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Photograph by Jenn Ireland
Opa Papa: The Greek owner Vasili Karagiannopoulos and his grandson Anthony Karagiannopoulos, 9, show off some of their favorite dishes at the Greek in downtown Santa Cruz.

Greek To Me

Authentic Greek flavors are worth their weight in retsina at The Greek.

By Christina Waters

Somehow you know you've been here before. Metaphorically, at least. The Greek offers a melodious echo of its progenitor, Vasili's--the restaurant that launched a thousand spontaneous dancing parties and retsina afterglows. Well, the Greek is the new Mediterranean kid in downtown Santa Cruz, and it's deliciously armed with the irrepressible menu that made Vasili's a local legend.

As I looked around the lovingly decorated dining room--a former record-store-turned-nightclub-now-eatery--I reminded myself that you can't eat ambience. The Greek is an uncomplicated pastiche of gleaming hardwood floors, little tables and chairs and a wraparound tribute to every Greek tchotchke known to the gods. In fact, where the tiny stage is at the far end (right where you would expect the Rotary Club toastmaster to be standing delivering a sales pitch) is a shrine to Aphrodite, complete with charming white plaster caryatids on Grecian columns with Doric and Ionic capitals. Or maybe it's Corinthian. Miniature Greek flags lend their sprightly blue and white vibes to the entire ceiling, and that signature lineup of Polaroids works its way around all four walls. But that's it. No tablecloths, no frills. The service is very warm and friendly, and often helpful too. Remember, this place is a little bit of Greece right here in Santa Cruz. Laid-back rules.

My lunch date had already devoured a Gilroy's worth of garlic in the form of electrifyingly tart tzatziki and pita by the time I arrived 15 minutes late. But she was happy to pile into yet another plate of this addictive and aromatic variation on flat bread with some delicious soft stuff to dip it into.

Traci's chicken kebab plate ($9.95) offered a huge oval platter wall-to-wall with the spices and textures of Greek cooking. Warm pita dusted with paprika cushioned a spike of tender, grilled chicken redolent of oregano, garlic and lemon. Next, delicious rice pilaf--neither crunchy nor mushy. Perfect. And next to that lay the mystery potato for which Vasili's was, and maybe still is, famous. Marinated in lemon and olive oil and then roasted for a millennium, this baby is always deeply rewarding, especially to those who remembered to bring their appetites to the Greek. More of the tangy, garlicky yogurt--terrific on everything except probably baklava--cozied up to a brilliant island of fresh, crisp romaine topped lavishly by chopped Bermuda onions and sliced tomatoes. The perfume of oregano--which haunts my memories of Crete--filled the plate. But my moussaka ($10.95) was even better, simply by virtue of the unexpectedly glorious and plump slab (yes, slab is the word) of this multilayered eggplant specialty.

The Greek does moussaka worth its weight in authentic flavors. Served room temperature, which is the correct culinary style, this life-affirming creation was dense with untold layers of spice, tomato, garlic and red pepper flavor. The creamy bechamel sauce layer was spot on, but the mixture of ground meats had been layered, intriguingly, not only with eggplant but with green bell pepper--very sweet and tender--and even a slice of zucchini. I couldn't stop eating this dish.

Great Jumping Zeus! I jumped straight to the moussaka and completely forgot to mention our appetizer of dolmathes, a bit pricey, we both thought, at $6.95 for four. Had I not already overused the word "authentic," I would use it again here. These lovely, lemon-soaked beauties were the thickness of an ancient mariner's thumb. Falling apart in my mouth, the grapevine leaves were unctuous with oil and lemon. Served with thick slices of lemon (yes, a theme), more of the ubiquitous and garlic-intensive tzatziki, plus a few choice Kalamatas, this single dish did more to fuel my consumption of après-lunch Altoids than any meal I've had in years. Do not rush immediately to a romantic assignation after eating this fabulous garlic-spiked yogurt. Swill something minty first. Or better yet, bring your date so he or she can also enjoy that sensational garlic aftertaste.

Garlic is the gift of the gods, and I made sure I did a tiny bow in the direction of the goddess at the end of the dining room. Zorba would have loved that moussaka!

The Greek

Address: 435 Front St., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.466.9990

Hours: Open 11am-8:30pm Mon-Sat; noon-8:30pm Sun

Cuisine: Greek

Note: Cash only

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