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Earl of sandwich

Jason's strikes a deli-cate balance

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Usually a restaurant that tries to be all things to all people will end up being nothing to nobody. Jason's Deli, a chain delicatessen based in Texas, initially seems like just such a place. With New York deli dishes, New Orleans po'boys and muffalettas, the Philly Chick, Santa Fe Chicken and California club sandwiches, Jason's menu looks like a would-be culinary road map of the United States.

With chains, such breadth usually comes at the expense of depth, typically flattening flavors with the approaches of mass production. Defying low expectations, Jason's Deli proves surprisingly satisfying, with only a few duds and plenty of truly tasty items in a bustling facility that has fresh ingredients, efficient servers and on-the-ball quality control where it counts.

There are several Jason's locations around Atlanta, with the Tucker franchise found just inside I-285, at a corner of the long and winding strip mall of Northlake Festival. A big open space with a few booths and many modest-sized tables, Jason's can bewilder new customers placing their orders. You line up at a counter with your fellow diners (whose numbers can be legion at lunchtime), trying to absorb the information of the 80-item menu and the specials and soups du jour written on several dangling white boards.

After ordering, diners move past a combination deli case and food preparation station where sandwiches are assembled in plain view and samples of different salads are on display. Everything looks delish. After paying, diners can linger in the open zone between the cash register, the salad bar and the self-service soft drink station, but the food is ready soon enough. The salad bar, incidentally, is kept well-stocked and has plenty of impressive offerings, including sweet gingerbread mini-muffins.

Jason's kitchen reveals an affinity for olives in several items, such as the Muffaletta sandwich, which comes with a choice of ham or turkey. I chose some perfectly adequate ham, and though I couldn't detect any of the promised salami and barely noticed the melted Provolone, Jason's olive mix proved first-rate. I usually find olives brackish, especially the black ones, but the restaurant's approach cuts them fine enough that they're mild in flavor, while keeping the richness of olive oil. The potato salad was prepared recently enough that I could taste the chopped olives in it, while the salad bar was well-stocked with fresh, plump whole olives as well.

A whole muffaletta ($8.95) can be massive, so you may want to order a muffaletta special ($5.50), which includes a half-sandwich and extras: I got a bag of potato chips (in taste and texture pretty much like Lay's, but hailing from Jason's home base of Beaumont, Texas) and a cup of red beans and rice, which had the consistency of watery soup.

If "cute sandwich names gives you cause for trepidation, you may be skeptical of items like Ham It Up or Bird to the Wise. But if the Friends and Livers ($5.25) represented the other Deli Favorites, they're quite trustworthy. Two slices of rye could barely contain heaps of pastrami and corned beef as well as a thick portion of liverwurst -- although the meats weren't as hot as the menu claimed.

Jason's deli sampler ($5.25) makes an ideal lunch for little old ladies, featuring three narrow finger sandwiches (wheat bread with the crust removed) of tuna, pimento and chicken salad, the latter of which featured sweet bits of pineapple. The dish includes potato salad, two separate cups of soup and fruit, and if you're fond of big chunks of cantaloupe, it's just the thing.

The most striking quality of Jason's is how friendly it is to families and dessert-eaters. For ages 12 and under dining in, all of the sandwiches and plates in the "Jason's Junior section are 99 cents. I didn't sample the restaurant's selection of cheesecakes because its ice cream is free. Granted, it comes pretty soft from one of those extrusion machines, but with complimentary cones and a choice of vanilla, chocolate or swirl, you can't say you don't get your money's worth.

Jason's soups didn't quite win me over, although the chicken chili and tortilla soup each proved adequate (if a bit similar to one another). I'm nevertheless eager to further explore the sandwiches and wraps, whether dining in or ordering a "box lunch to go. Purists may argue that Jason's is simply a synthetic simulation of a true New York delicatessen, but your taste buds will voice few objections.

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