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Easy Kids' Stuff

So were the pancakes, which come in a number of incarnations, including the time-honored short stack ($2.10). There was something almost ethereally light and buttery about these flapjacks. And they came with a miniature ice-cream scoop of butter--of course, of course. We also tried a sausage patty, some very crisp bacon, various permutations of fried and over-easy eggs, and more hashbrowns. I would have liked to eat my way to lunch--especially when I noted the two summer specials: one corndog in a basket and two corndogs in a basket. Alas, adult life intervened.

A few days later, though, I came back with my cranky father, who was under the impression I was taking him to some kind of "greasy spoon." It was great fun to watch him encounter the Ghost of Diner Past the second we walked in the door.

"Oh, now I see," he said, as we took the table I have come to think of as my regular. "I like this place."

More to the point, he already knew this place in another life. One look at the lunch menu was all it took. So many Diner standards: the chili size ($3.75 for chili on a burger bun), liver and onions ($4.25), patty melt ($3.75), chicken basket ($4.60). And does this take you back in time, or what--the Calorie Counter, 1/3 or 1/2 pound lean ground beef served with lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and cottage cheese ($3.25 or $4.10). Those were the days--when starch was bad and meat was good.

My dad, who is almost insanely particular about hot meat sandwiches, ordered the hot beef sandwich ($3.70). He claims that 90 percent of such sandwiches are made from some kind of ungodly meat-roll substance--and therefore are not carved off a bone; he also accuses almost all gravy of lumpiness, flavorlessness and mix-from-a-packageness. Leave it to the Southside to produce genuine brisket, cut by hand into slivery shreds and then gently deposited on Wonder Bread slices and covered with a layer of dark, robust homemade gravy.

"First-rate," Dad said, with his mouth full. "Top-notch."
I didn't notice if he touched his mashed potatoes (also served by ice-cream scoop, although a larger one); I was too busy eating. I'd started with the basic Diner salad--pale iceberg with a hint of carrot and cabbage, a wan tomato slice and uninspiring blue-cheese dressing. This is the sort of salad I would find disappointing anywhere except a Diner, where it is as appropriate as a corset under a prom dress, right down to the wood-grain plastic bowl in which it is served. The main event was chicken-fried steak ($4.50), which came drenched in that same wonderful gravy and accompanied by a scoop of potatoes so mashed they were more like a puree. The meat was flavorful and pounded very thin but had a few tough, gnarly bits. The breading, however, was absolutely inspired. You could have dipped a sneaker in it, fried it and served it to me, and I would have cleaned my plate.

Naturally, the Southside has a few pies to pick from, but we lacked the stamina. Instead, we elected to finish our meals with Cokes. And there, where you would think there was no room for variation, we got a pleasant yet eerie surprise.

"You think?" I asked my dad after the first sip. For it seemed that this Coke was like a long-gone special blend they used to make for him at the Diner--with much less soda and a bit more syrup. It was about the sweetest thing on earth, but oddly refreshing.

He tried it. "You may be right. Do you suppose they have their own siphon?"
I looked around and saw something like that, but it could have had a keg of pre-mixed Coca-Cola hidden in its innards. I thought of asking the waitress. But then I thought again. I didn't want to know. Maybe it was just an overdose of nostalgia operating on my tastebuds, but if so--so what?

A girl can dream.

Southside Cafe, 560 South Broadway, 777-2391. Hours: Monday-Friday 5 a.m.-3 p.m.; Saturday 6 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sunday 7 a.m.- 1 p.m.

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