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Food - Cliff's top 10 Atlanta restaurants for eating cheap

Our longtime columnist picks his favorite wallet-friendly eateries of 2015

I've been writing this annual list of my favorite inexpensive restaurants for years. The undertaking comes with an implicit problem: If they were my default favorites last year, why would I switch to new ones? This year, I've tried to compensate for that by adding some relative newbies that I like a lot but haven't visited with the extreme frequency with which I still go to, say, Grant Central Pizza.

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Year after year, I have to issue the same warning. These are not my picks for the best restaurants in town — not even the best of the cheapest. These are restaurants that have evolved as favorites for several reasons. When I'm in the mood to dine alone, I usually visit places near my home in Grant Park. But I also lunch and dine with three different groups of friends every week, so favorites develop in that experience, too. So, listed in no particular order:

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10. Grant Central Pizza

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Ah, Jessy Burns. How do I love you? Let me count the ways. You text me when the kitchen is preparing my favorite special (still the roasted pork shoulder over polenta). Between racing around the dining room and greeting all the regulars, you always manage to stop by my table to discuss the Netflix shows you've addicted me to. If I decline the evening special or it's sold out, you immediately know what I want: Miss Jean's Special. It's our nickname for bartender Jean Desilva's favorite concoction: penne in a creamy marinara with basil, kalamata olives, and Italian sausage. I love this place, seriously. It's three blocks from home and I always eat alone, usually after seeing clients in my psychology practice. That prepares me to deal with the kooky staff. 451 Cherokee Ave. S.E. 404-523-8900; 1279 Glenwood Ave. S.E. 404-627-0007. www.gcpatlanta.com.

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9. Masti

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The restaurant takes its name from the Hindi word for "mischief," and that's a perfect description of the hybridized Indian street food at this restaurant, whose electrically colored décor looks something like a Bollywood version of "Pee-wee's Playhouse." The food ranges from the purely authentic, like butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, to wacky burgers, tacos, and hot dogs with your choice of fillings like potato patties or shredded Indian cheese with chili-garlic sauce. The fries made of okra strips are a favorite. My go-to dish is traditional — a huge, conical-shaped dosa with butter chicken. The server will teach you pancake origami, folding the dosa into manageable pieces. 2945 N. Druid Hills Road, Suite C. 470-236-2784. www.mastiatlanta.com.

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8. Grant Park Coffeehouse

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Let's get real. Most high-end coffee shops are plagued with hipsters. Chains like Starbucks are comfy but sell pastries and pre-made lunches from hell. Grant Park Coffeehouse is less than a mile from my home, directly across from the Atlanta Zoo, and it's my go-to spot to write and nibble. I most love the house-made scones, like cranberry-white chocolate and Turkish apricot. Lunch is a huge bargain. My favorite is the grilled BLT made with turkey bacon slathered with sriracha-spiked aioli on sourdough, about $6. A grilled cheese is less than $5. But the great news is that owner Rahel Belfield recently more than doubled the café's size by taking over an adjoining space, now under renovation. When it opens, it will serve Ethiopian small plates, as well as the present menu. The espresso here is great, the staff is quirky, and I dig watching the zoo-visiting kids go crazy trying to decide on a High Road ice cream. It's open for breakfast and lunch. 753 Cherokee Ave. 404-856-0433. www.grantparkcoffeehouse.com.

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7. Hop's Chicken

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I'm sure you've noticed that the Fried Chicken Wars have replaced the Pizza Wars. Who better to join the battle than Linton Hopkins, the Southern-bred owner/chef of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman and Finch? This new undertaking is in the food hall of Ponce City Market and, despite the horrid parking, I keep returning. Hop's chicken is super crispy with a fairly thick breading. It's always juicy and I love the way its cayenne seasoning builds slowly but never really burns. Take your kids and they'll learn how a bit of fire enlivens the palate by magnifying flavor. There are a few negatives. The side dishes have been unimpressive and, alas, the biscuits, delicious on their own, are too fragile to really hold up to sandwiching with a hunk of chicken. Unfortunately, Hop's has a nearby competitor. The closed Popeyes has reopened on Boulevard near Ponce! But Hops costs little more if not less. Nine dollars buys half a chicken! 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. 404-355-3762. www.hopschicken.com.

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6. Babylon Café

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Last year, I named this Iraqi restaurant my favorite of the favorites. Unfortunately, the restaurant is no longer open for lunch except Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, starting at 1 p.m. So I don't get by nearly as much as I used to. Still, the falafel sandwich and the magnificently plated grilled tilapia remain two crazy-making cravings. In recent months, the restaurant has added some composed dishes that mix and mingle traditional ingredients in untraditional ways. Try the chicken salad or the flourless carrot cake, so good that it redeems what long ago became a dessert I thought worthy of consumption only by toilets. 2257 Lenox Road N.E. 404-329-1007. www.babyloncafeatl.com.

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5. Proof Bakeshop

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I've been addicted to almond croissants as long as I remember and I'm pleased to announce that I have found perfection. Imagine a hand-size crispy, buttery pastry generously scattered with almond slivers and filled with more than the usual stingy smear of almond paste. If it, or any other pastry you love here (like the gingersnap!), is not available, you'll turn into a screaming child banging on his high chair. Proof also serves a limited menu of breakfast and lunch dishes. I'm not usually a fan of Monte Cristo sandwiches, but Proof's is filled with actually savory turkey and ham — not cold cuts — plus genuine Emmentaler. Most notably, it's made with brioche which melts in the mouth. Owned by Cakes and Ale, Proof is headed by pastry chefs David Garcia and Abigail Quinn. 100 Hurt St. N.E. 678-705-3905. www.proofbakeshop.com.

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4. Taqueria la Duranguense

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I was a latecomer to this raved-about Mexican spot in Marietta, but count me in. The deal here is gorditas, which is Spanish for "crack cocaine." Not really. It means addictive "little fatties" of griddled corn cakes that are slit and filled with different ingredients. Of the several stews, my fave is the chicharrones — hunks of fatty pork skin fried and stewed in a red or green sauce. Go for the red. It's spicier and has more depth of flavor. The rajas, strips of charred poblano peppers coated with melted white cheese, are nearly as addictive. Believe me, regular consumption of these gorditas could quickly make you gordisimo. 365 Pat Mell Road S.E., Marietta. 404-966-9480.

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3. O4W Pizza

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Yeah, I know. Atlanta's pizza wars have raged for years with no clear victors. Most of the battle has been among Neapolitan pizzerias. And, of course, New York-style pizza has been available since maybe the end of the Confederacy. 04W pizza is a departure from both those types. Anthony Spina makes New Jersey-style pies that have shocked the palates of everyone who walks through the door of the Irwin Street Market to try it. The crust of these pies is thin and a bit crispy, unlike the often gooey Neapolitans. There is one pizza, available whole or by the slice, that you must try — the Grandma. It is a rectangular pizza cooked in a cast iron pan, topped with basil, marinara, mozzarella, Pecorino, olive oil, and garlic. Just try it. And the homemade meatballs. There are also sandwiches, calzones, and stromboli, but I can't stop loving my Grandma long enough to try them. 660 Irwin St. 678-515-3388. www.o4wpizza.com.

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2. Urban Cannibals

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Calavino Donati and Doria Roberts are on an entrepreneurship binge. They have opened Tipple + Rose Tea Parlor and Apothecary in Virginia-Highland and Madre + Mason in Midtown. They have also moved Urban Cannibals from East Atlanta Village to the former location of Las Palmeras. I have become singularly addicted to a lunchtime sandwich there — correctly made carnitas on a hoagie roll with avocados, pumpkin seeds, feta, and tomatillo sauce. I could cannibalize one every day. The restaurant also serves dinner, and I've only tried the mild shrimp jambalaya. It's quite good and surprised me by including a few empty shrimp shells that deepen the flavor. Cannibals also includes a bodega next door. 368 Fifth St. 404-230-9865. www.facebook.com/urbancannibals.

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1. Eats

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Open since 1993, Eats belongs on any list of the city's best bargains. For less than $10, you can get half a jerk chicken and three sides. I like the collards, corn on the cob, and the whole sweet potato. The complimentary cornbread is better than most around town. Lemon-pepper and barbecue chicken are also available, along with chicken chili and turkey meatloaf. Bowls of pasta are even cheaper. How to describe the staff here? Kinda rough around the edges, like the ambiance, but incredibly efficient and friendly. 600 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E. 404-888-9149. www.eatsonponce.net.




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