For those of you who have already tossed out that freebie Hallmark calendar you pocketed last December, August 8 is Grandparents' Day. Which raises an important question: How does one commemorate Grandparents' Day? With a card? With a gift? With a trip to Tom Tate's?
Heck if I know. When I say my family reproduces late in life, I don't just mean late, I mean really late, like every 30 to 40 years. This makes the odds of knowing one's grandparents in one's adult years (or at all, for that matter) downright slim, and the chances of tasting one's grandmother's cooking even slimmer.
I envy those of you from families on more normal reproductive schedules. You probably have fond memories of Sunday dinners at Grandma's. There you are in her farmhouse kitchen, your parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters all seated around the table. Under the table, Sparky, your grandmother's brown-and-white spaniel, nudges your hand for scraps with his wet and insistent nose.
The food at Grandma's house is endless and good. "There's always more where that came from," your grandmother says, as the bowls pass round. Mashed potatoes, country gravy, biscuits, string beans, salad, fried chicken. You wash it all down with fresh lemonade and ask for more. "Nobody cooks like Grandma," you think. "Nobody cooks better."
The closest I'll come to experiencing that kind of eating is at home-style restaurants like Joan's Kitchen. Joan's (pronounced Jo-ANN's) is a warm-looking place, with framed family photos on the wall and woven napkins in napkin rings and food prepared from scratch. The mashed potatoes are real, the biscuits are hot, the enthusiasm is genuine.
Joan does all the cooking. Husband Gene serves drinks at the adjoining Back Porch bar. He also does the lion's share of the meetin' and greetin'. "How you folks doin'? Can I get you anything?" asks Gene as he makes the rounds. He is a cheerful, outgoing man who is proud of his wife's cooking. He should be. It is good, simple fare. Come dinnertime, you won't find anything fancy at Joan's Kitchen--just tried-and-true family recipes. Liver and onions, chicken-fried steak, broiled whitefish. The menu consists of six to eight entrees. I manage to taste about half.
My favorite, by far, is the chicken and dumplings. Admittedly, I've always had a weakness for creamed chicken--though, curiously, I railed against chicken a la king as a child. Joan's is creamy and hot and oh so comforting. The beigeness of this dish is offset by pimiento and the occasional green pea. The chicken meat is white and tender, the dumplings more like biscuits, but good.
My second favorite dinner entree at Joan's Kitchen would have to be her meatloaf. Sweetened with tomatoes and cut into generous brownie-size squares, it is quite unlike any other I've tasted.
Southern-fried pork chops are a bit of a disappointment. Pan-fried, they are thin and slightly tough.
The night I try the sirloin steak smothered in grilled onions and mushrooms, the kitchen is out of mushrooms. Our waitress is mortified and apologizes profusely. "Do you want something else?" she asks. I tell her no, that grilled onions alone will be fine. And they are. Translucent and hot out of the sautee pan, they remind me of Mom's. The steak, however, is only so-so. It has a preshaped look to it and has clearly been pan-fried also.
I love Joan's mashed potatoes. They support a pool of country gravy. I cherish each lump and bump, confirmation of their authenticity.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about Joan's "vegetable of the day." On one occasion, my dining accomplice and I receive unmemorable canned peas with cocktail-size onions. On our next visit, we are treated to corn mixed with diced pepper and onion that is no more than average. Both vegetables are overcooked addenda to the meal. They certainly do not appear to have received the nurturing touch applied to the potatoes and gravy.
Dinners come with soup or salad and a basket of biscuits. Both times I visit, the soup is a very nice cream of broccoli--not at all gloppy, and obviously homemade. Joan's biscuits are fluffy and not salty.
Overcome by Sixties nostalgia, we begin our meals with the relish tray, an assortment of raw vegetables served with ranch dressing in a cut-plastic bowl. You gotta love it.
Joan makes all her own desserts, just like Grandma did. I like the pineapple crunch, a cross between a pineapple "crisp" and upside-down cake. Our waitress raves about the carrot cake. "It's not heavy at all," she claims. She's right. It's more like spice cake with shredded carrots thrown into the batter. I would not order it again.
Granted, these are not the kind of victuals I'd eat every day, but when I need a little imaginary pampering from Grandma, I know where to come. Joan's Kitchen is home cooking at its best--nothing artificial, nothing flashy, just like you'd get at Grandma's house.
Too bad the Weather Vane is where Grandma and Gramps are likely to end up when they're looking for good, old-fashioned home cooking. The day we visit, most of the people in the restaurant are seniors. But this sterile East Mesa eatery is replica rather than real thing, attracting customers with claims of "best chicken-fried steak in the world" and "quality home-style cooking at low prices."
At least the "low prices" part is true. Most dinner entrees run under seven dollars. The most expensive item on the menu is a 12-ounce prime rib priced at $11.99, but smaller cuts are available for $10.99 and $9.99. It won't break your pocketbook to dine here, but it might break your spirit.
The first thing I notice about the Weather Vane is how close together the tables are positioned. All the better to pack in those winter visitors from nearby Apache Junction, I guess. This disturbs me. There's no reason for it other than greed. Crowding certainly doesn't enhance the dining experience.
The second thing I notice is that our waitress is trained with robotlike precision to deal with the senior set. She repeats our entire order back to us, as in a fast-food restaurant. She announces every move: "Here's your your cup of tomato-florentine soup." Don't get me wrong, she is very sweet, and I'm sure this kind of service is helpful, but it's a dead giveaway that they're catering to silver-haired folks. As for the menu itself, it's a food-service sales rep's dream. Most of it is stored in the freezer prior to "cooking": fried zucchini, mushrooms and mozzarella; teriyaki chicken and chicken-fried steak; fried shrimp and fried fish nuggets. Even the strawberries on the strawberry shortcake have been thawed.
Perhaps sensing the disappointment in store, I order a classic cheeseburger with fries. It is an average frozen hamburger topped with a slice of American cheese, served on a semistale bun with a leaf of lettuce. As anticipated, it is nothing to write home about.
My accomplice's chicken-fried steak is another matter. The world's best? Which world are we talking about? Certainly not Earth, third planet from the Sun in this solar system. Topped with a standing half-inch of solid, cream-colored gravy, this is a chicken-fried steak not even worth brief discussion, much less letters home. In fact, the less said, the better. It doesn't help matters that everything on the plate is beige, save for an orange slice arranged on a piece of lettuce. Creative.
Dessert is abysmal. The aforementioned strawberry shortcake shows up on the same biscuits that accompanied the chicken-fried steak. Apple crisp a la mode has the consistency of peanut butter and is smothered in melting ice cream and some kind of aerosol whipped topping.
Perhaps the funniest thing that occurs while we are in the Weather Vane is a conversation overheard in the booth behind us. Man in the booth: "Do you have mashed potatoes?" Waiter: "Everyone asks that. No, sorry, we don't." Man: "Why not?" Waiter (slightly exasperated): "You'll have to ask the manager. We've told him for six months he should get mashed potatoes, but he still hasn't done it." Man in the booth: "I'll have the applesauce."
In short, if what is being served at the Weather Vane passes for home-style cooking, it's the kind I want to avoid. Tell your grandparents to do the same.
Joan's Kitchen, 7620 East McKellips, Scottsdale, 946-1849. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday; Dinner, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.
The Weather Vane, 7303 East Main, Mesa, 830-2721. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.
Under the table, Sparky, your grandmother's brown-and-white spaniel, nudges your hand for scraps with his wet and insistent nose.
MDBUjoan's He is a cheerful, outgoing man who is proud of his wife's cooking. He should be. It is good, simple fare. I love Joan's mashed potatoes. I cherish each lump and bump, confirmation of their authenticity.
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She announces every move: "Here's your salad with blue cheese dressing. Here's your cup of tomato-florentine soup."
As for the menu itself, it's a food-service sales rep's dream. Most of it is stored in the freezer prior to "cooking.