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Cheap eats

I'd heard a couple of things about Ray's Tavern in Youngstown: Go early, because it can get crowded, and try the burger.

So Ruth, John and I combined an afternoon search for pumpkins with a spin along Lake Road that ended at Ray's a few minutes after 4 p.m., which is when the kitchen opens. And sure enough, by the time we walked out at the still-early hour of 5 p.m., the 15-table dining room was beginning to fill up. The room has a lot of lakeside charm, with light wood paneling and dozens of pictures of lighthouses set off by other nautical touches.

The menu is more extensive than we expected for a tavern, with all the usual sandwiches and burgers, along with a good selection of dinners, nightly specials and a board listing still more special dishes for the evening.

We started with an order of "Pizza Stixx" for $4.50. The actually finger-sized deep-fried pizza egg rolls were served with a small dipping bowl of marinara sauce. The sticks were fine, although nothing special, but the marinara was delicious, with a sweet, long-simmered flavor.

The house special hamburger soup was included with John's dinner, and it was packed with ground beef and studded with grated carrot in a meaty-tasting broth. The grated carrot made an appearance atop Ruth's iceberg salad, which also featured grape tomatoes and sliced cukes.

John's BBQ chicken dinner ($7.50) contained a good-sized helping of two thin chicken fillets -- we wondered if they'd been pounded or sliced. They were amazingly tender and crisscrossed with grill marks. The barbecue sauce wasn't the usual tomato-based bottled stuff, but was tannish-orange, redolent of honey and packed a subtle but unmistakable kick. We all really liked it and quizzed the server about it, but she played it coy.

Ruth's sirloin tips (off the specials board, $8.75) were also extremely tender cubes of meat cooked with mushrooms and onions into a tasty mixture. They were a bit more "done" than the medium-rare she requested, but still juicy, and we all agreed that a precise level of doneness would be difficult in such small cubes. Her baked potato was incredibly fluffy inside, a sign of proper cooking.

And the burger? A masterpiece. We saw a few go by to another table before we got our food, and they were conversation-stoppers. My Moonbeam Burger ($6.50 deluxe, which includes salad, soup or fries) was draped in Swiss and mushrooms, on a soft, fresh roll. The meat was tender, juicy and delicious.

-- Anne Neville

***

Ray's Tavern

1694 Lake Road, Youngstown

745-3657

Review: 3 1/2 pennies (Out of 4)

"Local favorite."

Ray's Tavern's kitchen is open from 4 to 9 p.m. daily except Tuesday, when it is closed. It is handicapped-accessible.

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