Mika's Greek in Downtown Phoenix Serves Surprisingly Authentic Greek Fare

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You want authentic souvlaki, or a decent gyro, and you want it now. Usually, fast food and Greek aren't a great mix; falafel doesn't do well under heat lamps, and whoever heard of made-ahead lamb skewers? If you're craving excellent Greek fare, you're likely headed to someplace with faux Athenian décor, a lounge, and a live belly dancer.

Mika's Greek is neither a supper club nor one of those depressing, prefab fast food joints. Having recently expanded its small chain of two East Valley locations to downtown Phoenix, locally owned Mika's is a spotless diner that serves fresh-made, almost entirely authentic Greek fare. There are next to no surprises on Mika's menu, just customary Greek cuisine -- flavors and textures that send you briefly to Amphipolis, even when some of the traditional dishes fall short.

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Small and tidy, Mika's cozy, casual downtown dining room is filled with brushed steel two-tops and the typical large, framed photographs of faraway Greek villages. The menu offers an array of Greek classics, from souvlaki and hummus to dolma and baklava. Served with paper napkins and plastic flatware, the homestyle cuisine is too spot-on to be fast food and is often good enough to transport diners to Apollonia. Large portions, better-than-reasonable prices, and authenticity make up for the occasional culinary shortcut.

Meats are moist and boldly flavored, and pitas are available heaped with everything from grilled chicken to vegetable souvlaki; extra meat is offered for an additional charge, but it's hardly necessary -- entrée servings are more than generous. Traditional cold Greek yogurt-based dips also are authentic: thicker and less sweet, spiked with dill and cucumber flavors. Entrées come with two sides, and only the side salad, a super-fresh yet unexciting mélange of chopped romaine hearts, crumbled feta, diced tomatoes, and red onion, tossed with a dill-based dressing, was a disappointment. Generous piles of fluffy pita bread were served with pretty much everything: entrée, appetizer, soups, which meant no sharing or scavenging for something to dip into the various delicious flavors.

Because its menu is available for both lunch and dinner, I launched a Mika's midday meal with tasty falafel. Big, crispy-crusted marbles, they were moist and crumbly inside, peppery and bursting with fava-and-chickpea flavor. They could have been warmer, but I forgave them their temperature after dipping them into thick, cold tzatziki sauce, zingy with dill, lemon, and hints of garlic and rich with cucumber flavor and more substantial than most runny, American-made tzatziki I've had.

I admit it: I rolled my eyes at jalapeño hummus. But I haven't stopped craving it, one of very few fusion-inspired items on Mika's menu, since my first bite. Served with slices of cucumber and enough fluffy pita bread triangles to choke a Trojan horse, it offered the perfect amount of heat and the zippy flavor of jalapeño. Creamy and rich with cumin and tahini, the garbanzos weren't overwhelmed by the taste of hot peppers.

I'm not a poutine fan. They're so often buried in gravy and too quickly soggy, and what's the point of drenched French fries, anyway? Mika's fries have come as close as anything to changing my mind. Dribbled, not doused, with Mika's Greek house dressing and topped with tzatziki and crumbled feta, the fries remained crispy and were enhanced by rather than drowned in these other flavors.

I'd heard that Mika's gyros platter featured shaved meat, something my dining partner, a gyro aficionado, was looking forward to on a subsequent dinnertime visit. But the tasty lamb and beef was chunky, not thinly shaved, and therefore perfect for dipping. The meat, which filled the platter, was too salty for my taste, but moist and succulent, all the same.

The portion was large enough to share, which was also true of the other platters we tried. The veggie souvlaki skewered seasoned green peppers, onions, and tomatoes rubbed with olive oil and charred, then served on wheat pitas piled high with onions, tomatoes, and cold globs of tzatziki sauce. Besides these two, there are five other platter entrées. I'd recommend the hearty grilled Greek chicken platter of olive oil-marinated, grilled white meat, and two sides.

From the gourmet side of the menu, the Caesar pita is a bizarre amalgam of grilled Greek chicken and romaine lettuce tossed with Parmesan and housemade lemon-and-egg-white dressing. More satisfying is the gourmet picado pita, which includes grilled onions, bell peppers, and jalapeños with your choice of meat. Lamb worked well, especially when dipped into cold tztaziki sauce, which appears to come with pretty much everything on the menu.

In each case, my sides were so generous, they served as starters: Pureed lentil soup, grainy and green and pungent with the tang of lemon juice, was a perfect appetizer for a cold night. Slippery, aromatic basmati rice was tender, and mildly spiced with parsley and onion. I was nearly full after enjoying these, but I couldn't resist a second entrée of dolma, which offered a pleasant mix of textures and flavors: moist rice, mild mint and dill, and crisp onions drizzled with olive oil and wrapped in tender grape leaves. My dinner companion, who swore he never liked dolma, finished off three of these.

Another on a short list of disappointments: The dessert menu is mostly Middle American fare. Oreo cheesecake? An ice cream sandwich? Where were the citrusy galaktobouriko or the loukoumades? The lone Greek dessert was a sodden baklava, served unceremoniously in a plastic box, leaden and sticky with too much simple syrup. On the other hand, much of what came before it was so satisfying and -- for a small-chain diner -- surprisingly authentic, I hardly cared.

Mika's Greek 503 West Thomas Road 602-279-6452 www.mikasgreek.com Hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday

Greek fries $3.95 Jalapeño hummus $4.95 Dolma $7.95 Gyro platter $12.95

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