Atlanta, GA

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At old-style eateries in this peachy city, folks from the deep-fried Deep South can indulge in heaping helpings of genuine home-style meals that cost under $12 for two courses and a drink

When it comes to finding affordable meals, travelers to Atlanta need help. Long before the Olympics, sometime between the moment Jimmy Carter left for the White House and Ted wed Jane, Atlanta became a moneyed megalopolis. What was once the quintessential southern city is now the quintessential commuter nightmare, and the construction boom of the '80s and '90s spawned a wide-flung proliferation of slick bistros, greasy sports bars, and high-priced yuppie bait, none of which makes for acceptable budget dining. But there's an old guard of Atlanta restaurants-many in business since your Daddy was knee-high to a bulldog-where cooking still comes from the heart and value is common sense. If you follow the advice of a native, you'll find that Atlanta still hosts some Olympian bargains, where you can get two courses of genuine local cooking, plus coffee, for $12 or less.

Mary Mac's Tea Room 224 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404/876-1800, Three abundant courses of southern comfort food from $8.75. (Lunch dishes are generally $1 cheaper than dinner dishes, priced below.)

Atlanta's heedless wrecking-ball mentality somehow missed Ponce de Leon, a prewar thoroughfare running east from Midtown where Mary Mac's is found. So driving "Ponce" is like making a trip back in time. Linger awhile in 1945 at Mary Mac's, a hallowed hall for utterly authentic home-style southern cooking since FDR ruled the roost from Warm Springs. It should tell you something that Jessica Tandy ate here to perfect her Oscar-winning character in Driving Miss Daisy. Grab a card on the way in and mark your choices from a full roster of southern greats (country fried steak you don't need a knife to cut, chicken pot pie erupting with steam, sweet potato souffl, with a Christmasy dose of brown sugar). All main courses cost $9.75 and come with two gut-busting side dishes. Extra sides, chosen from a list of 37 (including the beloved "pot likker," the soupy leftovers from cooked greens), cost $2 each. Don't miss the very southern sweet tea (and I do mean sweet) for $1.25. Many locals recall with palpable contempt the restaurant's ill-advised flirtation with trendy dishes (gazpacho, y'all?) back in the late '90s, but I'm pleased to report that Mary Mac's is back in the nostalgia business. With a single spoonful of black-eyed peas, my taste buds pined for my dear departed Nana's kitchen. My grandfather, an old-guard Atlanta boy who's still with us, risked his cardiologist's ire by stealing my helping of Mary Mac's well-seasoned fried chicken, which would barely stain a napkin. We finished with a blob of banana pudding (dessert is $2 with a meal) that's so fantastically sugary my most apt description of it is "silly." If there's just one place that makes me yearn for the genteel, naive Atlanta of years past, it's Mary Mac's.

Thomas Marketplace Restaurant 16 Forest Parkway, 404/361-1367. Long list of garden-fresh classics with two sides, $5.50-$12.

Atlanta's Hartsfield airport handles some 80 million flyers a year. That's a lot of traffic, and many a southerner makes Thomas Marketplace the first stop upon touchdown or the last before lift-off. It's just a scoot from the airport (you can practically watch the in-flight movies as you dine), amidst Atlanta's main greenmarket. Many of the cooks and waitresses have worked for the family-owned restaurant for a quarter century or more, and they know their craft. Some devotees swear by the delicately breaded fried catfish ($9 for two pieces, including two sides). You know food's been fried to perfection when it's actually refreshing. Some devotees tell of the vegetable side dishes (two free with a meal or $2.50 each), which travel about 100 feet from the stalls to your plate-the creamed corn is so stalk-fresh it squelches as you chew. Some folks, like me, dream about the chicken salad ($7 including two sides), smooth and sprightly with fresh grapes, celery, and pepper, and so sought-after that it's often gone by the middle of lunch. But the peak is definitely that old southern standby, fried green tomatoes ($4.50). They're breaded and cooked upon ordering and served during that critical minutes-wide window when they're neither too hot to eat nor too soggy with age. I received a dozen slices, crispy and flaky, which attracted the attention of a stately Georgia lady as she glided by. "Ooh," she sighed upon sight of them. "May I pull up a chair?" I'm glad she wasn't serious, because I would have wrestled her for them.

Eats 600 Ponce de Leon Avenue, 404/888-9149. Pay student-center prices (no less than $3.50) for a pile of the simple greats

It ain't nothing fussy, but this dimly lit bohemian nosh pit has been a favored fallback for Atlanta's cash-poor youngsters since opening in 1993. Found on Ponce a tad east of Mary Mac's, it does two things-pasta and spicy jerk chicken-and it does them well. Approach the pierced chick behind the counter and choose your own adventure. Six kinds of pasta (including linguine, ziti, and cheese-filled spinach tortellini) can be paired with six kinds of sauces (from a moist pesto, $3.50, to ragout with either ground beef or turkey, $5) and embellished with a few extras such as plump meatballs, Italian sausage, or a side salad ($1.50 each). Or, ask the blue-haired dude for tangy lemon pepper chicken (half a bird for $4) with black beans and rice ($1 more) or corn bread (45> a square), or perhaps a vegetarian plate groaning with green beans, collard greens, couscous, baby lima beans, and a full ear of corn on the cob ($1 a veggie). Once you've got your goodies-grabbing a bottle of beer, $2.25-mount the scuffed wooden eating platform (that's right, under the air ducts and the inexplicable giant photo of a doctor examining a baby's ear) to absorb your heaping helpings. It's not just low-concept, it's no-concept, but that's what keeps the costs slight, the budget-dining awards streaming in, and the under-35 set allegiant. And is the food good? Heck yes. I know people who return week after week to try every possible pasta permutation.

Nuevo Laredo Cantina 1495 Chattahoochee Avenue Northwest, 404/352-9009. "Salsa to end your search" from $6.50 for a giant Mexican feast

What many northerners don't realize about Atlanta (and the Southeast in general) is that it's now one of America's biggest gateways for new immigrants, and in emerging neighborhoods, the cuisine proclaims it. This casual Tex-Mex favorite, west of Georgia Tech on an unlikely industrial street, is regularly packed with suburban pilgrims who, thanks to mammoth portions of Mexican favorites, are certain not to leave hungry. The eatery, overrun with folk art and Tejano music, was once a ramshackle house, which may account for the hand-made flourish in the cooking. Despite the low prices, the kitchen skimps on nothing. Start with a daunting stack of cebollitas, a signature dish of charbroiled whole scallions garnished with lime ($1.95). As in Mexico, tamales ($2.75) come swaddled in corn husks; taco meat is crumbly, not sloppy; spinach enchiladas are stuffed with just-picked greens; chorizo is well seasoned (not fiery) and gently spooned into homemade corn tortillas; and burritos are slathered with sauce and cheese. Assemble a cheap feast from the ... la carte menu ($1.95 for an enchilada to $6.50 for a chimichanga pileup), or select a plate ($6.50-$8) that pairs rice with most choices. Along the way, dip freely into what the menu calls "salsa to end your search"-although it will begin your search for the most powerful breath mint. It's so addictive, riding the fence of spiciness and tartness, with a tease of citrus. They even sell it by the gallon ($25). It just might run your car.

The Varsity 61 North Avenue, 404/881-1706, Atlanta's sock-hop pride charges tabs of $4.50 for sandwich, fries, and drink

Normally, burger-and-shake joints seem a tad D-class, for out-of-town tourists, but each time I left it off my list, fellow Atlanta natives insisted that The Varsity was, indeed, required eating. I was thrilled to let them talk me into it. I've been visiting the Varsity since I could manage solid food, and even now it's the ruin of my waistline. I'm not the only one. The Varsity has been slinging slaw since 1928, and its five-acre complex (across U.S. 75/85 from Georgia Tech and the former Olympic Village) is the world's largest drive-in, with space for 600 drivers who munch 98> burgers from trays hooked onto their car doors by elderly carhops. The indoor dining areas, which are even busier, have all the nuance of a '70s airport terminal (molded chairs facing the same way, ceiling-mounted TVs, jostling midday crowds), which only adds to the rare frozen-in-time feeling that Atlantans increasingly cherish. Here you'll find fast food so perfect that it comes with its own language. "Whattle ya haf," means it's time to order. "Glorified" burgers ($1.36) come with lettuce and tomato, "frosted oranges" ($1.30) are sumptuous shakes, and "naked dawgs" ($1.20) arrive wearing no more than a melt-in-your-mouth bun. Pimento cheese sandwiches ($1.39), a southern delicacy, are melted into a drizzly layer cake. Georgians are particularly possessive of the fresh-cut french fries ($1.35) and the wide, thickly breaded onion rings ($1.35). To keep your savory "chili dawg" ($1.55) barking for hours, ask for a pile of fresh minced onions (free). You're not pigging out: In the deep-fried Deep South, grease is a food group and Crisco stands for comfort. Still, if heart attacks could be traced, this place would be shut down-but that's just the way Atlanta likes it.

The Flying Biscuit Cafe 1655 McLendon Avenue, 404/687-8888. Also a newer (and much less cozy) location in Midtown, 1001 Piedmont Avenue at 10th Street, 404/874-8887. Two courses of tongue-teasing versions of mom's staples for as little as $9.50

Atlantans love meat, so it's hard rounding up places that don't set vegetarians out to pasture. One that delivers smart options for both the vegetarian and the carnivore is this inviting corner restaurant just east of Little Five Points in Candler Park, where street lights swing like laundry on the line and the hip young servers sass one another like kin. Here you'll find real south-of-the-border flavor-in this case, meaning both the Mason-Dixon and the Rio Grande. Befitting the mismatched, home-kitchen decor, just about everything on the menu puts a spiced-up, wigged-out riff on a comfort-food original-though never aggressively so. "Love cakes" are soft patties resembling Cuban black bean soup on a plate, piled with sour cream and red onion ($6.95). The fist-size biscuit namesakes ($1) don't really fly, unless you consider the speed at which they're consumed by the caf,'s die-hard following. The turkey meat loaf (for meat eaters, of course) languishes under horseradish sauce and wallows in a mound of "pudge"-a family recipe of potatoes mashed with sundried tomatoes, basil, and olive oil ($8.95). Every dish, be it the all-day breakfast ($5.95-$6.95), the regular entrees ($6.95-$8.95), or the specials (usually $10-$13), uses punchy ingredients to toy with color: The Diablo Burger ($6.95) comes with orange jalape o sauce, white feta, purple onions, red tomato, and is served on a teal plate. To finish, sink yourself into the hyperindulgent brownie pie, or the bread pudding, which is a colossus of fudge, sweet bread, and cream sauce (both $3.95). In my book, the comfort of the food is directly proportional to the fresh cups of coffee I drink. It's telling that at the Flying Biscuit, the mugs are bottomless.

The Paschal Center at Clark Atlanta University 830 Martin Luther King Drive Southwest, 404/880-6691, 7:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday. Step back in time for just $5.50 for a main course and two sides

Southwest Atlanta's Paschal (pronounced "PAS-kal") is both a gastronomic and a historical shrine, but you'd pass it by a hundred times if you didn't know better. No sooner had I sat down than my waitress, Carol, began eagerly sharing the history of the place. Built as part of a black-only motel in 1954, the Paschal became the regular meeting place where Martin Luther King Jr. and civic leaders planned their peaceful demonstrations. "In fact," Carol said, "You're sitting exactly where Martin Luther King Jr. used to sit every week." (It's the left-most booth along the windows.) The motel upstairs is now a university dorm (from late May to September it's a hotel again, charging $55/night), but the Paschal is happily holding onto the old days, throwback prices, and a timeless menu. With lemon meringue tables and old fellas in suits watching a dial-operated TV-an inch of ash dangling from their cigarettes-it might as well be 1968. What some patronizingly call "soul food," Georgians simply call "dinner." What could be more color-blind than food? The beef short ribs ($7.95 including two vegetables), supremely tender, are padded with thick meat, and the fried chicken (the restaurant's calling card, $5.50 for two pieces including two vegetables) is soaked in buttermilk before reaching Nirvana in your mouth. Black-eyed peas are cooked with ham hock, while the corn bread dressing (it comes with dinner) has cranberry jelly and a whiff of Thanksgiving. Plan to visit Sundays between noon and 4 p.m., when the post-church crowd descends for the huge all-you-can-eat smorgasbord ($13.95), which encompasses the entire menu plus casseroles, tossed salads, and all the corn muffins you can slip into your coat pockets.

Cha Gio 132 Tenth Street, 404/885-9387. Trusty Vietnamese chow; soups from $2.50, mains from $6.95

Urban redevelopment has nullified the Midtown neighborhood around Margaret Mitchell's old apartment house, now a popular tourist attraction. The spine of mid-century Atlanta is now a faceless commercial zone with nowhere to eat or drink. But from now on, when you're near the birthplace of Gone With the Wind, as God is my witness, you'll never be hungry again. Like Scarlett O'Hara, Cha Gio's owner, Le Thi Hang, is a war refugee who brought herself up with canny self-sufficiency. She escaped the Fall of Saigon in 1975 and wound up in Georgia, where she made her name selling egg rolls from a cart. Today, she maintains the unprepossessing eating hall Cha Gio (which in fact means "spring rolls"), a rare respite from the bready, cheesy fantasia of Atlanta's usual menus. Like much Vietnamese cooking, it accomplishes complex Asian flavoring with a delicate French-influenced flair-in this case, reliably and cheaply. Almost every main dish (there are 32) costs $7.95 or less, and rice comes free with most of them. I particularly like the chicken stir-fried veggies ($6.95) for their easy balance of ginger and curry; the nicely salty egg crepe ($5.95) is plump with greens and served with a lightly vinegary chili sauce that always kicks my palate from behind. The spring rolls, which fueled Hang's rise and are often voted Atlanta's best in magazine polls, are indeed spectacular: First the pastry shatters in your mouth, and then the sweet-and-spicy flavors explode ($2 for two). Cha Gio isn't merely an emblem of Atlanta as one of our most important immigrant cities, but evidence of something more profoundly American: In 1996, Hang's U.S.-born daughter represented the United States as an Olympic fencer at the Games, which were held just a few blocks away.

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