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TRAYS OF OUR LIVES

Luby's Cafeteria, 4550 East Cactus (Paradise Valley Mall), Phoenix, 494-9722. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

I can't set foot in a cafeteria without thinking about The Goon.
The Goon remained an 11th grader throughout the LBJ presidency. For three years, in my tough New York City high school, he'd wait for me and my tray just outside the cafeteria line. "Hey, man," he'd say, "for a quarter I'll walk you to your table and keep you out of trouble."

The particular "trouble" the two bits would forestall was his beating the living daylights out of me after school.

Impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit and prison record, I dutifully forked over the daily tithe.

Apparently, customs are different here in the Southwest. None of the three Valley cafeterias I visited offered protection, or needed to.

Cafeterias, I discovered, no longer merely aim to be the feeding grounds for snowbirds hungering after Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. Instead, they're shooting for mass appeal with a touch of culinary innovation.

And while the adjectives "fresh," "healthful," "imaginative" and "flavorful" still can't compete with "cheap" and "filling" to describe what's in the rows of chafing dishes, in a few instances, at least, the concepts seem to have trickled down. Luby's, for instance, boasts that everything is made from scratch, on the premises. The food is fresh, cheap and, occasionally, pretty tasty.

Apart from a few plants and an American flag standing sentinel at the entrance, Luby's is absolutely bereft of decor. That's what makes the big clock, prominently hung on the bare, long wall across from diners, so mesmerizing.

Its message is hypnotic and subtle. Every tick in this crowded room says, "You're busy, don't linger." Years ago, a New York coffee-shop chain aimed for high turnover by installing seats that would give patrons a backache after 15 minutes.

The food choices here are just as calculated. You're not likely to dally in line discussing the fine points of chicken-fried-steak preparation. Nor will you mull over the complex blend of cheeses melted over the macaroni.

But I really enjoyed the big bowl of creamy clam chowder, thick with potatoes and clams. That is, until I scraped bottom and scooped up a spoonful of grit. But except for a mushy, flavorless garlic breadstick, that was the only truly unpleasant item I ran into here.

The main dishes ranged in taste from palatable to surprisingly palatable. Fried haddock featured a thick hunk of fish in a light, crispy batter--sort of a grown-up fish stick. The mild baked cod was not overcooked, but flaky and moist. And for $2.19, I got a ton of fried chicken, a meaty breast and wing encased in puffy, nongreasy batter that actually had a fresh, out-of-the-fryer taste.

Only the dismal ham had that unmistakable cafeteria flair. Supposedly glazed, it lacked any hint of honey or cloves. The principal seasoning seemed to be air, a favorite cafeteria condiment. Panning through the side dishes rewarded us with several nuggets. Turnips, heavily sweetened and buttered to negate any potential nutritional benefits, were scrumptious. Sliced new red potatoes, still sporting their skin, could perk up any main dish. The mushrooms in the mushroom rice couldn't be picked up even by an electron microscope, but the savory rice had a pleasing peppery kick. And the spinach made eating my greens a pleasure rather than a chore.

But if you closed your eyes, you couldn't tell the mashed potatoes, black-eyed peas and macaroni and cheese apart by either taste or texture. And it's a good thing the macaroni was slathered with yellow glop, or even the gift of sight wouldn't have done much good.

Desserts look tempting enough, but cafeterias are not a good place to let your imagination run wild. Pecan pie had the right caramelized crunch on top, but the sweet inner goo was unappealingly gelatinous. Cheesecake was way too light, a fatal defect. And the chocolate cake tasted strictly generic.

If you must have a sweet with your coffee, skip the dessert counter and pick up one of the cinnamon rolls. They're quite good, dripping with raisins, nuts, sugar glaze and calories. Furr's Cafeteria, 8114 North Black Canyon Highway, Phoenix, 995-1588. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

Like network-television fare, cafeteria food is also pitched to the mass market. That's why lowest-common-denominator shows like Laverne & Shirley get on the air, and why lowest-common-denominator grub like chicken-fried steak gets into chafing dishes. In both cases, it's the bland leading the bland.

A trip through Furr's food line bears other eerie similarities to boob-tube programming. Both diners and viewers confront incredibly uneven quality. Most of it is tasteless; a small percentage escapes mediocrity; and all of it is unbelievably cheap.

Furr's makes a stab at decor, opting for the Western lodge look. It's woodsy, with touches of brick. Western art from the paint-by-the-numbers school adorns the walls. So does the inevitable clock. The customers jammed in here hardly fit my preconception that the average age of a cafeteria diner is deceased. Furr's attracts a lot more than the nursing-home crowd. Families, couples, workers and even some Generation X members made up part of the long line we ran into.

The five main dishes we sampled all could have come from Cafeteria Central. Vapid "Mexican" meat loaf had all the spicy zest of Spam. The roast beef made me think that Hinduism has much to teach us. Spaghetti and meatballs did more harm to the Italian-American image than the trial of John Gotti. The baked cod should have been tossed back. Only the boiled chicken could be downed with anything approaching enthusiasm. But several of the side dishes, salads and breads were real winners. If I came back, I'd skip the entrees and make a meal out of them.

The hot apple dumpling was the best single thing I ate the entire week. Apple chunks encased in thick, chewy dough came drenched in a sweet, hot cinnamon sauce. Black-eyed peas were blended with hominy and green peppers to form a delightful salad. White beans dotted with ham also passed every taste test.

A mix of turnips and turnip greens combined flavor and nutrition. Crisp home fries satisfied our yearnings for starch. And the jalape¤o corn bread, with fiery bits of pepper and whole kernels of corn, was good enough to put in the breadbasket of a white-tablecloth restaurant. But diners ordering the wretched canned green beans and cotton-textured mashed potatoes get what they deserve.

Desserts were predictably heavy on the sugar, but aspired beyond institutional baking limits. You don't find hot raisin pie at the end of too many cafeteria lines. You may want to pack your own insulin to combat the effects of the walnut pie, but it's hard to put your fork down. And the chocolate-pudding pie turned out to be a real kid pleaser. Furr's offers hungry families a good deal at dinner. During the week, adults can get all they can eat for $5.59, and kids pay $2.99. My family of four got filled up and I got change back from a 20.

Superb cuisine in an elegant setting? Hardly. Better than a Happy Meal? You bet.

Piccadilly Classic American Cooking, 1501 West Bethany Home (Chris-Town Mall), Phoenix, 249-1172. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., seven days a week.

Piccadilly seemed the most sedate of the Valley's cafeteria chains, and the least adventurous in its offerings.

Perhaps that's due to its clientele, most of whom could tell you where they were and what they were doing when they heard the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

There's a soothing fountain in the center of the dining area, surrounded by artificial flowers and fake ficus trees. Prints of ducks and owls hang on the walls. Inexplicably, the piped-in music featured such out-of-place tunes as "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number."

The food here tilts heavily toward Midwestern tastes. That meant the cauliflower and olive salad had enough mayonnaise to dam the Gila River. It also meant the broccoli-and-raisin salad was buried under grated processed cheese. The main dishes either lacked novelty or had a comforting familiarity, depending on your point of view. Chicken-fried steak doused with white gravy was not nearly as leathery as I feared, but was too greasy to get excited about. The $5.75 ten-ounce prime rib was much too fatty, even making allowances for the bargain price. Fried chicken, though, had an appealing, puffy crust surrounding a meaty bird. Best was fried catfish, two mild-tasting fillets dusted with cornmeal. Piccadilly's side dishes didn't keep up with the best of Luby's or Furr's. Fried okra looked like unappetizing pellets poured from a 25-pound warehouse bag. French fries were cold and soggy. Chile-spiked pinto beans tasted much too salty. Canned green beans couldn't be redeemed even by chunks of ham.

But Piccadilly's thick mashed potatoes easily outclassed its rivals' spuds. So did its soup, a seafood gumbo with bits of okra, fish and shrimp and no trace of the dreaded "krab." And it did serve up a wonderful egg custard dessert, along with a commendable rhubarb pie.

Back in high school, I could have avoided cafeteria trouble by packing either a sandwich or a pistol. But here in the Valley, a sharp eye and some common sense are the only weapons you'll need.

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Luby's Cafeteria - Closed

4550 E. Cactus Road
Phoenix, AZ 85032-7711

602-494-9722

www.lubys.com


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