. (In fact, the restaurant was originally conceived by the same group that operates Tucchetti.) How does the Ed Debevic's of today compare with the Ed Debevic's of yesteryear? Two points:

1. The original 1950s malt shop/diner concept still works great--lots of blaring oldies, red-vinyl booths, role-playing servers, and Ed's pithy aphorisms ("The more you tip, the nicer we are") plastered all over the walls. You half expect to see Archie, Jughead and Veronica sitting at the counter.

2. The food has gone seriously downhill.
The second point may be irrelevant. I took a bunch of kids here and they had an absolutely great time. They yakked it up with the smart-aleck server, sang along when "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do" came over the music system, watched the staff perform the Brady Bunch theme song on top of the lunch counter and danced the macarena in the aisles. They even played along when I announced I was to be addressed as "Dr. Phunk" for the evening. ("More like Dr. Dweeb," snickered my kid to her friends.)

As you may have surmised, Ed Debevic's is not the first place you want to take a childless friend who is just recovering from a nervous breakdown. It's not the first place you want to take a visiting gourmet, either.

I still sorely miss the salad bar, which has been gone a couple of years now. It wasn't a favorite with the pintsize crowd, and probably not terribly profitable. But more often than not, its presence made me give in to the kids' request to eat here.

Instead, the menu offers a Chinese chicken salad that's about as Chinese as my Aunt Harriet. It's a pile of iceberg lettuce, a bit of cabbage, a few snow peas, several strips of bland poultry and some crunchy Chinese noodles, doused with an awful dressing that, if it did come from China, was probably deported.

Most of the other menu options make me long for the good old days, in more ways than one. The burgers are probably the best option, meaty and juicy. I had the Atomic Burger, purportedly zipped up with diced jalapenos. But this warhead was disarmed--I felt no heat whatsoever. Nevertheless, I appreciated the diced tomatoes, onions and jack cheese.

Consider filling up on nachos. They're surprisingly good, fresh chips loaded with chili, cheese and mounds of sour cream and guacamole.

The menu says the Deluxe Plates are "just like Ed's Mom used to make." If so, I'll bet Ed's dad yearned to eat out. Years ago I enjoyed the chicken pot pie, but these days it tastes like something out of a microwave box. The Chicken Finger basket is dreadful, deep-fried McFood that even the kids spurned. Chicken-fried steak is not the tenderest piece of animal protein I've sunk my teeth into, although the thick mashed spuds and creamed corn furnished side-dish aid. And the meat loaf's texture seemed off--it's too smooth. It also comes with unseasoned broccoli and carrots that only the threat of Mom's punishment could make you eat.

For dessert, the wonderful double chocolate malt can't be topped. The model here is guaranteed to bring out whatever kid is left in you. Forget about the Oreo Cookie Pie and Peanut Butter Pie. The menu calls them "homemade," but they have a waxy, institutional taste and texture.

I know Santa is pretty busy this time of year. Let's hope he has enough time to climb down Ed Debevic's chimney and straighten out the kitchen.

Toasted ravioli
Baked spaghetti
Chocolate cake

Ed Debevic's
Short Orders Deluxe:
Atomic Burger
Chicken pot pie
Chinese chicken salad
Double chocolate malt

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