There's one kind of restaurant that I can never pass up: an all-American cafeteria.
Cafeterias never had the historic and cozy cache of diners, even though they frequently offer similar menus. However, cafeterias (aka buffets) still hold a certain charm for me.
As a guy who loves to eat, cafeterias always appealed to me. I'm not talking about my seventh-grade cafeteria where they served burgers (rumored to be a combination of beef and oatmeal) and mashed potatoes that gave glue a bad name.
Profits matter little to school cafeterias, but cafeteria restaurants have to make it on food's quality, prompt and attentive service, fair prices and atmosphere. Any cafeteria-style spot still operating today has made it by paying attention to those criteria, especially the food.
Gleaming glass shelves layered with slices of pie and cake, bowls of pudding and Jell-O. Steam tables with section-after-section of meatloaf, chicken, fried fish, pork chops, turkey and stuffing, vegetables, potatoes and gravies. Pre-made salads (no salad bar here) and baskets of yeast breads, rolls and shortbreads. Oh-boy.
I've had my best experiences with Southern cafeterias that stock the tables with regional standards like catfish, ribs, fall-off-the-bone pork chops, greens, cornbread and better than average pies.
When traveling through South and North Carolina, I discovered the K&W Cafeteria, a chain that's been around 60-some years. They make a mean macaroni and cheese, but the baked spaghetti, seemingly sold only at their restaurants, became a favorite.
I'm not the only one who likes it. Thanks to the Internet I read newspaper food sections from around the country online and recently I spotted a mention of that favored cafeteria. A reader asked for K&W Cafeteria's Baked Spaghetti recipe and the newspaper tracked it down.
I scanned the recipe and noted the use of ground chuck and high fat cheeses. Ground chuck makes a dandy hamburger, if you don't give a hoot about fat, but in this kind of recipe I always get bigger beef flavor, less fat and fewer calories with 95-percent lean ground beef. Part-skim mozzarella cheese offers up decent flavor and it's hard to tell the difference between cheddar cheeses made from 2-percent versus whole milk.
I prepared my trimmed down version of K&W's recipe and sat down for the taste test. It tasted just as I remembered. Now I can enjoy a healthier version of a cafeteria favorite without being tempted by all the other goodies in line.
• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.