Cheap Eats - The little cafe that could: The Cafe at Pharr

The Cafe at Pharr (316 Pharr Road, 404-238-9288, and other metro Atlanta locations) was started back in 1992 by Shirley and Mike Liu, who retired in 1998 and handed the business over to their enthusiastic son, Johnny. You can’t miss him when you arrive; just look for the guy with the permanent smile on his face.

What sets this tiny lunch spot apart is its simplicity, consistency and commitment to healthy eating. Almost everything on the menu is made from scratch daily and surprisingly low in fat. The Cafe bakes its own bread every morning and uses no preservatives. Ask any regular and they’ll tell you they come for the assortment of chicken salads, available as a sandwich ($7.50) on your choice of white, wheat, multigrain, baguette or croissant, or as a salad plate ($9) with romaine lettuce, shredded carrots, sliced tomatoes, two pieces of soft baguette and the café’s special ginger dressing that has no oil or fat. Both the sandwich and the salad plate come with a handful of chilled seedless red grapes and the Cafe’s signature and strangely addictive “Yogurt rolls,” a fluke turned staple using leftover croissant scraps that are baked off, filled with a semi-sweet German gelatin mixed with yogurt and sliced.

One of the most popular salads is the celery chicken, a minimalist approach to chicken salad with chicken, celery, spices and mayo. I always go for the curry chicken salad made with a secret curry sauce and a touch of mayo. The celery-laced tuna salad is another simply made favorite that actually tastes like old-fashioned tuna salad – not an abundance of overcomplicated ingredients for show. Liu says he only adds enough to hold the base together because health is paramount. One diner actually lost 40 pounds by eating every meal at the Cafe except for breakfast on what they called the “Cafe Pharr diet.” Who needs Subway?