Grub Notes

Coffee to Grab and Go, Plus Ponko Chicken

CHOCO PRONTO (700 Baxter St., @choco_pronto) and OK COFFEE (225 1/2 College Ave., @ok_coffee_athens): Both of these small coffee shops opened fairly recently and focus on to-go operations, because they either have little or nothing in the way of seating. 

Choco is the Dale brothers’ baby, a place to sell the coffee beans that they import from Ecuador and roast here in town. It’s tucked into the building on Baxter Street that houses Slutty Vegan, Surcheros, Newk’s and more. They are mostly businesses that are dark in the early morning hours, when Choco is a welcoming, lit-up presence. The space has some seating but is small and narrow, a slice carved out of the building to focus on moving people in and out in a friendly way, as the name suggests. It’s a service provider, not a hang-out. Why shouldn’t the UGA students who live en masse in the dorms nearby have a quality option for their caffeine? Yes, it also has Condor’s hot chocolate. Choco is focused (small menu of coffee, a few snacks from Independent Baking Co.), cute but not twee per the rest of the Dales’ operations, and environmentally focused (to-go only but in compostable materials). It’s open 7 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday–Saturday and 8 a.m.–3 p.m. on Sunday. 

OK Coffee is even smaller, with space for a single employee inside the wee shed between Wuxtry Records and the College Avenue parking deck downtown. In a grand old Athens tradition, it’s named for the business of the same name that operated out of that space a while back (hence the big coffee cup on the roof with an OK on it), but run by the people behind Comer Coffee Co., which roasts and sells down the lane from Athens. The menu is even smaller than at Choco, and you can find your own seating around downtown or take your cup with you. Under “coffee,” there’s drip, espresso, variations on such, cold-brew and a few flavors to add in. “Not coffee” equates to cocoa, golden milk (ripe with turmeric, cayenne, ginger and coconut sugar) and English breakfast tea. Everything is served at a drinkable temperature, which not only reduces the risk of blunting your palate for the rest of the day, but allows the flavors to bloom in your mouth. Three pastries from Independent Baking Co. give you something to munch on. Horchata has been on offer occasionally, either straight or mixed into drinks, but the owners are trying to gauge demand for it before it becomes a regular thing. Stuff is ready speedily and handed over with cheer, even early in the morning, when downtown is very much still waking up. OK Coffee is open 7:30 a.m.–2 p.m. Monday–Friday.

PONKO CHICKEN (529 Baxter St.): The level of excitement some folks have about chicken fingers is incomprehensible to me, especially if those folks are over 18. Nonetheless, there is a real demand for breaded, fried, boneless hunks of poultry, preferably with some sort of sweet and/or mayo-based sauce, and Baxter Street is here to serve. 

I did venture into the cult that is Raising Cane’s to compare, and I can report that Ponko’s Japanese-ish version comes out victorious, breaded with panko, which stays crunchy. Rather than a cup on the side for dunking, the sauce (OG, which is sweetish; barbecue, very sweet; and spicy, which isn’t too hot but has a little zip) comes already dressed on the fingers, which may or may not be your preference. They’re not too saucy, but they also have plenty of flavor, something that is untrue of Cane’s product undunked. This franchise also has a lot more on the menu: tofu fingers treated the same way (fine but soggy), grilled chicken, fried hot dogs (slightly preferable to the crazy corn dogs at Mochinut) and a whole bunch of sides, many of which involve actual vegetables beyond potatoes. You can combine the proteins into sandwiches or tacos (not bad, partially due to the jalapeño crema they included) or eat them plain, with your fingers. 

If you’re not a sesame fan, this may not be your place. That flavor shows up, to greater or lesser degree, in the coleslaw, the potato salad and the very tasty, thin-sliced Japanese-style pickles. The “island veggies” are sort of a sad mess, but the green beans tossed with a miso tahini and topped with fried onions are surprising and legitimately good. Salads are also pretty fresh and pretty good, especially with the zippy walnut cilantro dressing you can also buy to take home. If you are of a mind to, you can buy a cup filled with cake for dessert. Portions are mostly sizable, and there are kids meals. The floor is of the type of laminate everywhere right now that gets and stays sticky, but the interior is clean and new. There are weird chair swings out front, but most seating is sensible. Food comes out speedily, and you can order ahead of time smoothly through the website. Ponko is open 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday and 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Monday and Sunday.