My favorite memories, though, involved Greek food. I ate at historic (so I was told) cafés in the Plaka, where food, retsina wine and pulsating bazouki music often serve as a background to revelry, joy and to throwing wine glasses and plates into the fireplace. The famous scenes of the movie “Zorba The Greek” are true to life, even today.
The Greek diet is very healthful. It is, after all, a Mediterranean diet, focused mostly on fish, fresh vegetables, fruit and olive oil. I also loved the coarse grains that were used to make the typical, hardy bread. My best breakfasts were often bought from a street vendor — a roll, cheese and a piece of fruit. Greek cuisine has remained one of my favorites. It is also one of the more popular types of ethnic food.
Two sister restaurants in our own beach areas serve excellent Greek food — Apollonia Bistro in UTC and Café Athena in Pacific Beach. I designate them as “sisters” because they are owned by the same host and have similar menus. Tony Farah worked in the hospitality field for many years, but decided he wanted to do his own thing. He looked for opportunities whereby he could control his own destiny.
His first acquisition was Café Athena. Located on one side of a busy neighborhood shopping center at the end of a large parking, it is partially obscured by trees, which provide welcome shade to its small outdoor patio. The interior has three moderate-size rooms that are usually busy with the regulars who have discovered great food at moderate prices.
Then Farah bought his second location. Apollonia Bistro is on the lower level of the large Costa Verde shopping center in UTC. This restaurant is much larger, with a covered outdoor patio where cooling breezes flow in through the openings. The interior has a number of large rooms, including a private dining room. Many Greek statues, paintings and other artifacts decorate the walls, giving the interior its ethnic ambiance. Smaller statues are encased in niches on a wall, lit up for dramatic effect.
“We offer the same menu year round because it is a healthful menu,” Farah said. “We want our customers to appreciate our consistency, to know that they can always find the same tasty food that is good for them.”
The recipes are traditional and were developed in consultation with expert Greek chefs.
The waiter brings pita bread, large round flat loaves that can be opened to create little pockets that can be filled with good stuff. Hummos a dip of garbanzo beans, fresh garlic, lemon juice and sesame sauce and with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, is perfect on pita. Another Middle Eastern dish, baba ghannouj, combines eggplant with garlic, parsley, lemon juice, pome-granate molasses and sesame sauce.
The restaurants use filo dough — multiple layers of paper-thin sheets — for some appetizers and desserts, like spanakopita, delicious triangles filled with a tasty blend of spinach and feta cheese.
Some diners love Greek salad with crisp lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, red onion, lots of feta cheese and Kalamata olives. The best sandwiches, meanwhile, are the gyros, large pita stuffed with a generous portion of meat, rice pilaf and tzatziki sauce. Gyros meat is grilled on a vertical spit, with the heat adjusted by moving the spit back and forth from the flame to keep the meat moist as it is thinly sliced.
Moussaka is another very popular dish. Similar to Greek version of lasagna, it combines layers of eggplant, zucchini and seasoned ground leg of lamb in a casserole and topped with béchamel sauce and Vlahotyri cheese.
My favorite entrée is the riganato, a plump half chicken marinated with lemon juice, olive oil and oregano. It is served with briami (Greek marinated vegetables), lemon potatoes and garlic aioli sauce. Farah’s briami uses garden-fresh vegetables braised with herbs de Provence and seasoned tomato sauce. It is simply delicious.
Greek desserts should never be passed up. A favorite Middle Eastern delicacy is baklava, a blend of crushed walnuts, cinnamon and cloves filling in between layers of filo dough, topped with honey, creating a sweet, flaky sensation that practically melts in the mouth.
Apollonia Bistro has a full bar, including a nice but limited selection of Greek wine. Café Athena serves only beer and wine, but does offer a nice selection of beers. Both restaurants are open daily for lunch and dinner.
If words like dolmas, tzatziki, keftedes, saganakia or baklava are not familiar, visiting these two restaurants will not only add to vocabulary but introduce a whole new world of taste sensations. Prices are moderate. Reservations are suggested.
Appolonia Bistro is located at 8650 Genesee Ave., #106. Call (858) 455-1535. Café Athena is located at 1846 Garnet Ave. Call (858) 274-1140.