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We were reminded of an old lesson the other day in fine fashion: The easiest way to gauge the popularity of a restaurant is to watch how quickly its lot fills up at dinnertime.

Having made a trip into Lockport for unrelated business, the wife and I decided to look for a place to eat. She was in the mood for steak, and we had several possibilities in mind for the neighborhood.

As we drove, though, the possibilities began to dwindle. It was a Monday, you see, and just coming up on the dinner hour (five-ish). One by one, the places we'd been considering were proving to be closed.

Danny Sheehan's. DeFlippo's. Shamus. Closed. Closed. Closed.

Actually, upon closer inspection during the double-back it appeared that Shamus was open, but by then we'd agreed on another place. I'd noticed it as we passed the first time, a couple of cars in its lot, and remembered that on our only other visit there years ago, the Sugar Shack had some really good, home-style food.

So back we went down West Avenue, past Shamus, past DeFlippo's, past the pet store (quick stop needed for supplies). By the time we got to the Shack, the lot was nearly full. We grabbed one of the few remaining spots and headed in.

Now, the Sugar Shack is nothing fancy, but one step inside the door is all you need to realize you're in for a treat. Your nose will let you know.

There's a small counter and an assortment of tables and booths of various sizes. We plopped down at one in the very back, away from the hustle of the kitchen area. We were greeted promptly and served drinks.

Despite a tasty looking specials board that included liver and onions for $4.95, we both decided to order off the menu. Teresa went for the New York Strip ($7.75), opting for mashed potatoes and gravy on the side, along with a salad and an order of green beans.

I chose the ham steak with pineapple ($6.25), selecting home fries as my potato, applesauce over the green beans and soup rather than the salad. I could choose between vegetable, cream of tomato and chili. Since I consider myself a bit of a chili chef and connoisseur, I rarely pass up the chance to try others. So chili it was.

While we waited for our food I had to wonder: How does a place make any money offering dinner with sides and soup (not to mention fresh, hot rolls) for just over six bucks? No wonder the parking lot was full! And a strip steak for under $8? Madness, I thought.

But Sugar Shack is one of those little, all-in-the-family kind of places, and they apparently find a way to make do, because it seems like there's always a crowd whenever I pass by.

The soup and salad arrived first, the salad a generous plate full of lettuce, chopped tomatoes, sliced cucumber, croutons and shredded cheese, with Italian dressing in a cup on the side. The wife appreciated that, having endured a drowning salad during a recent stop at another restaurant.

The salad was as it should have been; nothing special but absolutely acceptable.

My chili came in a rim-filled bowl, loaded with meat, beans and chunks of tomato. It was nicely thick but sadly lacking in the seasoning category. Could have benefited from a liberal dash of chili powder, along with a splash or two of hot sauce or pepper flakes, something to liven it up a little.

The ham was described as a "generous portion, lightly smoked" and met that characterization well. Actually, it consisted of two good-sized pieces from a boneless roll, grilled and topped with a ringed slice of pineapple.

The flavor was subtle, the consistency tender, very little fat. I was more than pleased. As I ate it I enjoyed one of those hot rolls with butter. Tas-tee!

I set my applesauce aside for a "dessert" of sorts, even though there were actual desserts on the menu, but it sufficed just fine.

Teresa's strip was a generous portion, as well, thick and well cooked. Her only real complaint -- at my insistence, I might add -- was that it was a bit on the dry side. But she wouldn't have even suggested that had I not gone fishing for any potential dissatisfaction.

There was very little waste in terms of trimmed fat.

Her potatoes were steaming hot, nice and creamy and topped with a flavorful dark brown gravy. The beans were . . . beans.

With burgers and sandwiches running from $3 to $5 and breakfast plates even less than that, it's easy to see why the Sugar Shack is a popular place. It would be difficult to put something together for less than that at home, while still getting that wonderful home-cooked taste and feel. And, of course, having someone else doing the cooking and serving.

Bailey's Sugar Shack Family Restaurant

460 West Ave., Lockport (433-9538) *** (Out of four)

Favorite dish: Ham steak with pineapple

Needs work: Chili

Healthy choice: Seafoods, salads

Price range: Very affordable, nothing over $8 or so

Service: Fine

Noise level: Low

Wheelchair access: Yes

Parking: Connected lot

Kid appeal: Casual

Hours: 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday; to 4 p.m. Friday; to 1 p.m. Saturday; 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday.