I always look forward to a Greek festival.
The atmosphere is magical. It’s almost as if I’d won a trip to Mykonos from The Price is Right or the prize puzzle on Wheel of Fortune… Lord knows my chances of turning into someone’s yia yia are higher than me being able to afford a trip like that myself.
Do I even have to mention the food? Give me anything marinated in lemon, garlic and oregano or bathed in honey, and I’m swooning.
My stepmom is Greek, so I grew up eating lamb, souvlaki and her famous potato salad. I’ve heard the stories of her yia yia (grandma) almost knocking out a man for selling her crappy feta. She’s also told me stories of her yia yia going down into the basement and using a broom handle to roll out her own phyllo dough… Can you see it?!
Unfortunately, Greece is a long way away… Just like the festivals themselves.
The good news is that I’ve found a small restaurant that will transport you to the best of both worlds. It’s called Cuzina Grill.
A 19-year-old “entrepreneur” (that’s what he called himself) opened up the place with his Godmother. He told me the menu is small because everything they offer is fresh… They don’t use frozen meats.
This joint is along East Main Street in Spartanburg. There are a few tables… Or you can sit at the counter. They play Greek music. There are family photos on the wall. The godmother speaks English cloaked in a strong accent.
The food takes time, but it’s worth it. I promise.
It is so good that we went for dinner one night and went back for lunch the next day. Very rarely do I find a place with a menu that pulls me in like that.
For dinner we split the spanakopita, or spinach pie. It was a crispy, buttery bundle of hugs. In fact, my partner in cuisine crime despises spinach, but he devoured this… And got it again on our next visit! For my main meal, I got the steak souvlaki (think kabob) pita… They serve it with the fries wrapped inside. We got them on the outside because one of their specialities is duck fat fries (duck fat is said to be healthier, though more expensive) and I just had to try them on their own. The steak was tender.. The fries were crispy. The co-owner/chef told me to get the fries in the pita next time. He said, “Don’t be scared!”
The next day, we joined the lunch crowd. We both got the lamb souvlaki platter. For appetizers we got the spanakopita and felafel (fried cakes made from chickpeas)… Both dishes got our mouths watering…
Finally, the main course arrived. To be honest, it wasn’t presented in the traditional souvlaki style that I was used to or expecting. Usually souvlaki would be chunks of lamb just taken off the skewer. This dish was slices of lamb… Tender, well-marinated lamb that would punch the green out of the mint jelly you might dare to hope to have with it. It came with a delicious rendition of tzatziki sauce (Greek yogurt, cucumbers), pita wedges and well-seasoned fries.
Bravo (opa!) to them on so many levels. Locally-owned restaurants that let you avoid the chain gang are wonderful, but to know that the food comes from the heart makes this savory situation pure perfection.
Tip: Don’t go for the same ol’, same ol’. Revisit some oldies, but goodies. For me, that happened to be Mimi’s Cafe. I hadn’t been there in years… And had PF Changs, an old standby, not been slammed, I wouldn’t have gotten to pay Mimi an overdue visit. If you go, try the French Quarter burger: avocado, bacon and 1000 island dressing top the beef and get hugged by bread with a crispy Parmesan crust. Gosh I’m glad we went. The burger was that good. Sometimes good food is right under our noses….