Heavenly Hash

Forget about picking up a hamburger on your way back to the office. Now you can order an entire diner to go. A snap to assemble, a stainless steel Starlite Diner can be shipped anywhere in the world from Ormond Beach, Florida, where it's manufactured. Just pour your foundation, put up the walls, hire a cook or two, and you're ready to serve.

There is, however, a catch. To open a Starlite Diner, you have to buy into the franchise, owned by Modular Restaurants Franchise, Inc., an international company with corporate offices in Florida. The company's founders, Paul O'Brien and Shawn McKenna, opened their first two diners in Moscow, Russia, of all places, simply because they couldn't find a decent bite to eat. O'Brien is in the hotel business there, and McKenna, who now lives in Maine, was working with Procter & Gamble.

Future international locations include Athens, Istanbul, and Lisbon. Diner number three, however, popped up, like a freshly tinseled evergreen, over the holidays on the corner of Cypress Creek Road and North Andrews Avenue in Fort Lauderdale.

Even if you're not interested in ordering a diner -- or a hamburger, for that matter -- plenty of options remain in the breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night-snack categories. Under a hammered tin ceiling, the 120-seat, bullet-shaped diner serves meals 24 hours a day. Sure, the red-vinyl stools and booths and the white-Formica counters and tables may make you feel like you're dining inside of a Coca-Cola can. And the '50s background music, as well as the old pinup stars, like Sophia Loren, framed on the walls, are a bit much to handle at, say, 4 a.m. But like the old-fashioned milkshakes, malts, and fizzy egg creams the diner makes, this retro reminder of family-values times is just plain nostalgic fun.

"We thought we'd open quietly," manager Bill Knott said recently, "but I guess we're pretty visible."

I'd say so. Sunlight bounces off the stainless steel exterior during the day, headlights bounce off at night. And the lines out the door are hard to miss. With such large crowds, it appears as if the wait staff is unable to handle special requests. For dinner, for example, we weren't allowed to order a Belgian waffle as dessert, because waffles are considered breakfast items. (Knott assured me that, in a week or two, breakfast will be available at any hour.) Also declined was our request to have the Buffalo wings toned down from spicy. (We solved that one by adding melted butter to the hot sauce.) Finally, appetizers and main courses were pretty much served at the same time. (A lesson on pacing, I assume, will solve the problem.)

Despite these flaws, service overall was sweet and friendly. The fare, too, is a step above regular diner chow, with several homemade items like lasagna and meat loaf balancing purchased foodstuffs, such as the desserts, which are brought in from a purveyor.

Referred to as "teasers," the starters ranged from jalapeno poppers (deep-fried peppers stuffed with cream cheese) to breaded grouper fingers and steamed Szechuan dumplings. We went with the Buffalo wings, which were disappointingly puny. The dozen or so wings were accompanied by carrot and celery sticks and an anemic blue cheese dressing. The onion rings, on the other hand, were terrific. Battered and deep-fried, they were sweet, soft, and juicy on the inside. There were also plenty of the plump rings, which we dipped in a tangy barbecue sauce.

A classier appetizer was baked Brie. Coated with a honey-brown sugar glaze and topped with slivered almonds, the puffed-up Brie sported a beautiful golden hue. It also tasted delicious spread across crunchy crostini rounds. Grapes and strawberries provided an appropriately fruity contrast.

The diner's Russian ties show up in the pelmeni soup. Pelmeni is a traditional dish consisting of Siberian pork-and-beef dumplings. In the days before refrigeration, they were made in the autumn, then stored throughout the winter in snow banks and defrosted when needed. At Starlite half a dozen of these dumplings were served in a strong beef broth accented with caramelized onions. We liked the delicate pasta shell but found some gristle in the ground meat.

Gristle was also a problem in one of the main courses. Even though it was large, juicy, and flavorful, a seven-ounce hamburger was plagued by the fatty, chewy bits. Various burger toppings are available, including bacon, barbecue sauce, and Brie. We chose a mild homemade chili, made up of chunks of ground beef interspersed with kidney beans, green peppers, and onions. Salad garnishes -- lettuce, tomato, onions, and pickles -- and French fries helped make it a hefty platter.

You can get gravy on those fries, but I'd suggest skipping it because the gravy is too salty. Poured over two wedges of homemade meat loaf, the same gravy marred the dish, which was otherwise savory with onions and chopped herbs. The accompanying roasted-garlic mashed potatoes were nicely peppery, but they didn't taste at all like garlic. A side dish of what looked to be precut frozen vegetables was utterly forgettable.

In contrast to the hamburger and the meat loaf, a pulled-pork sandwich was memorable. Shredded pork, saturated with barbecue sauce, was stuffed into a fresh hoagie roll. Tempered by the bread and filling, the moist pork was hearty without being overpowering. Served alongside were a pickle spear and a double handful of French fries.

While customers pining for the past may opt for the toasted Fluffernutter (peanut butter and marshmallow fluff) sandwich or the chicken potpie, the diet-conscious have thin-crust pizzas and generous salads to choose from. We enjoyed a chicken walnut salad, which consisted of two scoops of creamy chicken salad spiked with diced walnuts, celery, and pineapple. It was served over impeccably fresh mixed lettuces, cucumbers, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs. Out of kilter was the syrupy raspberry vinaigrette. (I prefer to save my sweet tooth for dessert.)

While cakes and pies aren't made on the premises, we weren't about to deprive ourselves of some empty calories. A slice of cheesecake encrusted with caramel, chocolate, and pecans was sinfully rich, while a sour cream-and-walnut, deep-dish apple pie, served warm, was redolent with cinnamon. Vanilla ice cream melted into the buttery streusel topping of the apple pie.

Though it's easy to overindulge with desserts like the "kitchen sink" -- a conglomeration of twelve scoops of ice cream, brownies, nuts, berries, bananas, Oreo cookies, and hot fudge (to name just a few of the ingredients) -- O'Brien and McKenna aren't aiming to be decadent. Their aspirations in Moscow were simple: to open a diner they could call home. Now that one of their diners calls South Florida home, it would be a good idea to get that particular house in order. A few improvements in the service area should do the job.

Starlite Diner. 6201 N. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale, 954-938-1116. Open 24 hours daily.

Onion rings
$3.95

Baked Brie
$6.95

Pulled-pork sandwich
$6.95

Meat loaf
$8.95

Apple pie
$4.50

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