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You Can Go Home Again 

Down-home diners are worth the trip

The quickest route between home and my upstate college was the New York Thruway. We seldom took it. We dithered our 350-mile way on lesser roads so we could stop at the Roscoe Diner, a tiny spot in a tiny town, tucked into a hillside and easy to miss. It's been decades since my last stop but I can see its red vinyl booths as clearly as if I ate there yesterday.

In a sense, I did. Dragging along some pals who will join me for a meal at the drop of a hat, I visited three diners in the East Platte/Boulder area. All have a classic diner look -- counters facing the open grill, booths, Formica tables -- and characteristic diner dcor -- hand-written signs, pithy quotations, jocular warnings to customers, Woolworth's paintings, curios and memorabilia precious to the owners and comfortingly familiar to the regulars.

Although the three shared similar menus, each had unique strengths. My Sister's Kitchen, tucked in between a pawnshop and a barbershop, was the most countrified with its blue gingham curtains. The menu offers omelets and combination breakfast platters, pancakes, French toast, and biscuits and gravy. Each of the three sisters, active and hardworking co-owners, has a named special. We tried Jill's Breakfast Burrito and Dee's Rocky Mountain Scramble.

Both servings were huge (the First Commandment of diner cooking seems to be Stuff thy Belly). The burrito comes filled with ground beef or sausage; we chose the latter, a spicy sausage nicely balanced by onions, peppers and eggs. The green chili was glutinous -- thickened too quickly with too much cornstarch -- and had only a mild kick, but the accompanying hash browns were crisp and tasty.

The Scramble was a great mixture of chunky home fries, cheese, eggs, onions and "secret spices," mostly salt, pepper and garlic. When Denny's introduced its skillet breakfasts, this was what they were aiming for. Dee does it far, far better. Topped with a slice of thick bacon, mopped up with some toast, washed down with diner coffee (Second Commandment: Coffee will be Continually Poured and Consistently Weak), the Scrambler is fuel for the day.

Combination platters (eggs with any imaginable breakfast meat, including bacon; sausage, pork or Polish; ham, sliced or cubed; corned beef; steak; or chicken-fried steak) and omelets (the usual suspects plus one called a country omelet with gravy) come with potatoes and toast or one pancake. My Sister's Kitchen bested the other diners in offering three kinds of pancakes: buttermilk, blueberry and pecan. The pecan pancake was terrific: light and fluffy, bigger than its plate, and filled with nuts. That the maple syrup was warm added points to the overall score.

We were off to Betty Boop's next. Opened in 1997 by Betty Fisher, sold a few years later, and bought back last year, this was the friendliest of all. (Third Commandment: Make the First-Timers Feel Like Regulars.) Besides the Betty Boop memorabilia decorating both smoking and non-smoking rooms, Betty's got some menu items the others lack, notably some interesting omelet variations. The jalapeo cheese omelet will wake you up. Her home fries were the best, still in their skins and grilled to a nice crisp. We tried the hash browns smothered in green chili -- less glutinous than My Sister's chili, and made with more tomatoes. The hash browns were real, and really good. Betty gets the Best Spud Award.

Betty's got down-home features like fresh fruit shakes and grits, soft-boiled eggs and cinnamon rolls. And pies, pies, pies. A back table was strewn with cooling pies, crusts golden and glowing. (Note to Self: See editor about pie assignment. ...)

Betty's was a tough act to follow, but Milt's Coffee Shop held its own. Janet, our waitress, was working solo as the second waitress was needed in the kitchen. Janet was a whirlwind of efficiency and friendliness. With every sip of our coffee, she was there with the pot (see Second Commandment). She brought a sample of the green chili, made at Milt's with chunks of chicken. She brought large plates of even larger portions -- I think I had a pound of hash browns. A serving of French toast is three thick slices, light, sweet, puffy, and the syrup, if not real maple, was too close to matter. But Milt's real genius is with his omelets.

The cheese omelet was as fluffy as I've seen in some of our town's pricier breakfast places. The cheese was inside the omelet as well as on top. And it was gigantic. Omelet accolades go to Milt. As does special recognition for good breakfast meats. The link sausage and bacon were lean and flavorful; no shortcuts here.

Milt's, Betty Boop's and My Sister's Kitchen also offer lunch; Betty's is open until 9 for dinner. Regardless of the hour, I can never eat anything in a diner except breakfast offerings. Those who may be less compulsive and seek the short-order food that has fed American eaters since the '50s can find things like stuffed peppers, Salisbury steak, fried chicken, meatloaf, and hot roast beef sandwiches with mashed potatoes on the menus. Or burgers, fish sandwiches, tuna melts, Sloppy Joes and grilled cheese (with or without bacon) may fill you up. Save room, however, for dessert, the ultimate comfort food: rice pudding, fruit pies (a la mode if you'd like), coconut cream, banana cream, chocolate, peanut butter, sour cream and raisin pie.

Who says you can't go home again? Take the long route.

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