Cheap Eats - This little piggy went to market

DeKalb Farmer's Market restaurant worth its weight

It's not every day you find a cafeteria that's worth its per-pound price. The DeKalb Farmer's Market cafeteria, located just out of the nose's reach from the wafting scents of whole fish, raw meat and rotisserie chickens spinning in their horizontal last dance, offers some much-needed dignity to the all-you-can eat milieu.

The market, which was opened in 1977 by a Rhode Islander named Robert Blazer, reports that nearly 75,000 people shop there every week, buying - among other things - more than 2 million pounds of produce in its double-football-field-sized-space. Two million per week. That's a lotta beans.

These days, of course, there's much more than just produce to be had. Along with extensive grocery goods from near and far, the largest meat-and-deli market in the Southeast, a colossal bakery (150 kinds of bread are on the bill) plus a coffee bar, there's the cafeteria-style restaurant.

With a sort of parking lot arrangement of grocery carts, the cafeteria sports two grub lines. The "dining room" itself has a prison mess hall effect going on, but appearances are pretty low key throughout the market anyway. The restaurant's repertoire includes a salad bar, meat, taters, tubers and vegetables, sandwiches, wraps, fresh breads, freshly made juices and soups.

At the front of the line, by the trays, you'll find lists of daily specials like Monday's pot roast, Saturday's stew and Wednesday's Creole jambalaya. Those dishes, plus just about everything you dish out on your own (except for vegetable and beef samosas, which run $1.50 each), goes for the pittance of $2.29 per pound.

The day I first visited, the salad bar started with five varieties of sprouts. After that came lots of the requisite salad bar vegetable stuff - many of the items organic - plus strawberries, avocados, pasta salads, chicken salad, curried potato salad, wild rice with peppers and water chestnuts, cold cuts and more.

On the hot side of the lunch line, I found the likes of steamed asparagus, fried sweet potatoes, vegetable stir fry, BBQ pork ribs (with a spectacular BBQ sauce), roasted duck, tender grilled chicken breast, buffalo wings, mashed potatoes (deep breath), linguine, vegetarian sausage, boiled cabbage and braised long beans - to name a few.

Further on down the line, you can find fresh juices. Among them are the tangy sweet Mean Green Pineapple Treat with organic parsley and romaine ($2.29 per half pint) or Organic Juiceman's Juice with beets, apples, carrots and parsley ($2.29), plus orange, grapefruit or grape juices (all $1.79).

Finally, the other big stop includes sandwiches, mix-and-match style (you choose the meat, bread and cheese, $3.50, and wraps, $3).

This is quite a rundown - and naturally, not everything is the very best it could be. Cafeteria eats are rarely known for their pizzazz, partly because it's made for the masses and the cafeteria method seems to dictate blandness. But, surprisingly, here, many things do have a kick. Spices, thankfully, are actually used. Also, you can think of it in the broader sense, too: Visiting the restaurant pre-shopping can save you from the costly perils of empty-stomach over-shopping. But really, it's worth its weight.