Perhaps I was spoiled by having an extended vacation in Greece this year.
OK, I was definitely spoiled, and in addition to the sun, the beach, the antiquities, I adored the food. Greek food is not haute cuisine, but it is tasty, filling, and unpretentious. It uses fresh ingredients, relies on quality olive oil, and is accompanied by local wine without added sulfites.
For three weeks we feasted on calamari, stuffed peppers, and moussaka, the ubiquitous baked casserole of layered eggplant, ground lamb, and potatoes topped with béchamel sauce. Béchamel is usually a straightforward white sauce made with flour, eggs, butter, and maybe nutmeg. Portions were large, and often at lunch we shared a large Greek salad and followed it with a moussaka, fresh thick-cut bread, and a carafe of cold white wine. If we were really hungry, we added an appetizer of dolmades, grape leaves stuffed with rice, ground lamb, and lentils served cold with olive oil mixed with lemon juice, or taramosalata, cod roe mixed with bread crumbs and olive oil.
Even in humble outdoor restaurants on the islands, waiters would attach colorful paper tablecloths, and more often than not a complimentary order of galaktoboureko (Greek custard baked in phyllo dough and served with honey) or rakia (a fruit brandy) would be brought after the main course.
In the U.S., Greeks enjoy a reputation as successful restaurateurs, having introduced us to gyros, kebabs, and baklava. If you add in the pizzerias, many started by Greeks, their cuisine has had an immeasurable impact on American diets. So, a recent meal at Papouli’s (there were three, but one recently closed) came as quite a jolt. We tried the one closest to us at Huebner and
I-10 for dinner. The restaurants are self-service, and the location, between a sandwich shop and a Panda Express, is pretty basic: plastic-top tables seating about 50 on a stained-concrete floor, fake flowers in soda bottles, and catsup on each table.
Yes, there are a couple of Greek touches: a few framed color photographs, a mural of the island of Santorini, and T-shirts with “Who’s Your Granddaddy?” and Papouli’s name ($12 each), but otherwise it was San Antonio mall. There are no Greek beer or wines on the menu, but they do offer Yellow Tail, Becker, and Beringer at $15-$20 per bottle.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but a Greek restaurant claiming roots in San Antonio since 1912 (Papouli means grandfather and the owner, Nick Anthony, is the grandson), could have added a few ethnically authentic touches — maybe some Greek music, not Top 40, perhaps a retsina or Mythos, a light Athenian beer, real Greek-style bread instead of pita.
The menu is a distant reflection of Greece. The moussaka is made with ground beef, not lamb. The Greek salad was iceberg lettuce, a couple of olives, one tomato wedge, a bit of crumbled feta cheese in a balsamic vinaigrette. In Greece, the salad comes loaded with tomatoes and cucumbers, local lettuces like red-leaf, and a fat slab of fresh feta covered with olive oil and sprinkled with pepper. The fare, identical at lunch and dinner, is fairly basic: baked fish, chicken, kebabs, gyros, plus soups and salads. It’s all listed on a board above the pass-through opening of a small kitchen. I ordered the baked tilapia and my companion had the moussaka. Plates run around $13 each, and include a small Greek salad, rice, and two quarter slices of pita. The fish had been cooked in vegetable oil, not olive oil, and was on the dry side. The moussaka was more tossed than layered.
Service is hardly a winner here, either. We watched the staff kibbutz in the kitchen while diners left and their tables went uncleared. I decided Papouli’s at the Forum had to be better and set off for lunch a few days later. The Forum is not easy to navigate from I-35, but after a few confusing turns in Universal City, I found myself on Agora Parkway in Selma, and again next to a Panda Express; there was Papouli’s.
It was a little smaller, with the same décor minus the photos. But the line to order was long, and there were no empty tables. The clientele was about half airmen/women. I decided to have the classic Greek sandwich, the gyro for $6.29. For an extra $3 I was able to throw in a soft drink and a choice of soup, salad, or couscous. I added a cup of lentil soup and was pleasantly surprised by a tasty thick soup full of lentils, bits of tomato and onion, and crumbled feta.
The gyro also smacked of authentic Greek — a warm pita wrapped around a combination of pressed beef and lamb, with slivered black olives, onion, tomato, and vinaigrette. You can also add tzatziki, usually a yogurt-based topping with bits of cucumber, garlic, and parsley, although at Papouli’s it’s made with sour cream. In Greece, the large-cut fries would have been put in the pita rather than served alongside, but the fries were great, and the attitude of the staff was definitely warmer. Now if they only will bus the tables once diners leave.
The other local Greek chain, Demo’s, has been a mainstay in San Antonio for 30 years. Demosthenes Karagas, then a 19-year-old, second-generation Greek, started the business with his mother Lucille in a strip mall at Blanco and 410, and the original location is still there. It’s almost always packed at lunch, and a smaller clientele comes for dinner en famille or collects takeout. Sister Vickie eventually bought the restaurant and runs it and its two offspring, one on North St. Mary’s across from St. Sophia Orthodox Church and the other in the Vineyard mall at Blanco and 1604. We sampled all three.
The original Demo’s seats about 40 in a pinch. I ordered a double beef souvlaki with fries and a small salad, and Aris, a light Greek lager, to wash it down. The meat was medium-rare as advertised, very tender, and the fries came as a generous order. I barely had room for the baklava, but it looked fresh and was; the phyllo dough was still warm. The staff, in black T-shirts which read “Be Unique — Think Greek,” promptly cleared tables for the line of lunchtime customers.
On to Demo’s in the heart of what was a Greek community at North St. Mary’s Street and Ashby, a much larger establishment, with a dozen ample tables on the main level, and a similar number on the loft floor, which is decorated with a panoramic mural of Santorini. A nice pebbled mosaic and floral motifs painted around the windows suggested we could be in Greece. Ditto the blue-and-white tablecloths. And the framed photo of the Acropolis over the urinal in the men’s room relieved any lingering confusion.
We opted for the two lunch specials, $8.75 apiece with soft drinks. I had the gyro and my companion took the chicken. With the included fries and salads we left feeling content. If we had a complaint, it was the garbled and unintelligible calling of names to collect orders. Having mistakenly answered what I thought was my name, I then sat through multiple calls. It may be the sound system or just the reverberation of the big open space, but we noticed others were confused about their orders, too.
The crowd here is a bit dressier than at Blanco and 410, and includes a few professional types from the near downtown. Ample parking is behind the restaurant, and a patio fronts on St. Mary’s if you can manage the summer heat.
We tried the Vineyard location for dinner, hoping to catch the Thursday-night belly dancers (at all three venues on different nights; check
demosgreekfood.com for the schedule). However, we were told the dancer from Karavan Dance Studio only performed for 20 minutes, so we missed that gig. The décor at the Vineyard setting is less noticeably Grecian, although there is the obligatory Santorini mural. It’s one large room, seating about 60, same menu, same order setup as the two other sites. But it was hard to be disappointed with our choices: the dieter’s special (chicken souvlaki without the bread) and a combination beef and gyro meat plate, both with the ubiquitous Greek salad and fries.
All three Demo’s feature a nice selection of Greek wines by the glass at $3.50-$4, as well as by the bottle ($17-$25), and a kid’s meal with drink for $5.45. You can order online for takeout meals or just to have everything waiting for you when you arrive — a nice amenity, to be sure, but it doesn’t get you any closer to the islands.
Ed. note: For more Greek dining options, see our Café SA listings, page 20, and search our online Café SA database.