HOW GREEK WAS MY VALLEY

Greektown, 539 East Glendale Avenue, Phoenix, 279-9677. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4:30 to 10 p.m.

In fancy restaurants, big shots impress the maitre d' by telling him who they are.

That way, high-powered attorneys, rich executives and public figures can get preferential treatment: good tables, free appetizers, fawning service. But in certain mom-and-pop ethnic establishments, it's what you are, not who you are, that seems to count.

I hadn't been seated for more than ten seconds at the delightful Greektown before the owner dropped by and looked me over, his ethnic antennae raised, probing the atmosphere.

"You're Jewish, aren't you?" he asked. "Sagittarius, actually," I replied, fixing him with my best Southern California, vacant-moonbeam stare. After all, answering that question in the affirmative has rarely been a smart move down through the centuries.

He wasn't fooled. In fact, he was pleased. He believes that food-loving ethnic types whose peasant ancestors fled the old country--any old country--are best able to appreciate the nuances of hearty Greek cooking.

Then he glanced at my wife, a blonde Midwesterner who radiates all the ethnic magnetism of Tipper Gore. "My best customers are Jewish," he finally whispered, obviously giving her the benefit of the doubt. "You'll love the food."

He was right about that, too.
For a relatively inexpensive ethnic joint, Greektown is surprisingly pretty. Attractively done up in blue and white (the colors of the Greek flag), it sports the look of a Greek country inn: a mural of Greece along one wall, lace curtains and tablecloths, Greek travel posters, art depicting the labors of Hercules, and lots of decorative plates, vases and statues.

The room is also cleverly divided into several eating areas, giving it a warm, intimate feel. Intimate, too, are the frequent visits of the owner to every table. He's apt to pull up a chair and discuss the menu, or strum a bouzouki and sing "Happy Birthday." While pop is schmoozing out front, mom is cooking in the back. She can really dish it out.

The appetizers are so good that the combo plate is the only practical way to go. Taramosalata is a poor man's caviar dip. It's carp roe creamed with potatoes, lemon and olive oil. Another dip, this one with Middle Eastern roots, is tsatziki, a pleasing mixture of yogurt, cucumbers and onions. Melitsanosalata features eggplant, a Greek staple, pur‚ed with enough garlic to turn your head in a 360-degree swivel.

These dips require great bread, and Greektown delivers superb, thick, piping-hot pita. We quickly downed a basket and asked for more. Later we discovered that this request cost us an extra dollar. Tacky.

The appetizer plate also comes with feta cheese, spinach-filled puff pastries called spanakopitas, and tiropetes--fragrant cheese puffs infused with dill.

Soup or salad accompanies the meal. Avgolemono is a mildly pungent broth, an egg-and-lemon-flavored chicken soup flecked with orzo, a ricelike grain. The Greek salad contains no surprises. Smart diners won't fill up on this course--the best is yet to come.

If you love sweetbreads, like I do, you'll adore Greektown's version. Thick with mushrooms in a rich wine sauce, it's a generous plate, expertly prepared. It comes with mixed vegetables drenched in enough butter to negate any potential health benefits. At $10.95, this dish offers a wonderful blend of value and taste.

Lamb lovers shouldn't feel sheepish about ordering capama. While not the most expensive cut of meat, it was trimmed of most fat and gristle. Then it was marinated and simmered to fall-off-the-bone tenderness. Alongside was a heap of orzo in a strong tomato-and-wine sauce.

If you're watching your drachma, you can still satisfy your carnivorous instincts. The roast-lamb sandwich enfolds lots of aromatic hunks of lamb, slathered with tsatziki, in the wonderful pita bread. I've had tasteless ham-and-cheese sandwiches on white bread that cost more, and they didn't have Greek salad on the side.

Moussaka is another Greek specialty that often inspires happy diners to toss dinnerware against a wall. Greektown's effort is as pretty as a picture: layers of sliced potato topped with saut‚ed eggplant, ground meat, grated cheese and b‚chamel sauce. It needed just a bit more of a nutmeg-and-cinnamon kick to reach Olympian heights.

Normally, after such a full-size meal, my wife shrinks from dessert like a vampire before a crucifix. And I see her point--you pack on a zillion calories, but you rarely get a zillion-calorie taste.

Greektown's homemade desserts, though, upset this equation. Here, you consume two zillion calories, but get three zillion worth of flavor. These desserts are fabulous, some of the best I've had in the Valley. I may have to check into the Mayo Brothers Dessert Dependency Clinic to deal with my cravings.

Kataifi is shredded phyllo dough layered with lemon custard and whipped cream, dusted with cocoa and drenched in honey. It's a knockout, sweet and moist. And if Plato had sampled the almond baklava, he'd have abandoned the notion that perfection is found only in idealized forms. It's heaven on Earth. My favorite, though, is galaktoboureko, a phyllo-crusted custard pie scented with vanilla and lemon, dripping with a sweet, cinnamon syrup. It's not terribly healthful, but, like Achilles, I prefer a short, glorious life to a long, dull one.

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