R.J.'s Osborn Restaurant, 2333 East Osborn, Phoenix, 956-4420. Hours: Lunch and Dinner, Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
What makes the words "home cooking" so appealing? They conjure up such gauzy, nostalgic visions: Mom working over the stove, lovingly putting together tasty, fresh-baked, steamy-hot, good-for-you meals that fill the whole house with their intense aromas. Home cooking like this did more than merely subdue hunger pangs. It also satisfied our longings for security, warmth and love. After all, Mom wouldn't stint on food quality. She wouldn't pick on you, like your teachers or your boss, and, best of all, her efforts were completely unconditional--she asked for nothing in return. Restaurant marketers know just how powerful and alluring the home-cooking label can be these days, as the disjunction between our image of the past and the reality of the 1990s grows ever wider. Let's face it--if your household is locked into the 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. grind, home is probably the last place you might expect to find home cooking. The numbers tell the amazing story: Almost half of all American food dollars are spent eating out.
Of course, it's easy to overromanticize the good old days. After all, Mom was cooking up a storm because that's what nature supposedly intended her to do. But home-cooked meals aren't worth cooping up half of the population's creative energies in the kitchen.
That still leaves us, though, with the problem of finding meals outside the home that satisfy our need for both physical and psychic nourishment without putting us in the poorhouse. So I set out to track down food that was homey, tasty and affordable.
R.J.'s Osborn Restaurant doesn't look like much from the outside. It's a small, unpretentious, '50s-style cottage whose parking lot has enough potholes to throw a tank out of alignment.
Inside, though, the impression changes dramatically. The first things we saw one Friday night were the pretty homemade pies sitting on the counter, just inside the entrance. It's a brilliant stroke, subconsciously reminding diners of Mom's pies cooling on a windowsill. At least that's the kind of spell they cast over me, even though I never saw a pie on any windowsill in the Brooklyn housing project I grew up in. In any case, the sight of them stimulated enough false memories to get me mentally ordering dessert before I sat down. The place is as neat and tidy as a well-kept home. Smudge-free mirrors etched with the restaurant's name line one wall; framed Southwestern prints hang on the other. The dozen or so booths and tables sport vases with paper flowers. The servers add to the charm, affably greeting regulars and making first-timers feel comfortable. And there's nothing contrived about the feeling. The menu sticks to basics--battered seafood, burgers, sandwiches--and four or five daily specials. But the kitchen generally manages to turn simplicity into a virtue. This is feel-good food at a bargain price. The starters, however, don't get you off to a very quick start. Neither the clam chowder nor the cream of mushroom soup would lead me to believe somebody in the kitchen had been stirring a bubbling caldron for several hours. The other appetizers are preceded by the word "fried." If the zucchini strips are indicative, no one's been making these items from scratch, either. Better to take the appetite edge off by dipping into the breadbasket. It holds fresh-tasting biscuits that will help pass the time until the entrees arrive. Home cooking doesn't get much homier than chicken-fried steak. R.J.'s version is first-rate, a hearty helping of exceptionally tender meat, thinly battered and fried to a fresh, crispy crunch. An Oklahoma buddy who ate chicken-fried steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner as a kid once told me that he could assess the quality of this dish before he ever took a bite. How? If he could cut it with just a fork, he'd know he was in for some good eating. This morsel passes his test. And I'm sure he'd be pleased by the bucketful of creamy country gravy, thick enough to plug most of the body's major arteries. But routine mashed potatoes and too many canned green beans rounded off the platter. As she took my plate away, the server gently scolded me for not finishing all of my vegetables. Unlike my mom back in 1960, at least she didn't try to make me feel guilty by bringing up the specter of starving people in China.
Veal parmigiana is another filling option, a thick wedge featuring gristle-free meat. The rub-your-eyes $5.70 price is a bonus. A mound of fettuccine accompanies the veal, topped by a bland tomato sauce designed not to offend anybody.
Try to free up Thursdays. Those are the days R.J.'s sends out its best dish, the chicken pot pie special. For folks familiar only with TV dinner or microwave models, this will be a revelation. Moist chunks of chicken, mixed with corn and green beans, come wrapped in an outstanding flaky pastry crust. Just thinking about it makes me hungry. Marinated chicken breast doesn't have the heft of other entrees, but the taste makes up for it. It's a half-breast perked up by a snappy marinade. The shrimp platter, at $10.35, is the most expensive menu item, but it's no rip-off. You get five surprisingly meaty shrimp inside a thin coating of batter. We ordered them with crispy wedge fries to make sure we got our recommended daily allowance of oil.
Even the hamburger had a homey look. The irregular-shaped patty, about a third of a pound, didn't resemble a preformed freezer disk, and it had the requisite beefy taste.
The homemade pies go fast. If you see something you like, tell the waitress when you sit down and she'll reserve a piece for you. Both the chocolate cream pie and peach pie end the meal on a high note. It's true that there's no place like home. But at mealtime, R.J.'s is a pretty good substitute.
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Ted's Kitchen, 4732 East Thomas, Phoenix, 952-0450. Hours: Breakfast and Lunch, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., seven days a week; Dinner, Monday through Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. The Norman Rockwell prints lining one of Ted's Kitchen's walls strike the right note: This place has an unmistakable all-American look and feel. Ted's isn't some high-concept spot that tries to re-create or give a modern slant to the old-fashioned diner--it's the real thing. Gleaming red vinyl covers the booths and cushions the dozen stools stretching along the counter. It's easy to make conversation with the servers, the regulars at the counter or Ted, the Greek proprietor. After all, what can be more all-American than a Greek-owned diner? The kitchen dishes out two kinds of fare: Mexican food--burros, enchiladas, tacos--and home-cooked diner staples. We stuck with the latter, and had few regrets. As at R.J.'s, the regular menu is supplemented with daily specials, and these seem to be the best options, both for price and quality. Lasagna is stunningly good, maybe because Ted brings some genuine ethnic flair to it. (When I asked him why he didn't serve Greek food, he sighed and explained that not enough people were interested in eating it.) The lasagna is a big slab, punched up with a zesty tomato-meat sauce and gobs of cheese. As a bonus, it came with canned green beans that Ted brought to life with lots of bacon and onions, a nice touch. The roast beef special is the other big winner. Actually, the meat's not roast beef at all, but brisket, and there must have been a half-pound of it. And it's scrumptious--not too fatty, not too lean, moistened with mild gravy and accompanied by a mound of noodles. Factor in the $4.99 tag and you might reasonably conclude that it doesn't pay to eat at home. That's especially true because dinners also come with soup--on this day, a flavorful lentil broth--or a routine iceberg-lettuce salad.
On another evening, I enjoyed a crispy, fresh chicken-fried steak, smothered in gravy, that met all standards, as did the gravy-laden mashed potatoes that came alongside. (Ted must make gravy by the 25-gallon drum.) Veal parmigiana benefits from attention to the basics--in this case, a hard-hitting sauce and a tender piece of meat. A pile of spaghetti, fresh garlic bread and a $5.65 bill contribute to the platter's charms. Or check out the country-fried chicken, half of a crunchy, moist fowl that provides oily, down-home pleasure. For some reason, though, the platters on this second visit didn't come with any veggies--maybe Ted ran out of green beans.
The one outright dinner failure? Meat loaf. Somebody went berserk with the salt, causing about half of a pound of meat and five dollars of my budget to go to waste.
Ted's desserts don't have the homemade appeal that R.J.'s do, but whoever supplies the coconut cream pie does a creditable job. And though slurping down a thick, frosty chocolate milk shake on top of, say, a chicken-fried steak may not be nutritionally sound, it is primally satisfying. Neither R.J.'s nor Ted's Kitchen makes any gourmet claims--they're simply neighborhood mom-and-pop spots dishing out cheap, reliable, home-cooked eats. But sometimes that's just what you need.