SNACKS: One of the few benefits of cheap-o strip-mall buildings is that small restaurants tend to find their low rent attractive, which often leads to greater culinary diversity. The one just a few blocks from downtown Athens that mostly houses Southern Video, the windows of which display exciting lingerie, used to be home to Quickly, a bubble-tea-and-fast-food worldwide chain that never seemed to find a large enough audience in our town. 180°F Cafe (660 W. Broad St., 706-521-5380) is doing something similar but better executed, serving xiaochi (street-food snacks), bubble tea, smoothies and some larger dishes.
It’s not the standard Americanized Chinese, but it’s also not so exotic that it’ll scare folks off. If you don’t like five spice, your options are more limited; the combination of star anise, cinnamon, cloves, hot pepper and fennel perfumes many a dish, including the Taiwanese-style chicken nuggets, tiny battered and fried chunks served in a paper sleeve. More exterior than interior, they slightly numb the lips and have an addicting quality.
Thai fish cakes come six to an order, threaded three at a time onto long skewers, and are bouncy and fragrant with scallions and spices. Steamed bao are the Taiwanese equivalent of soft tacos, consisting of a small, thick circular bun enfolding fried tofu (a little bland in its spicing), fried chicken with a sweet sauce and pickled vegetables or pork belly with strips of daikon and carrot. The bun itself holds up to the ingredients nicely, not falling apart by the time you finish.
In the bento section, most dishes come with a tea egg (a hard-boiled egg peeled and simmered again in soy sauce and five spice), the vegetable of the day (cabbage, perhaps), white rice and a protein (the sliced braised pork, recommended by the friendly dude behind the counter, is a show-stopper, thick slabs of almost pure fat; chicken katsu and tonkatsu; braised chicken leg or pork with five spice; the Taiwanese chicken nuggets; pork chop; chicken). The staff also recommends the wings, which are tasty and come in flavors including teriyaki and Korea spice.
The beverage section is robust, with golden milk tea, Thai chai, black tea and jasmine tea, each of which can be flavored with one or two selections from among almond, avocado, matcha, apple, strawberry, lavender, ginger and on and on, then accented with various jellies and boba.
There isn’t much in the way of seating (some tall seats at the bar; a few tables), but the interior is pleasant and clean, with free wi-fi and streaming pop radio. Whether it will succeed is a question, considering that the hours are a little weird (2–10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 3–10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday). The restaurant serves no booze and takes credit cards.
BRAND CREEP: Both Independent Baking Co. in Five Points and Sweetie Pie by Savie on the Eastside have done well keeping their business models simple: bread and viennoiserie in the former case (and one gets the feeling that owner Thom Leonard would remove the latter from the menu if he had his druthers), sweets in the latter. Nonetheless, both have recently begun venturing into new territory.
Sweetie Pie has added some savory pastries, available most afternoons during regular hours, although the Thanksgiving holiday threw the schedule off a little. Tiny pies in flavors including green curry with chicken, eggplant and basil and Galanga with bacon, onion and lime were unavailable on a recent Wednesday, but Thai curry puffs (essentially empanadas, baked rather than fried) made for a tasty lunch at two to an order. The dough enclosing the steamy filling is a touch too thick and unseasoned, but the stuff inside it is stomach-warming and flavorful.
Independent, meanwhile, has been experimenting with an occasional pizza night, usually announced on Facebook. Orders can be placed either via phone or in store starting at 4:45 p.m. and are taken until the pizza runs out. Things could run a little more smoothly (the ovens don’t bake all that many pizzas at once; the staff seems harried and tends to forget names), and the small store gets pretty jammed up, but the results are relatively worth the wait. Two different pies are available each time, usually a margherita (tomatoes, basil, mozzarella) to which one can add sausage for $1.50 and a changing specialty pizza, both sized at about 10 inches in diameter.
The margherita is good but not the best in town, although the crust is unsurprisingly excellent. On the other hand, a white pizza with onion confit, gorgonzola and fresh rosemary was worth every penny of its $12: delicate in execution but strong in flavor, not too sweet and balancing its many different elements with aplomb. In theory, mission creep isn’t necessarily a good thing, but in practice, both of these places seem to be making it work.
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