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At first glance, it would seem that the cooking of Greece and Mexico have nothing in common. The two countries are thousands of miles and an ocean apart, a distance emphasized by different terrains, different soils and different climates, which in turn translate into different agricultural practices, different ingredients, different techniques, different lifestyles. Greece roasts, Mexico fries. Greece relies on olives, lemons and lamb as its cooking mainstays; Mexico on corn, beans and chiles. In Greece, you find rich, multi-layered casseroles; in Mexico, it's spicy, slow-cooked sauces.
Yet here in Denver, several Greek-owned restaurants serve Mexican food -- even if the connection between the cuisines is as elusive as a pinto bean in a vat of olive oil.
"Well, there are so many Mexican restaurants in Denver," explains Mike Tsikoudakis, who owns the Monaco Inn with Terry Vaidis, a fellow Greek. "Me and Terry both worked in Mexican restaurants, and so we knew how to do that kind of food. We knew that when we had a restaurant we wanted to offer Mexican food. It didn't seem weird to us at all."
962 S. Monaco Parkway
Denver, CO 80224
Region: Southeast Denver
Rellenos plate: $8.50
Steak fajitas: $9.95
Gyros plate: $11.50
Roasted leg of lamb: $13.95
2223 South Monaco Parkway, 303-758-9623. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday
Fiesta tostada: $6.75
Green chile plate: $6.50
Steak Mexicano: $12.50
Gyros Sandwich: $5.75
When Tsikoudakis opened the Monaco Inn in 1986, Vaidis was his kitchen manager; five years later, Vaidis became a partner. They both provided recipes -- Greek and Mexican -- for their restaurant. "Some are family recipes," Tsikoudakis says. "We learned them from our mothers and fathers. Some are recipes we adapted from places where we worked. Some are things that our customers asked us for."
The Monaco Inn clearly knows how to deliver for its customers: This place enjoys a very loyal following. At lunchtime, ladies of a certain age walk slowly from the parking lot and join harried office workers from nearby businesses in the dining room; on weekends, families and large groups outnumber the occasional couple who've come for a casual meal. Its relaxed, fern-bar-meets-Denny's atmosphere is one of the Monaco Inn's biggest draws; the comfortable room is filled with plants and vinyl-upholstered, curved wooden chairs, and it has a large bar and smoking area. There are also plenty of friendly servers who've been with the restaurant from the start, people like Pete Demos, who likes to flirt with the ladies and tease the tykes, and Sam Balafas, who worked at Lafitte's years ago. "The older customers always ask for him," says Tsikoudakis. "They still talk about Lafitte's like it was yesterday, too."
Surprisingly, Mexican food is more popular than Greek with the older customers. But then, Tsikoudakis says he's always amazed by what people order. "You can't predict it," he adds. "I'll see someone come in here, and I'll think, 'Greek, they'll order Greek.' And then they'll go Mexican all the way. And sometimes I look at a party of six or eight, and half will have Greek, two will have Mexican, and one will go for a New York steak. That's why we offer more than one type of cuisine. You just never know what to expect."
On one visit, I spotted two seventy-something gals about to dig into enormous, beef-filled burritos smothered in green chile. "Is it spicy?" one asked. "How should I know?" the other replied. "Just eat it. It's good." Their burritos, actually a variation called the "Monacorito," looked so tasty that I had to order one, too. Yes, it was spicy, and yes, it was good. The jumbo bundle contained lots of well-seasoned, well-cooked shredded beef and plenty of herbs; the meaty, gringo green chile leaned toward the sweet; the cheese on top was cheddar rather than American, which added a nice, sharp bite to the dish. On the side came very soft refried beans, rice and lettuce. The dish was nothing fancy, but it was obviously made from scratch and solidly executed.
Like the Monacorito, everything else we tried at the Monaco Inn delivered good value for the price. From the Mexican portion of the menu, we inhaled a massive chicken chimichanga packed with juicy meat and served with an onion-studded guacamole; the rellenos plate brought two long poblanos stuffed with melted cheddar and encased in a heavy egg batter; a sizzling pan of steak fajitas featured tender meat boasting an unidentifiable but delectably salty seasoning that had also rubbed off on the accompanying grilled green peppers, onions and tomatoes.
From the Greek side, we ordered a gyros plate bearing a pile of oh-so-thin shavings of gyros meat, speckled with herbs and spices and not at all greasy, as well as two slices of pita bread and a thin but rich tzatziki sauce, Greece's yogurt-based dipper of choice. The roasted leg of lamb caught us off guard but didn't disappoint: Instead of the shank we'd expected, we were presented with moist, tender slices of lamb that had been carved off the bone. Next to the meat were potatoes that tasted as though they'd been soaked in lemon juice and then roasted, a wonderful preparation, and a fresh, crunchy, pepper-speckled coleslaw.
Opa, and salut!
Farther south on Monaco Parkway is the Greek-owned Holly Inn, which offers a handful of Greek dishes, about a dozen American items and lots of Mexican fare. But the real draw here is the trademarked Tacorito, a burrito smothered in the Holly Inn's own special sauce.