Kelekis has been filled to overflowing with customers who just had to have one last hot dog, one last burger, one last serving of shoestring fries doused with vinegar. True, those familiar fast foods may be available everywhere, but can anything live up to sentimental, decades-old memories?
It isn't the only much-lamented closing. Alycia's and the Wagon Wheel also left a gap, but for me the losses go even farther back -- all of them, coincidentally, in the North End. Fortunately, I can still get an Oscar's corned beef sandwich (albeit on Hargrave), and River Heights becomes a little more haimish with Bernstein's pickled tongue, potato latkes and gefilte fish.
But I doubt I'm the only one who still mourns the loss of such Yiddish staples as Simon's herring, chopped liver, blintzes and knishes. And the Grant Avenue White House ribs (for takeout only) can never compete with my memories of the spartan Selkirk Avenue original, where they came with the crispest fresh-cut fries and the world's tangiest, most aromatic coleslaw. And (going back farther still) how many others still pine for Betsy's Indonesian sates and bami goreng?
But we still have some durable establishments that are worth exploring. Don't expect frills in the following three, or anything remotely resembling a trend. What you can expect are friendly vibes, above-average renditions of fast food basics, and bills that will rarely exceed $10.
Give it a few more years and Luda's might become as legendary as Kelekis. It's already 27 years old -- tiny, cramped, cluttered and cosy, and beloved by all who know it. The warmth is almost palpable, with the charming mother-and-daughter team welcoming many of the regulars by name. And no matter how full the house, the service is always amazingly efficient. It is open only from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and although the breakfasts are hugely popular, lunch is what I usually come for.
The beet borscht has a nice zing, and the sandwiches are splendid -- this is the ne plus ultra of Reubens. Those who miss the Wagon Wheel's clubhouse will find a satisfying replacement in Luda's massive mouth-stretcher, and the grilled, egg-dipped Monte Cristo with ham, turkey and swiss cheese is equally good. The big, juicy burger is another standout, available with some or all of the usual suspects -- bacon, cheese, mushrooms and/or onions. The crisp shoestring fries are addictive and you can have your perogies boiled, grilled or deep-fried, paired with big chunks of a truly superior kubasa.
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Prague is one of the world's most beautiful cities, and I was lucky enough to be there for the first of the demonstrations that brought down the Communists. The time was exciting but the food in those days wasn't. Fortunately, though, I never tired of the Czech boiled bread dumplings that came with almost every meal, and the only place I can have them now is Sonya's. It's another cramped little place, where the only decor is a wall of colourful posters of the Czech Republic. It is open from 8 a.m. to 1:50 p.m., Monday to Saturday, and the breakfasts here have also been praised. But one major attraction for me is those dumplings, which come slathered in brown gravy, as an alternative to potatoes.
I'd also come for the soup. The owner's little joke is that it's free with your entrée, but will cost $3.01 if you don't finish it. I suspect it's never not finished. Although my du jour was called vegetable soup, it was thick with beans as well, and as savoury and soul-satisfying a soup as I can remember.
Pork dominates the menu -- a breaded chop, medallions with mushroom sauce, a hot, gravy-soaked sandwich -- but the moist house-roasted turkey is also a good choice. I didn't get to the burgers (they looked huge on their way to other tables) but the hamburger steak I did have was flavourful and big enough for two, and I loved the plump, silken perogies (have them boiled) with fresh-cooked bacon. The fries are good, and the plain boiled potato cubes are particularly tasty. Sonya's is a two-person operation -- she's in the kitchen, he's out front -- and the service can be hectic from noon to 1 p.m.
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Pete's Place is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, and the lunch menu is augmented after 3 p.m. by such entrées as a sirloin steak sandwich, liver and onions, veal Parmesan and Salisbury steak. I'd have a hard time deciding which burger was better -- Luda's or Pete's -- but both were excellent.
Pete's may have had a tad more seasoning, and can be topped (if wished) with the house chili sauce. I can't pin it down, but the flavour of the skinny fries reminded me of Kelekis' fries. You can also have them in a poutine, or Greek-style, with cheese and chili sauce.
The Reuben here is also excellent, and a nicely marinated chicken souvlaki comes wrapped, with veggies and tzatziki, in an exceptionally good pita (available also on a skewer with salad and garlic toast). The included beautifully dressed Greek salad is dotted with good olives and plenty of feta. Service was friendly and efficient, and although the coffee in both Luda's and Sonya's was acceptable, Pete's coffee was top -notch.
Correction: In last week's review of the Round Table, the correct price of the tenderloin steak is $43.