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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, pured 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 sauted eggplant, ground meat, grated cheese and bchamel 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.

Greektown is a Valley rarity, an ethnic restaurant in which charm and reasonably priced fare don't work in inverse proportion. It's worth a cruise.

Golden Greek and Italian Restaurant, 7126 North 35th Avenue, Phoenix, 841-7849. Hours: Lunch, Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.

Unlike Greektown, Golden Greek has no bouzouki-strumming owner who comes by to chat with customers about food, ethnicity or anything else.

The decor is also likely to remind you less of a sun-splashed Aegean taverna than of a coffee shop off I-40 in Kingman. Some plastic grapes hang from a wall, in which a couple of wine bottles are embedded. Blue Christmas lights line an archway. Dinners come on mismatched plates, and patrons dab at their chins with paper napkins.

But the Greek fare (there are some Italian dishes and pizzas, too) features hefty portions of several first-rate dishes at cut-rate prices. There may not be too much atmosphere here, but culinary archaeologists can unearth plenty of value.

The pan-fried calamari appetizer, kalamaria, will be a revelation to diners used to the greasy, thickly breaded version that tastes a lot like the rubber band on the Sunday newspaper. Sprinkled with lemon, it's absolutely scrumptious, a crisp, tender and delicate treat. Saganaki is another appetizer favorite. It's baked kaseri cheese, here soaked in brandy, then set afire and doused with a squirt of lemon. At other Greek restaurants, it's served with much hoopla and a cry of "Opa." Here, it's served with the all the flair of a water-glass refill. Fortunately, the flavor is worth a cheer.

The appetizer combo lined up the same suspects we got at Greektown. But only the melitsanosalata offered much in the way of competition. Golden Greek's version isn't pured into mush and laced with heaps of garlic. Instead, it's pulpy, with lots of lusty, eggplant flavor. The other dips, though--taramosalata and tsatziki--lacked zip.

That's too bad, because the bread here is not the usual, commercially baked pita. Instead, we got crusty French bread and chewy, thick pita, both homemade and both irresistible.

Dinners come with a big bowl of avgolemono soup or Greek salad, quite a bargain when you consider that most entrees go for under $8.

The best main dish, and one of the cheapest, is moussaka. It's rich and intense, a harmonious symphony of ingredients, perfectly seasoned.

The garithes scorpios, shrimp sauted in butter and garlic, came generously served, with eight good-size shrimp, a heaping plateful of rice and hunks of roasted potato and carrot. It's tasty, but this platter didn't display much ethnic character. It's about as Greek as Anthony Quinn.

There are nightly specials, and the $7.95 roast leg of lamb will fill up hungry bellies before it empties any wallets. It's a fragrant, tender slice, moistened with a full-bodied tomato sauce, accompanied by rice and vegetables. But for first-timers and the chronically indecisive, the combo plate is probably the best bet. You'll get substantial tastes of moussaka, grape leaves smothered with egg-and-lemon avgolemono sauce, spanakopitas, tiropetes and a man-size skewer of souvlaki. Dainty eaters will have plenty of leftovers to see them through the next day's dinner.

Golden Greek doesn't make its customers spend much time pondering which dessert to order. We had a choice of just two. The gooey baklava is fresh, studded with walnuts and dripping with honey. Even better is the rice pudding, a smooth, creamy, cinnamon-tinged confection. Golden Greek has no fine-dining pretensions--no Saturday-night, party-time airs. It's just a neighborhood place, with better-than-average food at value prices. I just wish it were in my neighborhood.


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