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In accordance with our effort to keep this column fresh in terms of the food styles we write about (sit-downs, take-outs, walk-ups, etc.), this week we venture to hospitals.

Yup, we did go there, because those cafeterias are just one more place you can spend your hard-earned money for food, making them a fair candidate for review. These places feed the people who save our lives and those in for life-saving, as well as their families and friends. It's important work, where health is in the spotlight and a warm meal can nail the definition of comfort food in a very literal way.

Though our hats are off to these hard-working staffs, we've stayed honest in our criticism. A few of these vittles could use life support.

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Memorial Hospital North

4050 Briargate Pkwy., 364-5000,

Not to be morbid, but if hospitals have taught us anything, it's that all things die eventually. Even Memorial North's popular Friday seafood buffet ($15.99) puffed its last steam Sept. 16, a week after I tried it. Executive chef Jose Lemus says he had to kill the format due to Memorial's financial concerns, but adds that many of the buffet's beauties will rotate into regular service.

Lemus, who has served two presidents, Hollywood elite and the local country club set, prides himself on food that comforts and sustains. "You never know if people are going through a happy time or a difficult time," he says. No matter why you're there, you'll probably enjoy most any seafood you see: sweet steamed crab with warm drawn butter, fried calamari, ceviche, shrimp. Just watch for the tiger prawns: Mine were overseasoned with Old Bay. — Monika Mitchell Randall

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Penrose-St. Francis Health Services

2222 N. Nevada Ave., 776-5188,

An independent cafeteria that serves 3,500 meals daily, "Penrose Place" offers a six-week rotational menu. Taco Tuesdays bring an awesome green chili, according to nutrition services supervisor Yolanda Ahrens. And an upcoming wellness program will drop prices lower than they already are, to reward healthier options: Try a delicious fresh salmon in white wine sauce, bland but perfectly creamy mashed potatoes, and sweet, steamed carrots for $5 and change.

Those prices for homemade food keep neighborhood residents coming in for other items like fried shrimp ($3 and good but for the need of de-veining), but maybe not the American goulash ($3 and not so good, as a Hamburger Helper-esque mush). Starbucks coffee and decent house sweets complete the experience. — Matthew Schniper

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Memorial Hospital Central

1400 E. Boulder St., 365-6368,

When I ate in Memorial Central's cafeteria during a recent day-long rainstorm — complete with water dripping down a wall and from the skylight into a trashcan — it was the first time I'd ever been back in the building in which I was born. The cafeteria's run by Sodexo, a French multinational corporation and one of the largest food-service companies in the world. As that description implies, my homecoming meal lacked a certain personal touch.

The barbecue chicken and peas ($4.67) was almost a parody of hospital food: mushy, wrinkly peas that were clearly dead on arrival, and a sticky-sauce-covered chicken breast that was almost flammable, it was so dry. At least the mashed sweet potatoes were spiced and buttery. For other options, a burger ($3.09) was better, though the cheese did a gross melting-into-oil thing. — Bryce Crawford


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