“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.
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.
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. Signage on the front door reminds you that Zorba is open “Never on A Sunday.” Okay, how many of you will even admit to being old enough to have seen the movie by that name? 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One word of warning: Although Zorba’s has a dog-friendly patio, your four-legged fur baby had better be on a leash or you won’t be dining with you. Our Dude, comfortably sitting on his stroller, was not allowed on the premises because we didn’t have a leash for him.
Zorba’s Fine Greek Cuisine
11225 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 08 December 2012
1st VISIT: 21 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Taramosalata, Gyros, Greek Loukaniko, Galaktoboureko