Food - Cliff's top 10 Atlanta restaurants for dining on a budget

Our longtime columnist picks his favorite wallet-friendly eateries of 2014

Imagine eating out nearly every night of the week at different restaurants for 25-plus years. That's what I did when I wrote my weekly Grazing column for Creative Loafing. After it went monthly a few years ago, I was left with lots of what I used to call "Freedom from Food Weeks."

That doesn't mean I don't still eat out frequently, but I can eat where I want without the obligation of reporting how the sweet notes of organic Tibetan honey gently infuse the funk of a large intestine harvested from a range-raised grizzly bear, then delicately sautéed in hummingbird fat with tart eyelashes humanely plucked from albino monkeys living in the canopy of a sub-Saharan rain forest.

Now, I can stick to inexpensive restaurants that I visit repeatedly, often alone for a quick lunch after the gym or dinner after I finish work with evening clients. As I repeat every year — and people love to ignore — these are not what I consider the 10 best restaurants in Atlanta. They are not even the 10 best inexpensive restaurants. They are mainly neighborhood spots, convenient to my home in Grant Park, where I can assure you that the food, staff, clientele and ambiance provide a likable refuge. You of course have your own faves, and I hope you share them. These are not arranged in any particular order, although number one really is my number-one favorite these days.

Next: Cliff's top 10 restaurants

10. Grant Central Pizza This Italian-American cafe, a three-block walk from home, is my most frequent dinnertime destination. I order the daily special, which rarely changes from week to week. I like Tuesday's chicken Parmesan and Monday's lemony chicken piccata with capers you can scoop with mashed potatoes. My favorite is the most infrequently offered — a huge chunk of roasted pork shoulder over polenta. I eat in the cozy bar area where I can watch Jessy, a spectacular and funny server, work along with the rest of the, um, quirky staff. One complaint: Stop with the literally daily broccoli. Mother Earth has blessed us with real vegetables, too. 451 Cherokee Ave. S.E. 404- 523-8900; 1279 Glenwood Ave. S.E. 404-627-0007. www.gcpatlanta.com.

9. Saigon Basil Yes, there are all kinds of "authentic" Vietnamese restaurants out Buford Highway. But this one is my go-to lunch spot before I hit the nearby gym. In two years, I've strayed only a couple of times from my usual order, No. 9. It's a bowl of rice vermicelli with barbecued pork, a spring roll and three grilled shrimp, along with shaved carrots, lettuce, sprouts and a few chopped peanuts. Add fish sauce and Sriracha, maybe a dab of hoisin, and you get a healthy meal for less than $10. I don't eat the Thai food here, but many praise it. 1870 Piedmont Ave. N.E. 404-892-8688. www.atlantasaigonbasil.com.

8. Home grown How good is Home grown in Reynoldstown? It's obscenely good. I know that because Playboy recently named it one of the best breakfast spots in the South. This is mostly a lunch destination for me, but if I'm up for breakfast, I go for the biscuit piled with fried chicken breast and sausage gravy. At lunch, I like the barbecued shrimp and cheese grits, the bologna sandwich, and the bacon burger with fried mac and cheese. Everything is locally sourced. It's not open for dinner. 968 Memorial Drive S.E. 404-222-0455. www.homegrownga.com.

7. Eats Many regard this funky café as the best bang for your buck in Atlanta. While there are bowls of pasta with your choice of toppings, the big star here is the slightly charred and spicy jerk chicken. I always get it with a couple of sides like corn on the cob and black-eyed peas. All prices are under $10. 600 Ponce de Leon Ave, N.E. 404-888-9149. www.eatsonponce.net.

6. La Fonda Latina There is one don't-miss thing to eat here: the paella. While it's a quicky version served in an iron pan, it's better than the few time-intensive paellas around town. I order the basic with grilled chicken and veggies. According to the law of paella, that's an inappropriate mix. You won't care. 923 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E. 404-607-0665, and other metro Atlanta locations. www.fellinisatlanta.com.

5. Ah-Ma's Taiwanese Kitchen This small restaurant opened last summer and quickly became one of my faves. The menu is all small plates, and there's barely a drop of Chinese-American on the menu. Favorites have been the buns (bao) stuffed with pork belly; the universally loved lu rou fan, chopped pork over rice with a hard-boiled egg; and the beef tendon soup. A warning: expect a wait, especially if there're more than two of you. 931 Monroe Dr. N.E., Suite A108. 404-549-9848. www.facebook.com/ahmasatl.

4. Little Bangkok This place has been my favorite Thai restaurant for years. Located in a small strip center on Cheshire Bridge, it's always full, but I've never waited more than a few minutes for a table. My absolute favorite here is the green-curry chicken. Unlike most Thai kitchens in Atlanta, Little Bangkok, does not hold back much on the rich sauce's spicy heat. I love the nua num tok and the fried tofu with peanut sauce. Little Bangkok also cooks Chinese food, but my few forays to that side of the menu have been disappointing. 2225 Cheshire Bridge Road N.E. 404-315-1530. www.littlebangkokatlanta.com.

3. Arepa Mia Lis Hernadez recently expanded her Sweet Auburn lunch spot to Decatur, where she can serve dinner as well as lunch. Arepas are cornmeal patties that are sliced and filled with assorted meats and veggies. Hernadez offers 14 of them on the Decatur menu. My favorite remains the pabellón, filled with shredded beef, fried sweet plantains, black beans, salty-fruity queso de año, and cilantro sauce. There are also empanadas and cachapas (Google 'em). 209 Edgewood Ave. S.E. 404-880-8575; 307 E. College Ave., Decatur. 404-600-3509. www.arepamiaatlanta.com.

2. Spice to Table When Asha Gomez closed her Kerala-inspired Indian restaurant, Cardamom Hill, Atlanta foodies wept. They also ended up with a bit more cash in their pockets. Though the food, groundbreaking in Atlanta, was worth every penny, many people just couldn't grasp the concept of Indian fine dining. Gomez has sabotaged that complaint with this low-priced take-out and limited eat-in restaurant in the Studioplex. The small menu changes daily. You pick from dishes in a glass case. A staple is the kati roll — flat read you roll around mounded fillings that are seriously electrifying in their play of textures and aromatic tastes. I ate a turnover that was so crispy it shattered. Roasted vegetables are a lesson in the way an assertive spice like cardamom can playfully amplify the inherent taste of an ingredient without overpowering it. Need more proof? Try the bread pudding, whose Indian spices are a shock at first, then induce wonder. 659 Auburn Ave. N.E., Suite 506. 404-220-8945. www.spicetotable.com.

1. Babylon Café No doubt about it: This Iraqi newbie is my favorite (relatively) inexpensive restaurant in town now. Every meal here has been a shock to my mouth. Most recently I lunched on a plate of grilled eggplant that has no equal in my memory. Unlike the usual treatment, this one remains slightly al dente and was topped with a mysterious, coarse puree of hummuslike flavor. I love the falafel, but the absolute standout is a whole grilled tilapia seasoned with traditional Iraqi spices, including pomegranate, surrounded by roasted veggies. I've not referred a single person to the restaurant who didn't rave. It also has a hookah lounge that's open late some nights. 2257 Lenox Road N.E. 404-329-1007. www.babyloncafeatl.com.

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