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Cheap Eats: Ben's Brown Bag

The Westside take-out joint puts the feel good back in fast food

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Ben's Brown Bag doesn't want to be taken too seriously. Notice the cartoony logo? The goofy smiley face stamped on every brown bag? Just look at the simple descriptions on the menu: "a real good sandwich" or "just like mom made." The restaurant serves Sloppy Joes and Kool-Aid and PB&J. It's take-out sandwiches and chips.

But then there's the brochure taped to the window pointing out that the beef for those Sloppy Joes comes from the highly regarded Brasstown Beef out of North Carolina. Ask Ben about his PB&J (he can usually be found at the window, chatting up customers and taking orders), and he'll let you know that the peanut butter is made in-house with honey and hazelnut oil. Ben's aim is fast food improved — better ingredients, fewer preservatives, more sustainability, but still fast and fun.

Open since April, Ben's Brown Bag took over the spot on Howell Mill Road that previously housed Curly's Fried Chicken and LeRoy's before that. There are a couple of seats around the take-out window, and a couple of parking spots out front, but not much else. The menu keeps it minimal with five sandwiches priced at $5 each (plus a daily special or two), a few optional toppings (ask at the counter for the correct prices, the printed menu is outdated), house-made chips for $2, and a few drinks, including a daily Kool-Aid special.

My kids and I have plowed our way through the menu over a couple visits. Just about everything has been good in the way you imagine old-school fast food must have been — real flavor, real ingredients, real grease permeating the eponymous brown bags. A meal from Ben's is like a warm, fuzzy bear hug of fast-food nostalgia, one that leaves you glowing with greasy satisfaction

Let's start with the burger. The 5-ounce dry-aged beef patty is cooked on a flat-top grill to the point of being, well, a bit dry. Even so, the high-quality meat produces a lean burger that is the epitome of beefy flavor. The toasty, buttery buns, made fresh by local Masada Bakery, add a nice crunch around the edges, and an optional layer of American cheddar melts nicely into an oozy mess. Lettuce, tomato, and onion? You pay extra for that. Bacon, too. The burger looks like a great deal at $5, but can quickly turn pricey if you want all the trimmings. Even so, it's a paragon of classic burger goodness.

Personally, I prefer the other sandwiches, which all use the same Masada bun as a starting point. The Sloppy Joe is also is made with crumbled Brasstown Beef cooked with tomatoes, carrots, and spices into a lightly sweet and not at all saucy rendition. It's not so much sloppy until you add on some optional Cheez Whiz, which somehow works wonders with all-natural beef. You can also ask Ben's to pile a scoop of Sloppy Joe and Whiz onto an order of crunchy chips, a secret menu special dubbed Sloppy Wizzy Chips. It's a perfect foil to high levels of intoxicants in the bloodstream (appropriately, Ben's is open until 3 a.m. on Saturdays, just a stone's throw from Northside Tavern).

The Boom Chicka sandwich is a frequent special. Think Chick-fil-A but a lot better. That's all I need to say. And the BLT? Ben gets a bit fancy here, adding garlic mayo and a sweet tomato jam to complement the thick pile of smoky bacon. The PB&J, though, was my least favorite sandwich; the house-made peanut butter is fairly thin and gritty (as natural peanut butter often is), which makes this the messiest PB&J I've ever seen.

In some Bizarro World spin on British vs. American fast-food jargon, Ben's house-made potato chips are called fries. I suppose that if the British can call fries chips, we should be able to call chips fries. In any case, these thin, skin-on slices of potato come out crunchy and crispy and not oily at all. The flavor options, like Cajun or sea salt and vinegar, are powdered seasonings that are mixed with the cooked chips back in the kitchen. Good stuff, and it makes sense that a brown-bag joint should be serving chips rather than fries, even if they're chips that are called fries.

With a nostalgic bent and an eye for good ingredients, Ben's Brown Bag puts the feel good back into fast food — even if there aren't any McSalads or packs of sliced apples to relieve parents of their fast-food guilt. I for one am rooting for Ben. We need more fun-loving, food-caring upstarts to shake up the world of fast food. One Brasstown Beef Sloppy Joe dripping with Cheez Whiz at a time.

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