Fill 'er up: Good food, funky atmosphere at Universal Joint

Fill 'er up: Good food, funky atmosphere at Universal Joint

August 15th, 2013 by Barry Courter in Chattnow Dining

The hummus appetizer at Universal Joint was packed full of flavor and near perfection in its simplicity.

Photo by Barry Courter/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

• Where: Universal Joint, 301 E. Sixth St.

• Phone: 423-468-3725

• Website: www.ujchattanooga.com

• Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-1 a.m. Sunday

• Price range: $6.75 for chicken tacos-$9.50 for bleu cheese bacon burger

Frank and Mike from "American Pickers" would love Universal Joint, the new restaurant at Fountain Square in downtown Chattanooga. Especially Frank, who seems to love old gasoline signs and oil cans more than Mike.

It might seem odd to mention such things in a food review, but the gasoline and automotive themes are a big part of what sets this place apart. Located in a renovated filling station on Georgia Avenue across from the Firemen's Memorial Fountain, the week-old eating establishment is one of the most unusual spaces in town.

Ultimately, a restaurant will live or die on its food, and Universal Joint pumps out food equal to its funky atmosphere. This is the fourth Universal Joint, with other locations in Clayton, Ga., Oakhurst/Decatur, Ga., and Asheville, N.C.

THE MENU

There is a little bit of just about everything on the menu and a whole lot of choices when it comes to burgers. These range in price from $7 to $10, and you can get one just about any way you can imagine. You can also choose between the quarter-pound Angus beef burger, a turkey burger or a black bean patty.

Variations include all types of cheeses, with such choices as blue, cheddar, Swiss and pimiento.

The burgers come with either fries or tater tots, which instantly makes Universal Joint a hit in my book.

As mentioned earlier, the menu offers primarily bar food, though it's fairly diverse. It's also well above the chips and queso or fried cheese sticks level of bar food. The dishes are made with fresh, local ingredients, and it shows.

Among the appetizer choices are edamame, spicy egg rolls, sliders, wings and pimiento cheese, which is served with toasted ciabatta points, roasted red peppers and cucumber salad.

Salads ($8.75-$9) include grilled chicken and arugula, Buffalo chicken, sesame-seed encrusted tilapia and grilled salmon.

If you prefer a sandwich ($7.50-$8.50), you can choose the Southern chicken salad, brisket Philly, grilled cheese, gyro or a BAT, which is bacon, arugula and tomato.

Tacos and quesadillas ($6.75-$8) are also on the menu, as are chicken fingers, mini corndogs and mini cheeseburgers.

THE ORDER

There were three of us, so we decided to get a cross section of dishes. My wife ordered the Steinbeck burger ($9), which came with pimiento cheese, bacon, jalapenos and ranch dressing. It was a very good burger, as the meat was tender and the cheese and jalapenos worked very well together. I've had better, but this was good and worth ordering again.

Like several of the dishes we tried at Universal Joint, the Arugula & Mushroom Quesadilla was a relatively simple dish that lets the flavor shine.

Photo by Barry Courter/Times Free Press.

The tots were perfect -- crunchy and golden brown.

My daughter ordered the Sesame Seed Encrusted Tilapia Salad ($9), which is served on a bed of arugula with soy ginger dressing. Three generous pieces of fish highlighted the dish, which was garnished with orange pieces and dried cranberries.

I got the Arugula & Mushroom Quesadilla ($7). Like the salad, it was a relatively simple dish, which can be a very good thing, with sauteed mushrooms, tomatoes and feta in the quesadilla served with arugula, salsa and sour cream.

The star of the dinner was the hummus ($7.75). Since we'd ordered it as an appetizer, I would have preferred it had been served before the entrees, but it was not a big deal. It was a generous serving and more than enough for the three of us. In fact, we took a good bit home for later. Served with grilled pita bread, cucumbers, tomatoes and red onions, it was simple perfection.

THE SPACE

You will find yourself rubbernecking a lot during your meal. Very little was done to alter the space. It looks like an old gas station. I can only imagine what all was involved in transitioning a decades-old filling station into a place clean enough to serve food, and they managed to do it while maintaining the ambiance.

Outside is a large patio area with tables and chairs. Where the pumps used to be is now an outdoor eating and drinking area. Inside, the open space has an upper and lower section, with the lower housing the bar. The upper dining area has a few booths tucked away along one wall, as well as tables.

The concrete floors have been degreased, cleaned and stained and are beautiful. Adding to the character, paint was left peeling off the walls, which curve dramatically into the ceiling. Decorating shelves and countertops are antique oil cans, funnels and gas station memorabilia.

Unlike some other restaurants that use memorabilia to make any space look and feel old, this one lets the actual old building set the stage and be the star.

It's a cool place.

THE SERVICE

We went on a Saturday afternoon before the dinner rush. Since the place had only been open about five days, we expected some issues. Our waitress was nice, and there really wasn't anything to complain about, though there were some things that could have been smoother. That will come with time.

THE VERDICT

The hummus alone will bring me back. Throw in the variety and quality of both the food and the beers on tap, the cool vibe of the place and the fact that we got out of there for around $60, and Universal Joint is definitely a place worth revisiting.

And they have tots.

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.