Cafe Reviews

Big Fat Greek Tragedy

No, I haven't seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The premise rankles my sensibilities way too much (really, a chick is dried up and desperate because she isn't married by 30?). Even though the public at large seems to love it, I have to keep in mind that this is the same public that last week made Bringing Down the House the top-grossing movie (good Lord, Steve Martin gettin' funky with Queen Latifah?). Professional critics overwhelmingly scoffed at the Big Fat Greek movie, and that's good enough for me.

I have gone to My Big Fat Greek Restaurant. Yes, it's a cute name – the clever marketing gimmick got me through the door and elicits smiles when I mention it to friends. The public seems to like it well enough – the Tempe restaurant is pretty busy each time I go. But this is the same public that consistently votes as "Best of Phoenix" such dreary feed halls as Red Lobster (Best Seafood) and Olive Garden (Best Italian). No, for Big Fat Greek fare, rely on the voice of this professional critic. In the quest for authentic Mediterranean cuisine, this place is one Big Fat Greek Fraud.

MBFGR occupies the space on Mill Avenue that until recently was Crocodile Cafe. The past several months haven't been kind to the dining scene along that street, what with the almost simultaneous closings of Beeloe's, Have a Nice Day Cafe and Jax. When those places first opened, they were packed, full of folks drawn in by the novelty. Crocodile Cafe never really took off, though, with diners bored by food that, while oak-wood grilled, was essentially Chili's for more money.

So it's no surprise that the Crocodile bit it. Apparently, though, MBFGR's owners didn't learn anything from their predecessor – this restaurant is a half-baked Mediterranean version of Denny's.

Why so testy? Because it's obvious that no one in this kitchen cares. How can anyone keep a straight face serving this slop, especially after having the gall to lure customers in with romantic menu copy: "A Mediterranean flair of cooking created by the gods... secrets cherished and kept for thousands of years are now for you to enjoy"?

Lazy, lazy, lazy. Little has been done to change decor from alligator to Aegean, except for fresh paint and a mishmash of olive oil cans, bottles of marinated vegetables, and the curious display of saran-wrapped baking pans full of uncooked food that waits on the bar each time I visit (there's still a crocodile pointing the way to the rest rooms, for chrissakes).

My buddy is trying to salvage our lunch with an upbeat attitude. "Maybe there are people who really like their food this way," he says, poking at a mess of calamari. "Maybe it's stuff I'd eat in front of the TV if no one would ever catch me at it . . ."

If I had the facial dexterity to arch an eyebrow, I would now. He sighs and nods sheepishly. "Yeah, I know. I'm just thinking that, surely, there's something here we can eat."

He's wrong. The calamari is atrocious. It looks frightening – thick ropes of pale gray squid circles, and a mound of tentacles so skinny and dusty with flour they remind me of what I clean out from my hairbrush. It tastes even worse, with all the flavor of rubber bands, served cold, and dipped in commercial-flavored cocktail sauce. It doesn't help that the appetizer follows on the heels of a truly mediocre Greek salad, plopped with old-tasting un-pitted Kalamata olives, bitter bell pepper, partially peeled cucumber, watery loose feta and thin dressing that tastes solely of wet lemon. A caesar is only marginally better, damp with bottle-quality dressing and powdered Parmesan, and good only because we requested fresh anchovies alongside (surprisingly, they have the little fish available).

Tables around us don't seem to be having much better luck. One neighboring table of women wonders aloud how many servers it could take to present saganaki – a clutch of four uniformed staffers show up to handle the plate of cheese and are still unable to flame the ouzo poured over the fried kasseri cheese. The mechanical lighter clicks and wheezes and fills the air around us with the smell of gas. When the manager takes over, the flames leap so high they lick the edges of the low-hung wooden ceiling sculptures (an unfortunate leftover from the former decor, the fire starter apologizes). The servers' cheer of "opa!" is as self-conscious and unconvincing as their attempts at a weak, Greek-spirited "Happy Birthday" song for another table.

I absolutely adore good gyros. The minced beef and lamb, pressed with herbs and molded around a vertical rotisserie for roasting and then carved into long curls, can be a juicy, robust sensation. It can be a huge, messy, marvelous sandwich, layered with sweet tomato, sharp white onion, and tangy-fresh cucumber yogurt sauce on fresh-griddled pita. Or it can be the flabby, timid meat found at MBFGR, buried in iceberg lettuce, the bread gone soggy with soupy bland yogurt (and pita here is an option, substituted for a hamburger bun or, even more shameful, rolled in a tortilla). It's offensive that we're charged $2 more for sides of a puny handful of Greek or caesar salad, or French fries.

Oh, yes, this is a Big Fat Greek Fake. That's why diners can also choose from a chicken quesadilla, barbecued chicken pizza, soft tacos, fish-n-chips, or chicken stir fry, labeled as a "Greek specialty" but actually a poor Chinese version with bell pepper, pea pods, ginger, mushrooms and onions in orange soy sauce. It's also why there's a Cajun-spiced blackened salmon caesar thrown in next to a Cobb salad, alongside ham and chicken on a roll with jack cheese, avocado and chipotle mayo.

I take my leftover moussaka home with me, wondering if the loud Greek-style music piped into the restaurant, or the fluttering of beer flags on the patio, has affected my judgment. But there's no confusion; in the comfort of my own kitchen the casserole is even more awful. Layers of clammy eggplant sit on mealy potato slices with thin strips of ground beef that taste as if they've been scraped from a Taco Bell crispy shell. Béchamel has been cooked to curd, and the glop is coated with dry-as-dust powdered cheese. I'd send this back at Denny's, the plate further insulted with soggy steamed squash, institutional rice, and lemon "roasted" potatoes that collapse in a wet heap on the fork and taste like fish.

Another friend asks me to order him whatever – it's 1:30 p.m., and he's "double-lunched" me, already having eaten. Lucky fellow. As it is, I'm stuck with slogging through an entire plate of pathetic spanakopita, served as a leaden log of greasy dough rather than traditional triangular packets of phyllo. The menu says the filling is fresh spinach – fresh from a freezer bag, maybe – and that glue stuck to my teeth must be the feta.

The soup – even though I'm ravenous, I can't get past a sodden clump that's supposed to be avgolemono. Instead of rich chicken broth floating with lacy egg and al dente rice, I've got a cafeteria recipe of viscous beige saltwater. Hummus is passable – at least there's some spark to the chickpea and sesame tahini spread, but there are tons of better versions available around town.

I'm wondering how long MBFGR's owners will be able to hold on to the only redeeming thing about this restaurant – its name. Trademark lawyers get pretty fussy about such things (anyone else remember the Scottsdale nightclub/cafe Stetson's, which was shuttered once the hat maker found out about it?). I know that if I was in any way connected to the movie, I'd be outraged to have the vaguest hint that I was responsible for this food.

I'm placing bets now – if this knockoff restaurant even makes it through the summer, I'll eat Big Fat Crow.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet

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