Greek to Me

Posted on January 6, 2011 – 1:40 AM | by OldManFoster
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by Becky Grunewald  Photos by Scott Duncan

Greek food has never really done it for me.  I’ve watched its trendiness rise (and then ebb) in food magazines; I’ve sampled it periodically, a bowl of avgolemeno here, a souvlaki there, but it has never really excited or intrigued me the way other Mediterranean cuisines do.

For instance, Kabob House is located on a stretch of Fulton Avenue that is practically paved with kabobs. A stone’s throw away I can get great Persian kabobs at Famous Kabob and great Lebanese kabobs at Maalouf’s, so why should I choose the Greek fare offered by Kabob House?

As it turns out, Kabob House kabobs sort of are Lebanese kabobs; the current owner, Eli Fasel, is Lebanese.  He has worked at Kabob House since 1989 (it opened in ‘84), and he bought the place in 1997.  He was the one who introduced the more typically Lebanese dishes of hummus, tabouli, kibbeh, and baba ganoush to the Greek dishes on the menu.

And oh what an intensely smoky and creamy baba ganoush it is!   It’s served as part of the mezes platter, along with meaty dolmades wrapped in fresh, grassy-tasting grape leaves, a wickedly garlicky tzatsiki, and an overly tahini-ed hummus.  The starch was provided by flaky and hot pita bread (which is the only thing they don’t make on the premises), and a more-doughy-than-flaky spanikopita which boasted a strong spinach flavor.  The meze platter looked and tasted lovely, and could serve as a light lunch for two.

The gyro platter skewed multicultural, with a “steak” sauce (sold bottled at the counter) that tasted oddly like Japanese katsu sauce (I closed my eyes and felt like I was eating at June’s), and a Greek salad dressed in Italian dressing.  The ground gyro meat draped over the mound of rice was tasty and well spiced, but the sauce was overpowering.  The lamb souvlaki tasted more like beef, which could be a bonus for you if you dislike gamey flavors. I prefer an 8 or 9 on the gamey scale (with 10 being Dennis Wilson on a bender), so I found it bland.

Kabob House is tastefully decorated in gentle blue and white hues, with watercolors of the Greek islands, including a nice Kondos print. I’ll be back to sample more of the Lebanese dishes, if not the Greek ones.

Muntean’s Sandwiches and Soups has been open for about four months and caught my eye with its banner that said Greek/Hungarian/Romanian food. Odd bedfellows.  It’s a weekday lunch joint, and has been busily decorated by the Michelangelo of Sacramento, Robert Gordon.

Eating at Muntean’s is a very interactive experience.  Hesitate even a moment in ordering, and Muntean himself will exhort you to sample any of his soups.  A Gordon Gekko type with slicked-back hair tried a few and declared, “Your soups are the best. You rock!”  Muntean hams it up for his customers, at one point eliciting a chorus of laughs by proclaiming, in his Romanian-accented English, “no soup for you!”  This is the soup equivalent to yelling “Freebird!” at a concert.

So how’s the soup?  Luckily, it’s marvelous.  He has one with the rather odd name of “Romanian Mulligatoni.” I was familiar with “mulligatawny,” which is a common Anglo-Indian soup, but when I googled “Romanian Mulligatoni” I came up with one hit: for Muntean’s.  No matter, this hearty stew is fork-thick with soft grains of rice, and laced with potato, carrot, corn, and smoky kielbasa.  The lemony artichoke barley soup is bright and wholesome.

The sandwiches are less successful.  The falafel was warmed rather than fresh-fried, and overloaded with creamy “tzatsiki” that bore only passing resemblance to that tangy sauce.  It needed pickles or onions to add some zest, but all the pita contained was mealy tomatoes and lettuce.  The chicken gyro sandwich was the same, only this time with dry chicken breast.

Stick to the soups and you’ll do fine, as I suspect this café will.  After only a brief period in business it is packed with happily slurping office workers, many of them discussing how much they love the soup.

Petra Greek is located adjacent to that cancer on our grid, that suburban monstrosity which sullies the historic Firestone building, that Pizza Place Which Shall Not Be Named, so I avoided it for many months.  This may sound like an over-reaction but years ago I belonged to a short-lived neighborhood group in which we contemplated chaining ourselves to the Firestone if the CPK (ugh, I said it) started construction.  Now that’s an over-reaction!

When I finally had Petra recommended to me on the basis of a better-than-average Greek wine list, I entered with low expectations; each time I’ve eaten there my estimation has risen.

Petra doesn’t make their loukaniko (a Greek sausage) in house, but they get it from Molinari in San Francisco, which is the next best thing.  It was heavily charred, and served rolled up in a pillowy pita filled with French fries, raw red onion, and tangy yogurt; the gyro was similarly tarted up, but had too much oily meat.  The chicken souvlaki sandwich was more balanced, with big, juicy chunks of cumin-laced breast meat.  Their version of the deceptively complex avgolemeno soup had an almost porridge-like consistency and was tart and silky.

MidMo’s wine writer, Michele Hebert, recommended the feta-topped “Petra fries” as the perfect pairing with the Malamatina retsina (made by “macerating wine with pine tar” as she wrote in MidMo in 2008) and, like E.F. Hutton, when she talks, I listen.  The adorable 500 mL bottle or Malamatina costs only six dollars and its tart, pine-inflected flavor was perfect with the mound of hot, crisp fries topped with mild feta and oregano.  The bottle has a cartoon of a man guzzling retsina while an oversized key inserted in his stomach unlocks his appetite, and it had much the same effect on me.  I can scarcely imagine a better late night drinkin’ snack, and Petra is open until 3AM Wednesday through Saturday.

I had enjoyable meals at all three of these nominally Greek places, but my failure to embrace this cuisine has much to do with the monotony of the local menus and the editing out of all but the most Americanized dishes. Where are the seafood dishes from this island nation? Where are the fresh vegetable dishes and the lentils and the fava beans and the fish roe?  I hope they arrive in Sacramento someday, but until then, I’ll settle for Kabob House’s Lebanese-inflected mezzes, Muntean’s global soups, and Petra’s superior fast food.

Kabob House, 1726 Fulton Ave.

Petra Greek, 1122 16th St.

Muntean’s Sandwiches and Soups, 1225 J St.

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  1. One Response to “Greek to Me”

  2. avatar

    By a possible staff writer on Jan 9, 2011 | Reply

    Fantastic piece, Becky! You’ve really hit your stride. Loved how you brought in Midtown neighborhood politics into the review. You make me not miss Kate Washington!

    yr pal,

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