Me Starvin', You Chain

The only disappointment? It's the Alaskan halibut, a special that wasn't very. It's just a basic piece of grilled fish. The sides of beans and dandelion greens helped, but weren't enough to stifle my yawns.

Give Piatti credit for making its desserts in-house, instead of importing them from a corporate commissary. And give the bosses credit for hiring someone with the talent to make them. Tiramisu, molten chocolate cake and brioche bread pudding end the meal on a high note. So do the superb coffee and espresso, which somebody here knows how to brew.

So what if Piatti is a chain? It dishes out the kind of fare I wouldn't mind being shackled to.

Cracker Barrel, 21611 North 26th Avenue, Phoenix, 582-6020. Hours: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

It's late. You're traveling on an interstate, searching for a room. You see the Bates Motel at the next exit, its sign flashing "Vacancy" and "Rooms, $19.95." At the same time, you see a billboard announcing a Holiday Inn 30 miles away. Do you pull into the Bates Motel, or drive another half-hour?

Of course, you drive on. Chains offer security, comfort and predictability. Who knows what the Bates Motel is like?

Cracker Barrel, which does business at interstate exits in 35 states, offers the same security, comfort and predictability. This chain really has its act together. And for mom and dad, it's an especially attractive alternative to feeding the kids at a deep-fried, fast-food outlet.

The company is building outlets all over the Valley, each with its trademark, "Old Country Store" theme. Outside, there's always a big porch, filled with inviting rocking chairs for sale. Inside, almost half the space is devoted to a retail shop, filled with a zillion useless knickknacks. The restaurant area features animal heads mounted on the wall, a stone fireplace and vintage photos and magazines. The North 26th Avenue branch also pipes in, at mercifully low decibel levels, country tunes from KNIX.

There are three very good reasons to eat here: The food is good; there's plenty of it; and the tab won't set off the alarm bells on your account at Visa headquarters.

Meals get off to a good start with a basket of fresh corn muffins and excellent buttermilk biscuits. A homemade soup of the day is also worth considering. The thick, creamy broccoli-cheese broth actually tasted like broccoli and cheese.

Most entrees are in the $7 to $8 range, and it's a range just about everyone should be at home on. Sugar-glazed ham is irresistible, grilled up with a sweet, caramelized edge. The chicken in the chicken and dumplings looks and tastes like white meat that came off a real chicken breast. And the dumplings smothered in thick gravy have a bit of heft to them, just the way I prefer them.

Chicken pot pie also shows the kitchen's facility with poultry. This peppery model features lots of carrot and a fresh-tasting pastry-crust canopy. Spicy grilled catfish is another effective entree, very moist and touched up with mild Cajun seasonings.

Somewhat more ordinary is the meat loaf, which lacks beefy punch. Though I enjoyed the tangy, oniony barbecue sauce, the slab of ribs isn't quite rib-parlor quality. And while the thinly stocked beef stew is tasty enough, it's more accurately described as beef soup--the liquid-to-solid ratio is way out of whack.

Don't bother with fried shrimp. It's strictly institutional--all batter and no shrimp taste. Pork barbecue is so inoffensive it makes almost no impression. And the none-too-juicy hamburger comes slathered with mayonnaise--ugh.

The side dishes are a major part of the Cracker Barrel operation, and a source of its appeal. Most entrees come with two or three, and some are so good you'll want to make a meal of them. At the top of the list are the remarkable turnip greens, flavored with ham hock. They come with a cruet of vinegar--sprinkle some on, just like they do in the backcountry. The hashbrown casserole, crisped up with cheese and onion, is also praiseworthy, as are the homemade mashed potatoes, ham-spiked pinto beans and sweet fried apples.

Desserts aren't subtle. The best is the caramel-pecan bread pudding, a stunningly sweet concoction. Look for raisin-studded, coconut-flavored bread pudding, drenched with caramel sauce and topped with candied pecans and ice cream. Yikes. Chocolate peanut butter pie is as rich as it gets. And kids will enjoy the brownielike chocolate cobbler, topped with ice cream and hot fudge.

Sure, Cracker Barrel's setting and fare are pure chain-restaurant formula. In this case, however, you've got to give management credit for factoring quality and value into the equation.

Sauteed sweetbreads
Veal scaloppine
Molten chocolate cake

Cracker Barrel:
Broccoli-cheese soup (cup)
Chicken pot pie
Sugar-cured ham
Caramel-pecan bread pudding

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