You're busy. It's hot. I won't waste your time. Here's a handy quiz to see if you should read Cafe this week.
Please answer yes or no:
1) Do you, like the Thief in Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, have piles of money lying around your house which you toss on a nightly--or weekly--basis at your favorite chef in your favorite restaurant?
2) Do you own a house, a new car, have kids, live on a fixed income, go to school, teach or write poetry for a living? If you answered "yes" to Question 1, ciao, baby. See you back here next week--same time, same station. Unless you're a real penny-pinching tightwad, the gist of the paragraphs that follow will be meaningless to a person of your material stature.
If you answered "yes" to Question 2, rejoice! Things are not as bleak as they look. It is possible to be a normal person and afford an occasional dinner out with the family.
Oh, you sniff, here she goes advocating ethnic restaurants again.
While it is true that carefully chosen Mexican and Asian restaurants can offer great eating on a strict budget, we're talking traditional American dinners here. The kind featuring all four food groups, and in some cases, beverage or dessert.
Wow, you say. You're kidding.
No, I'm not. Read on for three such places. One of them may be in your wash of the desert.
The Country Corner in Chandler is one of those joints where the so-called country look has been taken to the extreme. Frenetic wall-stenciling verges on op art. Freestanding wooden cow, piggy and chicken knickknacks abound. In sum, shall we just say that hearts and flowers have been embraced wholeheartedly by this establishment?
The menu is big here. And, to quote an old acquaintance of mine, the food is big, too. Big food for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I haven't eaten lunch at Country Corner, but a morning meal shared here recently with a dining accomplice was quite good and quite, well, big.
But, I digress. I'm supposed to be telling you about dinner. What's for dinner? Well, all-you-can-eat daily specials served from 4 to 8 p.m. include fried chicken (Monday, $6.55), meat loaf (Tuesday, $5.75), spaghetti and meatballs (Wednesday, $5.95), stir-fry (Thursday, $6.45), shrimp and fish fry (Friday, $6.45) and bratwurst (Saturday, $5.95). Don't ask me what happens on Sundays, it's not on the menu.
There are thirteen other dinner entrees listed, all under $7, if mass consumption isn't your thing. Bread, salad or soup, potatoes and veggies come with each of them.
We slink into Country Corner on Meat Loaf Night. This is fine with my dining accomplice. He's a meat loaf-loving guy whose wife continues to resist his exhortations to stick her hands into raw hamburger, egg yolks and breadcrumbs and mush it up for him. (Good for her!) He tells me she also refuses to have ketchup in her house. (Hmmmm . . . )
For my part, I'm tempted by the "tender, oven-roasted turkey breast" dinner for $6.35, which promises "special-recipe sage dressing with delicious turkey gravy." Boy oh boy! With mashed potatoes? Is this heaven?
No, it's not. Our waiter informs me that the kitchen is all out of mashed potatoes.
This is a tragedy. Out of mashed potatoes? At 6:30 in the evening? Shattered, I tell him I have to reconsider my order. Turkey dinner with French fries or, God forbid, a baked potato just doesn't cut it. I ask for more time to think.
When our waiter returns, I'm all set to go with chicken fried steak and French fries for $6.85. But wait, he says, one last scoop of mashed potatoes has been located in the kitchen. Great, I tell him, I'll have the turkey. My dining accomplice has long ago placed his order for all-you-can-eat meat loaf. He's as happy as a clam.
The soup tonight is supposed to be vegetable, but what comes is beef vegetable. No, make that beef gravy with vegetables in it. It is thick and incredibly salty.
The tossed salad is decent. Yes, it's iceberg lettuce, but this is American food, remember? Iceberg is quintessentially American. Alfalfa sprouts provide an unexpected touch, and the blue cheese dressing is above average.
Two platter-size plates, mounded with food and garnished with an orange slice and parsley, are deposited in front of us.
I'm immediately let down by the turkey plate. Despite the menu's claims to the contrary, this is turkey roll: sliced rounds of half-white, half-dark processed turkey meat. The mashed potatoes look and taste old--did they find these in the back of the refrigerator? Not even the salty "turkey~" gravy can mask their age. The dressing is moist and sagey, as promised, but not outstanding.
However, the sauteed veggies--zucchini, carrots, mushrooms--are genuinely good. Fresh, hot and only mildly seasoned, they bode well for Thursday's all-you-can-eat stir-fry.
The meat loaf is so bready, my dining accomplice and I think it should be renamed meat toast. "Just pop a slice in your toaster," Mr. Meat Loaf snickers. "It's ready in seconds." Indeed, this is meat loaf crossbred with Texas toast. Incongruously, the accompanying gravy is highly spiced. It is not a nice combination.
Our waiter seems hurt when my accomplice says he's had all the meat loaf he wants. "No seconds?" No, just the check.
The out-the-door cost of our meal at Country Corner, including tax and tip, is $15. Not bad. And the food wasn't bad. But, other than the sauteed veggies, it wasn't that good, either.
On a Friday night, another accomplice and I head over to the West side to try the New Yorker Family Restaurant. The New Yorker looks like the kind of place where in the late Sixties you and your mom stopped to eat triple-decker burgers after shopping at the new mall. In fact, the hanging lamps and general decor scream Space Age. There's a lunch counter, lots of vinyl booths and NO nonsmoking section.
"I'll put you in this corner," the hostess says, leading us to a secluded alcove. "No one's smoking over here."
Maybe not at the moment, but in a short while the section is filled with smokers of all kinds. "Is this smoking?" one guy asks. When the waitress indicates smoking is allowed everywhere in the restaurant, he raises his fist in a gesture of solidarity. He then proceeds to pull out a pipe.
Service is super-quick at this popular restaurant, faster than at some fast-food drive-ins. By the time we pay our check and leave, all the tables around us have turned over at least once.
Nightly specials and dinner entrees are very reasonably priced. The fare the night we visit includes prime rib au jus ($6.85), Greek-style chicken over rice ($4.65), roast duck with dressing ($5.40) and liver with onions ($4.15). At $6.75, NY strip steak is the most expensive item on the menu.
We go with the roast duck and the shrimp Creole ($4.55). Within seconds, tossed salads are placed in front of us. Mine is okay until I discover a half-inch of water at the bottom of the bowl. My accomplice is a little bummed to find an iceberg lettuce core in his.
Not five minutes have passed when our meals appear, along with some bread and scoops of butter substance in paper cups. "Are you done with your salads?" our waitress inquires. Yes, please take them away.
Ah! The New Yorker's mashed potatoes are a decided improvement over Country Corner's. They are whipped and hot, and the light-colored gravy poured over them is peppery and flavorful. The one-quarter duck is tender and not too greasy, the dressing moist and hot, but unmemorable. Only the dreary-looking (albeit steamed) cauliflower and carrots are disappointing.
Speaking of moms, shrimp Creole is the kind yours would have made with a recipe culled from Woman's Day had you grown up inland. Made with frozen bay shrimp, this Creole, served over rice in a bowl, is heavy on the canned tomatoes and green pepper. It's homey in that mediocre, adapted way.
Our waitress has already dropped off our check. We must flag her down to order dessert. She seems startled. Most people don't order dessert, I guess. She rattles off a list of pies. We ask her if they're baked here. Our waitress shakes her head. We order a couple of slices anyway.
Why did we bother? Both the chocolate cream pie ($1.45) and apple pie a la mode ($1.95) are cheap and commercial. The piping hot apple pie has been nuked and bonds to the roof of my dining accomplice's mouth.
By the time we leave, each of us has smoked the equivalent of three cigarettes--just from breathing. We're out of there for $16.50, including tax and tip. You can do it for less by skipping dessert, a course of action I recommend.
When I first moved to Phoenix from New York, Andros Restaurant seemed like familiar territory. A Greek coffee shop where you can order mashed potatoes with gravy and a Greek salad if the mood strikes you. Sometimes I have moods like that.
It's been four years since I last visited Andros. In the interim, the restaurant has been spruced up and modernized. Peach and teal are the dominant colors, with oak-look Formica tables and brass hanging lamps. Situated across from a large Motorola complex, Andros is now a savvy coffee shop for well-dressed clientele where you can have a Manhattan with your lunch if you want to. The adjoining bar is always full.
And the food is still good. Looking at the menu, I am tantalized again by roast turkey with dressing ($6.45), but this time I'm days older and light-years wiser. "Is it real turkey?" I ask our waitress, a middle-aged woman with a European accent. "Oh, yes, hon," she nods. "It's real." My dining accomplice orders grilled pork chops with applesauce for $6.95.
Dinners come with soup or salad, bread, vegetable, potato, and pudding or Jell-O. The soup is yummy. It's thick chicken rice with vegetables--not lemony enough to be Greek lemon-chicken soup, but close. I like it. The tossed salad is standard iceberg and red cabbage.
Our waitress comes toward us, carrying large plates of food. Dinner is served. Sure enough, the turkey is real slices of the Thanksgiving bird. But what really stands out is the hot, moist dressing. It is fantastic! Slightly lemon flavored, it tastes almost as if it were made from rye bread, but our waitress disagrees. "Maybe whole wheat," she says.
Andros' mashed potatoes are made from real potatoes; too bad they're not hotter. Canned corn serves as "the vegetable"--an unfortunate choice for this already starchy meal. Oh well, at least they give you cranberry jelly.
The pork chops are large and pan-fried, tasty and not too tough. My dining accomplice eats them with relish. I must say his French fries are good, too.
We are slumped in our booth, stuffed to the gills when our waitress comes to clear our unemptied plates. "How about some nice rice pudding?" I remind myself I'm on the job and sit up. "What else do you have?" I ask. "Just rice pudding," she replies. I tell her I'll have some.
The pudding comes with whipped topping and nutmeg sprinkled on top. I can't eat more than a few spoonfuls, but it's good and liquidy.
Our meal at Andros, the best of the three, sets us back $22, with tax and tip. It could have run around $17, but--I confess--I had to order a Greek salad, too. And it was good! Well marinated in red wine vinegar and olive oil, this salad features real calamata olives and lots of creamy feta cheese. Mmmmm-mmmmm, just like Pizza King on Broadway and 76th Street in NYC used to make it.
The Country Corner, 70 West Warner, Chandler, 786-0195. Hours: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Saturday; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday.
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New Yorker Family Restaurant, 8002 North 27th Avenue, Phoenix, 995-8787. Hours: 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday; 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
Andros Restaurant, 8040 East McDowell, Scottsdale, 945-9573. Hours: 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week.
My accomplice is a meat loaf-loving guy whose wife continues to resist his exhortations to stick her hands into raw hamburger.
The shrimp Creole is the kind your mom would have made with a recipe culled from Woman's Day had you grown up inland.