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."
Monaco Inn / Holly Inn
962 South Monaco Parkway, 303-320-1104. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday
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.
The restaurant's original owner, George Pappas, invented the Tacorito when he opened this place in 1961. Eventually, his empire expanded to thirteen restaurants, including the Holly South, Holly North and Holly West in the Denver area, and Holly Inns in Vail, Colorado Springs, Nebraska and Minnesota; he also owned La Fonda at I-25 and Arapahoe. But Pappas has since sold his restaurants, and all but two ditched the "Holly" name. The last holdouts are the Holly West at 32nd and Youngfield, and the original Holly Inn.
When George Andrianakos and his wife, Marina, bought the original eatery in March 2000, they got the Holly Inn's original recipes, too. "I bought it because I liked the concept," Andrianakos says of the Mexican/American/Greek eatery. "I don't know why George Pappas started it in the first place."
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The regulars who frequent the big, dark, woody restaurant don't seem to question its motivation, either: They're too busy eating. And more often than not, they're trying to take down a Tacorito, an unusual smothered burrito that does time under a broiler until everything melts and melds together into a delicious mess. Still, I was able to discern the salty, wonderfully greasy ground beef and cheese that had been jammed inside the large flour tortilla and then obliterated with a sauce that wasn't quite green chile, not quite red chile, but sort of a cross between the two, with an unidentifiable herb -- could it have been epazote, the quintessential Mexican flavoring? -- vying with chile powder for control. Andrianakos says he plans to bottle that sauce and sell it commercially. "I don't know when," he adds. "One of these days." Presumably, by then I'll have digested my Tacorito; whether filled with ground beef, beans, beef and beans, chicken, shredded beef (machaca) or just veggies, this package would be sufficient to satisfy the hungriest Mexican-food fan.
And other Mexican specialties were just too tempting to ignore. The massive chimichanga was packed with spicy shredded beef; the fiesta tostada, which the menu labeled "a gigantic flour tortilla formed into a festive shape," had been deep-fried and filled with great, gooey refried beans and ground beef, as well as lettuce and tomato. And while the Holly Inn's green chile was all about heat, with little depth of flavor, the steak Mexicano sported a peppery sauce that had soaked into the tender, juicy strips of sirloin, as well as a made-to-order, chunky, lime-tangy guacamole.
With so much Mexican fare to get through, I've only tried one of the Holly Inn's Greek offerings -- a gyros sandwich that filled a pita with a decent-quality lamb-beef blend. Still, it was no match for a Tacorito.
After eating my way through most of two menus, I still don't have an answer for why Greeks open Mexican restaurants. I'm just glad they do.