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TENDER LOVING SQUARES

You're trying to save money. Or maybe you're struggling to make ends meet. Times are hard, but there are a few things you're not willing to give up. Like a meal out with the family or friends every once in a blue moon. But where can you go if you're strapped to a tight budget and want sit-down service and good, old-fashioned American eats?

No discoveries here. Head to 24th Street and Osborn, in the heart of Phoenix, where you'll find Ham's Tavern & Restaurant and R.J.'s Osborn Restaurant. This is old news to many of you. To the newly frugal, however, these two venerable institutions of penny-wise dining may come as a revelation. If it's Tuesday, this must be meatloaf. And if it's meatloaf on Tuesdays, this must be Ham's. Actually, we miss out on the meatloaf. At Ham's the dinner specials change nightly. We stop in on a Wednesday, so our choices are confined to grilled ham steak, fried fish, barbecued beef ribs or the steak and shrimp special.

No biggie. My dining accomplice chooses the ham steak. I splurge and order the $6.95 steak and shrimp special. Not so secretly, I wish it was Monday so I could have Yankee pot roast, or Tuesday, for Southern fried chicken, or even Thursday, for the corned beef and cabbage.

Alas, daily dinner specials are offered that day and that day only at Ham's. I know, I ask. When I do, our kind waitress looks at me like I've got a few screws loose. Wednesday is Wednesday, her look implies--what are you, nuts?

But don't let me mislead you. If the daily dinner special doesn't appeal to you, there are a few other options available each night. Specifically, any night, Monday through Saturday, you may select an eight-ounce top sirloin, the sirloin steak sandwich, the minute steak, or two grilled pork chops for your dinner. That's because these items are listed in a section called "Daily Dinners."

When I was growing up, we had a similar arrangement. Each night there was a dinner special, i.e., what my mom cooked for dinner. Sometimes it was pot roast, sometimes baked chicken or spaghetti or Swiss steak. As at Ham's, it depended on the day of the week. But, if Mom's "daily dinner special" didn't appeal to you, you could with a certain amount of pleading and begging, obtain a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. In our house, this was sort of analogous to Ham's minute steak--always available. Of course, if you opted for PB&J, you made it yourself; that was your punishment for turning thumbs down on Mom's nightly selection.

Yep, Ham's menu reminds me of home. So does the ambiance. No, I didn't grow up in a corner tavern, but corner taverns were part of the general landscape in the section of the Northeast where I came of age. All over New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, you'd see them at the intersection of Oak and Elm Streets, half brick, half aluminum siding, with neon signs in the steamy windows advertising Genesee Cream Ale and Carling Black Label.

I never actually visited one of these joints. But as a child, I saw them as warm, friendly and inviting. Quite often, these taverns were located in the middle of urban residential neighborhoods. They seemed like the kind of place where a workingman could commune over a beer or two with his neighbors after a hard day. Ham's strikes me like this, except lots of folks come to Ham's just to eat, not drink. "Mama said there'd be days like this." Our busy waitress says this aloud as she hustles back and forth across the linoleum between blue vinyl booths. There's a baseball game on the multiple TVs, and sports posters are tacked to the wood-panelled walls. Ham's has no nonsmoking section. When you exit, that smoky corner-tavern smell goes with you.

But it's a small price to pay for the authentic blue plate specials. My accomplice's ham steak and pineapple ring are grilled, as promised, and come with canned corn and a scoop of instant mashed potatoes. A plate of fresh, hot muffins and margarine are served with the meal.

My steak and shrimp special satisfies that basic surf-and-turf urge. The shrimp are breaded, but taste fine when dipped into cocktail sauce. The small strip steak is lean, watery and tasteless--nothing a shot or two of A.1. sauce won't fix. My vegetable is an acceptable tossed salad. The small, aluminum foil-wrapped baked potato I receive is not up to Chart House standards, but costs a whole lot less.

Hey, you gotta expect tradeoffs, right?
There's no dessert at Ham's, but your check will leave a sweet taste in your mouth. Not including alcohol, dinner for two, with tip, should cost you well under fifteen bucks. If Ham's reminds me of a corner tavern, R.J.'s Osborn Restaurant brings to mind a diner. That's a compliment. Before the recent boom in retro-cooking, diners were the last bastions of family-oriented, traditional American-style cooking. Places where you could order a burger with fries or liver and onions or a slice of homemade pie and coffee. Interestingly, on the outside, R.J.'s doesn't look like a diner. But inside, the restaurant is long and narrow and cozy like one. R.J.'s is busy. A cross section of society gathers in its booths and at its tables: families, couples, folks young and old. A round, Fifties-style mirror hangs above each booth in the space, where, at a real diner, you'd find those mini jukeboxes. I miss the jukeboxes, but like the mirrors.

When I say "diner," a certain mental image of smudged glasses and ripped vinyl booths patched with duct tape may pop into your mind. Well, forget that. R.J.'s environment is pleasant, clean and perky. The booths are pink, the tables blue. Framed Southwest prints hang on the wall opposite the round mirrors. Vases with silk flowers stand on each table.

The food here is slightly more expensive than at Ham's, but still a good bargain. Nightly specials are written on colored index cards and attached to the regular menu with a paper clip. When a special is sold out, someone on the staff culls through the stack of menus and pulls those particular cards.

My dining accomplice and I are lucky tonight. We snag the second-to-last piece of meatloaf. We quietly gloat as our waitress informs the two young men at the next table that there is only one piece left. The two of them will have to decide who gets the meatloaf and who has to pick something else.

Which isn't a hard task. There are many appetizing selections here, and all of them cost $6.50 or less. A bacon burger with fries sounds appealing, but so does the fried chicken and the fresh-ground turkey burger and the chicken Parmesan. "The fried catfish is very popular," coos our waitress. That's a strong enough endorsement for me. I order the catfish even though she tells me it's frozen.

Such consideration extends to the presentation of the food itself. Yes, the mashed potatoes are instant here, too, but they look nicer. Instead of the standard, institutional parsley sprig, R.J.'s employs fresh leaf lettuce and carrot curls as plate garnishes. They add both color and that homey touch.

I can't keep my fork out of my accomplice's meatloaf. Though flavored with tomato, it's covered with gravy and seasoned just right. I'm no catfish expert, but I like this version, fried in R.J.'s own breading mixture. I like it even better when I stop using the too-sweet tartar sauce and go with the horseradish-tinged cocktail sauce instead. Coleslaw here is sweet and creamy.

Pie seems to be the way most people finish their meals at R.J.'s. We don't want to stand out, so we order some, too. Besides, we like pie. Our waitress promises that they are baked fresh on the premises, and, while R.J.'s pies are good, they're not great. My banana cream pie reminds me of banana Bonomo taffy (remember that? WHACK!). It consists of a yellow pudding custard on top of a nearly invisible layer of sliced bananas. My accomplice's fresh strawberry and chocolate pie turns out to be gelled strawberries atop chocolate pudding. Not quite what I envisioned, and who invented that gel stuff, anyway?

Still, I have no reservations about wholeheartedly recommending R.J.'s. If you're looking for a place to take the family for a decent meal in a friendly environment that won't cost you your mortgage payment, this might be it.

Ham's Tavern & Restaurant, 3302 North 24th Street, Phoenix, 954-8775. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Monday through Saturday; Dinner, 4:45 p.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Closed Sunday.

R.J.'s Osborn Restaurant, 2333 East Osborn, Phoenix, 956-4420. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday through Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday.

MDBUham's

I wish it was Monday so I could have Yankee pot roast, or Tuesday, for Southern fried chicken, or even Thursday, for the corned beef and cabbage.

There's no dessert at Ham's, but your check will leave a sweet taste in your mouth.

MDBUrj's

We snag the second-to-last piece of meatloaf. We quietly gloat as our waitress informs two young men at the next table there is only one left.

"The fried catfish is very popular," coos our waitress. That's a strong enough endorsement for me.


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