Cliff’s top 10 affordable Atlanta restaurants

Our longtime columnist names his favorite budget-friendly standbys of 2016

Here we go again. In no particular order, it’s my annual list of favorite, mainly inexpensive restaurants. I need, as always, to explain that these are not the best restaurants in the city, not even the best of the cheapest. They are the restaurants I visit regularly. Some are close to my home in Grant Park or my gym at Ansley Mall. A couple are north of the city. As I wrote last year, a problem with this is the inevitable repetition. A favorite restaurant isn’t by definition likely to change its status in a year, but I do try to include some newbies. Please add your own favorites!

No value assigned1. Taqueria El Vecino

Who would have thought there’s a good Mexican eatery somewhere besides Buford Highway? This rather hidden restaurant has the usual endless menu of tacos, burritos, and main dishes, but there are two go-to dishes for me. First is the carnitas stewed in green sauce with poblano peppers. Second is the chile rellenos. Anything with mole is also compelling. 2743 Lavista Road, Decatur. 404-929-0301.

No value assigned2. 8ARM

This is the latest gig from Angus Brown and Nhan Le, the owners of Octopus Bar in East Atlanta. The initial plan was to offer breakfast and lunch only, but as it turns out, dinner is available, too. I’ve only lunched there and love it. My go-to is the Black Forest ham sandwich, piled with house-made sauerkraut, Borgonzola cheese, mayo, and Dijon mustard. It’s huge and served with a large serrated knife, although I have no trouble picking it up. Other lunch items include roasted quail and a grain bowl. Pastries are awesome, especially the already famous biscuit. I also like the orb-shaped brioche doughnut. Coffee is excellent. Warning: It ain’t cheap. My sandwich, for example, costs $12, and roasted quail is $14. And you’d better tip well when you order at the counter. The wall is painted with a Latin phrase that means, “There’s no reward in serving the wicked.” 710 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E. 470-875-5858.

No value assigned3. Mamak

Lately, I’ve become crazy about this Malaysian restaurant in Asian Square, operated by the same people who own Top Spice. Their cuisine is a hybrid of Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian styles. The necessary starter is the roti canai. Imagine origami made out of flat bread. You tear off hunks and dip them in a rich curry sauce. I rarely resist ordering rendang beef, a classic of short ribs stewed in coconut milk and sweet and savory spices. Other favorites are Hainanese chicken and quite spicy fried tofu with minced pork. After your meal, go next door to Sweet Hut and binge on Asian-style pastries. Last time I went, I met a beauty pageant winner with a tiara on her table. 5150 Buford Highway, Suite A-170, Doraville. 678-395-3192.

No value assigned4. Waffle House

Yeah, it is a fave and you need to suspend your foodie snobbery about it. I go for one thing — the country ham. My Uncle Inch used to cure these hams and always gave us one at Christmas, so I know how it should taste. Waffle House has the only authentic ham I’ve found in our city (sans redeye gravy, alas). It’s salty and slightly tough. Unfortunately, the kitchen sometimes leaves it on the grill too long. I order the ham for an extra $1 as part of the All-Star Breakfast. Besides the ham, you get two eggs, hash browns, and a flawless waffle — all under $10. A meal at the Cheshire Bridge location also gives you anthropological thrills and a staff that laughs a lot. Main problem: the skin-crawling jukebox. 2264 Cheshire Bridge Road, and other metro Atlanta locations. 404-634-9414.

No value assigned5. Grant Central Pizza and Pasta

It’s embarrassing how frequently I dine here. It’s three blocks away from home, and after seeing clients in my psychology practice, I can go to Grant Central and interact with seriously mental people like Jessy Burns, who continues to school me in the art of TV-watching, and Adam Bass, a very low-key pool champion. My favorite dish here remains the Wednesday night special — chicken piccata. It’s a whole breast topped with lemon peel and capers sitting on a large puddle of mashed potatoes with the inevitable broccoli. I also like the cheese calzone and a faux-Margherita white pizza topped with sliced tomatoes and basil, and I still get cravings for “Miss Jean’s Special” — penne with creamy marinara, Italian sausage Kalamata olives, and mashed potatoes. 51 Cherokee Ave. S.E. 404-523-8900; 1279 Glenwood Ave. S.E. 404-627-0007.

No value assigned6. Eclipse di Luna

I’ve eaten lunch here nearly weekly for years with a couple of friends. The menu is all tapas inspired by Latino kitchens. My favorites are the cheese plate, the lamb ribs, the cured meats, and the goat cheese-stuffed piquillos. There are always specials and the regular menu changes fairly often. The staff is huggable. The rather gloomy interior remains the same as when the original, brilliant owner Paul Luna go-go danced on diners’ tables. He hates when I bring that up, but hey, I respect erotic behavior combined with the pleasure of good food. 764 Miami Circle N.E., Suite 138. 404-846-0449.

No value assigned7. Ponce City Market

Yes, a food hall is not a restaurant, but the beauty of this place is that you can graze on mostly good food that you take to tables in the middle of the mall. My favorites here are El Super Pan, Hop’s Chicken, Ton Ton, and Jia. There are things to hate. The complicated paid parking annoys everyone. Also, it’s too damn popular. On Friday night, it’s like the site of a hipster locust plague. Soothe your irritation with ice cream from Honeysuckle Gelato. 675 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E.

No value assigned8. Eats

There is no way I could compile a list like this without including Eats, across from the Ponce City Market. It’s dirt cheap and delicious. I always opt for the jerk chicken with sweet potato, collards, corn on the cob, and free cornbread that actually tastes like cornbread instead of cake. That’s barely $10. You can also get pasta dishes. The place ain’t pretty, but the highly diverse clientele effectively subs for fancy décor. Just don’t leave valuables in your car. 600 Ponce de Leon Ave. N.E. 404-888-9149.

No value assigned9. Breakers Korean Grill and Barbecue

I’ve eaten a lot of Korean barbecue over the years, but this restaurant way the hell out in Duluth is the best I’ve ever visited. Part of that is the sleek black and white décor and dramatic murals. But the main attraction is the meats, which you grill at your table. For $30 you get all-you-can-eat bulgogi, chicken, pork ribs, (unbelievable) pork belly, brisket, and squid. All meals come with a vast array of banchan, the snacks and condiments that precede the main course. If you swell up to twice your size, you can go next door to Jeju Sauna and get a massage. 3505 Gwinnett Place Drive N.W., Suite 101, Duluth. 770-946-1000,

No value assigned10. Little Bangkok

This has been included in my list many times. It is, no joke, the best Thai food in the city. My go-to dish is the green curry chicken. The namby-pamby of palate should probably avoid it. I also like the fried tofu and any dish made with duck. Half the menu is Chinese. It’s okay, but go there with caution. Little Bangkok is always crowded and there are no reservations accepted. Still, it’s usually a brief wait. 2225 Cheshire Bridge Road N.E. 404-315-1530.