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Pub grub 

Universal Joint rescues beer-swillers with heart-stopping burgers and fries

Decatur's Universal Joint is a laid-back neighborhood hub, with locals grabbing lunch along with their gossip, families sitting on the front patio, dogs in tow, and the usual lot of beer-swilling bon vivants holding down the smoky corners.

This once decrepit site is one of the more interesting of Atlanta's gas-station makeovers. Walls are mottled with layers of ancient paint as if, instead of sandblasting the place to starkness, the architects simply varnished over the fascinating patina, leaving the building's character intact.

Whatever the case, the Joint is a neighborly place for an appetizing meal. If you can get around the lack of a non-smoking area (sit outside if you don't like the smoke or have little ones in tow), the Joint makes a good choice, with a range of menu options to suit most tastes and a full bar with a decent, well-priced selection of beer and wine.

Of the appetizers, I like the Buffalo shrimp ($6.50), skewered, grilled shrimp bathed in spicy red pepper sauce, the kind you usually find on Buffalo wings (also on the menu, starting at $5.75 for 10) and served with fresh celery and blue cheese dressing. Nicely done, and a fun take on the Buffalo concept.

You might be able to resist the Universal Fries ($5.50) on your first trip here, but eventually you'll succumb. They are particularly satisfying with a beer or three. What is technically known as a "butt-load" of hot, fat fries is smothered in white cheddar, topped with Applewood smoked bacon and served with a side of ranch dressing, daring you to eat them all, waistline be damned. Plus, as the menu reminds patrons, "There's a fire station staffed by paramedics right out back" in case your arteries go on strike.

Chicken tortilla soup ($3.75) is hearty -- tomato and chili-based and thick with shredded chicken. The flavor is tangy, with an underlying pepper kick that keeps it to a genteel tingle. Crunchy tortilla strips and a dollop of sour cream also help the burn from getting out of hand.

With the substantial and properly seared Regular Ol' Burger ($5.25) as a base, variations on the burger work well. The bacon cheddar burger ($6) features Swiss or cheddar and thick, crispy slabs of smoky bacon. Order the deliciously pungent blue cheese burger ($6) and ask for bacon with it; remember, the paramedics are nearby. All of the Joint's burgers are available as veggie burgers (add 75 cents), also.

My dining companion wasn't so impressed with the Joint's BLT. Served on toasted whole wheat, it was dry and bland, with anemic tomatoes. The black bean quesadilla ($5) was a much better choice, with beans, jack cheese, jalapeños and onion, and paired with the Joint's own salsa. Made on the premises, the salsa is spicily satisfying with chunks of jalapeño, heavy on the tomatoes and thicker than many. The shameless salsa-philes I run with look forward to their next visit, as do I. With its prices and range of menu choices -- simple yet a notch above average pub fare -- Universal Joint holds it all together.

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