For more than a year, Mark Antonation ate his way up Federal Boulevard. With that journey done, he's now exploring different cuisines from around the globe right here in metro Denver, one month at a time, in Ethniche.
Denver doesn't have a reputation for great Greek restaurants. Whether that's because of demographics or eating habits, few of us would get in a shouting match to defend the Greek food scene here compared with that in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland or even Tarpon Springs, Florida, which boasts the highest percentage of Greek-Americans anywhere in the country (due to an influx of sponge divers in the early part of the twentieth century, not because of snowbirds seeking better weather). While there are no sponge colonies in the immediate vicinity of Denver, the Greeks who settled here certainly left their mark, most notably in the form of the golden dome of the Assumption of Theokotos Greek Orthodox Cathedral, which hovers over a wedge of land between Alameda and Leetsdale in Glendale. And Greek restaurants pepper the metro area, with a heavy concentration on or near East Colfax -- which is where you'll find Chef Zorba's, just off Denver's favorite street on a calm and tree-shaded block of Congress Park.
Neighbors have been strolling to Chef Zorba's since 1978. (Another common point with Denver's Greek eateries: many have been around for decades.) An ownership change about fifteen years ago brought an expanded and remodeled dining room, but the traditional dishes stayed. Among pages of American diner items -- omelettes, burgers, green chile cheese fries -- there's a solid mass of recognizable standards, along with a few surprises. Gyros sandwiches and platters have become as firmly entrenched on American menus as pizza, tacos and kung pao chicken, dishes which have morphed into distinctly American versions of the homeland originals.
I was in Greece once, at the age of three or four, and I don't remember much -- certainly not the cuisine. I've eaten a little Greek in Chicago, but that's my sole measuring stick for comparison. At the somewhat dated but cozy Zorba's for a recent lunch, I relied on my senses: Is the food fresh, does it have the depth of flavor the ingredients would suggest, did I leave satisfied? An appetizer of the orange-rind flecked sausage called loukaniko matched those requirements. Char-grilled and served without pretense with a few slices of tomato, the fennel and bitter orange cut through the pork fat for a simple and nicely balanced starter.
The moussaka came across more as a Greek spin on classic diner comfort food, with generous layers of fine-textured ground beef, toothsome potato slices and a custard-like cap of béchamel that added a good half-inch of height to the already chunky cube of food. Soft bits of skin-on eggplant peeked out among the other ingredients. After a thick bowl of avgolemono, creamy lemon and chicken soup the consistency of country gravy, the moussaka, mildly spiced but dense and rich, was positively nap-inducing.
Amy went with a plate of lamb souvlaki, touched by the flame of the grill but otherwise lightly seasoned under a tumble of diced tomatoes and onions. As lamb goes, this was cooked to a respectable medium-rare and was mild enough to pass for beef. A heap of fries added to the diner feel of the plating.
And that is one more common factor among Denver Greek restaurants: Many of them are steadfastly and unapologetically grounded in diner aesthetics and economics. Economies of scale mean cheaper food for the customer, but also compromises on ingredients. Traditional dishes take on more American characteristics: big portions, simple seasoning, slow cooking, sure, but with an eye to volume and quick plating rather than freshness and detail. A side of stewed green beans with my moussaka was an afterthought, but the server seemed surprised that I didn't touch it.
It's not so much that Greek food isn't good in Denver -- it's that it just doesn't seem quite so Greek. Like red sauce Italian and American Chinese, it's adapted to its environment over a long period of time. Denver Greek food, as exemplified by places like Zorba's, may be traditional within the decades and environment in which it evolved, but visitors from more vibrant Greek communities -- Tarpon Springs, perhaps -- may not recognize it as the cuisine they grew up with, which may be different again from the recipes of Greece. Immigration from Greece slowed drastically after the big post-World War II waves, so American Greek is a style that has evolved without fresh foreign influence.
For better or worse, when we eat Greek in Denver, we're mostly eating American.
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Have an idea where Mark Antonation should eat Greek food in Denver? Post it below. For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.