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Burst of flavor

Pop arrives on Decatur's scene, plus two Vietnamese faves

Steven Chan, who was raised in Hong Kong but studied architecture at Georgia Tech, has in the last year or so opened some of the most refreshingly designed restaurants in our city — seven, to be exact. From the heavily mirrored, Chinese Sampan to the pan-Asian Tin Drum Cafe, Chan has displayed wit and a kinky way with color that few can rival.

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But even more important, Chan — whose ventures are typically partnerships — is serving the city very good food at mainly low prices. His latest restaurant, Pop (410-B W. Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-378-8787), is in the same building that houses Watershed. A partnership with Nico Romo, chef at East Andrews Cafe, Pop is Chan's first restaurant that doesn't feature an Asian menu.

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But you'll find his unmistakable style in great form here, with colorful walls and pale tables with retro chairs into which you spill yourself oddly but comfortably. There's an open kitchen run by Diana Watkins, formerly at East Andrews Cafe, and a separate area where sandwiches and salads are assembled. The place also calls itself a market, but there wasn't much for sale last week besides Illy coffee and some pastries.

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Chan has deftly hybridized trends through which restaurants try to cope with an economy that has crippled high-end dining. You order at a counter here, you get your own water and haul your own silverware. You choose your sauces and seasonings. In return for your labor, you get low prices and surprisingly good food.

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Pop had only been open about three weeks when I visited, and it was still suffering some typical problems of new restaurants, especially during a lunchtime visit. I ordered a burger and the kitchen was out of hamburger. I ordered an espresso macchiato and received a short latte. I sat it on my table and walked next door briefly to visit Watershed. When I returned to the mainly empty cafe, it had disappeared and the counter girl and I fruitlessly scoured the place to find it. Oh well. It gave me an excuse to instruct her in the proper preparation of a macchiato.

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My complaints mainly end there. At lunch I settled for a panini of chicken, salami, pesto, goat cheese, red peppers and mushrooms with basil. I wasn't fond of the mealy chicken on the grilled sandwich, but it was otherwise fine. There are plenty of salads and other sandwiches, including a Reuben that looks like it's staged a volcanic eruption. The guy who ordered the one I glimpsed told me it was "flawless, man." There are also 12-inch pizzas.

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Dinner was a pleasant surprise. The restaurant allows you, in Figo-esque fashion, to mix and match pastas and sauces. The same sauces can top a pizza. You also choose how a steak or fish are seasoned and sauced. Marinated or rubbed with a spice? Blackened or seared? Béarnaise or hollandaise?

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For an appetizer, we split an order of beef-filled ravioli with a blue cheese sauce. I don't think you'll find anything like this for under $10 in the city. It was a big, homey portion of velvety pasta whose sauce, besides being seasoned with the cheese, included asparagus, marinated beef, mushrooms, onions and bacon. The same dish with cavatappi or rigatoni would cost $6.75.

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Fish and steaks are market-priced. But you tell me where you're going to get a 10-ounce rib eye steak for $10. Granted, it wasn't prime beef, but it hit the spot with a (somewhat watery) béarnaise sauce and a side of carrots and parsnips. Wayne ordered grilled salmon — the only fish available that day — with no sauce ($6.99!) and a side of grilled bok choy, which, if available, you must order. Different sides are available daily, as are meat specials, like roasted marinated chicken and meatloaf the day we visited.

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Pop isn't perfect, but I can't think of a counter-service-style cafe in the city that comes close to its quality.

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Here and there

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Com, the super-creative Vietnamese restaurant on Buford Highway, is packing in crowds these days. When I visited with my unadventurous friend Jeff last Sunday, a waiting line developed soon after we arrived. This was Jeff's first experience with Vietnamese food and, although he complained that his mouth burned for two hours afterward, he liked the food, especially the apple salad with duck. ...

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I recently stopped at my favorite Vietnamese sandwich shop down the road from Com, Nhu Y Deli (4186 Buford Highway, 404-327-6666). A crispy baguette stuffed with meat and herbs is only $2.50 here and if you order two, you get a third free. The cafe, with only two tables, also has a hot bar. A young Vietnamese couple dining there demanded that I sample the tofu stuffed with pork. Delicious. I watched women in the back making dumplings at high speed while they laughed relentlessly. This is also a market and you will find all kinds of interesting stuff, like corn roasted on the cob in mysterious spices. In short: a convivial spot. ...

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Hong Kong Harbor still prepares the best salt-and-pepper squid in the city. Here is how I like it: Ask for an extra tea cup in which to mix soy sauce with chili paste and give it a shot of the vinegar also on the table. Then pour this lightly over the squid. I also like the restaurant's oysters in black bean sauce. ...

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Mail

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Liz Hill writes to recommend East Atlanta's Australian Bakery and Cafe, which she calls "a bit of NYC tempered by Aussie warmth." She recommends the steak-onion-cheese meat pie in a "wonderfully complex gravy" and the croissant with eggs and cheese. ...

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Andrea Robbins writes this: "I like Rolling Bones and Daddy D'z, but please you must make the time to go to Patio Daddy-O. If you eat there you will never go back to those other places. It's in East Point. They have, by far, the best ribs I have ever tasted." ...

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Cindy Dennis writes to ask why I located Agave in Grant Park instead of Cabbagetown. OK, she's right. It is at the entrance of the old mill town.Leave Cliff Bostock a voicemail at 404-688-5623, ext. 1010, or e-mail him at cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com.



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