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Zorba’s Fine Greek Dining – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Zorba’s Fine Greek Cuisine on the far Northeast Heights

Tell me what you do with the food you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.
Some turn their food into fat and manure,
some into work and good humor, and others, I’m told, into God.”
~
Zorba the Greek

The most obvious theme of the Nikos Kazantzakis novel Zorba the Greek is that life should be lived to its fullest–that its pleasures should be pursued with a lusty vigor.  The embodiment of that attitude was the eponymous, life-affirming protagonist Alexis Zorba whose unrestrained joie de vivre didn’t diminish with advancing geriatric progression.  If anything, Zorba’s exuberance and appetite for the pleasures of the flesh become more pronounced with age.  His passions were governed by his senses, not by social mores or even his own intellection. 

In a sense Zorba’s attitude is encapsulated in Dionysus, the Greek god of the grape harvest, wine-making, wine, ritual madness and ecstasy.  In the pantheon of Olympian gods, Dionysus may have been the most “human,” a god subject to mortal traits of impetuousness, irrationality and emotionality.  His passions were expressed in such activities as dancing, drinking and eating.  If there was a Greek god of revelry, drunkenness and inebriation, it, too, would have been Dionysus who frequented those physical states with ebullience as did Alexis Zorba.

The interior of Zorba is awash in color

Step into Zorba’s Fine Greek Dining at the Heights Village shopping center on Montgomery and Juan Tabo and the familiar sharp metallic sound of bouzouki music piped in through the restaurant’s sound system may inspire involuntary finger-snapping as you sashay over to a counter at which you place your order.  It’s the least festive aspect of an otherwise mood-enlivening ambiance.  The fragrance of aromatically enticing cuisine may elicit involuntary salivation and when you espy the desserts under glass maybe an effusive shout or two of “Opa.” 

Since opening in May, 2010, Zorba’s Fine Greek Dining has established itself as a popular dining destination with guests visiting from throughout the Duke City. Most visit as much for familiar faces as they do for familiar tastes.  Among the latter are such Greek standards as spanakopita, gyros, souvaki and dolmathes.  The familiar faces belong to Sprios, Marina, Greg and Madeline Counelis whom Duke City diners will recognize from the storied Olympia Cafe across Central Avenue from the University of New Mexico.  Sprios and Marina owned and operated the Olympia from 1972 through 2010.

Taramosalata and Tzatziki with pita bread wedges

Zorba’s is hardly a carbon copy of the Olympia Cafe.  While both celebrate the Greek culture and its wondrous cuisine, Zorba’s bespeaks of modernity and newness.  You might curse the fact that your last vacation wasn’t at the site of the large panoramic photograph which hugs the wall leading to the counter where you place your order.  It depicts a tranquil seaside fishing village nestled against the azure Aegean Sea whose crystal clear, unusually blue waters put to shame the lighter blue ceiling.  The close proximity seating is built more for functionality than it is for comfort.

The lunch menu is offered daily until 5PM though you can order off the much more expansive dinner menu at any time.  The dinner menu offers options that elevate the restaurant to a purveyor of fine Greek cuisine as opposed to another Greek eatery  serving what may be characterized as fast food.  Dinner includes a mariner’s bounty of seafood options.  Both lunch and dinner are reasonably priced, the latter a bit more expensive.

Gyros served with a Greek salad

Among the appetizer options is Taramasalata, pink roe caviar with olive oil blended into a smooth dip served with pita wedges.  Taramasalata is often referred to as “poor man’s caviar” and often has an undertone of fishiness, but when made right, it’s quite good.  As its etymology implies, Taramasalata is salted and cured, the former very obvious in Zorba’s rendition.  It’s among the saltiest Taramasalata I can remember having.  This appetizer is served with a generous amount of pita wedges for scooping up the smooth dip.  Perhaps as a “chaser” to the saltiness of the Taramasalata, this meze also includes a bowl of tzatziki, the traditional Greek cucumber and garlic dip.  It’s an excellent tzatziki.

As at many Greek restaurants, the most popular entree at Zorba’s  are gyros, an amalgam of beef and lamb broiled on a vertical split then sliced and wrapped in a pita with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce.  The gyros are moist, tender and very well seasoned, but what enlivens them with flavor is the aforementioned tzatziki which is made of finely chopped cucumber and dill and mixed with natural yoghurt.  The pita is literally bursting with ingredients and despite their moistness, it’s formidable enough not to disintegrate.  It’s a good, pliable pita.

Greek Loukaniko on pita served with French fries

A nice alternative to the de rigueur gyros is a sandwich option most Duke City Greek restaurants don’t offer, but very well should.  It’s a Greek Loukaniko, a uniquely savory, traditional Greek sausage wrapped in pita and topped with grilled onions with lemon wedges on the side.  Just as the term “chorizo” seems to be used to describe any type of sausage in Latin America, Loukaniko is often used to describe all Greek sausages.  The version proffered at Zorba’s seems to be an amalgam of pork and lamb with a tinge of fennel and a hint orange zest.  It makes for a terrific sandwich.  Squeeze the lemon wedge onto the sausage and the flavor profile changes.

Sandwiches are served with your choice of a Greek salad or French fries.  The Greek salad features crisp greens topped with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, feta cheese and a single pepperoncini.  There is so much fetid feta it blankets the salad like a fresh snowfall on a sidewalk.  The French fries, seasoned generously with pepper, are fine, but the annoyingly difficult tiny packets of ketchup detracted from our enjoyment.  When you’ve got hands the size of a catcher’s mitt, handling dainty little things like ketchup packets is a challenge.

Southwestern Gyros: original Gyros with a New Mexico twist; topped with onions, green chile and cheese

I’ve long contended that green chile makes everything taste better and have validated that assertion by having green chile on pancakes, apple pie, pastrami sandwiches, spaghetti and so much more.  At Zorba’s, I finally found the one item that green chile does not improve.  That item is gyros (called Southwestern Gyros on the menu), but the fault could lie in the way the green chile is used on the gyro and not the gyro itself. 

The chile is laid out in strips and not interspersed among the beef and lamb amalgam, but piled on top of it–layer upon layer of chile strips.  Had the chile been chopped and strewn judiciously throughout the sandwich, the flavor distribution would have made much better sense.  Worse, the gyro also included melted cheese (probably Cheddar), another topping you should never add to a gyro.  Feta cheese yes, but gloppy melted yellow cheese no.

Avgolemono, a traditional Greek soup made with chicken broth, rice, eggs, and lemon juice.

The premise of avgolemono is essentially a high quality chicken stock intensely infused with lemon juice and thickened with eggs.  It’s a traditional (especially around Easter) Greek soup which is at once comforting, luxurious, and refreshing (thank the lemons for that).  Made well, it’s a creamy concoction courtesy of the frothy, beaten eggs swirled into the chicken broth.  It’s not always made well.  The best aspect of the avgolemono at Zorba’s is that it’s served steaming hot.  It’s not quite as lemony or even as “chickeny” as other avgolemono we’ve had, but because it’s served so hot, you’ll likely appreciate it much more on cold, blustery days.

Zorba’s also offers a bevy of desserts including my very favorite Greek sweet treat Galaktoboureko, a traditional Greek dessert made with a lemon-kissed custard in a crispy phyllo pastry shell.  The portion size is nearly intimidating, especially after a Greek sandwich.  It’s the size of a small brick, easily big enough to share (not that you’d want to).  Other dessert options include baklava and a chocolate mousse. 

Galaktoboureko, a traditional Greek dessert made with a lemon-kissed custard in a crispy phyllo pastry shell.

Aristotle, another Greek who loved life, once said “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”  We may not all live as exuberantly as Alexis Zorba, but a meal at Zorba’s Fine Greek Cuisine will certainly make you happy with some of its well executed dishes.

Zorba’s Fine Greek Cuisine
11225 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505 323-2705
LATEST VISIT: 08 December 2012
1st VISIT: 21 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 16
COST: $$
BEST BET: Taramosalata, Gyros, Greek Loukaniko, Galaktoboureko


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Hello Gyro – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Hello Gyro

Hello Gyro in Albuquerque's far Northeast Heights

Many scholars and historians consider  the ancient Greeks to be the germinal culture and progenitor of Western civilization as we know it.  Greek civilization has been immensely influential in the arts and sciences, politics and language, philosophy and education.  It may surprise you then to learn that what many consider the archetypal Greek dish is, in chronological terms, a relative newcomer to one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

There is no historical source to prove definitively that the gyros were first made any earlier than the 1950s when they are believed to have been invented in Livadia, a city in central Greece.  The first souvlaki on a wooden stick, by the way, was also invented in Livadia at about the same time.

As it has done throughout its history, the venerable Greek culture shared its new creation with the rest of the world.  The Chicago area was the first American region introduced to gyros more than forty years ago.  Their popularity has grown like wildfire throughout the United States.

Hello Gyro on a busy Monday lunch hour

Hello Gyro on a busy Monday lunch hour

Gyros refers not only to the thin, stacked slices of meat that rotate slowly on upright spit, but to the cooking process itself.  In Greek, gryos actually means “a full turn,” a reference to the rotation of the meat on the spit one full revolution.  The electric bars behind the spit generate heat which melts the fat which drips from the bottom end of the spit onto a drip pan.  As it rotates on its spherical axis, the fat “cone” of meat becomes nicely brown and slightly crisp.  That’s an important point on which I’ll elaborate a bit more later on.

In Greece, an order of gyros with pita precipitates an exhibition of prestidigitation as the cook deftly sharpens his knives and with hands quicker than the eye, shaves thin strips off the cooked outer surface of the gyros.  The meat is nestled in a warm grilled pita where its heat is balanced with cool chopped tomatoes, onions and yoghurt sauce.  It is sheer, delicious beauty.

In America, gyros are typically made from an amalgam of sliced lamb and minced beef or sometimes just beef.   Chicken is a fairly common alternative with some diners even  daring to serve a “fish gyro,” both of which by definition are misnomers.  One such diner is Albuquerque’s Hello Gyro! which opened in the summer of 2008.

Dolmades Avgolomono at Hello Gyro

Dolmades Avgolomono at Hello Gyro

Hello Gyro! is a sister restaurant to the popular Hello Deli which has served the Duke City since 1985.   Its Web site invites you to “encounter the timeless art of the Greek dining experience,” touting “traditional family recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation.”  The restaurant is ensconced in a relatively new strip mall on San Pedro just south of Paseo del Norte.

It is a smallish diner smartly appointed with modern trappings such as exposed ductwork.  The counter at which you order is done in mosaic patterns.  Framed photographs showcasing the topography of Greece adorn the walls.  The deep azure gradation of the Mediterranean is perhaps matched only by New Mexico’s skies.  One photograph, to your left as you order, is of Graecian mountains which at a quick glance might be mistaken for the Sandias.

You have to crane your neck a bit to read the menu which is positioned above the counter.  It’s a pretty comprehensive menu of what might be considered Greek fast food.  It’s arranged in categories of entrees, pitas, salates, soupas, sides and glyka (dessert).

A traditional Greek gyro with a Greek salad and potatoes

A traditional Greek gyro with a Greek salad and potatoes

If you picked up the 2008 edition of Albuquerque The Magazine’s “Best of the City” issue, one entree you’ll be tempted to try is the Dolmades Avgolomono, grape leaves stuffed with beef and rice then topped with an egg lemon sauce.  These dolmades earned an “Editors’ Pick” award for “Best Dolma Delights.”  The magazine called them “simple, purely perfect Mediterranean masterpieces.”  My dining companions and I called them a let-down.

Similar to dolmades at several other Albuquerque Greek restaurants, these are obviously not homemade.  If you’ve ever had homemade dolmades (such as at Mykonos on Eubank), it’s hard to settle for anything less than the invigorating freshness and flavor enriching spices you get from homemade.  The Avgolomono on Hello Gyro!’s award winning dolmades is also a bit of a downer with barely any discernible lemony flavor.

As for the entree named on the marquee, the gyros are good, albeit lacking in the slightly crisp edges that typify meat shaved from the outside of the meat cone.  That might be because during our two visits the spit wasn’t rotating.  In any case, the meat was tender and well seasoned, but if you like a little crispiness, too, you might be a bit disappointed.   A thinly sliced lamb and beef amalgam is layered on warm (maybe slightly under-grilled) pita bread with ripe tomatoes, red onion and homemade Tzatziki sauce.  It’s such a moist sandwich (courtesy of the Tzatziki sauce) that the pita is challenged to hold it all together.

The Spartan with Avgolomono

The Spartan with Avgolomono

The gyros sandwich is offered with your choice of a garden salad, Avgolomono soup, orzo or Greek potatoes.  The garden salad is constructed of Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and red onion with your choice of dressing (the house Greek dressing is a stand-out).  The Greek potatoes are boiled and tossed with garlic, oil and lemon juice.  They’re also quite good.  The only side which didn’t win us over is the Avgolomono soup which, honestly, reminded me of a chicken and rice soup barely tinged with lemon.

A nice alternative to gyros is a pita-based sandwich called the Spartan, a grilled marinated chicken breast topped with feta cheese, Romaine lettuce, ripe tomato and red onion all nestled on soft, warm pita bread.  The chicken breast is grilled to perfection and its radiant heat melts the feta into a complementary sauce.  The red onion imparts a slightly sweet flavor that cuts the sharpness of the feta.  If anything, this sandwich may be better than the gyros.

Kataifi

Kataifi, a terrific Greek dessert

The glyka section of the menu includes many traditional Greek desserts such as baklava and one which isn’t as common in Albuquerque’s Greek restaurants.  That would be Kataifi, shredded filo dough baked with walnuts and cinnamon and covered with a sugar honey syrup.  It is a very rich, absolutely delicious dessert which puts an exclamation point on a good meal of Greek delicacies.

Since opening Hello Gyro! has earned a phalanx of fervent fans, most of whom return frequently to what has become a gathering place for good Greek food.

Hello Gyro!
7900 San Pedro, N.E., A-12
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT:  19 January 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Gyros, Kataifi, Spartan, Garden Salad

Olympia Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Olympia Cafe on Central Avenue

For culinary diversity, it’s hard to beat the University of New Mexico (UNM) area in which restaurants with a broad socioeconomic appeal are congregated. Aside from academic enrichment, this area is nurturing a refreshing open-mindedness toward the cuisines of the world.  That seems to be a commonality in areas within easy walking distance of large urban universities.  Perhaps restaurateurs recognize that students are not only willing to open up their minds to new knowledge, but their wallets and their minds to new culinary experiences.

The UNM area inaugurated many of us from rural parts of the state to wonderful new taste sensations.  The heretofore enigmatic mysteries of the Orient unraveled themselves the first time we tasted the sweet and sour variations of Chinese food and braved cultural taboos to actually consume raw fish.  The first time we sampled real pizza, we cursed Chef Boyardee and Pizza Hut for deigning to call their tomato sauce slathered cardboard “pizza.”  We lost a bit of our naivete and innocence with each bite of each and every new culinary adventure we experienced.  Life for many of us would never be the same.

I dare say that for many UNM students, especially those from rural areas, their first tastes of Greek cuisine occurred at the Olympia Cafe on Central Avenue.  The Olympia Cafe is a venerable elder statesman among UNM area restaurants, launching in 1972.  That’s when Spiros and Marina Counelis began serving Greek cuisine directly across the street from New Mexico’s largest university.

Hummus plate with olives, pita bread and pepperonici

Nearly four decades later, Spiros and his restaurant are still going strong though he’s admittedly tried to retire.  About the closest he’s been able to do is close the restaurant for a month each summer so he can return to Greece.  The Olympia Cafe is open only Monday through Friday from 11AM through 10PM, an accommodating schedule for students and employees of nearby businesses, but those of us from the outskirts feel a bit left out because the Cafe isn’t open on weekends.

The unmistakable aromas of well-seasoned Greek cuisine wafts onto Central Avenue, offering a welcome respite from the choking haze of automobile emissions.  Step into the restaurant and the first thing you see is a counter in which you place your orders.  The specials of the day are scrawled on a slate board on a restaurant wall while the daily menu is situated just above the counter.  Framed reviews are prominently displayed on one wall, including a 1991 Albuquerque Journal article proclaiming the Olympia Cafe one of Albuquerque’s 12 best restaurants.

After the aromas, the next thing you’ll notice is the restaurant’s liveliness.  The Olympia Cafe is characteristic of some family owned and operated Greek restaurants where animated dialogue emanates from the busy kitchen.  It’s all part of the restaurant’s charm.  As for ambiance, some would say there isn’t any.  Others appreciate the Mediterranean blue touches on the walls an the stereotypical Greek art which tends to focus on Olympian deities.  Lighting is good and seating is austere.

The Olympia Platter is a veritable feast of deliciousness Greek style.

You won’t be seated long before your number is called and you can walk to the counter to pick up your order.  Portion sizes are prolific.  It may take two of you to carry back the serving trays and their bounteous loads.  That’s especially true if you order one of the restaurant’s terrific appetizers and a dessert, too.

Among the former, a very good option is the taramasalata, what some people call “poor man’s caviar.”  The menu describes it as “pink caviar” and indeed it does have a pinkish-orange hue. Taramasalata is made from the salted and cured roe of either carp or cod.   The roe is mixed with various ingredients including vinegar, olive oil and lemon juice.  Though somewhat salty and some would say an acquired taste, if you learn to like taramasalata, it’s hard not to order it when it’s on the menu.

The Olympia Cafe’s rendition is quite good.  It is served in a small serving dish circumnavigated by four triangular wedges of warm, homemade pita bread, Kalamata olives, pepperonici and two dolmathes (grapevine leaves stuffed with rice and herbs).  This is a classic Greek appetizer sure to please aficionados of one of civilization’s oldest cuisines.  The dolmathes are especially flavorful.  You can discern the hint of cinnamon and maybe allspice among the spices used in the rice stuffing.

The restaurant is renown for its pita bread.  It’s made in-house and is served warm.  It might be the best pita bread in town (not withstanding the fact that many restaurants offering pita get it from a distributor and don’t bake it in-house).  No matter what you order, always request pita on the side.

Gyros

The best way to maximize your experience and appreciation of Greek cuisine is by ordering one of the menu’s combination combos (there are three combo platters on the menu, including one vegetarian).  The most diverse of those combo platters is the Olympia combo, a combination platter of Moussaka, Pastichio, Gyros meat with tzatziki sauce and dolmathes.  A small Greek salad replete with feta cheese is also part of this platter.

Pastichio might be described as the Greek answer to lasagna.  It’s a baked macaroni casserole layered with ground beef and topped with cheese and a cream topping.  All too often this entree is surprisingly dry, sometimes the byproduct of over-heating. That’s not the case at Olympia where it is moist and delicious, even tasting made to order.

Another casserole dish on the Olympia combo is Moussaka, a baked eggplant and ground beef casserole also topped with a cream sauce.  Moussaka is a very common dish in the Mediterranean region, but it’s vastly different in every country in which it is served.  The Greek version is my favorite.  Made correctly, the filling has a smooth and rich consistency and the eggplant is baked to perfection (not an easy feat).  Undercooked eggplant may leave your mouth with an inky taste sensation that can last for hours.  At Olympia, the sole sensation you’ll experience is the desire for a second portion.

Perhaps the most popular entree at the Olympia Cafe as at other Greek restaurants are gyros, slices of beef and lamb broiled on a vertical split then wrapped in a pita with tomatoes, onions and tzatziki sauce.  The beef and lamb amalgam is moist, tender and very well seasoned, but what enlivens it with flavor is the tzatziki which is made of finely chopped cucumber and dill and mixed with natural yoghurt.  There’s a tinge of sweetness to the yoghurt along with the fresh, cool taste of the cucumber that goes very well with the meat.  If anything, we would have appreciated even more of the tzatziki.

Galatoboureko, baked custard between crisp filo topped with a light syrup

In its annual food and wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Olympia Cafe a hot plate award for its chicken souvlaki.  Hot plate awards are accorded annually to some of the city’s most delicious dishes as seen by the magazine’s editors and staff.  The magazine describe this dish as “fit for the gods.”

 If you have any room left over, dessert options abound.  My favorite Greek dessert even though I’m still not able to pronounce it is Galatoboureko, baked custard between crisp phyllo topped with a light honeyed syrup.  The custard is rich and delicious but not at all cloying.  Galatoboureko is a Cypriot delicacy and one of the best desserts anywhere.

If your own life broadening experiences have yet to include Greek cuisine, the Olympia Cafe is a great restaurant in which to experience one of the world’s first and most delicious cuisines.

Olympia Cafe
2210 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, NM
(505) 166-5222
LATEST VISIT: 20 October 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Olympia Combo, Gyros, Taramasalata, Galatoboureko

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