I share in the frustrations of many longtimers when they see older neighborhoods cluttered with “ghost boxes”—abandoned strip malls that have suffered brutal vacancies over the years (and you should know why). Still, don’t let complacency prevail: You miss out on some good things if you don’t return to old stomping grounds.
Which is why I recommend the Decatur and Alta axis. Sure, it isn’t the happening commercial hot space that it was in the ‘80s, the era when the Meadows Mall controlled (for good or bad) the destiny of so many. Yet you’d be surprised as to what’s still out there and, no, it’s not just the buffet at Arizona Charlie’s. Comfort foods define this axis as Cholesterol Cross. And I can prove it.
Decatur Liquor/Decatur Restaurant. A glorious relic by all counts (since 1963!), this tavern makes fine standbys, whether a whiskey sour or a Sidecar, but what’s truly intriguing are the Decatur denizens who infuse the term “regular” with a style all their own. From old-timers arguing a World Series gone wrong (“The Cleveland Indians were robbed in ’54!”) to retired change gals sporting colorful hairstyles and showcasing baroque, Yenta sunglasses, the people-watching here is what keeps its heart pumping. Oh, for good measure, there’s a restaurant in the adjoining drugstore next door. Unless you’ve got failing eyesight, you can’t miss the giant sign “RESTAURANT” in bold red letters done in that ‘60s, ad-copy font. While you’re sitting on a stool at the counter, be sure to check the dry-erase board for the daily specials. All your favorite anti-Atkins favorites are on-hand, be it breakfast (try the biscuits and ever-so-rich gravy) or dinner (chicken-fried steak). 544 and 546 S. Decatur Blvd., 870-2522.
Lou’s Diner. Like a charming eatery you might find if you took a wrong turn in Odessa, Texas, Lou’s gets its point across with classic dishes such as honey-stung fried chicken, a fish fry presenting three fillets of battered Icelandic cod, or the country charbroiled ham served with—what else?—country gravy. Dinners come with just what you’d expect: a choice of mashed potatoes, steak fries or baked potato, vegetable, roll and soup or salad. A treadmill is not included. 431 S. Decatur Blvd., 870-1876.
Cafeteria at Cardenas Market. A small SoCal supermarket chain that can attract the aesthete in some us (piñatas and pyramid stacks of Goya products!), the real surprise is the variety to be found on its cafeteria menu board, as well as the robust taste of the food. Slide your tray on the resting bar and let the proper pleasures hit you: delicious soups (a heady vegetable beef the day I visited), sizzling fajitas, succulent grilled chicken (slides right off the bone, kids), and my favorite, an overstuffed carne asada torta. There’s voluminous seating, and the sounds of ranchera music just might grow on you. 4700 Meadows Lane, 835-8800.
Pop’s Philly Steaks. Longtime residents might remember this tall, angular building as a former Wienerschnitzel, but for the past 10 years, Pop’s has been in charge of producing mighty fine Philly-style cheesesteak sandwiches. They positively pile on the tender beef (to the point where I’m always fighting off the grease drippings from my wrist—yes, that’s a compliment) and load it with grilled onions, mushrooms, green peppers and your choice of cheese (I’m a pepper-jack guy). By no accounts is it the healthiest meal in the world, but it takes care of those needful cravings, you know? The sweet-potato fries make it just that much more sinful. It’s all open patio seating, allowing you to tempt pedestrians with your goods on the sidewalk as they walk by, and in true, dependable Vegas fashion, it’s open 24/7. 501 S. Decatur Blvd., 878-6444.
Payless Pizza & Ribs Beyond the bountiful subs and gyros, Payless gets pizza night right. For just $6.95, you get a 16-incher with one topping to go (there’s not much choice on that point, really, what with the limited seating space, unless you’re dying to hear the conversation in the kitchen). Now if you’re worried about the pizza tasting cheap (you know, runny tomato sauce, a crust drier than melba toast, etc.) relax—it’s actually much better than that. Of all the specialty pizzas, the mounded Taco Pizza (cheddar, ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, mozzarella, olives and jalapeños) could become a dangerous habit. 463 S. Decatur Blvd., 877-1900.