A few days after returning home from Georgia and the Carolinas, I got a call from a friend and former neighbor. "Flying Standby" had a few days off and craved some Greek food, a specialty that is scarce in her little 'burb outside of Atlanta.
My well-traveled friend landed a spare seat on a Delta jet and off we went to the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs, home to a large population of industrious Greek immigrants, many of whom work in the restaurant business.
The main thoroughfare is Dodecanese Boulevard, which is lined with cheesy trinket shops that sell obnoxious T-shirts, hometown sponges, jewelry that looks as if it could turn your skin green, superstitious "evil eyes," and bamboo wind chimes. One side of the street fronts the docks, where you can hop aboard a sightseeing tour boat or watch the sponge-diving boats ease along the Anclote River. It's a kitschy place to visit for a couple of hours, the primary reasons to go being awesome Greek food and entertaining cultural phenomena.
I had dined previously at two restaurants on Dodecanese but felt we should wander off the main street to test less-traveled territory. Since Flying Standby flew standby for this experience, I left it to her to pick the lunch spot. Whether it was due to the non-English-speaking elderly Greek grandma stationed outside hawking free Saganaki with an entree purchase, or the burly relative perched on Dodecanese hollering to try his family's place, we ultimately wandered onto the patio deck of Mama's Greek Cuisine.
Did I mention it was a chamber-of-commerce day in Tarpon Springs? Absolutely gorgeous weather with a slight breeze and little humidity made for a perfect al fresco dining experience. The restaurant's covered deck features a bar and dining tables overlooking a quiet side street.
Here's what we ordered: the complimentary Saganaki of course, Souvlaki and Kalamarakia. The entrees each came with bread, a tossed salad that we upgraded to small Greek salads, and an additional side. We chose oven potatoes.
Let's start with the bread basket. Flying Standby recounted the wonderful Greek bread she relished while living in Greece. It has a distinct crust and is extremely dense. She said this was nothing like it. It wasn't bad, mind you; it just wasn't a true representation of Greek bread, and she would know.
I had never tasted Saganaki, which is a pan-fried cheese spectacle that is brought to your table and set ablaze to the delight of everyone around you. The result is an ooey-gooey melted cheese appetizer that you smear on bread. Mmmm.
Next up was the salad course. Flying Standby says that Greeks don't use out-of-season vegetables in their cooking, a fact that she shared upon viewing the sad-looking tomato in the salad. The salad was surprisingly standard fare for this area. Take those little feta crumbles and bring on the slab! I also thought it would include potato salad but you must order that as an add-on.
Standby saw lots of squid in Greece, which prompted her order of Kalamarakia, commonly known as calamari. The tube-shaped and tentacle pieces of the squid were coated in a light breading and pan fried. The squid was tender and the breading had a pleasant flavor and crunch. Fantastic with a squirt of lemon.
I ordered the Pork Souvlaki Platter, which consisted of cubes of well-seasoned, marinated pork, tomato, onion and tzatziki. My instruction in Greek cuisine continued as Standby explained that Souvlaki is Greek fast food, which her kids ate often in Greece. Street food served in kebab form or wrapped in pita bread, it may include chicken, pork or lamb. To me, the flavors, which are garlic infused, are the same as those found in a gyro. Mama's tzatziki is sour cream based and I prefer the tangy quality of yogurt-based tzatziki, but this version was okay.
Mama's oven potatoes, bathed in olive oil and lemon and baked till tender, were a new Greek treat for me. Standby says this is the way the Greeks cook them, and they were a yummy and refreshing change from rice, orzo or french fries.
This place was loaded with tourists, as evidenced by the numerous hamburger orders being delivered to unadventurous folks dining at nearby tables. What a shame! They probably loved the baklava, which was not anything like the baklava that Standby and I have ever had. It was a mass-produced oozing mess that we left on our plates.
Were you wondering about the service? It was brusque. Our waitress didn't look like she was enjoying herself one bit. She was probably thinking, "Why are these stupid tourists ordering hamburgers in our Greek restaurant?" Flying Standby innocently inquired if she had forgotten our Saganaki because she brought the salads first. This query was not met with a smiling face nor a genial reply. She said the kitchen was busy with Saganaki orders because so many people were seated simultaneously and she'd bring it out when it was ready. I got a kick out of her demeanor but this no-nonsense style is not exactly hospitable. She may have been part of Mama's family because when we walked past the guy touting the place on the street, he asked if his sisters had treated us well. I guess that depends on how you define well. We got our food!
Verdict: Pleasant outside atmosphere, but it's not the best Greek food in Tarpon Springs. If you go, sit outside with a sense of humor, an order of Kalamarakia and a cold brew.
Mama's Greek Cuisine
735 Dodecanese Boulevard